“My tendency is rhythmic spontaneous image making. It could be abstraction, or rhythms allied to picturing.”
Interview by: Brooke Hailey Hoffert
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and your background. Where did you study?
At 19 I thought art-culture was a haven for dropouts, so it was attractive to me, since I had nothing and no prospects. I went to the Byam Shaw. This was the mid 70s. Then when I was working for the BBC, years later, I did the MA at Goldsmiths. It’s part-time so that’s how I managed it. Before art school I hadn’t been at any kind of school since the age of 13 or so. After the Byam Shaw, in about 1979, I stumbled into working in the office of an art magazine, processing the subscriptions. By 1983 I began editing it, and then when I eventually left, in 1987, and I didn’t have anything to do -- I had my studio, but my painting wasn’t going anywhere -- the BBC asked me to come and work for them. It was the following year actually.
I found writing and presenting art programmes very engaging, but it was not what I wanted ultimately, so I did the Goldsmiths course, starting in 1990, to get reoriented back to art making. I met Emma Biggs a few years later. She’s a mosaicist. We got together and started collaborating on paintings. It meant each of us doing something we’d never done before. For her it was painting at all. For me, it was doing these intricate, complex designs, that are really her idea. My tendency is rhythmic spontaneous image making. It could be abstraction, or rhythms allied to picturing. In our joint work I redirect this impulse to the purpose of animating the shapes we use, whose precise hue and placement is Emma’s responsibility. I’m a much cruder colourist on my own. My method is to hope for the best. She is intuitive, but more pattern oriented than me.
You are featured in a group show called The Discontents that opens in October at the Bermondsey Project Space. This is the first time in a while that you've shown work without Emma Biggs. What can we expect from you in this exhibition?
I’m not really discontented. I value my painting life with Emma more than anything. I’m always thrilled to be doing that work. It depends on each of us being on the edge of our nerves. I’m content that I have two painting lives. One is intense: our collaboration. The other, my solo paintings, well, I don’t know what they are. One of my works in the show is a picture of my father in a fight. He was an interesting man who lived for three years with Elizabeth Frink, then married my mother, but committed suicide just before I was born, in 1955. It’s a narrative painting, taking off from a thought about something I know that happened to him. He was in a POW camp in the Second World War, in Germany, and had maybe a nervous breakdown there but certainly when he came back he wasn’t able to function properly. An RAF psychiatrist accused him of malingering, and it resulted in a punch up, so the painting is called RAF Punch Up. For his face I copied a portrait bust by Liz Frink.
He’s the greenish face on the left. He sat for it in the early 50s when she was still at Chelsea. They lived together in a bedsit in Fulham Road. The woman that ran it was a doctor who became a radical child psychiatrist. She also had a house in Oakley Street, nearby. I used to stay there sometimes, during the following decade, when I was rescued occasionally for a weekend from a children’s home, in Kent. I was at the home for seven years, from the age of six. This was because my mother, who was an artist, had mental health issues. In the 60s that house in Chelsea was all unmarried mothers. It was complete bohemia. In the periods when my mother was hospitalized, usually at a place I found very depressing, a mental hospital in Banstead, Sutton, one of the other mothers would come and meet me at Victoria station, where I arrived for the weekend from the children’s home. In Oakley Street there was a kitchen in the basement, with yellow walls and red linoleum. On one wall was a collage of cuttings, very grungy, changing all the time over the years of the 60s. Psychedelia, photojournalism, a map of the Middle East.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?
Our joint studio is the same as most painters’, it is messy when we’re working, a bit desolate after we’ve finished a show and the paintings have been sent off, and then it gets back into gear for the next show and is lively and messy again. Sometimes my daughter, who’s a painter in Germany, visits and stretches a load of canvases for us, for pay. She’s now nearly 30, very serious, and her arrival in my life, was the most changing experience I’ve ever had. One minute I was a perpetual recoverer from childhood, very demanding and trying, the next the Matthew-centric universe was challenged profoundly, in a way I could entirely agree with, since it was someone I felt to be so deeply a part of me, doing it. My own studio is a smaller space. It’s much worse in terms of mess. I can spend a long time in there or a short time. Neither is better necessarily. I don’t do it every day all the time but sometimes I have periods of doing it every day. There’s only a single smallish wall to work on. The others have shelves.
How do you navigate being both an artist and an art critic?
They’re the same to me. From infants’ school on, I was always telling everyone what everything means, and always drawing and painting.
How do you go about naming your work?
The approach changes. I don’t always know what I’ve done, so it can be a puzzle to name it. One picture in the show is called ‘Emma Biggs Painting’, which is ambiguous, as it could be her painting a painting, which it is, in fact. But, also, it could mean it’s a painting commemorating her, which it is, as well. I painted two portraits of Hilma Af Klint in one painting, as if they’re pictures on a wall. She’s now the mother of abstract art.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
I see shows all the time that knock me out, because of reviewing for the Evening Standard. I found Dorothea Lange’s photos of interned American-Japanese in WW2, at the Barbican this summer, really moving. The series includes shots of racist signs and news headlines targeting US Japanese. It touched a chord for me that was both social and personal, because of racism towards immigrants today, in Europe and America, and because I was an abandoned child. Racism is othering. A person is made to seem rubbish. If you’re brought up in a children’s home, that’s a feeling you recognize. Anyone that knows this series will know the tremendous photo of American-Japanese children fervently singing the US national anthem at school, believing — wrongly — that it will protect them. I’m very excited and provoked by images, whether it’s TV, photos or painting. Or comics when I was a child – underground comics and magazines when I was a teenager, and then gradually, romantic art. I thought of it as romantic anyway, I found Impressionism touching the same as Henri Rousseau or Greek classical sculpture. My medium as an artist is paint, so when I’m working, whether collaboratively or solo, I’m always thinking of historic painting.
Venetian painting, post impressionism, all kinds of modernism, even obscure figures, who I don’t even think are much good: Kitaj for example, or Richard Lindner. Kitaj meant a lot to me at the Byam Shaw. I read everything about him and he opened up the idea for me that a painting could have multiple meanings, obvious and not obvious. I was happy going around ‘All Too Human’ at Tate Britain this year. I like the openness to paint of those School of London artists, their interest in its abstract values, and their enthusiasm for the infinite ways a picture can come about, making roughness eloquent. I like the way Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was roped in. I think she’s invented something serious in the way she makes a painting by enacting being a painter, if that isn’t an insulting way to put it. It’s exciting that the result is a post-conceptual experiment, being outside the tradition of Velazquez and Manet, and looking across at it. But you can’t say the tradition isn’t there. That’s a genuinely original tension, which I don’t think the word ‘irony’ really covers.
Apart from the group show titled: ‘The Discontents’ Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I’m writing a book about contemporary painting for Thames & Hudson, looking at what possibilities there might be for still finding this medium exciting. As opposed to all the coffee table tomes that exist at the moment, enthusing about how painting is thriving and always reinventing itself, I’m fine about accepting it's probably over. At least as anything important. It exists but it’s trivial. Maybe this despair is to do with painting now being post-conceptual. It adapts itself to agendas set by a different form of art, and no longer has any real meaning of its own. On the other hand, you could say genuine seriousness exists in even the goofiest of the current stars. George Condo, say. There’s certainly an ability there to whip up a cubist space, and to be lively. He isn’t only endlessly laughing at the same joke of authorless-ness. Or he is, and that’s what ultimately makes him a bit tedious. Then again, he does ring the changes of style a bit. You can’t help liking him So in the book I explore the notion that emptied-out repetition of historic precedents isn’t necessarily so different to the relationship of, say, Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubism to Cezanne. Or Cezanne to Rubens. I’m thinking about all this, putting it into narratives, and the book will be out next year, with lots of pictures.
The show ‘The Discontents’ opens 2nd – 13th October 2018 at The Bermondsey Project Space, London.
Publish date: 02/10/2018
All Images are courtesy of the artist