Viral Tondos: In conversation with Owen Connors

On the occasion of their new exhibition Incubations at Robert Heald Gallery, Owen Connors discusses the egg tempera medium, reproductive hegemony, formlessness, and erotic decorum with The Art Paper.

Date 6 October 2021 Interview Becky Hemus Photography Supplied

Owen Connors, Incubations. Installation view, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, September 2021.

Becky Hemus: An incubation is a brooding in Latin. It’s a hatching, a birth; favourable conditions for these occurrences to happen. Did these ideas come into play when naming the exhibition?

Owen Connors: Yeah, for sure. I chose Incubations as a title for its double entendre in referring to both birth or hatching and the harbouring of viruses or disease. All of these works are based off desco da parto, these obscure medieval paintings that were double-sided tondo used as platters during a mothers ‘laying in’ or the postpartum period and then hung in private chambers to commemorate the birth. They’re sort of weird works, generally one side would depict some grand narrative from mythology and the other would have the family’s coat of arms and symbols associated with fertility, like boys pissing and storks. I knew when I started this show that I wanted to focus on still life, not in a momento mori sort of way but more in this mundane recording that all these HIV positive writers employed out of an urgency to record the idiosyncrasies of their lives in the face of death. I’m thinking of Herve Guibert, David Wojnarowics, Derek Jarman. So these works are a merging of histories of reproductive hegemony with, what I guess is, alternative approaches to intergenerational transmission of experience, maybe? The works themselves depict the transferal of fluids or penetration, overlaid with trompe-l’œil still lifes, while the reverse depicts arrangements that are meant to replicate virus structures, with proteins and RNA made out of salami and raspberries and stuff. So it’s like an incubation in a birthing sort of way and an incubation in a viral way, but both addressing concerns with the continuation of self.

Owen Connors, Incubations. Installation view, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, September 2021.

“The works themselves depict the transferal of fluids or penetration, overlaid with trompe-l’œil still lifes, while the reverse depicts arrangements that are meant to replicate virus structures, with proteins and RNA made out of salami and raspberries and stuff.” — Owen Connors

Owen Connors, Causality Dilemma, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 400 mm diameter image/1030 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Causality Dilemma, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 400 mm diameter image/1030 mm diameter framed.

In some of the paintings, like Causality Dilemma or Do you believe…, there are instances where the tips of fingers seem to infiltrate skin. They end prematurely, as if escaping into a hole. The same goes for the ear and hair in Greetings, you who are highly favoured!, sludging into the buttery substance atop. It reminds me of the way that Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss once outlined the concept of formlessness as a way to challenge decorum, something that reminds us that bodies can be messy and porous.

In Causality Dilemma that penetration is literal, like the figure is fingering their belly button, which in relation to the other content of the painting is meant to be kind of lol. But in others I think maybe it’s related to the manner in which I define form, filling in space with small brushwork like pointillism, emphasising texture over line so everything has a tendency to blur into each other. I guess this is about the body, the potential of fluid sharing and uninhibited fucking when gay sex returns to pre-HIV uninhibited sex with the U=U movement. But I also think about the relationship between form and sexual politic a lot. Krauss and Alain Bois outline formlessness from Bataille whose challenging of decorum is like, kind of erotic. Like their elevation of the ‘base’ shows through in the fetishism of their eroticism. I guess I’m interested in how identity politics and the expression of queer desire relates to concerns of form and aesthetic heirachies.

That’s sort of why I reference pointillism, because in its time it was considered a joke, maybe in the same way that art snobbery approaches identity politics or craft-based making. So yes to formlessness in that bodily way but also in relation to hierarchies of content and concern in art.

Absolutely, a challenge to everything that causes us to demarcate fine art as precious. It’s interesting then that you’ve been working in egg tempera, a medium that has historically been associated with medieval and renaissance paintings, but in a way that riffs on the viscous qualities in the materials. Julia Craig tapped into this in Issue 00 of The Art Paper, saying, “Even to recall the way egg tempera is made, by puncturing the membrane of a yoke as it is dangled over a receptacle, is to imagine penetration and coalescence.” Can you speak more about your use of this medium?

I really love egg tempera, it’s pretty unique and disgusting and does amazing things with colour and light that, because it’s sort of out of favour, I’m having to investigate in this slow way. That makes it really rewarding and offers heaps of potential that I want to explore. I normally jump around mediums and work with whatever suits the concerns of the show. I started to use egg tempera as a joke because I thought it would be funny to make a show about breeding using eggs. But now I’m pretty hooked, and for once want to work through my naivety with a medium which is cool.

The sunburst frames also spill and reach into the environment around them. What was the process in making these?

I began working with Josephine Jelicich for framing at the start of this year. They are a super talented carpenter who puts up with all my bullshit. We tried for months to steam bend these frames, but it ended up being a failure because of the tightness of these curves. So all the frames were coopered by Josephine and then I carved them along with the burst elements. I use spoke shaves and chisels and stuff. They are definitely meant to reference starburst frames but also I was sort of trying to expand the viral composition of these paintings by giving them an envelope and protein spikes.

Have you been reading any hot books recently?

I’ve been reading Sarah Schulman’s latest book Let the Record Show which is pretty amazing. It’s a history of the New York chapter of ACT UP, and sort of coalesces all these interviews with survivors from the movement to give a hyper detailed account of those activists’ lives and how the organisation worked. I’m sort of also hooked on Kim Stanley Robinson who writes futuristic dystopian sci-fi that merges climate catastrophes with perverse financial and property speculation which is bleak but so good.

Owen Connors, Libations, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1730 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Libations, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1730 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Libations, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1730 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Do you believe…, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1760 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Do you believe…, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1760 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Do you believe…, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 600 mm diameter image/1760 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Incubations. Installation view, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, September 2021.

Owen Connors, Greetings, you who are highly favoured!, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 400 mm diameter image/1030 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Greetings, you who are highly favoured!, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 400 mm diameter image/1030 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Greetings, you who are highly favoured!, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 400 mm diameter image/1030 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Oh, I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 200 mm diameter image/740 mm diameter framed.

Owen Connors, Oh, I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel, 2021, egg tempera on board, hand-carved lacquered ash frame, 200 mm diameter image/740 mm diameter framed.