Tranquil and luminous, the artworks of Ontario based artist Chris Austin ask his viewers to re-think their perceptions of often misunderstood animals. Playful orca whales frolic and majestic sharks cruise through a range of settings, sometimes natural, sometimes human made, but almost always foreign to these beasts that society has often villainized.
Having set aside art in his youth in the pursuit of financial stability via the daily grind, Austin found his way back to art making and has used his sculptures and gouache paintings to create an unfamiliar yet welcome narrative, casting the animals and landscapes he most admires in the leading roles.
About to share a new body of work for his exhibition Wake From Your Sleep at Beinart Gallery, Chris Austin shared some background about how and why he’s trying to remove some of the perceived danger and mystery surrounding these creatures he most admires.
The forests are thriving with life, and I truly believe they can teach us all something if we ask the right questions.— Chris Austin
Back To The Other Place Where I Cannot Go - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
Indigo Rawson-Smith: Hi Chris, to start out can you give us a bit of background on you as a person and an artist? From your initial attraction to art, how did you get to where you are today?
Chris Austin: I have been somewhat creative for nearly all my life. I started taking my art in a serious direction roughly 10 years ago and have never looked back. I remember first being attracted to art as a young boy spending time in my local library, studying sci-fi cover art. I could always care less about the written literature inside, but the illustrations always excited me.
Nothing Matters When We're Dancing - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: I came across an early article which was about your success in selling your art on instagram back around 2016. What part did that play in launching your career as an artist?
CA: Yeah, that came about fairly quickly, overnight actually. I’m still not exactly sure how it all happened, but I suppose that’s the way social media tends to go I suppose. It’s been a great tool for exposure globally.
There Is A Place Within You That Is Always At Rest - Gouache on wood by Chris Austin.
IRS: What kind of process is involved in the creation of one of your paintings?
CA: I do a lot of research prior to a finished painting. I take loads of photos in strange locations with high contrast lighting etc. Sometimes I will sculpt a scene and do a preliminary life drawing as well. I have a few yellow slickers hanging in my studio, so if friends drop by I will often get them to model for me.
Faded Memory - Graphite on paper for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: You’re now known mostly for your painting, but in the past you’ve created highly detailed sculptures somewhat reminiscent of dioramas, floating islands of forested land inhabited by wild animals, and little mounds of earth featuring weathered signs encased in bell jars. What led you to sculpture? Is it something you still do or look to return to?
CA: Originally I sculpted them to do life drawings for 2D paintings, and then decided to exhibit the sculptures and not the painting. I put them on hold as I found the sculpture was consuming my painting time. That being said, I am much better at time management these days and yes, I will hopefully be sculpting again for exhibition soon.
Curse Missed Opportunities - Mixed media by Chris Austin.
IRS: Though humans sometimes feature in your work, the protagonists always seem to be animals; orca’s, sharks and bears in particular. What is your relationship with these animals and what do they mean to you?
CA: I have loved wildlife ever since I could remember. I’ve always had a deep emotional connection with them. I remember as a child visiting a local marine amusement park, and seeing these beautiful creatures locked up made me so angry and sad. To help my feelings as a child I drew wildlife living free, interacting with humans in a non-captive way, in the wild where there weren’t any cages.
Light Even In The Darkest Of Places - Gouache on paper by Chris Austin.
IRS: The one person who does feature somewhat regularly in your works is this person in a yellow raincoat. Is this always the same person? If so, who is this mysterious character?
CA: The figure in the slicker is a depiction of me. I didn’t want to paint a figure that looked like me, I wanted to leave it as a mystery for the viewer. I want viewers to be able to envision themselves, getting lost in a fantasy world.
It's You I Am Dreaming Of - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: Many of your works feature marine animals swimming through and interacting with land environments such as forests and cities. What was your aim in taking these creatures out of the water and bringing them into our world?
CA: I enjoy creating things that when seen together have a contrasting effect, and images that question and entertain the discussion of connectivity. I like presenting wildlife in bizarre manners, placing them in scenes that oppose practicality, creating an environment in which nature becomes unnatural.
Say What It is You Need To Say - Gouache on paper mounted on wood by Chris Austin.
IRS: Forest landscapes really seem to resonate with you, and you’ve said that one of the areas that you are drawn to and that inspires you most is the Pacific Northwest. What is it about this place that attracts you?
CA: I have a huge love for big trees, and the Pacific Northwest is definitely the place to find them. It’s just so magical out there. The forests are thriving with life, and I truly believe they can teach us all something if we ask the right questions. I hope to retire out there in a small cabin in the woods.
I'll Hear You Calling Me - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: One of the most striking parts of your work is the way you portray light, the way it glints, glows and illuminates, light seems to play a major role in all of your pieces. Is there a reason why light interests you so much? And how did you come to master the depiction of something so tricky and fleeting?
CA: I enjoy playing around with lighting in the studio, creating shapes and shadows with the right contrast. I still have loads to learn but am enjoying the process.
Brumbies Befriend The Bold - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: You’re a very capable person in many areas; you worked in baking for many years, you’re an accomplished artist, you make your own frames for your works and you’re currently renovating a house, just to name a few. What do you think is the key to developing such a wide skill set?
CA: I suppose I am always looking for something to keep busy. I always tend to have a side project on the go. The challenge of a new project is exciting for me.
You're All I Need To Get By - Gouache on paper by Chris Austin.
IRS: Your show “Wake From Your Sleep” at Beinart Gallery will be opening soon. What kind of ideas have you explored through the series you’ll be showing?
CA: I’ve explored ideas from recurring dreams I’ve had over the past few years. Perhaps I will come back in another life as a whale set free; flying through everyday depictions, interacting with others.
Wake From Your Sleep - Gouache on wood for Chris Austin's solo show, Wake From Your Sleep, at Beinart Gallery.
IRS: What’s next on the cards for you? Are there any new ideas, animals or landscapes you’d like to explore?
CA: I never truly know what is around the corner, but I have a few ideas up my sleeve that I’d like to explore along with the same concepts with a slight twist of imagination.
Rewarded Are The Curious - Gouache on wood by Chris Austin.
This interview was written by Indigo Rawson-Smith for Beinart Gallery in August 2021.
Indigo Rawson-Smith wears many hats, most notably as a Gallery Assistant at Beinart Gallery, Jeweller for her brand Indigo Nox Jewellery, and as a devoted snack enthusiast.
Having spent a few years working in galleries and art spaces around London she relocated to Melbourne to undertake full-time study in jewellery design, becoming a member of the Beinart Gallery crew in early 2021.
In a year when we’ve all felt the touch of isolation and find ourselves forgetting how to speak to people outside of our COVID safe “bubbles” Indigo has been attempting to polish up her rusty social skills while interviewing a number of Beinart Gallery’s exhibiting artists.