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Artists in Conversation: Gabriel Cole and Brendan Huntley

16 December 2022

Artists in Conversation: Gabriel Cole and Brendan Huntley

Left: Gab Cole. Courtesy of China Heights. Right: Brendan Huntley

In How to Be an Artist, Jerry Saltz writes “every work of art is a culture-scape of you, your memories, the moments you spent working, your hopes, energies, and neuroses, the times you live in, and your ambitions. Of the things that are engaging, mysterious, meaningful, resistant over time.” Gabriel Cole’s most recent paintings and sculptures follow this idiom to a tee. Recently on display at China Heights, the artist’s abstracted ceramics and tiled paintings reflect the enigmatic parts of his everyday life. Specifically, domesticity and the mundane objects that make up his private space.

Infused with his recognised motifs, his latest exhibition, titled Please Shoes Off At The Front Door, included nautical forms reminiscent of the artist’s 2021 exhibition at Discordia as well as graffiti scripts and symbols, such as hearts and stars, which saturated sculptures like Love Makes a House a Home and The Safe Box. In each work, Cole successfully teased out a familiar feeling of comfort and ease, whilst also challenging the safe quiet spaces entrenched in the home.

Although a conceptual exploration, the exhibition fortified material’s surprising role in Cole’s practice. Having recently begun experimenting with black clay, Cole’s imperfect forms glistened like stars in a galactic abyss. Folded, scrunched, and torn, the clay’s natural hue saturates works like Turning off the Taps and Gieger bootleg with a richness and depth arguably unattainable with acrylic paint. The artist’s two-dimensional paintings comparably spurn defect. The measured lines of Shoes off at the front door and controlled pattern of Garden Shed recognise the artist’s meticulousness and ability to refine and reflect. It is this intersection between precision and imperfection that imbues Cole’s work with an alluring sense of innovation.

Balancing his artistic practice, Cole also engages in graphic design and writing pastimes, regularly testing his capacity for creation. For Please Shoes Off At The Front Door, Cole incorporated a riddled poem expanding on the titles and notions on display in the gallery space.

Shoes off at the front door, leave no trace
intimacies and recollections of the home
domestic love saga
simmering through the ages,
the chopping block, the revelation of a decision
inside voices only, the tolerance of silence, or to say less
turning off the taps, excavating the drips
Please Knock on Closed Doors Before Entering (knock before you enter) tapping at the door
if you use it clean it, cleaning the abyss, the dishes
A Slice Of Life
Crumbs On The Kitchen Floor
Suburban Life Network

Cole met up with artist, friend and confidant, Brendan Huntley – who, along with Brendan's mother taught Gab ceramics – to discuss the intricacies of his practice. The in-studio conversation reveals the experiences that led both of them to pursue creative careers, as well as their mutual love for art, music and design.

BH: So here we are. The inner sanctum. It’s all happening here.

BH: What’s this? It's beautiful. The star looks like it's got a pulse?

GC: Yeah, totally.  I really love making the initial shape through improvisation, then following that pattern mechanically. It usually derives back to nature somehow.

BH: When I’ve tried to emulate the machine in some way or another, it ends up looking like it could be dug from the earth. When I’ve taken a weird acorn or something and pressed it into clay, it ends up looking like a bolt.

GC: Yeah totally. Like this work, We are all made of stars, is black clay. I fired it to 1200 and I actually pressed bolts into it. It looks pretty natural. I was trying to break the ‘potter style’ of ceramics, like the traditional circular forms the structure of household objects. Every time I sway away from that style, it breaks. I embrace these challenges though.

BH: It could even look like it’s from an alien world. Then there’s the ‘motor’ theme to your works too, where you incorporate motifs like cars and wheels (perhaps with reference to Gab’s work: If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you, made in 2021). You also integrate typography into your works…

GC: Yeah, I’m into the idea that design has to evolve. So even if it's literal at first, it can eventually become a mark or something mechanical or abstract.

BH: Yeah, you don’t want to delve too far into design because then it becomes a different practice. I know you’ve done a lot of custom sign writing and work where you’ve applied type font, which is design. But when it’s a painting like The safe box, the design aspects disappear and it becomes a painting. I’m trying to understand how that cognitive transition comes inbetween structure and chaos. When design elements influence but don’t overpower your works.

GC: In these works, I tried to make sure that I oscillated between the studio and other influences. I find that helps to keep me going.

Courtesy of Hoddle

BH: What do you do with [skate brand] Hoddle? What is your role?

GC: I’m the Creative Director, designer I guess but we all are. I work on all of the design and approach people to make new artwork. Then I'll consolidate that and work it towards the outcome of tee shirts, boards and clothes. Basically anything relating to design. Even down to clothing patterns is a major focus for me now.

BH: How did you get involved with Hoddle?

GC: I first contributed to the design of a skateboard. Then that contribution turned into a tee collaboration. Then I was helping Keagan [Walker] and we explored other ideas.

Working towards getting other creatives to contribute which was part of the brand identity but I helped in an overseeing aspect, the first person we worked on together was Julian Hocking. Keegan and I worked on that season together and then he sadly passed away. The brand’s structure sort of fell apart. We were like ‘who does what now?’

BH: Yeah, did it take a little while for everyone to get back into the swing of it after Keegan’s death?

GC  Definitely. I also think learning how to work together is really hard sometimes. And learning how to respect each other. I've worked on tee designs since I was 18. I'm pretty consumed by visual identity in this way.

BH: It's the perfect canvas isn't it.

GC: Absolutely, and it's tee’s and clothing are always fucking relevant. It's hard to understand why though [laughs].

BH: Or you’ve put a piece of clothing away when it doesn't feel relevant and then 20 years later, bring it back out.

GC: Yeah, we feel such an attachment towards clothing. Like a band tee can claim your personality or what sub-culture you’re into. It took me a while to understand that. But I don't know. When you look at the history of all those punk and art tees, they're beautiful.

BH: I think the minute you start thinking about what anybody really needs, everything feels kind of futile.

BH: Do you feel like, because you trained as an athlete in high school, then went on to be a Paralympian, that has influenced your creative dedication and persistence? Or do you think you already had that in you?

GC: My dad is insanely hard working, and my parents put a lot of emphasis on determination. They still do… they make me feel really bad about my career choices sometimes.

BH: How?

GC: Mostly financially. They also put a lot of emphasis on studying. I actually first started studying architecture. In that time though I figured out that fashion and design were better suited. I found my way there eventually without studying. I was fucked with a lot when I was a kid. Because I have a disability and was a bit different, I never really fit in.

BH: So there were no other kids at your high school that were into art and music?

GC: I mean I am sure there were but no one I connected to, no one listening to The Smiths etc, no one with that fire to create visual art… which seems crazy.

Left: Brendan Huntley, Untitled (moth) #27, 2020, oil pastel, dry pastel, oil and graphite on archival paper, 61.5 x 42 cm. Right: Gabriel Cole, You Are Passing Another Fox - part 1, 2021, Reverse water gilded 24 carrot gold leaf, enamel, oil onto glass - framed
Courtesy of China Heights.

BH: How, how old were you when you moved to Melbourne?

GC: I think like 24, maybe 25. It was a big move.

BH: Did you know many people at first?

GC: A couple.

BH: That feeling of moving to a new city and not really knowing anybody is kind of frightening.

GC: Yeah it was. But it was a good time to move. I was young so I could just go see an exhibition I was interested in, or go to a bar and meet people. Nothing seemed unattainable. It was a good learning experience. It took a while but I eventually found some good people. To put it in context though, I was quiet down then. I quit being an athlete and training. I had to return to exercise and fitness though it's the glue that keeps me together. I also hit a static point creatively and felt a bit overwhelmed by what other people were making. I found myself asking ‘where do I stand? What am I doing? Who am I?’ Then I found ceramics through you (Brendan) and that was life changing. I still don't think I've solved all those questions completely.

BH: Art is not for everyone. But if you are really good at something, like athletics, then that’s all you can do, its consuming.

GC: I think art is a little different.

BH: Yeah, it is.

GC: It's really about being creative. With Hoddle, it’s like running a little virtual gallery, engaging with  artist’s etc. It's about collaboration.

BH: When I've taken a break from music and delved into my art I've missed collaborating. The energy that comes from it and also the pressure it takes off.

 GC: The key to collaboration is being open and honest. No idea is sacred, but respecting your peers is massive.

BH: So back to your art practice. You make paintings and sculptures? Is that what you call them, or do you prefer ceramics?

GC I don't tend to use ‘ceramics’. I think it limits me to one creative path. I’d prefer to just make work, whether it's drawing, painting, sculptures. Then I don’t get trapped.

BH: People just like pigeonholes.

BH: I’ve always felt you are your own person. That's why we resonate with each other. I resonate with anyone that chooses to do whatever they want to do. I feel like you've got the same hunger to live.

GC: Totally. And to understand things, to explore things, to kind of taste all things.

BH: Do you draw in sketchbooks or anything?

GC: Yeah, but I don’t draw the way someone teaches you to draw.

BH: Would you say you’re afraid of failure?

GC: No, not afraid of failure. I used to be a lot more and it still hurts sometimes. Like it does for most people. But it is important to learn something new and progress. That happens through failure.

BH: Your exhibitions show that though, you know?

GC: Yeah, to an extent.

BH: But you're always learning?

GC: Yeah, the process always teaches you a bit more respect.

BH: That’s all it is... constant teaching. 

GC: It's also good to know that you can't always do what you want. You have to let go.

BH:  I think maybe that's one of the reasons why you're succeeding… because you're hard on yourself.

GC: I'm definitely hard on myself. It's important to be, and to have a boundary. A boundary where you know it will be okay if things don't work out.

BH:  Let's leave it on that Gab. I think that's a nice sender.

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