It’s not something one would expect a successful comedian, performer and writer at the height of his career to do – turn his hand to painting. Anh Do’s life has been full of challenges and, from humble beginnings, he has thrived on making his own destiny. Art is an important part of his life – for him it’s serious business. What is surprising is the commitment and enthusiasm he brings to his work, and his willingness to learn from other artists, from books and from understanding art of the past. Proving a few people wrong in the art world isn’t the hardest part of the challenge he has set himself – it’s meeting his own tough standards of being the best possible painter. Right now, he’s on track.
Why the move from stand-up comedy and books into art? Has it always been a part of your being or is it another creative outlet?
When I was at school, I wasn’t great at writing or performing or anything like that but I was actually pretty good at art. Somewhere along the way however, I was told that art was not a good subject to pick if I wanted top marks for my Higher School Certificate.
My mum raised three kids on her own from sweatshop wages of six bucks an hour, so landlords were constantly knocking on the door demanding the late rent. At 13 years of age I promised myself that I’d buy my mum a house as soon as I left school so that we’d never be hassled by landlords again.
I heard that lawyers make plenty of money so I decided that’s what I wanted to be, never once questioning whether it was the correct path for me. So all through school, getting the marks for law was the absolute focus. And along the way, I sacrificed my love of making art. It hurt to watch the other guys go off to paint and draw, and I’d go off to physics or four-unit maths or something else I hated.
At the end of year 12, I scored 98 in the HSC which allowed me to study law at university. But I couldn’t help myself, I also signed up to study fine arts at TAFE at the same time. I ended up skipping just about all my law classes so that I could attend my art classes. It wasn’t even a close contest. I mean, what would you rather do? Go off to memorise clause 1.3.1 subclause 1.7 of Contracts Law or sit around sketching nude women?
Eventually comedy came along and wiped everything else out.
So did you ever buy your mum the house?
Yeah, I was 23, had worked as a comedian for nearly two years, saved up every penny for a deposit, and bought mum one of the most beautiful houses in the suburb – lucky for me houses in that suburb were very cheap.
How have you noticed your painting process develop, and what does the act of painting bring to you personally?
The act of painting for me is a strange mix of bliss mixed with incredible torture. With most of my paintings I want to give up a thousand times. It really is punishment, mistake after mistake. I’m constantly saying to myself “What did I do that for?”… “Anh, you’re an idiot!”… “Oh dear, that’s REALLY bad”.
But I keep going, and more times than not, the end result is something I’m quite okay with. So painting teaches me to keep going. For me it’s a metaphor for life. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, you think about the bills, the stress, the hassles … and you think “what am I doing?” But if you just keep going and accept that the doubt, the fear, the mistakes are all part of the journey, you give yourself permission to be at peace with the ups, the downs and the in-betweens.
Just recently I’ve been learning to appreciate more of life’s “in-betweens”. The everyday “humdrum” actually offers a lot of beauty if you look for it.
Has your migrant upbringing influenced your work – and if so, how?
I used to say that my Asian heritage has me attracted to the concept of economical brushstrokes – to capture the essence of a subject in as few marks as possible, like the ancient oriental masters.
But that’s actually just a sexy explanation I made up. The truth is that I take the kids to school at 9am. I have four to five hours of painting, then I need to pick them up at 2.30pm. If I don’t finish a painting within that time, they might just come home into the garage and “help dad out”. That almost always results in disaster. So most of my paintings are done very quickly, very instinctively.
What are the themes you are currently interested in pursuing in your work?
I paint portraits because I’m interested in people. I’ve always been fascinated by people, their dreams, desires, fears, regrets, their sadness.
When I’m onstage performing a comedy show, I sometimes make eye contact with a woman, or sometimes a man still wiping away tears from the story I told about my mother a few minutes ago … even though I’m onto the next batch of jokes. He/she is probably thinking about their own mother, or maybe their son or daughter, and I’ll feel a connection with them. We have an exchange, the guy on the stage, the person in the audience … we share a connection that’s incredibly intimate for two people who have never met properly.
I feel like some of the great artists still reach down and connect with us, “give to us” even though they left us hundreds of years ago. Rembrandt and Soutine are still giving to us.
How planned are your images? Do chance and spontaneity play a part in your work?
It’s all a big game of chance. When I finish a good painting, I’m often a little bit emotional. I am just so grateful that I have been able to “fluke” the painting. If I was asked to do another painting exactly the same, I’d fail miserably. I mostly have no idea what I’m doing.
My wife has a theory that because I own over 1000 art books, and I’m obsessed with art, maybe some of it has sunk in, maybe it’s in my subconscious. I tell her if that’s the case, how come I just as often do really terrible paintings?
I pretty much just “let go” and chance does the rest. At the end of the day – if it’s a bad painting, I slash it and it goes in the bin. Luckily these days, there’s more good than bad, and I’m truly thankful for that.
What has been the most difficult part of putting on your first show and exhibiting professionally?
I hate all of it. It’s really difficult because I don’t want to sell a single painting from the show because they are the ones I love. The ones I don’t love are at the tip, and so opening night comes, and there I am with
all the paintings that I want to keep … and I’m seeing them for the last time.
Who are your major influences and inspirations in painting?
Probably a thousand artists – I do own over 1000 art books. I love walking into a second-hand book shop and discovering some old German expressionist I’ve never heard of. But at the end of the day if I was forced to choose, I’d have to say my favourite three are Van Gogh, Goya and Rembrandt. I think I can be as good as Goya if I painted for eight … maybe nine hundred years.
Where do you see your work heading in the future?
I have no idea. I can guess, but I’ll probably be wrong. I have no idea what’s going to happen when I chuck the next brushload of paint onto the nose of a portrait, let alone predict the future of my body of work.
Anh Do is represented by Olsen Irwin Gallery
Courtesy the artist and Olsen Irwin Gallery
Photographer Tony Lopes