Lucas Grogan isn’t your typical fine artist. For a start there is what he calls his “bogan origin story”. Born in regional New South Wales, the fifth of seven children in a large Catholic household, he was by his own admission a bit of a handful. Not that there is anything particularly extraordinary in that. Artists come from all sorts of backgrounds.
Google “Lucas Grogan” and the top 10 hits include stories on a mural commission he undertook in a Melbourne laneway, a website selling Skarfe brand scarves, another spruiking his Douglas & Hope melamine plate, and an ad for his Basil Bangs beach umbrella (RRP $259.99). What makes Grogan an atypical artist is the breadth of his creative range and his unwillingness to be pinned down.
Independence is important to Grogan, a factor that, he freely admits, played a part in his leaving the University of Newcastle in 2008 without securing his fine arts degree. “I think I’m just not wired very well for the instructional hoop-jumping that goes on with formal education,” he says. His desire for independence also led him into his design collaborations.
After exiting art school Grogan worked fulltime in a variety of gallery positions in both Newcastle and Sydney. There, he says, “I saw so many senior artists who were scraping together coins. They had this excellent profile, but no money.” Grogan wanted a career as a fulltime artist. Rather than financing his practice with cafe work or teaching, he decided to take up the design commissions he was being offered, “left, right and centre,” he says. As a result, by 2012, at the age of just 26, Grogan was supporting himself as an artist on his own terms.
In addition to his large-scale outdoor murals, interior design work and highly sought after accessories and homewares, Grogan is known for his intricately patterned blue and white paintings, textiles and ceramics which often include cheeky text with a streetwise edge. In one 2014 work he wrote: “You don’t have problems, you are the problem.” In another he declared: “Bogans are people too.”
Grogan may be a self-confessed bogan, but he’s not a typical example of that either. Much of his work is loaded with homoerotic imagery, which might be confrontational to a conservative few, and some of his early work contained what appeared to be appropriated Aboriginal iconography, which definitely did offend many.
After a slow-burn that started in 2008 when he exhibited work in SafARI, an unofficial Biennale of Sydney satellite event, in 2012 Grogan found himself in the middle of an art world firestorm that raged across mainstream media. (The 10th link on that Google search documents SBS’s contribution to the media frenzy.)
But Grogan’s ongoing success is evidence that the clichéd saying is true, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He picked himself up, stopped making the black and white work that featured the controversial imagery and shifted to a personal set of symbols, patterns and sayings executed in an exclusively blue and white palette. Grogan says the key lesson he learned from his time in the negative glare of the media spotlight was that “there is a joy in making”. He decided to focus on that and got on with creating art.
During the next two years Grogan was amazingly prolific. Among other things he had solo shows at Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide and Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney, both of whom still represent him. He exhibited at the Melbourne Art Fair, showed a hand-embroidered quilt at Craft Victoria that celebrated same-sex unions and participated in a dozen group shows, both locally and in Paris, New York, Hong Kong and London. Grogan also undertook a Red Gate residency in Beijing and completed major mural commissions in Bali, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth. And somehow he also found time to work on numerous design collaborations.
It comes as no surprise that he then needed a break. Grogan spent most of 2015 in Europe. Now he’s back, rested, reinvigorated and re-inspired. In his March/April 2016 show at Hugo Michell he debuts new paintings that feature a thin red line for the first time. For the artist this line resembles both a trickle of blood and the streaming “ticker-tape” text of 24-hour news.
“In this body of work I’ve been thinking a lot about the inherent patterns of cause and effect, intentions and reactions,” Grogan says. As an example he cites the fact that as a society we permit people to have guns, yet we’re deeply shocked when someone gets shot. Grogan explains that he is also exploring the dark side of nationalism and the myriad hypocrisies of the art world. Perhaps he’s not done courting controversy just yet.
COURTESY: THE ARTIST AND HUGO MICHELL GALLERY, ADELAIDE