2017 is the year which will apparently see us officially begin to leave the EU. With one hand we clutch at an illusion of the great past of Britain (an entirely fictional construct as far as I am concerned), while the other hand is thrust outwards in the direction of President Trump, desperately trying to shake on a deal which spells doom for the NHS. Miles of bunting, flags and the monarchy will be rolled out from their storage locations to be deployed at the official staging area of ‘the visit’, rumoured to be Birmingham. The Unite for Europe March is taking place on 25th March in London and will hopefully mark the beginning of some serious opposition to what is essentially a disaster.
The exhibition ‘Island of the Real’ at Gossamer Fog gallery in London marked the beginning of my year. Curated by Samuel Capps, it put nine of my paintings alongside sculptures by Zachary Eastwood-Bloom. Themes of virtual structures and unreal places were drawn out, and on experiencing the exhibition its meaning became apparent to me – it showed a world that was entirely fake and modelled. The feeling it conveyed was melancholy. It was about the loss of the real, the classic Baudrillard idea. It looked at the way artists can interpret and re-configure an increasingly synthetic world.
The installation consisted of plinth mounted sculptures and oil on canvas paintings, positioned side by side – a traditional format if ever there was one. But in reality it appeared contemporary. It reminded me of why it’s so great to show alongside someone else – I found it made my paintings look far more interesting than when they’re viewed alone. They are so familiar to me after the hours of intensely looking at them during their creation that it becomes impossible to see them with fresh eyes.
When I look at one of my paintings I am struck by the remnants of music that I listened to while making them. Snippets of songs or sometimes entire albums flood back to me. Chains of thought that unfolded, often years ago during the painting process, will pop back-up, as clear as if I had thought those thoughts only five minutes ago. Ideas I’d had, people I’d thought about, things I’d remembered – it streams back into my head.
Often when I’m working I’ll be somewhere else entirely – totally transported into memories and day-dream possibilities – while my body is painting away with intense concentration, located firmly in the studio.
I recently participated in an interview conducted by the architect Jonathan Adams, creator of one of the most cutting edge and handsome buildings in Cardiff – the Wales Millenium Centre opera house. We took over a table at Waterloo Team Rooms for three hours of conversation, in which, it seemed, we tried to gain an understanding of what the other was doing and why. Comparing the roles of architect and artist. Looking for crossovers, talking about common references and influences. Tales of urban exploration, sneaking about, looking into the hidden places around us. The genealogy of our city. Where did it come from? Who has power to re-shape it, and where does that power come from? Why did Cardiff grow so unusually fast? (In 1800 the population was 6,342, in 1900 it was 173,000. A percentage change of 2589%). Would that mad expansion ever happen again?
The interview began with a precise question:
‘You say that you’re using painting to depict fictional space. But, doesn’t all painting do that?’…
My answer is yes, it does. We agree that’s what painting does. Apart from odd movements, for example some Impressionist works, which it might be claimed were attempting to show the world exactly as it appeared to a human subject. This leads me to think:
‘Have I been telling myself I’m doing something unusual with painting, whereas in reality I’ve been doing something mundane?’
It got me thinking about my artistic aims – just what is it that I say about my work? Do I even know what I’m doing? I have a common theme and area of interest that runs through my paintings, but does that mean I know what my work is for? What it’s trying to do? Or is that just a neat way of making a coherent body of work – an easy way to confirm to myself that I have an artistic aim.
The focus of the interview was an animation I completed last year called “World Two” which has been shown here and there, but came to the attention of Touchstone architecture journal while on display at the National Eisteddfod. The article covers my work and Bedwyr Williams’ “Tyrrau Mawr” video and will be in Touchstone in April 2017.
So, what am I doing? I’m trying to use art to fathom the attraction I feel for fake imagery and fictional space. It began with a simple situation – as a young painter I felt there was a total lack of subject matter. I was technically able, but couldn’t find anything worth painting. After a few years painting photorealist type scenes from night clubs and raves, and strange narrative pictures of people who appeared to be either dead or sleeping, I found that straight-forward photorealism just didn’t interest me enough. Painting had to go deeper.
During this time I began to invent subject matter and started to construct models using cardboard, making small scenes of streets and buildings, populated with a kind of alter-ego character. The models then became a source for paintings, and in some cases, tiny sets for a weird type of hybrid animation. It linked back to the classic studio practice of the maquette. I also started painting landscapes based on computer games – which are essentially a sort of virtual model within which you can move. That area felt totally new to me in the late 90s when I began. Relatively few people were taking games seriously, within a critical framework. Now however…..
Practice based research led me to writers of theory, philosophers and critics who have pointed out that reality is in decline, at least for people in the developed world. An unreal, synthetic, simulated realm has risen up to envelope us. Consumerism and capitalism have given us a fake world where the image is everything. The natural world is literally dying in front of us, the evidence is all around, yet we see more and more through screens – both Lacanian image-screens and high-definition LED screens.
Making work that explores this relatively new landscape of mediated fiction was, I felt, enough to make my artwork valid. But I’m not so sure that that’s enough any longer.
Recently I was shortlisted and then knocked back from one of the British School at Rome fellowships. I then applied to a different fellowship, and was rejected again. This got me thinking even more about what I’m doing. What are my aims and goals, what is my work about? I felt that if I had a clear concise understanding of what my artwork is, and what my career should be, I would be more successful in my endeavours.
This kind of deep scrabbling about for answers leads to questions like, ‘Is it art?’ and ‘Does anyone care about these things that I’m fascinated by, but which I only speak about through obscure reference to in a painting?’
Am I ‘behind’ where I should be in terms of a career? Do I waste time? Is art really just about having a clever idea and an even cleverer way of showing it? Am I simply failing to plan and be strategic? Perhaps a much more strategic approach is needed. Maybe this is what artists do all the time, work in a systematic organised manner with clear goals. Like a business person, I imagine. I came across this bit of text from Kerry James Marshall, who was writing about similar problems and his strategy for overcoming them:
“I gave up on the idea of making Art a long time ago, because I wanted to know how to make paintings; but once I came to know that, reconsidering the question of what Art is returned as a critical issue. A painting is a material object; measurable, readable, knowable. The concept ‘Art’ resists easy definition and is therefore contingent on shifting ideas and relationships. Paintings and other art forms aspire to the status of Art, but these things don’t necessarily meet. I wanted to understand what the painters I admired knew that made them able to achieve such marvellous effects. I tried to codify the difference between really great work and mediocre pictures. […] Surpassing the achievements of the masters was out of the question, but getting up alongside them on the wall seemed reasonably possible. I’ve spent all my energies trying to do that much.”1
By trying to remove ‘art’ from the activity, it seems to have made making art easier. But why limit yourself by aiming to not surpass the ‘achievements of the masters’? Or is this said as a hubristic disclaimer – removing the unsaid immodest claim that ‘I’m the greatest painter who ever lived!’
I think Kerry James Marshall is a great artist and in the future may well be considered a master. The people and spaces in his work are at the forefront of painting practice as far as I see it. He’s challenging the predominant white male gaze – deciphering his own view of his surroundings, his society. So why does he limit himself, and by implied accepted consensus, limit everyone else, by denying any attempt to achieve more than long dead Italian, Dutch and the odd Spanish painter? Would other fields, would any other field, have a mind-set that the achievements of the past can’t be surpassed, and to even try would be somehow disrespectful? I think that a scientist would be unlikely to say such a thing. Would a musician? A writer? An architect?
Has Kerry James Marshall hinted at an obscured limitation, that artists are somehow degenerated today, unable to achieve the artistic height of the masters?
The masters were just people after all, using the tools and ideas / ideals of their time to make commissioned art works. Can’t that be done again? Admittedly we’ve lost the system of guilds that could designate the accolade of master. But the designation is blurry. Francis Bacon is sort of considered a master, but he certainly didn’t belong to a medieval guild. In all likelihood it’s art historians who really designated the role of master, a group which is badly lacking in diversity. Perhaps it’s the designators of such a role that have disappeared.
In my work I’m using representation to question representation itself – making pictures of spaces that are fake, and also collaging different realistic looking bits of imagery together into a new painted space. During an interview with the artist Richard Huw Morgan on his Pitch radio programme, he made a keen observation of my practice:
” Normally when people think about photorealism, they think about the real thing which it’s a photo of, but actually your work is more about that intermediary thing, it’s about the form in which people see this real, rather than the real itself.”
So the question is, why am I drawing attention to the mediated form that is replacing the ‘real’? Further thought is needed. Deleuze says this on the subject:
“In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces. For this reason no art is figurative. Paul Klee’s famous formula – “Not to render the visible, but to render visible” – means nothing else.”2
Naturally I’m interested in artists who use intermediary images in the depiction of their subject – using a system of media that exists within the world and re-configuring it, to construct an image that can’t be said directly. Still-life objects were used for their symbolic meaning, adverts appropriated for their cultural meaning, and so on. Francis Bacon’s paintings contain a type of hysterical use of painting and of photography. For me, it’s Bacon’s use of photography that I crave to know more about:
“Bacon the portraitist says that he does not like to paint the dead, or people he does not know… and those he knows, he does not like to have in front of his eyes. He prefers a current photograph and a recent memory, or rather the sensation of a current photograph and that of a recent impression: this is what makes the act of painting a kind of ‘recall'”.3
The practice of painting does feel like a type of recall. Even when you’re working with a source image in front of you, and for all intents and purposes, copying a photograph that you hold in your hand, it feels like you’re creating something new on the surface – and yet it’s something that comes from the past.
In the end, I can conclude that I’m badly lacking in artistic dialogue. Many of these questions and doubts, along with many more that remain unwritten here, could be resolved through dialogue – with other artists, thinkers, academics etc. Hence my desire to get into a residency programme or join a course in the near future.
Perhaps we should all just make it easy on ourselves and do this:
1. Marshall, K. J., ‘Foreword’, in Eve Sinaiko (ed.), Kerry James Marshall, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000, p.9
2. Deleuze, G., Francis Bacon, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p.40
3. Deleuze, G., Francis Bacon, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p.48