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.