Arts / Art darling with the street at his feet

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Belconnen-raised stencil artist Luke Cornish, aka “E.L.K.”... "Popularity is nice, but it doesn't last for long.”
Belconnen-raised stencil artist Luke Cornish, aka “E.L.K.”… “Popularity is nice, but it doesn’t last for long.”
AARWUN Gallery in Gold Creek is famous for its eclectic mix of paintings, glass and jewellery works, but not street art.

Now owner Bob Stephens is making a determined leap into the 21st century with an exhibition called “Bricks to Canvas” in recognition of eight young Australian artists that, he says, have made “the quantum leap” from street art to internationally recognised painting.

Works on show include paintings by Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie, who’s showing at this year’s Venice Biennale, by Banksy collaborator Anthony Lister and by Mark Whalen, Jackson Slattery, Vexta, Ghost Patrol and Sean Whalen.

Foremost is our very own success story, Belconnen-raised stencil artist Luke Cornish, “E.L.K.”, who became a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize with his portrait of Father Bob Maguire.

I caught up with Cornish by phone to his Marrickville studio in Sydney recently, where he was busy working on a giant stencil cityscape of Kowloon, part of his current interest in urban landscapes. For with over 200 colours in the painting, inspired by trips over the past two years that have taken him to around 20 countries, he needs all that colour and painstaking cutting and layering of components to capture the complexities of over population.

He’ll be at Aarwun on August 8 and is looking forward to being back home – besides, his mum lives at Murrumbateman, not far from Gold Creek.

Cornish’s rise to fame has been spectacular. Already well-known in the Canberra arts community for his stencilled work, some based on photographs by former “CityNews” photographer Silas Brown, he catapulted on to the national scene when his portrait of Father Bob was shortlisted, making for what he calls “a completely different transition from street to contemporary art”.

He found himself the darling of the Melbourne and Sydney art worlds and got a top agent, who kept him away from undesirable commissions.

From the shy, reclusive artist of his Canberra days, he became a confident and articulate spokesman for artists, though he has also learnt diplomacy; a Sydney hotel approached ELK with the idea that he could produce 150 separate works (he told me it takes three to four weeks for him to complete one work) saying  they didn’t have very much money to offer him, but that it would be “very good exposure”.

Cornish found he needed to move on artistically, so with the help of the 2014 Churchill Fellowship and his own funding, he travelled the world, took “a stack of photos”, and began working on streetscapes. In troubled zones such as Beirut and Tripoli he visited Palestinian refugee camps and found it all “exciting but confronting – I’m not in a huge hurry to go back”.

Back in his studio, he’s returning to the basis of his art and thinks he might spend the rest of the year on his huge Kowloon work.

“I’m kind of obsessed with stencil,” he tells “CityNews”. “And anyway, you can never perfect a craft.”

In the show at Aarwun, he’ll exhibit smaller works that he’s stencilled on to the back of glass and larger works based on people that he met on his travels – “an exploration of humanity.”

As for fortune and fame, he says: “Popularity is nice, but it doesn’t last for long, it’s an illusion that you can make it as an artist – you never really make it.”

“Bricks to Canvas,” at Aarwun Gallery, Gold Creek, until the end of August. All welcome to opening, 2pm, on Saturday, August 8.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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