Long-term friends and studio mates, Shaye Gregan and Sol McKenzie, came together this month for their first show as a pair, Did They Say That.
Created individually, but cuarted to illustrate their concept through composition, colour and narrative, the works in Did They Say That are all about the experience of falling victim to the tall poppies in life – who say ‘you can’t’ when you absolutely can.
Their paintings are at once distinctly recognisable as part of separate bodies of work, but similar in the observably quick and intuitive technique that was used to construct them.
For Acclaim, I spoke with the pair about how art practice has been an integral component of their lives from childhood, what starting out the ‘standard’ way (painting walls and doing graffiti) has meant for their their contemporary art dealings, and about their future plans to explore new mediums and pursue work overseas.
So wanna start by telling us about ‘Did They Say That’ – what are the works about and what does the name mean?
Sol: Yeah, so the name came about from a few things. It is a personal joke that we’ve had going for quite a long time foremost. It is about people who have been discouraging throughout our lives, saying things like: ‘no you can’t’, or ‘you’re never going to do that’. So when we accomplished something that maybe someone along the line said we couldn’t, we would look at each other and say ‘oh, they said it couldn’t be done…’
‘They did say that, didn’t they’
Shaye: (Laughs) Yeah.
Shaye: Yeah it’s like a joke about people being unsupportive, and so we thought it could be a great name for the show for the times where people have said ‘you’re never gonna do anything good’. It’s about us thinking, ‘oh they did say that didn’t they?’ and now here we are putting on a show together many years later and finding our success despite people’s negativity.
Cool it’s such a great sentiment. Is it a show of both your works individually or were they made to tie together conceptually?
Shaye: Not really. We haven’t seen each other in the lead up to the show, but we curated them based on what works well together. My whole style is really quick – there are a lot of figures and playful colours. I used to draw a lot when I was a child and I’ve kept that sense of imagination which you can see from the playful characters. Not all of them mean something though, sometimes I’m just scribbling and it becomes something that way.
Sol: I think we have really similar painting styles in a sense of pace so we can chuck a body of work together effectively in a few weeks.
Yeah you can really see the similar style in the work. So what are your backgrounds as painters—when did you start and how did you meet?
Sol: I started from doing graffiti as a young kid – standard sort of thing – but my formal painting practice only recently started after I did a year in Fine Arts at VCA in 2016. That opened up a few doors into the world of Fine Art and helped me explore different practices and develop new concepts using different materials. After that I started delving into painting a bit more instead of just scribbling, which helped me build concepts; which i’m really bad usually (laughs).
Shaye: Yeah so for me it is a similar situation. I only really started painting in the last 2-3 years, but I was always drawing as a kid. My mum and dad are both artists and always taught me that if I wanted to paint then to just do it. My mum let me paint the walls of our hallway in our flat – it was always a good thing.
I created characters from my imagination and brought them to life on paper, and when I was that age I was into graffiti as well. I decided to put the more recent work I’ve been doing, on my Instagram and got really nice feedback, which of course made me want to continue down that path which has been rad so far.
Yeah figures are something I noticed in both of your works – who or what inspires that imagery?
Shaye: I’m really inspired by watching people dance and peoples movements. A lot my characters are always dancing or in some weird posture and can be quite freaky looking, which comes from my memories of my Dad’s puppets (The Snuff Puppets) that he and his friend Andy used to make. They were ten foot tall and made out of canvases and all sorts of stuff. My figures look a very similar to what they looked like.
Sol: I think I gather from memories, and other artists – I’m terrible at naming everyone whose work I’ve seen and loved – there is just so much. I never set out to work toward a plan, I just go for without any particular picture in mind and see what happens, which usually always results in painted figures.
Where would be one place that you would see images a lot?
Sol: I go to a lot of shows, I also scout and have heaps of art books which I’m always looking through and I draw inspiration from old expressionist paintings. The last book I read was Just Kids, which is like all about New York in the seventies – it’s pretty art and rock ‘n roll.
Tell me a bit about your individual creative processes?
Shaye: Yeah so we paint separately. Sometimes we’d paint together when we shared a studio, and we’ve done some Graf related stuff together, but not so much on canvas.
Sol: We’ve always said we were gonna do a collab but it hasn’t happened yet, I think we have similar painting styles. Mine build up over time in layers – I’ll paint and then I’ll paint over it again, and so on. They’re never really finished – I’ll probably take half of these paintings back after the show and keep adding to them. I’m really bad at trying to figure out when they are done.
Shaye: Mistakes often become what works and what we love in our paintings. If I’m painting something and I fuck up one of the lines then I’ll usually see the whole painting in a new light and it becomes a whole different image. I think Sol is the same because we paint so quickly. Weird stuff happens to the painting and it completely changes the image.
Yeah they both look like the technique was really free and flowing. Do you both only work with paint or have you worked with other mediums?
Shaye: Before I started painting I was making little masks. I was inspired by the African Masks that my grandmother has at her house. I made them out of wood and started making things with that and also gathering other little bits of material like copper and wood, which I have been adding that to my paintings recently.
My mum went to VCA for three years to do sculpture, so I was there from when I was ten watching her do that; it’s something I could definitely get into. I’m already starting to use more things that are 3D: banging them onto my paintings or using little rivets to give them more volume from a side on view.
Did you find that work work changed from early days painting graf to nowadays painting for a gallery?
Sol: It definitely affects the way you approach painting. Sometimes I find myself painting on a canvas in the way I would be painting a piece on a wall, which I think sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I think trying to detach from that completely is best, but it does help you to have a bit of an understanding about colour and that kind of thing. A lot of my work revolves around colour and composition and balance of light and dark. Graffiti is a different realm – a different headspace almost.
Totally, but I see how one would inform the other even though they are so different. So what is next for you both?
Shaye: I have a solo show on a couple of days after this one at Go Go Bar in the city, and then I have two pieces going up at the Rooftop Bar in the city on the 19th of May. I’m trying to organise as many shows as I can before I move to London and hopefully get a bunch of shows there and see where it takes me.
Do you gave a gallery in London lined up?
Shaye: Yeah my cousin lives there who is in the art scene over there and she said that I should come over to London and offered to help me make connections for shows and has a studio, which is the whole reason im going really – to meet her friends and do what I love and see if I can make a living out of it.
Sol: Yeah so funny, I have pieces in a group show on the 18th! It’s a show for a surf brand at RVCA corner gallery. There will be heaps of artists involved – the details aren’t confirmed yet – but it’s a bunch of local and international artists who are on the RVCA artist network program. They have a show every one or two years and get everyone to submit work.
Otherwise for now I want to be consistent with my work – I always always go through stages with my painting and the past month has been so busy so I want to keep that going and build up my collection. A lot of people ask me for work and I always have to like, do them (haha). So yeah I would like to focus on painting more and expanding my work.