Q&A: In Conversation with Simon Gunning

Simon Gunning, The Red Barge and the Yellow House, 2006, Oil on canvas, 39 ¾ x 72 inches, Gift of Arthur Roger, 2013.43, © Simon Gunning


Simon Gunning is among dozens of New Orleans-based artists who have been represented by Arthur Roger Gallery. As Pride of Place: The Making of Contemporary Art in New Orleans opens at NOMA, featuring the donated collection of Arthur Roger, Gunning will discuss his career, his artistic influences, and the role Roger has served in promoting the region’s contemporary artists and collecting their works on Friday, June 23, at 6 p.m. Additional artists will speak in weeks to come as part of a series of Artists Perspective lectures. Gunning discussed a few speaking points with David Johnson, editor of  Arts Quarterly, in advance of the presentation.

You are a native Australian. How did you wind up in New Orleans, where you have established your career?

I attended art school in Melbourne, Australia, the Victorian College of Arts, and during my third year there, the artist David Hockney was a guest lecturer and suggested we apply for a reciprocal postgraduate painting scholarship at the Royal Academy in London. So I applied and got accepted, and on the way to London I came through the United States, came through Louisiana, went up to New York. I tayed there for almost a year or so, I just loved it, and my ticket expired to go back to London, and I decided to come back through New Orleans, and basically that’s where I met my wife, Shelly. After that I just decided to abandon any sort of education, well I’ve done four years of art school already, I was tired of it. I wanted to get out on my own, so I said, “Well, start here,” because I really loved it here, and I just embraced the environment and the people here, and now I’ve been here 37 years.

Your paintings depict both the natural and man-made environments of Louisiana. Why are you drawn to these subjects?

Well, I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and went to college in Melbourne, and I was saturated with the landscape and the sort of lyrical surrealist, contemporary landscape artists of Sydney and Melbourne at the time, and I learned through them the love of transpiring, trying to make a picture out of the landscape. It’s a real challenge, and the challenge became not to imitate the landscape, but to actually do something with it. I really learned my way here in Louisiana. I found my voice here. When I first came, I was pretty much fresh out of college, and so it took me a long time to find my way. And this place has been extremely patient with me and nurturing, and it has reciprocated my efforts to embrace it.

Louisiana is nothing like Australia, but nature is very unforgiving here, as it can be in all places in the world, but it’s very beautiful here and soft and warm and slow and gentle, and it’s also brutally hard and rough. Working as a landscape artist here is challenging because the landscape is very flat. And there’s lots of water everywhere. Luckily, I’m a water person, grew up on the water and first drew the boats and everything from the water from my house in Sydney, and just grew up with the water. So coming here I naturally took to the water and the bayous and the swamps and stuff and started to draw them as soon as I got here. I was just was fascinated with them—and found that I was really bad at it. It has taken time to get better.

Speaking of the brutality of nature in Louisiana, the one painting of yours in the Pride of Place exhibition depicts the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in the Lower Ninth Ward. How did you respond to the disaster as an artist?

I felt immediately obliged to do something about Katrina. Shelly and I, we ended up in Florida on the beach for a couple of months, and we didn’t get back until a couple of months after Katrina, and it took awhile to get, the neighborhood I live in, the Marigny, to get organized again and to get things working. I started working on the series from the Ninth Ward, which was in much worse condition, and I just felt it was my duty as a landscape artist who records the contemporary times here.

And so, it was ironic, because I was working before Katrina, I was working at the opposite end of that. I was working on these beautiful, natural landscapes from Avery Island, these swamp paintings and natural, beautiful things with birds and stuff like that, and all of a sudden I had to drop it and just say, “Okay, you’re gonna paint the worst of the worst.”

The paintings were done, some of them were quite large like the one that will be displayed in the Arthur Roger exhibition. I did a lot of work on paper, directly fin the Ninth Ward, but I couldn’t stay for too long. It was too depressing and it stunk, and the insects and everything were just unbelievable. So I did my research down there and came back to my studio, which was still intact, and then I did the painting from the studio. And they took awhile to do, and I don’t know how they were received or not, but it’s interesting to see them now, tyears later after Katrina, having time to digest all of that, because when you do them at the time, it’s like being in the belly of the whale. It’s hard to gauge what’s going on with your art. In terms of painting Katrina, which was such a big, topical thing, I don’t usually paint things that are … war scenes or stuff like that, it’s not my thing, but I was compelled to paint that because of my love of this place, I guess.

How did you become acquainted with Arthur Roger?

Well, I first noticed his gallery on Magazine Street when he opened it, and I was not really ready for him. I wasn’t mature enough as an artist, I hadn’t developed, but I was really curious about his artists and who he was showing, and the first thing I saw, it’s one of the very early pieces that I saw of his exhibitions up there, was Robert Colescott. His work was very brutally honest, these contemporary landscapes, and they were not really landscapes, they were figurative pieces, but they were from a contemporary landscape, the cities, and this one painting was just riveting. It was this gun barrel, and you’re the staring down the face of it, right down the barrel of a gun. You know in a painting, when the eyes follow you around a room? You couldn’t get away from this gun barrel, it’s staring at you, and at the end of the gun barrel was an angry little young black kid, and you’re going, “Oh no,” you know?

It was so strong. I could tell that Arthur was really grabbing the bull by the horns, and he’s not trying to play around pitty-patty with anybody. He’s seriously using art to engage his feelings and his thoughts about the world, which is what actual painters do, it’s what artists do, and he was doing it. And I found that Arthur’s been extremely brave and forthright in his use of his gallery and film. He’s been a real trailblazer.