Hailing from New Zealand, Reg Mombassa aka Chris O’Doherty immigrated with his family to Australia in 1969. Rising to prominence in the art sphere, Australia’s most loved and renowned artist has become known for his works which combines a curious crossover of realism with the absurd. Drawing from the local culture and unique landscape, as well as art, religion, history and politics, the artwork of Mombassa has become iconography not only within the borders, but across the world.
Working across an extensive range of mediums which includes, but is not limited to acrylics, oils, charcoal, crayon, pencil and mixed media, the result is punchy, encapsulating pieces with curious details hidden in plain sight. This summer, over 70 of the Sydney-based artist’s diverse pieces will be showcased at aMBUSH Gallery Kambri, aptly titled Psychedelic Realism. Now open, the exhibition consists of his favoured forms and themes – suburban and rural landscapes, graphic works and absurd allegorical narratives.
ICON caught up with the artist following its opening to talk art, politics and music.
ICON: Firstly, can you recall the first time you realised art was what you wanted to do in life? How did your early life shape the aesthetic?
Reg Mombassa: “I drew obsessively as a child and wanted to be an artist from a young age. The only art I was aware of then was comics and book illustrations but from the time I was doing art at high school I wanted to be a painter. My early life was a fairly normal outer suburban working class culture and my interest in graphic art has persisted.”
You once said that the production of art “is best left to those misfits and outsiders who are less constrained by the rigors of normality.” Do you believe you’ve always fit into this category?
RM: “As I am now a middle class white man I couldn’t claim to be a genuine outsider but I have never felt that I was a part of the mainstream either. As a small thin quiet nerdy and non-sporty kid I definitely didn’t quite fit in.”
What is your process for creation? How does one of your artworks begin?
RM: “Plein air drawings and paintings of the landscape are prompted by what is in front of you, but the more graphic and arcane allegorical narratives are derived from books, magazines, newspapers and TV with references to popular culture, art, politics, religion and history.”
You worked with Mambo Graphics in the late ‘80s. What did that experience teach you?
RM: “Working for Mambo led to me to explore a wider subject matter than I would have utilised had I remained a gallery artist alone. It also gave me a far larger audience than that generally available to an artist who is confined to gallery exhibitions.”
How do you fuse your love of music into your art?
RM: “The forms are somewhat dissimilar but the creative impulse comes from the same area of the brain. There is some crossover in subject matter between songs and the music and my graphic activities were partly derived from doing posters and record covers for the bands I played with.”
Your work is so quintessential to Australian culture and the landscape. What would one of your pieces look like if it were to depict the current bushfires raging across the country?
RM: “I have in the past done several fire related pictures, either of things on fire or the fire ravaged landscape after a fire has passed through it. Bush fires are a regular occurrence in Australia but the frequency and ferocity of these fires is unfortunately increasing due to climate change.”
You tend to look to current affairs and the political climate for inspiration too. How has your artwork changed as the political landscape has changed? Have you seen a noticeable shift?
RM: “I have always viewed the rigidly patriarchal and authoritarian structures and institutions of human society with great fear and skepticism. There is a disturbing shift in recent times to a prevalence of right-wing authoritarian populism and so called ‘strong man’ leaders with notably fascist tendencies.”
Which artist, dead or alive would you love to have dinner with? And why?
RM: “I find it difficult to choose favourites but maybe someone like Robert Crumb the American underground comic artist. The critic Robert Hughes thought he was possibly the greatest American artist of the later 20th century in terms of his skewering of American life and culture, although he obviously wasn’t a mainstream dealer gallery ‘fine artist’.”
What do you hope visitors of your latest exhibition at amBUSH Gallery take from the works as a whole?
RM: “I would hope they might be amused or entertained to some extent, they may even be inspired or irritated by some of the pictures. I would be happy with any response other than indifference, boredom or sneering rejection.”
Reg’s new exhibition Psychedelic Realism is now open and closes on Thursday 20 February (showing daily from 10am-6pm weekdays and 12pm-5pm on weekends). Visit www.ambushgallery.com for more information.