Artist Jack Trolove's raw and emotional portraits are so sought-after they sell out before they go on show. He prepares for the studio like preparing for a marathon because the huge impasto oil paintings must be completed within three days before the paint sets.
1 Why do you choose paint as a medium?
I had a period where I became frustrated with painting because it began to feel static so I worked in moving image and performance for a while but eventually I just craved the materiality of paint, even the smell of it. I try to keep the movement of the process alive in the painting so you can feel the physical energy when you stand in front of it - the gesture in these big sweeping marks dragged across the canvas. So much of the way we see the world now is mediated through screens but paintings are also objects that live in physical space, in real time, so I've been trying to push the surface into three-dimensional space to echo the physicality of the bodies.
2 Are your portraits of real people?
No. They often start from a memory, a photograph or a dream of someone but I just use that image as the initial scaffolding. They're portraits of an energy or state of being.
3 Your paintings explore "liminal spaces", the in-between states that occur on the threshold of transition. Why is that your focus?
For me, that's where the magic is. There's a lot of social pressure to fit into categories but the really magical experiences in life are not tethered in that way. I'm interested in stories of shapeshifting between states like the Selkies of the Celtic world that shift from seal to human form. Shifting between emotional states like grief and love can change us physically. When we're in love things taste better, we can hear more. Physically we're connected to everything else in the world because we're literally made up of the same matter.
4 Your paintings look like portraits from a distance but as you get closer they transform into abstract shapes. Do you have to walk back and forward a lot while you're painting?
Yes, I've literally created a sheep track through the middle of my studio.
5 You work in the impasto technique, laying paint on the surface with a palette knife so thickly the strokes are visible. How fast do you have to work to complete one while the paint's still wet?
Oil paint gets tacky after a certain number of hours and you can't drag the knife through so I have a two to three-day window to do it, often painting solidly for 14 hours a day. Going into the studio is like preparing for a marathon. I make sure I'm well rested and have several days' food prepared. The first day is just mapping out the structure. The next day I mix the paint on a big glass table and start applying it. Each mark is a risk because it can't be undone. It's such a head game. I do think quite a bit in between each mark but it's important not to overthink or I'll end up with paintings that are technically 'right' that have no energy.
6 How often do you end up having to discard a painting?
I used to dump about nine works for every one I kept. Scraping all the paint off the canvas into a big pile of costly mud is devastating after three days' work. My partner wasn't convinced they were all bad so now we have a deal where I have to get his permission to destroy them. That outside perspective helps and after some breathing space I realise I do love them.
7 How do you use colour differently in this show compared to last year's?
I've really challenged myself to learn more about the world of shadow which is harder to paint than light. I've used hardly any white at all. Using pure pigment or colour instead of white gives the work a luminosity. Rather than light hitting the paintings, it's more like they glow from within. I like to watch how the light changes at dawn and dusk, the liminal times of the day, from my studio in an old air force building on the water's edge at Shelly Bay [Wellington]. It bounces in intense fluorescent pigments - iridescent pinks, aching hot oranges. All my colours are taken directly from the natural world. The lime greens come from the bush after it rains.
8 What was your childhood in North Canterbury like?
Amazing. I grew up with a large extended family in a big old house in the country my Nana and great-aunt turned into an old folks home. We grew most of our food and us kids used to do heaps of stuff with the old people. It was integrated, intergenerational living that's now seen as best practice but Nana got shut down because she couldn't meet all the regulations like having to prepare food in a fully sterile environment. Eventually it came down to values. She said, "I will not be made to wear gloves to touch another person - that's not right".
9 You work part-time in suicide prevention with LGBT youth. How did you get into that line of work?
Rainbow youth are over-represented in suicide statistics due to discrimination and social exclusion - not because of who they are. I used to do a lot of support work but got frustrated seeing the systemic issues that need addressing. Discrimination is so embedded at a structural and policy level, as well as a social one. Now I work strategically and do education work helping organisations increase their competence in working with LGBTI youth. Lots of service providers want to improve, they just don't know how.
10 Are we becoming more open-minded about transgender issues?
When we're doing our education work, we find it more helpful to get people to explore their own gender because we all have unique gender expressions. Once people have gone through that process there's less of a sense of "other". We're all just people.
11 Have you ever felt down and how did you come back from it?
I've had burnout quite a few times working in suicide prevention. The best piece of advice I got from a colleague was; "Do what gives you energy". Physically our body tell us so much, so I started listening to my body again. When I'm painting like this I can't wait to get into the studio.
12 You've just opened a show at Whitespace gallery in Ponsonby for Auckland Art Week. What's it like exhibiting new work for the first time?
On opening night you're filled with blind terror. I'd honestly feel more comfortable being pinned naked to a wall. I've found it helpful to share my process on Instagram so it's not such a harsh cut from the private studio to the public gallery. Being in the studio can be lonely and filled with self-doubt so sharing, including stuff that doesn't work, can be reassuring.
• Jack Trolove artist talk Saturday 14 October 2pm. Whitespace gallery, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby. Exhibition until 21 October. artweekauckland.co.nz