Private Passions: Pop goes the easel

Larger than life with his wild mop of blond corkscrew curls, loud patterned shirts, cowboy belts and bag of props, Chester Osborn is one of the most colourful characters in the wine world. The chief winemaker at his family estate, d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, in an average year Osborn makes 72 different wines and has a pair in the pipeline, including a natural wine made from Sagrantino by a robot that doubles as an installation within his Cube complex. When not making wine or travelling the word spreading the d’Arenberg gospel, Osborn is a keen artist. His preferred medium is collage but he’s developing a growing interest in video art. A number of his works are on display at the Cube.

Chester working on his Mad Hatter collage

When did you first pick up a paintbrush?

I did a lot of painting when I was young. I started painting with my fingers and making mud pies with sand the minute that I could touch a piece of dirt. It’s interesting how it gets drummed out of us, that natural instinct, and we’re told to be clean and wash our hands, and not to get dirty and rearrange things.

Free thought is wiped out of us through our school years. We’re told to think in a certain way. Then we’re told to go and get a job and conform to what our supervisors want. There’s no freedom of expression until you get further up the chain.

When did you first discover you had artistic talent?

People might argue that I don’t have any! In year 11 in high school I won the award for the best black-and-white photo in Australia in the national schoolboys championships, so I suppose I realised I had artistic abilities then.

My mother gave me the camera, it was an expensive Nikon, which got me into photography. I was offered a job as a photographer but never pursued it as I wanted to be a winemaker.

Did you study art at school?

I never studied art as I was more science oriented. I was less interested in reading about art and how it was created and more into doing it.

I’m dyslexic, so my nickname was ‘Muddle’ at school. Later on I found out that I have Asperger’s, which is a help rather than a hindrance for an artists as you get fairly caught up in and obsessive about detail and you think really deeply about things.

Describe some of your early works…

I’ve been making sculptures all my life. I used to like making matchstick houses and model airplanes when I was around six. Then I moved into balsa wood planes with engines and ran my own model airplane club.

As soon as I learnt how to ride a bike I’d go down to the rubbish dump to see what I could find. My friends and I made a car from water pipes and I used to make go-carts with old prams, and tree houses out of anything.

One of my earlier works was a sculpture of four couples having sex in a semi-circle, which I made out of condoms and water pipes. The idea was to explore who people think about when they’re having sex.

I also used to making dancing women out of the wire from car radios. In my early twenties I struggled to relate to women. I found them quite challenging and scary.

Chester’s ambitious Cube, which took 15 years to create and cost him US$15.5m

What is your preferred medium to work with?

There is no preferred medium. Wine is the major medium that I spend most of my time working with. I don’t paint as often as I used to. I mainly do sculptures and collages now.

I work closely with video artists in the Cube and also dabble in writing, which is another art form. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry lately. I originally wanted to be a rock star, but music isn’t something I’ve explored too deeply.

Who are your artistic influences? 

Mostly I like sculptures. I love looking through Pinterest for inspiration and spend hours looking at art-related pins. I also love visiting galleries and explored every room in the Tate Modern during a recent trip to London. It’s great how many of the art pieces there are now video oriented. It’s a medium I enjoy and want to explore further.

I’m not into realism – I much prefer abstract art. But I love figurative art too. I find that style the most moving and it’s what I’m most likely to buy.

If you could own one artwork by a famous artist what would it be and why?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, so that I could sell it. That sounds really capitalist. In terms of liquid art, I’d like to own a 1947 Cheval Blanc.

How much is the most you’ve ever spent on an artwork and what was it?

The d’Arenberg Cube is a work of art in its way and cost US$15.5m to make. I love architecture and have lots of books on design and interiors.

The finished article: Chester’s Mad Hatter collage

You mentioned you’re into collages, tell me more…

I like to join together complex exotic things that are fun and entertaining. I’ve got an art piece called Tales of Headboards made form a cut down bed, which opens up people’s thoughts about what they’ve been up to in bed.

On one of the headboards is a wolf, another has a feral fox in a wine glass with its tail hanging out.

Another sculpture in the Cube pays homage to Italian grape varieties. The sculpture features large Italian wine bottles jutting out of old pairs of shoes. Each of the bottles is wearing a mask and has a penis.

Do you also paint and sculpt? If so, what kind of subject matter do you focus on?

I haven’t been painting for a while. When I did they were abstract but always featured figures of some form, be they animals or humans. They’re usually pretty detailed and intense and nearly always with oils.

I recently did a collage made out of 6,000 caricatures of our label names, which was a self-portrait of me dressed up as the Mad Hatter. My sculptures are more collages of objects formed together.

People often argue about the definition of art – what would your definition be?

Art is open for interpretation. Some people view certain artworks as a waste of space. I think art has to speak to you and has to have some depth and meaning. It can be made from anything. Art is everywhere around us – even nature is art. Trees are works of art, the way they grow and die.

One of the sculptures on display at d’Arenberg

Do you have to be inspired to create an artwork or does the inspiration come while you’re creating it?

Both. You wake up with an idea then you think about the process more and more, and you can keep adding to it.

Is making art similar to making wine?

It’s similar as they’re both art and I don’t think either is hard. They’re both layers of the same thing. All art forms are inter-related and are a way of expressing what you’re feeling. Most of the time I’m feeling pretty positive, so most of my art is quite fun, but I like challenging people with a dark side.

Even in wine, some of my names can be quite dark and some of the wines are quite confronting. Art is very much a reflection of your state of being and subconscious. Allowing that to happen is a good way to see yourself.

What is the artwork you’re most proud of and why?

It would have to be the Cube as it was 15 years in the making and is a big jumbled art installation. People say it’s like a journey into my brain.

Outside of the Cube, have your works ever been exhibited anywhere?

Bits and pieces here and there but I’ve yet to do a solo exhibition.

Are you an avid art collector?

Yes! I like to support new up-and-coming artists. I buy art all the time – I bought a bust last night of a ram in the nude with large boobs.

Tell me about some of the works you have on display at the Cube…

There’s a sculpture of a cow with its legs splayed out sitting on cow horns, which represents biodynamics because we’re the biggest biodynamic grower in Australia.

The Cube is also home to the world’s first fully automated winemaker, where the whole process is done automatically and the resulting wine comes out into a demi-john. The Sagrantino wine we make from it is available for visitors to taste and buy.

How many of your own works are on display and what are they?

There are around 40 works from my own collection that are on display at the Cube. In terms of my collages, I’ve probably got around 30 on display. The bar is fitted with hundreds of TVs and there’s a video of a naked lady swimming across the length of the bar. Two of the bars are shaped like lips. I’ve also got around 30 artworks waiting in the wings to be displayed at the Cube in the near future.

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