Inside Melissa McDougall’s urban noir

Image: On Metal Wings
Wellington-based artist Melissa McDougall’s evocative work is a strange fusion of traditional gothic elements, literary references and modern urban settings.

The product of a bohemian upbringing, McDougall’s first exhibition was at the Perth Institute of Contemporary art aged 19. 25 years later, she’s now exhibited extensively all over the world, so Idealog took a moment to catch up with her to find out just what it is about the city at night that’s so inspiring, how traditional artists are coping with the digital age and just what goes into a life dedicated to art.

Idealog: So what are you working on at the moment?

McDougall: I’ve just made the semi-finals of the Molly Morpeth Award and have entered a couple more awards this year. In terms of my painting, I’m returning to some city themes and some nature morte paintings. I’m referencing my dingo skull for inspiration and have used it in portraits and still life. I first used the dingo skull in a painting in 1992 so it’s great to re-interpret it again. My work is currently represented by Matchbox Gallery in Wellington, The Quirky Fox in Hawera and The Artist Room in Dunedin.

What was your upbringing like?

Quiet and bohemian, mostly. From birth to age four I lived in Pine Hill, Dunedin. I also stayed in St. Leonards with my Nanna Gwen while Mum worked at Cowell’s coffee shop in Dunedin. Dad, Mum and I moved to Melbourne in 1974 and then my mother and I settled in Perth. My dad Ewan travelled in Scotland, India, Nepal and New York. Mostly he was working oil rigs in the North Sea. Mum and I lived in an old workers’ cottage in an inner city suburb called Subiaco. In the 70’s it was mostly old people and students, but being next to Kings Park there were a lot of native galahs and parrots around which was lovely. It’s now very gentrified.

In the 70’s and 80’s we had very little technology in the house. We had my aunt’s record player for a while but after that we just had an old transistor radio with a wire hanger sticking out of it. There was no television. The house was pretty quiet but we always had a couple of cats.  My mum Suzette was a talented artist and had lots of beautiful art books on Surrealism, German Expressionism, Helmut Newton and Dior. She was very good at drawing and always encouraged my painting and drawing. Each month I got a new drawing pad from Jacksons in Perth. 


Image: Eloise (2013)

Image: Niagara Detriot (2015)

Image: Morning Fox (2015)

What attracted you to painting?

At high school my interest in painting intensified. My paintings were usually portraits and I drew a lot of botanical imagery. I really enjoyed the process of learning how to draw or render objects and people. I experienced melancholy as a teenager so focusing my energy on painting improved how I felt about myself. I also felt a strong sense of achievement after completing a work. My early influences were surrealist artist Paul Delvaux and a Perth painter called Alan Muller, who was a good friend of my mothers. His paintings are very detailed, dramatic and inspiring.

When did you first start showing your work?

My first exhibit was at the Charles Gardner Invitational Show (1991) in Perth when I was 19. My second exhibition was Feminisms (1992), a group show at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. My three paintings were compared to Frida Kahlo in the West Australian paper’s review of the show, so I was pretty happy.

Who are your influences?

There are so many and some of them are music or film influences. I love Chopin’s Nocturnes and the poetry of Blake and Tennyson. Nick Cave’s lyrics have been a huge influence on my work since I began buying Bad Seed albums from 1990 onwards. Each album has been a small masterpiece filled with wonderful biblical references and re-interpretations of other poets. My 1999 solo exhibition Love and Shadows was partially inspired by Henry’s Dream and The Good Son, as well as travels to Paris and Edinburgh.

I like Bergman and film noir and the German fairytales my mother read me as a child. In terms of artists I love Franz Xavier Winterhalter and his brother Hermann, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonora Carrington, Francesca Woodman, Louise Bourgeois, PJ Harvey and Kate Bush.

Literature is a big influence on my work and a way of making sense of the world. I have directly referenced William Blake’s poems “The Sick Rose” and “The Garden of Love.” I also painted a work inspired by Surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s poem “I write your name.” In 1996 I did an entire series of small works illustrating Alice in Wonderland. I have a large “The complete works of Tennyson” from 1881—it’s a bit tatty as you would expect, but has golden embossed lily of the valley on the cover and is filled with treasures. I refer to Breton’s Mad Love and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I love my copies of Max Ernst’s collage books (The Hundred Headless Woman and ALittle Girl Dreams of taking the Veil) and I sometimes reference the Old Testament.

My creative process is constant. It’s really a state of being. I’m always thinking about art, or making art, or taking photographs or jotting down poems or ideas.


Image: Blue Wren Self Portrait

Image: Le Cercle (Transmission) (1996)

You seem to have drawn a lot of inspiration from female figures, nightscapes and city scapes. What’s your attraction to these elements?

My interest in nightscapes would be to do with living in Northbridge, Perth, which is an inner city suburb. We moved there in 1989 when I was 17 and lived within a clear view of the silhouette of the city. At that age I went to clubs a lot. I saw the city at all times of day and night. The city can be beautiful and mysterious or seedy and disruptive—an evocative reflection of the human condition. I’m captivated by lights and dark shadows and the looming metropolis at night. I am very comfortable in cities. I worked at Gotham Studies in Northbridge at night in the 1990’s. I paint men as well as women—but women more often. I’ve painted my maternal grandfather twice and various male actors.

How would you say your style changed over the years?

My early work 1990-1994 was very clean lined and figurative. In 1994 I changed to wall sized, painted, pop culture collages influenced by Winston Smith. In 1996 I returned to figuration but was influenced by Velasquez, Kirchner and Auerbach so my painting was more impasto and gestural. In the last decade my work has returned to my original style. I’m quite disciplined and prefer to draw and paint in the manner of 1940’s realism. I still love Hopper, George Bellows and Christian Schad.

What are some of the challenges facing artists today? 

Some issues are eternal ones. Presently there seems to be a blurring of private and public life due to social media. Online, there is a sense that, as an artist, you have to entertain every moment of every day but that doesn’t work for everyone. I’m private with regards to creating my work, so I don’t share frequently on social media. My collectors mean a lot to me but I need to be solitary in order to do the work, so there is a paradox there. I also have children and I want to be as present as I can be, while I can be. Time is very precious. In terms of the art world in the last decade, there has been a blurring of genres—between fine art, low-brow, digital and illustration which has changed the game significantly. Also the work/life balance is always an issue for artists. In order to do the work I really need to do, I work part time, and I always have. This is so I am never completely dependent on external approval. I enjoy working with galleries and always make an effort to support them. But my primary loyalty has to be to my work. Creativity needs room to grow.


Image: Dark Lily (2015)

Image: Evangeline (2015)

How are you dealing with social media as an artist?

I find Facebook to be a very effective way to sell art and reach potential buyers all over the world. Because it involves global networking many of my sales have been from overseas and I don’t see how I could have reached those people without Facebook. One problem with such open sharing of imagery is that there can be an oversaturation of ideas. Fads and fashions tend to flood Facebook and Instagram so it can be difficult to carve out a private or unique practice. But overall I would say technology has been a positive thing in this area.

What are the financial challenges of being an artist these days?

I’m not sure the financial challenges are any different now, than previously. As an artist you have your collectors and galleries or you don’t. Most galleries take between 40-50 percent commission and then sell the work on your behalf so theoretically you don’t have to. I make sure I can make the work I want to by working part-time, as well as having gallery support.

In terms of society, far too many people regard art as a hobby rather than an actual job. Also, art supplies are considered a luxury products so they are expensive. All this conspires to place artists in the odd position of being revered for their talent but not necessarily rewarded financially. I think this has always been an issue.


Image: Self Portrait in Wellington (2005)

What do you think you’ve learned over the course of your career?

You can always learn more. Drawing is very important. I try to be more patient. I work hard and take opportunities as they come up. I would say being true to yourself is very important.

What advice would you give someone starting out?

Photograph or scan everything you do that is significant and keep records. Surround yourself with positive people who appreciate what you do. Don’t be afraid to experiment even though it may not seem “popular”. Be brave and persistent.