How artist couple Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod work and live together

Very good darling

Painters Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod share their personal and professional lives and are about to exhibit together. Criticising each other could be fatal. 

Painters and partners Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod share a workspace in their Mount Eden flat. A fly on their wall, if it was a fan of contemporary New Zealand art, would surely find their chats riveting. “Nah, not really,” says McLeod. “Occasionally we might have a bitch about what we’re listening to,” says Maw. “We might have some political commentary or science commentary on and we go, ‘oh, that’s bloody bullshit’. But mostly we both just sit there quietly. Sometimes I’m like a child and I go, ‘Andrew, come and have a look at what I’ve done! I’m so happy!’ And he’ll go, ‘Yes, that’s very good darling’.” Does he ever say it’s bad? “No. That would make me want to kill him.”

Maw’s portraits deify the domestic, reimagining neighbourhood celebrities as gods and emperors. McLeod’s works, meanwhile, are densely populated dreamscapes, stuffed full of recurring imagery such as rainbows, crystals, trees and sea creatures. McLeod says of Maw’s work: “There’s more of a popular culture thing going on than with a lot of painting. Her paint work is quite unusual. And her composition is really unique, which is what we want!” Maw: “I would say Andrew’s more expressionistic than me at times. And I’ve learned a lot from working with someone who’s such a great colourist. To me his work is quite mysterious and beautiful.

When not silently painting, they play together in “depth metal” band Evil Ocean and “aural disease” outfit Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They joke that their musical naivety pleasantly balances out their artistic over-training. They are fans of Norwegian black metal, which involves high-pitched screeching, KISS-style face paint and Satan. McLeod plays with improvisers Vitamin S, co-hosts 95bFM’s world music show The Audible World and recently travelled to Siberia to study throat singing. Maw: “Andrew’s the envy of me because the social things he does are educational and interesting, and my social thing is just to go out with a group of friends and whinge and get pissed.”

I thought of Maw recently when I read what could only loosely be described as an article about Nicola Robinson, formerly known as model Nicky Watson. In Maw’s 2009 portrait ‘Venus from Hell’, Robinson’s long locks are inadequate drapery for her gimungously enhanced boobs. But now she is getting her boobs reduced, which I learned from clicking on clickbait. Should I be ashamed? Maw offers solace. “I think what it is, if you feel overwhelmed and tired, you tend to lose your way and wander down these internet alleys. I watched a puppy cam for a while. That’s all I did, just watched these puppies in a pen in Minnesota. I’d go, ‘oh look Andrew, one of them is trying to bite the other one!’ This was a while ago and apparently it used up a lot of bandwidth on the computer.”

Puppies aside, it’s obvious the pair share a mighty work ethic. Maw berates herself for not having worked all weekend long. “I’m doing these miniatures at the moment and it’s a little bit like reading Proust or something: it takes you about an hour to get into it,” she says. “I have to put on these [magnifying] glasses that make me want to faint and throw up. I have to get my lights set up, my paints set up, choose my brushes and my colours. And I’m a bit shaky when I first start. Basically I go through the meaning of life with every painting. An existential drama queen, that’s what I am!”

McLeod, too, says painting requires heroic levels of psychological self-management. “It’s like that concept of reciprocal altruism. One part of your mind is telling you, ‘it’s good, it’s finished, I want to go for a walk, I want to go to bed.’ Then another part is going, ‘this is shit.’ And as the one painting goes by it gets harder and harder; your emotions follow the state of the painting.”

Both attended Elam School of Fine Arts, which Maw at times found challenging. “I saw French theory as sort of cultural imperialism that somehow everyone else couldn’t see. You know what educational institutions are like, it’s hat-tipping to authority. And that’s like a red rag to a bull for me.” McLeod, who was just 17 when he began, had a more positive experience. “I was in Te Toi Hou [the Māori arts programme], which was amazing because I loved Pasifika history and was really interested in the Māori art revival at the time, although there was more than one going on.”

Both hail from the working end of the class system, and McLeod bemoans how the cost of attending university means art school is now attracting “rich kids” who are less interested in painting, since it’s “kind of a lower-class interest”. “What you end up making is so determined by your exact position within a class. It’s so predictable.” He says painting is “totally uncool”. “In New Zealand it was cool in the 1970s. It became cool in New York in the early 1980s. But then it never really became that cool here in that time I don’t think, not that I was around.” “I used to care about that,” says Maw. “But now I don’t give a rat’s.”

Not only do they not chit-chat much during painting, they never offer advice once it’s done. That’s not how it works, says McLeod. “It’s your job to judge the work,” he says. “Not someone else’s bloody job.” Maw: “Not only that, but the best judge is yourself. If you know you’re doing something wrong, you have to admit to yourself that you’re doing something wrong. There it is, right there, and if you don’t want to look at it or if you’re going to go, ‘she’ll be right’, you’ll be the one that suffers.”

And suffer she has. “There’s a couple of works of mine with a few little things in them that bug the shit out of me. I wake up in the night and go, ‘oooh, that little bit there, that’s fucking terrible, why didn’t I fix it?’ It could be something I did 10 years ago.” They recount a story about Francis Bacon showing collectors some slides of his work. When a certain painting popped up, Bacon apparently remarked that it was a pile of crap and he should have slashed it. Possibly, this story exemplifies why artists should shut up when around collectors. “Yeah, we just cause problems,” says McLeod. “Just devalue some really expensive artwork.”

This month, Maw and McLeod will show together at Ivan Anthony gallery. The last time was in 2004, opening the day George W. Bush was re-elected. Do they only share shows during times of horrific US presidencies? “Yeah, just to cheer people up,” says Maw. “Or maybe send them messages of doom and gloom.” 

New Paintings, 22 Jul–16 Aug, Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd