theglazelondon will be back in early September with a new season of articles. Thanks for following!
theglazelondon will be back in early September with a new season of articles. Thanks for following!
Secundino Hernández, Rojo, 2016. Acrylic, alkyd, oil and lacquer on linen, 310.5 x 287 cm, 122 1/4 x 113 in. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Secundino Hernández
I first saw Hans Hofmann’s paintings in the flesh in 1999 in a small collection at the Met – (part of a pilgrimage of sorts which included a visit to Hofmann’s mosaic mural for the New York School of Printing on West 49th Street, which features in the banner image for this website). I remember being surprised by the imperfect physicality of his canvases, buckling under the weight of paint. Still, as rough and ready as these paintings looked, they were the genuine article.
If the finish of Hofmann’s canvases was an initial disappointment to a naïve art student brought up on reproductions, then it was a joy to discover many years later the fresh and rich paintwork of the Spanish artist Secundino Hernández. This, I thought, must have been what Hofmann’s surfaces looked like before they acquired a layer of New York grime.
Matisse observed that “…a big painting needs more architecture, more technique”. Hernández works on a far larger scale than Hofmann did, but through his considerable technique his canvases somehow retain a very human measurement. The paintwork, modulating in tone and colliding with the same comfortable friction that Hofmann termed push and pull, is complex yet well resolved.
If certain places bring to mind certain colours, then Spain presents them all at once. Hernández works in Madrid, and his paintings seem to resonate with the opaque intensity of a sunlit urban landscape.
Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba
Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.
Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.
Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces.
Untitled (no. 324), Collage, 5 1/2 x 4 3/8 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
The American artist Anne Ryan (1889 – 1954) made a personal discovery late in her career, which would shape the work that she produced for the last six years of her life. In 1948, during a visit to the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, Ryan was introduced to the collages of Kurt Schwitters. Anne Ryan effectively began her career as a visual artist in the early 1930s, having already established herself as a writer of fiction and poetry. Following a short period spent living in Majorca, Ryan, originally from Hoboken NJ, returned to the American East coast, where she began to form connections with the New York visual arts scene, and was encouraged to paint by Hans Hofmann. Instead of observing the prevailing tendency for large scale abstract painting however, Ryan settled upon the modestly scaled collage format which had so impressed her in the Schwitters’ work she saw at the Rose Fried gallery on that day in 1948. It is the work she produced following this brief encounter which has sealed Ryan’s reputation.
Ryan, in her collages, remained so true to the delicate aesthetic and finely-balanced formalism of Kurt Schwitters’ collages, that in some of the more geometric pieces it can seem that the artist has relinquished much of her own identity to the task of pure imitation. And even after revisiting Ryan’s collages several times, they can still seem to reverberate to the frequency of early century European avant garde collage, rather than mid-century Manhattan. However, context is everything, and below the surface, the respective strengths of Schwitters’ and Ryan’s experiments with collage rest on distinct circumstances and influences.
Untitled (no. 232), Collage mounted on paper, 6 1/2 x 5 7/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
The trajectory of Schwitters’ life can be read in the muted surfaces of his collages. Many of his collage works were produced when the artist was living hand to mouth as he escaped Nazi Germany. They were assembled from whatever was available to him, and the small scale to which the medium of collage is suited meant that Schwitters could continue to explore, whilst on the move, the artistic territory of the immersive installation he had had to abandon in his Hamburg residence, The Merzbau. Schwitters also brought his well-established talent as a typographer and designer to his collages.
Anne Ryan is routinely mentioned alongside the American Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were a generation younger than Ryan herself. Gail Levin, in her 2011 biography of Lee Krasner, suggests that Ryan must have made an impression on the younger painter. This influence which Ryan possessed over some of her more flamboyant colleagues* suggests something which was common to, and easily transferrable between Ryan’s low key, small scale experiments and the super-sized canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. Collage of the kind which Ryan, and Schwitters before her, made is a slow and considered discipline; more about arranging the surface than attacking it, very much the best territory for a poet.
Untitled (no. 438), Collage, 10 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
Ryan also designed scenery and costumes for theatre and ballet. The artist’s feel for material comes across in some of the less dense collages such as Untitled (no. 438). The torn edges of the handmade paper elements in this piece are reminiscent of Hans Arp’s Papiers Déchirés, as much for the rawness of the torn fibres which soften the edges of the paper segments as for their sophisticated placement within the tight confines of such a small scale. Ryan creates the illusion of a much larger space; an abstract space which might have satisfied the critic Clement Greenberg’s taste for an all over surface, from which no single figure emerges as dominant.
Untitled (no. 376), Collage, 9 1/16 x 7 1/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.
Anne Ryan’s influence on a number of other artists who were producing painting, and working on a much larger scale, says as much about the influences which brought about Abstract Expressionism in the first place as it does about the power of Ryan’s collages. Ab-Ex did not exist in a void, and the lessons of European painting were fresh in the minds of American artists trying to push the artform in new directions. If it is easy to speak about Ryan’s collages and Lee Krasner’s large scale paintings in the same context, it is because they both absorbed, and sometimes rejected, the lessons of painting’s recent past. What Ryan assimilated almost instantaneously when she first saw Schwitters’ work, was a set of formal instructions which she could take up and run with to produce work into which she could then pour her own experience. When Matisse studied Cezanne’s Three Bathers every morning he was similarly recharging before the day ahead, to be spent thrashing out the lessons of his research in the studio.
On their own terms, Anne Ryan’s collages are objects of exceptional beauty, which expand on a visual language which is at once already familiar to us through Schwitters, but also uniquely accented with the artist’s own personality.
*Gail Levin, Lee Krasner – A Biography, 2012, p.274, WM Morrow, New York NY.
Robbie O’Halloran – What is your background?
Tarragon Smith – Most people have a relationship with history such that they will make their background relevant, whether it is or not. It is hard to imagine otherwise. For myself, I was brought up in a family that believed in the arts, sciences, and most things in between. Except God. They had little patience for God. My father regularly told me and my brother that we could do anything we put our mind to. Foolishly I believed him.
ROH – Is there a connection between the different aspects of what you do; painting, drawing, ceramics?
TS – Everything is linked. Or rather, the various aspects of my practice are linked though my brain. Some media are better suited to some subjects, for instance I would rather express my love for my partner in a song than in paint or print. But that is entirely personal. That has to do with what potential I am capable of seeing in any given medium. Others see it differently. There are some artists who were born to paint, or sculpt, and their medium is their art. Most artists, if you’ll forgive the generalisation, and the phrase, were born to create, and they will do so regardless of the medium and they will change media as circumstances dictate. I am one of these and thus I hesitate to call myself a painter. People are seduced by painting aren’t they?! Maybe I should do more pictures.
ROH – Most of your work in painting has been what we might loosely term representational painting. Does this register with you when you’re working, and how important to you are distinctions such as abstract or representational?
TS – I would not travel as far to see a show of abstract painting. Strange, in a way, since so much attention in representational painting is given to the minutiae of paint application, to the point that many a representational painter is preoccupied with what is more or less abstract. I think abstract painting often seems unnecessary to me. What can be achieved in it that can’t be achieved in representational? No, distinctions aren’t too important to me. I love the magnificent world around me.
ROH – You’re a skilled draftsman with a natural facility. Do you ever find yourself fighting against this, and do you ever find that a gesture or a line comes too easily and needs to be re-thought?
TS – That’s very kind of you to say. I’ve never felt that I am. I do feel that I am a good mark maker but I have always separated that from the concept of draftsmanship. I probably shouldn’t. That is probably the shackles of realism weighing down my hand. Never have I felt that any mark making comes too easily. I long for such a moment! I long for the day that I go home feeling uneasy because painting has become too easy. Who in history ever felt this I wonder? People who make bad paintings perhaps. I have days when everything comes quickly, when my brain is working well, when I should just keep moving. Those are lovely days. Those are days of attainment. Normally it is the bigger picture that needs to be rethought. Composition. I’m not half bad at composition but it can be in conflict with content at times. Content can be cantankerous. I make mistakes with the composition/content relationship, which I then pursue for far too long because I am favouring one over the other. It is usually content I favour. It is usually composition that should be favoured. So it goes.
ROH – Artists are always interested in the working routines of other artists, whether they admit to it or not. Would you like to say a little about how you work?
TS – I love those books that are nothing but pictures of artists’ studios. They’re great fun. And I think they make me feel better about myself because I recognise that my studio probably looks pretty cool to other people. Studios are just such lovely places. Working habits are important to me. I value a routine. It’s a pity for me then that I have none. I hope this will not continue but for the past months, the change of pottery studio, taking up teaching, has thrown my regular routine into complete and utter disarray. So often we forget to value what we have; I’m sure I will look back at these months as a time of great freedom. Hmmmm, perhaps the best way to answer that question is to say that discipline is very important to me and my work suffers when I don’t practice it to some degree.
ROH – How and when did you get involved in ceramics?
TS – I started ceramics long after my interest developed. I finally got around to doing something about it a bit before the boom, so there wasn’t a ceramics studio in every warehouse around the corner. I remember that my brother had been purchasing ceramics for years, getting great pieces at out door fairs, that I only broke accidentally, and I remember at the time being unenthused by about half of them. I had no ceramic sensibility; I simply wanted to make things with my hands. All through my years of painting I’ve been attracted to 3D media. Probably I should never have picked up the brush. Oh well. But this stood me in good stead when I finally started with clay. I was very intuitive, my one agenda I brought with me was quickly discarded, and I let my hands lead me. Like anything else, there is a lot to know about ceramics, but the bare bones of making came quite naturally to me, and I think I’m quite good at it. My ceramic sensibility is now broad and subtle. I dived into it. My artbook library has received a third wind since I’ve taken it up.
I’m sitting outside whilst I write this. The wind is being windy, pulling at the sleeves of the two big trees like an irksome child. The flower bed that one of my flatmates sowed a month or so ago, looks distinctly like a bed of weeds. There are some few flowers now but most of those are coming from between the cracks of the flagstones. My partner and I, who have nothing to do with this flower bed, are a bit greedy with plant life. Perhaps that makes us an on-trend couple; ceramics, plants, … she’s a milliner and works for the Barbican to boot. I don’t mind. One side of ceramics is that it lets me bring my domestic life to work. I make planters for our growing collection of green things, cups, bowls, the other day I made a colander. Very useful. And very pleasant to go into the studio and feel productive without always having to think a piece through.
ROH – You said that when you started making pottery you thought you would paint images onto the vessels you were making. This didn’t quite turn out the way you anticipated. What went wrong, or right even?
TS – I let my hands guide me for quite some time before integrating the ceramics into my art practice. Originally I had thought to translate some of my large ink still-lives onto porcelain vases. That was, as I said, quickly discarded. And discarding that idea was the best thing to have happened. Had I pursued it I might have found myself with the same problems I have had with representational painting, a stifling of the imagination. The freedom I felt in pottery has had a very positive effect on my painting. I find myself on the other side of a green hill, where I can frolic in the sunshine, the hard work of climbing done. I lose sight of what I’m talking about.
ROH – Your current series of amphora has a Mediterranean look and theme. But these beautiful, raw vessels are not what they seem. They immediately evoke the sun of the Mediterranean, the ancient history of the region, and to me at least, the indulgent dreaminess of Lawrence Durrell. But they’re in fact more layered than that. Can you say something about this series?
TS – It’s been a long time since I read Durrell. I remember being very bored by Mountolive. I’m pleased with your reaction to them. It is important to me that art works that way – no one ever expects complex food to taste bad at first bite. So, the amphora project came about as a natural fusion of my interests in ceramic vessels and the international news. I saw a sinister similarity between amphora, crammed tightly into the holds of ships to maximise profit, and migrants who were crossing the Mediterranean, crammed tightly in ships to maximise profits. Just as amphora were used as disposable containers for the transport of commodities, so too have migrants been treated as disposable commodities by the traffickers who load them into boats well past their limit; the amphora and human are being used as vessels to propel wealth. It is no irony then that amphora were also used as funerary urns. The shape of the amphora, with a swollen belly, a neck and arms, has great anthropomorphic resonance. My recent paintings are intimately connected with this project, focusing on a key element of it, water, which has a great symbolic power. Well, you know, it’s about the beauty and the sorrow of the Mediterranean Sea.
ROH – Where does poetry fit into your work?
TS – Poetry. It’s a great way to receive new and old ideas. Good poetry sends me to work. It can serve as a spark or an end note. I go through phases, as most of us do I should imagine, but the incisive beauty of poetry lingers in me and I strive toward it always.
ROH – What inspires you as an artist?
TS – Everything. The sea, the sky. Texture. Human fragility. Human shame. Politics. Picasso. Pattern. Music. Leonard Cohen, whose later work, the last three albums, is some of the finest art I have enjoyed. The late work of many artists: Picasso, Hockney, Degas, Titian, Goya, Manet. Novels. Pottery from so many places; that timeless energy-filled pottery found in deserts, in the museums of Japan, at the bottom of the sea; fired in pits and inefficient kilns and decorated by the world. Bicycle rides. My partner, I love her.
Tarragon Smith in his studio – April 2017
Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, IX, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, canvas, crayon, acrylic, graphite, acrylic gesso, nails, 68.6 x 66 x 3.5 cm, 27 1/8 x 26 x 1 3/8 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
There was a time when Richard Tuttle’s understated assemblages were considered by some commentators to be so insubstantial as to be an affront even to minimalism. Better to be made of nothing at all than to be made of almost nothing, they might have said. It might have been the almost-there fragility of his assemblages to which they took exception, cobbled together as they seemed to be, out of the most commonplace craft materials such as string, glue, fabric, scraps of timber, and acrylic paint. At a time when minimalist art was predominantly the slick, machine-made product of an extended process of intellectual refinement, Tuttle’s unkempt art school project rejects seemed outrageously unsophisticated and unfinished.
Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, VI, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, aluminum flashing, canvas, graphite, acrylic, spray paint, nails, 86.4 x 86.4 x 15.9 cm, 34 1/8 x 34 1/8 x 6 1/4 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
But Tuttle’s work has outlasted the exhausting exaggerations of the greater portion of minimalist and conceptual art, with their shared requirement that we place our very human instinct towards sensuality, visual stimulus, and the imperfect edge on hold in the service of a cold idea. And yet I reflexively use the word minimal to describe the economy with which Tuttle uses his very mundane materials. His work is sometimes shockingly reduced in its construction; barely applied paint marks on unprepared offcuts of timber, fabric, and paper, balancing against panel pins or dangling from a length of twine. Tuttle’s minimalism is difficult to pull off, relying as it does on the ability to exploit that energy which is produced at the very beginning of the process of making something. Where most artists would keep adding layer upon layer, reworking and transforming, Tuttle appears to say – That’s enough – repeatedly with each component he adds to his constructions.
Richard Tuttle, My Birthday Puzzle, exhibition view, Modern Art, 31 March – 13 May
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
It can be slightly confusing to talk about Tuttle’s work in relation to, or indeed in opposition to, either minimalism or conceptual art. This reflex of association arises from the fact that Tuttle emerged onto the art scene while these two movements were in full swing. When looking at the assemblages the artist has been producing consistently for decades, it is more useful to go further back in time to find an aesthetic with which Tuttle might share artistic territory. The delicate collages of Olga Rozanova from around 1916, or Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages of the same period, demonstrate equally well what can be done with so little. The work in Tuttle’s recent show at Modern Art in London was visually denser than much of the artist’s previous work, with more emphatic marks and busier surfaces, but still with his trademark lyrical economy.
Richard Tuttle, Pressing: Hole in the Head, VII, 2015-2016, styrofoam, metal, colored felt, heat-sensitive quilting backing, fabric paint, white glue, bond paper, enamel paint, acid-free museum mount board, metallic paper, acrylic, day-glo gouache, nails, 64.8 x 92.1 x 5.1 cm, 25 1/2 x 36 1/4 x 2 1/8 ins
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lyricism in language and the economy of poetry, have also been of importance to Tuttle’s art. Married to the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tuttle has collaborated with writers and other visual artists in the past on text-based works – but strangely, he sees the processes of writing and making artwork as two entirely distinct, even incompatible disciplines. The thought processes involved in producing one would be of limited use in the service of the other, according to the artist. What is common to both a certain type of poetry and Tuttle’s constructions however, is economy of expression. Poetry lends itself to this kind of reduction – the careful arrangement of words, with an allowance for their power to imply or to signify multiple things in the world, resonating with our memories and experiences. To speak about poetry in this way may be to risk a claim of something intangible in language. And to claim a lyricism running through both art forms can threaten to send us into the nebulous category of spiritualism. But when an artwork is so reduced, it is understandable that we start to draw on our reserves of memory and association.
Tuttle’s constructions are disarming in their simplicity; like a throw-away remark that has long-lasting consequences. And their lyricism is undeniable. They are beautiful statements in paint, paper, and fabric, with all the intangible associations an artist might care to risk.
Image: Something II, Acrylic with pumice, thread, and fabric on wood, 20 x 31 x 10cm, 2016
Robbie O´Halloran – When did you start painting?
Sean Penlington – I was always drawing when I was young without any interest in making paintings – until I was around 17 and my teacher told me that painting was like drawing with a brush. Then I became really interested in two London School painters, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – as well as the German artist Max Beckmann. Since then and throughout all of my art school education, I have chosen to paint and learn more about painters.
Do you think of yourself exclusively as a painter?
Painter as a noun suggests a separation from everything else. For me, my work is firmly within the discussion of painting – everything I make is ‘painting’ but I don’t want that to suggest how my work will look or behave. I’m interested in boundaries and baggage, so in a sense I need an ‘idea of painting’ in order to yield to it or dismiss it.
You graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013 with an MA in Fine Art. What did you take from that experience?
At its best I found Chelsea to be about encouraging students to find honesty in their work. The course director, Brian Dawn Chalkley, said that he didn’t want us to make Art… that there was enough of that stuff already. He wanted to encourage something else. For me, this was interesting because painting in 2013 was very popular but it wasn’t all necessarily very good. Zombie formalist painting was everywhere, so to make an abstract painting was to risk making art which is market driven; somehow inauthentic. I wanted to think about what painting is for me, or what it can be for me. At Chelsea we had limited space and I worked in close proximity to other artists, boundaries were quite fluid in some respects and for some people quite rigid. I found it really interesting to think about overlapping spaces. I think my paintings are influenced in part by this.
Image: Something III, Acrylic with linen, wadding and thread on wood, 34 x 62 x 7cm, 2016
You’re currently working in the North West of England. After studying in London, and choosing not to stay in the capital, how much importance does location have to you and the kind of work you are making?
I really enjoyed my time in the capital. For the most part I felt uprooted in London. I lived in an area that was fast paced and culturally very different to what I’d been used to. That city buzz is partly unsettling and partly exciting – it’s easy to submit to its edginess. That feeling was so important to me in re-addressing what my paintings are, how they should feel and why I want to make them.
Moving away from London coincided with working toward my first solo show with International 3 gallery – the work was mostly created in a studio in Salford but my thoughts and energy were very much still in London. It felt like a culmination of what I was working through at Chelsea, or maybe a performance of those things.
After that show I stopped painting for almost 2 years, I didn’t look at or read about art. I think that was mostly a coming down period from the intensity of the previous year or so. I was then invited to do a solo show at Three Works in Weymouth, which I thought was a timely opportunity to come back to what I’d put on ice. That 2 year period felt so necessary, I think that the Three Works show is better for that period of abandonment. Since my show at International 3, I had relocated my studio to a spare room in my home, which is dramatically different to traveling into the city to a rented space. The Three Works paintings were made in an odd environment, thwarted by competing domestic/studio boundaries. I am encouraged by thinking about edges and boundaries, so perhaps that was fruitful. I do find that location has quite an impact on the vision of my work; the reality of one place and the memory of another.
Can you describe your typical studio routine?
This depends on how much time I can dedicate to the studio. If I have been going consistently for a number of hours a day then the studio process is much slicker, picking up from the previous day’s activity. On the more frequent occurrence where I get in when I can, it takes a lot of time sitting and looking at the work – I usually have 2, 3 or 4 things all on the go. I sit and look at them together, look at 2 together, look at one by itself. Unless I want a particular instinctual way of working to be apparent, I usually let my mind move a number of stages ahead in each painting – imagining what will open up or shut down with certain moves. I tend to want to keep a painting from being too restricted until I can find the character or voice of each painting. Sitting and looking can take most of my studio time, with the actual painting bit taking as long as it physically takes – sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes hours.
As I work on a painting, I want to discover, or realise the work through physically doing and looking. I tend to only make sketches initially when deciding what shape or size to begin with. Everything else is either done intuitively on canvas or realised through imagining it – based on experience. I probably write a lot more than I sketch now. I find it useful to sit and write down my experience of the work, what I may want from it or what direction it seems to be going in. I find that the process of writing solidifies often whimsical thoughts; it encourages clarity and exposes uncertainty. Sometimes writing about not knowing is also great.
I usually listen to music in the studio, this really affects the way I approach a painting, so it has to have the right feel for me. When I was working toward my show at International 3 I was listening a lot to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. For Three Works I needed something softer and got into the album The Way We Play by Marquis Hill. It’s not always instrumental jazz, but I find a lot of music brings too many associations for me which would be a distraction.
Sometimes clutter from the floor is useful and it influences my surface decisions – I buy random materials that I don’t have a particular use for at the time, but one day it may be on the floor at the right time. Usually the walls are a clean white to help the viewing and everything around my palette is clean and ready. I often use extremities in my paintings – such as moments of too-thick impasto made by my own mix of beeswax with oil paint. I have used this through piping bags in the past and getting the right consistency can take a lot of prep, it can look at bit like I imagine a patisserie chef’s kitchen can look at times.
Image: Something I, Acrylic, plastic balls and fabric on wood, 31.5 x 19.5 x 6.5cm, 2016
You once mentioned the ‘complexities of making a painting’, and spoke about your work as ‘perceptual games or puzzles’ and of the ‘idea of difficulty’. Does this mean that making work for you is a difficult process, one which you intellectualize, and that you expect the viewer to perhaps engage with the work in the same way? And the complexities that you mention; is it important for you that the work not just potentially demands a lot of the viewer, but that it also ‘looks’ difficult, opaque even?
I think that making a painting is a difficult thing, because of baggage – both historical and personal. It’s a challenge to work this out in the studio, but it is also a difficulty for a viewer, who will have different baggage to me.
In many ways all paintings are perceptual games, but I was highlighting that I think of my paintings as being about the notion of reading painting as a thing of language. You can read a painting in the same way that you might read a short story or a poem. The meaning may be different for people but the language holds that narrative. Some of my painting is about using or playing with this device but in search of meaning rather than empty pastiche or a type of simulacrum. These aspects of my work are only activated if one chooses to enter the game. A viewer will bring their own baggage to a painting – particularly a ‘difficult’ painting – and their level of communication with it will hold a different meaning. I don’t always feel that a painting should look difficult, but I do think about a painting’s character and its ability to give or retain information; to be penetrated. Some paintings can be quite open and maybe even eager to please; others are quieter or more austere and impenetrable. I like to try to engage the psychology of a viewer. A painting has the ability to please, irritate or bore a person and I quite often think that ‘irritate’ is an interesting space.
You also mentioned that humour is something you allow into your work, but that it is also something that you might remove if you consider it undesirable. How do you decide what stays and what goes as you are making a piece, and how much of your working method is instinctual and how much premeditated?
I decide on what to keep after living with it for a while, sometimes it is just obvious to me to either keep or remove, but often I have to spend a long time sitting with it, coming back another day for it to be fresh and sometimes leaving it for a period and working on something else. I am quite conscious of baggage in painting. Sometimes baggage can be what you think of as desirable in a painting or things to avoid – so if something is uncomfortable or doesn’t sit quite right with me I want to give it chance. It can sometimes be an opportunity for growth so I do try to give myself time to come to terms with it. I hardly ever have a painting predetermined – I aim to discover the painting through doing.
Humour is something I am open to in painting, but I also don’t want a painting to be limited by a gag. I am interested in ideas of mockery in the carnivaleseque, something that Catherine Ferguson touched on in her essay which accompanied my show with International 3. I’m not interested in my paintings always containing jokes, the idea of looking for the pun or the punch line doesn’t appeal to me, but something that is multifaceted is interesting to me. Humour is a side of a coin; if it is intermingled in a murky soup of ideas then that can be quite desirable for me. Of course, one has to think of the body of one`s work as a conversation – a single painting cannot and should not contain everything.
Image: Hmhm, Haha, International 3, 2014
How much do you look around you at what other artists are producing?
When I lived in London I went out a lot looking at what was being done. Now that I don’t live in the capital it is harder to get the same sort of engagement. I look at what I can, sometimes I look online, which I know is awful but it does serve a purpose in terms of getting a picture of what’s happening, overseas especially. I tend to look more at other people’s work when I am in a less busy studio period. I don’t want to be too influenced by what I can see happening. The downside to not living on the doorstep of the international art scene is that I am more likely only to visit things that I know will interest me – rather than taking a chance and being surprised.
What influences your work?
It’s always an amalgamation of seemingly unconnected things that influence me; sometimes it could be walking around an exhibition and feeling disappointed or unmoved, somehow wanting to do something about it. I remember walking around a Michael krebber show and feeling a strange sense of awe and disappointment at the same time – it took reflection in the studio to understand it was because I had been pushed to a level of ‘what painting can be’. Some of the work I made at Chelsea was influenced by walking through Deptford High Street in the morning and then reading art theory in the studio later that day. Each thing leaves a memory and adds to a person’s baggage. Most recently, the work I do in a school for children and young people with complex learning disabilities is undoubtedly affecting my studio practice, which is exciting to me.
Image: Problem painting #4,2014, Acrylic with oil and beeswax and acrylic on paper with tape on mdf and timber, 49.4 x 58 x 5.8cm.
What’s getting you excited at the moment?
Watching the whole Trump saga has been quite sad. Social media comments surrounding the news stories are interesting because of the immediacy of it. I read things that are upsetting and things that I disagree with and then things that you put down to trolling – which is fascinating in itself. People’s baggage and the psychology of the viewer is quite powerful in this context, more important than painting. Seeing the energy of the protests is exciting. It’s one of those things that makes a painter feel daft, but maybe excites a performance artist or activist. Grayson Perry made a comment in a speech at Central Saint Martins about how it will be good for the arts, because it will force the arts to engage with a different audience. I kind of read his comment as an excitement over potential fuel to the creative fire, which is a bit world-upside-down, but I am interested in seeing the movement against.
You work with students who have severe learning disabilities such as autism and multi-sensory impairments. Does this feed into what you produce in the studio in any way?
Up until recently I have tried to keep that experience separate from the studio, perhaps for fear of it becoming too literal or somehow disingenuous. However in working on the paintings for Three Works, I found myself reflecting a lot more about working with students with complex needs. I have found that, as with most interests that feed into the studio, there is no clear outcome from these reflections; more that it adds to the soup that is the studio and somehow has an impact on the work itself or even on the process of creating. I communicate with a lot of students through sign language; the relationship of sign-to-meaning has a great interest to me as a painter. I also work with students who have multi-sensory-impairments and who will use objects, touch and smell as a means of communication and of understanding their surroundings. My paintings have always relied quite heavily on material and difference, but when I think about it in the context of my day job it suddenly unlocks other meanings, which excites me. I am still keeping the two worlds slightly at arm’s length. I am enjoying slow-thinking about this relationship and wouldn’t want to jeopardise a truth with hurried clumsiness. Painting is magnificent in its ability to cohere body and thought, only to then collapse in literalness.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well the work really just carries on regardless of planned exhibitions, so the pieces that I last showed at Three Works in September have now fuelled developments in the studio. It’s a constant process of thinking and making – but then careful editing too. I have been invited to show in a group exhibition in Manchester this May, which will require a specific work to be made in response to a particular historical painting or image. I’m excited about this because my work is usually born out of itself, with broader associations to painting’s history. So it will be interesting for me to see how the work alters when in direct response to what is a rather sensual image.
Sean Penlington in the studio, 2017