Lucas Grogan has brought his favourite colour to lunch.
He has dashed from his Georgetown studio to the Northern Star Cafe in Hamilton, wearing his painting clothes. Grogan’s shorts are smeared with blue strokes.
The colour, he says, is “Grojean Blue”, adopting French pronunciation, and, with his tongue in his cheek, making his surname sound pretentiously arty.
The art he creates, Grogan says, is “like the idea of polishing the turd”.
“That’s exactly what it is,” he says. “Because you know what ‘Grogan’ means? We grew up with that, so if your name means ‘shit’ from the start, all you can do is wipe.”
Grogan recounts how early in his career, “the art illuminati” questioned his name, and he replied, “It’s pronounced Grojean!”
“I polished the turd right then and there.
“That’s how I really protected myself.”
Whatever he may call the colour, Lucas Grogan’s blue-dominated paintings are opening eyes internationally.
The painted shorts are an indication he is working hard towards an exhibition in Singapore in May. He’s also due to travel to Tokyo, Los Angeles and Sri Lanka this year.
Blue, the 33-year-old argues, helps take his art around the world, because the colour is “not culturally specific”.
“If I go to Portugal, people say ‘Your work looks really Portuguese’; in Beijing, ‘Your work looks really Chinese’,” he says. “And I kind of love that.”
We all live under a blue sky, I comment.
“It’s not really blue,” he counters. “It’s a actually a refraction.”
There’s no refracting in the way Lucas Grogan uses blue. Through his art, he has often laid out his life to startling, even controversial, effect.
LUCAS Grogan was born in Cooma in 1984. When he was a baby, the family moved to the Hunter Valley. He lived in East Maitland with his six siblings in a house painted flamingo pink. I wonder if, as an act of rebellion, that’s why he gravitated to blue.
“No, it’s actually about a hatred of colour; I really don’t like colours,” he replies, explaining one reason why he sticks to blue and white in his works. “I like tones instead of colour crashes. I find them aggressive.”
Grogan grew up in a city he found visually boring and attended a Catholic school beside the Hunter River, which only grabbed his attention when it flooded.
Grogan was seeking visual stimulation. He had wanted to be an artist ever since he saw a self-portrait by Italian Francesco Clemente: “And I went” – gasp – “I can be an artist. If this is Francesco Clemente, I can be this! I loved how beautiful/ugly it was.”
While the high school student saw himself as an artist in the making, Grogan reckons his teachers saw him differently.
“They all thought I was going to be an actor,” he says, between mouthfuls of pasta boscaiola and sipping red wine.
“Um, attention seeking, maybe.”
For his major art work for the HSC, Grogan submitted three doors, unhinged from public toilets in areas known for being meeting places for homosexual men. On the doors were scrawled messages and graffiti.
The student had prepared other works for submission, but “at the last minute, I thought the best thing to do was take off these three toilet doors – this is pre-internet really – and I submitted those, about how people would try and talk to each other”.
“I thought it was really poetic and beautiful. I called it ‘Poetry from the Public Toilet’.”
Grogan reflects this submission wasn’t an act of attention seeking. Rather, he was looking for a way to express what he had already told his family and friends. He is gay.
“I think I was almost trying to yell out to people, ‘come and find me’, but I didn’t want to go to a public toilet,” he says.
The submission didn’t hurt his academic result either: “99, mate, in art!”
Grogan studied art at the University of Newcastle but didn’t complete his degree.
He also learnt on the job, working in public and commercial galleries, including Newcastle Art Gallery. Yet what he could never learn was how to prepare for the criticism some of his earlier work copped.
On his studio walls were reproductions of art that he liked, including images by Aboriginal artists Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek and John Mawurndjul. Those works influenced how he approached his own art, “and I didn’t understand or think it was necessarily a bad thing to do that. I was just making what I wanted to make.”
With his intricate line work and limited palette, Grogan was told his work looked “too indigenous”. That criticism of his student work flared again during one of his early Sydney exhibitions. The paintings depicted moments from Grogan’s own life, but he was accused of being racist.
“The blowback was so dramatic,” he recalls. “I didn’t mean to be racist at all, that was never my intention. People overlooked the gay bashing I got.
“I don’t think I’ve ever recovered properly since. The hate mail was incredible.”
More than cause him pain to talk about the reaction to his work, the episode continues to frustrate him:
“How do you, as an Australian artist living and working in 2018, talk about a history of where you’re from, without acknowledging the impact of indigenous culture? The positive impact of indigenous culture on your art? You’re not allowed to. We have to though. Whether it’s made a cultural, visual, emotional impact on you … I don’t know the answer to that.”
In his early 20s, Grogan left the Hunter as he felt “there was no work or lifestyle here”.
“I wanted change, and the first gallery that gave me an exhibition was in Melbourne,” he says. “And I went, ‘Alright, I’ll go to Melbourne’.”
He worked at a commercial gallery – “I learnt the ropes about what people buy, how they buy, how to market, that sort of stuff” – and also developed his skill and passion for embroidery and quilting.
“I lived in a tiny apartment, and how do I make big work? I make quilts,” he says, explaining he would also work on batches while commuting on the trams. Grogan still does textile art and enjoys it more than painting, but it can take a year to make.
“But it’s also more unique. How many painters are there in the country? How many youngish gay contemporary quilters are there? Not many. Not many! Market strategy, man! But I really love it.”
As a struggling artist in Melbourne, Grogan developed his own market strategy – “some people work in cafes, I was not going to do that”. He sought a broader audience by having his art turned into everyday items, including plates, scarves, and even limited-edition Grogan toilet paper.
“I was aware that given my age and my price point, that a lot of people who actually liked my work didn’t have a lot of money, so how could they participate in my career?
“So I made work that was $25, it was a plate that said, “F**K YEAH”, and I sold 40,000 of them. I thought that was a good strategy.
“Also, as an artist, don’t you want to see your work transition to different mediums and possibilities?”
He is dismissive of those who accuse him of selling out his art: “It’s not real art … Yeah, mate, how’s your cafe job!?”
When a long-term relationship ended, Grogan left Melbourne and travelled around Europe for a year.
“I thought if could change my geography, I could change myself,” he muses. “I couldn’t. So I’m just trying to work on myself ... I’m better now. I was heartbroken.”
Two years ago, Grogan returned to the Hunter. It wasn’t nostalgia that brought him back, but the need for an affordable studio and a desire to be close to his family and friends. But he’s not inspired by the city and disputes that Newcastle is developing into an artists’ centre. He argues there’s still a form of cultural cringe he calls “Newcastle Syndrome”.
“I could put a show on here and not sell a f***ing thing,” he explains. “And I could put on a show in Sydney, same prices, same work, people from Newcastle would buy it from there. It’s Newcastle Syndrome.”
Grogan is planning to move on, to establish a new home: “I’ve been thinking hard about Bali.”
But wherever he sets up his next studio, Lucas Grogan knows that his journey as an artist goes on.
“I think I’m warming up, I think I’m just starting, but I think I’ve got a long, long way to go,” Grogan says. “I’m looking forward to seeing where that ends up.”