"The thing about painting alone in a studio all day is that you have too much time to ruminate on the state of the world," says Ces McCully, an Australian artist who has created a series of type-led works inspired by recent lockdowns and how we relied on social media to stay connected to others and combat isolation.
Punchy, bold and "somewhere between a little loose and hard edge", Ces McCully's textural paintings are a mix of autobiographical reflection and cultural commentary, with almost a cathartic tone thrown in, as the France-based artist takes a closer look at the impact of social media and our obsessive hunt for perfection in modern life.
Each work is part of a series titled Mary & Me where McCully explores themes around honesty, vulnerability and forgiveness – plucked directly from our own feeds on social media, filled with memes and "ridiculous" conversations that came, not just from the pandemic, but leading up to it. Contrasting the reality of life with the "perfect glow" of Instagram content, her typographic pieces offer snippets of what we've experienced, the situations we've found ourselves in and the thoughts we might have, all brutally honest but with tongue firmly in cheek.
There are some, she admits, inspired by her own past mistakes: "One text work, in particular, is quite autobiographical and confessional, I'm embarrassed to say," she tells Creative Boom. Titled, I Egged Your Car Because I Loved You, more than hints at something she once did. "Simply put, I was an absolute immature shite at times growing up, and I'm thankful every day that social media wasn't around then to bear witness to my many mistakes."
It perhaps explains McCully's choice of bright colours and textures to create fun, whimsical paintings, ones that are a little childlike, harking back to primary school days and children's television. The block colours add further innocence to the bold statements, reminding us to not take life or ourselves too seriously. Perhaps even to remember not to beat ourselves up about past blunders as they offer the very lessons we need to grow and develop.
"I look back on all the bad choices now with a greater understanding and can laugh about most," she says. "And I find that the compassion I've developed for my younger self has resulted in greater compassion and empathy for others, which is why I find aspects of culture today so perplexing. We seem to be losing this capacity for forgiveness, and expecting perfect behaviour from birth. Who even wants to be friends with 'perfect' people? They'd be pretty fucking boring."
Of Covid-19, McCully has counted herself "very lucky" to be living in the French countryside rather than in her previous Melbourne home where "we couldn't even fit a dining table". It allowed her to be more than comfortable. "The toughest part for me was being separated from family and friends back home for so long and also trying to deal with the different policies and cultural attitudes between our adopted home of France, and Australia, where most of my news still comes from. It caused a lot of anxiety at times," she says.
The conditions of lockdowns and isolation didn't really change McCully's work – except for earlier on when painting supplies were becoming scarce, and she started doing paper works for the first time. "But viewing the impact of it in society and our relationships with each other has definitely impacted the themes within my work," she adds.
McCully grew up in an outer suburb of Melbourne, Australia, the "last stop on the train line", so it was verging on rural when she was young. The youngest of four, she has three older brothers who she lived with until she was 11 when her parents divorced. "Life was a bit unstable growing up but I think it helped me to develop grit. I stuck my nose in books a lot of the time (between throwing eggs at ex-boyfriends' cars, of course) and went on to study contemporary arts at university."
She continues: "I dabbled in painting, photography, writing and design over the years, although I was so concerned with supporting myself financially that I jumped straight into full-time work after university and often ended up in roles that lacked the level of creativity I needed, and so always ended up a bit miserable. I feel like I came back to life once I decided to embrace my art practice again, and now am lucky enough to be able to focus on it full-time. Sometimes I wish I could go back and make that decision earlier, but I think I needed to first experience certain things in my life to be where I am today."
Mary & Me by Ces McCully will go on display at Rhodes Contemporary Art in London from 25 February until 26 March 2022. Discover more of her work at cesmccully.com.