Amber Boardman in Sydney, Australia

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Artist Amber Boardman in her studio in Sydney, Australia.
Artist Amber Boardman in her studio in Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood.

Former Atlantan Amber Boardman is a creative chameleon. First known for her animations, then for her video and time-based projects, the Maine-born artist is now settled in Sydney, Australia, where she is pursuing a PhD at the University of New South Wales and engaging in a dynamic studio practice in, surprisingly, painting.

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“I actually studied painting at Georgia State University,” explains Boardman, sitting in her studio in Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood. Boardman is one of the first six artists to be awarded a one-year residency in the city’s new “William Street Creative Tendencies Studio Residency” program, a live-work project that provides subsidized residential and studio space in one of the most vibrant urban parts of the city.

“I suppose I’m best known for my work in animation,” she continues, “which also began in a course at Georgia State. But even while I was working in animation, I always considered painting to be a key part of my studio practice. It was always embedded in the idea of what I was doing, I just divorced it as a formal way of working.”

Amber Boardman, Washing Sweetie in the Shower, 2013; acrylic on canvas.
Amber Boardman, Washing Sweetie in the Shower, 2013; acrylic on canvas.

Her move to Sydney resulted in her first being ensconced in a small studio in Dee Why, a suburb in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, which in many ways can be quite isolating. “It was a really challenging time creatively,” she remarks, “so I realized that I had to try to start over to see what it was I really wanted to say. I literally went and spent $100 at the Dollar Store,” she laughs, “and just told myself to play. I felt like I didn’t truly trust myself creatively any more, like I wasn’t truly enjoying what I had been doing.” The process of finding her voice again took almost a year.

“Finally, I started painting again.” And the results were astonishing. They were visceral, dark, brooding, almost ugly. Boardman describes how she became engrossed in the process and it became one of intense production: “I make a lot of work and I destroy what I don’t like,” she says, “and to do this I use my canvases as my sketch boards.”

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The process works. Some of Boardman’s paintings are like humorous sketches of everyday life rendered in heavy oils, impasto pastiches of sick humor where people literally melt away into nothing. Lifelike and lifeless blobs of flesh sit on the canvas. Somehow she channels the range of modernist portrait painters into the vernacular of the animation age. “I think a lot of the work I am making now could be characterized as gross but funny,” she says while laughing. “It revolves around what I consider to be the cycle of domestic life.” Sweetie in the Shower, for example, shows a man with his arms outstretched, being scrubbed with a loofa. Everything is comical, except for his penis, which tends towards the real. The painting is given a sense of perspective by way of the rendered bathroom tile and shower stall. Everything that sets Boardman’s sense of place has just that little extra bit of detail. This capacity to understand where to focus and where to soften characterizes all of her recent works.

Amber Boardman, Humpty Dumpty on the Weekend, 2013; oil on canvas.
Amber Boardman, Humpty Dumpty on the Weekend, 2013; oil on canvas.

Humpty Dumpty on the Weekends is a prime example of Boardman’s dark humor and sense of comic relief. Here, a blobby subject, resplendent in egg-shaped flesh and an oozing yolk head, sits on the floor of a dark room in a pair of cut-off jean shorts. It’s clear that Boardman is finding the time and space to consider these ideas, which, were they to be verbalized, might be difficult to express. They probably hit harder on canvas first than they could on the page.

Sydney is allowing the space for this exploration. “Permission,” Boardman’s first solo exhibition at Chalk Horse Gallery [March 26-April 25], marked her return to painting, highlighting precisely the inspiration and opportunities Boardman is finding within the artistic community.

“I think one of the most intriguing aspects of living here is simply that it is allowing me to relax,” she continues, “I always felt that it was hard to feel secure in New York City,” where she spent some time after leaving Atlanta. “Here, I am starting to shrug off conventions.” In part, this is the result of the sense of opportunity that she feels Sydney, in particular, and Australia, in general, provide. “Although it can be isolating at times … I feel like I can be an artist. There are a range of grants, there is support, there are residencies — elements that make the idea of being an artist more manageable.”

In May, Boardman moved into her new live/ work studio.
Boardman’s new studio.

In May, Boardman moved from her residential studio into a large, former commercial space in a northern suburb of Sydney. The vast, open space will provide her with even greater opportunities. “I’ve been thinking about how work is often constrained by space. In a small studio, what you make is literally constrained by whether or not it can go out the doors or down the stairs. I’m already thinking about what I can make in my new space.”

Sitting in her studio on a rainy afternoon, surrounded by domesticity and darkness, it is clear that Boardman is making new work that is hard-hitting, yet humorous. As she explains, “I think the great idea in all of these works is that the funny makes the dark darker.” It is not so much that Boardman is making dark works, it is that she sees the humor in her paintings for what it is: an opportunity to write our shared experiences on the surface, to craft shared stories on the canvas. She is doing it in Sydney, where, in her words, “things are really possible.”

Brett Levine is a writer and curator based in Birmingham.