Interview with Rodrigo Luff
As Rodrigo Luff was applying the finishing touches to his paintings for our upcoming LUSH group exhibition, he took time-out to discuss his ethereal goddesses, luminescent forests and mysterious owls with Luke Barrett. Fresh from binge-watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, they explore the themes and hidden meanings in Luff’s work by drawing parallels to Lynch’s cult classic, in the process sharing some of their own theories and interpretations of that series.
“The owls are not what they seem” The Giant (1990); R Luff (2017)
“I really want to capture the essence of that dream feeling… It’s meant to symbolise the wild aspects of consciousness outside the rational and ordered mind.” R Luff (2017)
Listen to the sounds. Night falls and then the noises come. The precise point of origin: variable and masked by darkness, but undeniably within the unlit forest outside. The sound: a deep, recurring tone reverberating through the trees, the kind which somehow brings calm and comfort and implies a sense of wisdom.
Even the most casual David Lynch aficionado could mistake this for something out of Laura Palmer’s hometown.
But this was Rodrigo Luff’s introduction to owls. While he would not lay eyes upon an owl until later, in the beginning he would hear their reassuring calls while working late each night in his studio on the edge of the forest.
For the uninitiated, Luff is a Sydney-based, Australian artist who has established a significant international footprint through his distinctive paintings of feminine nudes set amongst lush, ethereal and dream-like natural settings, typically accented with luminescent lighting and visitations by those owls, together with deer, jellyfish and other fauna.
At his openings, it is not unprecedented to overhear collectors and enthusiasts speculating in apparent disbelief whether Luff has combined painting with collage. Luff juxtaposes photo-realism with looser, surreal elements, thus begging the question whether the whole work is by the same hand – which, of course, it is.
The lead-up to Luff’s next exhibition with BeinArt Gallery coincided with the release of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Limited Event Series, the baffling third season which was released more than 25 years after the second season ended in what was possibly the most shocking and longest-standing-unresolved cliff-hanger in television history. Many of the works for this next exhibition were painted with Twin Peaks streaming in the background. Both of us are deep into our second viewing and seeing the world through only slightly Lynch-tinted lenses.
David Lynch is notoriously evasive about shedding interpretative light on Twin Peaks. One senses a similar hesitation in Luff when discussing his own body of work – ironically, even when asked to shed light on his use of light:
“There are so many different interpretations of this concept of light and luminescence … I’m more than happy to leave it up to the viewer to decide for themselves what they want to take from the work.”
In the case of Twin Peaks, it is consequently difficult to ever feel confident about having a comprehensive grasp of the plot line, except at a relatively macro level. The farther one reaches for a deeper understanding of the detail, the more one experiences the kind of dismay and consternation that a physics student experiences when they shift focus from the physics of Newton or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (the physics which governs very-large objects) towards quantum physics (the physics which governs very-small particles, at a sub-atomic level). Concepts and interpretations which make perfect sense at the macro level start to break down when you get down to that level of detail.
A fascination with the commonalities that do exist between the science of the very-large and the science of the very-small is apparent in Luff’s depictions of luminosity and the emission of light.
“I’ve been obsessed with luminescence in all forms for well over a decade. I recently saw super rare glow worms in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney and it just blew my mind that they could emit these constellations of light that are so beautiful… But you can also find a similar luminescence in the stars, nebulae and cosmic patterns of the night sky. In both examples, this omnipresent force of light seems to shine at both the largest and smallest scales in our universe, pulsing away at all hours.”
The phenomenon of light being emitted at the smallest-scale – specifically, the energy released upon splitting an atom – is significant for Lynch as well, with imagery of atom bomb detonations recurring throughout the recent Twin Peaks series. One interpretation is that, when the power of the atom was used for military purposes, humanity crossed a metaphorical bridge to the dark side, which in turn enabled new evils to cross over into our world and enter our way of living.
Wartime hostilities precipitated a metaphorical bridge for Luff in his personal life too but, in his case, a bridge to a better life. Luff was born in civil-war torn El Salvador. His mother, herself still a young woman, fled for safety with infant Luff when he was only 18 months old.
“Not only did she have the challenge of raising an infant son in a foreign country, but she also had to learn English and work on her own as a single mother. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been, I’m very grateful that we settled here.”
Whereas painting was the precursor for Lynch’s segue into film making, Luff jokes that his “gateway drug” into fine art was drawing comic book art and fantasy art.
“By the last two years of high school I had prepared a portfolio of sequential pencil pages and had them critiqued by one of my favourite artists, Marc Silvestri at the Supanova comic con. He kindly told me to go learn anatomy and life drawing… so that was one of the initial reasons I chose to go to the Julian Ashton Art School when I graduated high school.”
Ultimately, Luff realised comic and fantasy art were not for him. He felt frustrated with being locked into someone else’s narrative and creative direction. Rather than allowing his creativity to be curtailed in the pursuit of early financial success, he ultimately found the lack of financial success to be a liberating force. Luff quips:
“If was going to get paid peanuts, I may as well be doing my own, personal work that didn’t have limitations.”
That said, even at the young age of 15, his comic art work had reached a high standard. Back then, he was already intrigued by the power of dreams.
Dreams are a subtle aspect of both Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Luff’s body of work.
In Twin Peaks, the character of Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) recounts having a dream in which Monica Bellucci remarks, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream”, inviting one to question the confidence with which they distinguish between the real world of the awake, and the unreal world of dreams. Coincidentally, Bellucci played the character of Persephone in The Matrix trilogy of films, which was another take on the idea of lives being lived out in sub-conscious, non-physical worlds. In The Matrix films, there was a seemingly all-knowing character, known as The Oracle, with an uncanny ability to predict the future. One interpretation of that film (most of which takes place in a virtual world) is that The Oracle was a simulation program, which was able to make predictions about the future by running highly-realistic simulations to determine the most likely outcomes and consequences of particular events.
Luff sees dreams as fulfilling a similar purpose for humans, but with some limitations.
“Normally our brains take in sensory data such as light and sound, and build a best-possible model of reality to keep us alive, but we can never really touch the fully objective “real” reality outside of ourselves. And I think when we’re asleep, we don’t get that sensory data input, but the whole brain is active, which means we get a glimpse at how our brain models reality on its own.”
We know that Lynch’s Agent Cooper would certainly approve of this, given he has been portrayed quoting Werner Heisenberg’s famous utterance: “What we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Heisenberg was one of the early pioneers of quantum physics, grappling with mysteries at the universe’s smallest scale: the sub-atomic. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” encapsulates the notion that an observer (and their model of reality) affects what is observed as the reality. If one knows the location of a sub-atomic particle, then the laws of physics prohibit that person from ever being able to know the particle’s precise velocity, and vice versa.
Luff endeavours to depict the interaction, tension and differences between, on the one hand, objective reality and, on the other hand, the models of reality which our brains construct for us and their associated limitations which are revealed for what they are in our dreams.
“I think about how I really want to capture the essence of that dream feeling. The union of the “weird” and the “real” and the way you have to try and think about what different parts could mean and the challenge of interpreting it. I like how the brain can put the strangest things together and how it’s convincing on the surface, but dig a bit deeper below the surface and it’s very strange. A couple of my favourite contemporary artists that have mastered this feeling are Aron Weisenfeld and John Brosio.”
This is something which defines Lynch’s work too, this blending of the weird and the real.
The resulting juxtaposition of photo-realism and surrealism in Luff’s paintings reflects his attempt to depict objective reality together with our neural models of reality and the inner world of dreams which those models can generate:
“It’s meant to symbolise the wild aspects of consciousness outside the rational and ordered mind.”
There is ambiguity within the Twin Peaks plot line as to where most of the story takes place. Aspects of the storyline take place in spiritual realms which seem to overlap with the real world, which in turn may in fact be a dream world, and there is the suggestion of parallel or alternative worlds too.
There is a similar ambiguity around Luff’s paintings. Luff is coy when pressed on the locations of the settings for his paintings. His followers on social media would know that there is photographic reference material for each painting, but one senses that Luff would prefer to drape his disrobed subjects in retrospective geographic androgyny. In a revelation that evokes the sweet “There is No Such Place” by Melbourne-band Augie March, Luff says:
“It’s also possible that the neon forest isn’t a physical place … I’m not too interested in any particular geographic location or the names we have given these places.”
Luff confides the reason for this.
“One of my favourite quotes that guides me is by William Blake, ‘Singular and particular detail is the foundation to the sublime.’
I am trying to paint the specific natural details of the setting. Through observing those details with close attention and capturing the unique characteristics of the subject, I think it’s possible to also tap into a broader, archetypal setting.
In my recent paintings, I tried to paint the leaves as silent, supporting characters, their individual shapes attentively painted as in portraiture, so that the overall pattern of green lushness emerges from there and hopefully evokes the feeling that it’s a real place you could walk through, but at the same time this is a nowhere place, it’s somewhere vague that may exist in a dream or an old memory.”
In Twin Peaks, although the character of Laura Palmer predeceased the first episode, it is interesting to ponder whether Laura Palmer was nevertheless the central character throughout, by being ever present through all three series, in memories, photographs, flashbacks and dream sequences. The better interpretation is perhaps that it was Laura Palmer’s relationships with the various surviving characters which were central. This is why, for example, it was so moving when, 25 years later, the character of Bobby Briggs (now a deputy in the Sherriff’s Department) breaks down upon seeing an old photograph of Laura Palmer being unpacked from an archived box of evidence.
In a similar way, since Luff sees his “neon forest” as the supporting character, it is interesting then to ponder who or what are the leading characters in Luff’s paintings: the women or the owls, deer, jellyfish and other fauna? Listening to Luff discuss the life forms that inhabit his paintings, it is hard to tell which one is the leading character.
In Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper was counselled by The Giant that, “the owls are not what they seem’. And so it is for Luff’s owls. He remarks:
“The owls have been an omnipresent, totemic force in my work. It would take pages and pages to delve into all the underlying symbolism that you can look into… They are rich with symbolic meaning … Those large eyes give them a psychic presence…”
He goes on:
“To me personally, the deer are emblematic of the forest and its majesty…
Jellyfish are so fascinating and beautiful: not just their luminescent colours, but also how they navigate the ocean with ease makes them almost alien to us. Did you know that there is a species of jellyfish that is basically immortal? They regress back through their life cycle to an early stage and then regenerate and continue over and over again… I hope other people can look into my paintings of jellyfish and draw their own conclusions but I think there is something really interesting about them that I’ll continue to explore in my work.”
The fauna always seem to be at the epicentre of the luminescence that we know is so important to Luff.
“I’m hoping that the luminescence imbues the creatures with a sense of magical consciousness and an energetic power that transcends the material realm. Trying to capture this universal phenomenon within the limitations of traditional media is a real challenge.”
This all leads one to suspect that perhaps the creatures are the central characters in Luff’s work, rather than the women. However, in endeavouring to choose between the women and the fauna, we have taken an intellectual wrong turn and failed to see the forest for the trees. Much like how Laura Palmer’s connections were more significant than the Laura Palmer character per se, Luff reveals:
“The deeper meaning is in the women’s connection to the owls, creatures, animals and surroundings.”
In a Lynch-like way, Luff elaborates:
“While this ethereal forest exists outside the dualities of time and space, I haven’t really figured out if the owls are summoning a female spirit, or if these women are summoning the owls. I think they are interconnected in some way as part of the same expression of energetic, natural forces that bind these forest realms together. There’s also a psychic connection there too: the idea that the mind is more fluid and goes beyond the physical forms of the bodies, so that we know they’re communicating, but don’t know exactly what is being said.”
Luff’s pastel and fluorescent depictions of the psychic connections between his female characters and the creatures and nature that surround them also has an analogue to Twin Peaks. In Twin Peaks, Lynch uses a creamed-corn-like substance (known as ‘garmonbozia’) as a symbolic device to represent pain and sorrow. The evil forces residing within the Black Lodge feed on the garmonbozia, whereas human characters have a nauseating reaction to its presence and are repulsed by it. Luff casually jokes:
“It’s funny because I’ve been painting this neon goo that the creatures merge with in my art for years, but it’s the opposite of garmonbozia – more like a crystallisation of love and desire.”
The ‘few years’ which Luff is referring to here have been prolific years for the artist. When asked whether he remembers every piece of art he has created, he confides:
“I think I remember most of them, but it’s getting harder and harder to recall particular works… With each year that goes by I’m forgetting more of them.”
His inspiration comes from various sources, for example, the original idea for his owl paintings came to him one night in a dream. Back in 1993, Billy Joel famously ‘dreamed’ the chorus and main melody for his song “River of Dreams” in the middle of the night (no pun intended) and then reduced the lyrics and main melody to writing when he woke up in the morning. Unfortunately for Billy Joel, this coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to his uptown girl, Christie Brinkley. Happily though, Luff’s story is a love story and he is on the brink of marriage and moving uptown to Los Angeles to be with his fiancée after several years of being in a long-distance relationship. During those years, he has juggled his busy artistic schedule with regular visits between the United States and Australia (to the point where border security raises an eye brow at both ends). Luff is clearly excited by the prospect of his pending nuptials and residing in the same city as his partner. It is too early to tell whether these life changes will stimulate and allow for an even more prolific period of creativity or whether we might notice a temporary pullback in his work schedule.
One thing which isn’t likely to change is his involvement in co-curating the annual Moleskine Project with Ken Harman at Spoke Art in San Francisco, which they have done since 2012. Back in 2011, Harman organised a solo show for Luff in which one of Luff’s own Moleskine books was deconstructed and custom-framed and which, ultimately, sold out. Ever since, they have co-curated an annual group show featuring works from other artists’ deconstructed and custom framed Moleskine books. Next year will be the seventh instalment and Luff says:
“Ken and I have joked that we’ll be doing Moleskine Project 50, and I really hope so!”
Reflecting on the lessons he has learned from this experience. Luff shares:
“The gallery managers I’ve worked with have done most of the heavy lifting but I do get a small taste of the business side, since I’m often an intermediary between the artist and the gallery and try to help as much as I can. It’s enough of a taste for me to appreciate all the risks and struggles that gallery owners endure… I think that it’s also made me realise that curators deal with similar difficult questions that artists do when finding the balance between individual free expression and the commercial marketplace. If nobody sells anything, then you won’t get to curate anything again. But if it’s all the same established artists each year, it gets stale… I’ve gained a lot of respect for the challenge that gallery owners face in choosing the artists for their shows. Without someone taking a risk on me, I never would have had a chance.”
Humbly, he confesses one further lesson from his curating work:
“It’s made me realise how much harder I need to work on my art.”
In terms of future work, Luff foreshadows a possible – but temporary – return to fantasy art, as he is keen to create some paintings inspired by the recent Twin Peaks series. If he ends up scratching that itch, a few other famous Twin Peaks quotes would be apt, given that fantasy art was how his art career began:
“Is it the future or is it the past?”
“It is happening again.”
LUSH is an exhibition of sensual works by Rodrigo Luff, Redd Walitzki, Ray Caesar and Jana Brike opening at BeinArt Gallery in Brunswick, Victoria, Australia on Saturday, 18 November 2017 at 6pm.