Interview recorded 9th November 2010
Nicholas James (NJ)
Claudia Carr (CC)
NJ You teach at the RCA and Heatherley School of Art too?
CC Yes, and the Prince’s Drawing School.
The first works I found of yours were life studies, I’m not sure of their dates. There was a portrait and a still life; nice paintings –the Portrait of Jacob?
Those paintings would all have been done over fifteen years ago when I was at the Slade, from models. I was a student there for six years, on and off. After the undergraduate course I returned to Italy where I had been living before. I had a Boise Travel Scholarship so was doing my own painting and some restoration work. After a couple of years I came back and did an MA at the Slade.
Who was teaching you then?
Norman Norris and Euan Uglow. They were amazing teachers and both inspiring painters. Norman also taught at Chelsea and Camberwell before the Slade. He’s had a big impact on the people he’s taught, and worked with. He taught me to “look”. They both had an immense knowledge and passion for paintings from the past, and shared it with us. We spent a lot of time looking at paintings, in galleries and in books.
Euan wasn’t an oppressive teacher but he had the most demanding standards of critical vision.
You’re right, it’s a good way of putting it. It was always very rigorous: what you meant by a shape or by a colour. He never told people to measure, or any of that, but he did impart a kind of analytical looking. Also, when you mixed colour, you mixed with a knife, with intention, and not just with a brush hoping to hit the right tint.
Is that what he did?
Yes, always mixing colours with a knife on a palette, very clean.
I would have thought it’s a very coarse way of doing it.
It was about being very logical and clear; You would make two or more mixtures on the palette that had an equivalent relationship (with each other) to the group of colours you were looking at “out there” (in the subject). It was about building chromatic relationships rather than copying individual colours. I got a lot from that. The downside is that it’s a slow process, and can inhibit a more intuitive or chaotic way of working. I am not a very logical person and my temperament is probably too disorganized to work entirely like that. I think an artist wrestles with the legacies from their training for a long time. Trying to keep the good bits and discard the ones that don’t fit the painter or person you are now.
What were your first steps after leaving the Slade?
Landscape. I stopped painting people and there was more freedom in landscape. I was in Italy again. The intensity of the light there and its effect of intensifying colour had a big impact on me. In fact it probably kick started my obsession with light, which is the predominant subject of my paintings now. When I came back to London I was painting still lives. I started to think of them more and more as landscapes. I had a studio by Southwark bridge, before Tate Modern was built, and every day I’d have my sandwiches by the river. I really got involved with the rhythm of the tides, watching the detritus that got washed up on the shore when the tide was out; shopping trolleys, old shoes, a dead bird, broken boxes, car tyres, you know the kind of stuff. Everything was coated in the same way, unified by one colour, and things stopped being what they really were any more. They just became logical elements of the landscape. They were covered in the same silt and just became shapes. The juxtaposition of these really random, different objects together seemed perfectly natural.
Did you collect them?
No I just looked at them. I didn’t realize I was thinking about them, I guess I was just inhabiting them in my imagination.
The tidal flow of the Thames is quite radical, it narrows to a stream at low tide, then fills right up.
And at a certain point it changes direction. It fills up at high tide, because the water’s coming in from the sea, and to empty, the water goes back out to the sea. I would watch out for the moment when it was at its highest, when it quivered in a certain way. There’s an energy when it’s changing direction. This whole mass of water has to change direction. One moment you’ll see a buoy going that way and a couple of hours later it’s going the other way. So the still lives I was painting were looking more like landscapes. The studio was on a big road and there was a lot of dust coming in and settling very slowly. I noticed the thing I was looking at, the objects, were gradually being coated with a layer of dust. I’ll often set something up and then change it. If a painting doesn’t need red in that corner, I’ll move the red object from the set-up itself. When I moved an object, suddenly there was a bright white circle where the dust hadn’t landed.
So you arranged set ups to work from?
Not as such. I havn’t really thought about this transition because it was very gradual and organic. Before I was making the se-ups and then the set-ups started making themselves. It sounds all mystical, but it’s not. Things have to accumulate. I might find a plastic animal in a flea market, or eat an apple, or an orange, and the peel gradually dries. I just put things down wherever there’s a space, but not overlapping, and over a few years these randomly placed objects and bits of rubbish accumulated on surfaces around the studio they form a kind of landscape. I then start to paint that landscape or a section of it, sometimes adding or removing the odd element. But I have to come to it as a “found landscape”, otherwise I can’t believe in it. This was the first one, a five by five feet painting in 1997.
We’re looking at a tabletop with jars, a coil of wire, a toy creature, old bricks. It’s great, the setting and the tone of it too, cool silver grey and earth tints.
This colour is all dust. This was the first one with an animal in it. I tried using cowboys instead of creatures but it didn’t work. They take over too much. I used the animals to help shift the sense of scale and I also like the kind of rhythmic focus that their tangled little limbs and tails can make. Or it might be just that a certain area of the painting needs some yellow ochre and a plastic wildebeest could provide that. (Looking at catalogue) These are photos of various stages of the painting.
What do you feel about doing that, sometimes photographing developments turns it into a different kind of journey?
I find it useful, mostly with the big paintings that go on over several months or even years. Looking at a large painting on a very small camera screen gives me some distance and objectivity while I’m working on it. The images remain on the camera and when the memory card is full they are deleted. Its unusual for any of the “stages” photos to get onto the computer or be printed. I know what you mean though. There’s a lot we could talk about around the oddness of time in relation to painting, opposed to how it operates in literature, music or film. A limitless sequence of events, the process of making a painting, result in a single, non linear, image.
What’s its title?
It has an incredible attention to tone and to light, and the way every part sits. What happened to the blue bottle?
It went. Initially the blueness of the bottle was important in relation to an orange somewhere else in the painting, but the verticality of the bottle didn’t fit the spatial idea I had for the picture. There is often a tussle between the spatial/atmospheric aspirations I have for the image, and the formal demands of the painting.
In the end photo it’s gone and the wire remains as if it should always have been there, by itself. The area of blue is quite dominant. The general tone is cool, do you take colour out of paintings, or do you put strong colour in?
For a long time the paintings were about moving around within grey; exploring the tension between colours within a close chromatic range, which I still find very exciting. But recently I’ve started to also introduce one saturated colour to a painting. So it’s about the optical tension between this one colour and the greys, for instance, in this “Jacopo” painting, between the Viridian green and the greys. I love the kind of vibrations that arise from the interplay between saturated and less saturated colours. For example, in a group of objects on a tabletop, a saturated colour like this viridian green can infuse the light around it, which in turn bounces around tinting the surfaces of the nearby objects with its greeniness; like the way green light bounces around in a Beech wood in the Spring. But there is also a contradictory optical effect at play, which is the way the saturated green induces its opposite, a pinkiness, in the grey beside it. So a single grey shape can be pulled in completely opposite directions; one minute it has a red appearance and in the next instance it appears green. Both realities are true. I find this contradiction absurd and lovely. So the formal side of my work is about exploring and playing with these kind of anomalies.
When you build a painting, are you coming from a certain point, like the darkest tone, or is there a mid point you pitch up from and down below?
I start with a white canvas but I quickly cover it, in loose washes, with the three or four major colours or tones of the painting, and then, as you say, build up and down from there. It’s never one blanket colour, I don’t start with a toned canvas. At the Slade there was a lot of emphasis on the purity of the white of the canvas.
The white canvas glowing through the colours is still very important to me, but now its more about allowing moments of those initial skins of thin paint to still be breathing by the end of the painting. Say in that painting up there, “Ex- Cactus”, I want there to be a play between the raw surface and more refined painting. Here, in a small painting called “Seraphim”, there are greys that are made and greys that are left behind.
So there’s a blocking out with the turpsy wash as you’re building up and you’re losing more and more of that first stage. It’s hard to keep it?
Yes, very hard. In fact it’s becoming a more and more critical concern in my work; the surface energy of the painting; the play between different qualities of paint, of touch, and of intention. I want a painting to stop when there is still a healthy, symbiotic relationship between the raw and the refined; the accidental and the toiled over. But it’s hard to develop a painting to the point where the space and light are doing what I want them to do, but at the same time the evidence of their making hasn’t been completely lost. You also can’t tip-toe around those lovely raw bits. When something very fresh and vital is “preserved” or overly revered it immediately loses its vitality, in fact it becomes a tragic memento. It’s also about time. Vija Celmens talks about time stopping in art, and about “packing a lot of time” into a painting. Something that’s wonderful and unique to painting is its non linear sense of time. Before and after can happen all at once, or even back to front.
Here is a scatter of objects on a table you can pick up as you feel like it, but the more described they become, the more boring they become?
I always want them to be ambiguous, I want that piece of bread to feel like it could be a rock, jutting in the sea. I’m interested in caves instinctively, hollows and places to shelter, so the bread has all of that. Or that one feels a bit like an animal to me, or it could just be a piece of bread. I want them to be all those different things. A lot of it’s to do with the choice of object in the first place, as much as the degree to which I paint it. And of course its do with playing with scale, and context. The objects probably never become “boring” to me too because I’m too interested in their abstract qualities; the collection of colours and shapes that they are, far more than the literal meanings that they might have.
Looking at a painting in progress
It’s a tree, a very interesting tree. It’s like a plum tree.
It’s actually this, a sprig of Ivy berries upended in a lump of blue tac.
Ok, I get it.
I wish I hadn’t told you now! I’d like to have heard your interpretation. I stopped the painting because it was getting too literal, it was too much a tree, but there are things I really liked about it, in terms of the openness of the paint; the balance between some intensely drawn areas and then much looser paint. I felt there was beginning to be some optical activity between the blues and the grey/browns, more than in some of the other paintings. I’m interested in the point where two different colours of the same tonal value, bump up against each other and start to vibrate. The strong blue ground is inducing an orangeness in the more ‘neutral’ grey/brown beside it. Do you feel that?
What I feel immediately and in all of them is a kind of conversation starting up between the different elements. Rather like, the tree is speaking in a certain voice, and the rocks have their own place. So how far do you want to go with a painting before it stops?
By conversation do you mean a narrative?
Between the elements, in a narrative way. Thinking about building the painting and the way it’s resolved.
There are two criteria for when to stop it. One is to do with the image, whether it evokes what I want it to evoke yet. I don’t know what that is when I start the painting. I keep moving objects which limit a more immediate or idiosyncratic response to the imagery. The viewer’s involvement with the painting can too quickly stop with the “name” of the object depicted. I want to get away from the verbal. Also, the fewer namable objects or spaces there are in a painting a painting the more chance that a purely visual language of chromatic tensions and rhythmic journeys (more musical than verbal) can be enjoyed. I’m interested in places where imaginations can roam.
© Cv/VAR Archive and Editions 2010