Friday, 11 April 2014

John Mills talked to Alli Sharma at Weekend Gallery in Los Angeles

Fried Fountain, 2013, oil and graphite on canvas, 36x36"

AS: When I look at your paintings I imagine some of the marks are made from felt tip pens, is that something you use in your drawings?

JM: Most of my paintings are based on prior ink drawings. For a long time I used black ink on paper, then I discovered coloured markers and that opened up the process because then I could start drawing with colour as a means to create composition and think about how shapes and colours interact on the initial drawing surface. It was a revelation, but I have been doing this now for a long time. So the painted marks reference prior marks that I made in a drawing process. Sometimes they’re mediated to appear almost precisely how they were originally in the drawing and sometimes I allow the paint to be thicker or barely there at all. I diverge from that script often by using the tactility of the paint, how paint behaves differently to ink.

AS: Do the same motifs crop up in the drawings?

 JM: I have this thing for loopy, curvy shapes that reference things like language. I use a lot of signs, they could look like letters or numbers but then they can become pictures in themselves, like hieroglyphs. It’s a distillation or meditation on language, the language of forms in a way, but also the language of seeing in the world and making sense of how we, as humans, come to spoken and visual language. Writing is a visual experience and letters originally started out as these symbolic shapes but when you learn language you forget about that. You see words, but in reality they’re just pictures. I find that fascinating, how our brains function and how we perceive things in space. There are forms that coalesce, some more obvious than others. In these pictures we’re looking at now, that one has almost a distinctive head, which is uncharacteristic of my recent work.

AS: So if that starts to happen do you do something to stop it? I can see things are rubbed out and over.

JM: It’s a thin line. I like references. I like things that look like things. I like a shape that looks like a bird or whatever. To me, this is like a leaf. At one point I had this painting upside down and this looked like a bird sitting on a branch so there are these forms that happen, made by marks. I try to play it up but my goal is often to reference things but not have them explicitly defined, so that when you see it you don’t quite know what you’re looking at.

AS: It seems to me that there are two distinct things happening with these thin lines and then bolder filled-in forms of things.

JM: I am trying to create a balance between a plodding, thick approach to making sense of a picture and then there are also lighter, sinewy lines that come in. It’s about a nuanced, yet clumsy, way of depicting something. As an analogy to being a person in the world, we’re imperfect and you can’t know the answers to everything, so the imperfection of what I do is about that. It’s about trying to be real in the sense that you accept your limitations as a conscious entity.

AS: We went to see the Calder exhibition together at LACMA and there were lines and forms and the idea of balancing things, was that something you could connect with?

JM: Absolutely, but the imperfection I was talking about is the conceptual difference. When Calder came to the fore in the 1930s and 1940s, it was proper modernism. People were trying to make something beautiful and transcendent, and in his case, also surreal.  I guess I try to do the same thing, however, I exist in the 21st Century where all these systems and ideas about oneness, linear progression and the abstract expressionist sublime got turned on their head with postmodernism. Things are no longer so certain and I think that is the precariousness of our times, right now, the climate, everything, its all a mixed up fragile jumble. So I really do appreciate Calder’s simplicity in his constructions. There is freeness and a wonderful focus on a level of form that is very beautiful and poetic. I try to go for that but, in the end, I want to include the dirt of things. These grounds are ruddy and if you look closer often I have been scrawling-in marks, almost like graffiti, as if I am tagging my own work.

AS: Sounds like sabotage?

JM: I like layers, flat layers. You see a surface on a train and one person came along and did this then another person came along and did something else but its all on a flat plane and there’s all this overwriting happening. I really appreciate systems that get overwritten, like modernism being overwritten by contemporary life and all its dysfunctions. The result I think is an existential strangeness that can feel alien or uncanny. 

Gentle Land, 2013, oil and graphite on canvas, 36x36"

AS: Like in your work, you can see a layer of something that was there before.

JM: Up until a couple of years ago all my grounds were gesso and so the marks would sit on top of an empty plane. Then I started painting all the ground with white frenetic brushstrokes prior to painting the coloured parts and that has become an interesting process for me because preparing grounds has become a thing in itself. So there is this surface that I modulate and it has become more and more dirty. I paint this first and then I make these marks and what I’ve been doing is taking pencils and carving into the wet paint (and sometimes later when its dry). I do this part without the foreknowledge of the image that is going on top. So I try to create systems that are overlapping and incongruent, but they fit in the end. It’s a mash up.

Maidstoned, 2013, oil on canvas, 54x54"

AS: You deliberately mess up the blank canvas and start to build using your own rules?

JM: That’s definitely part of it. What I like about my process is that I do these drawings, small scale on paper and then I translate them into a larger scale in a painting form with a brush. A line that maybe took a second to do with a pen takes me a while to do in paint. I mess around with how I put things down and so my process is a meditation or investigation of my own subconscious, because the images start out as these freeform drawings, but then, when I paint them, I am methodically trying to get inside my own head. Why did I make this?

AS: So you go back to the drawings to try to understand them?

JM: Yes, in a way it’s a mental analysis and I think of it as to do with the construction of one’s identity, as a person, and what does it mean to be a conscious being. So, looking at what I have done, this thing I have created, and trying to make sense of it by translating it into a painting.

Just Like a Prayer, 2013, oil on canvas, 54x54"

AS: Like a more conscious way of doing it?

JM: It’s more conscious but then I also try to step outside of the descriptive sense of things. I’m saying ok, I’ve got this line here in my drawing and I try to do that but then other times, when I paint this I might try to make it rougher or different to how it was and try to subvert my own systems.

Shelter, 2013, oil on canvas, 78x78"

AS: Once you’re into the translating phase of making a painting do you come back with the white again and cross things out? Do things start becoming more integrated?

JM: There is definitely an integration process that happens at the end, like these little subtle shaded smudgy areas. I include those a lot and maybe go back and draw things so I try to get to this balance.  But for me, a balance may be what someone else may consider an imbalance. I like this clumsy painting over a line where I paint white back on top. And I put in this shading area. This painting wasn’t working until I went back into it and did these things and I also put in these pencil marks and for some reason that’s when it started to click for me. The space was too empty and simple so I needed this complexity. A very different thing happens in a drawing and in a painting. As a thing, a painting has depth, it has tactile surface, paint, brushstrokes, subtle changes in colour, where this line is heavier here and these are all little subtleties that make a painting a painting. A drawing is a simple thing, that is beautiful, but when it becomes a painting then it becomes much bigger than what it was originally.

AS: Do you have favourite artists you come back to?

JM: I don’t necessarily have particular people … well I do. There’s Matisse, with his cutouts. They have a lot of the same elements, white ground with these colours that were cut out and placed on the surface. Also Paul Klee, I’ve always liked his work. I haven’t focused on it, and I try to do my own thing, but I really respond to his work. I think it is similar in the sense that he was trying to depict a psychological state and the strangeness of being alive.

John Mills will be exhibiting 7 June - 5 July 2014
at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA90404

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Alli Sharma talked to Benjamin Bridges in December 2013 as he embarked upon some new techniques. He will be exhibiting at dalla Rosa Gallery, EC1 from 14 March 2014.

Pythagoras / Sandpit / Clingfilm and Foil, all 2013, oil on canvas, 51x41cm

AS: This looks like new work?

BB: These are a set of paintings where I found a new staining process. I’ve been making up canvases ready for paintings and I’m going to stain them in different ways. I cover the surface in paint and then I stand it on an easel with loads of tissue underneath and run stuff down.

AS: Is it oil paint?

BB: Yes, and because it’s white spirit and not turpentine, it splits like this. I have no idea what they’re about any more than what they are. 

U-Bend, 2013, oil on board, 29x20cm

AS: The borders are interesting.

BB: I have been doing that a lot. It seems to lift the space. When you make a painting you start with nothing and sometimes the underpainting is really beautiful and then it goes up and down in waves. You try to leave the painting at that point where it hits the crest of the wave before it drops and you have to make it into something else. It goes from a fresh painting into something laboured, but more beautiful. You have to go through that process. If you can get within say 20 percent of the top you just stop because you know you can get it closer but you let the work go. So with some of these paintings there is just the stain of the original canvas and sometimes there are marks that keep being worked. Those pieces are often simple in the end but there is so much underneath that makes it something new. I was trying to stop early every time and I started thinking that I could do all of them really light, but in a set of things only two or three might work, and the rest don’t, so you take those further.

The Lonely Chorister, 2013, oil on acrylic panel, 25x30cm

AS:  Have you moved away from the polyhedron-in-landscape paintings?

BB:  I reached a point where there was no energy to keep making the landscapes and they were becoming too similar. I like the idea that when I am 50 years old, I could paint whatever I want and so I decided to try it, as an experiment, and in a way it was damaging because when I started making these looser paintings, I couldn’t be bothered to make the polyhedron paintings any more because they are so laboured and these are so quick. I like the freshness of the newer works, but again, a similar thing started to happen. Because they were so quick and fresh and fast I would make lots but there was no investment. So they’re opposites.

Doughnut Head, 2013, oil on plywood, 20x15cm

AS: Completely different ways of making?

BB: The later paintings were all wet into wet, all one layer, very fast, rubbing bits out and painting them back. These first ones are very representational and I found this tedious. They might be a millimetre off on one side and then they just don’t work. What I discovered with the portraits, which I like, is that once you get the eyes, nostrils and mouth the right size, and the general position on the head, it just works and you can reduce and reduce and just have those pinpoints. So I trace the image on using those pinpoints and work from that. Because it has that structure and you can read faces so easily they just came together. In many ways it was about finding different ways of pushing the paint around, but having a structure to draw it all together.

Major Mellon, 2013, oil on board, 22x15cm

AS: When you’re making a tight, specific painting, I imagine that you have a good idea how it will turn out. Was it a surprise to do something much freer?

BB: Definitely. In the polyhedron paintings, the composition was pre-determined by Photoshop with lots of layers, choosing even where the shadows would fall. The thing I enjoy so much about painting those is that the colour ranges would change so much and just become so different and that became a responsive element. But I started to feel that the way I applied the paint was quite stiff. It didn’t say anything about the way paint is.  When I started the portraits, I couldn’t tell where they were going. That was the beauty. There was room for that sort of experimentation, even with a structure and a guide. A lot of them are of my boy. He works really well for this because he was so tiny and the proportions of his face were huge. The paintings of adults are often much leaner so they become slightly quirky characters. Then, for example, for Major Melon, I started finding images online that had a particular feel to them.

Floatstickle, 2012, oil on acrylic panel, 25x30cm

AS: Were you looking for something quite specific in the images?

BB: Yes, but not something I could necessarily pin down. I have a very clear idea about what it is and why it interests me but there are a lot of things that I am painting at the moment. I look at something and it will seem really important. At University I had been reading books about the sublime and Edmund Burke, who was a contemporary of Kant, who wrote about the sublime being a dangerous immense presence that you’re able to be in awe of at a safe enough distance. At the same time, I discovered photos of volcanic islands forming near Tonga and I realised that when you see an explosion, it fits those criteria. If you think about how the world has changed over the last 20 years, particularly since 9/11, our worldview has changed and it’s down to those images. But I like the erupting volcano images because there is no malice in them. And there is a sense of them being an incredible force but it’s not about destruction, it is actually about creation. I have that kind of element when I’m working on those. I have that very clearly in my mind.  Some artists make the same thing, over and over, and there are subtle differences but they choose a narrow field. I know why people do it, it’s being specific and homing in on one thing but it seems so strange to me that that idea remains prevalent. It seems to be such a modernist idea of the artist genius that has one vision which has to be revealed, particularly when people are so varied with what they do and their interests.

She Waited for a Lifetime, 2013, oil on acrylic panel, 16x20cm

AS: As well as the varied subject matter, there is a mixture of painting styles with the softer gestural ground and the graphic, hard line.

BB: One of the things I wanted to do with the new polyhedron paintings is just use one brush mark, wiped off, and then the polyhedron goes on top. They’re super delicate. You can scratch them with your nail, and they don’t work bigger than on really quite a small scale because you have to apply the paint so thin or it could peel off because it’s on Perspex.  A lot of the finish on these is a super mat varnish. It makes a huge difference. It brings everything together, particularly the blacks which are very carbon and dry. I use lamp black rather than ivory because it’s more consistent. And I like the completely flat finish.

Aether, 2012, oil on acrylic panel, 25x20cm

AS: How do you get the surface so smooth?

BB: I just use very soft square brushes and build up the layers. That sky has got about 10 or 15 layers on it, which is why I was getting frustrated and ended up doing 20 minute portraits. I realised recently that I just need a mix. It really helps. I like making and sometimes if I’ve got the energy or drive to do it, I can work on something slower. This is one of the first ones that I did. A real sci-fi moment. I like this one because it is all imagined. None of it is from anything. I take a lot of photos when I’m away. My family think they’re not very interesting but that’s the point. I find a landscape where I think something is missing and I put my polyhedron where the thing is missing. That’s what I’m often looking for, that gap. This is Scafell Pike, that one is in the Alps.

Sca-mouch, 2012, oil on acrylic panel, 25x30cm

AS: Are you a walker?

BB: Yes, my parents used to drag me to the Alps when I was younger. At the time, I hated it and now I love it. I go all the time. I also lived in Austria for a bit, which is part of the mountain thing. I lived in a castle on top of a mountain. That was nice.

Base Camp, 2013, oil on canvas over board, 20cm
Rowan Day, 2013, oil on canvas over board, 25cm

Benjamin Bridges' exhibition Pythagoras Adrift opens at dalla Rosa Gallery, 121 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1R 5BY on 14 March - 12 April 2014
Private View: Thursday, 13 March, 6.30-8.30pm