Sally Bourke: Facing the Truth


Australian artist, Sally Bourke's paintings strip away the "mask," conjuring up the ghostly truth within her subjects. 



All images featured have been contributed by: Hugo Michael Gallery


"Your Ghost," 2018, oil and acrylic mount board, 102 x 82 cm

For Australian artist Sally Bourke, painting a portrait means painting what lies beneath the visible surface of her subjects.


When creating new works, the process of Bourke’s art holds more weight than the finished product. She has spent over twenty years developing her individual style. Her pieces primarily depict faces with a myriad of different expressions and designs. She paints subjects from the inside out, revealing the underlying form in order to find commonality amongst humans.


As an art student, Bourke got her start with abstraction, which is still present in her works today. After facing several male detractors throughout her life, she has forged a career in art by using her experiences as a woman to share a nuanced, raw point of view.

"Sentinel," 2017,oil & acrylic on archival mount board, 104 x 84 cm

"Mother and Child," 2017, oil & acrylic on archival mount board, 102 x 82 cm

What first drew you to painting?
SALLY BOURKE: I first started painting because I had nothing else to lose. I had lived a lifetime’s worth of being told I couldn’t do something, along gender lines, along social lines, along class lines. Painting was my ‘fuck you’ to those voices (primarily male) who represent the popular history of painting.

How did going on hunting trips as a child impact your art?
Travelling in remote areas with my father taught me to look carefully. The places that we would go were very remote and at times quite dangerous. I used to tag along with my dad in order to be closer to him. Being in the bush had a profound effect on the language I use in artmaking. The Australian landscape is brutal and beautiful, soaked in a deep human history that our culture is blindly perched on top, not fully understanding the depth of what it is in. Any child wants to know and spend time with their parents, I wanted to be in my dad’s company, but I knew the deal. It meant being in the void of that environment, while simultaneously up against death. It’s one of the places my painting keeps going back to, the closeness of a dark unknown moment and the human experience. It is the dark bargain of intimacy.

Did any other events in your life have an influence on your art.
So many, every moment influences the output of artists, some just like to focus on a few to define themselves and fit into a narrative that the art world finds palatable. If I said ‘motherhood’ I wouldn’t be taken seriously, so I’m not gonna say that. Hunting seems to be the narrative people want to hear, because it fits comfortably into them understanding my painting in a ‘man’s world’.

Describe your style of art in your own words.
My style is the result of my process, I am primarily concerned with my process, so my style is really up for interpretation in the eyes of the viewer. My process is to be a conduit between the unseen and the visible, I have to conjure things, wordless human things for my art to have any substance. My style is the visual end product of that process. Hopefully they haunt the eyes.

How do you paint subjects from the inside out?
I’m not looking at physicality, I’m looking at commonality, architypes, the shared human experience, the recognizable, the lowest common denominator. So, in one sense, yes, the inside of a subject is brought out.

Are the characters depicted in your paintings individual people?
Any painting anyone makes is really a self-portrait, even if the subject is a dog.

How did you develop your style of painting?
Experimentation, failure and twenty years of hard work. My background is in abstraction, abstract landscape was my thing for a long time so when I paint a face, to me it is a landscape.

"Charles Jeffrey for show studio," 2017, oil & acrylic on archival mount board, 102 x 82 cm

Which artists or movements have inspired you the most?

Louise Bourgeois, Sid Nolan, Stirling Ruby and countless others but mostly my friends and peers.


What stories or narratives do your works depict

A tattooist friend once said to me there are only three reasons people get tattoos, love death or faith. I think it’s the same for artmaking. So, any narratives in my work stem from one of these.


What was the inspiration behind your series “Ghosting?”

The people depicted in those paintings whether because of geography, choices or misadventure are now ghosts. It was a series about not seeing or hearing from someone again. A connection that lingers to a missing person. Or just literally when you text someone, you know they’ve read it and then you wait.


Describe your process of creating a new painting.

I use the amorphousness of spray to seek out the underlying quality of my subject, I apply oils to find the form and emotion of the work and then I cut in the backgrounds to define the structure. Then I repeat these layers of strata until I can find the elusive endpoint and hopefully stop right on its edge.


How may paintings do you work on at any given time?



Are any of your paintings outside of the framework of portraits.

A few, I also work in ceramics, sculpture and textiles, these mediums can dictate different approaches and subjects. Animals are also an analogue for human qualities and so animals also tend to enter these spaces as well.


Describe your studio life.

I come to work every day like a job. I work in proximity to my peers and my friends in the same warehouse, having other artists around is very important. My studio has large panels of natural light and plenty of floor space so that I can work multiple paintings at once. I arrange my works across two walls so I can walk between them, focusing in on one and then pulling away to take in the group. I take the process and alchemy of painting very seriously, so I run a tight ship in my space, on Sundays I just clean brushes and prepare my space for the coming week.


How does it feel seeing your works in a gallery for sale?



What do you want people to take away from your art?

Whatever they want.


What advice would you give to young artists?

Get up, go to work.

Get up again and go to work.

Get up again and go to work.

"Piglet," 2018, oil and acrylic on mount board, 102 x 82 cm

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