Catherine O’Donnell’s is an Australian contemporary artist best known for her drawing practice. Her works are an exploration of the architecture, culture and history of the urban environment. Her current focus is on social housing, representing the commonly overlooked dwellings of suburbia in an abstracted form.
Her interests in the minimalist structures of architecture, the pictorial power of illusion, scale and perspective and the pursuit of a shared narrative are at the heart of her artistic practice. Each of her drawings, which are positioned between minimalism and representation, play with the nature of memory and illusion while at the same time disrupting cultural prejudices which prevent people from seeing the underlying elegance of these simple dwellings.
What artists/architects/designers inspire you and why?
I am inspired so many artist, architects and designers it is hard to name them all but these are a few:
George Shaw, a British born painter, who paints the mundane urban landscape of Tile Hill, England, a housing estate where he grew up in during the 1970s. His images resonate with me due to the parallels with my own history.
Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia who draws on his environment for his paintings and drawings, but it is his drawings that I find the most compelling. Through his use of the humble pencil he infuses simple everyday scenes with emotion and poetry. His drawings are an intimate view into his life, honest and sincere.
Toba Khedoori an Australian artist who is well-known for her depictions of architectural subject matter and has a strong emphasis on geometric forms and sequencing.
Australian artist Jeffery Smart who paints the architectural forms of the urban landscape, placing the human form into his artworks. He uses the human figure for scale, suggesting a narrative although the true purpose of the picture is to highlight of the underlying geometry of urban landscape.
Minimalist artist Donald Judd and his simple geometric sculptures have always been a favourite of mine, with each component the same as the one before, having no more importance than any other component. His work has symmetry, geometry, repetition and materiality.
Richard Serra enormous minimalist drawings from the mid-1970s which have the ability to radically alter not only the relationship between the drawing and the gallery space but also the viewer’s perception of the space.
Modernist architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright as well as the De Stijl group and the Bauhaus, one of the most influential schools of design in the 20th century have all impacted on my practise. Mainly due to the clean lines and geometry within their constructions
How important is the element of scale in the images?
The scale is very important in my drawings and is always carefully considered, with the audience in mind, so as to create a physical as well as a psychological experience for the viewer.
In my very large works the completed drawing ultimately becomes a scaled down or actual size version of the real dwelling, in affect standing in for the original. Therefore, when the work is viewed from an anticipated audience position the depicted structures should appear to the observer a similar size to how it would appear in reality. By reproducing these buildings to scale, and carefully manipulating the perspective from the position of the observer, my intention is that the viewer has a real time, real space relationship to the life-sized drawings
What prompted you to focus on the suburban landscape?
I don’t really know what prompted me to focus on the Urban landscape, but I believe it started with my own house and surrounding suburbs of my childhood. The landscape of my childhood, the fibro and red brick of public housing, speaks to me eloquently and resonantly of home. While often looked down on and at times completely overlooked, these buildings have a rich history extending back to the mid-twentieth century, with their roots in international social theory as well as the international modernist movement.
My formative years were shaped by time spent living in just such an estate. Whilst I didn’t know it at the time, the repetition, symmetry and order of these quite brutal estates were shaping my young mind and continue to inform my work to date.
What is your work process when composing each drawing, is there an element of research/sketching?
The production of my drawings is often long and arduous but always a labour of love. I do research into what I want to draw as needed but often he subject material presents its self to me and I spend countless hours moving through the suburbs taking numerous photographs of buildings that I find interesting.
Apart from the physical act of drawing itself my process can be divided into three parts. It starts with my use of many photographic images which are the source material for my drawings, followed by the artistic considerations which go into the design of the drawing such as perspective, scale, media and the monochromatic palette and finally the execution of the final drawing in the studio.
What is your taken the white space of the gallery? Have you ever thought of exhibiting in a space which is not this 'blank' slate?
My artworks sit comfortably in the white space of the gallery, but I am increasingly looking to engage with the architectural spaces and produce drawing installations that works with and within these spaces. I now find myself taking the drawn line off the paper and into the gallery spaces, my most recent drawing was drawn on the external wall of a gallery across the walls and floor in an isometric/anamorphic representation of a domestic space.
At a time where the image has become extremely flat, you talk about using representation as a catalyst to ignite the imagination of the viewer and invite them to look beyond the mundane and banal- could you expand on this?
In using representation in my drawings, I seek to not only represent these buildings but also invite the viewer to stop to “look” , to see what I see and to think about the other layers around this housing.
The subject matter in my images are ‘real’ not only in the respect that they are a faithful representation of the urban landscape but also ‘real’ in that they highlight the social issues of these suburbs where the most welfare dependant people of our society are forced to live. My artworks speak of society and social issues surrounding these estates and the houses I draw are the physical embodiment of the government policies and decisions made in the mid-twentieth century that continue to affect those living in them today. At the same time, I hope to offer them the possibility of being immersed in the narrative. To this end, while I celebrate the simple lines and geometric forms, I deliberately disrupt them. I imply small moments of suspended narrative to enter the images. For instance, a door left ajar, an open window or a drawn curtain – are suggestion of habitation that bear witness to lived experiences. These moments maintain an element of the personal in the impersonal and as such my drawings of houses and flats become active reminders of human existence, as well as outdated social engineering polices, which started with the best of intentions but quickly deteriorated into a harsh urban reality.
The architecture is the heroic subject in my drawings and the absence of representations of the residents (or any figures at all), encourages viewers to be absorbed into a consideration of the architecture, inviting them to delve into their own memories of the home. It is only in the detail that these structures become unique despite the monotony of their sameness. Whereas houses in more affluent suburbs vie for one’s attention, the dwellings I choose to represent stand quietly side by side and evaporate unnoticed into the urban landscape. Yet it is within this sameness, if we really look, that we find variety and humanity as well as individual narratives embedded in these banal structures.
Do you have a new investigation/project in mind?
Yes, I have recently returned from three months in Europe where I was investigating social housing in London and Paris. I am interested in working with brutalist architecture and as mentioned before moving the line off the page and into the architectural space.
Catherine holds a Masters in Fine Arts (Drawing) from the National Art School and a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts (Distinction and Deans Medal) from UWS. She exhibits widely and is represented in both public and private collections and her exhibitions and residencies have taken her across Australia and overseas.