Interview with Dr Jörg Schaub of the School of Philosophy and Art History of the University of Essex. This unplanned oral interview was conducted following the Terra exhibition at the UCS Waterfront gallery, in two parts in December 2015.
This interview follows your exhibition Terra, and I am thinking about this exhibition as it was the first time I could see a lot of your paintings together, and on the gallery wall.
One of the aspects that I found quite impressive was the diversity of the work that was on display. Just where you enter there was Terra which had bold black- and colourful- sections, and next to it is a very minimalist work- Man of Sorrows, and to the left of it was Quarry, which is again a very different kind made with different tools. Then it continues with other works like Introduction which compared to man of sorrows is highly complex, very dense and with a lot of different painting techniques. I was wondering, and thinking about this diversity of techniques and of styles- minimalism and complexity, of very subtle things next to very bold expressive gestures, because I think this diversity can at first be confusing to someone who is exposed to your work for the first time, because it is hard to see the continuity of what your artistic position is. But perhaps in a certain way this diversity is itself expressive of what you think art is.
There are many issues there- a series of questions. I have a lot of interests, there are a lot of things that interest me in the visual arts and I am not partisan to any particular style. What I am motivated by is a sense of possibility, and I think that is what art is fundamentally about. It is about finding new and unexpected ways of exploring things, of coming to understand, in some way, something important. So I am not very interested in following methodologies that have been laid out for me. For example I struggle with bristle brushes which are the standard tool for oil painting. Every work is the exploration of a certain sort of possibility which develops with the work itself, and an important part of that work is choosing the tool or tools. Some of the tools I choose and the materials I choose can produce images that are strong and clear quite quickly, and if that happens I leave them like that. But some of them start off on a much more open ended journey, to use a cliché, and it can take a long time to arrive somewhere where I want to stay, which is when a painting is finished for me, when it becomes a kind of place to dwell in, interesting enough to want to spend time in it. So some of them take a lot of time and different sorts of interventions, and some of them get there quite quickly, and it’s not very predictable.
It seems that is important to you that it is unpredictable what you are doing. Is that part of the process- that you can only create a space of possibility if you don’t really know what you are doing with something or what next?
I am very bad at repetition. Even if I wanted to repeat something I couldn’t do did. My whole life has been like that, I have been doing one thing after the other and failing to build up. In painting you do build if you keep working. You build up patterns, certain visual traits, motifs, ways of doing things, which unite my work in a certain formal way- which I suspect makes them mine. The nearest I get to repetition is when I think that there is something that works which it would be interesting to move on. But I never think that that is a work I like which I want to keep making other versions of, or if I do I quickly start to think that this is stupid, weak or cowardly, that I should move it away, push it. This might well be a mistake- but it’s a demand I find difficult to resist.
So in a sense you interrupt yourself. In the exhibition there are clusters of work that have sort of family resemblances, where you use the same instruments or colours, but they are not series in the sense that you redo a theme, but rather they are like you think that you have not exhausted the possibilities of doing it or you are not particularly satisfied with what you did. But it’s not a series in the traditional sense that you redo or repeat.
I don’t think that there have been many artists who have been that good who have repeated themselves, if they do a series it’s a series that moves between iterations. But every exhibition hanging makes a sort of narrative. You have to have some continuity between neighbouring paintings. You can’t just have disagreement, you have to have enough agreement so that they can sit together and enhance each other, while being different enough to stand out in their own right. So for every installation, even for the hangs I do for the open studio, you need to look for ways that paintings complement each other. But there are broad style categories, a more fluid one, a more geometric one, a more landscape style with a horizon, a more vertical portrait style, and these quite basic things lend themselves to being put together, and one can see the development as well. In my painting I do tend to jump back and forth, but if I showed it like that it would seem even more incoherent. It will sound pretentious, but if you look at Richter he has gone through clear periods of style, but I couldn’t work like that because my work is not systematic. His work is issue based, he works through one idea and then works through another. Mine comes much more out of my personal intuitions and my biography, and it’s more like Picasso [laugh!] because he is someone who developed styles and kept them going, the cubist, the neoclassical, and he didn’t give any of them up completely. They all came from personal sources for him, they were ways of articulating certain kinds of experiences. My work is about my experiences, not about art in the way that Richter’s is about art or politics or something in the social world.
That is interesting. I had the feeling that it is almost as if you were building a visual vocabulary, and like in the Picasso analogy you come back to them to challenge them again. You don’t get the feeling like you do with an artist like Richter who explores one thing systematically, and it is the comprehensiveness which impresses: see all the things I can do with that! Whereas yours is more resisting that kind of temptation.
I think it just comes from a different source. I admire Richter for the way he does things. Sometimes it can seem a bit like a catalogue: there is just this then this and then that-, and sometimes it does feel rather mass-produced and mechanical. But if you are going to be a public artist that’s a very thorough way of doing it. Richter is a supreme technician, he’s like a mechanic making a different kind of optical machinery. My work has no mechanics, it has lots of gestures and lots of failures. There is something in his work which is perfectly successful. My work is as much about failure as success, about fragility, impossibility, hopelessness at various levels, which is also coupled with hope. Whereas in Richter’s work there is an impersonal sublimity about everything, a technical mastery. It seem strange to talk about Richter and Picasso in relation to my work- as they are both hugely famous – but they are just well known points of reference.
Would you say that as your painting is- as you say- about yourself- that the painting is a medium for self-understanding, that the conditions for success are very different ones from Richter’s? Then the issue of accessibility becomes more important?
One thing I do share with Richter- and Picasso- [!] is that I do think that paintings have to work visually- and that is the way they are accessible. You don’t get the meaning immediately- if there is such a thing as ‘the’ ‘meaning’ which I am not very sure about anyway- but they have to draw people in and hold them. Picasso and Richter do that very well. They have this great sense of visual presentation, clarity, economy, and they are both inventive as well. These are values that I value too. I think people are more or less similar, in degrees people have more of this or less of that, but we can sort of understand each other. We might not have the same mix but we can understand each element of the mix, more or less. The things that move me will probably move other people to a greater or lesser degree. So it’s not about saying this is particularly interesting because it’s all about me, it’s not. I am just a certain sort of person who has had certain sorts of experiences, and who can imagine certain sorts of things which I find interesting, so presumably there are others who might be able to share these experiences. It’s about me in the sense that it’s also about propagating values. Art is a public discourse and I paint to say look these things are interesting, these things are valuable. I am not really a political person. I think that art is about things which are elusive, difficult to express, perhaps impossible to articulate in any other way.
Most of your paintings have very basic elements, always in tension with themselves and that makes them very accessible in a certain way, and it also draws you in. You might have an equilibrium between movement in different direction and stasis. In Fog you have calligraphic contours and the disappearance of the contours. It’s a structure and the dissolving of a structure, and I think these aspects of your work make them in a way intuitively accessible. Then you enter the consciousness issue: what kind of conflict is here portrayed as being fought out or lived through? I think it is because of this ambiguous nature that your works are very alive, and you are lured into them and you try to follow it through, and you never get to one side or the other. It lures you into one way of looking and lures you out of it again. That is, I think, to some degree a unifying feature, despite all the apparent visual differences in techniques and styles. Would you say that it is a unifying feature?
I think that you are probably right. There are various ways of thinking about this. In many ways I am more of a sculptor than a painter- I am not interested in a flat surface- for me a flat surface is something dead. I am interested in making real space but in a way that no real space could ever be. The advantage of painting for me is that you can create spaces which are so complicated, unstable, uncertain, in which no object could ever exist. And that is kind of interesting for me, also in relation to the edge of the painting. A lot of painters float their subject in the centre of some kind of neutral space, as if they were painting an object. But my paintings are objects, they go right to the edge of the space of the canvas, the space and the object is the same. Which is why I frame them as framing brings that out very clearly.
But that gives them also the character of a fragment: because you work up to the edge, the rim of the painting, it extends infinitely.
Yes, to put it one way: I am very conscious of this when I paint, because to go to the edge of the canvas is slightly unnatural. The natural tendency is to work in the middle and let the image fade out at the edges. Sometimes when I look at paintings I am working on and I think -that painting just looks weak- why? Often I realise that it is because I have not gone quite to the edge, I haven’t brought the forces up to the edge of the painting. For me it’s like two different kinds of statement: if you don’t bring the painting up the edge it’s like saying ‘I think that…’, if you do bring it up to the edge it’s like saying ‘this is the way it is’. So you’re taking something right out into the world; it’s not a mental space that you are portraying, it’s not space inside your mind, inside your imagination, you are saying this thing extends right out into your world, is part of it. And ironically you need the frame to make that work. So there is a tension between the painting being a strong statement about what is as a thing in the world, and not being in the world, simultaneously. Now, with the frameless style of showing work, people often let things fade out at the edges, so they are sort of self-framing. But as a consequence the work is weaker- to my mind- non-committal, decorative, an entertainment. I am interested in making statements.
Do you think this is still the case with newer paintings like Two Heads? These are paintings in which, I think, you explore for the first time the idea of the centre and the periphery. That is a very new phenomenon- I was very surprised when I went to the Terra exhibition for the first time.
Yes, that’s quite right, and there are paintings like Statement and Introduction that do that too. That was slightly the product of using a different technique which made it more difficult to work to the edge. It was also because they are kind of portraits, and the head in each case- not so much in Proposition- is kind of in the middle and they are kind of ironic about that. So in Two Heads you get one straight on but you’d rather it wasn’t because it’s so ghastly, and the other is turned sideways looking away, but they both extend out to the edges in peculiar ways with colour patches. Because they are about consciousness as located- as being in the head. So they are about looking at another’s head, or yourself in the mirror, and thinking that someone is having thoughts inside that head- that that consciousness is located in that head. Whereas the other paintings are perceptual consciousness.
So they are a different perspective on the same phenomena?
Yes, if you like.
One is a more external distanced view on what is going on in another consciousness, and the other has no perspective they are just given….They are phenomenologically given, in the same way as the world, except there is no world. It’s also that it seems like you have just discovered having a centre in these portrait paintings, and then you fully embraced it. There are changes in the colour scheme- there is this orange. It seems like you really wanted to explore the new possibilities.
The orange is ironic and unnatural, but also Two Heads is about death. The orange is an ultimate death, a disgusting death, unbearable, revolting, but slightly beautiful and mysterious, for me anyway. But those ones I did at the beginning of the year, and then I went back my usual style of working. I will probably come back to them again.
So if we say that most of your work is about states of consciousness, states of awareness, then there is suddenly a shift from the first person to the third person perspective in these works….
When I think about it they are some of the least drawn paintings, there the paint takes over. I think maybe in the background I was thinking about the correspondence between paint and consciousness. If you draw then you are drawing a thought- a line is a bit like a proposition, a form is like an idea- you define something- identify something. The technique I was using in these was a sort of printing technique- laying the canvases on each other, pulling them apart. This produces a very strange surface. The paint then didn’t become a product of consciousness, it became stuff, a kind of thing in the same way another person for us can be an object. Two Heads is about death and that is when our physical being takes over- we become just physical- if ‘we’ are still there. So they are about whether that is happening or not. Introduction is partially about the shock of meeting someone physically, when you are introduced to them and you can sometimes see them as a sort of thing. The question is what kind of person is going to emerge from that physical thing. The uncertainty is also about how that can happen- there is this moment when there is movement between being two kinds of things at once- like an artwork.
What I find interesting is the parallel between the question of whether one is encountering something and someone, and the relation between the centre and the incredible complexity of the surrounding.
Yes, I think what that is about is whether consciousness is centred, is it in anything? There is an impossible disconnect between the fact that we experience our consciousness as being all over the place in all kinds of ways, and the fact that we are shut in this holed bone box. There’s a natural thought that conscious exists in words and thoughts, but when you paint you are dealing with this weird gunk, doing all kinds of strange things, with a material. But when you are in the process of painting the paint can become just consciousness, inside your brain.
Something that fascinated me about them was that they had a very strong physical presence, but when you moved to the periphery they became more attenuated, something more spiritual, because the fragility and complexity of the patterns gave it something no longer material. You could see it as a move in time, but the question for me was what sort of move is that, from the very direct assault on your senses to something that is so subtle, so manifold, that it loses its physical traits.
You were talking about the movement between order and chaos, movement and stasis. I think another way is to think of solidity and emptiness. Because even in my thick heavy black paintings there is the sense that the black is very fragile, and it could be full or it could be empty. This is one of things I like about black so much. In these complicated thinning out edges there is a literal play on that. There is an infinite density in the heads, the density of consciousness or fate, something that’s irredeemable and impossible- too heavy, then somehow we fade out when we die, we dissolve. It makes sense. There is an impossibility of life- we struggle with being alive all the time- then with death we are lifted of that. The space between the atoms gets bigger. Around our heads is gas which is less dense than the solids and liquids that compose our physical being- that is a rather literal aspect. But there’s a sense in which dying we move from being a solid thing. The spiritual realm is quite gaseous [laughs] or aqueous- so all these old ideas are part of it.
It’s interesting – I did associate Two Heads with death, but not so much Proposition and Introduction.
I have talked about Introduction, but I am still not very clear about Proposition. It’s to do with slippage- the image is slipping off to the bottom left, a shape vaguely like a vase. It’s partially to do with the instability of language, and how we only ever see things when they are past, or we think we do, we can only conceptualise them when they have gone past us.
For me it could be an allegory of art itself, because art is always in a certain sense a proposition [laughter], one that invites you to make sense of it while at the same time resisting any attempt to make full sense of it. It lures you into its density, and then pulls you out as it is too dense to make sense of. It takes you to a place where it’s not enough anymore, it’s just some weightless patterns and colours.
I’m not sure that Proposition is the right title, but it approximately fits. The other thing is that it is too crude- it’s badly done. A lot of my work plays with crudeness, and clumsiness. There’s a sort of slapstick element, but it’s rather elegant at the same time. It’s a strange mixture.
I didn’t see the crude element so much.
There are parts that are heavy and smeared….
These parts come from the printed technique which removes responsibility to a certain extent…
Yes, but there’s a lot of work on top of that. I did control the image quite carefully. When you work with an element of chance, you don’t accept all that chance gives you otherwise these paintings would look quite different. It allows me to get to places which wouldn’t get to otherwise. But it also allows me to escape skilfulness, because for me skilfulness is really a trap, especially these days there is so much mere skilfulness on show, especially in painting. Virtuosity has become the sole guiding virtue of most paintings I see these days in the galleries- they are extremely controlled and their technique is a large part of their appeal. Whereas I rely on things being- at various times- beyond my comprehension and control to make images that speak to me.
There are various elements to this. This makes the paintings non-slick, they are not shiny perfect images showing mastery of some kind of technique. But it is also apparent that care is put into organising this non-organisation. There is such a heteronomy, such heterogeneous marks and ways of working, that none becomes dominant. So they are all structured and non-structured at the same time. So they leave you with the impression they are heavily controlled as you cannot see anything that accidentally happened. They look a little accidental as it looks as those you don’t care about certain things- but the whole makes sense as though you cared a lot about it.
So it leaves you with a question about what mastery in painting actually is, whether it’s the appearance of perfection or…
My big inspiration for that is Pollock, because he more than anyone really worked by mastering the unmasterable. His early work in particular, before the drips, the variety of marks that he made and the textures- it liberated me- even more than De Kooning- who had a great technical mastery and control. Pollock really worked with what he didn’t control, and he kept working till he got somewhere. Sometimes that took a long time- my surfaces are a lot thinner often than early Pollock’s – but some of them take a long time to reach the point at which they work on all these different levels together as a single thing, which is what makes a powerful work. Putting things which don’t belong together in one thing that’s really the challenge.
Here we are coming close to what you strive for in painting. This integrity in multiplicity, letting things be themselves and not letting them be themselves, making them what you see in them. There seems to be a particular thing that drives you in painting that you will not see in other artists, something that you are looking for in this process, something that is supposed to happen.
I don’t want to be in control. These paintings aren’t about me. They are the products of a process that comes out of certain sorts of experiences. I have always had certain unanswerable demands in my life- Is this good enough? Is this what I should be doing? It’s exactly the same with painting, just because I am painting it doesn’t mean I am not asking these questions anymore. So I guess I have always have strong but conflictual demands. There are things I like a lot but they don’t necessarily go together easily. Putting them together in paintings is a challenge. I need to answer different things at the same time- in an interesting way. You look at the paintings that people paint and they paint the things which satisfy them, and I have a complicated list of demands, to answer to my sense of things.
So it’s a mastery of an antagonism…
Well it’s a mastery of conflict I suppose- is it mastery? It’s a kind of place where you can let things be, but they can be themselves- they don’t kill each other. It’s a bit like gardening- you want to raise your plants- you like all kinds of plants and left to themselves they will kill each other. At the same time every painting has to go beyond being just a harmony of pre-existing parts. There is the demand for travel, exploration, change.
So you don’t look for confirmation, or even consolation. They go beyond, you try to make sense of the elements. There might be in tension, but what is in tension and how it is in tension becomes something different in each painting.
It’s a creative activity. You are recreating, reformulating, not just expressing in some blank way.
I am curious to know how you see what I do in relation to the contemporary context- it is quite a puzzle for me!
Generally speaking I think that being a painter these days is awfully hard, in the sense that on the face of it, the thing that nobody needs anymore is more images. We are living in a world where we are bombarded by images, and it’s very difficult to create images which are not reproducing something you have already seen. The history of painting is also awfully long. There are the low hanging fruit- which you don’t like- where you introduce digitally produced art- incorporate elements that could not have been used before because that was history. So there is that easy way of being a contemporary artist, but apart from that there is no rule about what you can or can’t do. It’s a medium in which a lot of things have been tried out. So for images to stand out they have to speak for themselves, which makes it really difficult. As a way of resisting that some have gone very minimal- as one of my friends did for a while.
What makes you think painting is the best thing to do?
I don’t! [laughter] I started painting for practical reasons. If I lived in the country and had a barn, I would probably been making strange sculptural constructions. Working in the studio I have got it’s really the only thing I can do. I don’t have an outside working space to make dust or fumes. But actually having started I am now realising that there are certain things you can do with painting- I was talking earlier about space- that you could not do in real life. There is a certain advantage to playing with virtual, perceptual space
There is a certain immateriality to paintings.
In terms of complexity and differentiation your paintings and sculpture and even your pottery is incomparable. The sculptures are more minimalist, but the paintings- like Fog…
The strange thing about that one is that there is so much weight there but at the same time it’s so light, and it’s such a strong shape but at the same time it’s completely undefined. These kinds of things would be very hard to do in sculpture.
There is also this idea of disappearance, into an abyss or because of layering. You can create so much ambivalence in painting, leaving the viewer to work out what is going on. You can read it in many ways and it says more about you at that particular junction than about the painting. I find it difficult to imagine that you could make anything as dependent on subjectivity for its meaning outside painting.
I think one major exception to that is Antony Caro, who managed to do great complexity and ambiguity in his sculpture, through turning and layering. Some of his work is a source of inspiration for me.
A topic which we haven’t explicitly talked about, but maybe a little implicitly, is how to perceive your works, and more generally the nature of aesthetic experience. One of the features of aesthetic experience, one of the things you are after is ‘openness’. Do you think openness is a feature of aesthetic experience?
Well I suppose like most people who work in art, I think of as aesthetic experience as what I like in aesthetic experience. Art offers all kinds of experiences, especially these days, and some of them might be called aesthetic experiences and others not. A key to what I consider to be valuable in aesthetic experience is an expansiveness, openness. I think it was Dewey, in Art as Experience, who wrote that any experience that involves the expansion of the field of consciousness was an aesthetic experience- that was his definition. Religious experience is a kind of parallel phenomenon, but that usually comes with some kind of realisation, conversion or revelation of spiritual truth. Aesthetic experience stops short at something before giving a clear message. Aesthetic experience is reaching in the same direction as mystical experience- certainly in what I do, I think, there is a sort of negotiation with mysticism. I have been, for brief moments, when I was much younger, quite religious – and I had a lot of contact with nature as a child living in the country. In a lot of my work there’s an attempt to understand our place in nature, and also the future of nature given all the changes that are occurring. What does nature become when man can organise and control virtually every aspect of life on the planet?- which is where we are heading. Does nature just become the weather- chaos- the systems that we can’t control but are just disruptive? Nature is life itself- which we are getting ever better at controlling and dominating, and I find that quite distressing. Not just the fact that we can, but it’s a challenge to our sense of what lies beyond ourselves, which I think is a vital part of humanity- that we are aware of otherness- of our limitations. We seem to be losing sight of these kind of things.
So the reason you brought this up is that your experiences of nature and of religion have an affinity with aesthetic experience, and they are important, biographically speaking for why you value art.
Yes, I think it’s the same sensibility that allowed nature to communicate with me – I don’t think it was the other way around [laughter]- or the religious sense of the mystery of things. There are some people that have no sense of nature but who are mad about art, but for me it’s on a continuum. For me it’s a lot about patience, spending time, not only with what you are looking at but also with your own reaction to it. That’s an essential part of a sensibility towards anything beyond yourself that isn’t instantly comprehended.
To check we are talking about the same phenomenon, could I give an account of what I think the nature of aesthetic experience is, so we can see where we agree and disagree maybe? So the way I see it is that aesthetic experience is an encounter with an object, the work of art, that is such that you feel called upon by it, addressed by it, in a way that invites you to engage with it in a sense making exercise or effort. But at the same time it is both mute and its meaning is inexhaustible. So there is the situation where you encounter perceptual objects, you wander along its sensuality and try out ways of making sense of it. But because it is a sensorial object, rather than a semantically constituted object, it always refuses to be the kind of thing you see in it. That sort of accounts for the time you can spend with an object like that- it invites you and resists you. Whenever you think you have arrived somewhere you realise that you haven’t really and you have to start again. That’s why you can live with works of art- because they have this special structure.
I think that you are making it slightly too minimal. You are essentially right, but I do think that there has to be more of an appeal- not just an invitation- it’s not just that is can be an object of interpretation, which then resists. It has to call on you quite strongly, to be a good work of art. I try to make paintings that call on me quite strongly. And it’s difficult to make something that calls strongly, is complex, and inexhaustible. That’s the difficult bit. You can make something that is complicated, but has no appeal, and to my mind there is an awful lot of art like that at the moment. There is art that has appeal but no complexity and no longevity, and that’s the ‘in your face clichéd stuff’ which there’s a lot of as well. The difficult thing is to combine both. As you said, there are so many images around, and so many ways of entertaining ourselves. We don’t need to spend time doing anything unless we have a good reason for doing so. But I think it’s always been the case that the best art has had a strong initial presence, so cognitively it looks interesting, not that it could be interesting if you spend enough time, but it is interesting from the beginning and repays that interest over a sustained period, and you want to go back to it. That’s what I try to do because that is what I like.
That raises the question of whether you need to already have an aesthetic attitude for something to speak to you- it puts so much on the side of the art work that it can speak to you no matter what- it can capture you!
No, of course there has to be a cultural background, some kind of attunement. Personally, though I have looked at a lot of art, I always found art interesting, just like when I walk around a field I find the trees interesting, the light, the shape of the clouds. It may be that I am a visual person, I have always looked around me and things have always evoked a response in me. Looking at art work is not that different from looking at a tree, it just does different things once you start looking at it. For me the appeal is in the complexity and richness of the thing.
That is why it is not an accident that you are drawn to the notion of aesthetic experience. Ultimately it goes back to Kant. Before Kant talking about art meant talking about the features of an object. He made what happens in consciousness the actual place of art, even if in a dialogical fashion, art happens in experience. He thus made it not limited to human artefacts but extended it to contact with nature. That shift in focus to experience is very much in line with the biographical path you have taken to art from experiences of nature which are aesthetic in themselves.
Everybody has a sense of taste, more or less, a sense of forms or colours they like. I have always had quite a strong reaction- ugly things depress me, beautiful things make me happy. Especially in the manmade environment. In the natural environment nature doesn’t contain ugliness like we make in the cities. Human beings are capable of extraordinary ugliness. But when you look at paintings there is a whole series of cultured attitudes, judgements, which kick in. Especially when you are trying to interpret a painting. And of course everyone’s attunement will be slightly different as well. This is one of the things one has to find a way of accepting. As an artist one tries to make things as good as one can, but one will find that people will see completely different things, which might horrify the artist or just depress him. It’s the same in philosophy: you write a paper in a certain way because you think that’s the best way of doing philosophy, then you find others have completely different ideas, and there may be nothing you can do to convert them. One day nobody will respond to your work, and another many will.
The question is what is unsatisfying in certain responses to your work. One way that is depressing is if they are seen decoratively- whether they are pleasing or not, and that takes away depth or complexity. But that might be a sign that you have not managed to put them in a state of aesthetic experience. Another might be where they are in identificatory mode- I see X Y Z in the paintings. Thinking that once they have made sense of it in one way the work is exhausted.
That’s right. When you show paintings there will be some people that don’t want to look at them because they don’t find them interesting or attractive, and they just walk by, and that’s fine. And there are others who look, but they don’t say anything, but they are really looking, and that is what you want. You want people to look, you don’t want people to start opinionating, and if they are not sure that is fine. But others come in and start saying ‘oh this is that’, and there might be some truth in what they are saying, but it is not the whole truth. That is slightly irritating as they got it partially but in the wrong way, and they also expect it to be easy.
For them it’s like a decoding exercise, like a crossword.
That’s right! But unfortunately there is a lot of art that lends itself to that attitude these days, by saying that this is about that and that is about that. It encourages people to walk into galleries and think oh this is about that, and then walk out believing they have understood it, [which they might have in fact done in that case]. I think my work is aesthetic enough, it’s not issue based, in any clear way anyway, and it’s not labelled as such, but nor is it pretty. But it is quite strong, it has a physical presence as much as visual presence. So it’s not easily patronised. So it sets itself up as a kind of challenge, and I think there is something in me that wants to make a challenge. In the same way that in Kant people rise to the challenge of the sublime –it’s a kind of peak human achievement to be able to encompass the sublime- there in something in me that wants to challenge people- and myself. Not in that very obvious way, but in quite a simple economical way. And to challenge myself too, to make paintings that do that- and which I can accept- is not easy.
So now we have three categories- and one is negative for you. One is ‘it’s pleasing’- the superficial one you are not after. Then there is beauty and sublimity which have different characteristics. Would you like to say more about these kinds of experience within the structure of aesthetic experience?
Thinking about Kant… I am no great fan of the Transcendental Turn- I but I do admire his articulation of the experience of beauty quite a lot, and the sublime. I think they are peak moments in his more ‘phenomenological’ writing. I like the way he talks about the judgement of taste as well. What I like about his description of beauty is that there is something deeply attractive about finding something harmonious both to one’s senses and to one’s intellectual being. I think part of that call that a work has to make, which I was talking about earlier, is that it has some of the attractiveness of beauty- it is propitious- fitted- to say something.
Do you think that that is something you can see at first glance? Because that is the problem with complexity. Beauty, for you, could be something that emerges from the interaction, as in exploring it sensorially you can find it rewarding to get into a dialogue.
But for the viewer to even start on this journey they need to have a sense that there is something to be discovered. You feel it in the painting. It’s like Kant’s thought about teleology- the idea that there is a purposiveness in Nature- that beauty seems to draw us, hinting that there is some deep secret behind it- that there is a deeper relation to Nature. My painting is actually quite simple compared to a lot of contemporary painting that is very layered, with lots of different techniques. Although there is complexity in my work, it’s not complexity that initially dazzles- like a lot of contemporary painting. They are trying to compete with video and other kinds of dazzling media. I am not interested in bedazzlement at all. So I am not trying to confuse people with complexity, virtuosity, technique, or shapes and colours. Hopefully my work has a lot of complexity and subtlety, which comes out in the looking process. The paintings that I like- by others- when you look at them you can feel that there is a depth of understanding. That the artist who made them has lived through them, not just thought through them. That there really is a mind there.
The reason I ask is perhaps a more theoretical question: whether being addressed in that strong way is really a reliable indicator of quality, or whether you can be caught by something which then loses its complexity? Can you be caught by its beautiful eyes, as it were, then return the gaze and be disappointed by its lack of complexity?
Some of my paintings do look out, almost literally, as some have eyes, more or less. But some don’t look out at all. But there is always a kind of appellation. You can look at a painting and tell how much thought has gone into it. Like when you look at someone talking and you have a sense of how much they are thinking about what they are saying, or if they are just using words. You pick up an article or a book and you read the first sentence- is it a sentence that shows that someone knows where they are going, knows they have something to say, says it clearly and without embroidery. I do try and look at a lot of things- this comes from experience! A lot of my inspiration comes from ‘primitive’ or early cultures, a lot of that work is very straightforward but very subtle and complicated- like cave painting, Egyptian or Greek art. They are what they seem to be, but in a very rich and wonderful way. I try to do paintings like that. A lot of contemporary work is mutton dressed as lamb, it’s pretending to be this- it looks like that, but in fact there is nothing there. Or you would have to think up a whole story in your head to turn it into something. I want the work to be in the work- not in a text or elsewhere.
But there is a difference in saying that the work is how you make sense of it, and saying that the work is in the work. I think in a sense in aesthetic experience the art happens in the dialogue between the viewer and the work, so it’s always exterior. For me the structure of aesthetic experience entails thinking of the work as something that has the feature of being other than it appears. Because only if the work is something more than what it just is does it make sense to engage with it.
Sure. What I am talking about is a kind of tone which tells you that this is worth staying with. It’s not that you get everything in one go, but that at first sight you recognise that here is something. But you might be disappointed, it’s a judgement you might get wrong. I don’t know of any good artworks that start out badly- maybe some long novels? But in painting every part of the painting has to work. If there is a weak part- you’re with it from the beginning and it’s going to be there all the time. It has to work all together, and that is something you can see quite quickly.
That is also a feature of the particular medium you work with, as a painting can be grasped in one go.
You can get an overall look quite quickly and then you make finer and finer judgements, and start trying to make sense of it. There are works that don’t fulfil their promise. It’s easier to judge other people’s work. It’s very difficult to judge your own work. It’s very easy to think that the best bit of the painting is the painting- but it’s not. It’s easy to look at the best bit of the work and think that it’s a great painting- it’s not it’s ****. In fact making the rest of the painting work can often mean sacrificing the one part which you thought was so good at the beginning. So it can be a long and tortuous process to get to a work of art. There’s a nice phrase: a painting becomes a work of art when it is more than the sum of its parts. If it remains the just sum of its parts it’s not working, becoming a particular experience.
But some of your work– it has an address in which it is immediately present. They have appear to have a structure that looks like it can easily be perceived. But then you keep on looking and it disappears. It almost becomes a sort of negative structure. With many other paintings what you get is a kind of monochrome- and then you start to see the subtleties in them. With yours the first appearance is strong and then it becomes problematic. You are lured into all kinds of ways of seeing and of making sense of the structure and dynamic.
I like strong structure, and I think most of my paintings do have strong basic structure, even if it is implicit. A lot of my work is concerned with the relation between things and not so much with things themselves. In my paintings a lot of the strength is in the unstated structure, compositional elements. This gives the paintings a basic strength and unity – a strong feeling. Then within that complications and breakdowns occur.
The painting invites and then it withdraws. As you say they have a very strong first appearance, and you think you can make sense of the structure. This is one thing that unites them in their different appearance. Then what you saw first becomes problematic.
They are quite difficult to paint. I have to put them away for quite long sometimes. It’s very useful to have that first look, before you start trying to make sense, because that’s the look other people are going to have, and I try to ignore that, and that’s a mistake. You have to work from that.
I also think you lose your first look, and that’s a big danger. I have the pleasure of living with Fog now- one of your paintings- and the way I look at it now is very different. I can hardly look at the painting as a whole now, because I am always starting from a detail and going out from there, and seeing how the whole looks from this feature. But I can seldom get back to this innocent look, and that must be very difficult for you.
I think it is very important they are seen as single images, which means seeing them from a distance or in a photo.
Now I usually start from a fragment before moving to the whole.
Is it rewarding like that?
Yes, it shows you that one cannot anticipate the whole from the part but nonetheless there is an integrity to it.
The parts are all important, none is more important than any other. The most important is the whole, and how the parts relate to the whole. None of the parts have an identity beyond the whole. Even though the parts might have strong differences between them, they only make sense in relation to the whole, which is everything at once. So that’s about openness and relation again. I think they do demand that openness is continually maintained. When I paint I do avoid too much focus on one area, everything on the canvas has an equal participation.
But also the elements are dynamic, they fade out or something else overlaps them. Every part is equal and this creates their unity. They look like one form of consciousness of the world.
That is why they become about consciousness and not about things, types of awareness: religious experience, mystical experience etc. They are explorations of different sorts of ways the world can be understood, the Daoist fog, or a shattered burnt out world. They are all visions, in a general sense, working out how the world could be and how we could be in relation to the world. Are things nebulous, or wrecked and ruined, or up for grabs?
Listening to you it sounds as though the paintings themselves are about aesthetic experience, like the kind of experience you paint is the awareness of aesthetic experience. They could be second order works.
Yes, I am very interested in self-consciousness, in people having experiences that involve a certain loss of self, an opening, but maintaining an awareness of it. Was it Husserl who drew the parallel between aesthetic experience and the phenomenological reduction? That’s why there’s this element of challenge, so that people are aware of what is going on. So the experience leaves a mark.
So you are interested in sharing your experiences.
There are some that are like records of a previous experience. But there are others where the experience comes out of the painting, the process of painting. It is research for myself. It’s like writing a philosophy paper. You start with an idea which develops in the writing. It’s the same with painting. You start out with an idea or intuition which you think is interesting. You work it out in the painting, and hopefully when it is finished you have reached some kind of place that is more useful or interesting. You reach a stage when it starts to become coherent- because coherence is important like in philosophy- both for trust and for meaning. There is work that tries to impress by disunity and conflict- but that’s a mistake because all you are left with is self-consciousness- a kind of aesthetic embarrassment. I’m trying to unite the aesthetic qualities of unity and harmony with a more self-conscious provoking complexity, directness and challenge. Directness is important to me, it’s also honesty. There is a lot of dressing things up these days- pretence of importance, and fake virtuosity. I am not interested in that at all, what I am trying to do is to present something clearly. It is necessarily something that is also fairly complicated, mysterious and intuitive. But I try to open a communicating channel, not a teaching but a learning, an opening for myself too. It’s important to me that they say something which is right, not necessarily easy, or pleasant but right. I don’t necessarily feel that about all the paintings all the time- and at different times certain paintings talk more than others.
I think we have now had a long discussion about beauty and its correlates, perhaps we could think about the sublime?
Yes, to challenge and stretch, the imagination and to have some kind of cognitive grip- even if it is not very clear what that is. For Kant beauty had the nature of things fitting, being right- but the Sublime is overcoming something that does not fit, but which only our highest faculties have the capacity of comprehending. In the dynamic sublime the body is threatened imaginatively but the moral being has the strength to resist that power.
It can rise above it to the extent that you enjoy your own alienation.
The pleasure and ease and homeliness of beauty is less interesting than the unheimlich of the uncanny. There are some of my paintings that are uneasy: Introduction and even Fog is in some ways. Icky! I am interested in combining reactions of pleasure, fear, excitement, and revulsion. These very profound ways in which we approach the world- these base emotions.
So for you it’s a feature of a good painting that it engages your intellectual and emotional faculties- but it’s not a painting that you can inhabit really. It points beyond your capacities- to something you cannot grasp.
I am very aware of the physical nature of things. Oil paint can be very beautiful and quite revolting in a viscerally repellent way. To mix these primitive, childlike reactions with quite high order demands- that’s interesting. It’s something that philosophy can’t do but art can and does.
It’s difficult to have an effect of sublimity with painting- you know your life is not in danger!
But the numerical sublime- the complexity and scale- though my paintings aren’t that big either!
Part of the sublimity of your work is that they are inviting but they finally don’t care that much about you- whether you can follow them –be at home in them. They insist that they are not there to please you.
I think you are right. There is something in my personality a bit like that- this is how I am- take it or leave it.
This is part of what is like to be in nature, part of the experience of the beauty of nature is its complete indifference towards you.
One of the things I find especially irritating is the wishful thinking and special pleading you get with religion. As a society we are getting so narrow and small minded. Science has become about technology. Getting people to space stations. The way we are destroying the planet, people are going to suffer dreadfully, but nature will suffer a lot more- is suffering. I find this gossiping greedy society really depressing. It’s also to do with the growth of cities, populations and communications. I find the vastness and alien-ness of nature – let alone outer space- wonderful.
That self-absorption of humanity and indifference to nature- the indifference to the viewer that your paintings show could be seen as a kind of allegory of a different sort of indifference. An indifference that people have lost sight of but which is a source of enlightenment, a richness and meaningfulness which is lost in self-absorbed communicative activity.
I guess you could call it a kind of Stoicism in a way- to identify with the universe rather than yourself- not as a religious transcendence but as a mere fact of reality- you are a tiny part of something much bigger and more complex. But for me my paintings aren’t cold, they’re very emotional. But you are right in that they do speak about the space of indifference. But it’s indifferent in that it’s not determined, it doesn’t give you a clear message- I am this or that, I like you, I dislike you. It says here I am and there you are- look.
There is something very purposeful about everything in nature, because it has the structure that is visible. It is there in itself but you can see that this structure sustains that structure etc. That’s a very emotional encounter for you, which at first was religious and then was directed at nature itself.
But it’s a negotiation with that difference between nature and religion. In painting I am trying to work out- is there anything looking back- what is looking back? Without any great hope of finding anything- because I am too much of an Idealist- in the philosophical sense of our perception not reflecting any external reality.
It’s the indifference of the other, its openness and meaninglessness which allows you to grow. You learn something about yourself in this encounter.
We haven’t talked about this before, but Buddhism is quite important to me – I have done a bit of meditation, on occasions. And I think some of the indifference of that, the distancing from emotional reactions, the distrust, a coolness- not coldness- to emotion. To slow down, spend time, not leap to conclusions, just watch, don’t try to get anything out of it immediately. That sort of mental space is in some of my paintings. It’s a sort of aesthetic attitude in itself. It is similar to the play of faculties in Kant, where you suspend the usual dealings with the world and you allow lower level reactions to take place without reaching a result.
So in a certain sense the art objects that you generate are meditational, because they invite you into a certain mind space.
When people go to galleries and they look at art works, and they feel good about it, it is because they are entering a space of detachment and possibility. Kant’s disinterest is a form of non-reaction, detachment. Images create a play of feeling and thought within the viewer which they have no practical relation to.
But artworks, unlike trees, are the products of intention. There is no message in a tree, but I try to get to something that I think is useful to communicate. However vague or indirect it is, it is still a communicative act. If you read anything that is good, a novel, an article, there is a presence of mind, a feeling of a thinking mind being behind it- a full mental activity. A tree gives you no sense of that at all. It is the same in meditation, you must have a presence of mind. It is not a propositional presence, but an attention- the mind is attending to itself. It’s the same with art and philosophy, you need to have a self-conscious full attending to what is being said or painted. So that is why it is important that paintings are consistent, the slap dash will stand out. So I am quite aware that you need to attend to everything you paint. But that doesn’t mean that everything is controlled or contrived, just that everything on the painting has been studied and accepted as being relevant. If it is not it must be changed.
Like in meditation, an awareness and acceptance.
But you also have to be quite hard with yourself, you accept things when they are right. Meditation is about letting things come and go- not reacting. To make anything you have to be highly self-critical. It is a very difficult balance between the judgement mind and quiet mind, giving yourself time and an equal attention- dwelling- but also making hard decisions when necessary.
It’s a condition for the painting at all that you let something come out. The painting is a play between intensified forms of awareness and control, and letting something come up which you are not trivially aware of.
Absolutely. There are times- when I am stuck with a painting- when I think – **** I’ll just do something. Sometimes that works and sometimes it just kills what little there was. It is very difficult to know what the difference between those two times is really. Then you can have a further reaction- perhaps I haven’t really killed it- perhaps if I do some more- turn it around- it will become another kind of painting. You can really screw your head up. You can get to a point where you really don’t know what’s going on and you have to leave it for a while, and even then it can be unclear. I have thrown so many paintings away because I tried and tried, and I am sure that it might have worked, but there was so much bad vibe attached to it that I had to get rid of it. It can be really difficult. Sometimes paintings just work- like Vase- that was almost done in one go. It just flowed. I choose the colours and a brush and it came out. There are others, like the last- Vista, I was trying to get it finished for the show. But it took for ever. But you have to work with the person who is painting that painting. Vista is a painting of an impossible world, and Vase is a painting about how everything fits and the world flows.
Paintings are expressive of existential struggles!
Yes, and with each of us that changes often. Sometimes I am quite up and sometimes I am quite down.
Another aspect is the space of possibility and the sense of possibility. It is interesting that you suggest that my paintings retreat that much. I can see what you are saying, that they keep out of contact, but they also come forward when you retreat. It is almost like for me they are making suggestions – think about this – could it be like this? So that sense of the openness of possibilities. There might be something in Kierkegaard’s critique of the aesthetic- that it is too detached and uncommitted. I think my paintings would be a wonderful example of that. But at the same time our sense of the richness of the real- and our involvement with it is tied up with the richness of ours ways of understanding it- and the possibilities of it being different or better. Art is a form of involvement with our comprehension of world- and thus on the world.
I see what you are saying, in that they are very complex versions of Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit. There are so many views you can have on it- is that the foreground, or the background, is it static or dynamic? Depending on where you look you get different cues.
For me the way that each painting has a set of possibilities, more of less contained, is a kind of unity – a possibility as a set of possibilities.
I think that you manage to contain this degree of openness, of possibilities, within a whole that appears as a whole. If there is a reconciliatory aspect to your paintings it is that they appear as integrated wholes. To suggest something that is open as well as being integrated is an achievement that should not just be taken for granted. That is one of the things I am sometimes astonished by.
So that gives us something to take away, or is it just pleasant as an experience?
It depends on how you read it. It suggests that there can be a lot of multiplicity but we can still be together- in our social situations and in our interaction with nature etc. There is nothing that formally restricts you in applying that formal aspect of your work to other aspects, including the complexity and dynamism of interpersonal relationships.
My PhD thesis was about the self, and I have a little bit of aesthetics at the end- a little aesthetic theory, and it’s really about how works of art model the unity of the self. Art demonstrates ways of organising the self. The relation between the parts and the whole are ways of negotiating my rather disparate instincts, interests and history. That fracture of internal forces causes a fight for integrity. To acknowledge those parts, give them their due, if they are valuable, and organising them to stay together.
It’s a task- I think. The less uplifting reading of your paintings could be that they are a representation of the impossibility of keeping everything together. The edge of the painting is just putting a stop to something that could go on for ever, and the frame holds them together.
But the frame doesn’t hold them. The frames allow the edges to be read. It seems like they are containers but they are not containing- they show the edges.
I don’t want to disagree with that. But you can think that the unity of the work, its integrity, means that you can show the complexity, and that is a coherent message. There is no master concept or element that unites all of them. When you said that your painting was the about the possibility of the unity of difference- a sort of Hegelian line, sometimes they are also about the impossibility of the unity of difference, for example Plain 5. Sometimes the edge of the painting is not the end of the painting, and the impossibility of putting them together continues indefinitely.
One of the things which is very fundamental is the Buddhist notion that all is change- everything is process. Nothing ever has a beginning or end, nothing is ever itself. We are always connected to all sorts of different things, and we are always changing ourselves. So that is another reason why things always go to the edge- there is no inside and no outside. Sometimes I wonder if it’s like when you publish an article you have to make it into an article size argument, when you make a painting you have to make it painting sized. How you begin and end an article can be very arbitrary, you have 20 pages or whatever, and it’s the same with a painting, where you begin and end a painting, i.e. the edges, can be very arbitrary. So I am very aware that there aren’t really any boundaries. What you have to do is make something that is coherent enough to be a single thing, to be self-coherent and self-contained, but not to be closed off and different to everything else. So the edges imply variations of the same thing going on in all directions. But of course processes are made out of disparate elements, otherwise there would be no process just uniformity. So processes are always negotiations between differences. My paintings reflect that, they are endless negotiations between differences that are always changing. But I have to make that happen in a painting. I could make an endless painting I suppose, but no-one would look at it! That’s very strong thing for me- a rejection of simple identity.
It is also, in a certain way, reflecting on the life of self-consciousness, in a very abstract way. The reason you are painting abstractly is that it is a way of giving shape to that feature of what it means to be a self-conscious being. One can be abstract in the traditional story of the turn to the abstract, you make it about colour, and about form. Paintings become self-reflective. And some of your paintings on some level look a bit like some of these American or German expressionists, but your abstraction is of a very different kind, because what you are about is very different.
You know the truth to materials idea- Greenberg’s thesis, is just one part of the whole story. Pollock was very interested in Native American ritual, Clifford Still, Rothko, they were all mystics. So these ideas about simplicity and directness where not just about truth to materials, they were ideas about consciousness.
So you would say that this is a too narrow story about Abstract Expressionism, and that you think of yourself in that tradition?
Yes I would. But I don’t know if I stand completely in any tradition – I am just myself. But certainly…there are some beautiful Rothko’s, but Still I don’t particularly like, Pollock I like more because he really puts himself into the paintings. The others are a bit more didactic, Pollock’s struggles are in the paintings. That is what I feel I am doing- struggling in the paintings- to work these things out, and they are often a mess, or look bizarre, and that is what happens when you work things out in the paintings.
Your early landscape paintings are loosely representational. How would you describe the shift? Is it towards a painting of consciousness or conscious self-awareness?
Growing up in the country, I spent a lot of time walking. Walking is where one tends to think one’s thoughts, and I spent a lot of time walking around the landscape. So my coming to self-consciousness occurred with a rural landscape. So for me landscape is thought, states of mind. The landscapes that are on my website were stimulated by hiking in Switzerland, and I am interested in heightened experiences, and mountains provide a heightened sense of scale, the cycles of birth, death and destruction, elemental cosmic nature. So they are better vehicles than the English landscape. But I was doing abstract work before them. I took a break from it as I was not happy with much of what I had done, and in fact I have thrown a lot of that work away since.
So there is continuity….?
Yes there is a lot of landscape in the Lagoon series, the Plain series. They are all based on ideas about certain landscapes and their relation to ways of being, and visions of history. Terra is a landscape- the sublime. There was a painter of abstracts who came to see the show- who liked it- but was quite put out when I said that they were fundamentally landscapes, because he wanted them to be paintings about painting about painting.
It’s also a very abstract way to think about these things- a landscape as a thought-scape.
What I mean about landscape is that there is a space with a horizon, but it’s not urban. A natural space which has a horizon, up and down, an ‘étendu’, perhaps a sky above. For me that’s a landscape space, not an artificial space.
A human perspective….?
I don’t know if it’s even human….
That of a walker…
Yes, perhaps a walker slowly approaching. Not driving cars- like the whoosh of De Kooning’s landscape paintings.
Painting is a way for you to make these self-explorative walks…. I don’t really know what I am going to paint. It’s a long walk though the unknown. You said earlier that my painting are always close but always retreat- and that is the experience of walking through nature. There are always things close and always things far away, and the destination might be complete out of sight.
In nature there are always things close…
You start working your way across the painting with your eyes, and putting it all together. When you walk through an unknown landscape you stop every so often to scan the landscape, to put it all together and make sense of it. And then you go off again.
Nature is full of muck and blood, and incredibly fine delicate structures, beautiful things. Paint can also be gunky and dirty, radiant and pure. In my paintings there is this dialogue between close grained presence and delicacy and distance. Living on a farm you are close to both these aspects of nature.
That creates some of the depth of your paintings. Some of the things you see from afar and others you have to look closely- and that generates physical movements- like when you walk. In painting movement is the only way you can represent time, taking different points of view. The wandering of the eye, between parts, and between part and whole, gives also a sense of time.
Heidegger talked about the Wanderweg, the mysterious path that might lead to anything. That is something that has always called me, a turn there and something different will appear.
Your works are so complex- as we said earlier, that you never end up taking the same route twice. You end up walking a different landscape, even when you take the same path you end up noticing different things.
I find a lot of art works just boring- they don’t have enough incident in them. There’s a lot of incident in my work and I like having it in it. Part of that is just letting things happen, and part is contriving that they do. I don’t like detail to be just more the same at a smaller scale. I like detail to be when you go close you see something different happening.
I love woodland. In woodland you walk through very confined spaces and then suddenly you get a glimpse though the trees, or you come up against something you really hadn’t expected, and the ground starts to change beneath you- the intensity and unexpectedness of natural life. Having something of that in a painting is what I look for – an unpredictable exploration, a sense of risk and revelation.