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 na├»ve 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.