“The gaps that create a fortified terrain for our bursting cosmic engines are becoming more visible. We are a race of beings in a new stage of revolution. Our history has pinnacled. Our resources are in a state of flux. The Earth Mother is sending a new dance vibration as the world grid opens our visual reality. Prepare to fly.”
I’m sitting in a studio with Neil Tomkins, the individual who penned the above opening statement. We are surrounded by tools, gnarled pieces of driftwood, aerosol cans, paintbrushes, opened art books, crates full of old sketchpads, drawings and numerous paintings. He sits at a table; long unkempt hair, hand-weaved crystal necklace dangling from his neck, wrists full of bracelets, paint-covered pants and bare feet that look like they’ve spent plenty of time out of shoes. Staring down at a painting, he’s meditatively pushing red pigment over a previously painted brown when he begins talking… “Even when I was a baby, I was having a lot of flying dreams. I felt very connected to the idea of leaving my body in my sleep. When I was four, I used to create whole villages and civilisations out of plasticine. I’d get a board and make trees and forests and villages and cities and temples full of warriors”. He hasn’t looked up from his painting and would continue to paint for the duration of the interview. It’s almost as if art just seeps involuntarily out of Tomkins, and it seems that it has always been this way. “I was always drawing when I was young. I was just always drawing.”
As an early teenager at high school, he was already enamoured with Brett Whiteley’s work. At 18, he was living in the iconic ‘I have a Dream’ building in Sydney’s Newtown and decided to go to art school in Wollongong based on his obsession with seminal Australian painter Lloyd Rees, who had extensively painted the region. He quickly met two young painters, Reg and Harry. “Harry had a one-car garage which was their studio, and you know, smoking billies, getting pretty loose, but painting solid.” Mainly working in a collaborative manner on wild, large works, they ended up producing hundreds of paintings that year where Tomkins learnt the liberation of mark-making and how “losing the preciousness” opened up the potential freedom that painting as an art form allows any individual who is bold enough to explore it. It was all, “loose, loose, loose – totally about the process, not being concerned about the end product at all.”
Armed with these new sensibilities, he transferred to Sydney College of the Arts from Wollongong Uni halfway through the second year. As is often the case, adversity and challenges proved the perfect stimulant for artistic output. After an admin error, his first year was void and as a result, he was held back, but also more providentially, he had his studio taken away from him. “I was painting plein air a lot so every time we had class I’d be like ‘alright teacher, I’m going out into the field and painting.’ I never even saw that teacher, she just passed me because she knew I was painting every day.” Painting from life taught Tomkins “that it’s always going to look better if you’re painting directly in front of the subject because there’s a realness to the mark. You’re not as in your head. You’re in the present more and you’re actually experiencing the shapes and the colours.”
When asked if he thought that was important, he replied without breaking his painting rhythm, “Yeah, everything is important. Nothing’s important. You know what I mean? Andy Warhol shat in cans. That’s part of our history and relevant I guess, but I wouldn’t pay money to have shit in a can.” When prompted to express the impetus behind his work, which people do pay money for, he responded, “I just experiment mostly. I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’m pretty vocal and open about the fact that this is a process of experimentation. So it means that the audience’s interpretation is just as relevant as mine, and I think that gives life to the works.”
I wondered what it was that drew him to painting in particular? “The translation between the body, mind and soul. It’s a union – taking that idea and using an inanimate brush to paint. I can’t achieve what I’m achieving with my hands, so I’m detached but totally connected.” I wanted to know if he knew what he was searching for in his painting. “No, not really, because there’s no conclusion. It will never be done. Painting is an exploration and you’ll never conquer it because when you understand something, all that does is open more possibilities.” He described the magic of painting as “full alchemy” and that he thought about what his work might look like in the future all the time. “I’m just always seeking joy. I just want to make people happy ya know? And I want to do that through my practice.”
Tomkins regularly teaches art classes to kids and whilst he does introduce them to basic techniques, he says it’s more important to “instil a healthy attitude that no painting is bad and all painting is good.” On the valuable naiveté of childhood, he continued, “the mind of a child is where the revolution begins. I’m relieved when I see that they’re not scared because I see so much fear being fed to them from every angle.” Interestingly, he says he learns a lot from the children too. “The freshness of my mark is definitely nourished by the work that I do with them.” He explains his explorations into mark-making as experiencing a push and pull that “honestly feels like it comes from somewhere else.” He described the feeling as totally subconscious, saying that’s what came to children so easily –because they hadn’t been around long enough to develop a fear of judgement. I wondered though, his style and decision to inject gestural energy into his work must be somewhat conscious. “I’m a very manic painter. I paint maniacally and sometimes I forget to breathe I’m so in it. In that sense it’s a channelling of energy and that attack is very important to me.”
It felt great to hear someone talk about their vocation with so much enthusiasm, but I wanted to know why he thought a lot of people struggled to find direction in their lives. He said they simply “didn’t understand that there was something else, because we’ve been taught to believe in our own fear since we were born” and likened people’s paralysis to an artist staring at a blank canvas. History would suggest though, that the other side of the coin, rampant expression, had led some of the highest functioning human beings we’ve ever known to the inevitable confrontation with the abyss. Tomkins responds, “that’ll happen” and that the only way to rationalise it is to put up “no resistance – what you resist will persist. I think it’s just about trying to keep a clear vision. Trying to keep your mind active and focussed and not buying into the insanity. We live in a mad, mad world but we’re not allowed to be insane. You know what I mean?”
I did know what he meant, and I wanted to know if he thought his art-making practice was like tipping his hat to insanity in some way. “Definitely. If I wasn’t painting I’d probably be dead. If I wasn’t dead I’d definitely be clinically medicated.” He said the never-ending dialogue with painting was something that can be quoted by any artist. “Brett Whiteley called it a ‘difficult pleasure’. It’s like a menagerie. You want to experience the wild animal, but you need to feel safe so you put it behind a cage, but then it’s not wild anymore.” So painting is a wild animal that the artist tries to tame, but once it’s caged, it’s no longer exotic. I still needed more. I wanted to know what his painting was a response to. “My practice is a response to my own internal psycho-drama. Which is a complete life drama in which I live in every waking and sleeping moment. I do it out of a need not necessarily a want.”
I’d visited a group show Neil had been in recently, and as always, felt pretty disillusioned with the crowd, atmosphere and total lack of focus and attention on the actual art, which for the most part was lacking vigour and easily forgettable. I wanted to know how Tomkins felt about the degree of authenticity in some areas of the Australian contemporary art scene. “It feels soulless, like it’s lost the point. I think that Australians, in general, are lost to be honest.” Perhaps the problem was there was no culture to unite them? “I think it’s because we rejected our background, we’ve made it so shameful to be connected to indigenous culture and it’s created a huge physic barrier for human beings. There’s a shamefulness there that people don’t quite understand. So they hide away from it. We’re young and lost. We found this place by being lost and we’ve kept that mentality.”
I asked him to elaborate on what he’d described as the coming cosmic shift. “Our earth is moving through the universe. The universe is moving through itself. It’s not stagnant. So as it moves it receives different energies.” I wasn’t sure how that pertained to the human experience though. “We’re a part of the earth. We wouldn’t be human if we were born on a different planet.” I thought that was fair enough, but weren’t we increasingly becoming disconnected from our little orb of land and sea? “We have a separation complex, that’s the cosmic shift. Human beings realising that we are connected in general.” I wondered if Tomkins thought psychedelic substances were a part of experiencing the oneness that he talked about. “I think they were made as medicines to heal us, to teach us. Ayahuasca is a good example. It’s made out of two organic substances put together, so it’s a lock and a key. Together they open a doorway.” So far, this all made sense, but what had the crack in the doorway taught him? “I believe the earth to be a consciousness. It’s a living breathing organism and it moves just like we move. For me, all of the things that qualify an animal for life, the earth displays. Ayahuasca clarified that the earth is a consciousness. It clarified it wholly.”
I wasn’t finding any of this particularly alarming, and I more or less agreed but wanted to ground the discussion by asking him what he thought contemporary artists should be trying to convey. “Just truth. Joy and change. The joy of change.” I looked around his studio and really did feel surrounded by the physical manifestation of our discussion. “It’s like a nest. I’ve just tried to create a space that’s visually nurturing to my process. So that the transition from me as a living being to a vessel for creativity and projection is as smooth as possible.” I found it interesting that someone so involved in what it meant to be a human, mostly painted landscapes with no humans in them at all. Tomkins countered, “a huge part of the intention behind my landscape work is to paint the influence of human beings. In my works there’s some kind of human element – houses, ancient temples, smoke rising.” I looked around the studio and suddenly the paintings came alive in a way I had never noticed. I was particularly drawn to the smoke rising from behind a hill: a simple image that captured the idea of mystery perfectly. Where was this smoke coming from? Were they friend or foe? Did they need help? Were they lost, or was it the viewer who had lost their way?
Being constantly open to people, ideas and experiences seemed a big part of Tomkins’ philosophy. Which as a painter makes perfect sense, because you’re constantly witnessing your image change and letting go of the way it looks to discover something new. I wanted to know, if a painting could always be resolved, did that mean there was no failing? “Exactly. If a painting is failing it just means it’s not finished.” Once the painting was finished, how did he feel about them? “A finished work is like a lover where it didn’t work out and the people that buy the work are going to love it a lot more than I ever could. When it’s finished my mind goes blank and it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. At that point the painting is dead. It’s lived its life. I’ve received what I can receive. It’s given me everything it could give.” So painting for Tomkins is mainly about the experience, but what was driving him during the process? “A mad passion. You never get the hit that you need. I’ll never be done with it. There will always be another painting to be made. Even as I go blind.” But if there’s no defined endpoint in success and achievement in painting, what did he feel he was working towards? “That’s what the difficult pleasure is in a sense. It’s just you in the ocean, swimming. You have to keep swimming, or you drown. There’s no land on the horizon, you just swim to the point where you can’t swim anymore. It will conquer you. Painting will always conquer the artist every time.”
Did its unending nature mean it was ultimately unsatisfying? “It’s ultimately satisfying because it’s unconquerable. Like if you’re with a woman that doesn’t have time for you. That’s the most enticing thing because she’s unobtainable. The unobtainable is what we seek. The unobtainable is what the audience seeks as well. But sometimes when you really desire a woman, when you get her, you don’t want her anymore”. He sort of trailed off then said…“we’re all just maggots eating from the same carcass.” That sounded pretty raw and was the first time Tomkins’ optimism had dipped. Was painting a saviour of sorts? An existential salve? Was there something sacred in it? “It is sacred because art is beyond biological evolution. Art is essentially a reflection of spirit on some level, there are so many filters involved that it has to be deeper than just putting this thing on this thing. I want to express something that is beyond human, but with a human hand.” He agreed that that was a paradox, but said, gesturing at his paints and brushes, “that’s why I have to rely on these flimsy tools. That’s something I’ve been concerned with since I started really picking up the brush as a sword and really considering it to be a revolutionary tool. When I understand how to capture things in the way that I can’t contextualise with words, it’ll be time to move on.”
Around this time Tomkins had a patron visit his studio to look at some potential purchases so I popped out for a smoke and beer with one of his friends. Upon my return, I asked him how he felt when people at exhibitions just looked at his work for three seconds then kept walking. He was completely unfazed and responded, “that’s most people, but I’m not making work for anyone but myself, I paint it for me…because I’m a junkie for painting.” Did he feel like there was any onus on artists to try and awaken people who might just glance at art and ‘not get it’ or think they could do better? He didn’t think so and said, “it’s not up to me” and that if people wanted to deny themselves the birthright of magic, that was their loss. “We so desperately want to believe that magic doesn’t exist, but we so desperately want to feel magical, it’s ridiculous.”
It was then that I realised Tomkins was as much a magician as he was an artist. A modern-day alchemist holed up in his studio trying his best to make sense of himself, the world, and his place in it. He wasn’t pretending to have any real answers; painting wasn’t an answer, it was a distraction, therapy and an unanswerable question, like a mathematical equation that will never be solved. It comforted me to know there was another human out there actively battling alone in the maelstrom of existence and he’d reinforced the idea that the transference of energy into an external vessel via the communication of what we think and how we feel was something every single human being could benefit from. As I left Tomkins still working and walked out onto the hot, industrial scene of Parramatta road on a Friday evening, I took comfort knowing that for as long as he walked this planet, nothing would change. I could always stop and think of him and know he’d be exploring, forever navigating the world within himself, and most importantly, he would always be painting.