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Ricky Swallow is an internationally renowned Australian artist and sculptor who burst onto the scene when he won the National Gallery of Victoria’s $100 000 contemporary art prize Contempora5 in 1999 aged 24. He has had solo shows in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Wellington, Oslo and Los Angeles. In 2000 and 2001 he was named Australia’s most collectable artist by Australian Art Collector Magazine.
Swallow makes models of familiar things so that we see them afresh as contemporary still life: BMX bikes, telephones, sneakers, a skull, images from Star Wars and other films. In recent years he has exchanged modelmaking for woodcarving inspired by baroque and renaissance carvings and sculptures.
Michael Conole is a carpenter and Swallow’s assistant. He recently spent three-and-a-half months in Los Angeles working with Swallow on his latest piece. ‘We have been friends for four or five years,’ says Conole. ‘I have a habit of drawing people but rarely getting to the point of actually taking it on as a real project. Ricky expressed a bit of interest in my drawings so he sat for me a few times. He was the perfect subject, very patient. There’s an almost religious solemnity in his face when he’s thinking which struck me as interesting for a portrait.’
Swallow often wears a hooded sweatshirt. The one he’s wearing in this portrait actually belongs to Conole. ‘The brown hood contributes to that Franciscan monk look,’ says Conole.
The portrait was done in a single 40-minute sitting. ‘I thought I might do a few water colours or oil sketches but then I made the painting on the spot. It’s a fairly dark treatment of someone who’s not a dark person,’ admits Conole (although one of the images to crop up frequently in Swallow’s work is a skull). ‘The monotonal quality of it is in keeping with the subject matter of his recent sculptures based on the renaissance.
Born in Geelong in 1968, Conole is a carpenter. He studied archaeology at La Trobe University. He fell into painting in his early 20s, and paints on an informal basis.