rakerman in conversation with Jeremy Green - playwright and critic
2a Studio London 2017-19
JG: I'm a little nervous about this.
r: Nervous ?
JG: Well, I love your work, if that's not over doing it, for all kinds of reasons, but I realise that one
of the reasons has always been its mystery. I'm about to probe the mystery. Although before inviting
me to your studio, you did mention you'd be perfectly happy to supply the questions... I wonder why
you did that?
r: Partly in jest… in case you’d ask lots of wrong questions I think.
JG: Wrong questions ?
r: Yes, wrong questions. In exams I always thought I did worse than I'd expected simply
because the questions set were the wrong ones, which I didn’t know the answers to, instead
of all the right questions…that I did know the answers to.
JG: OK, well you let me know if I ask any wrong ones then…Shall we start with your work titled
“ The Wrong Gold ” (Gallery 1) and its partner “ The Right Gold ” – they seem to suggest something about judgement, right and wrong and, I presume, your reaction to it. How did that come about ?
r: I started and completed “ The Wrong Gold ” in 1997. It began in really quite poor and unproductive
circumstances for art-making actually.
It was very much a reaction to a particular period when I wasn’t able to make ‘art work’ regularly,
and prompted by a time of quite unaccustomed vulnerability about the work I was engaged in.
I had found it a shock that changing circumstances had suddenly made other people’s professional
opinions and judgements appear much more important than I was used to them being.
I’d realised that if I had to consider their opinions to be more significant than my own, this would
become directly influential on my future as a maker of art.
What rescued me, if that’s not too dramatic, was when I realised that even when other people’s
critical opinions are at their worst – simply devastating – or perhaps at their best – just generally OK
– in the end they have to be seen as much the same: ‘well-meaning’ but, in essence, quite
‘meaningless’ as regards how you manage your own way of making work.
Unless of course you agree with them, in which case you’re totally sunk.
JG: Cue much used Kipling quote…
r: ... As imposters, in the cricketing sense, definitely. I came to a view that ‘opinion’ when expressed as
‘judgement’ just isn’t as existent or substantial as the actual work it is criticising. In itself it’s barely
visible, which I think was the visual beginning point of “ The Wrong Gold ”. I began by using the familiar
visual shorthand of the ‘tick’ and the ‘cross’, the crudest symbol of right and wrong – in ridicule really.
JG: Like a teacher ?
r: Yes, by using the scrawled encirclement of what was judged a faulty passage of drawing, or a
repeated question mark to express dissatisfaction, or a jotted comment… ‘This gold is wrong’
underlined in exasperation.
I wanted to magnify the slender means judgement has when it needs to make itself seen as
a corrective act. Using ticks and crosses for marking bits of a drawing is a ridiculous act, and
I wanted to use that satirically to draw attention to the futility of applying the concept of ‘right’
or ‘wrong’ in the context of something calling itself art.
Particularly if it attempts to assume some sense of superiority over the subject itself.
JG: You mean it's not just about criticism of an artist's technique or ability. It goes beyond that.
It's as if the critic is assuming a higher authority – as if the criticism is somehow loftier than the art?
r: Yes, very much so, to the point it even assumes it can correct pictures, as you say, like a teacher
marking homework; and I was trying to find a way to subvert that, by making ‘the act of correction’
the actual subject itself in “ The Wrong Gold ” and hopefully show the ridiculousness of it.
JG: I’ve seen some of the companion series “ The Right Gold ” which is intended for display
alongside the 64 pictures that make up “ The Wrong Gold ”.
They appear to make an act of judgement even more ridiculous, as it’s hard to distinguish
what makes the right ones ‘right’ and the wrong ones ‘wrong’… which is, I presume, the point
the work is making. Except that the touches of gold pigment that were circled with a cross
when ‘wrong’ look a bit different now, and have ticks telling us they are ‘right’…
r: Yes, there’s a slightly ironic satisfaction to me that I made the ‘gold’ in “ The Right Gold ”
version not visually very ‘good’ – meaning, to my own personalised aesthetic sense, they’re
a bit fiddly and contrived when compared to how they appear in “ The Wrong Gold ”; which is
an attempt to underline the ‘absurdist’ nature of the whole work.
JG. We all know, I think, when something is presented to us as being approved as ‘right’ or
‘good’ or the ‘best’, and then we stand around saying "hang on a minute I don’t actually think it is".
r. It’s the complacency that sometimes comes with ‘approval’ or 'disapproval' that I’m trying to
push against, despite “ The Right Gold ” still being uncompleted.
I’ve found it the hardest work to do. It’s very odd trying to make over again a complex and
instinctive drawing exactly the same, as much as I can – copying it like a forgery, I suppose,
and then 're-marking' it, making all the crosses into ticks of approval, and all the damning
comments into congratulatory ones. So far I’ve managed to complete about 46 of the 64.
JG: Making the same drawing over again – wasn’t that a subject you’ve worked on previously ?
r: Yes, an early work, “ The Unrepeatable Drawing ”, was demonstrating the well known fact that
nothing repeated is ever actually the same, and I wanted to see what that looked like when
applied to a drawing.
JG: … As in Heraclitus: 'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and
he's not the same man.'
r: Yes, very much … exactly that. And each repeated drawing of course was very different: 270 times
as it worked out.
JG: You’re also continuing with another long-running work, “ Unfinished Drawing - Space
between Two Forms ”, which I know you began 12 years ago. How are you doing with that ?
r: … Well, thankfully it’s not particularly arduous, as it only requires a small amount of work each
day. Where it is slightly worse than the others though is that there actually isn’t going to be an
end to it for me while I continue to exist, or have the physical ability to continue it, which is
probably much the same thing.
JG: Presumably it goes from being ‘Unfinished’ to a state of being ‘Finished’, for want of a
better way of putting it, when you are...
r: ... ‘finished’ physically, yes. That’s why it extends a bit every day I am alive. It has changed
quite a lot though over the years, as it’s been added to. It depends a lot on the way I see things
on the day, and how I draw each time, darker or lighter, clumsy or fussy, that sort of thing.
JG: And presumably you expect it to become frailer and weaker as time passes, and you
become less able to do it.
r: It has already. I used to make it from the floor in the studio, or wherever I happened to be,
but have to do it differently now. It could of course always come to an abrupt stop… which
is a possibility, it being linked to life and the ‘big subject’ in that way.
JG: What does it look like, I think I've only seen a couple of pages of it ?
r: It’s very uncomplicated. The actual 'space' is simply a gap, like a channel between two
heavily textural shapes or forms as the title has it, one above and one below.
To me it simply resembles a continually changing gap between two rock-like formations.
For years I thought it was a ‘line’ but then realised it was a space. It numbers over 4,700
separate drawings now.
The space and the two forms increase in length by just under 12” each day, so it is
now extremely long, or tall, depending on how you look at it.
JG: And how would you look at it ? I know it is being done in book form on separate pages.
r: Yes. These now number some 70 separate volumes – it is large. Each drawing extends
it by almost a foot a day, so if it were joined together at the present moment, it would be just under
4,500 feet in length. For an idea of scale, that makes it over 1,500 ft higher than the World’s
current highest man-made sky tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is 2,717 ft. tall.
JG: So it wouldn’t fit in there then.
r: Unfortunately not.
JG: I have to confess I’m not familiar with Dubai or the Burj Khalifa, so I haven’t got much of
an idea of the height of it. What would that mean visually in comparison, say… in ‘Shards’ ?
r: Well I know, because it's in my notes, that The Shard is 1,016 ft tall at its highest point,
so the drawing’s length, if going upwards, is more than 4 times higher than that.
JG: 4 times higher than the Shard…
r: …so I really do have to confront how it can be viewed, if it isn’t confined to being kept in books.
I have been fantasising about the possible use of a mine shaft. Originally the idea was that
there could be an extendable gallery built above the mineshaft, which would accommodate the
drawing as it gradually grew longer. But an architect friend strongly advised against any thoughts
about extendable buildings...
JG: … Which would require quite a substantial financial investment…
r: … From a very interested party, which at present there isn’t.
There used to be the disused Parsonage Colliery in Lancashire, which was the deepest in Britain,
at about 4,500 ft. But I've recently been told it's now been demolished to make way for a
But using the depth of a mineshaft is still a good way to show this drawing, and it would be reclaiming a decommissioned Colliery and its machinery for a new purpose as a gallery installation.
The thought is to modify the mine's lift to incorporate a viewing platform; and use the winding mechanism to descend the shaft alongside the illuminated drawing. This would be to a depth where the drawing could then turn round and go back up. The viewing platform would then ascend alongside the rest of the drawing to the gallery and exit above.
While the drawing still extends it could be added to every 6 months, about 180 new drawings or so.
But as I said earlier, the original idea behind ‘Unfinished drawing’ is that it does eventually become
'finished’ when I can no longer physically do it any more. So it is going to end up a finite length.
I should talk to Artangel, but they’ve recently been involved in burying an airliner so probably
wouldn’t be wanting to do another below ground thing just yet.… I’m not sure….You don’t look very keen.
JG: No, no… just a bit claustrophobic, lift phobic and with an intense dislike of heights or… in this case, depths… but I’m sure some people would love it.
JG: Can we explore a different directional development ? It’s something I’m very struck by.
You’re using a number of literary references and quotations as ‘titles’ to series… I’m thinking of the series of drawings under the title “ Epithalamion ” (Gallery 4) which quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and a series called “ 16 Satires ” (Gallery 1) where you have used extracts from Juvenal as titles, and also “ Sea Stories with Joseph C.” (Gallery 4) with quotes in the style of Conrad.
Can I ask you if there’s an illustrative objective here ?
r: No, I don’t consider these works to have illustrative objectives – not as an actual ‘illustration’ of the written text.
I’m suggesting this because the process that I used to make these works has come first…In other words, the image is made, and then I have to work out what it is. Whereas I tend to think an ‘illustration’ is about translating what already exists in a written form, into a visualisation.
JG: So a line of verse such as " The hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover, makes
dither, makes hover” – when you use that as the ‘title’ of a drawing – you don’t see that as illustrative at
r: No, because I didn’t set out to illustrate that verse. The verse suggested itself to me after I had
made that particular picture… as it seemed to me to describe what I had made and what the drawing
made me see.
JG: The drawing made you see…?
r: Yes , they can have that power over me, that’s when I can ‘read’ the drawing.
JG: Read it ? As distinct to seeing it, or is that the same thing to you? I’m a writer…words… reading.
r: Yes, to me it’s the same thing. A large amount of the work I have been making over the last 2 or 3 years, has been about my attempts at recognising what the image I’ve made actually is.
The “ Sea Stories with Joseph C. ” for example aren’t so much about Conrad’s actual stories; instead when I first saw, or as I say read the images I'd made, they began to reveal very potent and previously forgotten memories of my particularly stressful schoolboy experience of what we now refer to as 'teacher bullying’, during a term of extra revision class for ‘O’ level Eng. Lit.
The Conrad book we had been set, with its impenetrable darkness and dread of drowning, mixed
with the contempt of my teacher for my attempts at understanding it, really did inform my whole emotional experience of that personally awful time. That period is what I immediately recognised when I saw the drawings I'd made.
I could read the images almost as if it was an account of that time. Before I saw them I’d completely
forgotten or presumably had hidden that entire part of my life some 52 years ago. Which of course can be the down side of suddenly provoked recollection.
But it is revelatory being emotionally surprised by a work you have just made, even when it shocks; especially when it can sometimes throw up whole times forgotten, buried or denied. It’s almost like having a new set of memories.
JG: But the works aren’t exclusively a ‘memoir’, are they ?
r: No, no, I hope not all the time. Sometimes the images do appear to be about my own personal
re-discoveries, or my subjective remembrance of a particular time or place or occasion, like the
Conrad revision class I’ve just mentioned. Or “ Recently remembered places and afternoons ” and “ The Not Forgotten “ series (Gallery 3), for instance. In many ways they possibly only do have any real emotional significance, or resonance for me.
JG: But if they have resonance for you, they might for others.
r: I hope so yes. As I think this kind of thing can prompt mutual memories and recollection; because you can apply someone else’s observations to your own experience; I know it happens for me.
Often when looking at details in a painting, I’ll see a particular vernacular: a style of familiar architecture, a colour combination or texture shading, something quite insignificant perhaps to the actual work. A figurative detail, like a terracotta tiled garden path beside a flower bed, or a particular kind of chain link fence between wooden posts; and I will immediately go to something similar that has featured at some time in my life.
But there are a number of works that I hope appear much wider and hopefully more universal than just my own personal memorabilia.
JG: OK, on a strictly technical level, would you take me through the process ? You’re not thinking about a particular subject and trying to re-create it are you? Or making a representation of anything?
r: Not … usually. It’s more haphazard than that, and inevitably sounds a bit crude when described, and I don’t hold any claims of originality about this as a process. Plenty of sculptors and painters haven’t a clue what they’ll end up with I’m sure.
Essentially, when working in this way, I decide to contrive various materials and manipulate them in such a way that an image can be made on a surface, such as paper or panel or canvas, without me actually being visually involved in the making of the final result until it’s there.
Then I have to work out what it is, and whether I recognise it, or am able to read it, as we’ve just said.
JG: I presume there is a surprise element too, when you see it for the first time, as you haven’t seen it before, and what has emerged must be... quite accidental ?
r: Yes the surprise is the best bit for me, especially if I recognise something. The accidental is slightly more perilous. The problem for me with marks made by accident is that I quite soon come to believe, for some weird reason, that only accidental things are worth consideration.
I don’t know why that is; it must have something to do with the fact that they have been created outside me, and in some almost mystic way they must be of a different order; and I’m therefore not responsible.
With that way of thinking it can lead to unplanned drips and drops and trickles being believed as major achievement, which for me is where it is less helpful. But the really hard bit is when I can’t see anything, and I just have to leave them... until perhaps I do.
JG: We’ve spoken about what happens when you do see something, and those things that remind you of your past. But has there ever been anything predictive, of the future? We’re not talking Blake, are we? … Visions ?
r: Nothing as grand… Sometimes it’s the apparently least significant images that seem the most powerful when they present themselves. But I do have a great many pieces of work that seem completely incomprehensible. Do you think perhaps that is because they haven't happened yet, and could do in the future ?
JG: Ah... well, it’s possible…in theory… More tangibly, you’ve told me childhood memories play a big part in what you are doing. But you've grown rather suspicious about some of them, and the temptation to give them too much reverence. Is that because you think you may be remembering some of them solely out of habit?
r: Very much so. For instance, I have a clearly remembered image of a particular path and a grass verge. I think I must dredge this image up almost every day, which does seem a bit habitual. But I can only have glimpsed that particular place once, when I would have been about 2 or 3 years old.
Why is that particular path memorable enough to have remained so clear and repetitive for over 60
JG: You do realise we’re at the risk of playing the ‘amateur psychologist’ here.
r: Yes… but I do wonder why that particular path, as opposed to all the other paths and things I must have noticed at that time, that day, that afternoon ? Could it just be, as you suggest, out of habit ? I know I have a set of images that I always treat as memories. Was it even an afternoon as my recollection tells me it was ? What about all the other things I would have seen or had experience of that year, and other years of which I have no memory at all ?
JG: Maybe something did happen back then of real significance, but all you remember is the path… Childhood memories, aren't always reliable, and as you’ve said, they can have an exaggerated importance when we think back to our past.
r: Experience comes in too – I’ve recently come to think that experience possibly shapes memories, adjusts them to fit the the way we see things now. Of course we all know the saying that memory plays tricks etc., and I’ve always tended to believe the things I remember must be 100% real and must have happened, which possibly could be quite a large mistake. Particularly when I suddenly see them in these pieces of work and consider them as art, because by doing that I've given them the importance of major personal events.
JG: Perhaps their significance is not the deciding factor. What’s important is the brain’s capacity to conjure it up, into what we refer to as a memory. I forgot who it was that said ' the brain is an instrument for survival'. But I do think there's a great truth in that. The brain searches for cause and effect, to help us survive. It looks for sense and significance and meaning. It's why humans are hard-wired to respond to narrative. The brain can't help itself editing our memories so that it can say: 'This is who you are, this is what you did or was done to you, this is why you are here and things are how they are'.
r: You're suggesting it's our brain’s selection process that governs what we remember ? But what about the ones that appear to be memories, often of quite a low level of importance, yet nevertheless appear to remain constant and never change or evolve.
JG: You mean, why are they particularly significant ?
r: Yes why them ? What makes them significant enough to last so long: and in my case, consider them worth turning into what I call art ?
Are they memories of actual ‘things’, actual events that happened, or are they accumulations? Accumulations of similar moments, phenomena that somehow are bundled up and presented as a real event that actually took place in the past… Or is memory partly imaginary ? Our dreams for example, they are not real events to us when we wake up, and our recall of them is usually quite fragmentary, but as dreams they have the appearance of very real events. We could easily confuse dream imagery with what we assume were real events from our past, and consider them as memories.
It is happening in the brain, isn’t it, the brain is providing them, which is quite close to imagining, or dreaming.Then it interprets them as true or false. It isn’t what reality is: the experience of the present as it is here, talking to you in the studio now.
JG: Are you suggesting that perhaps we imagine much of our past ? That memory itself is possibly imaginary.
r: Yes, sometimes I think it is in a selective way, which must be why we don’t remember every bloody thing. Certainly old memories of way back in our past, the ones we always conjure up as being of our childhood.
JG: Perhaps our memory is more an imaginative editing of a whole sequence of past events, which present themselves as coherent memories, a representation that we then believe to be something that really happened...
r: ...Yes. and which up till then we'd completely forgotten. Some of the images I have made in this way have turned out to be quick and easy for me to recognise, but some have appeared as completely new. As an example, fairly and squarely in the personal new memory bank department, is no.1 “ Ice on the window at No.60 W ” from “ The Not Forgotten “ series (Gallery 3).
I had no recall of this occasion until it was there on the piece of paper: and I realised I was looking at an image of an event where I was having to pull the net curtain off the iced-up inside of my bedroom window, to look out one morning.
I've worked out it would have to have been winter 1959-60. No central heating at our house in those days, so when it was cold enough any condensation froze to ice on the inside of the windows. This image took me back to that morning and the act of unsticking the curtain.
It's an odd experience realising this personalised 'printmaking' process I was using had provided a new memory, a memory of something I knew I had done but hadn’t thought about for over 55 years. A bit like coming across an old photograph of something you'd completely forgotten. I think this one memory stands in for all the other times I must have had to unstick the same curtain that winter. The brain had happily edited out all the other times, but supplied, when prompted by the image I had made, a memory that was recognisably representative.
JG: Alright, you’ve made this image, and it works for you presumably on a number of levels, including your own aesthetic, but it also reminds you of something you hadn’t remembered before, but that you recognise as having happened to you... personally.
r: Yes that's it… I like the sound of that.
JG: Good, OK.
JG: I'd like to ask you about the “ Post - War Picture Library ” ? What’s personal about that?...Obviously you weren’t in World War II.
r: Yes you’re quite right, I wasn’t in World War II, but the the title is ‘Post - War’, as the world of these comics was very much looking retrospectively at a time that was over. I did have a lot of War Picture Library comics, which in many ways I treated as history books – along with the Classics Illustrated, which at that time I preferred to the real books; and I spent many pre-exam revision periods happily reading them instead.
But the work that makes up this series isn’t really about the comics, it’s about my re-discovery of that particular adolescent time I’d pretty much forgotten all about. These images I had made took me back to that particular period, and the young person I can just remember being then, reading a fictional version of war – torpedoes and ack-ack guns and U-boat Wolf packs, in the comic book form of the War Picture Library.
JG: … when you should have been studying Physics. So it is essentially autobiographic. And it’s a particular period that you are revisiting in the work… And it’s not a homage to Roy Lichtenstein ?
r: No, there’s no “ Torpedo Los ” or “ Whaam! ” Obviously I’m conscious of the well trodden comic book
appropriation path since the Pop Art years. But last year, over 50 years since I’d been reading those comics, I recognised an atmosphere and some shapes in some work I had made. They looked to me like a U- boat surfacing, and a fear of ambush on a jungle path, the feeling of a threatening presence among devastated buildings, and it took me straight back to the time I used to read the War Picture Library comics.
JG: But it’s not pastiche, is it. It’s more complex. For example, you’ve updated the comic book WW II war attitudes with casual slang, both from that time and more recent times.
r: Yes. They’ve been transferred more into our current Post - WW II conflicts of 2016-17, in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria, Ukraine… Russian submarines in the Channel and North Korean missiles over Guam etc…
You’re right that it is autobiographic, as the series is all mixed up with my recognition of a particular time…and it set off a whole way of seeing that particular period of my life through these images – which up until then, as memories, had been very peripheral.
JG: Would you consider yourself being nostalgic for that time? I'm asking this because, as this work was made last year, I take it these memories have only recently been retrieved ?
r: Yes, my personal memories usually are nostalgic. And these actually aren't particularly good ones.
But this is adolescent growing up – pre-exams, teen-age angst, listening to music in your bedroom etc – young people will be doing their version of it now. Back when I was, it was the time of very possible nuclear war, which was a real concern of those years; the first TV war in Vietnam was on every night; CND was a galvanising force, badges were always worn. A daily reminder of potential doom was part of our lives.
But don't you think a lot of art is nostalgic though ? I think all artists use nostalgia in some way... Actually, at the moment I’m trying hard to think of something that isn’t nostalgic, in non-figurative art too… Maybe not.
JG: The celebratory ‘nationalism’ these comics traded in, of having won World War II, was still a comfort blanket, even in the 1960's. And the language used reflected a particular attitude to bravery as well as idiomatic speech.
r: Yes, the original comics were mainly aimed at a young audience, so all the swear words were carefully chosen and parts of words blanked out with stars. But as you've noticed, I've dispensed with the blanking out and used today's quality of swearing, and the reliance almost like a mantra on the word ‘fucking’. I felt that significant…
JG: Significant as use of language… or as a means to make art ?
r: Well... more as a way of making art out of the language of the comics: using it as the titles which describe what is going on in the drawings and paintings. Talking about them like this it feels The Post War Picture Library has probably got too many things going on – the suggestion of how the old comic's WW II attitudes might appear in the present day, and my rediscovery of that past period in my life when I read them; combining the nostalgic and the ‘autobiographic’... not to mention war and courage, fear and death.
JG: And these all came unbidden onto pieces of paper when you were thinking about something else entirely ?
r: Yes, that's right, I know when I made them I wasn't thinking about a comic book version of Isis, or any of our current wars at the time, I just realised I had made an image that looked to me like it was a drive by view of another decimated town in Syria or the Yemen or any of the endless destructions we see every night on the News...
JG: …you’ve returned to this series recently with a number of new works, but these are a long way from the teenage bedroom, and very ‘post-war’... aftermaths even, of wars that are still going on.
r: Yes, I realised the other day that some of them were after events that actually haven’t happened…
JG…as in the one I find ironically amusing titled ’’ They’ve even got the fucking Gherkin”…
r: Yes, with these new ones I've become very aware they're completely fictional ....
JG: ... and hopefully not prophetical. But you see these works as ‘representational’ ?
r: Well, at the risk of appearing semantically over-sensitive, I prefer to use the word ‘recognisable’. As I am concerned with what I find ‘recognisable’, more than trying to ‘represent’ something.
In much of the work we have been talking about, it truly only works for me when I’ve recognised what it is, and to do that I have to look at them figuratively and see if it provides the emotion or atmosphere, or experience the ‘title’ suggests it is. You have to look quite hard to get it sometimes. That's when a title comes in handy.
JG : Titles are very important in art, aren't they. Imagine if Munch's “ The Scream ” was called 'Where did I put my car keys?' Can we talk about titles ? – because it seems to me that when an artist names a work, it implies several things.
First, you are saying 'this is what this is' - in other words, you are seeking to shape my own perceptions, or perhaps to challenge them.
Second, by naming something, it implies you are wishing to communicate with me - that you wish to be understood. One could even say, by implication, that a title acts as an invitation to judgement: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe'..? I'm asking rather a lot of questions.
Let me be simpler... You give your work titles. Why?
r : Simply, I think a title offers that ubiquitous word ‘context’ – the context in which to see the work. Without it I don't think my work would be understandable, either to me or anyone looking at it.
As you say, it does this to communicate with the viewer.
JG : What about the school of thought that says a visual piece of art should stand alone, without a word of explanation?
r: No, I'm fine with that. But it seems to me with the work I do a more complete communication if the viewer is aware of my intention: especially where the work may appear obscure. I think a title can help do this, and in my case sometimes actually... is the idea.
JG: Any examples? Of other people's work... doing this?
r: …Yes, going a long way back, the first time I was aware of a title working like this was seeing Anthony Caro's “ Early one morning ” in the 1960’s. If he'd called his red steel sculpture something like …“ Untitled no: 12 ”; I don't think I would have been so affected by it in an emotional sense.
JG: So you found it was the association of an emotional moment such as " Early one morning " with this piece of very non-figurative sculpture, that managed to change how you looked at... art ?
r: Yes it did, and it altered how I saw the beginnings of my possible contributions as an artist. It genuinely was ‘life changing’ for me at 14 or 15, and began a completely new way of seeing things. Which I believe is what's so good about art, that it can actually do that.
I can't honestly say I woke up and suddenly responded to bright red painted steel and metal rods in a completely different way. But it did radically alter my perceptions about what art could be.
JG: Well, I’m always grateful for a sense of a narrative, especially when a painting appears to have moved away from the more conventional aspects of colour, composition, style and so on. A title gives me a sense of a story – it's like being offered a key or a way in. The artist is saying 'Come with me. Look at the world this way.' Isn't that part of what's going on with much of your work ?
r: I hope so. When I see a visually fascinating painting with an arrangement of shapes and colours and marks called, well let’s pretend it’s called “ Painting no. 72 ”, it's unlikely to communicate to me very much else outside its purely aesthetic appeal and style; which the artist has made 72 times perhaps.
But when the late Howard Hodgkin made a painting with shapes and colour smudges, brush swipes and blots, and called it ... “ Waking up in Naples ”, all those apparently non-representational marks and unexpected colour shadows are now loaded with intimacy and intrigue about what waking up in Naples might be like. It provokes your imagination of such an experience, or perhaps your own version of a similar personal occasion… The title has done this; as you said earlier, it can shape your perception, transform it.
JG: His painting “ Learning About Russian Music ” did that for me. The title transformed the picture.
r: Yes, exactly. Our experience is that there’s a resonance between words and visual forms when they come together; and this can present a new thought. Advertising manages to survive pretty well on it; and as with all visual pieces of communication, when presented, it’s then up to the viewer to take it or leave it.
JG: A characteristic of much of your past work was a definite attempt to include the viewer. Actually addressing them directly in the ‘title’. I’m thinking of “ 52 Places you might have been ”, where you made drawings from the actual ground you happened to walk on in many parts of the world, and asked by virtue of the title whether ‘you’ the viewer may have been coincidentally there too.
I take this to be a direct engagement with anyone looking at it. “ 31 Things you might easily recognise ” invites the viewer to respond as well: do they recognise what you are showing them ?… and so on.
Do you feel you’ve moved away from that at all ?
r: No, I hope not. Both those series will carry on. “ 31 Things you might easily recognise ” will become
32, 33 and 34 Things... etc., and there is the partner series that so far has got to “ 11 things you might not easily recognise ”. It’s catching up, so both series will always expand. I travel less now, but the scope of “ Places you might have been ” isn’t limited to far-away places; in fact the more accessible, the better in many ways, so that will go on. I usually manage to make one from most places I go to.
JG : Such as “ From the Road to Tarascon ”.
r: Yes, for years I’ve been intrigued by Francis Bacon’s “ Study for a Portrait of van Gogh ”, which I take to be Bacon’s homage to him, and based in turn on van Gogh’s “ Painter on the road to Tarascon ”.
I‘ve always enjoyed the shadows they both painted in those pictures; in van Gogh’s case the shadow appears only to be cast by the painter and not by the trees behind him, and in Bacon’s painting van Gogh’s shadow looks like some strange flattened dog on a lead. My version was made from the road leading to Arles and is in homage to them both.
I remember It as extremely hot on the road and there was no shade; I did try to draw my shadow but it was just too difficult. I remember the wax nearly melting on the paper as I drew from the road cloudy with tree pollen; but it made it slightly quicker and easier to do, coming out soft, gritty and dark.
JG: I love its tactile nature. On a technical level, I’ve often enjoyed how you can make the two dimensional seem three dimensional. But also, thanks to the title, I get a sense of an event. Or a place where an event took place – or several events – as in this case “ From the road to Tarascon ” involves van Gogh, then Bacon, then you, all in the same landscape.
Which brings me to ask – without a trace of irony – what makes your “ Unpromising Landscapes ” unpromising?
r: Well it’s a nice short question, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a rather long answer – as I remember it was an extremely lengthy process realising that title described the work I was making. So forgive me if I go on a bit.
JG: Ok, please go ahead…
r: I didn’t start off with the idea of making ‘unpromising’ landscapes. I was just interested in using the landscape in some way to make art. In attempting this, it set off a number of related but circuitous approaches.
I’ve made lots of images over the years that I could see looked like landscapes, or rather what I think landscape pictures often look like. You know what I mean, a distant horizon with some sky above, a foreground that looked a bit like a field or a lake, or maybe the sea, and I remember feeling completely blank, almost blinded by them.
I could see what they represented OK – they looked just like views of landscapes. Some were actually of places I’d visited and made drawings of, and some were made in the studio by various methods. But they really didn’t look very ‘promising’ to me – as art, or in the way I think about art. In fact I felt they were very definitely ‘unpromising’ as art.
JG: And that’s where the title came from?
r : But it wasn’t a title. It was simply a note to myself. I rolled them up and stored them away labelled “Unpromising Landscapes”. But carried on trying to approach landscape as a subject. I had slowly begun to realise, what must be blindingly obvious to everyone, that the landscape is the most fundamental part of all of our experience – simply because we are always 100% in it.
The fact that we are actually existing down there somewhere when we see a satellite picture from miles up. Or when we see it painted, photographed, or on Planet Earth or when we imagine it or dream it, we all unavoidably and physically exist in the landscape wherever we are; and then of course, very significantly, we leave our mark on it.
What I had become interested in was our place in it, and the consequences of our being in it – and decided that this might be the subject I was looking for; and it was then I realised, this might be suggested by the title “Unpromising Landscapes”.
JG: So this time, you had the title before you had the work.
r: Well, I didn’t know what I had. That’s often the way with creative pursuits. You explore things. But you don’t always know where they’ll lead.
The actual ‘unpromising ‘ part in itself isn’t really a very new approach – as I’m sure you’d agree. A number of artists have looked at landscape and not found it particularly ’promising’; yet they still managed to make interesting art from it. We could both make a list I’m sure…
JG: Ok , straight off… Lowry, Auerbach, the Brueghels, Hopper, Nash, Munch, Sutherland would be on mine…
r: And mine. And Piper, Richter, Kiefer, and of course Turner and Seurat; and the many Fine Art photographers like Crewdson, Tillmans, Gursky and the Bechers… and Trevor Paglen, who really is after unpromising places.
I was very aware I could never make representations of landscape as well as any of the painters or photographers we could both come up with, who do it so superbly, the list is very long – there are so many masters of landscape and masterpiece makers. I didn’t think I had much to offer in just looking at nature – ‘promising’ or ‘unpromising’ – and then only trying to record what I saw; and probably not very well.
Instead I started by trying to work out if I could make landscape as art that was also about the experience of being in it rather than just what it looked like. It had occurred to me that using the ‘frottage’ technique that produced “ 52 Places you might have been " (Galleries 2, 3,and 4) I could technically almost get the actual landscape to make the work itself, rather than me just being an observer.
JG: Can we pause for a second. I love what you just said. That you could get the actual landscape to make the work itself. Where did that come from?
r: It’s the nature of pursuing art. One makes connections. If I trace it back, it started with an idea I had of paying ‘homage’ to some definitive classical landscape locations – starting with the most obvious – the Constable country of Dedham Vale. I remember I tried to find the place where ‘Fenn Lane’ might have been… I made relief drawings around East Bergholt, and at Lotts Cottage at Flatford Mill Field Centre. I made a number of drawings from the ground where, as far as my orientation could tell, it looked possible Constable could have perhaps sketched.
JG: Constable thought they were promising places.
r: He did, and I can easily understand why. The drawings I made there, and others made in the US, became the series in Gallery 6: “ In AW and JC Country ”, the initials stand for Andrew Wyeth and obviously John Constable.
But I found the whole experience of landscape less involving if it appeared solely as paying deserved ‘homage’ to another artist. I realised what I wanted to explore was not simply the view from an artist’s eye. This led me to become interested in landscapes where something that I considered of historical significance or of contemporary importance had taken place.
JG: As an example..?
r: I went to quite a few sites of ‘historic interest’ and made a lot of relief drawings using black wax on paper. Again transferring the most fundamental thing about a place, the actual surface of the ground. I went to some very obvious battlefield sites like Hastings and Lewes, and then refined it a bit to include the pavements along Whitehall where the Poll Tax police horses charged the demonstrators, and a number on rolls of paper from the paths where the 1990 Poll Tax march started in Kennington Park. Also the pavements along the ‘front line’ of the Brixton Riots, and from around The Broadwater Farm Estate.
JG: I presume the impulse to make these was more because they were places of historic and social consequence, rather than visually important. But then, I suppose, opportunities appear. Things coalesce. Places of consequence can yield compelling pictures. I'm thinking of " Visitor's Centre car-park Culloden ”, and the submarine picture: " Our Scottish Coasts - Faslane ".
r: Yes, those works allowed me to understand what the ‘ Unpromising Landscapes ’ note to myself actually meant. Those particular ones I identified from mono-print images made by a similar process to the one we talked about earlier, where I took only an observer’s role in their final appearance. I saw these as almost a reverse of the practice of landscape painting – which traditionally consists of looking at it and making a representation. Here I was making a landscape, and then having to find where it was.
JG: … And there is a ‘coded’ side to the title “ Our Scottish Coast’s – Faslane ”. Referencing Holman Hunt’s “ Our English Coasts ”. Did that suggest itself when you saw the printing, or when you found the location ?
r: It just seemed very obvious when I first saw the printing I'd made, even more so when I went there, though the actual coastlines are completely different. There is a shared atmosphere of apprehension about the two pictures and the possibility of war …definitely very ‘unpromising’, and this was when I felt the ‘Unpromising’ thought had started to become ‘articulate’ as a subject.
JG: And how about Thorpe-le-Soken ? Surely that’s one of those English country names where you think nothing important can ever happen ?
r: And yet it’s the reverse, isn’t it. Any place can be important. And Thorpe-le-Soken had been of real consequence to me over a long time. This was where I realised my approach to landscape should actually be of personal significance; and it changed the direction I was taking of seeing landscape just as a visual background for events. Moved it towards landscape as an autobiographic experience.
JG: All experience can be seen as autobiographic, I suppose: promising or unpromising…
r: Yes I suppose so…it has to be. Thorpe-le-Soken is a good subjective example, even though I hadn’t been to Thorpe-le-Soken before; but over 5 years ago I decided it could offer up a potential landscape for me: because of the displaced association I’d had with it.
It dates back to the Art Room at school, I’d become fascinated by a reproduction in an Art and Artists magazine of a collage work by Jim Dine. I’ve always remembered it’s title as … “ A Rainy Day in Thorpe-le-Soken ”. But it doesn’t say that on the title of the work itself; so maybe that was me taking it from the magazine article. Anyway, it’s remained with me as an image and title, even if incorrect, ever since I must have first seen it in….1965…
JG: And a visit to Thorpe-le-Soken began a new thought ?
r ; Yes, at least for me. When I realised I could make landscape out of the journey itself, not just the destination.
JG: Which suggested a different way of looking at it.
r: Yes, because I began using the bits and pieces, the ephemera a journey in the landscape creates – bills, receipts, tickets – perhaps in themselves ‘unpromising’ things too; but in their way, making a definite contribution to my experience of the landscape; and during my visit to Thorpe-le-Soken I collected plenty of that. So I started to use these elements as components in the ‘frottage’ drawings, as well as the already established practice of drawing directly from the ground itself, pavements, steps, car-parks etc.
I’ve carried on this approach over the last few years with actual places that could be seen much more prosaically as ‘unpromising’: like Fracking Sites, Waste Management Plants, Gravel Pits and Sewage Farms; and the series titled “ The Reservoirs of London ”, all of of which easily seemed to qualify as unpromising.
JG: I would imagine some of these places have Security don’t they? That must make things less-than-promising before you even start.
r: ...Yes, I found it quite difficult explaining what I was doing ‘rubbing’ the relief of a paving stone onto a sheet of paper outside Sizewell B, and at some of the growing number of Designated Places of Scientific Interest.
JG: I rather like the idea of you describing “ Unpromising Landscapes ” to Security at Sizewell. Did you explain to them how your work had evolved?
r: I didn't think they'd be interested...
JG: It's Sizewell. They'd be interested in chain reactions. That is what happens in the creative process, isn't it? It's a chain reaction. You start developing one idea and that leads to another and then another.
r: It can do. I wouldn't want to be too proscriptive. But yes, there are plenty of occasions where one idea or perhaps a technique informs another. But I wouldn't want to rule out the influence of chance and coincidence.
JG: The last time we spoke was about the use of chance and coincidence and how you make use of them ...
r: Yes. They both help, and sometimes completely transform.
JG: You see these as separate things. Can you give an example?
r: Oh, plenty. I'm sure many artists can. I mean, for instance, in my case particularly the genesis of " 79 Drawings of Happiness and Despair " (Gallery 3).
JG: That was chance and coincidence ?
r: Yes, 'chance' played the discovering part, and a 'coincidence' that followed released the idea.
Its origin began quite some time after I had gone to a Garden Centre located rather sadly, I've always thought, across the road from Wandsworth Prison. It was just 'chance' that I'd gone there at a time they'd acquired loads of slates from the prison opposite when the roof had been refurbished. Many were damaged and these had been left for customers to take, which obviously I did.
I didn’t have a use for them for quite a while. But a few years ago, the roof of the house where we stay each summer was re-done: and again by 'chance' there was another pile of old slates left behind. Which by 'coincidence' looked almost identical to the ones from the prison.
What then developed started as a fancifully imagined 'personification', an idea that maybe a ‘relationship’ could exist between them – having a shared purpose and material I suppose, and that they'd have a sublime indifference to each other’s very contrasting function.
I felt this was how we would consider them too, if we didn't know where they had come from. They were fundamentally the same thing, from two very different places yet their working ' worlds ' were totally different from each other.
JG: ... Some had been on the roof of a happy holiday cottage – others on top of a despairing Wandsworth prison wing ?
r: ...Which was why I felt there was an observation there that could be communicated, and it surprised me that it could be about the human condition: and at it's most simplistic I suggested that was 'Happiness and Despair'.
JG: And that’s when you decided to shuffle both sets of slates like a stack of cards, so that neither you, nor anyone seeing them would know which was which – and eventually made 79 drawings from them.
Can I ask why it took 79 drawings to do that ? Was the number significant ?
r: ...No, I’d got 40 from the prison, but irritatingly only brought 39 back from Cornwall.
JG: Chance again?
r:… Well yes of course...of course it was chance, but no, actually it was just my poor counting. Chance offered up all the slates, and it was coincidence that they looked more or less identical.
.G: ...But they weren’t, were they.
r: …No, which is why it was necessary to say where they came from in the sub-title: … ‘from HMP Wandsworth and holiday cottage Cornwall’.
I realise I'm investing roof slates with quite major human emotions, but I was interested to see if a fragile emotional observation could be represented by something seemingly as ‘banal’ as a rubbing made with a black wax block, from the surface of some roofing material. I was interested to see if something like that could contain a perceivable truth.
JG:…And all of a sudden, when you take in where the title tells you they came from, it becomes something quite complex: stirring up feelings of sympathy, or guilt and pleasure, and perhaps fear of confinement, perhaps relief. But it does something else, doesn’t it. It questions how we perceive what we see. And all of this is done by the – seemingly – simplest of conveyances…
r:…And as an idea, I know it would have been impossible for me to have dreamed up. I 'd never have thought...‘ I’ve got this idea about happiness and despair – what I need is a load of slates ’… It was finding both sets of them, from such contrasting places that started it off…
JG: So now we know where ideas come from! It’s completely random.
r:… My motivation is to make what I hope will be ‘art’. On this occasion, I saw the connection, or distinct lack of it, between the origins of two sets of similar things, and then decided to interpret that into something else which I could call ‘ art’.
JG: Whereas in other circumstances – when you've realised an image apparently ‘floats to the surface’, with work such as “ The Accidental Judas ” (Gallery 3) or “ L’Enfant Blanc ” (Gallery 6) – it is more your recognition of what it is that makes it ’art’, isn't it ?
r: That’s right…
JG: So the starting point there is ‘the act of doing’. That’s work where you apply various physical manipulations of materials, and then go through a period of hopeful recognition at the result.
r:… Yes, because with that way of working, in the beginning there isn’t an idea; other than the wish to make something, that hopefully, I can call ‘art’.
JG: I wonder if we could turn to Italy now. I’d like to ask about some of the drawings you’ve made there, beginning in the late 1980's, because it seems there's something unusual in what you're doing.
r: Maybe with what I’m doing with them now. Not so much then.
JG: But lately you've revisited the drawings, and altered them. I'm thinking of the series “ 29 Modified drawings from the Walls of Sansepulcro 1990/2017 ” (Gallery 2), and also “ 12 Modified Italian Drawings 1993/2017 ” (Gallery 3). Is this because they were unfinished? Or is it because you weren't satisfied with the originals?
r: No, no dissatisfaction, apart from the ‘eternal’ kind of course.
JG: You mean no artist is ever satisfied? It's the same for writers. But if you were happy enough with what you originally drew, why go back now and make alterations ?
r: I wanted to make an addition rather than an alteration. They're not corrections, or improvements, but an ‘update’, if you like. I wanted to include something made by me now, and make a point of saying that had been done. That's why it has the word 'modified' in the title.
JG: That was then – this is now?
r: That's one way of putting it, yes. I wanted to tug at the sleeve of time a bit too. Explore if there was a difference it can make. We see things differently, don't we, depending on when we see them. I could clearly remember the person I was when making the drawings in a number of Italian places over quite a few years, and as we know, we all change along the way.
JG: Can you explain the process?
r: The modified part is simply instinctive. It's a physical act. Sometimes I make quite energetic incised marks on some of the drawings, often with a drypoint or stylus; occasionally slight tonal shifts – darker usually, I don’t think there is any deliberate accentuation of depth or distance. It’s generally quite quick, nothing too laboured or thought out in advance.
JG: You don't plan it?
r: No. That's part of it. These are immediate drawn actions, made at the moment the drawings are experienced by me, now. That was what I wanted to add to them. With some of these drawings I had a feeling of seeing them for the first time since doing them, and there were definite reminders of particular places, the sensations I associated with them. When they were first made, the only unusual thing about them was that it was the first time I'd started adding actual bits, trace elements almost, that I’d collected from these places.
JG: Trace elements ? Adding them ?
R: Yes, but not as collage, I wanted to see if I could actually use them as drawing materials.
I'd spent afternoons in chapels looking at Frescoes. And then I got interested in some of the things these places collect naturally, as well as the artefacts: the dust and detritus and discarded matter, old incense ash spilled from the censers...
JG:... Cassock fluff ?
r;... Yes, that would have been good. I was wondering how these could be used in some way. If I could actually make drawings produced with these materials. I'd made some quick rubbings from the wooden floor of a pulpit in a surprisingly empty church – empty even though it's the only one with services in English – the Santa'Anna in the Vatican City. My thought was, that this wooden platform must have absorbed such a vast amount of theological thinking over the years from where the priests had stood and addressed their congregation; that perhaps it would resonate somehow if used by me in a drawing. Don't worry, I'm not religious...
JG: Carry on, my son...
r: ...Thank you, Father…A year later sitting in the Duomo in Verona before it closed, noticing the cleaner leave thick trails of dust as she swept the Confessional, I started thinking if I made a pastel or chalk out of that, it might contain the substance of an unimaginable amount of human stories, hopes of release...
JG: ... From misery ?...And perhaps the need for forgiveness…Powerful stuff...
r: ...It is, and is any of it transferrable? I didn't see why not. I had found twigs on the floor with grains of old dried lavender and fallen flower petals, they looked as if they had been used as bookmarks and had dropped from a stack of prayer-books. I thought about grinding them into a powder or pigment.
JG: Which I assume of course you did; and you managed to somehow incorporate all this ... this, quintessence... of these places into the drawings themselves?
r: Yes, eventually... It did take a bit of time to make some of it work. I had to brush quite a lot of faint coloured fresco dust into donation envelopes. It must have fallen over centuries onto the marble steps and stone floors beneath some of them, and swept into the grooves. I took coils of spent votive candle wax left in piles to be chucked away; then later re-heated it and mixed it with sweepings of incense ash as pigment, and used it like a blending stick.
JG: This seems ... a form of mystical archeology, almost alchemy...
r:...Yes, a bit 'Timewatch', but really it was just another starting point, like sitting outside drawing in the books as the early evening light was going, the sounds of hours passing from bell tower to bell tower. These were just typical experiences that being in a different country lets you see and select. But I felt all this collected material, this micro-matter, might permeate what I was drawing then.
JG: And did it ?
r: ...Ideas like these... they're very much a personal 'conceit' aren't they ? I think it did permeate them, perhaps just for me. The details of the drawings always list the materials that were used.
My hope was something would seep into them, actually add their substance to all the shadow shapes and tonal shifts I'd drawn from the slopes of cupolas and textural hollows from the walls. I'd rubbed fallen gargoyle dust into chalk-like stubs, and smudged it on page after page; hoping something would leach through of what goes on century after century inside those places. I filled books with lines traced from the dips and slopes of pilgrim worn steps. I found it a productive time.
JG: And 23 years later, you decided by adding to them in some personal way, it could transfer something of your current experience and ways of seeing and remembering to them. Did you make any new materials to do that with ?
r: No, I just used whatever was around, sometimes I would go strongly with desk ink and fingertip, or gouges with a compass point, but also in the very minutest way with nail-point marks scratched in the surface, some markings are only just visible. But they are there.
JG: This appropriation of materials in the actual recovery sense, it's not the same as a heightened sense of romantic affection for a place is it ? I suspect all travellers might share a sense of that when visiting new countries, they often take away souvenirs ...but what you take, it's more fundamental, a physical connection for you...?
r: Yes, very much, but emotion is there too: I have drawings that never fail to bring back specific moments and places. A strong one is an early mid-summer morning in Sansepulcro. Waking up to an unexpected hard frost, and later that day needing to sit under shade, as hot evening light bleached the walls I was making drawings from. I can see that clearly in some drawings.
JG: There’s one series of Italian pieces that you haven't touched: “ Cimabue’s Datsun ” (Gallery 4) …
r: No, I haven’t added anything to them.
JG: Why not?
r: I think because they came later than the ‘modified’ drawings series: some time in the later 1990's.
It’s a collection of drawings made in Florence: from what I took to be an abandoned car, judging by the number of parking tickets stuck all over it’s windows. It had been left in the street beside the Museo dell'Opera Santa Croce. I’d gone there to see the restored Crucifix painted by Cimabue, I'd read it had been displayed there since the 1966 floods.
I made some ‘frottage’ style drawings from parts of the car’s tickets stuck on the windows, bonnet and roof, and worked over them. The title was partly because of the circumstance, but was more an extended 'absurdist' thought really, as if Cimabue had left his car there a long time ago.
JG:… A Datsun ?
r: Yes, that’s what it was.
JG: “ Cimabue’s Datsun ” …the only man in 13th Century Florence driving one. It’s one of those titles, isn't it. It's playful, like “ Trying to think like a Pre-Raphaelite ”. Playfulness is a big part of creativity, isn't it. You explained earlier that titles often occur after the work has been made, but not in this case?
r: No, the title came when I saw the car. It was a ridiculous juxtaposition, an invitation to make a work.
JG: So the idea came to you fully formed. Is that what happens sometimes? An idea arrives and you know instantly it’s going to work?
r: ...Ah, but none of us know, do we ? Maybe it’s better that way. Ideas arrive in different packages, sometimes we recognise them, other times they pass us by. They get pieced together in shards, or we seize them whole, and other times we lose them completely. Some work for you, some might work better for other people. I'm the wrong person to ask.
JG: Are you ever stuck for ideas ?
r: I'd be tempting fate by answering that.
JG: But, not so far?
r: Could I ...have the next question please ?
JG: Would you mind if I persist, just for a bit ? Because, I may be wrong, but I don’t see you waiting in agony in front of a blank canvas. You somehow always seem to find a starting point, as you mentioned with the Modified Italian series. And starting points can be revealing, can’t they.
If we take ‘landscape’ as a genre, you felt you wanted to create something, so you began exploring. You didn’t wait for inspiration to come to you, instead you just set off, like explorers used to. You knew there’d be a ‘response to landscape’ worth creating and you set off to find it.
r: Well, I didn’t find it at first.
JG: No, but you persevered and found an approach and explored a variety of techniques and different materials which eventually became the “ Unpromising Landscapes ”. But the point I’m making is to do with how-and-where you started. The starting point in that case could be described as intellectual. You’d studied and analysed the history of ‘landscape’ as an art-form, and you’d looked at actual places in nature, and their expressions as art. And you made a decision to invent your own.
r:…That sounds more deliberate than I remember the process actually being, but essentially yes…
JG: Whereas there are other pieces – other series – that weren’t looked for – they were somehow provoked. I’m thinking of “ Failed Cartoons ” (Gallery 1). They were chance findings; and you decided to develop them into a work of art.
What I’m asking is what ‘sets you off’? How do you identify or decide when to pursue something?
r: …Well obviously I’d like to say the Goddess Tyche tips me off, with help from Fortuna.
But as we’ve said, ‘chance’ and ‘coincidence’ play a very active part. But neither is reliable, as by their nature they don’t happen regularly enough. So I have to be reasonably well prepared for success and failure…
JG: Ah….I’m glad you mentioned failure… as my next question is about something I’ve only recently become aware of. Would I be right in saying there’s been a theme of ’failure’ emerging in your work? Is it something you're consciously exploring? … Can you tell me about the “ Failed Cartoons ”? Why are they ‘failures’?
r: Well, they had to be failures, otherwise why would anyone have wanted to destroy them?
JG: Destroy them? Someone tried to… ?
r: …and did destroy them...the originals that is. It's true that's what made them all the more interesting to me, I suppose. Made me want to resurrect something from their remains, by creating something else from them I think… By the look on your face – am I being gnomic?
r: OK, I can trace it back to one particular afternoon in Soho. I was a bit early for a meeting, I’d been shown into an empty conference room to wait for the others to arrive. You know those rooms: two types of water, over-sharp pencils, a basket of anxious looking fruit.
I couldn't help but notice the waste paper bin. It was completely filled up with torn and ripped up scraps of paper that must have been thrown away after an earlier meeting. There was quite a lot of it: too much to ignore really. I picked up some scraps and saw they could have been small parts of a drawing, or a design for something that had been almost completely ripped to shreds. I could make out rough bits of what looked like sketches of hands or heads, odd shapes all mixed up and squashed up into balls of paper…
JG: ... Possibly in anger.
r:… Yes, no doubt, but definitely in rejection. Anyway I decided to take them. I hadn’t any idea whether I would make anything out of them, and it was some time later when I got round to look at what I'd got. I found nothing actually fitted, nothing made a coherent shape when I tried to put them together. But I began to have a thought – how wrong could they have been to be disapproved of so much, that they had to be ripped up and thrown away ? What if they were cartoon characters that hadn’t quite made it ? How sad.
JG: Failed cartoons ?
r: That’s what they became. I decided to try and make some characters of my own out of them. I hoped anyone seeing them might question what was wrong with them, why had they failed, ?
I collaged some bits together, thinking they made vaguely creature-like shapes and drew from them;and added bits that I thought made them into characters. I ended up with 28 of them. All having an actual bit of the original torn up rejected ones in there somewhere.
JG: That’s interesting. You’re suggesting something that could be perceived as a failure can still be art?
JG: As with “ Failing to draw like Albrecht ” ?
r: Yes exactly, I regard the images that make up “ Failing to draw like Albrecht ” about as high a standard of drawing that I reckon I’m likely to make; my idea there was to suggest that, even though they could be seen a failure, as the title implies, they could still be presented as a work of art – by me.
JG: The title implies that you were attempting to draw like Albrecht Durer….?
r:… That's one implication, it actually does just say ‘Albrecht’.
JG: …So it might not be Albrecht Durer?
r: ...No it might not... it could be a friend of mine called Albrecht who is extremely good at drawing…It's an implication. You've added...the Durer to it, it depends solely on the viewer… as it isn’t specified.
JG: OK, what about “ Trying to think like a Pre-Raphaelite ” – which makes me chortle because nobody thinks like a Pre-Raphaelite. Doesn't that suggest you didn’t quite manage to… actually think like a Pre- Raphaelite ? Isn't this a variation on the theme of failure ?
r: ‘Trying’ is about making an attempt, that’s not quite the same as failure.
JG: But ‘failure’ is a theme in some of your work, isn’t it. Is it something you set out to explore?
r: I’m definitely using it as a context, yes, but I don’t see it as an actual theme. Or am I just being semantically fussy again ? Contexts are different to themes, to me. In this case the context of failure simply frames these ideas, whereas a theme suggests to me a more intensive long-running subject, constantly referred to.
With all the ‘Titles’ and Series’ names, these have been suggested by the work itself, rather than me setting out to do a particular thing. It’s always about 'recognition’, which is what I do consider as a theme: my recognition of what I've made. I think that is the case with pretty much everything I’ve got to show.
JG: OK, yet some of the work that emerges still seems to me to coalesce around failure.
r: But not consciously as an intention – and I’m pretty sure I don’t actually set out to fail. I think the moment when disparate things appear suddenly to come together, which is what I think I usually try and attempt to do, is the opposite of failure. It’s meant to be a very satisfactory experience.
I imagine everyone recognises this when it happens in their own lives as particular and extraordinary; celebratory too. And besides, failure is relative isn't it ? I like to think I’m also suggesting what might be potentially dismissed as failures, actually could be seen as something else.
JG: There’s another aspect to “ Failed Cartoons ” which interests me. It’s this idea of you finding something – discovering it – almost as if you literally stumble across an idea. Can you talk some more about that for me?
You go looking for objects, like slates, or dust from Confessionals, bits of torn-up paper in waste baskets?
r: Well at that time I was following a way of doing things which I appreciate was quite current back then, in the 1980's and 90's. But to me then, recovering materials and making them into drawing materials was a development in my work. I still sometimes do it today, I'm not obsessive about the need to do things that are 'new' in a contemporary sense.
I reckon since Duchamp there have been plenty of very distinguished artists always extremely interested in the re-presentation of well known objects, and finding things left in skips that they could make something from, or recovering mud to paint with. Many still are now.
JG: So it was your version of ‘recovery art’ – as applied to the ideas you were exploring,
r: ... And I was also thinking that there was a ‘serendipity’ about finding things; I think it was a popular concept at that time. For me, it was mainly in thinking that if something was available – and I was there in the same place too – it meant it was in some way extra-significant.
JG:…As if it were meant for you ?
r:... Right... I’m not sure about all that so much now though. But back then, when I considered I was doing something that was new to me, I'd get quite excited about some things I’d find, in the hope they might start something off eventually… like the prison slates. Making art from what seemed at first unfavourable circumstances and materials seemed intriguing; still does.
JG: That sounds like it might lead again to the “ Unpromising Landscapes ”.
r: Yes, but actually I’m thinking of “ The Stanley Spencer Period ”. Because that really was a discovery – the most surprising treasure in very ordinary circumstances.
JG: How do you mean?
r: Stanley Spencer had been a boyhood hero of mine. I‘d made a number of journeys when I was still at school to Spencer's Cookham. It would have been in the early 1960's, which was not so long after he died in 1959.
I'd take the train to Cookham or Bourne End, with a copy of The Penguin Modern Painter's 'Stanley Spencer’, and try and find the exact spot he’d painted a Nativity or a Crucifixion; his view from the bridge on Cookham Moor; and obviously the 'Swan Upping' bridge, and the large Resurrection in the churchyard. I also identified some of his ‘street-scape’ houses and their front gardens.
In around 2003, I re-visited Cookham with the thought of making some contact drawings or rubbings, from the actual places on the ground I'd identified some 40 years earlier. But that idea changed completely when I got there,
JG: Why ?
r:… Because I found a full builder's skip of house contents outside ‘Fernlea’ – the house which used to be the Spencer family's home in Cookham High Street.
JG: So the skip contained bits from his house? Although, presumably the house could easily have been occupied any number of times since the 1930’s.
r:… I know. I have no claim that the things I found actually had any Spencer authenticity. But the house was being completely stripped out, and floorboards are floorboards and not often changed; tiles are hard, lino stays around a long time, and much of this was very old, rotten and charred. There was also a roll of ancient creosoted netting, burnt wood, and lumps of pottery and bits of broken yellow London stock bricks which had by now almost become clay dust; and I took some of this from the skip…
JG: Which by now was common practice...
r: Well, it wasn’t a lot. I only had a rucksack and the builders said it was OK … Anyway, later in the studio, I pounded up the charred wood and added it as pigment in a wax block. Ground the clay and brick dust into a powder, which produced a yellowy pinkish colour, used this as a background and put the netting under the paper, then drew over it with the wax block as 'frottage' revealing its pattern.
I know this all sounds a bit like the man who used to go through Bob Dylan’s dustbin… but… the first drawings in the series were actually made from materials that could have been over 70-80 years old; and it was not so improbable that this was the period that Spencer would have been living there.
Collecting these ‘ingredients’ do have a resonance to me in some way, that makes what is made from them appear to me to have almost another layer of dimension.
On first sight, the way the netting made shapes on the drawing looked to me just like hound’s-tooth weave, and the herring-bone patterns so often seen in Spencer's work; so it became “ Drawing no.1 from The Stanley Spencer Period ”.
JG: Can we turn from the 'accidental' to the ' intentional ?
The “ 9 Homages ” (Gallery 2) – can we talk a bit about them ? I’m thinking here of the “ Imaginary Moorestone ”, and the reverses – “ Hepworth’s Tides 1 ”, and Michelangelo’s “ Imaginary reverse Tondo ”. There are also some very large works that can be seen as a tribute to a place, or an event, as well as a hero figure: “ The Road to Tarascon ” and
“ Zavjese sniper 1992 ” (for Sarajevo) – can I assume you set out to make these with a definite intention?
r: ... Intention ?
JG: Well, earlier you described a process where work sometimes comes into being almost fully formed. You said how the appearance of what is created is not under your control, and the final result is your interpretation of the work that’s arrived...as it were.
I’m asking if, in the “ 9 Homages ” series, your intention was to make a work about a particular subject?
r: Yes, I see what you mean. Were they pre-determined ? Yes, definitely. In some of the ‘Homages’ I set out to make visible an imaginary work about a specific subject, and kept that subject in mind as I was doing it. “ Sniper curtains (for Sarajevo) ” being a good example.
These drawings were my imaginary versions of bullet-holed bits of curtaining stitched together in a flimsy attempt at concealment, a semblance of ‘cover’ on the streets during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992.
You probably recall that time during the Bosnian war, when sheets and curtains were hung up at the end of roads and alleyways, to try and stop people getting shot by sniper fire. I decided to make a drawn version of what I imagined these extraordinary things might have looked like, possibly life size.
Having completed about 6 of these, I wondered if the work could actually be seen as a form of ‘homage’ to the people of Sarajevo who had to do that.
JG: But there are also some works where post-rationalising is going on too, isn't there ?
r: Certainly “ Cow-dee-on-us-eager tour ” which is for Alfred Bester – that came after the drawing was made, when I'd finished it, I kept thinking of this peculiar phrase. Originally I was convinced those words were in one of Phillip K Dick's stories, and I re-flicked through a lot, but never found them. Eventually I looked online, and it turned out it was in a story of Alfred Bester’s.
JG: … And “ Reverse Tides 1 (for BH and BN) ” ?
r: This is a larger than life-size drawing of my imagined version of the reverse of Barbara Hepworth’s “ Tides 1 ”, a part-painted sculpture made from holly wood in 1946.
As I recall the story, she abandoned it originally, because quite soon after it’s completion, the holly wood had begun to split, and she discarded it in the garden of her home, which was then in Carbis Bay near St Ives.
After she and Ben Nicholson had divorced, he and a friend began clearing the house and garden. Under weeds and nettles they found the buried carving, sodden and mossy and no doubt cracked even further. My version is in ‘homage’ to them both, and replicates my imagined idea of it’s reverse and the cracks, but the two oval piercings that run through the original have been left out.
JG: Why was that…?
r: In error I think… as I’m sure I would have drawn them if I was doing it now.
JG: I feel I should press you further about that, but I want to move on to the most extreme title I think I’ve ever come across. I’m going to have to read it: “ Protein Disturbance in WAp-S accumulators-Stamen Stimulata and Pino-toxin exchange ” (for JH Prynne) (Gallery 2)
r: Yes, I made this title up after making the drawings. The work started out as an attempt to see what a drawing would look like when the act of making it was contributing to its disappearance. I was trying to make a visual expression of something gradually disappearing as it was being created. I used a fragile textured surface that crumbled away with the actual pressure of making the relief drawing from it. It is on a long roll of paper and numbers about 10 circular drawings.
JG: So where does JH Prynne come in ?
R: Well, when I’d finished it, it seemed such a back to front, upside down, wrong way round idea, that it began to remind me of those seemingly tautological verses of JH Prynne’s that sometimes adopt a form of ludicrous quasi-scientific parody. So I decided to make some up in dedication to him.
I carried on with these titles, as I became interested in the apparent authority this completely made-up nonsense jargon seemed to have.
JG: As presumably with the drawings from the series called “ 23 Liquid Accelerators and Binding Sites during the Aqueous Phase (from the Erdsõnn//Fomiky Scale) ” and also “ The Anti-social Pi-mass Behaviours in-Utero ” series. Perhaps we might touch on those later. Let’s try something easier to say…“ Supper (for Leonardo) ” ?
r: I had the idea to make ‘Supper’, and how I was going to do it, so it was completely pre-determined. It’s a large 8 foot x 17 foot drawing, again made by the ‘frottage‘ technique; and deliberately intended as my ‘homage’ to Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’. Though my supper guests sat both sides of a table, rather than Leonardo’s all being just on one side.
The paper was put down on the studio floor; and the tables and chairs were set up on top of it. The drawing also shows the usual marks and traces of a meal eaten by the 13 people. It was drawn around the feet of 2 trestle tables and 13 chairs, exactly as they were left on the paper after the meal was finished and the guests had gone. Again, it was made with black pigmented ‘brass-rubbing’ ball wax on paper.
JG: I like that story because it seems to me to have creativity at its core. And it’s something you’ve consistently done – you’ve been flexible – you’ve explored different ways of making your work, but … do you ever feel you could just call anything, well ‘anything’ really…You could say, here’s an interesting mass of stray marks and blotches, it’s called “ Rush-hour in Hiroshima ”… or something ?
r: … Yes, I could. Because I allow myself an extremely large area of tolerance which I like to think covers all the ambiguities. Real truths, and half and quarter truths, real lies, cheating, pretend cheating and imaginary truths and un-truths…because all of these, I think, make complete sense when you are making or creating something; and all of which I use as safeguards and balances. “ Rush-hour in Hiroshima ”…good title by the way.
JG: I wonder if you could de-code something we last spoke about ?… About allowing yourself ‘a large area of tolerance’ ?
r: Well perhaps that not very convincing word ‘prerogative’ would be more appropriate. I’m certain anyone making anything they refer to as ‘art’ grant themselves a privileged position, a licence, which they assume they are entitled to. Just as I imagine you do as a playwright writing a play. It is all in our heads and our hands, eyes and ears; we really do only have ourselves to answer to – as perhaps the “ Wrong Gold ” attempts to suggest.
It is what we say is the truth when we create it. When we've done it, obviously we have to stand beside it, own up to it, and live with it, as I think that is our responsibility – our existence as an artist. Also, in my case, my own equanimity …it actually does depend on it.
JG: I understand what you're saying – 'we only have ourselves to answer to'. But it gets a bit more complicated, doesn't it. Because once the work enters the public domain, aren't you engaging in a conversation with others? What about the the dozen or so works you are showing in the ‘EartH’ exhibition at the Herrick Gallery in London this November. That whole event is about communicating unease over the future of the planet. Can I assume you and the other 3 artists will be sending out a message ?
r: Ah, …”Art with a message”. My instinct is to veer away. I think ‘art’ can risk being ingenuous if it’s seen banging a drum, particularly today when environmental concerns are so wide spread: maybe it’s to do with a sense of privilege associated with the gallery wall ? But yes, there’s definitely ‘communication’ in much of what I’ve ended up making.
JG: …Alright, let's tease this out. In the first place, how does the ‘communication’ come about ?
r: …Well I have to go somewhere and find something first.
JG: You mean you're still reliant on chance?
r: Yes, ‘chance' is essential, and technically I always rely on it to make the Unpromising Landscapes, as I don’t know if what I find will produce anything.
I’m genuinely surprised if it does– that I might happen to pick up something I’ve come across accidentally, and then later find various things to do to it that coincidentally produce something else to look at.
JG: …So you don’t – you really don't – set out to execute work in order to share a point of view with others ?
r:…No I don’t think I do; if that happens it’s incidental, because what I do comes from a variety of unexpected sources: and often from journeys made a number of years ago. As I say, it’s a genuine surprise when I manage to get it to reveal visual imagery which hasn’t been pre-conceived by me, and that’s when I think it’s worth attempting to share it with others … as in some of the Unpromising Landscapes that will be on show at the ‘EartH’ Exhibition.
JG: … Planks of wood at Hinkley Point and Sizewell… nets buried in Dungeness shingle?
r:…and tickets to Thorpe-le-Soken, or plastic bags floating in reservoirs… finding things like that and getting them to make marks in some way does make, to my way of seeing, quite unexpected imagery and I take this to be uniquely specific to the places they come from.
JG: …You're saying these are the pictures that the places actually make…And they're more than just a likeness, as in a photo or a conventional landscape painting?
r:…Oh yes much more than a likeness, to me definitely…
JG: Ok, but I come back to my point that once your work is in the public domain, you are starting a conversation, you are communicating. And I'm sure you're not simply saying 'look how art can come from the least conducive sources' – or 'what interesting pictures an inked over plastic bag can make'…?
r: No, although both those play their part… But yes, I understand what you're getting at. In an art context, the moment you put a mark on a sheet of paper with the intention of showing it to someone, you’re declaring yourself, aren’t you ? You might adopt a distance but you do have a responsibility to communicate…. which is why I hope there is something mutually personal in these works as well, that revolves around our perception, how we see what we live amongst: what can be visible if revealed.
JG: Oh. Can you say that again? That seems to be rather interesting, in fact, quite important…”What can be made visible, if revealed”…
r:…It's a significant part of what art can do, I think: making visible things that we don’t normally see, because they are hidden. I came across an awkward and very non poetic techno-language word for it…” to unhide”… It’s pretty self explanatory isn’t it. And I think that’s the communication I'm interested in.
JG: So if we take ‘Hinkley Point, 7 Received Views Facing West’. At a base level, that's a print made from 7 planks of wood. But it's particular wood, found in a particular place, and in your hands, and from your way of seeing, the finished work has made visible things that we wouldn’t normally see, because they are hidden…What we are actually looking at is a unique view from Hinkley Point. That is your… 'un-hiding’ of things…
r:…Yes, it’s good for art to try and do I think .
JG: … You went to a Nuclear Power Station – I assume your choice was deliberate ? Even though you had nothing in mind?
r:…I actually went to the Power Stations some years before beginning the Unpromising Landscapes. But it is a deliberate choice. I don’t use a ‘quasi’ I Ching approach and chuck a dart at a map to find a destination like the Boyle Family so splendidly used to. I decide where to go to, but I don’t know in advance what I might find there, or if it will have any use as materials…
JG: You mean materials you can paint with, or sculpt, manipulate, or just include in a work…?
r:…That's right, and I don’t have a pre-conceived idea of something to look for, that’s where chance comes in – that something will turn up. Which is why I usually just use materials made by the actual stuff that I come across: the ubiquitous things, the detritus and discarded, just overlooked things lying about.
But I do assume that a day will come, much later on perhaps, if I come across it again somewhere in the studio… a randomly picked up piece of landscape when fiddled around with in some way will unlock, or ‘unhide’,as I’ve started to call it, and something might come out of it.
JG: So a randomly fiddled-with, chance retrieval …
r:... can lead to an unhiding...
JG: Well, there's another unhiding I'd like to explore. It was in the same exhibition. It's called 'After Many A Summer'. I read in the gallery notes, it was made from the “ shredded pages of a badly damaged, rejected paperback”… You found it chucked away in a recycling bin outside a charity shop.
r: Yes, Aldous Huxley’s ‘After Many a Summer Dies the Swan’, thrown out even by MIND, which he’d probably be amused by.
I’d read the book when I was a student, and this was the same Penguin paperback edition, I felt some affinity with it.
JG: Another chance discovery ?
r: …Like so many novels I read when young, I’d forgotten everything about it, except this particular book used an image that has always remained very strongly with me. It was in the description of the home of a very rich man who chose to hang a painting by Vermeer in his lift: or ‘elevator’ as Huxley called it. I was fascinated by this, the choice of Vermeer, perhaps because it associated him with a latent claustrophobia, which was a new thought to me then.
JG:…Which painting was it?
r: …Well that was it, I couldn’t remember if Huxley named it, as even my poor recall would have hung on to that. The only thing I remembered of the whole novel was the Vermeer in the lift. But as I’d already shredded the book’s pages with the idea of one day using them as a frottage I couldn’t find out whether it was mentioned or not.
JG: So what did you do?
r: I bought a new copy, and although I couldn’t find it mentioned by name, the description suggested it was ’A young woman seated at the virginal’ though Huxley describes it as a harpsichord. He goes on to describe her blue satin dress which helps identify it. But what turned out to be actually far more interesting was reading the relevant bit again. Because it provided the start of an intriguing new equation of my own. It was in the main character’s observation of what he takes as the underlying ‘code’ behind Vermeer’s painting.
“ …( in the elevator) the light came on, revealing a Dutch Lady in blue satin sitting at a harpsichord – sitting, Jeremy reflected, at the very heart of an equation, in a world where beauty and logic, painting and analytic geometry, had become one. With what intention? To express, symbolically, the truths about the nature of things? Again, that was the question. Where art was concerned, that was always the question ”
It seemed to me that this process of ‘retrieval’ I’d followed had this time provided more than one chance contribution. First off it provided a particular book that I had a personal connection with, which began the thought I might make something out of it.
Plus, secondly it had also prompted my imperfect recollection about which Vermeer was in the lift, and the decision to buy a readable copy to find out.
JG:…And there was also a third coincidence – I mean, the observation that you just quoted?
r: That’s right…the third was what I read in that particular passage again, because it coincided with my own current thinking…It may not be seen as an innovative observation of art history today, and I’ve no idea if it was a new way of thinking about visual art in 1938-39 when Huxley wrote it, but there was something for me in reading again the sentence,… “to express, symbolically, the truths about the nature of things”…slightly ponderous though it is.
JG: OK, but I think my head is beginning to spin here. Forgive me if I’m over simplifying, because essentially we are talking about an impressive drawing of a large shaded sphere, completely made up of a fractured pattern of marks almost like a type of Hieroglyph or Cuneiform script, in a textural pinkish greyish green…
r: Yes, doesn’t sound much does it, but to me the combination of these chance findings began a separate idea about transforming one art-form into another. In this case a book at the end of it’s existence visually transfigured into the form of a drawing. Breaking down its substance through shredding may have changed it’s original function as a book into a collection of paper textures and shapes, but now a drawing could be made from it which I hoped might physically transform it into a new art-form. In the language of Huxley, the intention (where art is concerned) is to express “symbolically, the truths about the nature of things ” …and if we are in a mood to think that ‘ truth’ is important the ‘truth' here – is that it still physically remains Aldous Huxley’s ‘After Many a Summer’…
JG:… Even when shredded?
r: Even when shredded.
JG: So the truth is never one simple truth? Because even though it's still Huxley's pages, it's now something else entirely, and frankly no longer a novel at all.
r: That's true. It's not a novel, and yet, there the novel still is. Right in front of you.
JG: Transformed. I can see how that might have fitted the theme of the exhibition; arguably it's recycling – although that's hardly an adequate term for a work that stirs up philosophical debate, and provokes a consideration of perception, identity, and the nature of things. Is a book still a book even when it is rendered unreadable ?
r: Yes I think it is…I don’t think either of us would think questioning how we see or what we perceive is particularly provocative, as that’s pretty much what art is for, isn’t it ? I do have concerns about complexity and the illogical, but have decided that’s part of the fun…
JG: Is what goes into the making of these works important? I mean, is it important to the viewer? Should they know about the chance involved, the materials used, the personal significance?
r:.. I don't think so, no, they have to stand alone, don’t they. For me, of course, it's different. The complexities of their origination is exactly what I require, they are my motivation to make something. If one idea leads to another and I follow that, my interest is in what might result, what this particular set of events might reveal to me. I ‘d be delighted if others shared what went on, and I usually provide accompanying notes to give some detail, but I accept the resulting work hanging on the gallery wall is the one thing anyone will see...
… and the title might have helped too, hopefully.
JG: Can we talk about 'Sunflowers'? (EartH at 4 Walls)... By the way, I wonder if anyone ever said that sentence to Van Gogh?... Your 'Sunflowers' are from the '15 Homages' Series. This time you shredded 15 postcard reproductions of Vincent van Gogh’s painting of 15 sunflowers. What do you feel this achieves? – using the shredded remains of a reproduction of a famous painting. What does it add ?
r: You mean; why not use any old shredded paper instead?
JG: Wouldn't it look much the same?
r: It might. But that work would then have a different title, because I couldn’t call it ’Sunflowers’.
JG: Using reproduction postcards is important?
r: That’s the good bit for me. Just as in the shredded Huxley novel. That’s what I think is interesting, even though it may seem logically completely askew. But using them as materials, I believe their association with the originals does in some way play a part. It’s a fragile idea, I know, attributing them equivalence, but that’s their charm and I think they do have a real value …
JG: … You mean not just what you've created, but also what they're created from – the shredded novel, the shredded postcards ?
r: Yes. It's vital. Without these specifically I wouldn’t have made those pictures, they wouldn’t exist…as I say I choose to think they add an element of authenticity, a direct link to the actual originals, which for me makes the idea complete. But then aren’t reproductions how most of us know famous paintings ? We generally read copies of books, not author’s manuscripts, so our experience of the original is already a degree removed, yet we accept them as representatives of the actual things. Much as we do a Turner landscape painting, or a van Gogh still life.
JG: I remember reading in the Gallery notes that you went to Arles and collected sunflower seeds there.
r: I did go to Arles, yes. That's where Van Gogh painted his '15 sunflowers', in August 1888. I got there about 100 years later, and yes, I picked up some old seeds and petals from a field of dead sunflowers there.
JG: …And then you created the work?
r: In fact, no. I did try an ‘underdrawing’ with a pigment derived from the old dried sunflower stamens, and some pollen dust, and I combined this with oil blending stick and pastel, but it didn’t look a very convincing yellow. So I put it to one side.
JG: What made you return to the subject?
r: Ah, well, that was because of the Van Gogh Exhibition they had at the National Gallery.
JG: In 2013?
r: That's the one. I came across the fact that the ‘Sunflowers’ postcard was the National Gallery’s most purchased item – it sold 26,110 copies.
JG: …and you bought 15 of them, one for each flower…Crikey, you’re not going to tell me you drew from 26,110 shreds …are you ?
r: I’d like to… but my ‘rigour’ is selective as you’ve often pointed out,… but the real connecting point came from quite nearby .
For years I’d walked passed what is locally known as ‘The Van Gogh House’ in Hackford Road SW8, not far from my old studio. It’s been an abandoned building despite it’s Blue Plaque, and I had the idea of making a drawing from what was thought to have been his bedroom floor when he lived in Lambeth during 1873. I wanted to make a same size frottage drawing from the room’s floorboards.
I did manage to get entry to make some trial drawings, but never got an invitation to do the whole thing as I wanted.
But last year I saw some wilted sunflowers in the front garden, which I took to have been planted as a form of ’shrine’, and collected some more seeds and dried petals from the pavement beneath. I mixed these with the original oil paste from the Arles sunflower field and managed a passable yellow, cast a wax pigment block containing the blackened dead sunflower stems, and made the frottage drawing on the sunflower yellowed paper from the shredded postcards placed underneath.
JG:…Which in an ‘apophenic’ way would be extremely satisfying if they added up to 26,110 shreds .
r: Well I haven’t counted, perhaps there are. An apophenic would certainly know, but fortunately I don’t feel the need, I’ve enough to handle with my own OCD’s…
JG: I think this might be a good moment to talk about realism, and how it applies to your work, if that's OK. I'm thinking specifically of what appear to me to be examples of descriptive landscapes: “ The Book of Lizards ” (Gallery 4), and “ 35 Easily Remembered Places ” (Gallery 2). I could look at them as realistic pieces, if that's not an out-dated term. So, does realism play a part in your work?
r: Yes, I’ve slowly come to the view it always does. I’ve realised it is fundamentally unavoidable, not that I want to avoid it, because what I am doing seems to be about looking for what is actually ‘real’ to me: in both the physical and mental sense.
In practice, it makes a definite contribution by virtue of the title telling you what it is…in this case it is that particular place called ’The Lizard’ etc. But because of the way that work was achieved, the result when it works is revelatory: as these two works weren’t copied from the places the titles describe. I recognised them after they had been made, as particular places I knew, and therefore where they were. They had only become real to me as drawings or printings when I could recognise them as a place I was familiar with.
JG: Well, that highlights one of the celebrated dilemmas in art, doesn’t it, because the term ‘realism’ is slippery. We’re all aware now that what is intended when an artist presents his version of reality may not always be reality – Magritte’s pipe, for instance – it’s not the real thing, but a painting of a real thing. In this case, “ The Book of Lizards ” looks to me as if it’s a collection of realistic drawings of a particular place; but you’re telling me none of them were actually made from the Lizard peninsular ? Or from photographs of it ?
r : No… these printings were made in the studio 300 miles away; and provided me with moments of definite recognition when I first saw them. I had created a combination of elements on paper that made an image, I did not know what that image might be until I recognised it as the Lizard peninsular, and the surrounding sea.
I actually haven’t compared these drawings with the real place itself, but I don’t think I need to, as they have a realism that is completely recognisable to me, even though it wasn’t made from the actual place. I’m sure this could be because they are my mind’s idea of what the place looks like: which is what allows me to recognise it.
Obviously, this also could be because the real Lizard peninsular has a very memorable simple compositional proportion and appearance; and is combined with my familiarity with the place. But at the time of making and recognising it, to me it is 100% realism, even though I know it's 100% artificial. Which is another thing I think art can do, and is.
JG : ‘100% real even when 100% artificial.’ I like that. And the extremely long 8’’ x 204’’ panorama “ Coules Cove, Lizard and Enys ” (Gallery 7) – you told me earlier it was made first in the studio with the use of photo references; and then you completed it in front of the actual subject in Cornwall.
So can I take that as departure for you ? An attempt at making a representational image of a real place ?
r : In this particular case, yes… as far as it was my intention to deliberately re-create my mind’s eye image of a view that was well known to me; and then refer to the actual place afterwards. The reference photos must have been taken about 15 years ago, and I just used them as a guide for where things were, gaps in cliffs, buildings on the skyline, wind farms etc.
My recollection of the overall view was from my accumulated memories; and this informed the overall descriptive drawing part. The photos were from another point of view, the camera’s lens ‘eye-view’, and Coules Cove – the actual place itself to which I compared the drawing – was the location that supplied my memory’s version of the view. All very different contributions.
JG: So the idea here is to create your mind's eye view of a place you're familiar with and then compare it with the actual place ?
r: Which is really only relevant to me.The act of comparing the imagined view and the real thing is simply a personal experience. Of course we all know what sea, sky and cliffs look like, so the printing is recognisable as a view of a place beside the sea, whether you know that actual place or not.
JG: So it's not really for public consumption. It's purely a subjective experience for yourself ?
r: Yes...that's the moment it became what I call art, that experience when I compared the two views, real and imagined.
JG: But no one else knows that. Only you get the art experience ?
r: That's right, In this case it's all... mine…Anyone looking at it simply sees a panorama of a coastline.
But don’t artists always get something from their work that other people looking at it probably never
will ? Of course they do. That can be the point of it, of doing it... If it is any good, it has to be the most personal thing, and that might not be visible to other people.
JG: OK, I think we might go back to that a bit later on, as I'm still stumbling over what's real and what isn't at the moment...
Often figurative or descriptive work is described as ‘realism’, or ‘realistic’ – when something tries to resemble what it says it is – which in this example of yours, it does. But I have a definite impression you're usually more drawn to work where you think something is recognisable, even though it may not look particularly realistic.
r: Yes, especially when emotional atmospheres have been provoked or as we have said, an image might remind us of our own memories… I’d include ‘imaginings’ too…
JG: … Like “ Waking up in Naples ” ?
r: Yes… What is recognisable and what isn’t is a question I’m asking in a lot of my work. The intention behind two of the collections that we’ve already talked about – “ 31 things you may easily recognise ” and “ 31 things you may not easily recognise ” – is I think my attempt at a provocation. I’m prompting the viewer to try and find in the work something they think might be discernible. This might be easy to do or difficult, depending on which collection they are looking at.
JG: In " 52 Places you might have been ”, (Galleries 2, 3, and 4) ‘realism’ is actually the subject isn’t it ?
r : Very much so; they are physically rendered from the ground of the actual location named and my hope is that it asks the viewer ‘Have you stood on this exact same place as I have ?’… It’s trying to say, this piece of the world's surface you are looking at is really ‘real’. It has been made by taking an actual physical impression of this very spot. By simply rubbing a ball of black wax on paper placed over it; it’s as if this place has made the drawing itself.
JG: All the drawings in that collection are labelled as being a particular place; and none of them appear as a conventional landscape or representational view of it, yet the interesting thing is, that as a viewer you are in no doubt this drawing is from the actual place it says it is… and this makes it seem… almost hyper-real … Can we explore ‘realism’ a bit longer? You say the “ Coules Cove ” drawing was ‘not real, but recognisable’… I wonder if we are actually talking about the same thing ? …Perhaps we should agree what we mean by realism …
r: … Well, many of today’s curators would consider the subject closed years ago, because I imagine the debate about ‘realism’, and what it contributes to our understanding of visual art, must have been going on probably since the Lascaux Cave paintings.
JG: I’m not sure I’m well read enough in art history. And I can’t go that far back. I guess the major shock, in Western Art, was the emergence of the Impressionists – which is when the realism debate started in earnest. And then we had all manner of twists and turns – Cubism – Picasso – Mondrian – Duchamp – Pollock – Warhol… perhaps Hirst ? What would you say? Are these the figures who have created the most enduring arguments regarding ‘realism’ ?
r: Yes, that’s a fair summary. People’s attitudes to the ‘real’ in the art of their era are always changing, I think, depending on the sensibilities and ideas of the times. I don’t feel historically expert enough either, to comment usefully about how perceptions of ‘realism' have influenced the development of art making; even from the mid-19th Century to where we are now.
But I’m happily aware that there seems a natural and continuing cycle of response to what ‘realism’ is held up to be by each successive generation, and the various debates about it.
We might be having one now… For instance, when you consider ’realism’ when it’s applied to visual art, do you take that to be a representation of ‘something’ – recreated in such a way that it looks like the subject it is trying to portray: a replication ?
JG: Well, I can do, yes, I suppose so… But you say ‘replication’ and that sounds a bit dismissive, almost as if you were saying mimicry, or imitation… a lesser thing…
r : No, I don’t mean to be dismissive; I’m suggesting that what is referred to as ‘realism’ is often because a work of art has succeeded in an attempt to visualise a version of something; and that is what I consider to be better described as ‘recognisable’ rather than ‘realism’.
I think ‘realism’ in art can be quite broad in itself, but misapplied as a description. It isn’t just restricted to what I call ‘replication’, or dare I say ‘imitation’. Because for me, realism also occurs when something not intended reveals itself; as that is actually what happens in ‘real’ life. When it does, it is a real event. I’m with those who don’t think that ‘realism’ as a way of defining or describing an art-piece is exclusively a visual trick – or an act of immaculate illusion made only by an artist’s skilful hand.
JG:… And an example from your own work would be ?
r : Well, a good example would be “ L’ Enfant Blanc - homage to Georges ”, (Gallery 6). It wasn’t a copy, or an attempt at replicating the original study, made by Seurat for the small figure dressed in white, destined for “ La Grande Jatte ”. Because when I made this work, the ‘reality’ of the appearance of ‘L’ Enfant’ only occurred when I eventually discovered her in front of me on paper. An unintended, but very real event had occurred which the drawing recorded: and this is what ‘realism’ is to me. Even more than a perfectly-realised visual approximation of a subject, carried out in a life-like way.
The reality of this work had only got there after I had completed a 'frottage' on top of a ‘prepared’ canvas 25 times. Until there was nothing left to 'frott' as it were.
JG: … ‘Nothing left to… frott’ ?
r: … a diminutive of ‘frottage’, the ‘rubbing’ technique I’d used again, as in " 52 Places you might have been ”, or perhaps ‘relief-drawing’ sounds better. It’s a bit like using a scrubbing brush, but with a block of pigmented wax, rubbed over paper which has been placed on top of a surface, which then shows up its relief.
In the case of ‘L’Enfant Blanc’, I had previously applied an intentionally unstable impasto-like surface onto a canvas. The unstable aspect of the surface relief beneath the paper is gradually eroded by the act of making the drawing: so it begins to fall off arbitrarily, giving a different result every time a drawing is made from it.
This is an example of ‘realism’ to me, because it records a real event in real time as an image emerges, rather than simply an attempt to replicate something that already exists. I don’t know in advance what might materialise; in this case it took almost 4 years before I realised what it had revealed. By drawings no.21-23, the form of a faint figure emerged that I began to feel was the subject; and it became reminiscent to me of Georges Seurat’s conté crayon study for ‘L’Enfant Blanc’. My ‘L’Enfant Blanc’ had appeared by drawing no.22 and had disappeared by drawing no. 25. as is the way of this technique the act of making each drawing had finally emptied the canvas of all the surface relief that the ‘frottage’ could pick up, and was itself blank or ‘blanc’ even.
JG: Was the pun intentional ?
r: I suspect only subliminally.
JG: I 'd like to ask about your use of the word ‘accidental’, as in “ 43 Accidental portraits ”, or “ The Accidental Judas ”. You have already mentioned how you find the ‘accidental’ potentially hazardous in the making of work. But you’re happy to use it in titles?
r : Yes, for me the accidental can be harmful, as I may have mentioned earlier, particularly if I start thinking that things made by accident are somehow superior to things I do on purpose or by deliberate intent; as if in some way I have become a conduit for a higher creativity. I have been troubled by that in the past, much less so now, thankfully, but it can still crop up occasionally, and is an odd one. But, until you’ve just mentioned it, I haven’t thought about the word ‘accidental’ in that connection with those two ‘titles’.
The “ 43 Accidental Portraits ” were literally just that. I had made a number of drawings from the same block of wood; and when I looked at them all together on the wall, it was obvious they looked like faces. Some of them resembled friends I could easily recognise, and also from my family. I hadn’t set out to make portraits of anyone so I considered them… accidental portraits. Seeing faces in things isn’t very original as an idea – Max Ernst did it, and Gilbert and George also saw faces in their floorboards and photographed them. But these happened for me that day from one piece of wood, and I found them intriguing, particularly when realising that some of them resembled people I know or think I’ve seen.
JG: And “ The Accidental Judas ” ?
r : In the way it was made, it was technically similar to the “ L’Enfant Blanc - homage to Georges ”. Again it was completely un-intended as I had no thoughts of making a work about Judas Iscariot. All I had decided to do was to repeat the process of applying a thick impasto degradable surface on a stretched canvas; covering it with a sheet of paper; and, as every ‘frottage’ was made when the black wax was rubbed over the paper, I would see what revealed itself on each sheet.
Again, I didn’t see anything in it at first, until much later, after I had looked at it for quite a long time: all four ways, upside down and this or that way round. Eventually, I saw that the images gradually resembled the heads of a couple: they kiss, part and disappear. The faces have a slightly cartoonish and slightly comic aspect, but there was something about their expression and proximity to each other that made me think of the Judas Iscariot story, and of course its devastating moment of guilt and betrayal.
JG: So the accidental element is the appearance of the subject; almost by itself. Rather than you doing something accidentally. Yet in this particular work there could be an added significance – that it took place over 13 drawings ? Was that accidental or non-accidental ?
r : I think I have to have it both ways… because this way of working is very deliberate and not accidental in itself. It simply produces an image by the way it is done; and that is the ‘accidental’ by-product of this particular process. This takes place over a number of applications until there is nothing left to see. It’s this that provides the number of drawings it takes to get there – in this case,13.
Perhaps, as you say, rather significantly. When I recognised the image as this enormous religious moment: Judas and his momentous kiss on Jesus's cheek… it easily provided the title “ The Accidental Judas ”.
JG: So, rather than just any couple kissing, you saw it as Judas Iscariot kissing Christ.
r: Yes, it never seemed to be anyone else – is that odd ? I instinctively thought that this was who they were… Of course you could play with the idea it might have been pre-ordained.
JG: Careful now. Visions might soon follow, which could put you in the artistic conduit role you were concerned about earlier…
Now, I did start these conversations by saying I wanted to probe the mystery that I feel your work has. And I’ve done my best, but I’m happy to admit that, I don’t feel the mystery is dispelled. If anything, the plot thickens. I think that's partly because the ideas you’re exploring – well, many of them are often mysteries, too, aren’t they? The harnessing of memories, for instance. You described how you often search an image, in an almost 'pareidoliac' way in hope that there is something recognisable - to yourself, and perhaps the viewer… But are they real memories or are they false? Is any autobiographical piece entirely to be trusted?
And there's mystery in your processes, too. I mean, you've been very open about them, but it's still mysterious to me how the processes you use can produce images without you taking any part in influencing what they are. And how it can then take you time, years even, to understand them, and they can surprise you.
But there is something else. A revelation that I have had. An observation I really hadn’t considered before. It was when you were talking about your way of defining ‘realism’, and how you approach it with a wider range than perhaps some others have done. And I think – perhaps it was because you were referencing the past – there’s something surprising here. A lot of your work – well, let’s see if this is true…
You appear to have worked in many of what I suppose one could refer to as the classic art ‘genres’… Landscape, with the “ Unpromising Landscapes ” - Portraiture, with the “ Accidental Portraits ” - History painting, with “ The Post War Picture Library ”… The Religious Art of “ The Accidental Judas ”. The Classical Antiquity of “ Juvenal’s 16 Satires ”… I’m sure there might be others. Was that an objective – one that you set out to achieve – to tackle all those categories ?
r : I see what you mean. That must have happened… and I hesitate to say it… completely by accident. Because until you pointed this out, it really hadn't occurred to me. …
And there's Still-Life, an odd description especially when referring to visually active subjects – that category appears quite regularly too. The “ Tablets of Stone ” for example (Gallery 1), large drawings that look as if they might resemble pills and capsules; made from the car-parks of SuperDrugs, and Big Pharma drug companies – about as ‘still’ and ‘life-like’ as I’m likely to get I think.
“ Another Summer ” is a relief-drawing series which I add to each year and It’s actually made from a table top; but it’s really about that well-worn subject of time, and its passing. The accumulated marks made on this particular wooden kitchen table annually make changes to its surface visibly year to year, which the relief drawing process records.
JG : OK, a final question. I read an interview recently with a well known contemporary painter, and he was asked ‘what he was looking for’ in his paintings, which I suspect is a bit of a nightmare question. So this is a round about way of asking you the same thing. He spoke about needing to see something that was ‘potent’. He said he wasn’t too sure what he meant by that, but he knew he had to have it – what he painted had to have this ‘potency’ if it was going to work for him.
Does that sound at all familiar ?
r : Definitely, I instinctively know what he means, as I'm sure many artists do. My work pivots on whether I get some ‘potency’, too. In my case, it has to be out of the recognition that marks I end up with on a surface suggest something integral - fundamental of my life and what I remember of it.
Particularly with some of the work we have been discussing, that is not pre-determined – and is completely unexpected. ‘Potency’ perhaps is his, much more active word for my ‘recognisable’. Which makes it exist for him in an intrinsic and elemental way. I go along with that, a very long way actually, to the horizon and beyond even.
JG: Actually, before we wind up this session, I did write down one more question. Are there really 23 Liquid Accelerators and Binding Sites during the Aqueous Phase (from the Erdsõnn//Fomiky Scale) ? … only I couldn’t find anything about them at all in Wikipedia.
r: Well I’m sure a 24th. will be discovered eventually. I suppose it depends on whatever happens next. We never know, do we, about the future – but there is a road to Tarascon: it leads to Arles.
JG: Is that probably it then?… for now ?
r: … Yes, why not…
JG: Thank you very much.
r: Thank you.