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Rulebreaker: John Douglas

Douglas_imagineNever one to follow the rules, controversial gay artist John Douglas encourages others to make their own. He’s exhibited alongside Yoko Ono and is committed to make works with an important message – no matter who it pisses off. Robert La Bua spoke with the multi-talented creator.

12 September 2010

Australian artist John Douglas has been declared winner of Outrate's worldwide Online Short-Film Festival for his discomfiting work entitled Ward 9.

Deemed "terrifying" by one judge, "visually stunning and hypnotic" by another, Ward 9 is the latest film from the increasingly prolific Douglas, whose works are regularly featured in Australian and international alternative film festivals; his film Forest Diaries is currently being shown as part of the Adelaide Outsiders Festival, which runs until 26 September.

By now, Douglas should be used to such accolades. As an up and coming artist on the Sydney scene, his paintings and photography were the talk of the town—20 years ago.

Eventually, the young blond young man with a shy smile morphed into yesterday's news; gallerists and media found others to promote. Like Tom Jones, Tina Turner, and Cher, though, those who fall out of favour can climb back to the top a generation later.

Now, as a filmmaker, Douglas has found a medium well suited to his multiple talents.  Annoyingly gifted in a variety of fields, he composes the music to his films' soundtracks in addition to capturing the footage and doing all the post-production work himself; such is the life of an artist determined to see his vision remain unblurred by outside forces.

His films are staples of the Sydney Squatfest and are regularly shortlisted at gay film festivals around the world. His YouTube channel reveals a bounty of bizarre films in addition to professional work producing numerous short travel films made on location across the world.

Despite an obvious talent for the moving image, Douglas has not forsaken his love of painting, a medium through which he is equally able to deliver an important message.

The film festival prize follows the success of Douglas' Imagine poster breaking sales records in the US for art-image company Poster Service.

The poster image was created as part of Peace Project, an exhibit at Los Angeles gallery The Whole 9 to bring attention to World Peace Day, 21 September, the day the exhibit will be unveiled.

One of the few works selected for exhibition among 700 submissions from 30 countries, John Douglas' Imagine, winner of the exhibit's Inspiration Award, depicts a section of the famous John Lennon Wall in Prague, has inspired a delegation of Los Angeles-area Art Ambassadors to travel to the strife-torn West African country of Sierra Leone to build a peace wall as a symbol of solidarity with the local populace.

Talk about a work of art inspiring others—not to mention the panel of esteemed judges, which included prominent entities from New York's Guggenheim Museum, the Museum Of Modern Art, and NOOR photo agency.

Douglas_ward9As with so many other talented Australians, John's work has long been more appreciated overseas than at home. Having exhibited alongside Yoko Ono for several years in the New York art fundraiser Visual AIDS: Postcards From The Edge, John is particularly pleased to see an image associated with John Lennon so well received.

So—who is this guy? A disarming friendliness belies his Queensland origins, though an overlay of Sydney wariness sometimes camouflages the deeper John Douglas persona.

As one would expect of a man who adorns his muse in raw meat and its savoury juices and makes it the centrepiece of a film, John Douglas is not a middle of the road kind of person. He has spent years following his calling without waver.

Like many artists, he "must create every day" or else he falls into a depression as a prisoner of other demands on his time. His biography reads like the outline of a book to be written at a future date when more experiences have been accumulated, though the ones already behind him are not insignificant.

How many people can say their exhibitions of cat poo paintings were opened by an ambassador not afraid to face the firestorm of criticism that inevitably ensued? That was several years ago in Bangkok; a more recent traffic stopper was his HIV ABC in the front window of Sydney's TaP Gallery, which stripped back the veneer of glamour that seems to have been applied to HIV by Gay Inc, which does not want to see its target market sitting home in peace when it can be out drinking instead.

Despite the anger and irritation with certain aspects of gay society and society at large, there is a giving and a loving facet to his work, which serves to get people thinking.

Thinking and wondering what the hell he is trying to say. If there is one aspect of contemporary society that irks this artist to no end, it is the surrender of one's self—to magazine ads telling us we need to be prettier, to government officials not held accountable, to a willing forfeit of our individuality to the sheep mentality currently reigning in the world's largest wool-exporting nation.

No one pulls the wool over this man's eyes; it only serves to exacerbate the fact that the majority nowadays seem to prefer drink Life Lite rather than something—anything—more substantial.

Often dismissed as simplistic, imagery in some Douglas paintings are deceptive in their symbolism; what looks like a child's rendition of ring around the rosy may very well be a group of gay men praying to Jesus to tell him they forgive his followers.

As so often happens, edges must be reached, envelopes pushed in one direction when forces are pulling it far toward another.

Douglas_ward9_2A 40-something artist with a heart of gold is not necessarily what the galleries and or media want to sell to their dilettante followers these days, yet there is a sizable number of artists who happen to have a lifetime's worth of experience behind their brushstrokes and imagery.

Never one to sit back and watch things happen around him—especially things with which he disagrees—John Douglas is also making a name for himself amongst the avant garde as the founder of Man Art, a members-only website for gay male artists who simply want to create art, display it, share it, critique it, and enjoy it without the attendant bullshit that other websites impose on Life's simple pleasures.

Douglas began Man Art in response to a mainstream art website's increasing restrictions on the portrayal of nudity, sexuality, homosexuality, and anything else it deemed unfit for the least common denominator amongst its viewers.

A handful of gay artists fled to Douglas' Man Art to freely express themselves without hindrance.  Not all the images are sexual, but all the members of Man Art are gay. Membership is free and there are no fees involved for being involved.

Evidently, Douglas tapped into a need just waiting to be satisfied; Man Art's membership now numbers more than four hundred eclectic, creative types all over the world.

Men who are interested in art but are jaded and overexposed to internet pages would do well to become members of Man Art (there is an equivalent website for the ladies called Woman Art run by a different person).

As a non-artist, I was dazzled not only for the many beautiful works of art on display, but for the camaraderie, support, and belief in doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing; no matter what your circumstances, do not be deterred from realising your potential.

It felt like a visit to the good old gay days when there were no subsubsubsets or internet profiles describing personalities in centimetres; it's just men together without judgment or comparison of hairstyles.

Douglas tells me he has received countless messages from Man Art members in small towns in Canada, the US, Australia, and elsewhere who thank him profusely for providing a connection to their kindred spirits, however far in kilometres they may be one from the another.

His fierce independence may be credited to his Scottish heritage and upbringing, but it offers no explanation for John's interest in fostering support for his fellow artists.

He mentions the special periods in the arts when a circle of writers, of painters, of fimmakers all knew each other, whether in recognised artists' collectives or simply by virtue of living in the same place at the same time.

Paris in the 1920's, Berlin in the 1930's, and London in the 1960's come to mind, but in today's era of global communications, he has created the very type of community he has often longed to see in his own time.  From all indications, his time is now.

John's own website, JohnDouglasArt, presents a provocative sampling of his work in painting, photography, music, and film; an eclectic assortment of his short films may be seen here, though a visit to tartansuitcase (named for his Tartan Suitcase production company) will reveal the full compendium of his works, which include the aforementioned meaty piece Thank You For Not Singing as well as such Douglas classics as Planting A Midnight Garden and My Friend's Bordello (created exactly where it says).

Douglas' animated films such as A Home Exorcism add another dimension to his artistic expression.

From crotch grabs to feline anuses, John's work is also on view on RedBubble, where artists' images are available for purchase in a variety of formats from cards and calendars to T-shirts and canvas prints; online visitors simply match chosen image to method of expression and it's done.

Peace Project is on view 25 September to 6 November at The Whole 9 Gallery, 6101 Washington Blvd, Culver City, California. From 21 September, Peace Project moves to the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco till 21 November. Read this article on Peace Walls in Sierra Leone and Los Angeles, which was inspired by John's entry in the Peace Project.

Robert La Bua is a full-time travel writer and journalist based in Sydney who has had more than 500 articles published all over the world. Robert was appointed Cultural Ambassador Australia by Stockholm-based LGBT rights group International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN) for his efforts to promote greater awareness and understanding of LGBT issues through international travel.

Images from top: Imagine; stills from Ward 9. Courtesy of John Douglas.



0 #1 H M Bascom 2010-09-22 03:33
Well written article. Kudos to you John! Scat Cat and the Dead Friends series are powerful art pieces and my favorites.

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