Monday, 8 November 2010

Laura Lancaster talking to Alli Sharma at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle Upon Tyne, about her concurrent exhibitions at Workplace Gallery and the Laing

AS: Your paintings and drawings work well in Workplace Gallery, particularly upstairs in the attic.

LL: It’s quite ghostly up there and suits the imagery. I work from photographs and slides of strangers that I find on ebay or at Tynemouth market. Sometimes I find batches of photographs or a whole album or one half of a photograph where the other half has been torn off and thrown away. It’s the idea of rescuing and putting them back in circulation again.

AS: Are you quite detached from them, as it’s not your own family?

LL: They’ve been taken for one reason but then thrown away so there’s a redundancy or failure about them, because they’re not with the right people any more. They remind you of something but you don’t really know who they are. I’ve done a series of about 200 drawings from one photo album. It’s one woman’s life from when she was 2 until she was 60. It’s a really odd photo album. I made the drawings on the blank pages from old books. So I was using two found things at the same time and just concentrating on that. I wanted to make a piece of work that took a long time to finish. My paintings are fast so I wanted to make something that took a long time and I spent more time looking at the images.

AS: How do you make choices about the images you work with?

LL: Sometimes I try to paint an image and it doesn’t work, then I’ll try a collage and it works. Particular imagery adds something. I think it must be to do with the colour or composition. Sometimes I get it wrong and think ‘that was a really good image, why did it not work’. I like the process of discovery rather than illustration. Francis Bacon talks about the nervous system. It’s more direct than the concept. The concept comes after. It tells you what the concept is. You can’t ignore more conceptual work, but it’s finding that space that is particular to painting. It’s reactive, you react to something and that tells you something, and you react to that and it’s like a big snowball. It’s an exciting way to work.

AS: The text paintings could have been the backs of photos?

LL: That’s where the images came from. It was the idea that you could view the images like that, just like a statement. What if you could just do a painting of the statement?

AS: You could have just written it out, but you’ve spent time going over it, crossing something out, going over the line on the bottom, smudging that, pushing the paint around and getting it right in paint.

LL: I think it’s quite intense, because lettering is a fine line and you need to be able to read it to some degree. I can strip it down but then I’ve got to get it to do this thing that looks like an ‘r’ but then it’s doing it’s own thing and you coax it round a lot more. An image can be more of a mass than a line. Also, there is more of the idea that the reader ought to be able to read it, whereas with an image its more guess work and it could be something else, more abstract, so there’s a different relationship there about precision. But then you’ve still got the same gloopy paint that you’re trying to get precision out of. It’s new territory, so they’re exciting to make, when you don’t really know how you’re going to do something, because there are no habits there. Like the pencil drawings, but then it’s also quite scary because it could look terrible.

AS: The painting of the bus reminds me of going on a trip to Blackpool. There seems to be a social history documented in the work.

LL: They do remind people of their own things. People respond saying ‘oh I had that jumper’ or ‘that’s like my dog’ that kind of thing. I thought it was interesting that a lady is standing by what looks like the Acropolis, a really old monument, with it’s own history, and then this person is making a claim on it by having their photo taken with it. It’s a really odd thing that people do. There’s also an odd sense of scale in those paintings, which I enjoy. The people are quite small.

AS: You’ve increased the scale of the paintings themselves quite a lot.

LL: I was aware that the space at the Laing is big and that my work might get lost in there, even though you need a certain amount of space around the work. And I had some funding towards it, which helped. The timescale was short so I worked quickly and didn’t have time to be precious about it at all. It can be difficult to know when you’re finished. Sometimes, you can do just a little bit more and it can make the painting feel a lot less fresh. The Laing paintings erred on the side of under-doing it. It took maybe two sessions for each one. I spent a long time mixing up paint in big pots, probably about 20 or 30 different colours. The actual painting was quick.

AS: Did you have a few things on the go at once?

LL: I did one at a time, because I needed so many brushes and pots. I have a big studio but they need to dry flat. I want it to feel like it’s all come out at once. It’s hard to describe. But almost like it’s made itself and you get all of those lovely accidents. Once it’s dried, you basically have to paint it again.

AS: The painting of the skier is a strange one, with the goggles.

LL: Yes, in the paintings downstairs at Workplace, the eyes of the subject look back at you. Usually, in my paintings, the subject is either looking away or is less defined. I’ve been drawn to images that are looking back. I don’t know why. The graphite pencil portraits are about that gaze. I don’t etch like that much. They’re different to my normal drawings. They look like they’re the opposite of what happens in the paintings.

AS: Your drawings are very precise and obsessive, whereas the paintings are fast and loose?

LL: Again, that idea, wanting to draw in that detailed way, cross hatching, it’s about using the same mark, it looks quite soft but it’s the grade of the pencil. Using cross hatching instead of thinking, ‘that’s hair I’ll use this kind of mark’. Chuck Close talks about painting being like knitting a sweater, where each mark is the same, making something with the same unit. It’s quite different to my painting. It’s like doing something opposite in order to see what the connection is. It opens the image out and makes it 3D again, like you’ve removed the photograph and gone into the image. And being life size, it’s weird when you’re drawing and you realize the drawing is looking back at you. I think they’re more about my experience of making the drawings, whereas the paintings are more in relation to the viewer.

AS: So your relationship to drawing is quite different to painting.

LL: The drawings are obviously more slavish to the source. The painting is more about the push and pull between the paint and the image and that classic thing of it being two things at once. I’ve been making the drawings for 2 years but I couldn’t work them out because you have an idea of what you’re doing as a painter, and then this throws you off course. Maybe it gives depth and in the long run it will come round and make sense.

AS: It’s interesting about time issues between the two ways of making. Once the painting is finished, there’s nothing more to do with it. It can be made in a few brushstrokes which can be incredibly satisfying and then nothing.

LL: Maybe the pencil portraits are a way of extending that. Then you’ve got a weird relationship to time because the photograph was taken in an instant and you’re spending hours trying to recreate that instant but it’s odd because the person is sitting still, so there is a lot of different time going on. It’s interesting when you do something and surprise yourself. It tells you to do it and it’s good to follow that. Sometimes you have to work your way through things.

AS: Do you apply that way of working to your music and song writing.

LL: I’ve only been writing songs in the last 8-10 months but I’ve been in instrumental bands for the last 10-12 years. MeandthetwinS are my sister, Rachel, Paul Smith and Narbi, the drummer. Paul has been working with his band, Max├»mo Park and doing his solo stuff, so the rest of us formed another band, Chippewa Falls. I’ve just started another band with my boyfriend and the fourth is Silver Fox. Each one fulfills a different side of my personality. It’s like collage, drawing and painting.

AS: Do you do different things in each band?

LL: I sing in Silver Fox and play guitar in the others but they’re all different styles. Silver Fox is new. It came out of a semi-drunk conversation about there being no bands that were all women. So we formed a band and did a fundraising gig for the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle. We did cover versions and thought that we should write our own songs. It just sort of happened. It’s more collaborative than painting or drawing because you can take a little seed of an idea and give it to someone else and it changes, it seems to inform itself. You each chip in your ideas and it becomes a whole new thing.

AS: Your playing tonight? Is it local?

LL: Yeah, at The Head of Steam, opposite Central Station. That should be fun.

AS: You enjoy performing?

LL: I used to find playing guitar nerve-wracking but somehow singing is less so. You’re so busy doing it, you don’t have time to register people looking at you, whereas when you’re playing guitar you can look around. It’s scary but exciting. And the audience response is direct. You don’t often see people looking at your paintings.

AS: Does the title of your show ‘We are A Movement’ come from a song?

LL: It’s from a Young Marble Giants song called Constantly Changing. I was going to call the exhibition Constantly Changing but I thought We Are A Movement sounded stronger, yet more open.

AS: But you don’t title your paintings?

LL: Generally no, I want them to feel open, rather than vague, so I thought if I titled the whole thing then it’s more about the whole practice than the individual pieces of work, a kind of overview. There’s the idea of things being quite fleeting. I like a title that brings people in a bit.

AS: Is it important, to you, to make the work accessible?

LL: I want to invite some sort of reaction, but not necessarily the same ideas that I have. That’s where I get lots of ideas from, how people misread things. When I’m doing the songs with the band, I find it really easy to write lyrics. I don’t have to think about it, it comes quickly, but it’s different when titling the paintings. It feels like you need more reasoning behind it, whereas the music is more of a feel. I write lyrics on my phone all the time, and put it together to make songs. It could be interesting to bring the two approaches together, perhaps being a bit more instinctive.

See Laura Lancaster's new work at:

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne until 30 January 2011

Workplace Gallery until 13 November 2010

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Jake Clark talks with Nick Nowicki in his Camberwell studio.

NN: Have you specifically referenced imagery to get a particular palette?

JC: I go to seaside towns in England, and take pictures. There are certain colours I’m after which are to do with being by the sea. They’re more faded because of the light and salts, and also slightly decayed and rusting. I bring the photos into the studio and then into the paintings. So I combine images from different sources, posts from Margate and a house from Cornwall.

NN: Do you ever do any painting in situ?

JC: Never, but sometimes the photographs I take don’t have the colours I want and I realized by painting the colours I want onto the photographs I can trick myself and make a painting from that. A drawing or painting from a place, wouldn’t be the same as the photograph. It’s got all the tone and the structure, the realism that I can then use. Painting photographs has been a big thing for me.

NN: You could still paint over a painting that you’d done on location.

JC: I think it’s to do with the fact a machine has made this thing and it's concrete – it's there. And you know the source material actually exists. And it’s the quality, the tonal thing. It’s always about the harsh light. The strong shadows make the light even more obvious. Edward Hopper often used a diagonal shadow moving across to suggest the idea of time passing, a clock moving round.

NN: Is the Lino usually around the edges and at the corners of your paintings?

JC: It goes to the painting edge, nearest the wall, so you become more aware of it, as well as relate it to domesticity. When I’m painting, the canvas is on the floor, so I’m aware the Lino is where it might have been originally. Lino has a history. People have walked on it for fifty years. It's been in a flat or kitchen and when it becomes part of a painting it gets thrown into a different scale. There’s an intense, domestic pattern and then a tiny figure next to it.

NN: What do you think is the result of that contrast of scale?

JC: Playing with scale is to do with confusion and fragmentation. If you’re hot and hung over and look up at a hotel and then down at your flip flops and up again, that jump of scale is to do with the way your eye and mind work in that sort of experience.

NN: Every subject in your work is bathed in sunlight.

JC: Harsh light, strong shadows, and with the figures I’m trying to get the idea of everything vibrating, everything shaking, with the denseness of people and the heat, all moving together.

NN: It’s not the colours doing that, because your palette is muted and grungy. You’re getting the sense of this more from how it’s been combined.

JC: Those juxtapositions are what I’m trying to do with the Lino, that idea of something ridiculous, that counters the setting, undermines whatever you’re representing and plays with and against that. Sometimes it can suggest architecture but it’ll always be a ridiculous pattern. The word ridiculous is important.

NN: Why’s that?

JC: I like ridiculousness as a thing in life, contradiction, counteracting something, laughing at something, revelling in melancholy. I find it positive. It’s not about celebrating the past. It’s about revelry in the misery of it. I like going to Southend because it’s miserable, but exciting as well. It’s charged and feels very much on the edge. You get the train to Great Yarmouth and it’s the last stop, and there’s all this flat land and it’s quite nondescript and then you get to this full-on resort on the edge of Norfolk and suddenly it’s really exciting. Someone asked me about Martin Parr – is he mocking the people that eat ice creams in New Brighton? But I like to hang out in those places. The sea erodes as well. All these bungalows have painted gables, but they’re faded by the sun and rusted by the sea salt. It speeds up the aging, an anti-polished, anti-newness. Shabbiness is interesting. Maybe paint is like that. It’s shabby. I’m interested in the shabbiness it can capture. The medium is quite dirty. This is my palette.

JC: That cup sums up why I want to paint these subjects and not just leave them as a photograph. After the Rubbernecking show at Transition, LondonPainting did a blog about it and someone asked, ‘Was gestural painting the right sort of language for this sort of subject matter?’ I was interested in that comment, because for me it is important that they are paintings, gestural, layered and visceral. I think they were saying that someone like David Rayson or George Shaw, paint houses blandly and it’s about emptiness and photographic stillness. I’m interested in the emotional impact and how the house has history and all this stuff has gone on in it. Although it might be empty now, the paint rejuvenates all that, and I thought why couldn’t my house be painterly? Why couldn’t something that’s meant to be quite bland, still, flat and static be rejuvenated? By painting a house like this, it's trying to access all that emotional memory of people that lived there in the past – or also the idea of the perception, as I’m running round with a camera on a hot day and it’s all shifting about - what it's like to be there.

NN: A brushstroke seems like a simple thing, but it’s loaded with the humanity of doing it. But I can see what you mean about being in a suburban place and even if there’s no one about, it never feels completely still, because of the awareness there might be people inside going about their own private lives, and the sense of people that have been there in the past.

JC: Also you’re moving around it. A lot of these houses have been built for the car.

These suburban places can’t exist without the car. This is not a townhouse, it’s not a Georgian house in Islington, it’s an isolated house in a cul-de-sac where the car is how you get to it, and so most people see them from a car anyway.

NN: I wonder if there’s any other sort of ways in which the presence of an abstract pattern works that we haven’t got to yet.

JC: The punk thing of rejecting convention and wanting something annoying, disrupting the picture, something that shouldn’t be there, that most people think of as ugly, an ugly/beautiful thing. Most lino has a disgusting pattern. There’s been time enough for it to become aesthetic again, but at the time it would be seen as naff and a lot of people still see it as ugly. The painting shouldn’t work because often a quarter of it is a pattern, but for me the challenge is in trying to find the image that will fit with that domineering, nasty pattern. It might get buried slightly but its always going to be there, part of the painting. As the Lino is the first thing I glue down, it’s like an anchor to the painting that I’m always referring back to and fighting against, and it’s important to me to have that kind of tension, rather than just the white canvas. Most important is the atmosphere that comes through. The Lino starts that journey of suggesting the atmosphere I’m trying to get by being from those places, from that period of history. Also the Lino or the posts become part of that trippy perception of a place and how, if you look at the sun and then you look back at something, you get all these funny prismatic things going on, sort of flashing like a migraine. The patterns function that way too, like a vision thing.

NN: I’m fascinated by the multicoloured fence. Despite all the gestural colours that interweave, they’re still related to the colours you might expect the house to be, but not the fence.

JC: I see the fence as a cartoon language. The Lino is a cartoon language, too. It’s got an outline, bright and comical. I did a number of house paintings with these egg shapes and the fence is a continuation of that, cartoony and sharp. Again, something you wouldn’t normally want to be there, like the Lino, a funky kind of thing that breaks it up. This summer at Latitude festival I did an art installation of paintings. Because I had to hang paintings in a tree, I did something quite loud and different from what I’ve been doing.

NN: You’ve taken the golf-ball type things that you painted in the past and made them huge and they’re no longer tied to reality. The golf balls were quite explainable, but these are more like the buds of a tree, or every ball that’s ever been thrown and there’s been a time warp and they’ve all appeared at once.

JC: I like that. These are signs I painted pointing to things you couldn’t do, obviously, being a festival. You couldn’t actually go there.

NN: And this time you’ve painted a scaled up representation of the Lino?

JC: Yeah, these objects are quite big. If the Lino was stuck on that, it wouldn’t work, so I’ve blown it up. I imagined a campsite with pine trees, a resort no-one used anymore that I stumbled across, with derelict buildings, fences and funny bits of architecture which had been overgrown and left –a playground, a swing, a concrete picnic table, close ups of this fantasy setting triggered by seeing pictures of the wood and thinking what could have been there. The memories were from childhood – I was brought up in Majorca. I suppose it was a bit of a joke, because, going back to ridiculousness, I thought about festivals and music and camping and what people are there for, and I threw this concrete ugly resort in the middle of it all via painting just to annoy people.

I liked the idea of people going, ‘Oh god, this is a bit ugly.’ But for me, it’s not ugly. I was contradicting what was there. I wanted to have people take their pictures in front of it, as though it really was a resort sign. The paintings had to be quite loud to work in that environment, which was all very dark and woody. Kitsch ugliness - taking Majorca to Suffolk.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

David Blandy talks to Alli Sharma at his studio in Hackney, E8

‘David Blandy’s work deals with his problematic relationship with popular culture, highlighting the slippage and tension between fantasy and reality in everyday life. Blandy is searching for his cultural position in the world. He often uses humour to ask the difficult question of just how much the self is formed by the mass-media of records, films and television, and whether he has an identity outside that.’

Preview for "Child of the Atom" from David Blandy on Vimeo.

AS: How’s the show going at Seventeen Gallery?

DB: I think it’s going pretty well. I've had some interesting responses to it so far. I'm pleased with how the installation reflects parts of the film, it's something that I've tried to do before, but I think it has been a bit more successful this time. I've been working on it for about two years now. In fact, I had the first kernel of the idea for it when I was in Sweden at I.A.S.P.I.S. at the end of 2006.

AS: It took a long time to happen, did you organize funding too?

DB: I scavenged around for different bits of funding. The Daiwa Foundation, which supports Anglo-Japanese research, supported the travel part. I wanted to take Inko, who did some of the animation sections, but had to scale it back. Phoebe, my daughter, wasn’t necessarily going to be in the film until we got out there, and I realised she had to be in it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. But I was anxious, you know, putting your own children in your work. It can be exploitative. I consciously wanted all the camera shots of me to be from a distance, so that the location would become an important part of the film. It worked for keeping a bit removed from Phoebe too.

AS: She immediately brings in the next generation, the future, against your grandfather’s past and the present day trip.

DB: And somehow it made it more real to me, that kind of choice; would I choose my life instead of 100,000 people in Hiroshima? Yes, it’s only my life. But when it goes onto my daughter, I just couldn’t cope with the idea that she wouldn’t exist. It gave it another reality.

AS: How do you convey that sort of horror? Do you feel that because you have your own family story, it gives you some sort of ownership and you can tell it?

DB: I suppose I felt it lent legitimacy to my approaching it. The personal link was a significant part of growing up; an awareness of what happened to Pete, my grandfather, who was a Japanese prisoner of war. He was called David Piper but everyone called him Pete because it was a school nickname, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper. He wouldn’t eat rice or drive a Japanese car, yet he was generally a conscientious guy. He was a Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Ashmolean Museum, he wrote books like The English Face. So he was a learned academic and yet he still had a visceral reaction to things related to his time there, unable to deal with the history of that experience.

AS: And how it impacted on him.

DB: I had a Japanese pen pal when I was about six or seven. The family had to come over for business and they sent their son to my local primary. He seemed so cool because he could play rounders really well and draw accurately and played cool computer games. Even with that relationship, I think I remember my mum was anxious about telling Pete and what his reaction would be. Then I grew up falling in love with Japanese popular culture, Akira, anime and bits of manga.

Enter the Barefoot Lore Pilgrim:Origins, David Blandy from Seventeen Gallery on Vimeo.

AS: The TV series Kung Fu, or Shogun, would have been before your time?

DB: I remember watching Kung Fu with my dad. It must have been repeated because it was produced in 1971/72. I remember in the early days of video, when I was nine or ten years old, getting out Jackie Chan films and there was the video nasty, Shogun Assassin, a very bloodthirsty Samurai. And I grew up with Monkey, of course.

AS: Do you think using popular culture makes your work more accessible?

DB: One of the reasons I started incorporating the stuff into the work was because I didn’t want it to be closed and only accessible to people who had been exposed to that bit of popular culture. If you actually put the song, or clip that has become a part of my memory, a part of me, into the film, then I’m sharing that and making those links clear. I’m really interested in the idea of collective or shared memory. We all watch the same films or have these images going around in our heads. If you’re remembering a film, is it the same as remembering a dream?

AS: There’s a familiarity, even if it isn’t specific.

DB: I wanted Child of the Atom to incorporate sections that implied that they were part of an existing anime series. The anime parts are an amalgam of appropriated bits overlaid with drawings I made with Inko, a Japanese manga artist. The image of the atom bomb is from Barefoot Gen so it’s already an anime version of Hiroshima. That anime was based on an original manga, a survivor’s tale, slightly fictionalized, a day in the life during the war when the bomb happens.

AS: In cartoon form, that’s horrible.

DB: Yeah, it is horrible, but it’s in the same realm as Maus, the comic of the Holocaust, of Auschwitz, but it’s done from a personal viewpoint. It’s a survivor’s tale but, rather than writing it, you’re turning it into a comic book. I think it’s more foreign to us because manga is so pervasive in Japan. Millions of people read Shonen Jump every week and it’s a comic the size of a telephone book. They flick through and then get rid of it because if they kept them their tiny apartment would be full of comics. So if there’s a story they really like then they buy the collected edition when it comes out. The cartoon is quite a faithful recreation of the comic, so I took a few sections from that for the film because it just made sense as the bomb had already passed into popular culture. I also mixed in Fist of the North Star, which is based in a post-apocalyptic world, quite Conan-ish with some intense scenes of nuclear Armaggedon, and Akira is the third.

AS: So there are three different animations mixed into Child of the Atom.

DB: Yeah, and they’ve been altered so that the same character continues in each of them. I’ve overlaid different frames, animated frames, put glasses on one of the characters, little things, so that it’s the same character occurring and there’s a narrative. So there are two parallel narratives; the journey of me and Phoebe in Hiroshima and Miyajima, the little island shrine, and then the parallel narrative is the Child of the Atom falling to Hiroshima and witnessing, or creating the bomb, and then walking through the ashes and fire and then seeing the flowers of new life at the end. So those two coming together and that melodrama set against the banality of our tourist visit. But equally, I really like the quiet bit of me and Phoebe, sitting at the end of the pier, looking out through the temple gate.

Crossroads (2009) Excerpt from David Blandy on Vimeo.

AS: I heard someone ask you what you thought a moving image was and you said it’s like a series of still paintings. Your films do have a painterly quality. I was thinking of Crossroads. The camera holding on a particular moment for a long time, it’s very beautiful. I know Claire Barrett, your partner, does the camera work, so who makes those decisions?

DB: Claire does all the camera work and of course we talk about the feel for the film. I mean it’s a total collaboration in that sense.

AS: I was wondering about the painting comment, was that flippant or is there some influence?

DB: Well, I grew up with art because my dad’s an artist so I always thought I was going to be a painter until I got to my foundation course. I felt there was nothing new I could achieve. Then I realized the things I was really interested in were screen based, like computer games and videos and television, so if I wanted to talk about these things then wouldn’t it make sense to make them out of that media. Then it comes down to the editing process. Claire has some input but that’s my main job really, apart from messing around in front of the camera and organizing everything. But that’s where it becomes a piece, the rhythm of it, the choices, instead of just being a sequence of images. Crossroads is cut down from something like 12 hours of footage to 12 minutes. I knew that I wanted it to be a very still film so I made sure that Claire was hanging on for 15/20 seconds on every shot. So, it’s that thing of what is creative? Is it the editing? It’s artist-as-DJ, mixing the bits of existing materials. I like having Claire’s material like the found objects, the bits of pop culture that I then bring together and mix to mean something.

David Blandy is at:

Child of the Atom, Seventeen Gallery, London E2 until 2 Oct.

Mixtapes: Popular Music in Contemporary Art, Glucksman Gallery, Cork, Ireland until 24 Oct.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Paul Johnson talks with Nick Nowicki at his studio in Poplar, East London

PJ: I grew up as an oil painter, graduated from Glasgow in a painting school, but I never really wanted to pick up a brush, or start mixing paint. I was always trying to work out how I could construct a painting; how I could handcraft it. I started to formulate glass-paint and spray it onto cut-out pieces of paper, which I used to build up collages. I don’t really know what I’m going to get until I start putting it together. There’s a slight uncertainty with spraying, because you don’t have complete control over spray. As your consciousness kicks in, colours change and shift with your mood, so if someone ends up with a green chin for some reason, I allow that to be part of the making, as opposed to ‘Oh no, that’s gone wrong.’ So, in a way, I do feel a bit like a painter at times.

NN: The drawing of the soldier looks like you’ve painted it with watercolour daubs.

PJ: Some artists go through a process of simplifying things as they work through their career. I’ve found what I’ve done is complicate things and added more and more. They’ve ended up becoming more layered and more ‘painterly’ through the making. This green bit is tracing paper that I’ve sprayed and then placed on top, and the rest is sprayed by sectioning parts off. If it’s not right, it’s sanded away. Glass-paint has a stiffness, but I use it so lightly it’s almost like a dusting. If this was a watercolour and you didn’t like a certain section, or if you wanted to shift it once you’d put the paint down, obviously you’d be adding water or you’d be using a sponge, but for me, I’ll be getting out the sandpaper. It has similar possibilities where I can eradicate or keep things in. Again, it’s like a constructed watercolour. Physicality always returns in the work at every stage.

NN: When I first saw your work in 2003, you were physically covering up your collages with red polypropylene.

PJ: At that time, I was trying to contain physical worlds, and it felt like the process needed to be contained as well. But I had backed myself into a corner. I thought, ‘What next? Do I just stay here, hermetically sealed, or do I try to navigate my way out?’ I remember an artist coming to my studio and he put me on the spot. He looked at my collages and said ‘Why would you want to cover them up?’ I think strangely that comment triggered something I was already thinking, but wasn’t yet prepared to do. Like any artist, you make dumb decisions sometimes, and I made a series of yellow ones, and a series of clear ones, and the collage was still all sealed in. But the polypropylene had become an effect, as opposed to an integral part of making an image. Then I made a piece called Girl that felt integral, all the components felt right, and it only had one bit of plastic on it. It had elements of the red polypropylene series but felt like a whole different beast. The discs, that had been sheeny and covered, suddenly allowed their physicality to be seen. There’s still an element of containment, but it’s about her visual containment. For me, this was the key piece to move on and bring in elements that I was interested in.

NN: Talking about the presence of the poly-propylene, that's a strong artistic presence. You were very present within that work, as the keeper at the gate. And you are still present once that's gone, because of the way that it's been visibly crafted. I think you are strongly involved in my perception of the work.

PJ: I think that’s definitely a point. I was interested in that sense of clarity; when you think of something and you have the sudden urge to physically make it. I love that intention and I think the handmadeness of what I do, and the level of labour, speaks of the obsessional. Potentially, there are so many easier ways to make an image, and I end up giving myself a hard time. My Dad joked, ‘It’s probably ‘cause you’re Catholic, Paul. It’s probably just your upbringing.’ That I feel I need to go through this cathartic kind of thing each time.

NN: Could you go into more detail about finding the images, and the compulsion to make a particular image into a portrait?

PJ: It’s normally about being switched on, and looking, but the trick is not being conscious of looking. So, throughout your day, you’re susceptible to seeing things, whether it’s a bit of newspaper on the floor, an image on the internet, television, or an image of someone I’ve seen and sneakily taken their portrait. I put the found image on the studio wall and it lingers for five or six months. I keep looking at it on a day-to-day basis, and normally it’s this funny process of there’s-something-about-you-which-I’m-unsure-about, which turns into a compulsion to make an image of that person. But if I forget that it’s there then I just leave it.

It’s a slow process, and maybe a head will come from somewhere, a uniform or costume might be sourced from somewhere else, and then I’ll start to piece them together using drawings and photocopying. Fictional things then happen, and it becomes this person whom I try to present as if they are real.

NN: Because you’ve spent so long lovingly crafting them, it feels to me like you love these people.

PJ: Wow!

NN: But in actual fact you don’t know them. They don’t even exist.

PJ: No. There is a distance. I found an image on a boat in India, and after I’d made it into a portrait, The Lookout, people were saying ‘Who is it?’ and they wanted me to describe him, as if he was someone I’d had some sort of contact with, but the strength of the work is that there’s, hopefully, a mystery. That is something I’m interested in. How much do you believe and how much don’t you believe, and the space between.

NN: Is it a literal translation of the photo?

PJ: The photo was black and white, quite an old photograph in a Victorian frame. I’m projecting colours onto him, as if to give him some sort of vibrancy - a lot of images I’ve used are black and white or drawn from a photocopy and I add colour - to make you think about him as someone potentially real, or to give him a feeling of something quite current. I don’t want him to feel like he’s a Victorian photograph, or he’s from another century. His hairstyle and beard seem to allow him to be in this current day. I picked up another few photographs, and the rest looked like they were from a particular period of time, whereas he seemed timeless, as if he could exist then and now. When they are stuck in an era that’s when I lose interest. If I can convert them into feeling present, rather than past, they become familiar, as if you could tap into what that person is feeling, or the thought-pattern behind the eyes.

I’m hoping some sort of fragility is communicated through the image. And also I have actually described them in the past as being a sort of family of people, not in a traditional sense, but in the sense of disparate people coming together, through some sort of shared belief.

NN: Like a cult?

PJ: Yeah, and the work went through a point where the cultish element started to creep in, but now I’m more interested in the work being ritualistic without the symbolism being directly placed upon it. Venus Passing The Sun might feel like a ritualistic object, but it’s not explicit. There’s an attempt to make it more suggestive.

NN: Are you using your imagination more?

PJ: I think so. I’m just allowing things to seep in. Maybe I’m going through another transition. You always evolve as an artist, you’re always sort of moving. For instance, with this most recent one, I had the title in my head for years. It’s quite a tragic title, Portrait of Someone Slowly Drowning, and I remember thinking how would you go about visualizing that title. At the same time, I was interested in how I could pattern the surface around a portrait, but without it simply being some sort of decorative device. Instead of the background being blank, I wanted to fill it, so it’s almost as intense as the actual person, almost as if it’s whirling or swirling round that person. And in a practical way, I literally made him in bits. His mouth and his chin I didn’t really like, and in a spontaneous way I put him on in a temporary way without the bottom half, and instantly thought the image was enough. It feels like this portrait is almost being sucked into some kind of mental schema that’s floating around him, whereas in my previous work, it’s always a symbol or something physical floating over, something that’s real and tangible, but not actually there. This feels much more fluid. It’s got this crazed pattern, but it’s uncertain, and it’s clear, and you think you’re looking at particular things. Someone described the lower half as being like some sort of water formation, or some kind of crustacean, and I like that it’s suggestive, but doesn’t become definite.

NN: The abstract part could be part of him, like a body under a sheet, or it could be seen as a nervous system.

PJ: Ah yeah, something biological. I think that’s where the collages are starting to head. There’s openness to interpretation as opposed to a definite kind of badge, or symbol, or object floating over the top of someone. All artists make a body of work, and then they just reach that point of ‘Mmmm, what’s that one about?’ It feels like a bit of a jolt, but that’s really exciting. This feels like another evolution, a personal evolution with making these collages, and it’s good to let them grow.

Paul Johnson is showing in 'Newspeak: British Art Now, Part Two' at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 27 Oct 2010 - 6 Jan 2011 and 'BigMinis' - fetishes of crisis at CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux, 18 Nov 2010 – 27 Feb 2011.

Images courtesy of the artist and Ancient & Modern, London.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Michael Ajerman talks to Alli Sharma at his East London studio

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.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

David Harrison in conversation with Nick Nowicki at his studio in Angel, N1.

DH: This is the latest painting I’ve finished.

NN: Someone is peeping out of the trees, or something.

DH: It’s not made clear what it is. It’s the unknown watching. I’m thinking of calling it They’re Watching or They Watch or Do Property Developers Dream Of Electric Trees? I love the idea that we’re being watched all the time by nature. There are probably spiders and insects or mice sitting here now watching us. Man thinks it’s getting one over on nature, but in his darkest dreams nature can come back to get him.

NN: How do you approach composition when making paintings?

DH: I never really do. I just go for the picture and it seems to work its own composition out. I like to play with composition, take risks, put things where they shouldn’t be and make them work. I always like to put the dominant figure, like the owl, off-centre and uncomfortable. But after doing that I have to make it so your eye then travels round the painting to what the centre of focus is pushing you towards. So I painted the white zigzag in the foreground to lead your eye to where the owl is focused, which is on the running man and, in doing so, you see and feel the trees, the hare, the businessman, the watcher, the moon, and it all connects. So I think that’s how you work out composition.

NN: Is it on board?

DH: It’s on wood. Most of my paintings are on wood.

NN: How does the surface affect what you’re doing?

DH: I love the surface. I love the wood grain coming through. I love little holes. In fact, that’s how the yellow eyes in the trees came about, because there’s a puncture-hole from a nail. I have to prepare the wood, because it can warp badly, so I hammer in stretchers and cross bars to the back. Then I prime it with clear glue so bits of the wood come through, and then, when I’m painting, it guides me where I think, ‘that’s looking like part of the sky so I might leave that.’

NN: The people in your paintings seem to be imbued with magical properties.

DH: Nature is magical and we are part of nature so we’re part of that magic and we shouldn’t step out of that otherwise it’s working against what we are. No-one really knows what we are anyway. Things happen in nature that are unexplained and that’s magic. If people say magic doesn’t exist they should go into a meadow and sit there for an hour and see what happens. There’s always something else in the air. You can actually see atmosphere. Playing with perspective helps create that atmosphere in my work. There’s no such thing as a perfect perspective because everything moves, your eyes don’t just sit and look. We’re created with an eye that’s not a machine, it’s an organic moving object and we’re floating through space and time with nature.

NN: You’ve warped the perspective in this one. Is it new?

DH: It’s fairly new. I’m not quite sure if I’ve finished it. It’s called The Living and the Dead. It doesn’t tell you what’s the living and what’s the dead. You have to make your own mind up about it. This is an 18th Century Macaroni. They were the fashionable young men of the day and dressed, like the Renaissance paintings they saw, in beautiful velvets and frills. They used to wear powdered wigs that were three feet high.

They had an attitude – they never wore watches because they could do what they wanted, they weren’t beholden to anyone and didn’t have to be anywhere. They were rich and just walked around in the latest fashions; and they shocked their parents apparently. The Macaroni could be a ghost, and the fox could be the go-between two worlds where nature sees all. Foxes are like ghosts around the street. You see them and then they disappear before your eyes. They sit and wait and look fantastic and then every time I get my camera out, they’re gone. How do they go? This is a street. Where have they gone? The foreground figure is the fashionable man of today, an image of threat. He’s almost a ghost. The green colour is mostly compositional. I wanted it to fight with the other colours. So he’s not got his true colours on. Is that an ectoplasm colour? Is he living or is he a ghost?

NN: I like the wobbly wall.

DH: I drew that in first. I’ve been doing sketches of walls. I like the way brick work moves and it still keeps its geometry but you can put an organic shape in as well. What I might do is quieten it all down by putting a wash over it. Victoria Miro came and said, ‘Don’t touch it; leave it as it is.’ Sometimes, I’m blinded by what I’m working on. This was a quiet picture and it became garish to me; I get confused by the two worlds and two states of mind. I worry about changing states of mind rapidly. I’ll take it down and leave it on its own and look at it by itself.

NN: Is hanging them in this arrangement informative?

DH: No it doesn’t help. I need to put them in my viewing space just by themselves.

Sometimes I might take a week to paint a picture, then leave it for a week, paint some more, work on something else while I leave it up there for six months, and in another few days finish it. I suppose the leaving time is part of the process of painting. I’m still painting that picture even if it’s on the wall for six months so therefore the mental process is part of the work. Some of them are put away for a couple of years and then I get them out again and finish them. I always try to make something of what’s there. I never like to write something off completely. It’s wasting too much time. The older you get the more aware you are of wasting time. You just feel you haven’t achieved, so you’ve got to make this kind of real statement about yourself.

The Gate is another one I don’t think I’ve finished; I was wondering whether to have the hares white. It’s a landscape painting of a real place, but how I think it should be. I took photos of the trees, copied from the photographs and then put them away and thought about how I felt when I saw the actual trees. Sometimes you look at the photograph and it doesn’t look like the tree you saw. It’s best to get the essence of a tree rather than the look of it, because everyone sees it differently. At first I thought the gate was standing on its own, but when I looked closely there was a fence of very thin wires, which didn’t come out in the snapshot so I didn’t put them in. The gate becomes this pointless object, but it looks beautiful. It’s the idea of no boundaries.

NN: Do you listen to music when you’re painting?

DH: Music is a strong influence because you go with the mood of it. When I was painting The Mystic Spiral I was playing Gong – a very old hippy band I’ve always followed since I first saw them in 1970 in concert. The painting is about when I was in a medieval village in Somerset. It was twilight and very creepy and it was Halloween. And I got lost. I’m walking down the street feeling spooky, but enjoying it immensely, and I pass a tower, which was known for devil worship, and then bam in the middle of the village is this blood red Jaguar. It looked so weirdly out of place, but in place. And the registration number is S666FUN. I was like, ‘I don’t believe this!’ I photographed it so people knew I wasn’t lying. I waited for someone to come – I wanted to know who owned this car – I wanted some tall, dark stranger to come out and say, ‘Get in, you’re going to be sacrificed!’ but nothing happened. That’s Mikhail Bulgakov sitting in the car. I got a picture of him from the internet – film star looks, very gaunt and pale. He wrote a novel called The Master and Margarita, which has been a big influence on my work. It’s a book about seeing the dark side - a comment on the politics in Russia in the 1930s. Stalin was killing people, only in the book it’s the devil making people disappear, but, because of communism, no one is allowed to believe in the supernatural.

And then, of course, I needed a focus of where the car’s going to go, so I put the hare in to balance the picture. The hare is a sign, when it runs down the middle of a road, which it never does usually, that disaster is going to happen. The cat formed in the paint washes and so I painted it in. Whether I was looking for it, or not, I don’t know. I wanted to put something in that didn’t make sense, so I started to do that colourful little display – Hollywood-looking ghosts as they appear – and I wrote 666 in a shadowy form so you couldn’t see it, and then as I was doing it I heard this mystic voice at the end of Gong’s new album saying ‘Welcome to the mystic spiral’ and I said, ‘Oh that’s perfect, thank you! That looks like a spiral, I’ll join them together’ and I made a spiral.

David Harrison will be showing in the forthcoming portrait show at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1, 22 June - 30 July 2010.

'David Harrison' by Alistair Robinson is published by Philip Wilson Publishers.

A limited edition print, 'City Gent', to accompany the book, is also available.