AS: Is the watercolour from life?
MA: Yeah, I’ve been doing these on and off for a while. I had an instructor in New York but I only really did it seriously in about 2002 at the Slade. Some people like the watercolours, others like the oils, but over the years, they’re beginning to become one.
AS: Is it that you can explore something about materiality in the watercolours?
MA: It’s the fluidity of the material and colour and not really having the ability to mess around. I don’t really know the history of watercolours very well. I mean I know there’s a huge history in Britain and I know what a Turner or Constable watercolour looks like. I like doing them. I find them incredibly special and I really have to focus because there’s so much going on at one time.
AS: Is the history of painting important to you?
MA: It is. I mean I know it. I had a weird neighbour when I was growing up in New Jersey who showed me old art documentaries. When I was 8, everyone else was doing Martin Luther King or Thomas Jefferson reports for school. I was doing Michelangelo, talking about him cutting up bodies to figure out how things work. I was a weird kid.
AS: Do you still make discoveries?
MA: I do, but I’ve also begun to notice that certain aspects of work by artists that I like has changed. Things seem different now and I don’t know why. Albums that I’ve listened to for a really long time also sound different. I still make discoveries in strange places. Recently, I’ve been more interested in just going out there and seeing what comes my way than a premeditated research on something, like it’s a sign. There was a really big Otto Dix show in New York where I saw these two great paintings of a woman and a child. The first one looked like a brown Mary Cassatt and the other like something painted by Charles Addams who did the Addams Family stuff. It was the same year, the same model, but I was blown away by the scope of the works.
AS: You mean the different styles?
MA: No, just completely different sensations. One seemed to have the parental empathy of Cassatt, but with the other one, you could almost hear the Addams Family theme tune. I had been thinking about doing something with a good friend of mine, Ivan, who’s just become a father. He lives in New York and now has a son, Jonah, so we met up I did some sketches. Just cause I usually draw Ivan when I see him, and this was an event, he’s now a ‘Dad.’ Then on my next trip to New York I went to Zwirner gallery and in the back office they had this Alice Neel painting of Neel’s husband and her first son. It’s a bizarre painting. The partner’s face was really heavily done with this one long mark for the eyebrows, the nose and then back up again. The child’s face almost scrubbed out, which is kind of like stuff you would see now. I thought, it’s a sign! I should do the paintings of Ivan and Jonah when I get back to London. So stuff like that.
AS: Making connections with things going on in your head? I was wondering about your subject matter. You paint the things that are going on around you in your life?
MA: I am aware of what I do here, but it got to the point where I was really not in the mood to go to the dark for a little while, I needed a break. I also want to keep it fresh. The heavy ones are mentally exhausting. I’m not saying that the ones of the father and son are not exhausting but it’s just different.
AS: Why are the heavy ones exhausting, because the subject matter is very close to you?
MA: Sometimes it is and sometimes not. I can put too much in, of my feelings and stuff, it’s been pointed out to me pretty clearly but I think it’s the same if someone is writing or doing an intense scene in a film or something like that. A tension starts building up.
AS: It’s an emotional relationship?
MA: It is, but at the same time, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. Well, like Upside Down in the Transition gallery show. There’s a woman dangling, you don’t see her legs and there’s a lot of ambiguity in that painting. People have said to me ‘I don’t like it’. I say ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to like it’, then other people do like it. I’m trying to make paintings with feeling and power, with a presence to hold up to everything else, like billboards, magazines, Piccadilly Circus and you know, everything else (makes hand gestures like scrolling through an iPhone).
AS: The way you handle the paint looks like a balancing act, it looks intense and concentrated. The paint could have been slapped on, but you know it hasn’t, you know it has been controlled and it’s slippery and difficult.
MA: I call it aggressive surface control. The marks can sometimes be aggressive. At the same time, I like what Corinna Spencer wrote on her blog, that some of the marks are pulled slow, to get certain effects. I don’t like the word ‘dragging’ but you’re gliding through.
AS: So it’s not necessarily a fast way of working.
MA: If it’s working wonderfully, it’s fast, then there are times when it creeps really slow. The conclusion of a piece is usually two or three marks interplaying, ricocheting onto each other, creating some kind of sensation, usually. The most important thing is trying to keep open to things, accepting things that don’t happen in the normal way and moving with that. There’s this idea that the mistake is not the mistake. The mistake is what comes after. So if something is done which is a little bit odd, it’s what is done to compliment or aggravate that afterwards to verify whether it was a mistake.
AS: The response?
MA: Yeah, the response is more important than the ‘oh god’ moment.
AS: So do you know when to leave something?
MA: Well that’s hard. There are times when I’ve run out of the studio. Because you get this moment when you really have to accept what you’ve done and it takes a while because you have this idea in your head of what you want to do and sometimes you get really close to it but sometimes the idea of accepting something is really hard.
AS: When you start a piece do you have a strong idea of what it’s going to look like?
MA: I have an idea, but even the drawings are never close and also things that are planned out too much always look really dead to me. I stopped doing that. That way of working is not interesting to me any more.
AS: If you’ve worked it out already, there’s no working out left to do.
MA: There are people who want and demand that control. For me, the most interesting ones I do are where everything is on an equal level, meaning that any part of the picture can be pushed, pulled or re-adjusted in a delicate or aggressive manner at any given time and not to be precious about a specific part and realise that it is the whole thing that is really important. I mean some of my marks are aggressive and some of my marks are calmer, there are definitely certain types of approaches that I’ve been working with for the past couple of years and that might expand or contract. But the thing is I mostly just think about the colour. The marks.
AS: You use a particular shade of dirty purple.
MA: I thought it was from watching Purple Rain too much. I found this purple and I really like it. It’s in jars over there. I make some slight adjustments to it. The colour range breathes in and out depending on the imagery. For a while there were reds, yellows and deep sienna brown to depict a late night electric light.
AS: They feel really close.
MA: I used to work night shift at bars and restaurants. Those times are great because when going home at night everything seems a lot easier to see. It’s tonal, not chromatic. I really responded to the red colour range. For a while it was clunky then I became more conscious of controlling it. I liked the red because it seemed easy to lose control of it and I liked that idea.
AS: Do you limit your palette?
MA: I remember at University in New York, you’re palette looked like a freight train. I think it’s that student idea that if you have five different reds and four different blues, it will make it better. God, what a mistake that was. Limitations are good. I’ll shift something or change the tone but it usually starts from a compressed amount, and a decent amount of it. Even in the small paintings, if you mix a tiny amount and you put it down then that’s it, the mileage of that colour is over. If you mix more of that colour you can make that same mark or ten more like it to do something else in the painting.
AS: It makes sense, so you can change things. You’re not fixed.
MA: It’s important for me to have the ability to move from one part of the surface to another very quickly. That can mean the colour range or making sure that there is an amount of pigment to physically do that and that’s only done by preparing, preparing preparing.
AS: Some of the paintings are on aluminium.
MA: Metal is pretty awesome.
AS: Because it slides?
MA: It’s like butter in a pan when it’s just going. It captures the marks much more differently than board, which is probably the closest.
AS: The pumpkin strikes me as a particularly American emblem, you don’t feel that about it?
MA: I don’t know if it’s a love poem for Americana but it is strange and comforting to see them around here in Oct/Nov. The pumpkin goes back to that colour range I was using, but they’re weird things; they’re meaty. I got a pumpkin and I grabbed my power drill and drilled holes in it. The cool thing was when I was working on it I had the candles inside the holes, so it has this vanitas feel to it. One of the candles went out.
AS: Yes, it’s just gone out, you can still smell it.
MA: It had gone out and I was really chasing it, it was a lucky couple of seconds.
AS: The portrait hung next to the other pumpkin. Is that an actual person.
MA: Yeah, that’s my friend Derek. We grew up together in New Jersey. He was coming through London. For a while it has been a nightmare working from direct observation in oils because I didn’t have the same type of control as working from non-direct observation. So I abandoned that approach. When Derek was here I thought I’d give it another shot. I remember how weird his jaw was and I never noticed it before. It was really bizarre.
AS: How long did it take?
MA: This was fast. The paintings take two hours to two years. There are people who don’t trust their working methods when it’s finished in a couple of hours. I want things to be as good as everybody else does but there are times when the first thought is the best thought.
AS: There is something very fresh about that way of working that seems to be undervalued.
MA: It’s weird because you get painters who talk about Eastern philosophy and Chinese Dynasty landscapes and they’re done like that. Yes, there’s a great deal of training and planning that goes into those types of things.
AS: I would imagine that when you’re working that fast, something must take over in the way that you are looking and working.
MA: I don’t think that kind of thing can be described verbally very well. You become so at one with the materials in a way that conventional human dialogue doesn’t really work. I think that can go for any type of creative impulse. It’s a weird thing because you are bombarded by someone who is sitting in front of you, someone that you have known for a long period of time so there’s a great deal going on cerebrally and optically, and now you’re at two very different places in your life, those days are gone but those parts of your brain are still flickering in a funny kind of way and I like working with all of that.
AS: It’s not just anyone’s head you’re painting.
MA: I know people who don’t want to know the model, they want the distance but it’s never been like that for me. That kind of dislocation from the subject matter really seems a waste of time. I’m interested in the people I paint, but I’m also picky about the people that I paint. I think it’s trying to use a language to try to investigate something that is close to you and seeing where it can go.
AS: Can you tell me about the painting Christelle.
MA: I’m very happy with it as an image. It’s a memorandum piece and I’ve never done anything like that but I think it works well. It was something I really needed to do. We spoke before about how do you make a painting, I had previous watercolours that I had done and old photographic imagery and stuff and I really went for it. At Slade, Bruce McLean used to say, ‘when you know you’re hitting it, you’re hitting it.’ You have this ten minute groove, and it doesn’t happen all the time, but when you’re in it you’re in it and you just go. It was weird finishing this thing because I felt I was hitting it better than I’d ever done before but at the same time I really felt like I was losing my mojo with every hit. It was really bizarre like I was really in it but after each volley, my strength kept going down and then I don’t know if it ended because there was nothing left to me or nothing left to do in the painting, I just remember it stopped.
AS: So when you were talking about an intense period of working, this was what you were dealing with?
MA: I consider it intense. I come in here and I see where it all goes. I’m trying to stay open for things to shift and change but I don’t really know where it goes. I can try and will things and I do, but there’s really only so much, I’m not interested in choking it. That’s just boring.
Michael Ajerman can be seen at Transition Gallery until 11 July.