Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sigrid Holmwood talking to Alli Sharma at her studio, Streatham Hill, London

'Figure Painting', 2010, caput mortuum, gofun, lead-tin yellow, ochre, azurite and slate in parchment clipping distemper on kozo paper with tengujo tissue on board. Courtesy the artist and Annely Juda Fine Art

AS: You spent your weekend at a Tudor Group re-enactment event?

SH: Yes, we were doing a banquet in Haddon Hall, Derbyshire. I was working in the art department of the kitchen. On Saturday we made a pie in the shape of a castle with turrets and different fillings, like pork, pink custard and a strange 16th century pesto. Then on Sunday other members prepared a pig’s head by slicing off the face from the skull, sewing it back up, stuffing it and then boiling it for 3 hours. I then painted the head black with lard-bound charcoal and finished with marzipan tusks, eyes and a bristle brush comb so it looked like a wild boar.

AS: It must be amazing to have access to fantastic Tudor buildings.

SH: Yes, and we stay the night after the public have gone. So for breakfast this morning I had a lovely sour bread baked in a 16th century oven, actually, I think it was a 15th century oven.

AS: Are there lots of artists in the group?

SH: There are crafts people and photographers but then there are also accountants and IT people. And loads of kids because there are lots of families which is really great. People become expert in baking, leather work or ironmongery, all these things and, much like my approach to painting, they’re experimenting with materials, looking at what’s written at the time, but also by the act of doing, finding out what actually works.

AS: You make your own paints from pigments?

SH: I don’t make my all own pigments. I don’t make vermillion because it’s mercury sulphide. It can be synthesised but is also naturally occurring. You need a kiln to heat it, so in this period it would only be made industrially, not by artists themselves. That would be something they would go and buy. But yes, I make all the paints and all the pigments that artists would have made in the studio. Here I’ve got some madder, which is a pigment. I can pour that out so you can see it better. It’s made from madder roots.

AS: What is madder?

SH: It is an uninspiring looking plant but you grind up the roots and soak them in water. Heating it up turns it brown so I do it by soaking it in water with lye over a period of days works and you can see the dye coming out. These are birch leaves, they have their own smell. It smells tobacco-y. This is weld. It smells a bit pissy. My dress is dyed with weld so I like that the dyes used in the clothes are the same colours as one would use in some of the pigments. That’s fascinating. The world joins up.

AS: How authentic are your socks, did Tudors wear knitted socks?

SH: Yes, they wore knitted socks. There are all sorts of inventories. They also wore sewn fabric socks but I prefer knitted. You do find examples of things although socks don’t massively survive because they’re a bit throwaway. I didn’t knit these but knitting is one step too far for me. I sewed all my clothes.

AS: You hand stitched them?

SH: Yes, no machine stitching allowed.

AS: Who makes your shoes?

SH: In the world of re-enacting, you get people who make shoes, or pottery and they supply re-enactors from all periods.

AS: Do you need help putting on the corset? You’ve been trapped in there all weekend, was it uncomfortable?

SH: You get used to it but if you eat too much you suddenly want to get out. The key to wearing a corset is that you shouldn’t lean onto it. You should avoid it pressing onto you. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t always worn by working women. Trying to ascertain Tudor working clothes is a lot harder in Britain, than in the low countries, because there wasn’t the interest in painting them.

AS: You mean peasants?

SH: Peasants or even just working class. I’m not interested at all in the gentry with all their silks. I find that the least interesting.

AS: And well documented?

SH: Yes, they’re the ones we have paintings of in Britain. In this period in the low countries, there is an explosion of genre painting and it’s all linked-in with the birth of capitalism. The merchant classes and the stock exchanges began there and they were the new patrons of art. Before that, it was just aristocrats and the church interested in mythology, the bible and history painting. With the new middle class merchants, the new patrons of art, you get landscapes, peasants, still life, domestic scenes and artists specializing in different niches. It’s the predecessor of the art market we have today where artists have to specialize and find an original niche, which is their selling point and where art is about ourselves. So that’s part of my reason for painting these images. It’s actually the root of contemporary art. There’s a great irony, artists painting peasants only because of urbanization.

AS: You’ve just given yourself an extra bum bit.

SH: Yes, the bum roll, because in Tudor times, the question of ‘does my bum look big in this’ the answer you want is ‘yes’. You might have to give me a hand with tucking in my partlett. This was made of fine linen and used to fake being clean. You would have lots of linens but only one set of woollen clothes, and a Sunday best. These knives are my eating knives. You don’t have forks, that was a poncy Italian thing. So you cut and spear things and eat off your knife. They’re hand made by a guy in the group. So the final bit is my coif and then we’re done.

AS: Did you dye the fabric?

SH: I didn’t, that was a member of the Tudor Group. The thing about dying is that you need large facilities so that the wool can turn around and not get streaky so it requires a lot of space and drainage and some heat underneath it. However, someone in the group is setting up one in their garden in London so I’m hoping to go and dye some stuff so I can do it myself.

AS: Are you busy at the moment?

SH: Yes, I’m going to a gallery in China in August, I’m working with Vitamin Creative Space. They’ve planted Chinese indigo for me so hopefully when I get there that will have grown and I can harvest it to make some pigment. It’s in an urban farm in Beijing.

So, this is some gorgeous looking Madder. The crimson draperies in old paintings would be made with this.

AS: It’s a beautiful pink. It doesn’t look that colour in the tube?

SH: You get different shades. This was an experiment where I put in alum first, and then added potash. That means you get a warmer colour. I’ve made madders where I’ve made a cooler colour by putting in potash first and then added alum. They’re the two ingredients that you can play with when you’re making Lake pigments like this. Potash is alkali so it would be made with wood ash but it makes things cooler. If you think about litmus paper, the acid colours are red and yellow, and the alkali colours are blues and greens, purple so it works like that with these natural dyes.

AS: So what will you do to this madder now?

SH: I’m going to let it dry out completely and then I’m going to grind it up and wash it to take out any excess alum.

AS: You’ve also made your own paper from sheets?

SH: Yes, I have some here, with printed woodcuts. So the paper is made from my bed sheets. I burnished it but it still smells of my sheets.

AS: How do you go about making paper?

SH: First I cut up the sheets into one inch squares. You need a beating machine. In the 16th century you would have had large water powered ones where a big wheel powered by water sets off a trip and a big log comes down and pounds rags to a pulp. 16th century paper was made from the rags and scraps from linen and hemp fabric. Much like the pigment made from scraps of wool, you make use of a left over material. Once you can’t repair the linens any more they might as well be made into paper. Rag pickers were making a living by collecting rags from people and selling them to the paper mills. They were worth quite a lot in the end. Since I don’t have a beating machine, I send my rags off to a workshop in Glasgow and where it is beaten for me and the pulp sent back. I’ve got vats and felts and a friend who is also making paper to collaborate and share materials. We’ve made a press out of an oak frame and a hydraulic car jack because you need to squish all the water out to get it as smooth as possible. Then dry it. Because I was doing woodcuts I needed a smooth surface so I burnished this particular paper with the back of a spoon. I do have a burnisher at home which is agate but just rubbing a smooth hard thing across the paper will give you a bit of a sheen.

AS: Are these drawings on paper of people in the Tudor Group?

SH: Actually this is my apprentice. I’ve been inundated with offers from interns, which I think is indicative of young students these days feeling pressured into doing internships. I didn’t think I needed an intern because I like doing everything myself but then I thought it might be quite a good idea to play with the idea of having an apprentice and that relationship could be a body of work.

AS: She looks pretty fed up in this one. I wonder how many students imagine interning would involve stirring a pot in 16th century costume.

SH: I did explain! But yes, I think what has come out of the experience is a series of drawings that show the difficulty of the relationship. This is another student from the Ruskin and we did a painting circle, she grew up in Japan so she wore her kimono and we all painted each other. The idea is a women’s painting circle. The kimono is a lovely thing to draw. It’s more interesting to draw a kimono or Tudor clothes than jeans.

AS: It’s interesting, how artists choose to present themselves, as artists.

SH: It is, and the mystique of the studio.

AS: Most artists are open about their practices, but I can imagine some wouldn’t want us to know their secrets, and why should they?

SH: For me that’s quite important, I like to share recipes. It very much relates to movements such as relational aesthetics, where it’s about making work that deals with social exchanges that go on around art. Painters can seem isolated, stuck in their studios on their own and I think of my practice as fighting against that a bit, making it a more social practice. I also know other pigment freaks and we swap pigments... I’m not the only one!

Sigrid Holmwood's drawings can be seen at Mock Tudor, 60 Ravenscourt Road, London W6 0UG (open Fri-Sun, 12-6, or by appointment 07885 222409) until 10 July. She also features in the forthcoming issue of Garageland magazine, which will be launched at Mock Tudor on 17 July 2011.

Sigrid will be working in The Pavilion at Vitamin Creative Space, Beijing from 29 July - 27 September. For more information, follow The Astonishing Adventures of Lady Indigo. Resulting work will be exhibited at Annely Juda Fine Art next year.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Jeff McMillan talks to Alli Sharma at his studio in Shoreditch, E2

AS: Where do you find your drawings and paintings?

JM: I go to car boot sales or sometimes to antique fairs, there are a few good ones in the south of England. Recently I was in Belgium and went to a couple of great flea markets there. I found a trove of one woman’s whole school career, which included her primary school drawings all the way through to her high school algebra. I think they’re from the 1950s and her name, Monique, is on everything. The drawings are a bit awkward, but in a good way, though her geometric drawings are very precise.

AS: Is that what you look for, an awkwardness?

JM: I’m just looking for potential. It’s hard to explain exactly what that means, but I make that assessment and decide whether it’s any good for my purposes. With this show in mind, I was specifically looking for works on paper to go with a number of drawings I’d already collected over the years. Certain things strike you as having real potential, whether it’s something in a figure’s eyes or a certain juxtaposition within a work, and I particularly like coming across works that are not really finished in the first place. Two of the Belgian schoolgirl’s drawings are of a woman, in one she has no right hand and there’s an ‘x’ marked on her shoulder where the teacher has ticked off that it has been drawn incorrectly. Most of the drawings have comments and grades in red ink over the top of them. In another the woman is in a position of lifting her arms in a way so that after I have immersed the paper in a container of ink, she looks like she’s floating or trying to escape.

AS: Or drowning.

JM: That’s the sort of potential I suppose I am looking for, as though the drawing is asking for an intervention to become complete. At times it feels like a collaboration.

AS: Do you know what the geometric drawings are?

JM: They’re old-school geometry, along with the pages and pages of equations and calculations to plot them out. I think a French curve and a ruler were used to make them so precise. They’re very technical but still beautiful drawings.

AS: And beautifully presented.

JM: Yes always drawn in with this double line border. I’m sure they’re all done by hand, and she always puts her name, written very neatly. There are some funny ones where she’s got bored and worked out who was dating who on the back of the drawings, some with love hearts. I was glad to see that, you can imagine it must have been pretty rigorous.

AS: The dipping line works well with the geometric look.

JM: I became most interested in what colour adds to them, particularly when the inks bleed into each other, they remind me of 1960s film strips or at times they become almost Rothko-like. The effect changes them from something dry and analytical to something with more of an emotional content. Just coincidentally the basic half-dozen ink colours are very similar to the colour scheme of a series of cardboard box paintings I made a few years back.

AS: Is it important to use hand-made works, you haven’t used prints or photographs?

JM: It always has been in the past, but I’ve worked with a few engravings for this show. Some are anatomical studies that have been cut out from a medical textbook from the 1800s.

AS: I wanted to ask you about using old things. You might be seen as destroying something but at the same time you have rescued them in the first place.

JM: I’m ambivalent about it, and I hope the work remains ambivalent too. It’s a fine line, I’m obviously the one making the decision about whether they stay as they are or become something else, but I like to think there are other anatomical prints like these out there but these are the only ones dragged into the contemporary world in this way.

AS: The Chapman brothers make a deliberate point in defacing old Goya prints, but that’s not your concern?

JM: No, but then their work is more about being provocative. In fact I tend towards the other end of the scale, I love coming across a painting that’s not got much going for it, that only costs a fiver but I know will be great for what I want to do. And actually I’m not that interested in appropriation either. What I do is probably closer to a form of recycling - I sometimes think all the painting techniques and brushstrokes have all been made before, all that is left now is how we re-configure them. Which is the idea of the re-mix I suppose, there really isn’t much new under the sun.

AS: Is there something in particular about working with drawings that differs from the paintings?

JM: One main difference is that with the canvases, I only ever work with oil paint. I think in my very first painting class I was taught that you couldn’t put acrylic over oil or it might crack, but you could put oil on top of anything. So I have always thought of oil as the final paint, the ultimate material. But by working on paper I was able to re-look at that and none of these works are done with oil paint. Some are made with acrylic paint and some with ink. Ink is a great medium because it has different properties like the fact that it’s so much thinner than oil or acrylic and also its not totally opaque.

AS: The transparency doesn’t obliterate the image, like in the paintings. Dipping paper seems to emphasize its fragility. Some look so delicate, like a thin leaf of paint.

JM: The ink has dripped off the bottom edge and become more intense in colour and slightly brittle where it has accumulated. Some of the engravings have been dipped two or three times in ink so you end up with this strange thing where two inks overlapping almost create a black, though a ghost of the original image can remain as well.

AS: I bet it’s great to watch the ink soak in.

JM: The old engraving papers are 150 years old and bone dry. They are so absorbent that the colour ends up being deeply saturated so they become darker than works on a thinner paper. I’ve also been working with a vinyl paint called flashe, which is actually a sign-writers paint. It looks like a pure pigment or something, so a sign writer would paint with it and the brushstrokes would disappear.

AS: It’s very flat, but you’ve still got some bubbles in it, where it’s been dipped.

JM: I like when a work reveals its natural physical properties. In fact, all the work is what it is, and it is quite simple to see how it is made.

AS: So what decisions were you making about colour choices for
Untitled (Man with necktie), with the black and the vermillion red.

JM: It’s a strange mix of intention and intuition, I was interested because it’s a portrait of a black man, which is rare, and I wanted it to have some gravity so I used the black colour along the top. I was intrigued by his necktie and how it is not flush with his body, and it was just one of those things that is not easily explained. I think the brighter vermillion makes feel more exotic.

AS: It looks like a flag but I wouldn’t know what country.

JM: I don’t know either.

AS: So it’s not political.

JM: No, it’s not. Not for me. I think it has sinister overtones if you want to read that into it.

AS: Tell me about this one which looks like a blind boy with pointed ears, Untitled (Boy).

JM: If you saw the original image you would see it was just a portrait of a young boy but there was something about it once I started to take a piece of paper and obscure the lower part of it. There was this strange thing in that it wasn’t quite finished in the way the pupils had been drawn and then, for me, that was everything, an amazing point that makes it become something else.

Interview continued in Garageland magazine, Fake issue 12.

Jeff McMillan's drawings are at Consequences, four all saints, London W11, by appointment only, 25 May - 2 July 2011.

He is also exhibiting paintings at Mock Tudor, Transition Gallery Offsite, London W6, 18 June - 10 July 2011.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Claire Undy talking to Alli Sharma at her studio in Hackney Wick, London

AS: This new work looks very different to what I’ve seen before.

CU: Yes, I’ve recently made quite a big change in my work. It’s been two years now since I finished studying at Wimbledon College of Art, and I felt I had reached an impasse with my practice - I was refining it rather than developing it.

AS: Did you feel that you’d exhausted your enquiry with the paintings with the gestural marks?

CU: I felt like I was polishing it, I’d got to the point where I was experimenting with something so tiny. I was using different pigments to catch the light in a certain way, and the only thing I could achieve would be to work out how to do it and get it right every time. All I was doing was increasing the success rate of making these same paintings.

The gestural mark represents the act of painting. I was trying to put drawing in the process at different points, as I don’t like the idea that a painting is simply the final top layer and that everything else is hidden workings-out. I wanted to acknowledge the process of making. I don’t like the idea that as the artist you choose what to reveal and what to conceal, when it is the act of painting that I’m interested in and the process of putting it together.

I started by stretching a canvas and then I used tape and paper to mask off the shape of a gestural mark. I built up a gesso ground over the entire surface so that when I took off the tape there was an area of un-primed canvas left in the gesso. When I pulled the paint across the whole surface, the colour changed on the different grounds. I was using transparent iron oxides, so that the bits that would soak into the fabric would be dark and the bits that were on the white ground would be really bright.

AS: When you say pull across, what did you use?

CU: A wide brush because I like the marks with the brush. They emphasise the act of applying the paint, rather than giving a perfectly uniform surface. Then I used a smaller brush on the top layer of wet paint to indicate another gestural mark, which slightly mis-registered the first.

AS: So it looks like there are two marks.

CU: Yes, but neither of them were painted, they were made by breaking the surface at different points. The gestural mark is blatantly a gestural mark because I didn’t want it to be a shape or to have any deceptive space to it. I wanted all the visual components to be about painting: brush marks; or the visible application of paint.

AS: So you’re getting new ideas out quite quickly?

CU: Yes, I’m aiming to make a lot of these new works, hopefully around 100 this scale. They’re all quite rough and different. They’re numbered; eg S1 (S stands for studio). So if S1 leads to others they become S1.1, S1.2 etc so they break up and then I can experiment further into an idea. It’s like research. I like this one. I’ve been moving the weave of the fabric to make the image.

AS: Breaking the surface again?

CU: Yes, drawing with the components of the painting, with the fabric. I went to Amsterdam recently and there was a market selling fabrics with really wide weave on them. With this one, I’ve pushed the weave of it and then set it with size. I’m just playing really with different ways of trying to show their making.

AS: It sounds investigative.

CU: I’m interested in finding a way of communicating that’s not via language. I think that this could be possible through making a painting, which doesn’t discuss things outside itself, and so talks very directly. A hole is a hole and a mark is a mark and they only attempt to communicate their hole-ness or mark-ness and not any other kind of coded message from the artist. I think the only thing the artist can communicate is the act of painting, so if I made a mark like that [gestures], you can sense that’s how it’s been made.

AS: You’re communicating the action.

CU: Yes, that’s one thing I can communicate truly. Quite a few people have said that you’re only talking to a painter in that respect, perhaps this is true - I hope not. As a painter, you see a gestural mark and you can really sense how it’s been made, I hope that non-painters can relate to that gesture too.

AS: Getting something across without reference to an illusion, or trying to convey something without describing it.

CU: I want to talk in a way that anyone can understand. I don’t want to use art historical, or other cultural references, as then you’re speaking in a certain language to a specific group of people. I feel like this is quite elitist. If that’s all we can do now, where can we go from here? Some people believe you can’t make a gesture now without referencing something else, you can’t make any paintings now without referencing what’s gone before. I don’t believe we can do that indefinitely. Eventually it will become a dated idea itself. There’s a lot of interesting work that references other ideas, other art, but it’s also a barrier to discovering anything new. I think that we need to look within the medium itself, not through a series of changing subject matters to find out what painting can be or do in the future.

AS: That sounds like a pure way of thinking about painting, like it’s coming from a very particular history?

CU: Most people would say it comes from a very old fashioned idea, from Modernism; wanting to be self referential with the meaning inherent within the work and not referring to anything. But equally I think, for me, there’s a lot of idealism to that which I don’t have. On the one hand I share the aspiration to make objective art, but equally I think my work is quite realistically aware of its futility and it doesn’t have grand ideas of being a pure or absolute idea. It’s about its materiality and what it physically actually is, rather than a bigger notion about painting.

There seems to be two ways you can approach painting today, which is either to ignore postmodernism and cynicism towards painting by going ahead and making geometric patterns, or gestural expressionist paintings or whatever, or you can be ironic, referencing the idea of painting itself as an ideology. I think I sit somewhere between the two in that I still have quite a lot of faith in painting and its possibilities but I think it has to be a realistic, grounded approach where you can talk about universal ideas and communication through the language of painting, but without having an unrealistic expectation that they are possible. I’m more interested in discussing the ideas rather than believing that they are true. I think that just because something has been proved to be impossible, it doesn’t mean the entire subject is worthless. Simply being an atheist does not mean that you can’t learn a great deal from religion.

AS: Are you keen on art history.

CU: It’s not something I’m particularly keen on. Making abstract work at College means that you have to be aware of it because the criticism is that making purely abstract painting is a naïve thing to do and you either don’t care about it or you don’t understand it. I think a lot of people wonder how you can do it without being ignorant, or how you can do this with conviction. I really feel that you can do it with conviction and understanding of what you’re doing. It’s hard. There have been over 60 years of history in this area I could spend a lifetime studying and I wouldn’t ever feel knowledgeable enough to make a genuine contribution to the discussion. But I do feel I have something that I want to add to the discussion of painting and I think it has to be possible to make abstract work today without having to answer every question of the last 60 years in every work.

AS: It’s weird when you start thinking like that, how difficult it is to continue, despite the desire to engage with something, like you have to keep one eye on the past and one on what your doing.

CU: This is what Fade Away touched on. I think this is why lots of people make work within that bracket between abstraction and figuration because there is still an interest in abstract painting but if you make a purely abstract painting you instantly take on this huge burden of history. However, if you make an abstract painting and work something vaguely figurative into it it’s suddenly free from so much theoretical baggage because it’s no longer aspiring to this pure idea. There’s less to answer, you’re not adhering to an old fashioned school of thought. There are an awful lot of abstract painters my age but it’s hard to relate to an older school of thought about abstract painting. It’s a hard discussion to be part of. You’re an outsider, and although the work looks visually similar, in your heart I think it comes from a very different place.

List of works: S5, S7.4, Trouble, S7.1, S7.5, S7.6, S9.2, S13.1. All 50x40cm.

'Trouble' 2010, by Claire Undy, can be seen at Fade Away, Gallery North, Newcastle Upon Tyne from 5 - 26 May 2011, with free symposium/publication launch 3-6pm on 26 May 2011 and reception afterwards.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Phoebe Unwin talking to Alli Sharma at her Hackney studio

AS: You’ve been busy this year with a solo show at Wilkinson and the British Art Show 7. Do deadlines affect how you work?

PU: I find that it’s important to put deadlines out of my mind. I mean they’re there, but I don’t make work specifically for a show because I make what I make. But, as it gets nearer, you can’t help looking at what you have and what would go where and those kinds of decisions.

AS: I imagine the way you work can be unpredictable. You don’t use images. It’s all coming from your own experiences, from what’s in your mind, looking at things and seeing opportunities for paintings.

PU: That’s true, and because I don’t know what any of the paintings will look like when they’re finished, that’s part of it. I like that working process of being surprised by how something might look but that also means that it’s important to be comfortable with failure in the work in terms of making something, looking at it and then thinking it’s not quite right. It might be an interesting idea but the size is wrong or something, I really respond to how it looks in the studio.

AS: What do you do if you see something failing, do you try to make it work or do you scrap it and try something else?

PU: Sometimes I try to make it work. Sometimes I try for months, and then it’s scrapped. Or I try for months and it works. I might think at the time that it was a bad idea in the first place, so it’s never going to work. But then I find I might be drawn to the idea again and have another go at it a year later. There’s enough tension to get an image to work so if you’re getting too self-conscious and wound up, then that’s not helpful.

AS: The painting ends up looking too fraught or contrived?

PU: I think there’s an element of tension in all of them. They’re not completely relaxed paintings but if there’s too much tension then I think a painting can look nervous. And then it’s not doing the job of communicating something. I mean it might be interesting to make a painting about being nervous but then it has to communicate that well, rather than be apologetic of itself. That’s when they get scrapped; if I feel they’re like that.

AS: I’m looking at the girl figure in your earlier work, is it you or is that too obvious?

PU: It’s not meant to be, none of the people I paint are portraits. I think of them as being portraits for feelings rather than portraits of a particular person. But all of my paintings and subjects end up being things that I’ve experienced in some way. They’re not personal stories, but in order for me to explain what something might have felt like or a relationship to an object, in terms of space or colour or scale, then I need to have experienced it. There’s nothing fantastical about them.

AS: Are you losing the figure more, moving in an abstract direction?

PU: I can’t imagine ever being completely abstract because the aspect I’m most interested in is the relationship between a visual world that everyone experiences and how that is explored through materials and marks.

AS: You need something recognisable?

PU: In order to communicate this subject, yes. So the subject is actually really important. For me, it’s not a pure interest in paint and colour and painting. It’s also about these relationships. For me it’s a springboard into different atmospheres or moods or tensions.

AS: And they are invisible things.

PU: Yes, Self Consciousness is very much about painting a feeling. Or the subject of Brick Wall was the everyday but also the formal qualities of painting because it’s a flat painting about something flat. So I’m interested in these subjects that explore a visual everyday world but also the world of the painting and the object itself.

AS: How do you keep your ideas for paintings? Do you have a sketchbook?

PU: This is one book. It’s falling apart. When I work here I put in lots of different coloured papers and respond to marks and colours and so on in an intuitive way. I’m not working in the book from beginning to end. It’s developed as a whole. I have to feel excited or engaged with the page and if I don’t then I just move on. I’ve worked on these for a while and the only rule I have is that anything can go in them. It can be an insignificant thing like a note of a couple of colours that I like or it can be something about an actual place or an image that has been layered and built up. I describe this as somewhere to be really gentle with ideas so they don’t have to stand up for themselves yet. They might never be used for a painting. I like working with this size. I’ve tried working in smaller or larger books but this size is just right. I also like that they’re quite thick because they start to build up a rich body of images. This is where I begin with all the different types of materials. I use acrylic, graphite, pastel, ink, and printed papers. And using coloured papers gets away from that feeling of a white, empty, blank page.

AS: When it comes to a painting, is there a white blank canvas or do you have to mess it up first?

PU: I think I need to mess it up but I’m not intentionally messing it up. I’ll think I’m just starting a painting but at every stage I’m looking at that and responding to the scale and the way the colours are because they’re not planned. Whatever I feel the subject demands will change my approach. Brick Wall started in a relatively controlled way by making a background of bricks, almost like creating a space to work within and respond to. So I knew I was making a painting of a brick wall and I knew how I was going to begin, but I didn’t know what it would end up looking like or how it would feel working within that pattern or that scale or combination of colours. Something like Self-Consciousness was started by putting colours and textures together, especially the oil paint which was quite impasto, and seeing and feeling where the painting would go. So building up to the image, rather than beginning with an image and working within that. They each have different approaches.

AS: You’ve used patterned papers in your sketchbooks, like the chequerboard. What does pattern do for you in a painting?

PU: I used a lot of pattern in the last show. The printed chequerboard and brickwork papers in the sketchbook, is where I first thought of it for painting. The pattern I have been using recently is about exploring a certain sort of rhythm in the paintings. I describe it as a constant hum or drumbeat. It’s a space to work within, which then gets interrupted or, like in Three Bananas, it’s reversed because the background is stronger than the subject on it. The banana shapes are like stains, almost like something has been taken away. So the movement and the focus of the painting is the chequerboard which is also a hand made mark, it’s not really a neat chequerboard so that was important. And then with Brick Wall there are elements where I’ve masked off the pattern which is much more graphic and controlled but then that pattern is echoed and mimicked in handmade brick marks using the different reds. So sometimes its about interrupting something and also an echo or reverberation of a mark or colour.

AS: Do the same motifs crop up?

PU: They do but in the sketchbook they’re not judged too much, they just live there. Elements of them are used when I’m ready to use them but very rarely are they scaled up from here. There might be an element of a composition that I take from the book but usually it’s a material element.

AS: There doesn’t seem to be any hierarchy with the different materials.

PU: That’s really important. One of my main reasons for using different materials is colour, because I feel that a colour is different in say an oil paint, spray paint, acrylic or pastel because they have really different surfaces, qualities and connotations. An oil paint mark might seem more controlled than a spray paint mark. It’s got a different speed to it. A spray paint mark, especially with the fuzzy edge, records what it was like to make it, which is quite magical. You press the top of the can and you can just keep going. It’s fast and it covers everything in an opaque way. Whereas there is a very different relationship with making, in that sense, to then being with a brush and a more gentle type of mark making. So I like using both of those languages, and all different types of languages with marks. With this page, there are so many elements in it. I’ve got this table from above and the carpet. There might be just one element of this that becomes a painting. And different viewpoints are important in the work.

AS: I’m surprised you said that was a table, it’s looking down from above.

PU: That’s like Sponge Palette in a way, it’s a palette with the thumbhole, and so you’re looking at it from above. Again, there’s pattern, and the sort of echoing of that background pattern and also a combination of colours about painting itself. I called it Sponge Palette because one aspect is that colour and form, for me, are indistinguishable from the subject when they are worked up. That’s my aim in a painting, to achieve, if I feel that I can, the colours and forms to be just those ones necessary for the painting, not to have any that don’t need to be there. So in a sense, the subject of the painting is as inspired by the colour and form. I almost see a subject in a colour combination in a painting in the way that it almost feels like a sponge or something, that the painting becomes saturated with these feelings or atmospheres.

AS: It’s an interesting way to describe a painting, like a sponge, like it sucks in all this stuff, ideas and materials, and becomes visible.

PU: I’m making it sound quite mystical. There are definitely a lot of felt qualities that are really important to me. And it is that thing about a sponge of sucking things up, the subject becoming really imbedded and saturated in the painting itself and in the colours and shapes, but there’s another element. The rigorous editing and appraisal of the work is really important to me. There are real formal aspects that come into play, especially as the painting gets further on, where I’ll be really thinking is it working in terms of subject, is it working in terms of scale and in terms of the painting itself.

AS: It sounds like you’re very controlled about what goes in.

PU: I am but when you speak about paintings in retrospect, because you’re talking about all the ideas, you can’t help but make it sound like ‘when I got to this point I was thinking this …’. But, when I’m actually working on a painting, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to put into words why I chose to get rid of a whole section or decided a painting failed, because I’m working really close to it, and working very quickly, but also so close to instinct and response.

AS: Can you describe the process for making Sponge Palette?

PU: The ground of Sponge Palette is made with an acrylic medium called crackle paste so it’s breaking up the surface. It’s meant to and it makes the surface very spongy. It feels absorbent. Because of the little cracks, the paints run into each other. Different surfaces in paintings are as important as marks because it completely changes the marks on top. I find that quite fascinating. Again, the pattern was made first so I’m working on something that is already visually dense. This palette shape, almost like a picture frame, is translucent so that the pattern is visible almost all the way through it. There would have been, in this painting especially, a real interest in layering and communicating the kind of time and visual conversation that happened in the painting. Some of my other paintings are more sparse and economical in line so they don’t have that sense of layered time. They would be about some other atmospheres or moods or tensions that I’m interested in exploring.

Sponge Palette, 2010 can be seen at Fade Away, Gallery North, Newcastle, 5-24 May 2011

Images courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery


Sponge Palette, 2010

Girl, 2009

studio photograph, 2011

Self Consciousness, 2010

Three Bananas, 2010

Brick Wall, 2011

studio photograph, 2011

Sponge Palette, 2010

Monday, 17 January 2011

David Wightman talking to Alli Sharma at his Hackney Wick studio

DW: People hesitate to call them targets but that’s what they are. When I first started doing them a few years ago, it was an attempt to mock formalist geometric abstraction. So I took on different abstract motifs, like the target, square, and stripe.

AS: I don’t know much about geometric abstraction, who are you referencing?

DW: The most obvious would be Kenneth Noland. He was part of the formalist Greenberg school in America, which has now been utterly rubbished and no-one talks about those artists any more. The Last Stand of Modernism is how I like to think of it. I looked at different painters within the geometric abstract movement, going back to Albers and Mondrian where its all about colour and form and shape. You know, someone will spend their life painting targets or squares or all-black monochromes. A mix of purity and weirdness.

AS: Are there any contemporary painters you look at.

DW: There are people like Peter Halley. He makes abstract paintings but they’re symbolic as well. I like the idea of abstraction having all these kinds of concerns attached to them, like hard-line abstraction, geometric abstraction, post-painterly abstraction, colour-field painting, and the difference between them is whether someone is using masking tape or not, little things like that.

AS: So you started with an ironic intent.

DW: I suppose I used typical art school irony where you look at the past and make fun of it, but it slowly turned into more of a lament.

AS: Was there something in particular that changed your perception?

DW: I had an idea of what I wanted to do and what I was making fun of (or ‘critiquing’ is what I would have said at the time), but the more I looked into it, the more I began to feel sorry that that endeavour had ended and the pursuit of abstraction had come to an end.

AS: Do you mean the seriousness about what painting could be?

DW: Yeah, at first I found it overblown and pretentious and then I immersed myself in it and I wished I could carry it on. I wished it was still up and running and I could be part of that lineage of abstract painters. It wasn’t until I really looked at that kind of work that I realised something was missing. Something had been lost, maybe a sincerity or a seriousness or some kind of aspirational quality to that kind of work had been put aside or had been trumped in favour of irony or something like that.

AS: Did you come to that realisation at art school or later?

DW: Once I’d left art school and stopped explaining things to other people. Once I was in my own studio and I could have fun and things didn’t necessarily have to make as much sense, I started to think differently about my work. Justifying things endlessly at art school can close down what you want to pursue. Can I really explain this kind of weird pink? I mean there’s more to the work than that, but for me it’s rediscovering something that’s lost so that’s how it started and so I began to see it more as a lament; a lost idea of art. Maybe that's pompous or just a bit silly, or maybe I’ve got my own idea of what it is and it never really existed. It does seem that formalist abstract painting was the last time painting took itself seriously. After that everything was different – and a lot of it is fantastic - I’m not wanting to return to the past.

AS: I like this one, it makes me think of the Tudors.

DW: Yes, it has references to non-art historical points but you can see it as a weird take on Ad Reinhardt which was the intention but it became something else, especially with the texture, it changes everything.

AS: Tell me about the wallpaper.

DW: The wallpaper was chosen for being cheap, tacky, un-aesthetic, something disregarded. That’s how I felt about abstraction at the time and this was me thinking I was witty. So the paintings weren’t dissimilar to what they are now but the intent was profoundly different. I was painting with household emulsion, in magnolia and cream and those clichéd household décor colours so everything made sense and I could talk about them very well. The wallpaper was critiquing pattern and design and abstraction and the decorative nature of what it may become or what it may mean. But they were ugly paintings and there was no real sincerity to them. They made sense and my tutors thought they were interesting. But I didn’t enjoy painting them. I could say it was a critique of colour painting and formalism but it wasn’t really, it was just an empty shell of a bigger idea. And, like I say, they gradually became something else; I started to miss the intentions that I’d mocked. Then I started to explore colour, slowly and tentatively, but only after I left college. I felt I couldn’t justify it there.

AS: Really, because colour is vulgar, or tasteless?

DW: There was always the notion at art college that colour was seductive and therefore should be ignored or used sparingly.

AS: You mean an easy hook?

DW: Yeah, but I don’t really agree. I think that’s a narrow view of what colour can be. It seems to be such a shame that a massive aspect of painting, probably the most important, immediate aspect, would be so thoroughly disregarded. When I was at college everyone would make purposefully ugly paintings, and I did the same. So when I left, I felt amazingly free to start exploring colour and using acrylic and to look at art in a different way, without being as prejudiced. So the wallpaper stayed and colour came in and the wallpaper, like the abstract motif, was used mockingly. I hated it, in a sense, because it was so cheap and tacky but I gradually grew to love that and I became a connoisseur of wallpaper and started to think about what it meant to me. I started to think about the house I grew up in that was full of this wallpaper and what it was supposed to mean back in the late 1970s. I felt that I had been working with two things that were very similar; abstraction and some sense of aspiration. But ultimately they had both failed or gone awry or been prematurely ignored. I like the idea of failure being inherent in abstraction, at least in modernity and the same sense of failure embodied by wallpaper.

AS: You mean wallpaper in your home was aspirational?

DW: DIY became really big in the mid to late 1970s when my parents decorated their home. It was about trying to aspire to something else, either some strange mock stately home or a weird contemporaneous vision of design. A weird blend of different elements thrown together and ultimately it’s just paper on a wall, and you don’t live in a stately home, it’s a small house in Stockport. But that sense of aspiration is still there, even if it’s failed. When I was at the Royal College, Lord Snowdon, who was the Patron of the College, came to visit and he loved the wallpaper and he was saying how he had it in his home. I had to explain to him that the wallpaper he was commenting on was actually the imitation of what he has. This is the cheap alternative, this is what people, who can’t afford what he has, buy to try to signify something else.

AS: There is that familiarity about the wallpaper, so I wonder if they speak of a particular decade.

DW: To me, it does, of growing up in the 1980s. My house was out of date by a decade. People say the patterns and textures are 1970s, but we were just ten years out of date. So I have these two elements, the wallpaper and colour and a different way of how I was looking at abstraction, I had a technique as well, which was quite laborious: collaging pieces of wallpaper together.

AS: How are they made up?

DW: Every piece is separate and they’re all cut to fit like a jigsaw, almost like marquetry.

AS: How do you cut them?

DW: Just with a scalpel – a surgical knife.

AS: Although they look slick, they actually involve a very hand-made process.

DW: Yeah, you could say they’re too perfect, but they're as perfect as I can possibly make them. Every single piece is an individual piece of wallpaper. Nothing overlaps. The abstract pieces are simpler, but the landscapes become quite complicated and there could be hundreds of pieces so they are very hand-crafted which is something else I wanted to elaborate on, rather than being against something that is hand-made and beautiful and textured and all those things that you’re not really allowed to do now. I stretch a canvas, put the wallpaper on, so they look quite scrappy at first. It takes a lot of scrappy preparation to make them that perfect. Then they’re sanded and primed and then I start painting.

AS: So they’re painted afterwards.

DW: Yes, and I paint from light to dark. But with the abstract pieces I usually try to work out the colours with these small modelli on paper. It’s just a way of working out colour and form, some of them I don’t even use. It’s far more labour intensive than I think the end product suggests. It’s a shame in a way because everything looks so perfect; it's easy to think the process must be quite simple.

AS: So how do the landscapes fit with the targets?

DW: I wanted to do what I was doing with abstraction and wallpaper but with something figurative or using a landscape. So I started to look at landscape imagery, especially clichéd mountain images you might find on a chocolate box. Images that seem familiar and beautiful but ultimately banal, which I think relates to the wallpaper. Something that is quite attractive but so commonplace it’s easy to overlook. I wanted to take another look at landscape painting and see if I could do something with that, reinvigorate it or see if I could use a similar technique to the abstract paintings to create an entire surface out of wallpaper.

AS: You limit the colour in the landscapes.

DW: I think the pink is brighter because the rest is greyscale. I like the idea of the greyscale standing in for a photograph. It’s quite documentary-like. The landscapes are a new thing. The first ones I painted using the original colours of the photographs, bright blue skies, green grass, white mountains. It quickly became tiresome and I missed the freedom of abstraction where you can use any colour combination you want. So it was an attempt to try to utilise that, especially with colourful skies and heavily floral wallpaper.

AS: They’re graphic, less about material.

DW: They’re graphic in the way Mondrian, Ad Reinhardt or Frank Stella are graphic. I’m making work about the geometric side of abstraction, it’s not expressionism or gestural mark-making. The squares are based on Josef Albers’ ‘Homage’ series but his are very placid, light yellows and cream or slightly greyish colours - subdued. I tried to do the opposite of that, bright and camp.

AS: You embrace the camp or kitschness of the work?

DW: I think it’s inevitable with the wallpaper; it’s impossible to avoid. Camp in the sense that it tries to be serious but it can’t take itself seriously, not just something that’s tacky or bright and brash, but something that has an intent and fails. It’s not that they fail because they’re bad paintings, they fail because abstraction, or this kind of painting, or even mountainscapes, don't seem to exist as a serious pursuit any more. It’s just me doing it on my own and the wallpaper is something you’re not supposed to use in serious art-making. So I’m making what I think are very serious paintings using two monumental things, mountainscapes and abstraction, out of wallpaper and bright colours. The subjects themselves are almost too big so they have to fail, or they have to have failure built in otherwise they’re pretentious and overblown.

AS: I try to get my head around kitsch but it’s a word that is bandied about but can’t be pinned down.

DW: People ask me about that. It’s not something I think about that much or purposefully try to take on, but I think it's implicit in the work. It’s not kitsch in a Jeff Koons sense. It’s not really celebratory kitsch, it’s more sad or melancholy kitsch. It’s the kitschness of a beautiful Alpine landscape on a cheap box of chocolates. Koons deals with a bigger, brasher, louder, funnier form of kitsch. I think if you try to incorporate kitsch in your work, it instantly stops being kitsch. Self-aware kitsch isn’t kitsch.

AS: I was thinking of a sad, sentimentality related to the wallpaper.

DW: There’s always that sense of nostalgia, which is different from sentimentality. I think for sentimentality, it has to be based around an object or thing. I think nostalgia is just a feeling, which is evoked by wallpaper or landscapes but you can’t clinch it, it’s not this object or this thing, it’s more these objects or these things. Perhaps that’s the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia. All those words are hard to talk about because we know what they mean but there’s something about these words (nostalgia, sentimentality, kitsch, aspiration) that when you try to define them; you lose the quality of what they represent.

David Wightman is currently a fellowship holder at the Berwick Gymnasium Arts Fellowship, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland until April 2011.