In conversation with Dr Claudia Milburn, May 2022
CM: What is your background / training and how influential has that been?
AW: I did a diploma in Foundation Studies at Farnham College of Art in 1984 after my A-Levels (I did A-Level Art). You tried everything on the Foundation course – printmaking, sculpture, photography and life-drawing. I hadn’t really done any life-drawing before so that was very new to me and quite influential in a way. I didn’t really learn a lot about techniques or the practical aspects of painting at Farnham but it was more to do with analysing a subject and ways of seeing. That was more important, especially with one of the tutors there – Karn Holly, her whole practice was focused on drawing. I think she was quite influential, maybe not so much at the time but the ideas fed through later on, particularly when I re-engaged with life-drawing after leaving Farnham. She was the most influential tutor I had at Farnham, or anywhere really.
CM: How about your peer group at Farnham – were other students influential?
AW: Well, in the sense that they introduced me to other ways of working. At that point I had only done my A-Levels in a small group, and this was then a larger group with so much more going on – different approaches to painting, drawing etc.
CM: Were you clear at that point that you wanted to become a painter?
AW: I think I had decided that painting was my priority although they tried to push me more into printmaking initially. I didn’t have the confidence or the ability then to say that I wanted to become a painter with a particular vision, so it was more of a hard slog. I quite enjoyed the disciplines of printmaking and sculpture, but it was painting really that took my focus. I was there for a year then I went to Portsmouth Polytechnic to do a Fine Arts degree. It was a three- year course but I only stayed for a year. After the first year I decided to take a year out which became almost permanent. I don’t know why really, I just decided I wanted a break from full-time education and was intending to go back. I didn’t go back to Portsmouth, maybe the course just wasn’t working for me, I’m not really sure why, it’s hard to reflect back to know.
CM: And did you have formal art education training after that?
AW: Well, then I started working for a picture restorer quite near to where I am in Walton-on-Thames. It was purely accidental; I was working in the restaurant next door washing-up for a few days a week or an evening a week. The picture restorers were next door and I used to pop in for art materials and I just got chatting to the restorer and he offered me work for a few days per week. That was for a few years and it was very useful because I learnt more about painting there, I learnt about cleaning paintings and about restoring frames. He was also a painter and very skilled in different techniques – oil, watercolour etc so I learnt a lot from him.
CM: Were you painting while working for the picture restorers?
Yes, I never really stopped painting after Portsmouth. I started going to life-drawing classes and then continued working on my own.
CM: Was your work very different at the time?
AW: Yes it was although there was the figurative aspect to it. I was looking at the time at David Bomberg and Frank Auerbach and, for a period, I was working very much like them. I would go to Guildford to the top of the multi-storey carpark and draw the city looking down. The work was reminiscent of the charcoal drawings of Bomberg’s drawings of Jerusalem and Ronda for example. And then I would try and paint like that too, portraits and landscapes in that style. Then later on I got interested in Freud having gone to see his exhibition at the Whitechapel in the mid-eighties. Suddenly he became much more influential. I moved more towards that way of working and less in the expressionistic approach to paint. It was especially earlier Freud that I was interested in at that point which kind of tied in to working with tempera. The first thing I did successfully with tempera was a self-portrait which was very much influenced by Freud and his approach. This was around 1990/1991. Before that I did go back to an art college – in Cambridge – to do an illustration course. I felt I needed to do something that was going to be more vocational and potentially find work as an illustrator, but that didn’t really work out. It was interesting doing the course, but not what I really wanted to do. My interests lay elsewhere, and it helped to cement that really. I didn’t finish the course even though they had put me straight into the second year. I didn’t actually qualify though it was all useful despite not getting the qualification.
CM: And, after that, what was next?
AW: I came back and started working for the picture restorer again and carried on my own studies and research. At that time I was working in the Bomberg style and experimenting with tempera as well. I then starting to work in a more realistic style, influenced more by Freud possibly. It took me a long time to produce a successful painting in tempera. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I had to get it all from books. The picture restorer was using it but not in the same way, so I had to do my own research to work out how to use it in the way that I am now – from scratch, mixing up the pigments, working on Gesso panels etc. It was quite hard to find all the information out, it would be easier today with YouTube and the internet, but this was pre all that so much more a case of trial and error.
CM: Was it the tempera medium that caused the shift in your work?
AW: Yes, I think it was the medium and it’s also drawing, it linked to drawing. I started going to a lot of life drawing classes, portrait drawing classes, around that time, as well and working with tempera. I was really interested in drawing which tempera complemented. It’s quite limiting in some ways whereas oil can be manipulated and moved around in so many ways. There are many techniques associated with oils so I felt the tempera made it easier in a way because it was more limited in its scope of application which suited me.
CM: You have worked almost exclusively with the medium of tempera for many years. The process it requires is painstakingly slow, requiring patience and dedication. Why do you feel this medium suit your way of working more than any other?
AW: Well sometimes it is frustrating to work so slowly. I do still occasionally work in oil which is kind of liberating in a way, but I feel that I’m a better tempera painter than an oil painter – it feels more personal to me. I had more of a personal way of using it, so it wasn’t so influenced by other people.
CM: Is the fact that there are not so many painters working with tempera part of the sense of privilege and identity in working with the medium?
AW: There’s an element of that now but I wasn’t really aware of that when I started using it, I didn’t use it for that reason. I found it by accident really, and then I liked some of the results I could get with it, and the physical quality of the medium. I always found the oiliness of oil paint difficult, particularly early on when I was using it and I tried glazing etc. The tempera was much easier, although it is slow as a process, it enabled me to achieve results.
CM: Your technique with using the tempera is not dissimilar to pointillism. Do you feel an affinity with the post-impressionist genre?
AW: Yes, there is a pointillist element to it when I use it though you can use it in different ways. Initially I was just working on portraiture, and occasionally still-life. You can’t blend it, you can’t push it around once it goes on to the panel, it dries almost immediately. It’s quite hard to modify what you have done before so you have to just add other touches of paint to modify what’s gone on underneath and you build up a layering of paint. Although you could use it a broader I way, I found small touches, cool colours against warm colours, worked for painting skin, and for portraiture in general. It helped to create all the little nuances that you find in skin which is not just one colour or one tone. it helped me to do that, you get optical mixing almost, you get a red against green for example, and little touches of each colour. I wasn’t setting out to be a pointillist although I do like pointillism. When I paint I don’t do a lot of colour mixing on the palette, I try to do it with the combinations of pure colour sitting side by side on the panel. I do feel an affinity with the post-impressionist painters – if I’d been around then I’d have liked to have been one of them. I like Seurat’s work particularly. His work has a monumentality about it. So yes, there is an affinity there, but I was very interested in realism so although it’s the pointillist technique, it’s more to do with realism, a realist way of working.
CM: You frequently work on a small scale. Is this simply due to the delicate, slow process of tempera painting or is scale itself a significant element of your work?
AW: Well I have worked on larger scale pieces, some of the figurative pieces I have made are up to 4 or 5ft. It really works well once you go over 50 or 60 inches, they just take quite a long time to do. I quite like going from one to another. It works at both scales, it works on a monumental scale and can work equally well at something that is only a few inches across. It’s good to have a larger piece on the go in the studio and much smaller pieces too so there’s a shift. I don’t think it would be as satisfying to always be working at the same scale.
CM: Your figure compositions appear to have a strong narrative content. What factors determine the pose or composition for your sitters?
AW: I’m not trying to create a specific narrative, there’s something going on there but I’m not really sure what it is. Usually it is just using some of the props and objects that are in the studio. If someone comes to sit for me it suddenly generates ideas – the way they relate to those objects can create something. The sitters have no real relationship to those objects, they are not familiar to them, so there are implications of a narrative but it could just be viewed as a straightforward objective painting, objects in the studio or a still life for example. I quite like the idea of there being another aspect to it as well, it’s something I’m more interested in as I go forward I think.
CM: So, it’s more about creating a layer of intrigue?
AW: Yes, it’s something else. Originally I was working purely from observation and it was all about the observation and getting it into the work, to record the truth of whatever is in front of you, but I’m starting to move away from that now. In recent years I’ve been much more interested in creating narrative elements in the work and in making that stronger.
CM: Your paintings convey a mood of quietude and stillness which gives them a particular intensity. Is this sense of arresting time an aspect that you are consciously trying to achieve with portraiture?
AW: I am interested in that, if I can achieve it. I’m not sure how you actually achieve it, but I am aware of it when I look at painting of this sense of stillness which is always intriguing. It is something that interests me. I think the tempera can lend itself to that, something about the medium and the slowness of it, created over time and with lots of repeated sittings. It is something that interests me so maybe it is just that interest feeding through in the work.
CM: This exhibition concept is really interesting in this respect with the Margaret series of paintings – individual portraits, stilled in moments in time, repeated over a period of time – viewed alongside your more recent portraits. There’s a sense of layering of stilled time – do you agree?
AW: Yes, certainly. I had the first sitting with Margaret soon after I moved into her house where I had my studio. She was sitting for me almost immediately when she was 80, and the last sitting was in 2016 when she was 96 and she sat almost every year, on and off, so that was a long period of time.
CM: Approximately how long do your painting sessions with sitters tend to take? How much does the work change from your original conception?
AW: They can be quite long sittings. I had a four-hour sitting this morning which is quite exhausting. And yes, things change, the lighting changes and sometimes things are different about a model, the hair changes etc. I do take photographs as well to use as reference sometimes and drawings. Once I’m painting direct it takes the painting forward, then I’m sure will change again and can do so quite drastically. I do place tape around where the models are sitting and around my easel to try to get them back into the same position but even then things change slightly. When I look back at the original drawing after I’ve finished a painting it can be really quite different, aspects can change quite dramatically.
CM: Do you converse with your models while working or is this in silence? Do you allow them to view the evolving work?
AW: It’s quite hard to have complete silence and you have to give models breaks, every half an hour or 40 minutes and we will talk then. It depends on the model really but I’m quite happy to gauge it, if they want to talk a bit, but obviously not when they are actually sitting. It’s hard to concentrate if they are moving around. I don’t make a point of showing the work to them, in that sense it’s not collaborative, I’d rather not show them. Sometimes sitters are quite engaged, I’ve had art students who have sat for me and they can be quite engaged so they’re the worst really! It’s probably better if they don’t have any interest in art at all, they’re the perfect sitters!
CM: Is it ever necessary to abandon or re-start a painting because the subject matter or composition is not working for you?
AW: Yes, or the models disappear! It’s always a worry especially if you’re working on something, for example, over a six-month period since the initial sitting anything can happen. I must have abandoned pictures going back but generally I think I see things through to the end somehow. But it is always a possibility that something is going to happen. I try to get models that are going to be reliable before I commit. I try to get to know them a bit by having a few sessions drawing them and then I find out if they’re going to turn up or what their plans are, that they’re not going abroad for two years or whatever.
CM: Do you feel your approach to portraiture has evolved over the years since you have been working with tempera? If so, how has it changed?
AW: I think it has changed but not dramatically, more incrementally. Looking back, there’s much more colour in the work now than there was initially. When I started using tempera it was more monochrome, my palette was more restricted back in the 90s. Particularly with the still-lifes now, much more colour has come in. I was afraid of using colour initially or perhaps I was overwhelmed by it but I am more confident with colour now. It’s about confidence and it takes time. I’m less worried about decorative elements coming into the painting now.
CM: Acute observational focus is central to your work. With this in mind, can you reflect and expand on the role of drawing in your practice?
AW: Yes, I usually start with a single drawing or maybe two drawings if I try something out before actually committing to the painting. I use the drawings for the underpainting so I transfer the drawing onto the panel and work from that to produce the underpainting. I use a much more limited palette initially. I tend to put on a few layers which is not the true colour and then build the paint up with the model back in the room. I’ve always done that, starting with the process of drawing first.
CM: Would you normally work with a model every day?
AW: No, it gets too expensive to have models in every day. But actually that would be too much because I need to be on my own quite a lot as well. It’s quite hard to think properly when someone else is in the studio and to be more objective and analyse the work. I spend ages looking at the work and thinking after they’ve gone, modifying the work slightly sometimes without them. I’ve got models coming in a few times a week at the moment.
CM: Since Margaret Robinson’s death, your studio has been on Platt’s Eyot, the large island on the Thames near Hampton. What is the atmosphere on the island and why does this location suit your way of working?
AW: My studio in Margaret’s house was very different, an old Georgian house in Chertsey, with a great room and I was there for 16 years which was perfect. And then obviously I lost that when she died so had to find a new studio which is a bit of a process. I went to look at a few and none of them were quite right and then I came over here by chance. I wasn’t really looking for an island studio per se so it was just accidental really, there was some space on the island that was available, I came over to see it and felt it could work. I liked having the river there and I felt there was a lot of potential subject matter looking out of the windows. It was so different to what I had before, the light was so different because you have the light coming off the river and the outlook was very different. It’s quiet here at the moment because last year we had a fire next door and a quarter of the island disappeared – it was a major fire, like something out of a war film because there were these boat sheds which were all green corrugated iron and which were next to my building and they were set alight accidentally while someone was having a bonfire. It was the bank holiday last year and they just went up, it got out of control and there were explosions as well, gas bottles exploding. It really was like something out of Apocalypse Now. Luckily my studio was not affected too much, there was a bit of damage, but it was okay.
CM: Who or what has been your greatest influence as an artist? Have any particular artists been mentors in the development of your practice?
AW: Well mainly figurative artists, Freud and Uglow have been influential. Maybe Andrew Wyeth, I hadn’t been so aware of Andrew Wyeth but I am now and obviously he works in tempera so there’s an affinity there. It was only when I went to America that I saw his work rather than in reproductions. But also early Italian painting, I’ve always liked Giovanni Bellini and Piero della Francesca. And Morandi, I wouldn’t say that he’s been a major influence but there’s a stillness about his painting although he’s very different there’s something there. And some of the surrealist painters, like de Chirico for example. Also, Spanish painters, like Francisco de Zurbarán.
CM: You had the extraordinary commission to paint the Queen in 1996. Did this commission pose any significant challenge to your normal practice?
AW: Well it was a commission but it was also a prize I won, so I wasn’t actually doing it for her whereas normally if you have a commission you are doing it for someone and they have to like the work if they are going to pay for it. In this case I had free reign, I didn’t have to satisfy her or anyone really. But yes, you are right, it was actually quite an odd experience. When I had my first sitting, I hadn’t actually met her beforehand. I just had to go and set-up and wait in Buckingham Palace which was a strange thing to do anyway. You arrive there and then you are taken to a room and then you have to wait for the Queen to arrive. Then you’ve actually got to draw her. I was quite young when I did that and I had a lot of time to think about it, I had about five months to think about what I was going to do. They were very generous at that time, I had seven sittings which were at least about an hour and a half each time, over a three or four month period, which you really don’t get now. Now you would be lucky if you got one or two. I spoke to someone who painted her a few years ago and she only had about half an hour. It’s always hard with sitters if it’s someone you don’t know very well, I’m always worried they just don’t want to be there, that they’ve got better things to do, it’s always slightly unnerving. As a model she was actually quite animated and talkative. She didn’t sit in silence, she was talking all the way through either to me or the private secretary who was in earshot. We talked about various things, there were a few things going on at that time, the Dunblane massacre and things like that, and she was talking about some of the people outside, talking about what they were wearing, the current fashions. She was very engaged with everything, she wasn’t remote or distanced at all.
CM: How did lockdown affect your practice?
AW: It was a strange period. I quite enjoyed the first lockdown, I quite like having had to stop and reconsider everything. It was strange because I couldn’t really have any portrait sittings so I could only really work on still-lifes. I couldn’t come to the studio, so I was at home a lot. I’m not sure how beneficial it’s been.
CM: What are the latest developments in your work?
AW: I’m working on this series of small portrait heads. Obviously, that’s a subject that I’ve explored many times before, but not for a few years. It’s been at least two and a half years since I’ve worked with models. I’ve got a series of models I am working with at the moment, and all but one I’ve worked with before. Alongside these I’m working on a large figurative piece but that’s quite big so will take some time to complete.
CM: Thank you Antony, it’s a pleasure to talk to you about your work.
In conversation with Dr Claudia Milburn
CM: Who or what are your leading influence(s) as an artist and why?
LE: It’s the story of bronze and it’s the story of the bronze age. It’s the story of all the cultures that have used bronze and the figure. It’s always struck me that bronze is like an art metal for centuries and millennia, right from the beginning, and most cultures seem to have arrived at the figure form through the metal. That is what I’m really interested in addressing.
It comes from all cultures, it comes from Greece, from Italy and the Renaissance, it comes into Northern Renaissances and it comes from the French late 19th century and early 20th century, from Richier, and then England with the postwar British artists who were influenced by the process of lost wax casting such as Turnbull and Chadwick, Paolozzi and Butler, all of whom used bronze in exceptional ways. They were influenced by Giacometti, Richier and by Rodin, and it goes back on that trajectory. I am moving away from French influences and late British postwar influences and thinking about Northern European and German late Renaissance. I am half German, so I think there is an ancestral link there. I am looking at northern European cathedrals, rude screens, churches, I am looking at the expressive head.
The spine of influences has always been bronze, the spine is metal, and spine is the figure.
And landscape, that’s my art influence, my landscape here and the writing around landscape which has been just as influential as any artist. My main avenues of thinking are definitely landscape, my connection to landscape and my connection to the writing about landscape. I constantly read writings about landscape. Sebald was a big influence 20 years ago. He walked right through my landscape and opened it up for me and shaped it and showed how you could extrapolate from walks in the landscape to thinking globally through time and history, through moods and states of mind, and psychology, and through literature.
I am a Suffolk person, my mother was German, my matriarchal line is German and my paternal line is just Suffolk back to mediaeval times, so it’s my people as it were, my tribe, and I make tribes, I make tribes, groups of figures, collections of people, communities, which is certainly an occupation of this landscape.
I am a big walker, I walk every day in the landscape. I live in Suffolk and am surrounded by nature. I set off on journeys and buried sculptures in the landscape. It was very much echoing the ship burials that took place 1500 years ago here with the Saxon populations. There were Saxon cemeteries visible from my studio. I was very aware of different peoples and different psychologies and different consciousnesses occupying the landscape here and I was very keen to take him to all that. The vague archaeology of the landscape is important.
And the church, my family history connected to the church. I rejected it completely, but those buildings dominate this landscape and my first real experience of sculpture in this landscape was the tombs, and lying figures in churches, stone carvings of characters lying with dogs at their feet, and I made that lying man sunk into the marshes. It seems to me that that’s the journey, the beginning of the journey, a combination of those experiences.
I was brought up in Snape, I also had Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore at the bottom of my garden basically so there was that kind of modernism with sculpture all around me as well as well as those churches and the architecture, and the archaeology of the landscape. And Ted Hughes, and Dylan Thomas.
CM: What are the processes involved in making your work?
LE: I photograph a lot in the landscape, and I collect wood. It’s good to have a studio where nature is coming in, and you can see how this is influencing my sculpture. This whole studio is immersed in growth and all this growth invades me every year. It’s always here, it occupies my thinking constantly it’s much more of a subconscious mindful existence, and it’s important to have it constantly needing to be dealt with as a problem. Nature invades the studio, all the plant life outside breaks in and makes life very difficult. The windows are difficult to close, I saw ivy in the fridge the other day, it’s quite wonderful! It’s that kind of entropy that I’m interested in, it’s almost malevolent, a creeping kind of Triffid, it affects my life. I was worried when I left the studio in the marshes but it’s in me, it’s there planted, it’s all part of me, the landscape is still here, and I’m still here. This studio has a completely different relationship with landscape, it’s much more personal, it’s more about penetration, it’s more about invasion, about dealing with a co-inhabitor, it’s dealing with living alongside nature and looking at it and thinking about it as an abstract thing. Leaves will fall on the back of my sculpture tonight and I will have to make decisions about those leaves in the morning, so it is quite wonderful to have that, nature is a bigger part of my life than it was then. It’s a symbiosis with nature, a relationship where we feed off each other.
CM: What would you describe as the intended impact of your work today?
LE: I am a human being trying to make work about responding to my environment, to nature, and the fact that I’m a member of a tribe, of a community, and my psyche is shared and my way of inhabiting the world is shared. I might be documenting that kind of experience so that people can share that and connect with it in a certain way.
There is a performative aspect to the work which I really love for example, ‘The Creek Men’ coming through the landscape was a massive moment for me. These figures came down the river and were floating outside the Maltings and at high tide the ankles were above the reeds and their bodies had risen to almost superhuman status, and at low tide they were in the mud, sitting below the mud, so there was this extraordinary relationship like a pressure valve, like a barometer of the environment, a barometer of time. It was all about the water, about the mud, about the landscape, about the environment, about the synergy, about their relationship, and also with the stars, the cosmos, the moon controlling the water. The spring tide was their way in, they couldn’t leave until the October winter high tide, and although there was a fight to get them removed, they couldn’t be removed. The land between low tide and high tide was called no man’s land and they were occupying no man’s land. It was a powerful, powerful time, they became a cause célèbre, people battled their way to see them, and they return to see them. Loads of people wanted them to stay, there was this wonderful feeling of impermanence, but permanence as well, just like us. They were floating, not connected to any land but they were static, they never moved, they were like anchors. So, it was wonderful, and stumbled upon by accident so they became a core document for me, and I don’t think you could ever match it again. Robert Macfarlane wrote beautifully about them. They really epitomise that relationship, and the legacy one would want to create, and the relationship that one wants to evolve, it’s about that stuff that hits you in the gut that, that you connect with emotionally, it’s not really about art, it’s about human connectivity.
It is definitely important for me that I have modelled the figure, and I have made it to experience the making, going through a journey with the making, impregnating it with a kind of psychology, a consciousness, it’s important to have that journey embedded in the sculpture something that a scan or a 3-D print would not achieve. I have to have this journey, this torturous long folly, which is really where the soul is injected into the objects and that soul is left to omit through good locations and good placing, it can actually hum in landscape, just emit for a long, long time, that is my ambition.
Your work seems to have become more complex and intricate in the last six months, featuring more reptiles and insects. Is there a reason for that?
There are a lot of snakes, it’s true, and I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I have seen them in Sottobosco paintings, but I think it’s possible that subconsciously they hark back to the stories I saw in books at the religious schools I went to as a child; there were always images of snakes winding down trees.
It’s just such an archetypal thing that we all relate to in a way.
The trees in your pictures often seem to have been cut down?
Composition-wise I like the way cut in half tree’s look, I find tree stumps a satisfying shape to paint because it’s fun to japan things that have a very three-dimensional feel to them and it was in a narrative sense very much related to the themes in my work throughout my practice. There’s also something odd about finding a tree stump in the forest and seeing how nature interacts with something that has been unnaturally altered by humans, like how sometimes they use the surface as a little table or burrow into the middle and make hollow tree stump homes.
How come the new works feature so much of what is going on beneath the ground; is it some commentary on the soil which sustains us all?
I have been reading about underground fungi and how it connects everything; mushroom spores, dandelion clocks, pollination – are all part of systems I never realised were there before.
I remember looking at biology textbooks when I was young and thinking how little we know about what happens under the ground. There is something spooky to me – almost a horror element. The centipedes in our garden are so odd – so alien-looking. They move so strangely and don’t look natural.
There seem to be a number of surprising conjunctions in the new works; a snake feeding a spring of lavender to some baby birds for instance or putting its nose into a bluebell?
I like putting things in places where they shouldn’t be. In the painting of the mushroom ring for instance, I didn’t want the mushrooms to make sense so I made each one of a different variety. I wanted it to be a mutated version of a mushroom ring.
I have been reading Japanese manga series like Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind in which, after the destruction of the world, nature destroys man. I have also been reading the Annihilation series by Jeff VanderMeer in which nature mutates and I can’t help thinking, of how human destructive activity impacts different species of animals, plants and the environment in general, events like global warming are a clear example and it makes you wonder if even things like the pandemic could be related to our reckless treatment of nature.
What are the glowing balls hanging off the cobwebs in so many of your scenes?
Raindrops: on webs they look like pearl necklaces.
Having perfected the use of black lacquer and gold – there seem to be greater use of colour in these latest pictures?
I have in the past struggled with using colours, though I love colourful compositions and I have tried at times to create more colourful works in different mediums, I just found that for me, It didn’t click. One colour pop is okay; like a red coral snake or sea anemone to emphasise the silver and gold. Tulips are one of my favourite flowers but not for their colour; I like their shape and their leaves which are always so cartoonish and curly.
Why the rock pools?
I have always been obsessed by rockpools. I grew up near Jesmond dene in Newcastle and as a child I used to visit Tynemouth beach and St Mary’s lighthouse, I would spend so much time staring into rockpools near the lighthouse, they look like little portholes to another world which I guess they kind of are. The rockpool I have painted is an extracted rockpool, the way you would see them illustrated in science text books at school with all of the different layers.
You have made your biggest work for this exhibition; made of nine panels it measures more than two metres high and has at its centre a painting of a heron in a pond; a still point is an almost wild scene. Can you explain what you were thinking as you made it?
I wanted to express the co-dependency of elements in the natural world and all of these latest works – but particularly this one – are a bit more chaotic and busier than they were with things spreading everywhere.
A friend who works with Sculpture and Installation said to me recently “The problem with Painting is that it has too much history”. My instantaneous reply was “That’s one of the very things that I most like about it.” I’m fairly confident John Walker’s answer would have been similar.
My first encounter with him as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late 1970s was not necessarily an easy one. His work was extraordinarily prominent and highly thought of at that time and there was barely a student who was not making pastiches of his work. I was one of the few who was not but when he saw what I was trying to do he was characteristically perceptive, helpful and sympathetic. Later he was instrumental in helping me get a Harkness Fellowship to Yale, and we still meet up from time to time.
It has always struck me as profoundly unjust that over the decades since he moved away from the UK, sometime around the mid-1980s, his work once so prominent should have vanished from sight along with him, and that a large number of younger artists were completely unaware of his practice. His work now seems as relevant as ever and about ten years ago, with the backing of Turps Banana Painting Magazine, I flew off to Boston to interview him and to try and set that situation right.
John’s reputation in the USA, where he has been living for some time now, is securely established and unquestioned. His involvement with the dilemmas of illusion and surface have always been paramount. Film critics often reference the emotional agency of depicted space in movies, seldom referenced in that way by commentators on the plastic arts. Space, or the illusion of it, has always been prominent in John’s practice and to my mind is much more relevant than the introduction of ‘namable’ subject matter or even text. The Door is perhaps a more fitting metaphor for John’s paintings than The Window, and the subject matter or text could be seen only as a possible key, nothing more, nothing less. Complexity or contradiction has never really been problematic for the poetic imagination. As the art world seems to be devolving into part of the entertainment industry, these works vastly repay any effort demanded to understand them, their context and background. This new and exciting exhibition of John’s work is long overdue.
Here follows an updated version of my interview with John, which despite some years having passed still offers many insights.
CS: One clear trait of you practice is a determination to apply the paint in varied and unexpected ways.
JW: I’ve always been interested in what you may call talking with the brush - that’s something inherent in great painting. The way the artist kind of talks himself through a space or a distinctive form. It was one of the things that worried me about a lot of my friends’ paintings, Minimalists if you like, this throwing-out of the language of the brush. It was there in the paintings I admired, that distinctive touch which you see in a Chardin for example and which makes you gasp when you see the beauty of it.
CS: Could it be said that your attention was moving away from just the act of painting, towards referencing things outside of that?
JW: Well, that’s true to an extent. I’d come to feel with the ‘collage paintings’ that they were solid enough to feel – if you hit one for example, you’d break your hand. But I suppose what I’d reverted to was that it was no longer just about force because I’d always believed the same of say a Vermeer painting that if it fell on you it could kill you because it’s so finitely structured. There’s a dialogue going on all the time and even though I thought the collage paintings were going well what was missing in the paintings was ‘going back to air’ – how do you paint air? I was beginning to feel I’m not doing the things I care about. I was looking at Rembrandt’s portraits for example – how do you paint the space around a form?
CS: Would it be fair to say that in the past you were interested in the ‘whole painting’ as an image, whereas now you are becoming more interested in an image ‘within’ the work?
JW: To an extent it was: “how can I find a form which I can place with air around it?”
CS: I seem to remember reading years ago that you’d quoted Picasso saying that he wanted his paintings to stop just this side of abstraction and that you wanted your paintings to stop just this side of figuration.
JW: One of the most inspiring things I ever read was by Malevich, who, when asked what his ambition was, said to imbue a square with feeling. Somehow that square had to act figuratively – not abstractly, even though it was an abstract form. It’s the same with Rothko – you’re not just seeing a rectangle, those forms somehow act figuratively on you. Someone who doesn’t do it so well is Barnett Newman. If he hadn’t called those paintings Stations Of The Cross they would just be black and white paintings.
CS: Some of the dialogues, which have unfolded in your work over the years have an affinity with Guston – the reintroduction of ‘nameable’ imagery for example. He seemed to have had a road to Damascus conversion, whereas your developments seem to have evolved more slowly.
JW: It’s very much a narrative thing – there’s a lot of narration in Guston. Even though I met him several times it’s quite hard to talk about him. The language or the ‘touch’ of paint is always the most important, and some times the subject matter is just a kind of filler.
CS: Would you agree that the forms in your work are usually defined by the edges of shapes rather than by the brush marks modeling them? The marks seem more to animate the shapes rather than model them?
JW: I spend a lot of time trying to work out where things meet – where form meets space. I spend a lot of time trying to activate that area. That’s where drawing is. I love looking at Albers – the precision of where the colours meet creates drawing.
CS: Let’s talk about the way you have represented space in your paintings. Very often the forms or planes lie parallel to the picture surface.
JW: Everyone seems to have his or her own definition of what the picture plane is. I suppose I wanted to place the forms in front of the picture plane. I am thinking of one particular Cezanne self-portrait, where he established the picture plane very early on in an area just behind the ear, then, later on, everything else has a discussion with that part. There is a kind of building in and out of the picture plane. The painting in the Phillips Collection in Washington seems to exist in the space between you and the surface. The painting is about four feet away but Cezanne is only about two and a half feet away.
CS: I suppose what I mean is, in say the Alba paintings, the forms and the areas around them are upright as opposed to your paintings, which have a recessive sloping surface. From my own experience I know it is easier to get the marks to lie down and fuse with the forms when they are parallel.
JW: Well, that’s the problem with landscape painting – you find that things move away from you pretty quickly. The thing is you are always making a painting. There’s a physical difference between what is a ‘view’ and a ‘painting’. Most of those paintings were actually started outside in the landscape, then when I had something there I brought them in and had a dialogue with the work, then took them out again and to see if they ‘fitted’, to see if they were then actually part of the landscape. They don’t have to look like it.
CS: Are they based on a specific area?
JW: Very much so. I’ve been going up to this area, where I have a studio in Maine, over many years, and it really happened about the time I had a breakdown and I didn’t really know where I was going. I found this cove where all the shit came in out of the ocean. When the tide went there was all this mud and it fitted into a group of paintings where mud was the central theme – homage pictures to my father who fought in the First World War. It took a long time but I suppose what I wanted was for people to be able to say I knew more about this spot than anyone else in the world. Cezanne knew more about Mont Sainte-Victoire than anyone else, and I‘ve got my little piece of mud! It changes all the time, every time the tide rolls in or out.
CS: It coincided with a difficult period in your life?
JW: Yes, there was a period of about eighteen months when I just could not work. The landscape refreshed me and helped me to come back.
CS: Tell me about the introduction of text into the paintings.
JW: It came at first from a drawing my daughter had made of a birthday card which included the text For You, and then I made a big painting, which I still think well of, with those words on it. Then it grew a little bit and there’s a whole series of paintings somewhere of birthday cards.
CS: That relates to you not wanting to exclude anything from paintings.
JW: Yes, I just don’t want those rules.
CS: I’ve found a quote from way back that says, more or less, you don’t like maximum impact paintings, but prefer ones that reveal themselves more slowly. What was the context for that?
JW: That’s a really early statement, from when I was a very young man. There was a time when, for a while, I found my art being exhibited alongside Warhol and Lichtenstein – all that wham-bam stuff. I felt my work was really not about the same thing at all, which in some sense forced me into a kind of retreat.
CS: What about Drawing and printmaking – you’ve done a lot of both. How do they fit in with the painting?
JW: Usually when I draw its to check the painting out. I don’t want to just rely on my eye and an immediate response - I want to try to visualise more, to internalise. To see how accurate the painting is. Did I really achieve the placing of forms I intended? I see the drawing as a confirmation, mostly after the painting. I found myself going out with watercolours into the landscape. I don’t need a camera. I want to feel I can paint anything. To me that’s one of the definitions of what a good artist is. Everything is available.
Colin Smith in conversation with John Walker, revisited and edited March 2019
Seal Point, Maine
Sometime in the 1600’s, somewhere in the Netherlands, silver platters are teetering on a darkly lit oak table. Bunches of peaches and plumbs spill over the silverware onto the satin cloths. A dead pheasant gazes forlornly into the middle distance and a lobster looks slightly bored as it’s antennae prods a peeled orange. A wicker basket overloads with grapes and a dead butterfly is glued to a fig.
Around four hundred years later in a dingy pub that smells strongly of beer and sticky carpets, football plays on a large screen as someone orders a ‘surf and turf’ that will inevitably taste of de-frosted plastic.
Better than the Dutch masters, more gluttonous than the upper classes of the 1600’s and as ironic as the pub classic, the namesake of his new work, Elliot Walker draws up a seat at the proverbial feast and assuredly becomes the loudest voice in the room.
In a medium commonly associated with daintiness and refined decorative fragility Walker clears this table with confidence. It suits him that his latest narrative in glass is one of excess, sensory gluttony, and, in terms of technique, a challenge that throws down the gauntlet to the glass blowing world.
Back at our feast, frozen in time in the sixteenth century, one could reach through the ornate gold picture frame and touch the soft flesh of the peaches and feel the cool goblets, the wine looks so intoxicating it fills the twentieth century nostril. Walker’s Surf ’n’ Turf offering invites a warier feaster to the table. More artifice than natural this feast will never rot, there are no flies on this table. There is nothing soft about this abandoned dinner party.
Away from the glinting light refracting off these extraordinary objects there is an underside of darkness. Walker points out that ‘the vitrification of materials is a common occurrence at sites of great calamity’. There is a sense of abandonment at this particular dinner party. A vitrification, or fossilisation, moments before a disaster of grand scale, the guests running for cover as molten pumice and ash rain down, freezing a scene of apparent serenity forever. In a dark parody of the Dutch still life this display nods to the perpetual scene of bountiful life and flips it on its head.
When observing Antony Williams’ new still lifes one hears the echoes of Italian churches and smells the faint scent of incense in the air. Akin to a fresco by Piero della Francesca suspended in eternal stillness these paintings are quietly contemplative. Like Piero della Francesca they are an infinite scene from a play behind a curtain that never goes down, however, they are the outcome of a more contemporary perspective.
Subconsciously at first, time is stretched a little by Antony Williams’ paintings. There is a stillness of times passing observed, it is not just the dawn like moment of the early renaissance painting that seems to be present. It is the method itself, the mark making one on top of the other, repeatedly, that seem to encapsulate time spent in observing. The effect on our transient viewing, whether in passing or in study is to become increasingly aware that as much as these are works of observation they are also visual odes to time.
Their unusual quality relies upon the viewers suspension of disbelief in a medium of high reality. These series of small still lifes focus on the dichotomy between organic matter and the geometry of architecture. Australian seed heads are tucked behind the doors of a Victorian dolls house and appear out of the roof, oddly disproportionate within its surroundings.
There are several points of differences here to grapple with from the geometric versus the organic to high reality versus the unexpected surreal. These studies bring architecture down to a scale where it becomes fragile, suddenly you are looking at a world that that could be destroyed by a wrong foot.
These are not simply a collection of objects but are composed in a way that conveys intensity in scale despite their size. Antony’s technique of mark-making records such a potency of information that they explode out of their dimensions.
Antony begins his day with the same ritualistic routine, that of mixing the raw pigments to create his palette. Dictated by the day’s work ahead of him Antony creates and controls the palette he needs.
Known for depicting some of the world’s biggest names and art collectors, Antony is associated with unflinching depictions of people whose reputations and celebrity proceed them. In these small paintings Antony is free to become absorbed by his personal pre-occupations and the surfaces and juxtapositions that captures his imagination. They have a presence beyond their size and will be displayed with equal reverence to Antony’s full-scale portraits.
Following an outstanding opening of Malene’s work in Cork St, Malene Hartmann Rasmusen’s exhibition ‘Fantasma’ has relocated itself to Istanbul to be part of ‘Beyond the vessel: Myth and Metamorphosis in Contemporary Ceramics’.
It is too often the case that provincial artists (responding to their own culture or the mythologies of their own community) have to enter main, often western, centers of the world in order to make their name. The koc foundation in Istanbul is upending this. This exhibition looks decidedly outward and pays particular attention of the mythologies of different communities while highlighting the unifying quality of the ancient medium of clay itself.
Malene has drawn inspiration from the cultural outpourings of Scandinavia and her own past. Her work itself is very much responding to a journey that she is on and we are delighted to play a part in the physical journey of these works from Denmark to London and to Istanbul.
Shortly prior to exhibiting in Messums London Malene completed a ceramics residency at the V&A which has informed the works on show.