Interviews, artist statements and video:

John Dahlsen Australian Environmental Artist and Contemporary Painter

A journey from contemporary abstract Painting & drawing to environmental assemblage and public art.
Other interviews between the artist and a New York arts magazine, the artist and the National Association of the Visual Arts in Australia, the artist and student interviews and an artist statement.
See also movies


John Dahlsen: An Interview

What were some of your major experiences and influences as a young artist?

As a young artist, I was fortunate enough to interact with many people who played a significant role in shaping the Australian contemporary art world. During the late seventies, I studied at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne Australia; it was there that I had the opportunity to meet people like Fred Williams, Roger Kemp, and drawing teacher Noel Counihan. These and other lecturing artists, including Gareth Sansom, Paul Partos and Allan Mittelman, demonstrated to me what it meant to have an energetic response to the creative process.

It was during these years at art school in Australia, at the end of the seventies that I first began collecting driftwood to make into furniture; and It was this experience that 20 years later I remembered and returned to the very same coastline to collect driftwood once again.

Exposure to international art in London and Europe, in the early eighties, encouraged me to pursue my career as an artist.

One defining moment was experienced at the Tate Gallery in London, 1981. In a gallery space devoted to Mark Rothko, the American abstract expressionist, I experienced the depth and commitment in his work. The exhibition drew an intense emotional response from me, moving me to tears, and provided a level of inspiration that I had not experienced up until that point. Another Rothko piece (from a different period), seen several years later while visiting the National Gallery of Victoria / Australia, filled me with the same feeling of understanding. Looking back, with the benefit of experience, I can say that it was the sincerity and purity from within his paintings that moved me.

Upon returning to Australia, after residing some years in the United States, I took up a position as artist in residence at Editions Gallery, Western Australia.

 

john dahlsen environmental artist Living and working with other artists is an education in itself, providing insight into how they work. Fellow painter Keith Looby prompted me to explore more painterly qualities in my work while John Beard would help deepen my exploration into abstraction. The vitality and intensity with which both of these artists approached their work left quite an impact on me, subsequently affecting the way I approached my own art practice. Significant support in the form of both patronage and exhibition opportunities by Alan Delaney from Delaney Galleries in Perth, also assisted greatly to my having the abilities to persue my art, with no compromise. Pat Corrigan, in later years was another figure to emulate this support.

Some of the great masters of course provided me with great inspiration. I must mention 17th century Spanish artist (Diego Rodriguez de Silva) Velazquez for his monumental figurative paintings which reveal, upon closer inspection, the most amazing abstract painterly qualities.

The later post-impressionist movement was highly inspirational, particularly artists like Van Gogh who’s work was explosive and brilliant once he had discovered his own visual language.

A more complete list should also include American Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and later Roy Lichtenstein, and more recently Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Also I want to mention being influenced by the Australian artists Tony Tuckson and Ian Fairweather, primarily due to the energy that their work conveys.


What encouraged you to change mediums from paint to found objects?

I think it important to say that I believe one of the most important aspects in the creative process is the process itself. After many years of painting, I found myself becoming more courageous, and open, to the exploration of new materials and technology, therefore able to stretch myself beyond the realms of paint brush and canvas.

Aside from conscious exploration of new materials and technology I have found that being alert and open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ occurring in my art-making processes have lead to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work.

My creative medium changed to found art as a result of one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. I was immediately affected by a whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me; I had never seen such hues and forms before.

 

Since then, I have scoured Australian beaches for found objects which I bring back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I work with them in my studio I become even more fascinated by the way they have been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. My challenge as an artist is to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they speak and tell their story.

A review of my ‘Contemporary Landscapes’ exhibition (1999) by Catharina Hampson states:
‘Years of abstract /figurative painting… inspired by living organic forms often monochromatic, smoothed transition to his present exhibition of works. … His flotsam collection acquired at the same time as his driftwood evolved into a further dramatic phase. … ‘Contemporary Landscapes’ his mammoth task – afforded him a freedom to demonstrate aesthetic possibilities which radiate vitality and joie de vivre, uncommon to most artists deeply conscious of environmental issues’.


Your artistic career has led you through stages of figurative painting, abstract works, and now found object art. Are their certain benchmark moments which led respective changes in focus?

Yes, there have been certain moments and having the privilege of hindsight they are easier to recognize.

I started out as a figurative painter because I felt attracted to that form of expression as I had a narrative story to tell in those days. There was a 'spiritual' message I wanted to convey and, personally, I found it best articulated through abstract and semi-abstract forms of expression. I only discovered this at a later time when I had immersed myself in abstraction.

In truth, during my early years as a painter, I had no real notion of what abstraction really was and only really gained proper insight into the world of abstraction the more I worked with the materials (ie. paint and canvas) and the physicality of painting itself. It became apparent in the work that the abstract language of form became more important than the specifics of place or the rendering of the body.

The change from figurative work to something more abstract resulted in a shedding of identity. It became literally an open field that I could explore. Instead of being confined by structured figurative elements, I was able to begin anew to work the canvas and paper, sometimes with paint stripper.

 





I was assisted in discarding certain identities by other things taking place in my life, including a serious fire in my Melbourne studio in 1983.

The fire totally destroyed my studio and seven years of work including paintings, drawings and prints. It was a devastating time for me, causing me to turn my attention inwards to a large extent. It was significant enough to cause me to take a sabbatical from art; the fire acting as a catalyst to reassess my life’s priorities.

After completion of a teachers training degree at the Melbourne College of Advanced Education and some extensive travel in the United States, I felt better prepared to return to my career as a professional practicing artist.

This ‘accident’ which had impacted both my personal and professional life had enabled me to mature overall as a person. Artistically, I became able to face truths about my work, changes that needed to be made, and now knew how to go about changing them.

The culmination of this maturing and the aforementioned revelation experience I had while looking for driftwood on a shoreline in Victoria directed me to the medium that I am currently using – found objects.


Does the change in artistic medium affect how you define yourself as an artist?

Sandra Murray, in an essay (1991), said it more concisely than I could:
‘The successful artistic expression of an abstruse concept such as universality is difficult to achieve, but ultimately rewards both artist and viewer. It is what lies beyond the boundaries of abstraction and figuration that intrigues John Dahlsen and he has developed a unique visual language to articulate this. Dahlsen has only arrived at this crucial stage in his work after a course of exploration, both in a personal and artistic sense….’

Sandra Murray’s review particularly resonated with me. It is indeed, the intrigue and exploration and of course the medium I use at the time which helps define me and my work.

I believe art to be my spirituality. Over the past 20 years I have tried to maintain a pure commitment to contemporary art practice; I have never looked for a safe place to rest. What happens with my art generally runs parallel to my life, meaning that I learn from my art and apply some of these insights to my life and vice versa. When I sense that I am becoming too comfortable in what I am doing I will consciously move on to something new. For example, challenges in my personal life keep me on my toes and help me to extend myself more as an artist. This is how my work is in a constant state of evolution.

I see this evolution largely an alchemical one. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the man-made that creates the initial alchemy, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step is achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital alchemy takes place as I assemble them.

 

 

Through using intuition, and personal aesthetic judgments, the objects start to tell their story and become transformed into artworks. Most importantly, for me, the assembled objects bring to life my commitment as an artist to express social, spiritual and environmental concerns.

Comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks. With this in mind, I trust leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the strong possibility they experience deep perceptual shifts as they interact with my art.

While my art practice changes, and evolves, my underlying commitment as an artist has never wavered. I have always been motivated by a professional duty to be aware of and express current social, spiritual and environmental concerns through my art practice.

I get on this razors edge line between fulfillment and frustration, knowing that I am able to only ever provide through my creativity a glimpse of the greatness that is life - a fragment of what is essentially the ineffable.

To conclude, the change in medium is perpetuated by something that happens inside me, and therefore has made itself known in my work. Perhaps the question should have been ‘Do life changes affect the medium you use?’ because as I grow,and change, hopefully, so too will my art.



References:

Adlington, Brett. Essay: “Full Circle”, Gold Coast City Art Gallery catalogue, 2001.
Bromfield, David. Review: “Hidden Talents In Layered Depths”, The West Australian, October 26, 1991.
Hampson, Catharina: Review: “Contemporary Landscapes Review”, Fox Galleries Brisbane Catalogue. 1999
Murray, Sandra. Essay: “John Dahlsen - Painting and Drawing”, Lawrence Wilson Gallery University of Western Australia Catalogue, 1991.

........................John Dahlsen Media Interviews........................


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New York Magazine - Art Calendar Article May 2008

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Art Calender John Dahlsen

John Dahlsen - Australian Environmental Artist Creating a Sense of ‘Oneness’
By Louise Buyo and Kim Hall.

Few could have predicted that Australian artist John Dahlsen would have transitioned from representational painting to abstract painting and finally, for the last decade, to found object work — not even the artist himself. Yet today, the mixed-media/assemblage sculpturist is one of the most recognized and awarded environmental artists in the world.

In the mid-nineties, Dahlsen was gathering driftwood on the Victorian Coastline for a furniture project when he found huge amounts of plastic litter washed up along the shore. The artist accumulated 80 bags of the garbage and dragged them to his studio to begin his shift to a new medium. For the last 10 years, Dahlsen has continued to take walks along Australian beaches, collecting the debris he encounters. He then sorts through it and separates it by color to create new compositions that produce a narrative.

In his artist statement, Dahlsen acknowledges, “My challenge as an artist was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they spoke and told their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent to the use of this kind of medium.” The work is photographed using a number of large format transparencies, which are drum-scanned and then stitched together to form a super high-resolution print of each image. Editions are small in print run, ranging from nine to 14 per each of the four sizes offered. Dahlsen sells his limited-edition, large-scale, high-resolution digital prints on canvas and paper for $15,000 or more each, with smaller prints between $2,500 and $7,000.

Throughout the years, his work has garnered a lot of praise. Dahlsen exhibited at the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003, where he won an award for mixed-media/new media; won the prestigious Wynne Prize (the most recognized annual Australian art prize, in existence for more than a century) at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, was selected by an international jury to be a cultural ambassador and represent Australia at the Athens Olympics of the Visual Arts “Artiade” Exhibition 2004.

Not only has Dahlsen’s work been exhibited worldwide, including at the Australian embassy in Washington D.C., but he has lectured about his art form in front of hundreds of audiences ranging from 30 to 3,000 attendees, and has curated environmental art shows everywhere from Australia to New York. All this, and much more, because Dahlsen had the courage to pursue a form of art that forced him to let go of many of the predispositions he had about success in the art world and instead believe wholly in his art and its mission.

Art Calendar: I read that a fire destroyed your studio in 1983, taking seven years worth of work with it. Did this event influence your transition from painting to found objects?

Dahlsen: The fire incident, although a major occurrence at the time in 1983, didn’t directly affect my transition to working with found objects, as that period began in my work in the mid-nineties. It did, though, rock my very foundations as a person and brought me face to face with my mortality, which explained, for me, my immediate openness to the spiritual path, which had been hindered up until that point. I suppose it made the transition to be easier, though, as I became less rigid as a person in hindsight. It was this point also which triggered me to begin to work with my own issues revolving around my fathers’ suicide, which took place three weeks before I was born. Looking at these issues helped to transform me significantly as a person, and I’m sure helped me to become more open and able to make the required jumps when necessary throughout my life.

Art Calendar: Were you concerned about how your collectors or critics would react to the new work, or whether you would be able to make a living at all with your newfound medium?

Dahlsen: I found that, although I saw this as completely new work at the time, as I hadn’t seen this kind of work before, I had no doubt that it would find it’s place with both the art world and my collector base. I was simply so excited with discovering this new visual language completely by accident and with no influence by other artists before me. In fact, I was surprised how quickly collectors embraced the work. I think that most of my collector base sees clearly that I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating these artworks, in the use of color and composition, etc., as well as at the same time appreciating highlighting a present dramatic plight of our planet and also through the work giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.

Art Calendar: Did you market your work as “environmental” in the beginning?

Dahlsen: I never really marketed it as any particular style at first. The term “Environmental” simply grew the longer I worked with it and had its obvious commentary on environmental issues. At first, I called these works “assemblages” and “Contemporary Landscapes.” By now, my work has naturally grown over the years into this stronger concern for the environment. As such, I’m happy to be termed an “Environmental Artist.”

Art Calendar: You spend a significant amount of time giving lectures about your work. Tell us about that.

Dahlsen: Public speaking has occurred for me as a natural development with my work. I love to address audiences and feel I have a gift with delivering them. My many years in the past as an educator have aided this, with my lecturing at both the university level as well as in the secondary school level. Invitations to speak publicly keep coming these days, which I enjoy. I love to travel, and I’m paid well for it, which is a good acknowledgment. Plus, I believe the effect I have on my audience far outreaches the carbon footprint I’m making with the travel component of giving these lectures. I’m very fortunate to connect with people on such an intimate way in these lectures, as evidenced by how I regularly receive e-mails for weeks afterward from around the globe by people who have been touched by one of my lectures.

Art Calendar: How do you structure your lectures?

Dahlsen: My lectures begin with my giving the audience a blessing for “Oneness,” as this is something I believe the world needs the most at the moment. This is followed basically by a talk on my environmental art. I deliver these talks in speaking engagements all over the world. My target audiences range from participants in seminars and environmental symposium events and at corporate functions, to universities, exhibition openings and embassy events. I lecture about my knowledge and concern about environmental issues, particularly in relation to the power and effectiveness of art transmitting important messages about our environment. I deliver these seminars for various timeframes, from 20 minutes to one to two hours, depending on the target audience. The speaking engagements are delivered with both PowerPoint and DVD presentations, and involve an introduction about myself and some basics about my history as an artist, leading on to discussion about the importance of art, emphasizing environmental and ecological awareness. This leads into the PowerPoint presentation, where I project various images. Depending on the length and nature of the presentation, this can amount to anywhere between 70 and 200 images, followed by a question and answer discussion. In this time of image projections, I focus on the visuals around eight main aspects of this environmental artwork.

Art Calendar: You have chosen to be self-represented. How do you maintain such a strong focus on creating new work, while balancing it with the art of selling, booking speaking engagements, etc.?

Dahlsen: Being predominantly self-represented has also just happened gradually, toward the end of the nineties, and has continued to this day. I did market myself quite aggressively at one point, as I really wanted to make no mistake as to how I positioned myself. In many ways, this has worked, as I tend to rely more on my reputation these days. I’ve found that responding relatively early to the need for an Internet presence has worked wonders for me with international exposure and demand, and has made the decision of when to need to have dealers or galleries work for me a much easier decision to make. Some of the challenges I experience as a self-represented artist are based around the uncertainty of future projects, as I am not in a usual cycle of X number of exhibitions per year, depending on the number of galleries representing a particular artist. But that said, I have found it usually has a way of working itself out, and I quite like the randomness of it all. I could never become a production line, which probably explains, in part, the variety of work that I make as the years go by. I maintain a strong focus on creating new work, while balancing it with the art of selling and booking speaking engagements by attending to my personal life equally, with the same amount of vigor and enthusiasm as I have for my art, so that I have the inner strength to not let the business side of things weigh me down in my career. I think this is important, to have a good balance. To get plenty of exercise, have lots of harmony with nature and meditation to help with it all. I also live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Try Googling “Byron Bay” in Australia, and you’ll see what I mean! Although it, like all places on our planet, is facing potential unheard of climate changes, unless we humans change our ways now.

Art Calendar: What next in your career?

Dahlsen: I am open to surprises, and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my Web site that I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years, and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting. This excites me to no end at the moment.

Art Calendar: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers get from the work you’re producing?

Dahlsen: A sense of Oneness with everything.

For a list of current worldwide exhibitions, information on his public speaking or to view more of John Dahlsen’s work, visit www.JohnDahlsen.com. Louise Buyo is the editorial intern at Art Calendar. She works as an art consultant at Hoypoloi Gallery in Orlando, Florida. She can be reached at LBuyo@ArtCalendar.com. Kim Hall is a Florida artist who serves as Art Calendar’s Editor. She can be reached at khall@ArtCalendar.com.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

How One Man Put the “Environmental” Into Art.
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Asian GeoGraphic

With all the talk about the new experimental works coming
out of Asia, like Yue Minjun’s iconic grinning self-portraits,
you would think that the million-dollar figures Chinese
contemporary art is fetching is the only thing that mattered.
An entirely different ethos underpins the multifaceted work
of Australian John Dahlsen, who has been quietly amassing
recognition and awards for his unique creations, cobbled
together from bits of driftwood and all manner of discarded
plastic detritus. After working in abstract painting for years,
the Byron Baysider began stumbling across masses of plastic
debris while scouring the Victorian coastlines for driftwood to
use in furniture. Something of an obsession soon developed,
and over the period of a decade, a vast collection of litter from
the ocean has been crowding his studio.

Dahlsen attended the respected Victorian College of the
Arts in Melbourne in the seventies, and was enthralled by the
abstract expressionism of Mark Rothko during a memorable
visit to London’s Tate Gallery in 1981. After a stint in the United
States, he returned to his home turf and took up a position
as artist-in-residence at Editions Gallery in Western Australia.
With his traditional realm of paint and canvas already giving
way to explorations with new materials and techniques, the
“accident” of coming across a bounty of waste plastic on the
beach was all the inspiration needed to transition to a new way
of working. “I was immediately affected by a whole new palette
of colour and shape revealing itself to me; I had never seen
such hues and forms before,” says the artist, who has sifted,
sorted and colour-coded his precious finds ever since.

Of that early time, Dahlsen says: “My challenge as an artist
was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting
have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they

spoke and told their story, which included those underlying
environmental messages inherent in the use of this kind of
medium.” As a seasoned artist, Dahlsen could be forgiven
for dwelling on the aesthetic, but a deep environmental
consciousness clearly has its roots in those early experiences.
“By presenting this art to the public it will hopefully have people
thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular
the environmental issues we currently face,” he says. Of his
many exhibitions over the years, perhaps his most important
will be in Barcelona, Spain at the 2008 World Conservation
Congress organised by the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The “environmental” art of Dahlsen attests to the staggering
global problem of trash in our oceans, the majority of which
is plastic. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program
estimated that every square mile hosts some 46,000 pieces
of floating plastic. So vast is one area of concentrated trash
in the northern Pacific Ocean, confined by slowly circulating
currents, that it has been named the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch. A Greenpeace report that same year estimated that
80 percent of the ocean’s plastic garbage begins its long life
on land. Much of the remainder is spillage directly from the
plastics industry, which ships plastic around the globe in the
form of tiny pellets, called nurdles, that eventually end up on
our supermarket shelves after being coloured, melted and
moulded into our ubiquitous disposable products.

Not surprisingly, the ocean’s toxic stew spells untold havoc
for ecosystems. A plastic bag is a dead ringer for a jellyfish
– if you’re a sea turtle. Multicoloured plastic shards have been
found to lace the innards of marine birds. Most insidious of
all, the tiniest fragments of plastic are soaking up the manmade
toxins already widely diffused in seawater, threatening
the entire food chain. We are already ingesting our own trash.
The plastic debris that washes up on Dahlsen’s shores and
finds its way into his art is a poignant reminder of the crucial
part we all have to play.

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John Dahlsen a Sulman finalist
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Byron Shire Echo


Byron Bay artist John Dahlsen’s latest paintings have been
given the seal of approval by the Art Gallery of NSW, with
his painting Light Blue Purge Painting 2006, pictured,
having been selected as a finalist in the Sulman Award,
currently showing alongside the Archibald and the Wynne
prizes.

Dahlsen won the Wynne prize in 2000. During the latter
part of 2005 and into 2006, Dahlsen created a new body of work, a series of paintings on canvas and Belgian linen, based on the subject matter of plastic ‘purges’.

Dahlsen said of the new work: ‘The direction in this work
which also incorporates sculpture and assemblage, is a
natural evolution for me and further consolidates my
return to painting, which was my main medium for 17 years,
prior to working for over eight years with found objects,
based upon environmental themes.’

 


Having only just returned from Europe, Dahlsen noted,
‘Through my ongoing association with Austrade,
I was introduced to gallery directors in Berlin, Frankfurt
and Amsterdam and the response to my new work has
been amazing, with many projects in discussion and under
way. Having such positive response really makes the
transition so much easier, from being the artist who for
a while exclusively worked with beach found objects into
being a painter again.’

Dahlsen exhibited two artworks in an exhibition
at the Lismore Regional Gallery ‘Oceans 11’, a group
exhibition of north coast artists responding to the theme
of the ocean and living near the ocean. He was also again
on show at the Lismore Regional Gallery with the
exhibition ‘Collections Northern Rivers’, which opened on
April 28 and continued to May 31 2006.

The Archibald, Sulman and Wynne prizes will be on
exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney until May 28.

"Light Blue Purge Painting"
Acrylic on Belgian linen.

Finalist Sulman Prize
Art Gallery of NSW 2006

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John Dahlsen. Interview 5/5/08 Bree Falla- Bachelor of visual/fine art at La trobe University.

1. What are your views on climate change?

I have a self-held commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. This has grown naturally for me as an artist in my development of working with this found object visual language and is supplemented in parallel, with myself as a person having a natural response to world wide ever growing concerns about all aspects of the environment, which now includes the ever pressing need to address global warming and its impact on the environment.

2. How do these views affect your art practice?

I see my latest paintings as being a reflection of these continued concerns. The landscapes featured in my new paintings are thevery same places I have roamed over the years and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works. In the past I have used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and degradation of the environment. In this new series I am emphasising the changing weather patterns witnessed in recent years, through my own depictions of storm activity and beach erosion along the North Coast region in Australia where I live. These works are landscape paintings with a contemporary twist - a sense of foreboding of what is to come, and rather than aspiring to be natural they are highly produced, stylised and have a flat, artificial and detatched look, a kind of Apocalyptic Realism with an element of abstraction. They are executed with a certain sense of urgency seen in my handling of paint, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its apparent impact on the environment.

3. Do you believe the role of the artist is an important one in helping people become aware of climate change?

I think it’s great that many artists are now highlighting strong environmental issues in their work such as climate change. I believe we need all the help we can get at the moment and if art can help shift peoples awareness in a positive direction, then great. In all honesty, I see the real need for massive social transformations. They are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the depletion of fossil fuels and climate change. I hope that my own work can be a timely reminder to us about climate change and of the limited supply of petroleum based materials, which is a direct result of our current collective global mass consumerism. In the same way, I hope that the viewing public also embraces the messages, which other sincere artists are conveying with their work particularly when they are expressing strong environmental statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

4. Do you believe that art is making a difference to the way people treat their environment?

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get. This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways. These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art to the public, it will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to find enjoyment of the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate. I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marvelled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way, with this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer, with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

5. Do you believe that the specific symbolism in using discarded scraps and other man made materials is and effective way of making people aware?

Yes.

6. Do you believe that your paintings or installation works are more effective in expressing your ideas and concerns for the environment?

They both have their own individual effect. It’s true that with these latest works the environmental message within the work is more subtle, it doesn’t clobber you over the head, instead it catches you more unawares.

7. Are you inspired by any other ‘eco’ artists, if so who are they and what is it about their work that inspires you?

I have been so busy over the years creating my own body of work that I have hardly paid attention to many others work in this area. In that sense, no I haven’t been inspired by any other artists work in this field of what I will term environmental art. I have of course had certain artists names bought to my attention by people who have made a connection between my work and others, such as Arman, Tony Cragg and Sol Lewit, which has been interesting for me to see, however seeing visuals of their work happened long after I created my own body of work. I simply didn’t want to see others work until I had satisfied my own exploration and didn’t want any influence from others.

8. Are there any historical environmental artists that influence your work or whom you are inspired by?

There are not any historical “environmental” artists that influence my work or whom I am inspired by, however there are “Artists” whom I have been influenced and inspired by. As a young artist, I was fortunate enough to interact with many people who played a significant role in shaping the Australian contemporary art world. These lecturing artists at the VCA, demonstrated to me what it meant to have an energetic response to the creative process. It was during these years at art school at the end of the seventies that I first began collecting driftwood to make into furniture; and it was this experience that 20 years later I remembered and returned to the very same coastline to collect driftwood and washed up plastics once again. Exposure to international art in London and Europe, in the early eighties, encouraged me to pursue my career as an artist.

One defining moment was experienced at the Tate Gallery in London, 1981. In a gallery space devoted to Mark Rothko, the American abstract expressionist, I experienced the depth and commitment in his work. The exhibition drew an intense emotional response from me, moving me to tears, and provided a level of inspiration that I had not experienced up until that point. Another Rothko piece (from a different period), seen several years later while visiting the National Gallery of Victoria, filled me with the same feeling of understanding. Looking back, with the benefit of experience, I can say that it was the sincerity and purity from within his paintings that moved me. Upon returning to Australia, after residing some years in the United States, I took up a position as artist in residence at Editions Gallery, Western Australia. Living and working with other artists is an education in itself, providing insight into how they work. Fellow painters prompted me to explore more painterly qualities in my work, while sharing a studio would help to deepen my exploration into abstraction. The vitality and intensity with which these artists approached their work left quite an impact on me, subsequently affecting the way I approached my own art practice.

Some of the great masters of course provided me with great inspiration. I must mention 17th century Spanish artist (Diego Rodriguez de Silva) Velazquez for his monumental figurative paintings, which reveal upon closer inspection, the most amazing abstract painterly qualities. The later post-impressionist movement was highly inspirational, particularly artists like Van Gogh whose work was explosive and brilliant once he had discovered his own visual language. A more complete list should also include American Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and later Roy Lichtenstein, and more recently Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Also I want to mention my being influenced by the Australians; Tony Tuckson and Ian Fairweather, primarily due to the energy that their work conveys.

9. I come from a rural back ground where water is the life blood of the farming community, this influences my work greatly. Do you have any specific ties with the landscape which you collect your materials?

I live in a seaside town called Byron Bay. It was a direct result of my being influenced by my sense of place living here, that my creative medium shifted from painting to working with found objects as well as it being a result of an artistic accident during the mid 1990’s. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. This whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I’d never seen such hues and forms before. Since then for approximately 10 years, I scoured Australian beaches for found objects, much of which I found as washed up ‘ocean litter’ from the Byron Bay region. I have since discovered this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting beaches on a global level. I bought these plastics back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I worked with these objects, I became even more fascinated by the way they had been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. I have also been a surfer for many years, which also has acted as a specific tie for me.

10. What are your views if any on the water crisis in Australia, do you believe that art can have an affect on the way people use water?

I do think art can have an effect on the way people view the water crisis in Australia and how they use water. I think it’s great that many artists are now highlighting strong environmental issues in their work, such as the water crisis, as I believe we need all the help we can get at the moment and if art can help shift peoples awareness in a positive direction, then great. I hope that the viewing public also embraces the messages, which other sincere artists are conveying with their work particularly when they are expressing strong environmental statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity. In all honesty, I see the real need for massive social transformations. They are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the current water crisis in Australia, and worldwide. I hope that my own work and others work can be a timely reminder to us all of the issues we face generally with climate change.

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National Association of the Visual Arts (Australia)

Interview between Cassandra Parkinson (Artist Career Project Manager) and John Dahlsen

Artist profile John Dahlsen

NAVA: You’ve gone through several distinct phases in your career, creating a diverse body of work. What led you to change your approach?

JD: A fire destroyed my studio in 1983, taking seven years work with it. It shook my foundations as a person and brought me face to face with my mortality. It influenced my transition through a fairly diverse range of art practice and made the later transition to found objects easier, because I became less rigid as a person. That was also the point when I began to work with my own issues revolving around my fathers’ suicide, which took place three weeks before I was born. After many years of painting, I became more open to exploring new materials and technology, and to stretching myself beyond the realm of paintbrush and canvas. Being open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ in the art-making process has led to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work. My creative medium changed to found object art after one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood on a remote Victorian coastline, planning to make furniture, when I stumbled on vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. A whole new palette of colour and shape revealed itself.

NAVA: To what degree does a commitment to the environment inform your process as an artist?

JD: In the mid 1990s, my visual language developed across broad areas through the found object work, which encompassed such disciplines as sculpture, assemblage wall works, public art, digital prints, installation art, painting and drawing. During that time my work took on strong environmental themes, offering a vast field of exploration. I see the term “environmental artist” as being very flexible. Because I live with the environment, I have no choice but to tackle environmental issues and represent my commitment to contemporary social and environmental concerns in my work. This approach has grown naturally for me through my work with found object visual language.

NAVA: What came first – the decision to live in a seaside area or the decision to focus on environmental art?

JD: I live in a seaside town called Byron Bay and the decision to live here came before the decision to focus on environmental art. As a result of living here, my creative medium shifted. The landscapes in my latest paintings are the same places where I have roamed and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works. In the past I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place and to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and environmental degradation. I have executed my new paintings with a certain sense of urgency, because I have become increasingly concerned about global warming. But with these works the environmental message is more subtle.

NAVA: How difficult has it been to strike a balance between your “local” life in a small town and that which engages with the rest of the world?

JD: I’ve found an easy balance with my local and broader commitments, which have unfolded naturally over the years. I began to represent myself from the late 1990s, coinciding with the growth of the internet and more convenient travel, so it was easier to maintain contacts from a distance. Living in a regional area has helped me reach out to the international market and creating an early internet presence worked wonders in gaining international exposure and demand. That made it easier to decide when to work with dealers and galleries and it had unexpected results, such as having my work become part of the syllabus in parts of Australia, the US and the UK. It’s also important to have a good balance in your life, to get plenty of exercise, have lots of harmony with nature, meditation and a quiet place to work. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. These things all benefit me as an artist living outside a major metropolitan centre.

NAVA: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers get from the work you're producing?

JD: I hope viewers get a sense of oneness with everything from the work I’m producing. Making this art is a way of sharing my messages about the need to care for our environment and about the aesthetic experience of appreciating artworks. I believe humanity is at a critical point, with the planet in a fragile ecological state and global warming hastening major changes. I hope people enjoy my work at many levels and can identify with each piece in various ways. I also hope the viewing public can embrace messages in other artists’ work, particularly when they express strong environmental and social statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

Educated at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne College of Advanced Education, John Dahlsen is a contemporary environmental artist. He exhibits regularly in Australian capital cities, regional Australia, and internationally. He has won many grants and art prizes including the Wynne Prize (2000), second prize winner in "The Signature Of Sydney Prize" (2006) and a prestigious award for mixed media/new media at the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003. In 2004 he represented Australia at the Athens Olympics of Visual Arts 'Artiade' Exhibition. John is represented by major public and private collections in Australia, Europe, the USA and Japan.

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Katie Georgiadis (student) - Interview Questions with John Dahlsen May 2008

- What made you switch your media from painting to found objects?

The fire incident - although a major occurrence at the time in 1983, didn’t directly affect my transition to working with found objects, as that period began in my work in the mid nineties. It did though, rock my very foundations as a person and bought me face to face with my mortality, which explained for me my immediate openness to the spiritual path, which had been hindered up until that point. I suppose it made the transition to be easier, when it did happen in the mid nineties that I began to work with found objects, as I became less rigid as a person on hindsight. Looking at these issues helped to transform me significantly as a person and I’m sure helped me to become more open and able to make the required jumps when necessary throughout my life. I found that although I saw this as completely new work at the time, as I hadn’t seen this kind of work before, I had no doubt that it would find it’s place with both the art world and my collector base. I was simply so excited with discovering this new visual language completely by accident and with no influence by other artists before me. In fact I was surprised how quickly collectors embraced the work. I also got a leg up by winning the coveted “Wynne Prize” at the Art Gallery of NSW here in Australia, with the “Thong Totems in 2000.

- What process do you go through to create your found object art?

Well, firstly, I think it important to say that one of the most important aspects in the creative process is the process itself. After many years of painting, I found myself becoming more courageous, and open, to the exploration of new materials and technology, therefore able to stretch myself beyond the realms of paintbrush and canvas. Aside from conscious exploration of new materials and technology I have found that being alert and open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ occurring in my art-making processes have lead to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work.

My creative medium changed to found art as a result of one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. A whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I had never seen such hues and forms before. Since then, I have scoured Australian beaches for found objects, which I bring back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I work with them in my studio I become even more fascinated by the way they have been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. My challenge as an artist is to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they speak and tell their story.

Over the past 25 years I have tried to maintain a pure commitment to contemporary art practice; I have never looked for a safe place to rest. What happens with my art generally runs parallel to my life, meaning that I learn from my art and apply some of these insights to my life and vice versa. When I sense that I am becoming too comfortable in what I am doing I will consciously move on to something new. For example, challenges in my personal life keep me on my toes and help me to extend myself more as an artist. This is how my work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this evolution largely an alchemical one. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the man-made that creates the initial alchemy, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step is achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital alchemy takes place as I assemble them. Through using intuition, and personal aesthetic judgments, the objects start to tell their story and become transformed into artworks.

Most importantly, for me, the assembled objects bring to life my commitment as an artist to express social, spiritual and environmental concerns. Comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks. With this in mind, I trust leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the strong possibility they experience deep perceptual shifts as they interact with my art. While my art practice changes, and evolves, my underlying commitment, as an artist has never wavered. I have always been motivated by a professional duty to be aware of and express current social, spiritual and environmental concerns through my art practice. I get on this razors edge line between fulfilment and frustration, knowing that I am able to only ever provide through my creativity a glimpse of the greatness that is life - a fragment of what is essentially the ineffable.

- What concerns are you trying to raise through your found object art? What would you like people to take away from it?

I have a self-held commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. This has grown naturally for me as an artist in my development of working with this found object visual language and is supplemented in parallel, with myself as a person having a natural response to world wide ever growing concerns about all aspects of the environment, which now includes the ever pressing need to address global warming and its impact on the environment. I see my latest paintings as being a reflection of these continued concerns. The landscapes featured in my new paintings are the very same places I have roamed over the years and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works.

In the past I have used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and degradation of the environment. In this new series I am emphasising the changing weather patterns witnessed in recent years, through my own depictions of storm activity and beach erosion along the North Coast region in Australia where I live. These works are landscape paintings with a contemporary twist - a sense of foreboding of what is to come, and rather than aspiring to be natural they are highly produced, stylised and have a flat, artificial and detached look, a kind of Apocalyptic Realism with an element of abstraction. They are executed with a certain sense of urgency seen in my handling of paint, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its apparent impact on the environment.

I think it’s great that many artists are now highlighting strong environmental issues in their work such as climate change. I believe we need all the help we can get at the moment and if art can help shift peoples awareness in a positive direction, then great. In all honesty, I see the real need for massive social transformations. They are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the depletion of fossil fuels and climate change. I hope that my own work can be a timely reminder to us about climate change and of the limited supply of petroleum based materials, which is a direct result of our current collective global mass consumerism. In the same way, I hope that the viewing public also embraces the messages, which other sincere artists are conveying with their work particularly when they are expressing strong environmental statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

- Do you feel your found object art is making a difference to the environment? How? Do you have any examples of this?

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get. This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.

These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art to the public, it will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to find enjoyment of the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate. I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marvelled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way, with this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer, with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

- Where do you see your art heading in the future?

I am open to surprises and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment, through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my web site, I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting. This excites me to no end at the moment.

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C.W. Thompson US Journalist: Questions on Plastic Bags:


What inspired you to make art out of plastic bags?

Two things really. One was the strong environmental messages I could convey and One was the great colours and forms I could create out of the material.
I developed works using recycled plastic bags as the primary medium a few years ago, “Blue River” was one of these works using this medium. This work was a finalist in the 2003 Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW and signalled a slight departure from my more recognizable assemblage works, in which I used plastics and other detritus collected from the Eastern seaboard, “Thong Totems” which won the Wynne Prize in 2000 is a good example.

I am with this work, apart from wishing to express obvious environmental messages, particularly interested in the brilliance of the colours and textures available to me in working with this medium. I am constantly surprised to see the variations in these plastics, very much like how I am intrigued by the beach found objects I have collected over the years.

I imagine these plastic bags, which mostly have a lifespan of many years, are in fact on the verge of extinction, as it is only a matter of time before governments impose such strict deterrents to people using them that they become a thing of the past. A fitting end to what has become such a scourge to our environment on a worldwide scale.


The Irish Government imposed a 10 cent levy on the use of these bags some years ago and saw the consumption of this product decrease by approximately 90% within a year, a reduction of many billions of plastic bags per year!
Once again, I am able as a contemporary visual artist, to use these recycled materials, to create artworks which I hope, express a certain beauty as well as containing their oun unique environmental messages.


This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways. These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns.


What is it that makes plastic bags such a nuisance?

Overconsumption and their discardability. Danger to wildlife including fish. Environmental vandalism caused by the careless disposal of them into the environment and landscape.
It looked great in the sequence in the movie American Beauty, But that was an isolated event
.

This is all substantiated by a following report by the Australian Government

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

In 2005, Australians used 3.92 billion lightweight single use high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags. 2.14 billion of these came from supermarkets, while the others were used by fast food restaurants, service stations, convenience stores and liquor stores and other shops.

Plastic bags are popular with consumers and retailers as they are a functional, lightweight, strong, cheap, and hygienic way to transport food and other products.

Most of these go to landfill (rubbish tips) after they are used, and some are recycled. In 2002 around 50 to 80 million bags ended up as litter in our environment. While the number littered has probably been reduced since then, it is likely that a large number still enter the environment. Once littered, plastic bags can find their way on to our streets, parks, and into our waterways.

Although plastic bags make up only a small percentage of all litter, the impact of these bags is nevertheless significant. Plastic bags create visual pollution problems and can have harmful effects on aquatic and terrestrial animals. Plastic bags are particularly noticeable components of the litter stream due to their size and can take a long time to fully break down.

The Australian Government is working with industry and the community to reduce the environmental impact of plastic bags. However, everyone shares some responsibility for this problem - from plastic bag manufacturers and importers who sell the bags, shop keepers who give them away, and the customers who use them. It is up to all of us to help find the solution.

In recent years, many people have started to use reusable bags, such as the 'green bags' you can buy at most supermarkets. Because of these efforts, the number of HDPE bags used in Australia has fallen from around 6 billion in 2002 to 3.92 billion in 2005. However, there is a lot more that can be done.

Plastic bag facts

* Australians used 3.92 billion plastic shopping bags per year.
* Nearly half a million plastic bags are collected on Clean Up Australia Day each year. (source - CUA)
* It takes only four grocery shopping trips for an average Australian family to accumulate 60 plastic shopping bags. (source - CUA)
* Plastic bags are produced from polymers derived from petroleum. The amount of petroleum used to make a plastic bag would drive a car about 11 metres. (source - CUA)
* In 2005, Australians used 192 HDPE bags per capita. (source - Nolan ITU)
* 14% of HDPE plastic carry bags are returned to major supermarkets for recycling. (source - ANRA)

Are paper bags any better?

As paper does come from trees... I think ultimately a bag made from some kind of recyclable material or made from a sustainable practice material would be the best.

In the US there are many initiatives to outright ban plastic bags – as an iconic though troubled item, do you think the bag could ultimately disappear from public consumption?

I would hope so, we have only relied on them for the past 50 or so years.
I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of
changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get. Removing mass produced plastic bags from circulation, would be a good step in the right direction, simply retraining people to not overly consume and to recycle where possible.

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Mirela Streza, Design and Art College, Christchurch, New Zealand Questions for the artist:

I contacted you some two weeks ago for an interview request for my Art History assignment. I researched all your interviews, videos and reviews and I would still like to address you few questions. I hope that would be OK with you, I understand how busy you are, but I just did not want to give up the idea of interviewing you. I feel very inspired by your work, your message and the power and energy of your work. Here are the questions:

1. How did your long painting practice influence your environmental pieces?

Totally, in that my whole aesthetic decision making comes from my years as a painter, includes composition, colour, line etc.

2. I know how you moved from painting into another direction, how do you feel about that more then ten years later?

I’m used to it by now. I just keep growing and changing with the developments in my studio.
It also takes a good degree of courage and determination...


3. Colours are obviously very important for you and your work, are you considering painting techniques when you are arranging all the plastic bits by colours for your compositions?

Absolutely. I’m always guided my a kind of dumb intelligence that I’ve garnered over the years as a painter.
Also my newer paintings have been in turn affected (I think positively) by my found object works.


4. Painting followed by found objects then painting again, are you looking already for what will come after that in your career? Are you searching for another medium or you are opened for another artistic accident like the one in 1997?

This is already happening. I never really go on the lookout for new forms of expression. I see they just come up as I’m in my process in the studio.
In fact my studio is currently being used for a whole new series of sculptures....


5. How would you advice an emerging artist to approach the art scene in today's difficult social, political and economical context?

Have a good degree of courage and determination...
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Artist Statement on Environmental Art
by John Dahlsen

My creative medium shifted from painting to working with found objects as a result of an artistic accident during the mid 1990's. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris.

The initial collection of thee objects, consisted of approximately 80 jumbo garden bags full of beach found litter.
When I first piled this collection up in my studio, I had friends drop by asking if I was okay!
However I knew that an unseen intelligence was at work and soon realized the potential of a giant palate. Then I began the selections of yellow coloured plastics to make up it’s own pile in the studio, then the red, then the blues, the rope & strings, the plastic coke bottles, the thongs etc. Soon the floor of the studio did resemble a giant painters palate.

Seeing all this develop had the effect of sewing the seed for, I later had the notion of making assemblages of each of these objects once sorted this occurred to me as a natural extension of the process I was undergoing in the studio. This whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I had never seen such hues and forms before.

Since then - for approximately 15 years, I scoured Australian beaches for found objects, much of which I found as washed up 'ocean litter'. I have since discovered this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting beaches on a global level.

I bought these plastics back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I worked with these objects, I became even more fascinated by the way they had been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature's elements. My challenge as an artist was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they spoke and told their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent in the use of this kind of medium.

My work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this largely as alchemical. It is the process of nature's elements redefining the man-made that created the initial alchemy in working with these found objects, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step was achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital transformation took place as I assembled them. These found objects then started to tell their story and become transformed into artworks. Most importantly for me, the assembled objects brought to life my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social, spiritual and environmental concerns.

Comments are regularly made to me about people's consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks. With this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts as they interact with my art.

I also developed works in 2003 using recycled plastic bags as the primary medium, "Blue River" is one of my most well known works using this medium. This work was a finalist in the 2003 Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW Australia. My recycled plastic bag artwork is a departure from the more recognizable assemblage works in which I used plastics and other detritus collected from the Eastern seaboard, "Thong Totems" which won the Wynne Prize in 2000 being a good example. With this recycled plastic bag work, apart from wishing to express obvious environmental messages, I have been particularly interested in the brilliance of the colours and textures available to me with this medium.

I am constantly surprised to see the variations in these plastics, very much like how I am intrigued by the beach found objects I have collected over the years. The most recent example of my working in this medium was in 2005, when I was artist in residence at Jefferson City Missouri, USA. Here I made a series of totemic installations with thousands of plastic bags in clear acrylic tubes for their sculpture walk.

I imagine these plastic bags, which mostly have a lifespan of many years, are possibly facing extinction, as governments are beginning to impose deterrents to people using them. In the mean time I am able as a contemporary visual artist, to use these recycled materials, to create artworks which, I hope express a certain beauty, as well as containing their own unique environmental messages.

My foray into working with driftwood assemblages, began in 1998 and continued until 2004. An article described the driftwood assemblages, which I exhibited in a solo show at the John Gordon Gallery Coffs Harbour in early 2004 as follows:


 "John Dahlsen isn't your average artist. A bold statement to make but appropriate after you realize the sheer depth and determination which goes into the work this man has produced over the past seven years. Although he has been within art circles for much longer than that, it is only in the most recent years, which have seen Dahlsen create a different form of art with environmental messages and strong statements. It is 'found' object art, be that organic or inorganic.

He would be seen scavenging beaches in search of plastics, specific colours and sizes. He is also known for venturing along the edge of Victoria alone in search of driftwood. Boat trips, four-wheel-drive tours and scaling 40 meter-high cliffs, were all part of the process for this driftwood exhibition and Dahlsen admits at times there were death-defying moments grabbing the perfect piece of wood."

The work on show in the 2004 Wynne Prize as a finalist, at the Art Gallery of NSW, titled "Driftwood Assemblage # 1" was a diptych from this series.

The other focus of my artistic activity around that time was in the area of large-scale prints and paintings on canvas and paper. This exploration into prints was first initiated in 1999 and developed into my incorporating both screen print, digital print technology and painting in my work. It satisfied my concerns with advances in technology where I could begin to incorporate various images of the found plastics. In 1999 I developed a series of Cibachrome photographs taken from above - a birds eye view of the found plastics, I then developed these into complex high resolution large scale works on canvas, utilising contemporary computer and screen printing advances. The development of these works immediately followed the construction of my web site, during which I was to also learn the scope of possibilities within digital media. As well as embracing the digital and screen-printing arena, it also heralded my return to painting which was my main chosen medium for many years.

The central concerns of my work are with contemporary art practice. I have for many years been working with found and recycled objects, most hand-picked by myself from somewhere along the Australian Coastline. In fact it literally amazes me to think how many times I have bent over to pick up the many thousands of pieces of plastic debris that made up that aspect of my art, each piece jostled around for who knows how long by sand, sun and ocean, their form faded and rounded by the elements.

The unabated dumping of thousands of tonnes of plastics has been expressed in my assemblages, installations, totems, digital prints and public artworks.   And yet, despite my outrage at this environmental vandalism, I returned to the beach daily to find more pieces for my artist's palette. In an uncanny way, these plastics, as I sorted them and arranged them in my studio took on an unspeakable, indefinable and quite a magical beauty, which always fascinated me.

During the latter part of 2005 and into 2006, I created a new body of work, a series of Synthetic Polymer paintings on Belgian linen, based on the subject matter of plastic "purges" - plastic fabricator machine end waste.

This work and my work in general of that period, considers cycles and recycling. Ibegan re-presenting paintings of sculptures that are inherently plastic fabricator machine end waste. The use of plastic materials and their place in the evolutionary motions of recycling are important to me in constructing these images.

I see the real need for the massive social transformations that are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the depletion of fossil fuels and climate change. I hope this work can be a timely reminder to us all of the limited supply of these petroleum based materials, which is a direct result of our current collective global mass consumerism.

I made this series of work, exploring the mechanics of how an object is put together, what place it occupies in a cycle of life; organic or man-made. My choice of materials having as much prominence as the end product.

That work concentrated on cycles, momentum and the multiple. In this new series of work, I painted non-recyclable purged plastic objects. These objects are by products of everything plastic, they are the plastic run before or after a hairbrush, juice bottle or chair is made. They represent everything and nothing. The plastic in its petroleum state has undergone millions of years of evolution to get to this stage. And then, it is discarded as a by-product of societal needs.

Essentially I am exploring the duality of meaning and perception and the illusion that is created in between. I am presenting an image of a non-object, in a painting of an informal Formalist sculpture. My paintings will create the profile of a solid sculpture, moulded and plied to present the essence of formalism. The subject of the paintings, exhibit abstract geometrical imagery and constructivist diagramming of space that is playfully organic and blob-like.

The work which followed this also incorporates sculpture and assemblage, is a natural evolution for me and further consolidated my return to painting, which was my main medium for many years, prior to my working for over 8 years with found objects; making sculptures and assemblages from beach found plastic litter, which were largely based upon environmental themes, taking society's discarded objects of the everyday and transforming them into formal compositions.

All the landscape and seascape paintings made in 2007, were painted as a continued response to our local environment.
I remember saying in interviews with the media during the late 90’s, that I hoped that one day I would see less and less litter washing up on our beaches, so that quite naturally my work would find a new direction. This has now happened – on a local level at least.  The situation on a global level has worsened considerably.

After more than 10 years of collecting beach found objects and subsequently making art out of them, I naturally came now to a new form of expression, which was brought on significantly as a result of the decrease in litter either washing up or being left behind on our beaches, as well as a result of my purge painting series and exploration.

Painting the Byron Bay local seascapes and landscapes, mostly images seen by me on my daily walk around the lighthouse and beaches, are painted somewhat with a sense of urgency, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its impact.

The viewer can see these works have a certain unmistakable mood within each piece, which has been written about by Dr Jacqueline Millner from the University of Western Sydney:
“This play between abstraction and figuration, between synthetic/organic matter and immateriality in the purge paintings, has been applied in Dahlsen’s most recent works to landscapes — dark works whose subtle references to environmental degradation all but disappear before forcefully catching you unawares.
This tension between inorganic abstraction and emotionally charged organism lends these works particular resonance, given their inception in the politics of environmental art. They play out, in elegant and economical aesthetics, the unstable boundaries between the natural and the artificial, reminding us of Wendell Berry’s paradox that ‘the only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity’

Steven Alderton, the director of the Lismore Regional Art Gallery, in his Artspeak column in The Northern Star, went on to say about the new work: "John has been working on a very successful new body of work that extends from his previous enviro sculptures into paintings. They are of the places he has collected detritus for his sculptures. The subject matter also happens to be Byron Bay, a place of infinite beauty and great affection. "

John Dahlsen


 

 

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