The Portrait as Anti-Selfie: An Interview with Michael Lindeman

By Chloé Wolifson


Sydney-based artist Michael Lindeman makes paintings, drawings and sculptures that challenge existing power structures around contemporary art with humour and self-deprecation. Lindeman has been a finalist in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes five times, and in 2010 he was awarded the Sulman Prize for his work Paintings, prints & wall hangings. Lindeman’s new self-portrait I… inverts the conventions of the genre, combining a masked image with a stream of consciousness that contemplates his own role as an artist.

CW: You’ve long employed various strategies to engage in art ‘world’ institutional critique. What led you to explore these themes and have the issues changed over time?

ML: I’ve always been guided by a wayward urge to rail against something I find irritating and inequitable. My work considers how financial and cultural value is attached to various branches of creative activity. The art ‘world’ is the space I participate in, so it just seems like the logical zone to explore.  

The issues haven’t really changed. Some works such as The Source of Magic and Problems 2015 and Implicit Memory System 2018 feature a wider range of targets…alongside of a self-deprecating analysis of myself and position as an artist.

I think I’ve been searching for ways of pulling apart canons all along. A canon is often authority disguised as a consensus. I enjoy critiquing, not worshiping self-reinforcing sites of authority.  

What attracts you to humour as a strategy? What are your thoughts on the art ‘world’s’ attitude to humour?

I’m compelled to make art that entertains myself. I want to be able to sit in the studio late at night and laugh at the absurdity of my works in relation to their intended viewing context: the gallery, audience and market. I’m having fun.

I find humour to be a liberating and disarming tool. It can also be a defence mechanism, both protection and weapon. Humour can be strange and difficult to analyse, which suits me because I want the audience to actively engage with the work. I think humour in art can attract us and is an important means of connection. The art ‘world’s’ attitude to humour is probably no different than the broader community, some like to be amused, others are just boring.

How do you undertake the writing and research that underpins the text components of your work?

I’m always taking notes and trying to extract as much content from every source I encounter, ranging from conversations, literature, film, travel, music and art. Some works are simply large-scale replica paintings of appropriated objects and documents that I’ve collected and archived, such as my Sizzler name badge from my first casual job, and my treasured “Certificate for Certification for Dishwasher Attendant”.

Other works such as the series of drawings that replicate ‘Obituary Notices’, ‘Missing’ and ‘Seeking Same’ classifieds rely on a mix of knowledge and experience combined with deeper research into a specific genre. The comical yet critical text drawings in the series announce the passing of various art movements and other absurd considerations of the art world. I compile pages of notes in preparation for each drawing, then carry out a process of editing and formatting to arrive at a piece of writing to be translated into a newspaper classified drawing.

You’ve described your new self-portrait I… as an “anti-selfie”, and “manifesto and therapy at once.” What was the process of developing this work?

My work is often a type of conceptual self-portraiture, with humour of course.  I… was a challenge that ironically sets out to present yours truly at a distance, through a filter that enabled a certain degree of anonymity or disguise. The portrait is an anti-selfie, I feel uncomfortable with self-promotion and choose not to be drawn into the social media realm.  Presenting my work in a tangible public forum is enough for my anxieties.

The text for I… was accumulated and archived in notebooks over some time.  Satisfying an impulse to be vulnerable and sincere while externalising my doubts and fears, I… is an insight to my psyche and perhaps more revealing than a traditional portrait can be.  It feels like therapy.

What’s been the most unusual reaction to your work that you’re aware of?

My work definitely divides the audience. When I won the Sulman Prize someone called the AGNSW threatening legal action because my column of large-scale classified paintings appropriated from the Trading Post, listed the actual phone numbers and locations of the sellers.  He just had a real issue with it and actually called the advertisers to inform them and rile them up.  

On the other end of the spectrum, I once received a hand-written letter from a woman residing in Isle of Man.  She was touched by and found humour in one of my paintings. 

What have you been looking at, reading, listening to, drawn to lately?

On a trip across Europe late last year and early this year I was excited by the mosaics of the Cologne Cathedral, the micromosaics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and loved seeing more of the Cubist works, particularly Braque.  It was interesting to read that Picasso would borrow works from Braque, placing them in his studio to decode or steal from.

I’m currently reading a lot about the first-generation Californian Conceptual artists, a memoir by Tom Marioni, a book about the ‘Ant Farm’ collective…a book on Joseph Beuys and have just started on a Magritte publication. My reading habits are erratic and all about art.

I listen to vinyl mostly, a steady diet of Zappa, Beefheart, Ween, Silver Jews, Mogwai, Kurt Vile and my 11 year-old boy with his Stratocaster.

I’m drawn to anything that aims to push at the edge of its field of inquiry, I respect creative people who take the risky route, an antidote to those who chase the heat and contribute to mediocrity.

What does a Dishwasher Attendant do?

He regularly fills tumblers with spirit mixers at the drinks station conveniently located metres away from his pile of grubby plates. As the shift wears on, the Dishwasher Attendant’s banter with waitstaff and pranks on co-workers become more audacious due to boredom and bourbon.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all leisure, he takes great pride in a spotless dish pit with remarkable efficiency, eagerly loading the conveyor style industrial dishwasher. Without a care for the next day’s school exam, he’s the entertainment and loyal clean freak at a popular buffet chain.  


Chloé Wolifson is a Sydney-based arts writer, researcher and curator whose work includes reviews, catalogue essays, and reports on exhibitions and art fairs across the Asia-Pacific. She is a regular contributor to Art Monthly Australasia and the Sydney Morning Herald and is published in mastheads and magazines across the region.