Mark Schaller’s studio lies at the end of a grand old street in Richmond which curves downhill past churches, school buildings and stately old homes. On my way, an elegant woman with a pale silken headscarf walks towards me - I feel as though I’ve stepped back one hundred years.
Outside the home-based studio, elaborately sculpted wrought iron gates offer a clue to the artistic endeavours within. Whilst waiting for a response to my knock at the door, I study the peeling flecks of paint on the imposing old wooden doors. Mark answers the door and leads me across the bluestone floors of the lounge and kitchen into the studio. We walk through a paved garden, where a freshly painted wooden flower sculpture sits on a brick platform.
The studio is a high-ceilinged barn of sorts, with a band of clerestory windows running along one side. The roof worries me a bit – there are a couple of gaps between the corrugated iron roofing and the insulation where water could come in, but Mark is unfazed. Paintings, both recent and old, congregate along walls, benches and ledges. The floor is littered with containers half-filled with muddy coloured water. In pride of place is an entire dispenser of oil paints bought at a local art supplies store. Other paints include small pots of French acrylic in rich browns, fluorescent pinks and cadmium yellows. Receding far back into the studio lies the accumulation of twenty years of art making; materials; wood and tools.
I proffer shyly with the “Matisse or Picasso” question, but Schaller is not one to brush off one artist over the other.
The artist has been busy, but not frantic. There are dozens of paintings, many in the process of being made. Along one bench is a series of female faces, each adorned with a hat or some sort of elegant frippery. The works are inspired by the race meetings so popular in regional towns of Australia. In one we see the yellow and pink polka dot decorations of a dress. Seemingly random red drips evoke the gentle smattering of freckles so common on Irish complexions. In another work, a bouquet of red, orange and pink blossoms extends from a hat to reach the very edge of the painting. Schaller emphasises the rural backdrop through bold minimal gestures; blue monochrome skies or horizon lines divided by two colours. In one painting, a horse gallops across a field, unencumbered by reins, saddle or railings.
Schaller’s paintings are strongly infused with a sculptural dimension and so we see the prominent use of collage. When a friend closed down a vintage fashion store on Chapel Street, he inherited many of the remnants. These fabrics are now incorporated into the recent works – the fabric is firstly glued onto cardboard and then onto the surface of the painting. The materials are thus returned to their original purpose; to adorn women with clothing for special occasions.
Elsewhere around the studio is a series of interiors and still lifes. When I see a deep blue interior scene of a studio I notice the influence of late Matisse. I proffer shyly with the “Matisse or Picasso” question, but Schaller is not one to brush off one artist over the other. He tells me how he has been captivated by both: Matisse, for the late collages, and Picasso for the Cubist works. It’s true - on a bench I see a much earlier work, a small nude in pinks, browns and blacks, where both the background and the body are fragmented into geometric forms.
It’s time for a cup of tea. Schaller ducks down to the corner store for some milk and heads back into the studio with cups on a tray. He doesn’t hesitate for a moment when he puts the tray straight down on a painting. The curator in me flinches but I realise these sturdy materials – acrylic on Masonite, can weather much worse than a wooden tray.
Schaller tells me about works yet to be made; a series based on the The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, (currently in the process of construction) just outside Bendigo. The artist describes a recent trip to Burma, where he painted a series of plein air watercolours based on the Stupas in Bagan.
In doing these works, Schaller strives to honour the strong Buddhist cultural heritage in Bendigo which dates back to the goldfields.
There will also be a series on rabbits. Ever since owning a property at the poetically named town of Nowhere Creek, Schaller has been fascinated with the ways that rabbits assert themselves within the Australian landscape. Their capacity to decimate the land through burrows is a lesson the artist learnt firsthand.
The artist speaks thoughtfully about his process. First there is the initial painting, and then two re-visits before the work is complete. He is also preparing for a large scale outdoor mosaic mural to be installed on the façade of the hotel building and a number of outdoor wooden sculptures. Is he daunted by the task of creating such a large body of work for a hotel in his name? Again, the artist seems unfazed. He seems quietly pleased that there will be a venue for his work, but not ruffled. As Ashley Crawford describes,
"I have had the pleasure of travelling with Mark Schaller to a range of locales – Venice, Tokyo, New York and the rugged bush of Australia – and he never stops drawing – everything is grist for the mill – from Venetian gondolas to the Australian desert"*
I leave, walking through a living room adorned with large scale paintings and sculptures that will soon be in the foyer of the hotel. I think back to the studio, to a large comfortable armchair amidst the traffic of creative production. There is no doubt this chair will provide some refuge for the artist over the busy coming weeks – not that he needs it. Through his assiduous approach to work it seems that Schaller has been preparing for a project of this scale for many years.
*Ashley Crawford, Art is Long: Mark Schaller + David Larwill, Aratong Galleries, 2010 p.2