12 September 1999

Interview: Ken Done



Soon to open an exhibition in a upmarket shop, artist Ken Done remains an enigma, writes Michael Hutak.

THIS month one of Australia's best-known artists will open an exhibition of his work and launch a book to celebrate 20 years at the easel.
Perhaps unusually, it will not take place in some trendy gallery or cloistered museum.
It will be held on September 22 at the Elizabeth Street store of David Jones. Impresario Ric Birch will be master of ceremonies.
But then, the subject of this gathering is no ordinary artist. It is Ken Done . . . and already the art world is sharpening its knives.
Loved by the masses and loathed by elites, Done is the riddle of Australian art. In the 80s they said he'd never make it. And as far as they are concerned, although just about every Japanese visitor goes home with a piece of his work, he is still an outsider.
He is represented by no commercial gallery, doesn't figure in any major Australian corporate collections, has no works in any major state or national gallery and is virtually absent from fine art auctions.
His relentlessly sunny, day-glo approach to art has seen him almost universally dismissed as merely decorative and profoundly lightweight.
Every article about Done's art is duty bound to recycle the late Brett Whiteley's ultimate put-down: "I'd rather have methadone than Ken Done." It is his crown of thorns and crystalises how Done's work is held by the art establishment.

"I am the least commercial artist in Australia," Done lamented from Perth, on his way to Paris, where he will unveil a seven-metre square artwork that will hang outside the Australian Embassy until the end of the Olympics next year.
"I spend no time courting or trying to influence people in the art world, no matter if it's Sherman Galleries or Billy Bloggs. I just like to make pictures, I like being a painter. I'm 59 now and I've been painting pretty much solidly for 50 years and I only feel like I'm just getting started."
Certainly the most commercially and internationally successful designer this country has produced, when it comes to his art Done is the vanishing point where art meets commerce.
The more the world perceives him as successful, the less currency his "serious" art has in the established art world.
But it's precisely this recognition that money can't buy that Done clearly craves.
"Everybody wants people to understand what they do.
"If you're an Australian painter, it's only natural that you should desire that you're work is good enough to be hung in the National Gallery of Australia. It's what I am striving for and I don't shun that sort of recognition at all."
But what he has shunned is the traditional stepladder to acceptance in the art world. His profile has been due to self-promotion. Since his first public exhibition in 1980, Done has applied a business strategy of "vertically integrated marketing" to promote his artwork - he is the creator, producer, distributor and retailer of his own art. Since that first exhibition, he has run a gallery which sells only his work.
"I've never had a government grant and I've never wanted to be part of somebody else's stable," he said. "Opening my own gallery is no different from a chef opening up a restaurant. What I am doing is managing an artist-run gallery."
To art world outsiders - ie, the public - ignorant of this strategy, it might appear that Done already has all the success and acceptance he might desire. For instance, next week his long-time friend Ric Birch will launch a book, Ken Done, Sydney, celebrating 20 years of Done's visual love letters to the harbour he adores. The book will coincide with a major retrospective of his paintings.

SERIOUS art investors look upon a retrospective as a signal to start buying.
Done's retrospective is different. It's being held at David Jones's Elizabeth Street store and has been mounted by Done in conjunction with the retailer and greeting card company The Ink Group, which has published the book, again in conjunction with Done.
His daughter, Camilla, designed the book.
A David Jones representative told The Sun-Herald: "Exhibitions like this are only mounted when they are product related."
Thus a plethora of Done Design products will be on sale. But this strategy is nothing new for Done.
"I'm not going to die to prove the point, but the Art Gallery of NSW is quite happy to put Matisse and Picasso on T-shirts and coffee cups and then point to how it's helped their bottom line on the balance sheet," said Done "I'm just trying to do the same thing while I'm alive."
Done has at least one champion in the form of Powerhouse Museum director Terence Measham. Measham has written extensively on Done and in 1995 mounted the only significant exhibition of Done's design work in Australia.
"I feel very strongly that he should be included in State collections," said Measham. "I can't understand why you wouldn't want to. The onus should be on these directors to say why they don't collect him. Certainly there are many artists in State collections who are no better than him."
The only works by Done in the National Gallery of Australia are some textile designs done for Sheridan, which the manchester manufacturer donated.
In the National Gallery of Victoria it's the same story.
"We have no works by Ken Done," said contemporary art curator Jason Smith. "Nor are they a priority for the collection."
Art Gallery of NSW contemporary art curator Victoria Lynne concedes that Done "is a significant and very successful Australian designer with a very popular aesthetic.
"But I wouldn't say he has made a significant contribution to contemporary Australian art practice. His work is too much on the decorative side to be included in our contemporary collection."
In the early 60s Done went to Japan for the first time and has been returning since. It is in Japan that his art is most seriously regarded. His works sell for up to $50,000.
In 1965 he went to Mexico and New York before settling in London, where he would spend the next five years as creative director of advertising agency J Walter Thompson.

RETURNING to Sydney in 1970, he continued in advertising, but "somewhere around my mid-30s I realised there was no short cut to painting.
"So I gave up advertising totally and had my first show in June 1980 and I've been painting three to five days a week ever since."
While Done has devoted himself to coming up with the designs and images, it his wife, Judy, and two adult children - Camilla, 28, and Oscar, 23 - who run the Done merchandising and marketing empire with an estimated annual worldwide turnover of $50 million.
"Me?" he asks. "Ninety per cent of what I do today is simply studio-based painting."
In another context, Done would be happy to sing the praises of his business. Today, when we're talking about Ken Done, the artist, not Ken Done the brand, he plays it down.
"It's just a tiny Australian business is all. We have 10 shops across Australia and our gallery in the Rocks, and we distribute our merchandise throughout the world."
It's hard to feel sorry for Ken Done.
The only Australian artist to make the BRW rich list, Done lives in an idyllic beach house on millionaires' row overlooking Chinaman's Beach in Mosman, where he paints to his heart's content.
But still the weight of the world seems buried just below the surface of his positive spin-doctoring. The issue of his artistic credibility clearly dogs him as he lets out a heavy sigh.
"I've never tried to to be confrontational. Whatever it is I'm doing, my aim is always to make it as good as it can possibly be. All I can say is I'm trying my best."

T-shirts turn off auction houses
AT the Ken Done gallery in The Rocks, large canvases are on sale for up to $17,000. Yet since 1989 just four of Done's paintings have been offered at public auction.
Three were passed in and the other, a gouache and oil painting on paper titled Mosman Festival (1990), sold for a meagre $742 at Lawsons auction house in Sydney in September 1997.
Georgina Pemberton, paintings expert at Lawsons, is blunt: "I usually discourage people from bringing his works in because there simply isn't a market for them.
"The auction market is for serious, established artists."
"It's a question of should I buy one of his paintings or one of his T-shirts?"
Annette Larkin, Australian paintings expert at Christies' auction house, says Done has been "a fantastic entrepreneur and ambassador for Australia, but as far as being a serious artist is concerned, I'm sure he has his collectors, but you rarely see his work coming through the sale room."
The Sun-Herald asked Done why any serious collector with an eye on investment should buy his works?
"Because they love them! My works don't appear at auction because my buyers don't sell them, they keep them."

* Michael Hutak is editor of Australian Art Collector Magazine.

KEN DONE AT AUCTION SINCE 89

* Oil Paintings

Total offered: 4

Number sold: 1

Mosman Festival (1990), gouache and oil crayon on paper, initialled lower right, 62 x 45 cm. Lawsons Sydney 16/09/97, lot 124. Estimate: $400-$600 - sold for $742. Mosman Festival (1990), 8-18 March, gouache and oil crayon on paper, initialled lower right, 62 x 45 cm. Lawsons Sydney 10/12/96, lot 263. Estimate: $1,400-$1,600 - Not Sold. From The Studio Window (1991), oil on canvas, 75 x 102 cm. Lawsons Sydney. 20/09/94, lot 326. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000 - Not Sold. Morning Glory And Nasturtiums (1979), oil crayon, 42 x 43 cm. Lawsons Sydney 12/09/89, lot 137. Estimate: $4,000-$5,000 - Not Sold.

* Watercolours

Total offered: 4

Number sold: 2

Average price: $600

* Other media and drawings

Total offered: 2

Number sold: 2

Average price: $375

* Prints and graphics

Total offered: 13

Number sold: 12

Average price: $251

Source: Australia Art Sales Digest

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Date: 12/09/1999
Words: 1326
Publication: Sun Herald
Section: News
Page: 58