RR: Those drawings are just getting my hand in. To make a body of work I have to paint for a couple of weeks before I get anything I like because you start with preconceptions of what you should paint and what you've painted before and those are always wrong. I paint myself out of that and get to the point where it becomes just like a job. Because I work on so many at a time, and because they're on paper, it doesn't really matter if they don't work out. I want them to have that freshness.
AA: There seems to be an economy in the marks you make. These works on the wall at the moment are quite busy. The finished pieces look emptier, like there's a value in simplicity over complexity.
RR: They start off quite congested. Less is more - I think it's a question of what you can get away with. If you can make something convincing but slight it seems to make it all the more convincing. I mean people like Matisse and Picasso are masters of that. Drawing in ink is fluid - I like the idea that a line can become a shadow and then a form and then a head and then a body. Making lots of work and having lots of other things on the go helps because you don't become too precious about ruining things but there is always an element of trying to take something to the limit of what it might be and with that there is always the risk of pushing things too far.
AA: You talk about sacrificing something in order to achieve a better proposition.
RR: If I'm just starting work, I'm too nervous. I might have, say, 50 paintings on the go at once so I can sacrifice that one or that one, or all of them. Eventually, after a lot of editing, maybe 5% comes out as finished work. I make oil paintings and sculptures too but often what I'll show is a drawing. It's like working in reverse. The sculpture is kind of a drawing for the drawing.
AA: Some of your paintings contain quite recognisable shapes, like say the speech bubbles in the piece you have at Jerwood.
RR: Obtuse speech bubbles that don't have anything in them - in fact they're not even bubbles; they just become blobs or holes. All those formal things about painting: form, colour, structure and composition are the things that make paintings work or not work. Something being an actual physical shape, like a hole, might be a space through into something else and the articulation of that is always interesting. There are various forms and motifs that work better for that and have a shifty quality.
AA: You mean could be one thing or another?
RR: There's nothing definitive about how I want the work to be seen really. I want it to be more mutable than that. Essentially, what I want from the work is for it to be as open as possible and that is why drawing is a key element of the practice as a finished product. Something that has the quality of drawing is so important.
AA: You used to make paintings on wood.
RR: I've been a fan of Abram Games for a while. That period of post-war British artists who were painters, designers, illustrators or worked in craft, like Eric Ravilious,
Keith Vaughan and Graham Sutherland. Abram Games' insignia for the Festival of Britain is something that I love. Those paintings on wood were a homage to that and to the kind of posters of that period, like the British Rail posters - that kind of graphic design.
AA: Do the colours in your paintings relate to that time?
RR: The thing about colour is that it tends to place things in certain periods. It can take you back to a certain time - it holds memory. I don't want to make vintage paintings but that idea of the memory of things past or of former hopes is interesting.
AA: Perhaps because of the colour and ease, they appear to be optimistic paintings.
RR: I don't know, I think that's for someone else to say. Optimism is compelling but there's a flip side. Games' work has great optimism to it but you are talking about things that have passed and so there's also a kind of poignancy to it. I'd like my work to be seen through a prism of now. The paintings that I make are diverse within a set process. I know how I make them but within that I want to be allowed to be surprised so some of them will end up being quite optimistic and some might not. I would hope that they don't all have a similar tone. I like to think that there is something else that we can do with painting. There is somewhere else emotionally where it can go. For me, work has to work on an emotional level. It has to feel like something but I don't set out for it to feel like anything in particular.
AA: It's a discovery on the way.
RR: And then they're done and they are what they are. There's also hysterical optimism - an optimism that clouds something else. If you look at American 1950s design, say pink Cadillacs or curtains with cowboys on them, they're playful and joyful, but at that time in the 50s there was the looming atomic war and this idea of not engaging with something much more frightening. It's seemingly optimistic and happy but it's also a front. Where can crisis lead you - that's interesting - that dynamic of something that on the one hand might seem jolly and upbeat but on the other hand is incredibly sad.
AA: Or it goes too far and is grotesque.
RR: That idea has been floating around with me for a while, about that point when things just bubble over into being too much. I usually have about three or four things going on together: painting, sculpture, collage and photomontage. I have quite a strong idea of what I want painting to be but I'm not as confident with the other formats - they're experiments. I don't know if they're quite there yet. It's easier to talk about the problems with things and why they don't work than pin down why or what makes them work. They aren't encumbered by the problems that other work might be - they just seem to be of themselves. They just are. Ad Reinhardt talks about his paintings saying they're not this, they're not that, and what they are is simply what they're not. I feel a certain kinship to that way of thinking. I never know what I want to do but I'm sure about what I don't want to do. I think if I knew what I wanted to do I wouldn't want to do it.
AA: Because you would know it already.
RR: Painting doesn't seem to be a very serious thing to do, but on the other hand, it seems to be the most serious thing to do. To make something that has some kind of emotional charge. I mean, a piece of music is essentially abstract but it operates, it has an affect and a sensibility; it feels authentic and can make you feel something. If you can have some sense of what a feeling is like in a painting, that's pretty cool and it makes you feel good when you see it. I wouldn't presume to say that's what my work does but I would say that's what I aim for as an artist and that's what I'd aim for art to do. I'm not interested in didacticism or setting out theoretical ideas. It's much harder to grasp than that. That idea of what it's like to have an idea, or what it feels like to have a feeling - I think those are messy things. Feelings are cumulative of other feelings, of other ideas and beliefs, needs and wants and there is always this pressure of a number of things making-up something which is then attached to another idea somewhere else and in conflict with that. For me, it is a way of working, things being overlapped, latticed, mutable, slippery and elusive but at the same time quite felt and meant and quite deliberate. Things are produced and they have definiteness to them but that is always open to change. There are parts of my practice that feel very definite and parts that don't and there is something quite important in that.
Robert Rush's paintings can be seen at the Jerwood Contemporary Painters 2009 exhibition at Jerwood Space, Union St, London SE1 until 31 May 2009