Why painting still matters
Interviews by Nicholas Wroe and Simon Grant; published in The Guardian.
In an era of installations and performance in which ‘anything’ can be art, a new Tate exhibition focuses on the work of five contemporary painters.
When I was a student, painting was perceived as having run out of energy. Of course, the more you find out about it, the less sense that makes. But, in a way, it was good that the pressure felt off. At college, I saw a documentary about the painter Philip Guston (A Life Lived by Michael Blackwood), which convinced me that you should stick with what you are interested in and screw everybody else. What he said was a revelation to me, especially about the position the painter could occupy in relation to the world and to your own life, and how to connect the lines between the mind, painting and the world.
I paint in the street because the texture of decision-making is different. It feels sharper and healthier and quicker. One day, I saw a group of schoolkids approaching and I thought:”Here we go.” But then one of them said something really perceptive: “That’s live.” And that is the reason I do it. I want to make this a live, but slightly shifted, version of the world that has me both in it and looking at it……
What my drawings depict doesn’t concern me as much as drawing them. I’m just not interested in knowing about, say, what images tell us. That cat, those stairs, these flowers, this or that tree is really just a support for drawing itself. They are all a means to a drawing’s own end. People have the habit of reading an image but I’m not concerned with that, because my activity is different from that of a reader. This really works for me when the drawing itself is allowed to appear slowly on behalf of the thing it depicts. I try to ignore this narrative effect as it tends to feel like a solution to a false problem when I am working on an exhibition. In the past, I have made paintings that have deliberately tried to avoid a signature style, but I have also made works that look similar to each other and shown them in a single exhibition……
A few years ago I studied commercial painting techniques, such as trompe l’œil and marbling, at a specialist school for decorative art in Brussels. At the time I was a bit bored with the way both my work and my career were going. They seemed to be on a conveyor belt between certain institutions and I wanted a change. In contemporary art you can get a little self-satisfied and also a little bit lazy, so to put my painting in a different context was a way to shake myself up. I’d always had a lot of respect for artisan crafts and was already using some of these skills, albeit in a rather haphazard and stressful way, in that I never really knew what the outcome would be. So learning the skills made it a more relaxing process, as well as bringing certain qualities and benefits to the work exactly because they are such conservative and time-consuming techniques. The fact that I have painted these objects pinned to a corkboard, a labour-intensive exercise, somehow draws people into examining and responding to the work in a different way than if I had just shown a ready-made……
As a child it seemed obvious to me that painting was the best way to communicate, as language was so difficult to understand. But when I was a teenager I discovered cinema and this distinction became less clear. Black and white films were on television all the time in the 80s and I used to spend all day alternating between painting and watching films. I graded each film with a star code and collected all the vintage posters and artwork I could find. I even wrote to Channel 4 asking for specific films, not expecting that the then boss, Jeremy Isaacs, would kindly reply saying that, yes, there were more Humphrey Bogart films coming up. So when I painted the camera in Lovelock (I) years later, in 2010, it was something of a eureka moment, but one for which I’d been subconsciously searching for a long time. The shape – it’s one of Fellini’s cameras – took me back to that time when I loved paintings and old films, and felt they were equal. And it had all these meanings that linked to film genres as well as wider themes: it’s a portrait, a clown and a seducer, but there’s also a key, a lock, a heart, a castle and a precipice. And while it’s about looking, it’s also blind, so that made me think about what a camera actually sees as well as more existential questions about the strangeness of looking at things…..
People often use the term abstract to describe my paintings. I don’t consider them abstract because I’m working from a somewhat indistinct and hazy place towards a very specific and concrete image. I am constructing an image from nothing and try to define it very clearly, so it becomes legible. At the same time, I want it to be as open as possible. I begin with bright acrylic washes to quickly set up a starting point, and go from there with not much of a plan – it’s very spontaneous. Later on, I define shapes more clearly and add other elements, for example: outlines, stripes or shadows, to create lots of possibilities. A long phase of trial and error commences. Towards finishing, it becomes a matter of editing, narrowing down the options again, and trying to define things more clearly, though there is still a lot of going back and forth…..
Read the full article… www.theguardian.com/artanddesign