with Simon Callery and Onya McCausland
EC1 & WC1 Galleries Day 2014 – Saturday 26th April
Kim Savage: My name’s Kim, I’m the gallery director, and this is Simon Callery and Onya McCausland, two of the artists in the show. We first came up with the idea for the show well over a year ago now so we’ve been working on it for a long time. We firstly came up with the idea of our thoughts about painting and where painting’s going; a lot to do with stuff that’s coming out of art schools at the moment is influenced by what these guys are trying to tell us in the show, and they’re going to talk a lot more about it.
The talk is going to take the form of questions and answers between Simon and Onya, and then later on we’re going to invite you to join in the conversation. So I think Simon is going to kick off with the first question.
Simon Callery: Yep.
KS: And I’ll leave you guys to it.
SC: Firstly, the way we want to play this is, I will be asking Onya some questions, and I want to start by asking her some questions about the press release, and specifically about the title of the show, which is this obscure word ‘Enantiodromia’. So what does that mean – because you came up with that – and how does it relate to your work?
Onya McCausland: Well, it was a happening. I happened to be reading something, which I’ll talk about later on. The word came back to me when I was thinking about the show and the kind of confluence of ideas that we’d been talking about. In fact, the idea was always this kind of bouncing between two opposite ways of thinking about painting, and the word itself had to me this kind of palindromic weight about it that sort of balanced itself. It was kind of bouncy, I liked the sound of it – I mean there was that.
SC: It is actually a Greek word with a specific meaning.
OM: It does have a specific meaning. It means a counterbalance, running against the tide if you like.
OM: Yeah, upstream. Yes, it has all of those connotations attached to it, so it just felt like an appropriate word to use in terms of the show, and I hope that the text starts to unpack it a little bit more.
SC: I mean sticking with this idea of going against the tide, if we think about painting, and maybe painting over the last ten years, I think we see an enormous amount of painting that is very kind of image based and things that are very much about the conventions of making pictures. So I think the whole kind of meaning of that word for me as a painter, would be what is the alternative if you want to make paintings but you don’t want to make pictures? So I think the way we were thinking right around the beginning was to be looking at artists or a group of artists that were proposing alternatives to this convention, this history, of picture making. So the actual meaning of the show is all about the idea that if there is a mass of a certain kind of material, it creates the opposite kind of material, almost not automatically but as a result of, it emerges from the fact that there’s so much imagery around that, inevitably, this new material will arise, which is not image-based. One of the things we had a really good think of about in terms of making the work and this exhibition, is proposing different kinds of ways of making paintings that are not based on the image. And when I read your text, which I really like, it has this kind of energy about it where you talk about material and image, so you kind of explain these different poles. And then it kind of builds up into almost like a pitch within the text, so it obviously really means a lot.
SC: So as a painter, why does it matter whether you make a picture or you don’t make a picture?
OM: Well I feel as if we’re making objects for looking at. But there’s a sort of sense that a lot of images that we’re surrounded by have lost the kind of sight of their origins. You know, their production – they don’t trace back to what they belong to, or what they’re connected with. They seem like forbidden bodies and ghostly in terms of them being not somehow real. I think images are real and that’s really important. Images have informed the way we have become human. They go right back to the earliest attempts to…
SC: (interjects) But when we say “images” – As artists, we use images all the time, but what does it mean?
OM: …but there are images, and there are images, and I’m guessing that we are becoming saturated with the world of imagery, which is highly none physical – virtual. And this is a sort of drowning out, and it’s also a sort of shorthand, a kind of abbreviation for images. So these are disconnected from materials, disconnected from origins or from a type of their production if you like. I mean there’s a difference – I don’t want to get into figuration and non-figuration, abstraction and non-abstraction – but I’m talking about as we navigate and work in the world, it seems that we are increasingly doing that via images. You walk around with your phone looking at your kind of image-makers, image-producers. It’s a kind of separation from that type of image to an image, which is object, an image which is physical, which has kind of matter and stuff, as part of its coming to be, and it’s connected with matter.
SC: Trying to really get down to this word “image” – is that work by Angela de la Cruz (points to Debris by de la Cruz) Is that an image?
Debris by Angela de la Cruz, 2012, Canvas and bench, 45 x 84 x 155 cm
OM: Of course, an image is an object. I don’t want to be too trapped by language here. When I’m making a work, it starts with an image in my head, and then I make it into a thing, so they have this root in the brain somewhere, in the psyche – and I think that when they’re made it’s like a sort of mirror. They reflect back on that original image, memory or initial idea.
SC: See, I would argue that actually these aren’t images. I would argue that the kind of work Angela makes is not an image-based experience. I would say actually, of course we understand them on a visual level because we see them, but also we understand them on a physical level, which is as significant as the visual. What I mean by that is that these works do not communicate in this exhibition – they are chosen because they don’t communicate solely visually. They’re not like the thing on your computer, they’re not like the thing on your phone, they’re not like the thing on your TV, its not just about all these things. It’s about the other range of ways of understanding, which are through the other senses.
KS: What makes them specifically paintings then?
SC: Well that’s another kind of question, and that’s quite a difficult question…
OM: (interjects) I would say that you could say that they’re paintings because the people who made them say they’re paintings, and that’s what makes them paintings. I make films and I think of them as paintings. I think a painting is a painting if you say it’s a painting.
SC: Well, painting, arrogantly, a painter would say it’s a painting because I said it’s a painting – so you can do it that way. You can also say, a sculptor couldn’t make them because only a painter could make them, even if they have qualities which we normally assume is something connected to sculpture. There’s no reason why a painting can’t also want some of that kind of territory that we think of belonging only to sculpture. There’s actually, if you really look at the history of painting, and you really know your history, and you go back to pre-renaissance painting, a lot of it is polychrome on wood, on alter pieces, so the painting was something related to physical objects. They weren’t separated out in the way that we have managed to separate things out since the renaissance, and that word “image”…
OM: (interjects) And we still live in a painted world, we’re surrounded by painted things, cars for example…
SC: Sure. But they’re not paintings.
OM: No, but they’re a kind of extended language of painting that we’re surrounded by, and I think that it’s not all painting, but it is painting. We are kind of surrounded by it.
SC: It’s an interesting thing – I get asked this really a lot, you know, people look at my work and say “isn’t it really sculpture?”, as if I’m going to say, “Oh yeah, by the way, really, it’s sculpture.” But it’s not, it’s painting. I think the reason why people say it is because we seem to be so obsessed with the idea of being specialised. If you’re specialised in your activity – and this is what we get through education – to really be specialized and have your own area, your own niche. It’s like business: you’ve got your own market, you’ve got your own product; no-one else can produce it, it’s only you… In the sense that if you make paintings they’ve got to be clearly painting, if you make sculpture it’s got to be clearly sculpture, and the mixing of things, which actually is part of a history of the development of both of them, we are trying very hard to divide it, we’re trying to separate things. I mean, a gallery, this gallery is an example – it’s a white cube – we take the works and we put them in their own context, and it’s a very specialized way of looking at things, and trying to understand things. So I’m proposing partly – what this show is proposing – is that if there is some kind of leaking of ideas from one art form into another, there’s no reason why that’s weak. That actually could be a strength. In a way, painting can actually claim some of the qualities that you will find in sculpture… I think the question says a lot about our contemporary concerns.
KS: Well painting always occupies the space doesn’t it? It’s just about how you consider the space that it occupies and how that translates…
SC: (injects) But as you mentioned, we understand painting as a certain thing.
OM: We were talking about pictorial space earlier on weren’t we, and how your paintings kind of project out of pictorial space into the space of the viewer. So, why do your paintings take up the space that would normally be inhabited by the viewer looking at it?
SC: Why do they project out from the wall? Well they didn’t always project out from the wall, they gradually stated projecting out from the wall, and I think one of the things that interested me a lot was this question that if you’re making a painting and you remove image, then you’re left with this construction which is a kind of historical convention for a thing to support an image. What I mean by that is the canvas, the wood, the primer, all those bits of materials that are used to bear the image. Now if you remove the image – I started thinking – all that vernacular of painting loses its function. There’s no reason why you should then make a flat work or a rectangle because that’s a window, that’s something to present an image. All those things then can be challenged. And gradually I started thinking, well, there’s no reason why I can’t take this flat plane and turn it that way, and lift it, like that work over there as you come in the door (points to Horizontal Black Pit Painting, by Callery), it can be circular because it doesn’t need to obey this rule, this convention of rectangularity. And gradually I started trying to find elements that would replace this loss of image. Because there was a period, like you, I was making white paintings and people would come up to me and they would say “When are you going to start it?” and I had spent a year on it already. Because there is no image, they had nothing to hold on to. The lack of image is actually quite a scary thing.
OM: I know, but the lack of image is not something new. I mean you go to Agnes Martin’s paintings. Obviously those early paintings of yours have a kind of resonance with Agnes Martin’s paintings I think, and I wanted to know about this because your process seems to be one of excavating the surface. You know you build up and then you scrape away and you build up then you scrape away and there’s this kind of something imperative in the action, like your looking for something. I wondered about how that translates to these new paintings that you’re making which are also in a way like peeping behind the curtain. They have this kind of sense of being possibly like an anatomy lesson, wanting to see the underneath, the workings and the mechanics and I just wondered if there is a relationship in terms of the making in those two senses because they are very, very different paintings to look at.
SC: I remember going through this whole process when I was removing image – It’s not easy to take out image because there is this sense of something lost and you need to replace what’s lost with other qualities.
OM: Do you?
SC: Yeah, I felt that. The fact that people look at something and said there’s nothing there, meant something to me, and I didn’t just dismiss them. That people could say “When are you going to start. It’s all white”, all this kind of stuff, meant something.
OM: So, what do you replace image with?
SC: Well that, I think, is my main work – Is that if you remove image, because that is the history of painting that we understand, then it’s important that it’s replaced with other sorts of qualities. So, for instance, with a work like this (gestures to Foot-Neck Wallspine, by Callery), these are loops, individual loops that are placed together at a very specific height to my neck and at a very specific height to my ankle. So the idea that it has a bodily connection with me initially and then with the viewer is really primary because this is a work, it’s not a picture, it’s still a painting, but it’s actually communicating on physical terms. So the idea also of looking inside meant a lot because how would you look at paintings? I spent a lot of time in Italy and often you go in these churches and you see these amazing paintings, but there’s light on the surface, so you can’t even see it properly. I would always go and look behind – how did they hang it on the wall? I was interested in all of those aspects, which are also part of painting. I couldn’t ignore that. It wasn’t just the image, it was the other things as well, and gradually those things gave me clues, like how to replace the image with physical qualities that communicated. You would respond to them whether you were aware of it or not because it was a physical relationship between the viewer and the painting. So for instance that brown one on the wall, the cut curved one (gestures to Burnt Umber Painting Oolite, by Callery) it is kind of open, so actually half of the experience is about looking inside. There is an interior to these works. They are not flat rectangles.
Burnt Umber Painting Oolite by Simon Callery, 2012, Oil, distemper, canvas, wood, and aluminium, 206 x 90 x 122.5 cm
OM: I was thinking about your work and Angela’s work. Your work has a kind of shifting permanence about it like they might just, like a stage set, they might revolve, or turn or flip up. Angela’s had the almost opposite sense, that they have collapsed and I wondered if you saw a relationship between your and her work in those terms.
SC: Well, I think there’s a relationship between all the works and that’s why they have been selected because I think they basically call the attention of the body as well as the eye. It’s a kind of painting that involves the viewer as an entire being, not just an eye, and certainly Angela’s does with the actions that take place…
KS: (interjects) Well hers are specifically about her body. I know you were talking about that one, but hers are specifically about her body and her restrictions physically but yours are sort of…they’re almost posing more of a challenge to the viewer in the sense that you really have to duck. The viewer is challenged in a much more physical way when they’re viewing the work.
SC: One of the things that you talk about in the relationship between painting and sculpture, one of the things I really love about sculpture, it took me a long time to figure it out, was that when you walk around something, its an experience, it’s a lived experience, its part of the way we understand the world, you perceive it and you live that experience. It’s not mediated, whereas images are often very mediated, you sit there, you’re passive, you absorb and I suppose that’s something I wanted to get away from in painting, I wanted to make the experience active in the way that it is often with sculpture. How do you make a painting, which is a painting, also something that when you encounter it you live that experience? That sounds like a big claim but it’s what we do most of our lives actually, as we just go around in our daily lives, and I wanted that kind of thing to be an experience that would be part of the painting which makes it different from image.
OM: The emphasis on the construction of the object and its revealing its structure and its making, resonates with the way that I feel about my paintings being very much about looking at how they’re made, and how the material ends up on the surface and what those processes are, when they might be quite subtle in relation to others, it is really important that the actual material and it’s qualities are kind of laid bare, stripped bare.
SC: You’re very specific about your pigment and where they come from.
OM: Yes, that’s why they are fragments because they bring into this gallery a kind of fragment of another place, another site, a landscape. These three paintings are all from a particular place. They are materials that are gathered and accumulated from usually waste sites or ex quarries that become landfill. This idea that the physical material is in someway kind of containing and carrying the “idea” – I know that’s a really difficult word to use.
SC: It also implies to me – most people, I certainly did, I thought of painting as something where you get these different coloured paints and make your painting with it but what you’re saying, which I understand now, is that every single pigment is a different material, so lead white is made of metal, flake white/lead white is made of metal. Some blacks are made of bone. And actually when we stand in front those things we feel differently because they are different materials. You’re making that really evident. It is actually detaching the idea of the way the paintings are made and with what from that history where it’s all paint and it’s used to just depict something. Your pigment depicts itself.
OM: It seems important to get closer to the stuff that you’re making other stuff with, in general terms, because it seems that we’re getting further and further away from knowing what the stuff that we’re navigating the world with is made of and from – how it’s made and from. It’s pushing against that. It’s a difficult thing because I wonder what the hell can I do as a painter? There’s a horror of thinking “what does colour mean?” I remember confronting this question when I was a student and thinking its beyond me. It’s such a mystery. Why would I use that colour and not that colour. It doesn’t make sense – I can’t answer the question. In fact, this way of working is that the colour becomes about material, and about a place.
SC: I identify with that totally. The idea that a colour symbolizes something – I just think it’s silly.
OM: Well, also those particular colours are used because they make sense that they’re used in that way. Their physical properties are aligned with the way that they have been used in painting, but also in other things as well, like that stuff (gestures at Separation by McCausland) – you can polish steel with it because it’s got particular qualities – It’s related to iron ore and there’s a circularity in that kind of relationship between a material that comes from under the ground and then how it ends up going through various processes.
Separation by Onya McCausland, 2014, Iron oxide (ochre) pigment on ply panel and aluminium – Pigment source: Todmorden Moor, Lancashire, England – Ply wood wall panel 168 x 109 cm, Aluminium floor panel, 168 x 109 cm
SC: And this word we use, “material” – we use it as the latest thing really. “Materiality”. Everyone’s talking about it, but what do you think it means? Ok, I understand what it means from a painters point of view because you really consider your materials and that’s what drives an awful lot of the decisions that you make, but what do you think it means to the viewer in terms of painting – this new idea of materiality – what does it mean to a viewer?
OM: Maybe we should ask the viewers.
KS: Well, yes, I think that we should open that up a bit. I think we should get some participation. Has anyone got any burning questions along those lines?
Audience: Well, I’m quite interested in whether you consider paint is a necessary ingredient in paintings, or is it just the, you know, structure of the painting…
KS: So, just for the people at the back, whether you consider…
Audience: (interjects)…paint to be a kind of vital ingredient.
KS: Is paint a vital ingredient in making a painting?
SC: I can see myself making painting without using any paint. I’m quite interested in that idea. Because coloured things are either coloured by paint or they are their natural colour. You’re still using colour basically – which is initiated from painting and mark making.
OM: What I’m interested in as well, is what is the role of the colour in your paintings?
Audience: But why does it have to have a role? Its utilization in itself is the function, speaking about material or materiality, but the colour itself is a material – as you said it comes from a source – it’s whether you want to mention the source in order to paint a new idea, in association to work you created to its origin. It’s a matter really, it’s all a question of language. I think the contemporary war is trying to understand how to remove image from language, or how to find the…
SC: (interjects) But we have. We’ve already done it. We use language as a way to interrupt it. Don’t we?
Audience: What’s that purpose of…?
SC: I think we perceive things and then we try and find a word for it, and by doing that we destroy our perception.
Audience: In order to achieve…confusion?
SC: In order to try and understand. Well we do achieve confusion quite a lot. But what you were saying, that idea that it is already material – then somehow we want more than that because my body understands a work of art being already material and that is enough. As soon as someone says to me, “what do you think of that work of art?” you “Ugh!” (Gesture) You say something and that’s the end of it. See what I’m saying?
KS: (Points) The lady to the right, sorry?
Audience: Yeah I was um, I disagree – of course paint is material and I’m happy that you said this is painting as I would have said the same. So, isn’t painting about colour in a way as light, and you know the light, the reflection of light, and the spectrums and you know you can define it like that colour and not as material and paint.
SC: That’s a scientific way of looking at colour. (Points to Foot-Neck Wallspine by Callery) That’s not green.
Audience: Yes, that was my next question – Why is that green? Did you find the fabric somewhere?
SC: In terms of this specifically, I actually used…this is distemper which is rabbit skin glue and pigment. I make this, like a big, hot, kind of mixture I soak into the canvas. The reason why I use this colour is because the grain of this particular pigment is really fine, which means it can get into the canvas so it’s got a technical side to it.
Audience: So you dye it basically?
SC: Well, stain it.
Audience: Stain it.
SC: It’s not an oil painting, but it is a painting and I want to make a compelling colour, an experience of colour, and I wanted to get the pigment into the canvas, which sounds easy but it’s actually quite difficult. If you use pigment, there’s a whole range of pigments like all the mars colours, which are made from iron, if you use them, the actual particles of pigment are really big and I remember making this really large work, and I came in to the studio the next day and most of it had literally fallen off because it was iron, when it dried it just fell off. There was pigment all over the floor and not in the canvas. So partly the reason why I use only certain pigments in some of my works is because they do the job, they fix – they go in.
Audience: And one more thing – would you see a connection to Lucio Fontana?
SC: I wouldn’t mind being connected to him, not directly but..
KS: OK any others?
Audience: Yeah, something I think about generally every day when I’m painting is what does it mean to make a painting in the age of globalism and post industrial society. I mean, to make painting, it’s impossible not to engage with a certain history, so it’s every paintings prerogative to understand the history that they are linked to. I can’t help see the history of painting as going all the way back to caves, actually – painting’s made to perform a function, and then it gets adored, and then it gets smashed, and then it gets replaced, and then it becomes another image, it performs a different function and then it gets smashed. It just becomes a battle between different people who have different ideas about how to transcend and I think the history of modernism has been that essentially. Modernists, modernist paintings, abstraction, being overturned by conceptual art, and now we’re at some form of stalemate. What I see happening today in painting, especially in this exhibition, is painters who are both…they are making images by smashing them, so you get a resolution between the two.
SC: Making images by smashing by not making images – How does that work?
Audience: Because it’s still an image. These are all images. We talk about putting something together into shape to create something like imagery. As she pointed out, you have this image that is sat in the root of art of our understanding and that is crystallised again for reassessment. It’s just a way of trying to scratch out something that’s already been understood within ourselves, that’s the role. What is that….?
SC: (interjects) I think we’ve got an incredibly heightened and sophisticated way of talking about images, because we’re doing that now. But we have a very rudimentary way of talking about how we understand, physically. We don’t have a language…(turns to Onya) – Do we have a good language for that?
OM: The a-ffect of images, different kinds of images, on us, do you think? Because that’s the distinction.
SC: We’re useless at talking about how we respond to things. We can say what things look like, but if I said to you “What does it make you feel?” then that’s a much more tough question, because we have a very limited…
Audience: (interjects) But is that not…if you were able to actually verbalise that… We all do it individually in a very different way. I don’t know if you can put language on that.
SC: But we can do in terms of the visual experience. We’re so sophisticated at that. So doesn’t that say something? That one thing is so elevated and understood and another thing I actually think is suppressed.
Audience: I think it’s integral to have people appreciate art. That’s the way I encounter whether it’s, well mostly if it sculpture, stuff like you say can walk around, but I don’t really feel the need to explain to people how I think about it.
Audience: I think that’s something about the modern world we do expect to have it explained to us and in the past people didn’t do that so much, they just did it and it was up to the viewer to respond to it and I felt a bit sorry for you just now having to explain your creative processes of how to transcend two-dimensional space to a room full of strangers. I just feel in the past we wouldn’t have to have done that. You just would have shown your work and leave it to other people.
KS: Leave it to the art historians.
Audience: (Pointing to Foot-Neck Wallspine by Callery) In a way, you’re giving yourself away a bit. For example, if the pigment falls away, where is it?
SC: Not on this one. On the other one in the studio.
Audience: That fell away.
KS: That didn’t work.
Audience: That didn’t work so you didn’t bring it along, but that was part of the creative process. If you presented me with a work of art with the fragments that didn’t stick, I’d be interested in knowing why it was there and your explanation would suggest to me that your work had some integrity, because not everything sticks. Flaws and faults are inherent in every work of art.
SC: You’re right, if I was brave enough to recognize things that didn’t work, which might work for other people, I’d be a better artist then, for everyone, but I’m not there yet.
Audience: So is that something you’re aspiring to?
SC: Well, the idea that everything you do can be valued as a bit art is, to me, a sign of someone who really knows what they’re doing, but it takes a hell of a long time to get there and also….
Audience: (interjects) I think you’re better off maintaining your quality control.
Audience: So who’s in charge of quality control then?
Audience: Us of course.
Audience: Surely, the viewing public .
SC: Well it’s a collaboration isn’t it?
Audience: Well I hope so, but it’s an implicit collaboration isn’t it? It’s not spoken.
SC: Well, I don’t like the idea that art is made just for the artist. I like the idea that somehow, at some point, the artist started to think about the viewer, the audience, people who look at the work. At a certain point in my career suddenly I started really thinking about the viewer and it really meant something because it was the only way I could make work. If you come up to something (gestures to Foot-Neck Wallspine by Callery) and you’re my height then this has got to be there (points to top of work) and it started to make real sense. How do you engage someone? How do you make them move around? You’ve got to really think about them. It’s not just giving something and it kind of beams information, like the TV. It’s different from that.
Audience: It’s more like the artist story-telling then.
KS: Well, it’s less of a passive experience for the viewer – it’s not sitting there and being bombarded, it’s being invited to interact. I think we’re at the stage where we’re going to wind it down.
Untitled Table Painting, Yellow by Lawrence Carroll, 2008, Oil, housepaint, cardboard, and wood – 107 x 80 x 80 cm
May 9, 2014 at 1:04 pm | | No comment