Issuu on Google+

still liFe AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES A BOOK OF CORRESPONDENCE Frances Woodley + emma Bennett G.l. Brierley claudia carr clare chapman david Gould Jonny Green alex hanna Janice mcnaB philip nicol christopher nurse

still liFe AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES



to tCP mig LFg

ACKNOWLEDgEmENtS my thanks to the artists who kindly loaned their paintings for the accompanying exhibition and who accepted my invitation to conversation and correspondence in the interests of my research and the publication of this catalogue: Emma Bennett, g.L. Brierley, Claudia Carr, Clare Chapman, Jonny green, David gould, Alex Hanna, Janice mcNab, Philip Nicol, and Christopher Nurse. in addition i would like to thank Professor Robert meyrick, Professor John Harvey, Dr. Colin Cruise and Neil Holland in the School of Art, Aberystwyth university, for their continuing advice and support for my research project. thanks too to Neil Wallace of A1 Design for his valuable advice and for the design of this catalogue. Finally i would like to express my appreciation for the free use of images from the Rijksmuseum and the National gallery of Denmark.


anonymous Twee Stillevens van de plunje van een soldaat, brush on paper, 18.2 x 30.4 cm, Rijksmuseum. Photo Š Rijksmuseum

still liFe AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES A BOOK OF CORRESPONDENCE Frances Woodley + emma Bennett G.l. Brierley claudia carr clare chapman david Gould Jonny Green alex hanna Janice mcnaB philip nicol christopher nurse


Johannes torrentius Emblematic Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle, 1614, oil on panel, 50 x 50 cm, Rijksmuseum. Photo Š Rijksmuseum




introduction FRANCES WOODLEY


still liFe: amBiGuous practices FRANCES WOODLEY
























AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 11

cornelius norBertus GiJsBrechts Trompe l’oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting, 1670, oil on canvas, 66.4 x 87 cm, National gallery of Denmark. Photo Š National gallery of Denmark


still liFe: amBiGuous practices is research in progress, an interruption in a continuing conversation between artists, artworks and a curator concerning the painting of still life. this curator has gone in search of evidence of interests amongst a community of artists who may only know of one another vaguely but who have this in common: that their paintings of objects, depicted in space in relation to a surface, exist at the boundaries of a tradition that binds them together. the tradition is still life, which started life as symbol and sign, the word made image, and image as world. its conventions, over time, became ubiquitous and trite. Cracks appeared, and the edifice began to fall apart from over-use and under-stimulation. the destruction, deconstruction and denial of the still life ensued. But its conventions and reproductions are now being put to new uses, and its frameworks and procedures tested and experimented with in the spaces in-between other ways of seeing, doing, thinking and making. Having previously made the case for the coherence of the still life tradition across time, the curator here goes in search of its ambiguation. Ambiguity—the liminal, the indeterminate, the in-between, the back and forth, aporia, deception and much more—can only exist in relation to boundaries, and a boundary’s only reason for existence is the threat of what is ambiguous, unclear, ungraspable and unsettling. they are bound together. this exhibition and the correspondence that accompanies it uncover tradition’s nemesis, ambiguity; convention is tested and teased by the practices of contemporary art—of still life.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 13

still liFe AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES FRANCES WOODLEY The still life anticipates such a mode of looking by raising issues concerning the nature of its own representation, which do not lead us as viewers, to interpretation but to a state that is most thoughtprovoking, namely, thinking. Hanneke grootenboer1 Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it. Virginia Woolf.2 in ‘Still Life: Ambiguous Practices’ i move beyond the issues i explored in the curatorial project and exhibition ‘Still Life: All Coherence gone?’ (2014).3 that exhibition sought to bring together contemporary painting that acknowledged its conversations with traditional still life as being part of a coherent practice over time. these acknowledgements, though not always direct, were traceable. ‘Still Life: Ambiguous Practices’ extends those explorations deeper into contemporary still life painting. Here it is its occupation of the spaces inbetween convention and invention that is at issue, ambiguously and self-consciously situated as they are around the boundaries of thingness and metaphor, thingness and nothingness, subject and object, vision and visibility, suggestion and interpretation. All this, i suggest, can be usefully surveyed from within the frame of its own conventions, the genre of still life. CORRESPONDENCE AND CuRAtiON ‘Still Life: Ambiguous Practices’ is also an exhibition through which various conversations have been woven— historical and curatorial, spoken and written. Some of these conversations have already happened: those between artist and painting, curator and artist, curator and paintings. But there are others that are ongoing: the exchanges between paintings and viewers, and paintings and paintings as mediated by those viewers. these contemporary works owe their contemporaneity to their participation in postmodern cultures of production and circulation. So these are ambiguous dialogues, ones that take place at the margins of the historical, traditional, and conventional. All conversation demands a certain reciprocity, and accountability, from its partners. if both parties commit to understanding one another’s understandings, new understandings, even ambiguous ones can emerge. gadamer writes: ‘For we have seen that to question means to lay open, to place in the open. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the object and all its possibilities fluid.’4 through conversation, curation, and correspondence my aim has been to uncover some of the ways in which the historical convention of still life, rather than specific paintings, is ambiguated by contemporary painting and to what end. And though i attempt to bring some clarity to this complex and ungraspable field, i do so without the intention to interpret or cohere what is resistant to both. After all, ambiguity’s resistance to fixed interpretation lies at its very core. i am also aware that paintings and correspondence within the context of the project can reveal no more than a few insights gained from a little ‘stirring up’ and i make no claim to account for the broader continuum that is each artist’s practice. StiLL LiFE ‘A painting always has a model on its outside’ writes Deleuze.5 Contemporary still life’s ‘model’, seventeenth century still life painting, was not originally intended to be ambiguous. Far from it, it was intended to be descriptive. As Svetlana Alpers points out: ‘Objects are exposed to the probing eye not only by the technique of flaying them, but also by reflection: the play of light on the surface distinguishes glass from metal, from cloth, from pastry, and also serves to multiply surfaces. … to be more fully present to the eye.’6 these historical

14 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

paintings, ranging from the very small to the quite substantial, were painted in oil on panel, or later, on canvas. Early in that century they were aleady being categorized according to sub-genres: flower still life, banquets, pronk [sumptuous] still life, breakfasts, fish, fruit, game still lifes, as well as others, the vanitas, trompe l’oeil, market scenes for example that were situated at its periphery. Painters observed conventions laid down by studio, market, or patron as well as observing prevailing tendencies and fashions. But they rarely deviated from the convention for depicting familiar objects (high value or low, fabricated or natural) that are made to occupy a fictional space (a dark wall, a deep infinity, a staged set up) arranged on a surface (a table, shelf or recess) to give the impression of closeness to the viewer (even to piercing the picture plane in some instances). this ‘closeness’ was achieved by manipulation of light (invented or observed), the suggestion of depth (without recourse to mathematical perspective, but through shallowness and shading instead), and viewpoint (a horizon line being invented or observed, obscured or revealed, interrupted, blurred or shaded). Conventions of fine painting were determined by precedent, place of work, markets, cultural contexts and prevailing aesthetics. it is worth pointing out that many still lifes never existed as arrangements at all except in paint; they were invented conventions. But something more ambiguous does escape from fine painting’s margins: sketches of things discarded, where the artist is under no compunction to address the viewer or attribute meaning (Plate 1). today, still life is at play, its historical models made discrepant or distanced as in glenn Brown’s flower still lifes (2014), or effaced, as in tacita Dean’s video installation of morandi’s models (2009), or abjected as in g.L. Brierley’s alchemical object becomings. What still life has to say about things outside itself, and its own modes of creation, has become important to the practice. ged Quinn’s cakes on plates, for example are ambiguous and parodic: fruit cake as prison, sandwich as icecap, brioche as bunker. the historical convention must be present however, for without its lurking, no ambiguous practice can occur, and without a viewer’s awareness of an origin, no irony, parody or pastiche is possible. And ambiguity must occur. it is the state in which the representation of things is liquified, destabilized, put at risk, made open to play and imagination, a ‘meditation on being and becoming’.7 the term ‘still life’ dates to the mid seventeenth century, and is indicative of a cultural obsession with taxonomies, inventories, commerce and pragmatism at that time. ‘Still life’, writes Lowenthal ‘is a construct, which like all constructs, has a certain elasticity that allows for shifting emphases’.8 For the purpose of this exhibition and correspondence however the elastic has been tightened a little, to the painted depictions of objects in space in relation to a surface. Even within these three points of reference all manner of ambiguity occurs. my use of the term ‘still life’ acknowledges the historical in the contemporary, though it is common for artists and gallerists to avoid the category altogether. Janice mcNab puts it well: ‘they are still life, but the category no longer completely contains them.’9 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES What is presented here is limited to what has come to light through correspondence between this researcher/curator and each of the ten exhibitors. A reading of this correspondence suggests that contemporary painting of still life is inherently ambiguous and contradictory, that it embraces and resists the genre, and is both observant and transgressive of its conventions. it is a feature of contemporary still life painting that it operates ambiguously at the boundaries and in the liminal spaces in-between its own genre and other practices. Ambiguity is resistant to meaning but not to imagining. Ambiguity is fluid, and suggestive in ways that play to, and lead to misunderstandings. Ambiguity engages through deception, inadequacy or lack, with the intention, or the inadvertent consequence, of causing an unsettling in the viewer. Ambiguity can take the viewer away from meaning to other forms of pleasurable irresolution and affect. Even ambiguity is ambiguous—its fluidity makes it contingent on cultural contexts, most notably conventions—where what is not ambiguous at one time can become so in another. it may be the artist’s intention to ambiguate, or to make themselves and their painting open to the stumbling across ambiguity. it can also be the case that an artist is concerned with disambiguating ambiguous objects through the painterly processes of describing and documenting as Jonny green has made clear.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 15

maria vos Two still lifes on a kitchen shelf, drawing in notebook, c. 1863/4, Rijksmuseum. Photo Š Rijksmuseum

Wenceslaus hollar Untitled, 1647, etching on paper, 10.9 x 20.3 cm, Rijksmuseum. Photo Š Rijksmuseum

mamassian takes this further with regard to the viewer: ‘Because artistic conventions are different across periods, across cultures, and across human development, the appreciation of art will necessarily vary from one person to the next.’10 it is the artist’s prerogative to lead the viewer away from expected responses and gestalts to the discovery of something that did not, and could not, exist prior to their encounter with an artwork. the ambiguous artwork resists meaning whilst attracting viewers’ interpretations. Ambiguity is the means by which convention’s ‘elastic’ become slackened and imagination walks free. But even when convention is tightened, things can still escape particularly when contemporary artists borrow from art of the past, as can be seen in my own borrowing from Brueghel’s Still life with Flowers (Plates 6,7). ‘People who experience pictures as ambiguous objects are looking with a quicker eye, and in a more skittish and unbalanced way, as if the pictures were in motion’ states Elkins.11 Below i give a qualified account of the ambiguous practices, and issues regarding ambiguity, that have emerged in the course of conversation, correspondence and curation. Highness and lowness ‘if the status of the object is profoundly changed, so also is that of the subject’ writes Deleuze.12 the reduction, or enhancement, of status in a represented object works by dissolving or driving expectation in its viewer. An object is elevated by enlargement, positioning, lighting, and focussing, just as status is diminished by bathos, imitation, and indistinctness. the representation of status is determined by a culturally determined viewpoint, as Bryson points out: ‘the painting of what is ‘mundane’ or ‘sordid’ (rhyparos) is negative only from a certain viewpoint in which the ‘lowness’ of a supposedly low-plane reality poses a threat to another level of culture that regards itself as having access to superior or exalted modes of experience.13 Being able to see something from above when ordinarily it is seen from below, or changing the actual viewpoint for a metaphorical one, serves to ambiguate the object of the gaze, and to unsettle the gaze itself. So too do technologies of vision, the use of the camera obscura in torrentius’ Still Life with a Bridle (Plate 2), or digital manipulation as in Andreas gursky’s painterly photographs of supermarket shelving. Ambiguity, as Bryson tells us is the upsetting of ‘a sovereign gaze’, the painter’s or the viewer’s.14 Resemblance and strangeness ‘Apparent resemblances can produce confusions in our perception of the separate and distinct identities of things’, writes Alpers.15 this was considered a problem in seventeenth century Holland where Alpers tells us descriptiveness and distinctiveness were an important aesthetic, not unrelated to the new scientific mentality of accounting for things and mapping. ‘Consider the lemon, one of the favoured objects of Dutch vision. … Kalf’s lemons are subject not to the ravages of time but to the probings of the eye.’16 Ambiguity, however, welcomes ‘confusions’, blur and fluidity in its representations as can be seen in another much lower status image, maria Vos’ sketches (Plate 4). Ambiguity extends to the confusion caused when originals and copies resemble one another, as in Bennett’s paintings exhibited here, when an original is made by the copying of copies. Appropriating through copying sows seeds of doubt in the viewer who is then compelled to ask: is this authentic or fake? What am i looking at? in the fusion that is metaphorical resemblance, as opposed to copying, material is made to bring forth interpretations and affect through equivalence beyond the reach of the painting itself or fixed intention of the painter. metaphorical resemblance is a form of metaphysical conceit, as in Wenceslaus Holler’s erotically charged etching of a pile of muffs (Plate 5). Material and the Immaterial According to marmassian and Kerston, sources of light, shadows and shading, weaken our purchase on represented objects.17 Paint too, as Elkins suggests can perform at levels of intensity that cause it to ambiguate the forms it occupies: ‘paint can reach a pitch of unnaturalness where it seems that it might lose every connection with the tubes and palettes where it began. that is the state that counts, and not the choice between fictive space and canvas or between illusion and paint. it’s not the choice, but the narrowness of the gap: the incredible tension generated by something so infinitesimally near to perfection.’18 Luminousness is the ambiguity of the immaterial that tempts inversion as in David gould’s paintings of boots, where abjection is illuminated. Or, as in Chapman and Carr’s paintings, where a high degree of luminance unsettles ‘object(s)’ and the spaces they occupy.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 17

Distance and proximity ‘While perceptual ambiguities are resolved with prior constraints, artistic ambiguities are resolved by conventions.’19 mamassian draws attention to the combined techniques of ambiguity, of the implied infinity of the vanishing point, of scale and spatial frequency, of indistinctness, luminance, noise, shadows (real and invented), of ambiguity as relational and situated. Artists play with the unsettling sensations derived from indistinctness on the Jan BrueGhel (velvet) the elder Frances Woodley Velvet B 1, painted surface, aporia, and Still life with Flowers, oil on wood 2015, watercolour on paper, 85 x 56 blurriness resolved at a distance. panel, 113.7 x 86.4 cm, Rijksmuseum. cm. Photo © Frances Woodley Photo © Rijksmuseum Distancing is an operation in painting, used by painters when taking a step back to disambiguate the process or progress of their painting, and in the way artists talk of setting some distance in time between painting a painting and looking at it with fresh eyes. time here is ambiguity’s clarifier from a distance. Time Between the early 1600s and 1625 Jan (Velvet) Brueghel the elder painted flower still lifes for Europe’s Hapsburg rulers (Plate 6). His bouquets were in many ways the start of a still life tradition, the representation of a plethora of flowers ‘plucked’ from different seasons and presented in a single vase as though the flowers had existed at the same time. this ambiguous conceit compresses time, and preserves perfection in its specimens. Just as the bouquet is an impossibility, we draw the conclusion that light too must be an invention, the space it occupies and the surface on which it stands. in these flower still lifes ambiguity takes the form of a mass of contradictions amid, what seems to our eyes, the blur of excess. g.L. Brierley’s paintings of objects are also inventions, not of precisely rendered flowers or objects, but of ‘substitute objects’ that emerge out of abject processes; from wrinkled, crackling and suppurating paint, drying, cracking, dripping and shrinking over time, all directed by the artist. No perspectival system governs early still life, and none governs these idiosyncratic worlds of Brierley’s either. the time that is compressed here is claustrophobic—and magical. Irony in historical still life reflexive ambiguity exists in the presence of the artist’s hand, a shadow, reflection or the casually included portrait miniature, particularly in trompe l’oeil paintings. Still life today leaves other clues to ambiguate its origins and position in critical discourse, making painting as much about itself as the objects it depicts or invents. Artists refer to themselves and their viewing in self conscious or ironic fashion as can be seen in the coffee stains left by Claudia Carr, or the lens from the artists’ sunglasses in Janice mcNab’s Bloodbathers. Of referential ambiguity Elkins writes: ‘this is not a disordered universe, since it is reined in by the interlocking concepts of type of reference, the manner of reference, and the means of reference [that] overlap, forming ambiguous constellations.’20 this referential ambiguity can be detected in glenn Brown’s flower still lifes, paintings that conflate references: the subject matter of one genre with the technique and palette of another, an ambiguity that speaks ironically and mournfully of predicaments and possibilities of painting itself.21 ARtiStS AND CORRESPONDENtS my selection of the paintings included in this exhibition began with exhibition visits and exploring the internet. Eventually i came up with ten painters, six from London, Emma Bennett, g.L. Brierley, Claudia Carr,

18 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

Clare Chapman, Jonny green and Alex Hanna, three from Wales, David gould, Philip Nicol and Christopher Nurse, and the Scottish painter, Janice mcNab who lives and works in Amsterdam. i visited each of them in their studios where i recorded our conversations. it was a mutual decision as to which available works would be included in the exhibition, and why. From that moment it was my job to put these paintings into a conversation of their own, where new dialogues could be drawn out. many of these artists paint in a relation to theoretical frameworks: the monstrous feminine, abjection, ambiguity, formalism, the everyday, postmodernism, psychoanalysis. their modes of working are the subject of current critical writing: description, play, appropriation, allusion, confusion, blurring of boundaries. their paintings correspond with cross-disciplinary practices of ethnography, topography, transcription, psychoanalysis and staging for example. these artists are testing the boundaries of ‘still life’. they are being attentive to liminality, metaphor, the poetic, aporia, inversion, deception, doubt, enigma, incompleteness and resistance. models play a large part in their painting procedures: found, made, and staged, where bricolage, Photoshop, collage, assemblage, reprographic copies are put to use. there is no doubt that the still life model plays a crucial role in ambiguating reality, in making it strange. Letter writing was originally a form of written conversation where each correspondent wrote at the time and pace of their choosing. As gadamer writes: [it] stretches out the movement of talking at cross purposes and seeing each other’s point. … it also consists in preserving and fulfilling the standard of finality that everything stated in writing has.’22 Our correspondence lasted approximately two months and was by turns, erratic, intense, productive or frustrating as life and work intervened, but a process that all of us entered into with commitment and rigour. Correspondence enabled each correspondent to rethink, change, and edit their own text as it proceeded. in the course of the correspondence i began to sense a redressing of the balance between us, so that i became more participant than interviewer, which had always been my intention. i particularly relished moments when i was held to account with questions like, What do you mean by this? or when words veered off into capitals, even bold ones! the artists were unflinching in their willingness to engage, to reflect on assumptions, to engage with my perspective as well as theirs, and i am grateful for their efforts. Ambiguity is situated here at the site of the contemporary work, but also in its historical origins, in the artist’s intention and non-attention, in what slips past the artist and viewer, and what slips through the painting, making and viewing, convention and its disruption. Artworks resist meaning, refuse entry, send the viewer scurrying in all directions searching for hooks, but ambiguity also causes a beckoning that seduces and suggests, keeps us lingering as we think we catch the resemblance of something other that we think we might know.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

grootenboer, Hanneke 2005 The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still life Painting. Chicago: university of Chicago Press. p. 19. Woolf, Virginia 1918 ‘Solid Objects’ in Dick, Susan ed. 1989 The Complete Shorter Fiction. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. p.104. Woodley, Frances 2014 Still Life: All Coherence Gone. Aberystwyth: Aberystwyth university: A School of Art Publication. gadamer, Hans-georg 2006 Truth and Method. London and New York: Continuum. p. 361. Deleuze, gilles 1993 The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. London: Continuum. p. 30. Alpers, Svetlana 1984 The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: Chicago university Press. pp. 90-91. Lloyd, Rosemary 2005 Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life. ithaca and London: Cornell university Press. p. xi. Lowenthal, Anne W. ed. 1996 The Object as Subject: Studies in the Interpretation of Still Life. New Jersey: Princeton university Press. pp. 6-7. mcNab, Janice 2015 ‘Correspondence’ in Woodley, Frances 2015 Still Life: Ambiguous Practices. Aberystwyth: School of Art Publication. p. 66. marmassian Pascal 2008 ‘Ambiguities and Conventions in the Perception of Visual Art’ Vision Research 48 pp. 2143-2153. Found at Accessed 5 April 2015. Elkins, James 1999, Why Are our Pictures Puzzles? New York and London: Routledge. p. 88. Deleuze, gilles, 1993 The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. London: Continuum. p. 20. Bryson, Norman 1990 Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books. p. 137. ibid. p. 143. Alpers, Svetlana op.cit. p. 77. ibid. p. 91. mamassian & Kersten, 1996 in mamassian, Pascal op. cit. p. 2148. Elkins, James, op. cit. p. 189. mamassian, Pascal 2008 ‘Ambiguities and Conventions in the Perception of Visual Art’. pp. 2143-2153. ibid. p. 108. tate,’glenn Brown: Room 8’. Found at Accessed 5 April 2015. gadamer, Hans-georg 2006 Truth and Method. p. 362.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 19












EmmA BENNEtt CORRESPONDENCE FW emma, i think it might be useful to open our conversation with some reference to the historical painting that is so important to your work. i am thinking particularly about Flemish and dutch still life painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. this genre of painting quickly extended as far as italy, spain and France to the south of the lowlands, and the hapsburg empire to its east. are there certain artists of this period that have been particularly influential on your work or whose imagery you have adapted to your own paintings? eB i would say that i am influenced by this era of still life painting as a whole, rather than by individual artists who worked within the genre. Yes, it is the subject as a whole that interests me. i love the luminosity of the flowers and fauna set against deep, dark backgrounds, the jewel-like colours, and the shapes of the delicate forms, which are characteristic of numerous artists of that time. Of course, i have some favorites and there are individual paintings, or rather elements of individual paintings, which i return to again and again because i feel a particular emotional response or attraction towards them. Artists whose work i’ve referenced directly include Jan Weenix (1640/91719), Willem van Aelst (1627- 1683), Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) and Abraham mignon (1640-79). Sometimes i think that i don’t actually like the original paintings in their entirety. they are frequently such full images that there is almost too much to look at. i am fascinated by these paintings because they repel me to a certain extent while also drawing me in to look again and again. i regularly find something new that appeals to me within a painting that i have been looking at for years and years and that is very satisfying. i do like it that the fullness of the paintings refers to the abundance and continuation of life and the generosity of nature as it keeps reproducing and providing. i don’t get particularly involved in the symbolism of individual flowers but i am interested in the representation of fragile life forms as reminders of our limited time, that is, as memento mori. i do find it interesting to think about still life painting as the artist’s way of extending life and making permanent the flowers and fruit that were otherwise inevitably going to decay. these paintings respond to the human desire for eternal life. they also place small, often overlooked life forms on centre stage and ask us to take time to value and appreciate nature and the things that surround us, the value of our lives, and of all living things.

FW are you able to describe how influence, reference and appropriation operate in the course of your painting practice?

eB i seek out still life paintings in museums and galleries and i collect catalogues and reproductions. it’s like an ongoing treasure hunt for me, and the reproductions i have are amongst my most prized possessions. i always work from reproductions and i photocopy or scan the reproductions so as to alter the tonality and scale to suit my needs. i tend to start with just one element from an image, one that i connect with, and i develop my paintings by adding fragments of different images into my own composition. i have a kind of dialogue with the various elements of the painting as i work. in terms of appropriation, i quote from fragments of reproductions rather than the original paintings. i often try to maintain the tonality of the warm, faded colourplate. However, i never really try to make a faithful reproduction—that doesn’t really interest me; i edit and alter the imagery to make it fit my needs.

22 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

emma Bennett And, Afterwards, 2009, oil on canvas, 160 x 130 cm

emma Bennett Hollowed (Unhallowed), 2009, oil on canvas, 140 x 110 cm

FW i am interested in the ways in which contemporary artists work in forms of conversation with historical still life paintings, if not directly, then by way of observing and engaging critically in its conventions. i have seen how, once ensnared, the viewer of your paintings starts to question exactly what it is they can see there, as they begin to reflect on what it is that is familiar (the historical) and unfamiliar, even strange (the contemporized historical). historical painting is one of your subjects but so is painting itself it seems—your paintings are both a homage to its tradition and its deconstruction. that’s quite a balancing act. eB i work from art history partly because painting itself is a subject of the work. i celebrate painting as a presentation of an individual’s expression. i love to see the evidence of an artist’s hand and mind, whether that is apparent through painterly gestures or the time, in minutes or hours, that has been spent creating the work.

FW What comes through in your work is your deep respect for the act of painting, and for historical painting, and how both seem to be reflections of your own personal values regarding life and memory. as you suggest, the power of traditional still life can overwhelm and satiate, and i can understand that they might intrude on creative interpretation. so you defend yourself from the excess and intensity of the originals by working from their ‘mirror images’, their reproductions, rather than the paintings themselves. this process of distancing is made more so when you fragment your sources, relocate, reproduce and alter them. as i understand it, this happens both before you start and in the course of painting. Would i be right in thinking that your painting begins from what is left of these processes of appropriation? i understand these borrowings and reconstructions as forms of postmodern appropriation, but the way in which you go about your painting is so sensitive and beguiling that referring to them in this way seems almost too harsh a description. But the images are deceptively familiar to many of us, and it is the viewer’s misrecognition of a copy that adds to their ambiguity. eB Yes, my appropriation may be seen from the postmodern perspective as, in part, it functions as pastiche. that is, my work is a celebration of the history of painting. But much more than this the borrowing enables me to be honest and open emotionally. the intricacy of the historical still life paintings feels to me to reflect something of the intensity and complexity of human emotions, especially those associated with love and loss. i am able to load meaning and deeply personal thoughts and feelings onto these motifs without feeling too exposed. i can include my own life experiences but keep the overall subject of the work universal. the appropriation frees me up and facilitates my expression. i want the work to raise questions rather than answer them, or at least i want my paintings to show what i have been thinking about and questioning. much of it is about the ambiguity of time, gravity and relationships— How much time do we have? How fast or slow does it go? What keeps us to this earth? What makes us who we are? in part still life painting is about keeping things ‘still’, whilst much of what i am doing is trying to include a sense of movement into a painting, through its composition, imagery and materials. FW could you tell me something of the materials, procedures and processes that you use in your painting and how you think they contribute to this sense of ambiguity?

eB i start with the black monochrome. As soon as there is another element, another mark within the blank space of the canvas, there is energy in the painting because of the relationship between the two elements. And it continues from there …… i work intuitively, responding to the image as it evolves and to each action that has gone before. i use this energy and play with the relationships between the different elements of the painting so as to suggest time and motion. i reinforce that idea by painting objects that are, or are not, anchored in the space. that is, i hang things on pegs or ledges or i leave out the ledges (or beds) and let things fall in the space, and i include within my

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 25

still-lifes things that are intangible and in perpetual motion such as water and fire. there is also a fun element to my painting that shouldn’t be forgotten—i play with the scale of objects, with the way motifs mimic one another and with the natural order of things. All this adds to the ambiguity.

FW your paintings are not just about the motifs found in traditional still life painting. they are also about the vast spaces that you invent for them to exist in. these spaces also seem to be subjects in their own right. strangely it was only after seeing your paintings that i began to realise that there might be different ways of interpreting the dark, indistinct backgrounds of late sixteenth and seventeenth still lifes. in those paintings it is often unclear as to whether a background was intended to represent a wall, a cavernous space, or a dark infinity. or, whether artists of the time were simply making use of an optical trick by which a dark background projects objects painted ‘in front’ of it forwards towards the viewer. i find it odd that the blackness of a background can take on such a different significance depending on how objects are positioned in relation to it, and the era in which it is viewed. For instance, we apprehend the dark surface behind the objects in a traditional still life very differently from the blackened surface in your paintings. in yours, the same sorts of objects appear, yet here they are ungoverned by gravity and conventional meaning, and float in and out of thin fleeting layers whilst dangling in deep space.

eB For me the ‘background’ is equal or perhaps even more important than the motifs. it has many functions and meanings within my work. As with the motifs, they are intended as appropriations of black monochrome paintings and/or as a pastiche of modernist monochrome painting as a whole, and the notion of the void that encompasses. i think about the excitement i feel standing in front of a large-scale painting. it’s such a particular feeling that you get when you are reminded of your own physical, upright presence in the world and your physical relationship to people and things around you. it is also my attempt at portraying the vast, painful emptiness that results from love lost. it refers to the question that all of us have (except perhaps for those lucky enough to have an unquestioning faith in a god and eternal life), that is, From where does life come and is there anything after? Perhaps most importantly of all, my black monochromes create a space in which i, and hopefully the viewer, may spend time contemplating these and other things.

FW some of your floating objects such as the tablecloths (similar to those found in the haarlem breakfast still lifes) hold their shape even as they hang in these deep spaces, as though an absent table determined their form. your painting Hollowed (Unhallowed) (2009) is an example of this. But there are others such as The Silenced Bird (2008) where a curtain is supported on a rail that is itself unsupported and apparently floating away. could you tell me a little more about these incidental objects that you include in your paintings—cloths, curtains, drapes, ribbons? to my mind they reinforce a sense of suspense, and a suspension of reality, in your pictures. they occupy another layer between the instantly recognizable historical objects and the ghostly ‘pours’ which we should discuss next perhaps. how do you think of these objects? eB i use the cloths to conceal and/or reveal and to keep us questioning (there’s always more than we can see). they refer to interior spaces as opposed to some of the images of nature, fire and water, which refer to exterior spaces, and they add to the illogicality of the illusions because they are usually floating unsupported. the ribbons are often fun: i add a bow to a dead bird as if it’s a prize or a present, or i embellish the dead bird with a bow because, don’t you forget, it is a magnificent dead bird! FW the pours in your work are the trace of a disruptive act. in the past you have also talked about them as creating dialogue in a painting. do you think of them as game changers? can the pour suggest things to the painting, take it in a different direction from that which you expected? you also use the

26 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

pours to suggest a change in perspective, atmosphere, or liquidity. could you tell me more about whether the pours are anticipated, or whether they happen intuitively in the moment, and how you think they contribute to ambiguity, if indeed you think they do?

eB in the past i made almost entirely abstract paintings that made more use of the physicality of the substance. For example, i would apply thick sculptured oil paint as well as pouring thinned oil paint and other mediums onto the canvas and i would often experiment with the chemistry by mixing turpentine with other painting mediums. A considerable amount of that abstraction has been absent from my work in recent years but there is often still an element of it in evidence. i frequently pour thinned paint on to the paintings to create a liquidy veil. these ‘pours’ usually happen in one quick motion, when i am feeling calm and well immersed in the work. Sometimes however, i go to the studio with the sole purpose of doing a pour as i need something to bounce ideas off, such as a more ambiguous, less controlled element within the painting. Sometimes i pour veils of paint so that the abstract shape that is left alludes to drapes, cloths, over-flowing rivers or ponds, smoke or vapors. Sometimes the pours partly cover-up or destroy an area of still life painting that has taken me hours to produce and then i can either choose to re-work the imagery or exhibit the destruction. i often like the way the destruction has made the image more ambiguous. i also like the speed of the pour and the way the action contrasts with the meticulously slow painting of the still life motifs. Yes, ‘game changer’ is a good description for these pours. in the course of the painting, just as in life, everything can change from one moment to the next.

Further information on the artist is available at

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 27

g.L. BRiERLEY CORRESPONDENCE FW your work is most extraordinary both in the way it is executed and conceived. it is almost a form of alchemy. maybe this is where we should begin this conversation as it is your giving birth to these ‘things’ as you call them, by means of experimental processes, that seems to be at the core of your painting. incidentally, have you read James elkins’ What Painting Is (1999)?1 elkins is always good at posing questions, but this is rather different. could you elaborate on the idea of painting as alchemy a little further? GlB Yes, the Elkins really was the best book about painting that i'd ever read and i'm sure was responsible for the beginning of this work. As you say, his writing is from the perspective of the material and function of environment, something rarely written about. most critics and theorists ignore the fundamental thing that matters to a painter (and a sculptor)—working with the matter. i have always deconstructed things to see how they worked (at school i had my wristwatch in pieces in my pencil case to reassemble at whim), i learnt to paint both in watercolours and oil by examining paintings in galleries. my dad was a practical inventive person who trained as a metallurgist and i think i picked it up from him. i often think a thing through, a kind of materialcognition before i paint it; feeling, colour, texture and form would all be played with mentally. in the studio i begin with a question, i wonder what would happen if i mixed this with that? and then the alchemy of the materials would react unexpectedly, so exciting. these results extend my symbolic and imaginative material language. i am a control freak getting lost in the details so the adrenaline of the lack of control is a good opposite. i am attempting to surprise myself, with a strong investment of feeling for the ‘thing’ that is being formed out of the soup. the idea of the ‘thing’ comes from the questioning of our early relationship to the object. in the writings of Julia Kristeva she describes how when the child is weaned from the mother an object can be a transitional substitute. During this process the mother is seen as a site of desire and repulsion. During the process of forming the ‘thing’ i am thinking of the paint in these terms.

FW it has taken me some time to respond - there is so much here to think about that i’ll have to take it a step at a time! i’ve found it necessary to return to Julia kristeva’s ‘powers’ of horror: an essay on abjection’ (originally published in French, 1980) to start to get to grips with your painting and your ideas.2 having your paintings in mind as i am reading her makes a difference, it seems to offer a way to grasp apparently conflicting ideas of formlessness and object. i can see that your work responds to her writing; both are complex and poetic. my own research interests lie in the way that certain contemporary art exists in a conversation with historical still life painting. mediated and informed by this art of the past, contemporary art transforms it into visions of its own. this is not a simple phenomenon. some contemporary paintings make, what seems, very direct reference, others make use of the convention as a convenience, almost unacknowledged. and of course the tabletop, as well as the arrangements of food and flowers placed on top of it, are also loaded with associations far beyond the art historical, the stuff of personal and domestic histories, relationships and desires. i find it fascinating that your abject wayward objects (may i call them that?) are brought to heel, by being positioned on something reminiscent of a tabletop. For me, your ’table tops’ are crucial to your painting, they enable me to look at a ‘thing’ that i would otherwise have no way of looking at, they would elude or deter me. they enable me to understand the ‘things’ in terms of other more familiar contexts in my world. What is otherwise

28 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

G.l. Brierley Plebjus, 2014, oil on panel, 28 x 30cm

G.l. Brierley Fecunditas, 2013, oil on wood, 61 x 62cm

without scale, semblance, identity, aesthetic—abject— becomes slightly tamed, more seductive, less disturbing, but still both. could you tell me a little more about what kristeva’s writing brings to the subjects and processes of your painting?

GlB Kristeva was important because her ideas answered questions about human development and our first attachment to the object. i wanted to look beyond Freud’s theories on the fetish being a result of a (male) child’s discovery of the mother’s lack of phallus. For Kristeva the child has no gender and the object is a replacement for the mother herself, this made more sense to me. She describes the abject as the ‘violence of mourning’ for the mother allowing for a replacement of the lost object. She says this process holds a ‘narcissistic crisis’.3 the ‘objects’ i paint, i hope, hold these ideas of veneration and the abject and it is important that the word material is derived from the words matter, mater or mother. the way these objects are displayed in my paintings do reference Dutch pronk [sumptuous] still life. i use an established language to allow them a relationship in our world. So there is usually a narrow depth of field, there is a conventional light source and they fit within an interior space, as you say, often a table top or against a wall. in the way a seventeenth century Dutch collector would want to own a painting of a precious tulip or other exotic objects from distant travels, i was thinking of the concept of ownership. i was interested in the way the relationship between the ultimate owner of the painting and its depicted subject mirrors that of the artist in its creation. Baudrillard in his essay ‘the System of Collecting’ (first published in French 1968) demonstrates this private dialogue between the owner and collected object.4 He, like Kristeva speaks about the narcissistic impulse in the desire to own an object, and along the way, describes the concept of the absent female: 'A given woman stops being a woman and becomes no more than a vagina, a couple of breasts, a belly, a pair of thighs, a voice, a face—according to preference. Henceforth she is reduced to a set whose separate signifying elements are one by one ticked off by desire, and whose true signified is no longer the beloved, but the subject himself. For it is the subject, the epitome of narcissistic self-engrossment, who collects and eroticises his own being, evading the amorous embrace to create a closed dialogue with himself.’5 So making the paintings helped me to explore my own private dialogue and sometimes-obsessive engagement with the object that was being built from the material alchemy of paint.

FW i can see why Baudrillard’s essay would appeal to you. in identifying essentially two different objects, the objectively functional and the subjectively possessed, he also touches briefly on the ‘in-between’ when he writes: ‘any object may be said to float midway between a practical specification or function’.6 But unless i’m mistaken he doesn’t address objects that are invented out of material processes and the imagination as yours are, and/or come into being through ludic and alchemical processes.

GlB i think it is the psychological relationship between object and owner that interests me. the Baudrillard piece was helpful because he alludes to the object being an extension of the owner’s narcissistic self in this private two-way dialogue. Of course there are paintings i make that may not ever exist in the world, but still, when painting, in the background there is the idea that the painting will possibly have to enter into the art-market game. And this can make me conflicted because each piece originates from such a personal emotional place. FW the more i reflect on what you say about kristeva’s object as replacement for the mother, i feel your work appears to be guided by autobiography, feelings, if not events. something is looming, ‘a violence of mourning’7 perhaps, a power of horror in your paintings that you draw out of paint itself. your paintings seem to have little obvious reference to signs, to past art, or contemporary images, yet i sense some recall of things seen and felt in them. art does not have to make overt reference to a life, or the experiences and circumstances of that life but Freud, Baudrillard and kristeva, amongst others,

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 31

agree that the childhood experiences from which we emerge as adults can resurface in various guises including art making. not least important is the influence of our past experience in determining our choice of those objects and in what manner they might replace the mother—as collection, fetish, or comforter. But what of invented objects?

GlB there is a seduction/repulsion dynamic discussed in the writings of Kristeva. She argues that for a child to separate from the mother he/she has to see her as abject, which in turn renders the maternal body a site of both repulsion and attraction. this primal repression, she argues, can be displaced onto another object, a fetish. With the work, paint is poured, dripped, allowed to scab & wrinkle in layers. Amidst this unruliness, glazes are used to detail, groom and lovingly cherish the resulting object/subject in its state of becoming. the result is a ‘paint personality’ constructed from inherent alchemical accidents. the compulsion to allow these objects to materialize originates from different sources. i suppose the obvious one is biological, that they could be viewed as misfit children, certainly sometimes, when glazing and attending to detail, it feels like a kind of nurturing process or that the objects are being dressed like a doll. And, as mentioned, they also relate to the maternal, there is an intimacy of flesh, (the breast is a theme), to fabric and fur. my own mother had Alzheimer’s disease for the fifteen years before she died. i think perhaps because of this there is not only ‘mourning’ but also madness or a feeling of unraveling in the work. When i found a way to make the paint wrinkle then it became a perfect expression of the aged female and i suppose a channel for an ironic anger at our cultural disgust. the corporeal nature of the paint can develop into a kind of challenge to a viewer in the disgust/attraction, push/pull of the objects. there is also a pantomime/carnival aspect of the monstrous female.

FW the pronk still life paintings that you referred to earlier, i’m thinking particularly those by abraham van Beyeren (1620-1690) and Jan davidsz. de heem (1606-c.1694), are made precarious by their contradictions—they are aesthetically arranged heaps of objects, (Baudrillard doesn’t refer to the heap but does refer to the pile as ‘an inferior stage of collecting and lies midway between oral introjection and anal retention’).8 the contradictions don’t end there: the excess of food and stuff that should tempt the palette and comfort us as viewers threatens instead to tip and spill all over us; what should be laid out for consumption is presented to us as an edifice; what is meant to be consumed is uneaten and in the absence of a consumer, these objects are only feasts for the eyes. so contradiction also produces its own forms of ambiguity. GlB Both those artists, i think, used excess as a kind of baroque madness, there’s an overload or repetition and instability in a formal setting that i think my paintings have. FW could you tell me how you make use of historical sources? do you visit museums and collections of historical art? When we last met you also suggested that you take ideas from set design for opera? it’s possible of course that historical art might be important to you without necessarily being directly referred to or appropriated in your current work. it would be very helpful if you could be quite analytical about the methods you use, whether it feels like a sort of conversation, a memory, or a standard perhaps. GlB i learnt to paint by scrutinizing the paintings in the National gallery, by looking carefully one can work out the order of marks, certain effects, why some marks have life, how light is created etc. etc. When i begin a work i have an idea of why i want to make it, what i want to say, i follow every impulse that keeps me engaged. Each work comes from an experiment, i am wondering what would happen, each time trying something new whether it is with the alchemy of the paint, the marks and textures, the colours. i would go out of my way to see a seventeenth century Dutch or Spanish still life exhibition, i especially love the theatricality of Sanchez Cotán (1560-1627). For the same reason the lighting of set design has been an influence and theatre really feeds me, i like the idea of an alternate reality coming to life, lit in a box like space.

32 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

FW When i visited you there seemed to be no ‘real’ objects in your studio apart from a few things like a kettle and a settee—useful objects. i was surprised, it felt a little like a beautifully lit laboratory. yet there are all manner of invented ‘objects’ in your paintings. these ‘objects’ change from painting to painting, with some recurrent formal themes and effects. do these forms refer at all to objects in the real world, or are they guided only by memory, experience and imagination.

GlB i am lucky to have a strong visual memory and did so much drawing from life in the past that i have a kind of internal library that enables me to understand how to make an object sit in a space. i like the process when the thing comes from nowhere and surprises me. i need to feel like anything could happen. Often the object has to be ‘tamed’, we need to be able to relate to it and to find a ‘way in’. i will reference formal still-life setting or use a recognizable element like lace. Also inspiration constantly comes from the world, whether it is a fashion magazine or seeing the way light falls on a wall. FW are there intended strategies of ambiguity, a blurring of the real and imagined, the abject and the visionary, the conflicting qualities of the fugitive and the physical, the contradiction between the evident mastery of technique and the abjection of the objects invented?

GlB Yes, the ambiguity keeps a painting alive, the object needs to be un-pinned-down-able. And all those spaces in between are interesting. FW is there anything to add here about the two paintings in the exhibition, Fecunditas and Plebjus with their funny yet slightly repellent titles! and, do your painted objects suggest series of works as you proceed?

GlB these works are two of a series that examine the fetishistic nature of painting and the way it mirrors a private world. With this series there are echoes of the ethnographic artifact. i was thinking also of the newly discovered natural worlds depicted in seventeenth century Dutch still life paintings where ultimately the tulip became a commodity fetish. there lurks the ghost of the collector, perhaps bringing to mind continuing contemporary themes of public/private display and the fetishistic gaze of ownership.

Further information on the artist is available at 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Elkins, James 1999 What Painting Is. Oxford: Routledge. Kristeva, Julia 1984 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia university Press. ibid. Baudrillard, Jean, Elsner, John, and Cardinal, Roger, eds. 1997 ‘the System of Collecting’ from Cultures of Collecting. London: Reaktion. ibid. ibid. Kristeva, Julia 1984 Powers of Horror. Baudrillard, Jean 1997 Cultures of Collecting.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 33

CLAuDiA CARR CORRESPONDENCE FW When i first saw photographs of your paintings i was not quite sure what i was looking at, landscape or still life. i felt suspended between these two genres, and to find a footing i had to call upon my own past experience and imaginings of spaces and places, objects and settings, to interpret them. they seemed to exist somewhere in between the two genres, crossing between one and the other as you painted them and as i looked at them.

cc i’m happy you had that experience. i’m interested in hinterlands and no mans lands and the tension in the massive little crevassess between things, between places and also between ideas. A lot of my work plays with ambiguity, and perceptions of scale, so i’m naturally interested in the slippage between all those genres especially between landscape and still life.

FW could you tell me more about the objects that you paint and these liminal ‘landscapes’ that you situate them in?

cc Here’s a list of objects i can see as i look around me in the studio right now: twigs and rocks and bones, dead orange peel, scrumpled paper, strands of moss and green kitchen sponges, a piece of desiccated ginger root, broken coral, plasticine, some string, a tuft of pink roof insulation felt and a dead t-shirt, bits of twisted, rusting metal, some plaster crumbs and spat out chewing gum and drawers labelled ‘yellow bits’, ‘creatures’, ‘large organic objects’, ‘small white grit’, ‘small dark grit’ etc. Objects arrive here from the woods and the seashore, from road intersections or gutters and some come into being in the studio itself …… by-products of my eating and painting and pacing. i don’t consciously make the landscapes. i experience them as ‘found landscapes’. Objects accumulate on various shelves and tabletops in the studio, and their configurations change organically as new things are put down and jostle for space, or dust gathers or things fall, and over time these accumulations ripen and turn into actual environments and situations. in terms of the scale shifts …… painting from observation for long hours is a very visually intimate, and hypnotic, experience and the spaces and forms in front of me quite naturally appear to swell and take on more epic proportions. the inanimate objects seem very animated. garlic skins and fragments of tissue paper are susceptible to the slightest draft or sneeze; dried orange peel continues to twist and contort while i’m painting it; and i also believe that looking itself can bring life into something.

FW since seeing the paintings in your studio i have become even more intrigued by how they draw me in only to then obstruct and divert my viewing. Why is this i wonder? most of the paintings i saw on that occasion were small, so that unsettling experience was one that was repeated as i moved from one painting to the next. so maybe it would be useful to think of this conversation as having some similarities to those spaces, that is, conversation as something that we might pass through with the expectation of encountering similar sorts of invitations, obstructions and diversions. What do you think?

cc Yes, i like it that the act of looking at a painting can be ‘a conversation’, a dialogue, a reciprocal experience. unlike other art forms (music, films, books etc) that require a commitment from their audience in terms of time, a painting can be ‘seen’ and walked past in a nanosecond. So, as a painter

34 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

claudia carr Darshan, 2015, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 31 cm

claudia carr Drift, 2015, oil on canvas, 57 x 31 cm

it’s very exciting when a viewer is prepared to really immerse themselves in the experience of looking; to enter into ‘a conversation’ with the painting.

FW these three paintings that we have selected for the exhibition, i find them very moving, especially as a series (though i’m not sure they were intended to be). looking at them as images on my laptop, i am once again made aware that my eyes, and my attention, are pulled into a space, onto an object, only to be thrown back to something else—a piece of coral for example—in the foreground. here they might briefly remain, restless, before being caught up by something else, perhaps a reflection or a shadow behind an object that i hadn’t seen before, so i am both surprised and disappointed at my own inattention. this visual sensation of being pulled in and thrown back seems to happen in relation to these particular paintings because i have no horizon or vanishing point to escape to. Because you withhold this escape route my sense of space and place is slightly disorientated. instead i am thrown between the whites of disintegrating paper, the gleam on a surface, or the tendrils of dehydrated seaweed. i feel like i’m being caught up in a sort of visual drift, it feels like floating, not landing or delving. like i said earlier, i’m not sure whether i should be searching for small objects or massive ones, real, transformed or dreamt ones. i’m getting caught up in a drama without a narrative. i’m not sure whether a scrap of tissue is behaving as a tarpaulin might in a sand storm, or whether i’m looking at tissue that has found itself blown by human breath into an overlooked corner of the studio. or something/somewhere in-between, or both? What your paintings manage to do is to make me suspend my disbelief, which is remarkable given that all the objects are so keenly observed.

cc Referring again to the paintings inviting you in ‘only to obstruct and divert your viewing’ you asked, Why is this i wonder? …… By ‘this’ do you mean you are wondering, Why do YOu FEEL that? or, Why do tHE PAiNtiNgS DO that?. FW so my wondering, that you asked me to explain, was to do with why i was responding like this and whether you paint with the intention of making me (and others) feel like this. cc i’m definitely not painting with the intention of making anyone feel any particular thing. the only thing i would like, regarding people’s responses, is for them to experience an ambiguity of scale in the paintings, to have to ask, is it a tiny bit of grit or a giant boulder? or to prompt the question, Where am i? …… and then, rather than feeling the need to answer those questions with a particular definition or place name, to allow their experience of the painting to be a more open ended journey. the viewer’s reactions (feeling unsettled, liberated, frightened, ecstatic or anything else) doesn’t feel like my responsibility and certainly isn’t a concern when i’m making or planning a painting. You talked about being ‘caught up in a drama without a narrative’. i want the viewer to be able to inhabit the painting. i’d like them to be able to journey through it as a tourist, a local, or even a protagonist. For me the viewer’s imaginal or sensuous presence in the painting is an important component of the image itself. i like what you said about not immediately knowing what kind of space you were looking at when you first saw the paintings, and needing to recall back into your own imagination and memory bank to interpret them, to get a footing, but i don’t feel there is anything to interpret. Hopefully the paintings are more like sponges than blackboards. i want them to absorb the viewer’s own narratives and imaginings rather than the painting telling anyone what to think or feel or understand. i love the idea that different people might overlay completely different narratives on the same painting. You said you feel able to suspend your disbelief when you look

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 37

at them. that makes me happy. i’m always hoping the viewer will feel able to meet the work head on, leaving behind, or at least questioning, any expectations or assumptions they might bring to them, and have what you so nicely referred to as a ‘visual adventure’. When confronted with an abstract painting i think it is easier for the viewer to feel able to have an immediate and sensuous experience of it. it’s as if we’re given permission to stop looking for meaning and to simply respond to the surface, and all its seductive formal qualities. But when we look at a representational painting that kind of response can sometimes feel less unavailable to us because of all the literal work of ‘interpretation’ that a representational image inherently demands of us.

FW Would you like to elaborate on what you mean by ‘formal’? cc ‘Formal’, for me, means the optical activity and tensions generated through specific colour juxtapositions, compositional dynamics, spatial games, rhythmic concerns, handling of the surface itself etc., ideas around the manipulation of colour, space and rhythm, on a flat surface, within the confines of a rectangle, or square etc. the word ‘formal’ can have a dry ring to it, or feel like something exclusive to modernist abstract painting , but as far as i’m concerned its the beautiful juicy nub of what all good painting, figurative or abstract, is about. it is the formal qualities that draw the viewer into a sensuous relationship with the painting and i believe that without that, the emotional or intellectual responses we have to a representational image would have far less depth or resonance. in a painting like my E’s Rocks and Blue it was about constantly re-tuning the grey/brown/ blue relationships until the colours started to engage each other optically, altering each other’s chromatic identities. it’s these kinds of magical transformations that excite me about painting. A grey being electrified into a state of ‘orangeness’ by its neighbouring blue is pure alchemy, isn’t it?! Even (especially) in my ‘greyer’ paintings this kind of optical activity is a major concern. Within a narrower chromatic range the interaction between warm and cool, light and dark can become even more tense. But whilst these colour narratives are being played out its also important for me that the ‘enterinto-able’ space of the painting and its emotional atmosphere, still have conviction. As a figurative painter i’m playing with this tipping point between the formal activity and the image itself (the three dimensional illusion). i like what James turrell, the artist, says about needing ‘the quality of the illusion to be both convincing and dissoluble’.

FW i like the obstructions in these three paintings, they exercise my imagination, they make me curious as to what might lie behind or at an imagined point in the distance. adam philips writes in his chapter ‘looking at obstacles’ in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: ‘it is impossible to imagine desire without obstacles, and wherever we find something to be an obstacle we are at the same time desiring of it’.1 cc i’m finding it hard to think objectively about the painting now …… to disentangle the viewer’s experience of it from the painting itself or from my intentions! FW i’m aware that in this conversation i am asking you to take account of my responses whilst formulating your own. this is intentional and an alternative method to the recorded interview in which an interviewer prompts or challenges an artist without fully acknowledging their own responses. i am interested in conversation as method, that is, about coming to a new understanding of something through ‘corespondence’. i also understand that this requires the artist to reach out to a viewer/respondent in a way that they wouldn’t normally do in the course of painting.

38 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

cc i find your delving into yourself and sharing what you find by way of responses to the paintings lovely (and generous), and is certainly insightful for me. Sometimes the conversation between the viewer and a painting operates on a very unconscious level. there seems to be an inexplicable connection between a viewer’s emotional or psychological responses to a painting and the artist’s own unconscious input while making it … … a kind of intimate communication that goes on between two separate psyches unbeknownst to their owners’ conscious minds. it’s a mystifying phenomenon. A lot of images, sensations, memories etc. come up for me when i’m staring at an object for a long time, and i get odd glimpses of them, but mostly they jostle about just under the surface of my consciousness and i think they are probably more redolent, and motivating, for me that way. in terms of the atmosphere of the image, they are possibly the fuel that drives the painting. Staring at the same thing for hours, weeks and sometimes months on end is very trippy experience and your imagination often takes you a million miles from what you are looking at. Paradoxically, painting directly from observation takes me further and further away from the concrete ‘reality’ in front of me, the very one i am so obsessively scrutinizing and painting all day! truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

FW For many artists the ways in which their objects are discovered, made or processed prior to being painted is crucial to their interpretation. you are generous to your objects, you allow them time to become themselves, sometimes years. cc Yes, that’s a nice way of putting it. it’s very rare that i could bring something into the studio and paint it straight away. generally things seem to need to hang around for a few years before they become suggestive to me. ‘Practically none of the perishable objects that have occupied my studio (as models) have ever rotted. they dry out, contort, shrink or turn to dust, but it takes a long time. i’ve got a croissant from about fifteen years ago. it is rock hard but still bleeds a little oily stain onto whatever surface it sits on. things seem to die very slowly and un-traumatically in the studio, so even when the soggy brown husk of a fennel bulb seemed to mark the end of its life, a sudden spurt of sappy green growth rose out of the heart of it and continued to grow, right in front of me. i’m interested in the relationship between the observed object and its observer (the gaze). i’m convinced that objects sense and respond to being looked at (especially the kind of intense looking that happens over long periods of painting something).’2 it’s hard to talk about my relationship with the objects and assemblages in the studio because it isn’t a fully conscious one, but it has always been going on …… as a child rooting around in the woods, making dens, collecting owl pellets, filling empty matchboxes with mice skulls or making camps for toy creatures in the tops of cupboards etc. it’s something quite deep-rooted. Artists are lucky to have a job that allows them to keep playing out that childhood desire to create their own worlds.

Further information on the artist is available at 1

Philips Adam 1993 On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber and Faber. p 87.


Claudia Carr: The Butterfly Counts not Months but Moments, interview, traction magazine, Jessica Carlisle, London. September 2014

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 39

CLARE CHAPmAN CORRESPONDENCE FW From what i understand from our previous conversations, your paintings are revelations rather than observations? yet you still refer to them as still lifes. so i think this might be a useful point of tension from which to open our conversation here. indescribability and ambiguity seem to be at the heart of your practice, each of your paintings a form of iteration, a recurrent teasing out of a thing, a thing that is as elusive as it is suffusive. in recent years you have brought this thing within the bounds of gravity, made it sit on, or hover above, a surface that is apparently within arm’s reach. yet this surface and the space it occupies are as ambiguous as the thing itself. For the viewer, and you too perhaps, this thing is a not a thing, it is a nothing, or rather, nothing to which a name can be put. yet, i have seen people stand in front of your paintings, being pulled towards this thing, trying to make sense of it by bringing their own associations to it, being seduced by it, and the skill in the painting of it. cc i think that is a pretty accurate observation. this 'thing' i paint is what it is, it is no more or less than what you can see. i'm not really interested in finding some shape or identity to what i paint that could be descriptive or reference anything specific in the world. i'm more concerned in creating a form whose surface is constructed out of oppositional forces. that is, at once contained and un-contained, intact and torn, full and cavernous. the boundaries of this thing are also important, its edges that separate it from the space in which it sits are what form it and give it its weight and the illusion of being an object of some sort. Without this illusory aspect it would feel too mysterious and abstract. FW What you say about boundaries and surfaces is very interesting particularly when seen in the context of the chronology of paintings presented on your website. i have noticed that they seem to be opening up again! you write: ‘this 'thing' i paint is what it is, it is no more or less than what you can see’. this intrigues me as it would seem to exist not just in the painting but also in large part in your imagination, and as such an extension of yourself – in between you and the world, or always with you in the world. so though you are its interpreter in painting, i am suggesting that this is not the only site that it exists after you have brought it to life each time. this leads me to wonder whether you think of this thing as an object or a subject, whether it is done to, or whether it a thing with which you are in a dialogue. it certainly seems demanding of you. i wonder whether you think of yourself straightforwardly as its creator, or, whether you sometimes feel threatened or surprised by it, or any number of other feelings towards it? do you project yourself on to it, or it onto you? is it possible to discuss these ideas further? cc Well, i do not imagine it, it happens and is formed as i work, nothing is pre-determined, and it may change form and shape with every layer of paint, until it feels right. i can't imagine a painting i have not yet painted. So it does not really have a life anywhere else, but of course it is coming from me. i have to feel some resonance with its form and tensions, it has to mean something, it has to contain affect. the depiction of this form and surface i paint is really compulsive, and this compulsive nature reveals its source in many ways. it is both object and subject, and i expect if this was a diagram there should be arrows linking both, going back and forth between the two. So yes, it really is a dialogue. things happen in the process of painting that are unexpected to a degree, i might project a form or shape into an accidental mark, or exaggerate or repeat it, which brings about a new direction. Despite a seemingly repetitive imagery, there have to be surprises in the process

40 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

clare chapman Bound / Unbound #3, 2015, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

clare chapman Mammal, 2012, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 cm

of making each painting, if this didn't happen it really would feel like a dead meaningless thing, it would feel quite pointless. i'm not sure that i have ever felt threatened though, that seems to imply too greater separation from me making the marks, to give the paintings too much autonomy. Rather the process of painting them is all about a kind of control and containment of what looks as though it could potentially unravel and become formless. they're all about managing what might become threatening perhaps. FW so it’s a completely material event, but you seem to lead it on, encourage it, challenge it … and if that’s the case, what are you doing that in relation to? do you rely on intuition and experience to reveal its potential? or are you also conscious of making references - to filmic or theatrical special effects, weather patterns, dermatology or other surfaces and effects? or music, as you’ve suggested previously? cc i do certainly lead it on, it doesn’t just happen! i think the decisions that i make as i paint are intuitive, and not always that conscious, but i am always thinking about it, trying to get it to feel believable, that it should sit properly in the space, that it’s heavy or light where it should be, that these edges feel real, that it has life to it. it’s a feeling; i know when things are working and when they are not. And i suppose the mood or energy in these marks can often be affected by the music i am listening to. But rather, i think listening to music enables me to concentrate and be more completely involved in what i am doing, to shut out the din of the world around me, and my own thoughts that are going elsewhere. i’m not referencing anything directly in my work, but of course i’m looking at all sorts of other things. i know you mentioned goya and Chardin as i have spoken to you previously about some paintings i made that were inspired by particular works, but i don’t think in the end that would be apparent from the paintings i make, it’s really just a starting point, and then they become their own thing. On a few occasions the colours, light or composition of another painting, or a photo, may be more directly referenced at the start of a painting, but then the paintings always seem to take their own course. in the end, i’m sure all this stuff gets in somehow, they don’t exist in a bubble. my visual language can only have come from what i have seen and experienced, so all sorts of references are there, and inform the sorts of forms i am depicting, but i think there is an intentional disguise and unravelling if it begins to feel too descriptive. FW you have written elsewhere about the aesthetics of this thing you paint. Bearing in mind that it never retains its shape from painting to painting, could you give me some idea of what is beautiful about it and what is ugly, and whether you are consciously playing with these attributes when you are painting it. viewers are both attracted and repulsed by its transformations, which are also features associated with the fetish object. cc i suppose i want the paintings to feel attractive rather than beautiful, or rather that they have a sort of difficult beauty to them. the surface should draw you in and be seductive in its softness and roundness, but then there is always a fracture in this and moments where it all comes apart. there feels like there might be something else going on under the surface. But it’s not ‘ugly’, it’s more an opposing force. i want these darker, redder, more gestural marks that break the surface up to feel like the stuff that is beneath, to feel more chaotic and un-controlled. the red of course has all sorts of visceral, more meaty connotations, and these soft swollen areas of the form can appear as if a skin stretched over this matter. Something lumpen. But these states have a sort of beauty and attraction to them also. to think of this form i paint as a fetish object, feels too libidinous an interpretation. But they are both tender and hostile, they sit on the cusp. Aesthetically they are ambivalent objects/surfaces.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 43

FW i know that you read widely. are there writers who have informed your painting in the past, and are there particular writers whose ideas you are interested in at the moment? cc When i was at college i was very interested in the notion of a female language, of an embodied subjectivity, of this site of in-betweenness, but i think it just made sense in terms of what i was painting. i feel like i have always been interested in what i’m interested in, often from an emotional rather than an intellectual level. So, that i read what i am interested in and paint what i am interested in, there is a crossover, and perhaps things do seep into the work, but not consciously. i don’t think i could work like that. Currently i’m really enjoying reading psychoanalytic theory, and i have read lots that has made me think about my paintings not exactly differently, but with greater clarity. there is a lot there that resonates with what i’m doing, but how much that might inform how they develop, i’ll have to see. FW in your earlier work it seems like you were painting to create resemblances, though not descriptions, as if objects were caught in steam or clouds, making them indistinct, or in ‘waxiness’, ‘fattiness’ or ‘pussiness’, which renders them formless. cc this is because they didn’t sit on a surface like they do now. i was very concerned that they should be ‘abstract’ paintings. Which in some ways i think they still are, but i’m happy for them to feel more illusory and like real things now. it feels like the more ‘real’ something becomes the more explanations you have to give, and the more awkward the paintings are, and perhaps i am. But i do really like this awkwardness, they are frustrating in many ways, in the difficulty in naming what this thing is. FW your painting always seems to be in a state of momentum, with this thing morphing from one state to the next, sometimes almost imperceptibly and at other times quite dynamically, such as now, with these brush marks becoming quite agitated. cc good! i often make sure i can’t see any of my other paintings in the studio while i work, as i don’t want to be looking at what works in them as i’m doing a new painting. Each painting needs to do something new, or go somewhere else. Sometimes those changes may seem imperceptible to others. Other times things can move on much faster. Which i guess is often down to just getting to the studio more, or just being that much more focused, and also other influences coming in at the right time. FW When we talked last time you told me that you were using different brushes and ‘drawing with the paint more’ and that you were currently doing some watercolours and that you were enjoying making them lusher and juicier. i see that you are also reducing your palette further to work at the liminal boundaries between red and pink. cc i really enjoy doing the watercolours, there has to be much more decision in the marks you make, whereas with oils i can completely re-work things over and over again. With watercolour, to a great extent, you have to work with what happens much more spontaneously, and it’s a whole other language. it’s very easy to get comfortable with what you know, and i think working with a medium that forces me to work differently has brought something to my oil painting also. i’ve worked in watercolour on and off since college, but it’s only in the last few months that i’ve gotten really engrossed in it. i’ve just been doing very small ones at a desk, so there’s lots more to explore there. i’ve always used pinks and reds a lot but they are definitely getting riper in these current paintings including those in the exhibition. there are lots of colours in there, but they seem inevitably to arrive at pink. its sweet and sickly, and all these horrible and lovely things.

44 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

FW you told me that you were reading Freud’s essay ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’ and how you liked the way he goes back to the very beginning with ‘amoebae and the crust and the soaking through’. cc Well, Freud uses the analogy of an amoeba type life form in his laying out of the topography of the psyche, ‘a living organism in its most simplified possible form as an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation’.1 He uses this picture to describe the forces of internal and external stimuli, and how consciousness is formed out of these, the crust being the protective shield, and the notion of free flowing and bound, quiescent, energy. All these things feel like they resonate to an extent with my paintings, the sense of an oppositional energy, that which is contained and what is not, and what is coming from within and from without. there is so much in that essay that is brilliant on lots of different levels. i love Freud’s biological language of germ cells and protozoa, all writhing around with their instincts driving them in different directions: malignant neoplasms which destroy the organism and so forth. And although perhaps it sounds a bit extreme, there is a sort of life and death drive going on in my paintings, in that there is a force at work that is pushing this form to disintegration, and then the force that is holding it all together, that maintains its edges, that prevents a complete implosion. FW in the ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’ Freud also talks about repetition, pleasure and unpleasure, ‘the compulsion to repeat must be ascribed to the unconscious repressed’.2 i wonder whether you think of repetition as a mode of play, a place where you can draw out pleasure from unpleasure, as a way to realize metamorphosis and transformation though with no end point in mind? cc there does seem to be a compulsion to repeat in my paintings. i don’t think about it, it’s not intentional, so it must be of a compulsive tendency. they are, in the end, paintings that are very controlled, and as i have said there is constant preoccupation with containing this thing and finding its form, it’s never allowed to really become completely formless. So my approach is one of attempting mastery to an extent—of binding. Whether this thing is a return of something repressed, and the painting of it an abreaction, possibly. its slow transformation certainly seems to have no end point! FW you suggested that the paintings were becoming more explicit just now. are they more explicitly battling out the conflict and contradictions in which they are embroiled. cc Well i think they are becoming more explicit to an extent, in their tone, their form and their contrasts. And it feels a bit of an inner battle, because my impulse is always to hide things, and to keep things ambiguous. But i think it would be interesting if i could push things further, to be more explicit, and not worry about whether they are successful, or not, in the process. it would be nice to have the freedom to really loosen control a bit more and let it all unravel, just for a while…

Further information on the artist is available at 1 2

Freud, Sigmund 1984 ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. London: Penguin. ibid.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 45

DAViD gOuLD CORRESPONDENCE FW over time you have built up an unusual collection of boots and shoes which, having been discarded or lost at sea, were preserved and eventually washed up on the beaches of south Wales, blackened, folded and rigid. you showed them to me, with the light from the window illuminating them, and it was clear that you were captivated, whether by the objects themselves or their potential for paintings, i’m still not sure. the hides from which these boots and shoes originated seemed to have reasserted their form, or rather their formlessness. the boots and shoes, meanwhile, had lost their identity as useful or fashionable objects becoming abject, mysterious and poetic in the process. i am interested to know why this transformation is not sufficient for you. What can a still life painting bring to objects that are already so suggestive in their own right? dG the written piece which you have sent me is full of insights although the components of the boots are flexible more than rigid. After detaching from their proper position on the boot, the uppers sometimes metamorphose into new and unexpected forms. You have expressed well the change from practical to ‘abject’, ‘mysterious’, ‘poetic’ and so on. As to your closing question, i often wonder whether a painted interpretation of the world can ever live up to the rich presence of the original subject, whatever it is. What i suppose i try to bring to the story is perhaps the expansion of scale and the celebration of the encounter between the boots and changing light, and the subtleties of colour that this reveals. they become like small tableaux, isolated in their little boxes and lit from the side. i continue to be captivated by the boots themselves of course. i also paint because, like many painters, i like to paint, and so seek subjects and methods which i hope will prove fertile opportunities for the processes of painting to alight on. FW it was only when i got your reply that i realized i hadn’t touched the boots and shoes— which is strange given that i used to make things. this was probably because they seemed to be very much yours and not mine, whereas the paintings are for sharing. i went to see ingrid murphy’s exhibit at the sensorial objects show at craft in the Bay recently. When you pinged a cup with your finger it sent digital messages to ceramic ear trumpets by means of connected mechanisms linked to small objects that caused them to reverberate (or respond). having realized that i should have touched as well as looked, i wonder now whether i should have pinged a boot, or shoe, when i was in your studio. had i done so i would have known even better how flexible or rigid they were. this also reminds me how much information a painter has to leave out when painting objects if they are not to become slavish descriptions. could you tell me some more about how you approached the painting of these boots and shoe: through restricted palette, the confinement of space, directional light and the synthesis of encounters? it’s not all conscious though is it? dG Please feel free to touch the boots next time you are in the studio. As to your question, i think that selection—by which i mean leaving out—arises as much from practical procedures as from a wilful policy decision. that is, both the restricted palette, as you say, and the physical manipulation of layers of thin oil paint applied with old, stiff, worn down brushes to particular kinds of surface. But i do also like to keep the eye moving across the image, to celebrate more the overall energy and character of the boot than an inventory of its details.

46 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

david Gould Second boot, 2011, oil on paper, 77.5 x 50 cm

david Gould Third boot, 2012, oil on paper, 81 x 54.5 cm

FW i’d like to delve a little further now into the idea behind painting a boot, and the painted boot as an idea. the boots and shoes that you have been painting are no longer the functioning footwear that they once were having lost much of their previous structure and appearance as well as the many characteristics normally associated with them. they are no longer useful objects. But in the paintings there is another loss, they have also ceased to be what they are because they have become representations. this interpreted thing that they have become through representation is made more so by your particular interest in, and response to, their collapse. it is this interest in their collapse that brings forth the painterly language with which you evoke that aspect of them. i think that all this makes them ambiguous images. it is as though the boots in the paintings are no longer sure of what they are, and neither is the viewer. i’ve sent you an extract from heidegger’s lecture ‘the origin of the Work of art’ in which he categorizes the following things: elements, equipment (useful things) and works of art.1 in the section that i have sent you heidegger writes specifically about boots as equipment, though he rather seems to forget van Gogh’s painting of them along the way. i think you might find heidegger’s struggle with the idea that one thing, a work of art, can reveal more about another thing (in this case, the boots) than the thing can do for itself, particularly pertinent to your own interpretations of the boots. incidentally several important writers have waded into this piece of writing. dG i had not read this well written piece by Heidegger before, with comments that are relevant to my study of boots. i guess that there are three stages of transformation from the original boots, which once functioned very well as equipment (in Heidegger’s terms), to the no longer useful ruined carcasses of boots which i collect and depict, to the paintings which refer closely to the latter, but which also suggest possible metaphors—if not always intentional—of landscapes, corpses and so on, and their references to art history such as the works of art which we have discussed before, and which also embody my painting habits and practices. i wonder whether you might see more ambiguity in them than i do if ambiguity implies uncertainty of identity, is it this or that? my works are perhaps unambiguously both paintings and images of old boots. the processes of aestheticizing separates the boots from their original functional world and relocates them to my own ‘cabinet of curiosities’ world of other mysterious, intriguing and paintable things which i have collected. the boots which van gogh painted were by contrast still fully functional to be put on again the next day. No cabinet of curiosities for him. FW yes, maybe i do see more ambiguity, but it is not just in their forms, it is also this uneasy boundary between descriptive and evocative painting that i find interesting. it’s difficult to comprehend that by painting these boots and shoes up to three times their actual size that you present the viewer with any significant additional information than if you had painted them life size. the surfaces, though particular to each boot, are fairly homogenous and not particularly textured. But in enlarging them you have already transformed them, made them strange, taken them into a different realm in which to perform in other ways than those for which they were originally intended. in Second Boot especially, the paint strokes seem to be slightly suspended over the surface of the paper giving it the appearance of being slightly dematerialized. Third Boot on the other hand seems to be consumed by the shadows within itself. dG the derelict boots which i depict are indeed strange, though paradoxically very familiar in the way that one’s own well-worn shoes and so on can be, and the paintings seem to me to succeed when they convey that strangeness and familiarity quite forcefully. Perhaps this is the uneasy boundary between descriptive and evocative painting that you are referring to. it has just occurred to me that there is also an ambiguity between life and death, in so far as the

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 49

paintings depict the corpses of boots, but also ‘bring them back to life’ in a new way, especially in strong light, as ruins often do. these boots are themselves ruins. it seems to me that they are sometimes quite animated, and the cycle of life and death is a significant theme in my work. FW taking these two paintings of boots, one is closed, folded, collapsed and one is open, gaping, floating—yes, corpse-like. i understand second Boot as being submissive and tired, Third Boot as agitated and lively. these boots are no longer clearly what they were, no longer in a relation with another boot or another purpose, so they intrigue me as to what they have now become in your painting? and the space in which they are situated gives me no clue. how am i to understand these paintings if not in terms of something else? Second Boot reminds me of a discarded escorce, a flayed skin, and third boot for me is something like a gaping scream? this means that i understand them metaphorically. But i am not sure whether you want them to be understood as boots or bodies, or lives, or all of these. dG As to your questions, i don’t feel as though the metaphors are programmed into the processes of painting and interpretation. they are unanticipated and seem to become evident (though not always) when the painting process is complete, or nearly so. As i have said before, i am happy if the paintings prompt you, and others, to make your own associations with corpses, people, or whatever. FW you talk about your painting in terms of describing your observations over time but this describing in paint has a surplus. First of all, as has become clear through our conversation, a painting of a boot is itself surplus to the boot itself. But there is another surplus in your painting of a boot that is, as you suggest, something more than you yourself can see in your own painted response. this for me is the point where the painting of the boot starts to become ambiguous, that is, it’s neither quite one depictive process or another because what you understand as happening in the process of description, i subsequently see as suggestive of things other than your boot (metaphor) and as poetic responses to its predicament as dead object (projected narratives) as well. so, something is escaping here, and this makes them unclear—and interesting to me. can you explain how you go about painting these boots, and/or maybe these two in particular, Was there a procedure and did you adapt it for each one. dG As to your last question—yes, i do adapt a familiar procedure for each painting, one that is as simple and direct as possible. i think that i was still working this out in the two quite early paintings that you have chosen for the exhibition. this is why they might be more successful than some of the more recent ones, where the painting procedures have become more practiced and habitual. However, i want each new boot to be a challenge, even an adventure, to paint because it is so unknown in its decayed condition. FW We seem to disagree on this, but i see only a tiny cast shadow as attached to the hide of Third Boot. this tenuous shadow serves to give the impression of the boot as already lost, or, in the process of becoming detached, in space. and what about viewpoint? does your manner of working have some influence on the presence and absence of shadows and the viewpoint? and does this painting procedure accord with what you see on the boot or what you see in it? painting here seems to be a chance to rescue things that have come to exist in a kind of limbo, barely a recognizable object any more, almost a non-object. the boot as relic, for all that it still responds slightly to heat and atmospheric changes, exists as a liminal object. it operates in an inbetween state between ‘equipment’ and dust. so it appears that it is in this state that it presents you with possibilities for painting in ways that a good functioning boot would not. When you situate it in its cardboard ‘stage’ it offers you a sort of playground from which to experiment.

50 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

dG Painting the boots does indeed rescue such objects from oblivion, and as long as the painting survives, makes them in a way immortal, as still life painting has always done. As to my approach, i have made the procedures as simple as i can. i place each boot at eye level in a simple wedge-shaped open box which allows sunlight to play across it, and i paint them down onto a horizontal surface, using oil paint on tinted sized paper—a medium which i enjoy very much. i work with a very limited colour range: one cool red, one warm yellow, Payne’s grey, and white, plus occasionally blue black, and i mix extensively, trying to keep up with changing patterns of light and shadow. i apply the paint thinly, mostly with old worn brushes, to energize the marks, which is the main reason for the enlarged scale. they would be too inhibited in a small format. the scale also gives the image a more monumental, compelling presence, and i think works well with the eye level viewpoint. i often work on several paintings at once, and they proceed quite slowly. i have enjoyed painting these, and the ‘playground’ in which i experiment is an apt metaphor.

Further information on the artist is available at 1

Heidegger, martin 2008 ‘the Origin of the Work of Art’ in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. London: Harper Perennial modern thought. pp.158-162.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 51

JONNY gREEN CORRESPONDENCE FW shall we begin by talking about the subjects and objects of your painting. during the conversation we had in your studio you surprised me by showing me several miniature objects that you had fabricated out of everyday materials. When these were painted they assumed a monumentality and depth of feeling not present in their original state. could you explain how and why this transformation between object and subject occurs? that is, how a form of cobbling together can be transformed through painting to elicit strong sympathetic or empathetic responses in both you and the viewer. JG i think the transformation you mention is wrapped up in the process of making a painting in this manner. it takes time, they are quite labour intensive so the very act of sitting there day after day cogitating on complex sets of formal problems can have the effect of elevating the subject. i also tend to find this odd empathy emerging between myself and the sculptures as i sit with them. A relationship of sorts develops and i often feel the need to tell their 'story'. they are so clearly flawed and abject, and i have a drive to make their voices heard and to validate them in this way. As far as the responses a viewer might have to my paintings is concerned, that's something i try to step aside from. i don't try to push any of those buttons or use any of the type of devices that might elicit specific responses from the viewer. i think that has something to do with a need for authenticity in my work (at least as i define authenticity for myself), so to consciously try to manipulate the viewer in that way would feel like i was doing a disservice to my subjects. FW When i visited you in your studio you showed me the paintings Fracaso and Tipping Point, as well as some other small paintings of constructed objects. in each case i was confronted with an unidentifiable, but suggestive thing. you spoke of a human quality to them that was informed by awareness of people’s predicament in society these days, exclusion and lack of opportunity. have i remembered this correctly? JG Yes, to a point. i’m not sure i think about it in such a direct way, by which i mean i’m not thinking about social issues when i’m painting, i just think that as a left-leaning empathetic person, those kinds of associations inevitably arise. FW does the process of anthropomorphism happen during the construction of the objects or during painting, or both? at a distance, certain painted marks speak of the discarded materials from which they were made, plumbers tape and plasticine for example, so whilst they evoke something of the human, their abject origins are also left exposed. i’m interested to know more about this anthropomorphism and how you think it gives rise to ambiguity in your painting. JG the sculptures are made with a real sense of abandon. it’s very free, almost stream-ofconsciousness, i’m able to allow myself that kind of carefree attitude because i simply have no emotional or historical investment in sculpture as a craft. i don’t see the objects themselves as being art; they have an otherness about them. i might make a dozen objects in any one sitting and perhaps only one of them has any kind of resonance for me and manages to catch my attention. in answer to your question i think that this little glimmer of interest is possibly the beginning of the anthropomorphisation. i recognize something of myself in them that gives me pause and suggests that i might be able to find a painting within it. After that, the very longwinded process of photographing, then painting, brings me closer and closer to my subject and this sense of the Human keeps increasing. FW What are you intending when, in the course of your painting, you enable these constructions to cross over from being objects to subjects – that is from being just ‘stuff’ to exerting some power over you? Would you agree that their power to affect comes from your interpretation of them in painting?

52 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

Jonny Green Babel, 2013, oil on canvas on board, 144 x 122 cm

Jonny Green Fracaso, 2014, oil on canvas on board, 122 x 88 cm

What are they suggesting to you, and what do you find yourself sympathizing or empathizing with? What becomes different about them when they are painted? your painting of them made me want to find a subject, but as soon as one suggested itself, it soon collapsed because i was constantly reminded of its abject construction. this makes them sort of vulnerable and makes me sympathetic towards them. JG these are difficult questions to answer. i think that i try to not ‘intend’ too much for them. i think as human beings we are always looking for faces in everything, the need to self-recognize perhaps makes the world less frightening: clouds, tree stumps, vegetables …… you name it, we have the capacity to anthropomorphize it. Each character is different. i do sometimes find myself unconsciously pushing certain aspects of their physiognomy, a recent small one called Bottom Feeder for instance was this little malelooking character wrapped in shiny black tape. the tape is reminiscent of latex, and he began to look like he was dressed for some kind of bondage activity. i then deliberately stuck a plastic tube into his ‘mouth’, which suggested some kind of auto-asphyxiation element, and the sculpture immediately became vividly alive to me (as well as deeply sad). that kind of intervention happens with them now and again, it’s like finding a missing part of the puzzle to complete a character. Hopefully when i paint i’m able to more fully articulate whatever it was that first caught my attention. it’s such an ephemeral thing usually, like something caught in my peripheral vision. i can never quite pin down what it was that made me pay attention to any particular object. i think that the way they are painted, by which i mean my matter-of-fact technical approach, helps in someway for me to understand what is interesting about any particular object. it’s a non-emotional process when i’m sat at my easel, which gives me a reassurance that i’m not being fanciful or romanticizing my subjects. i’m an admirer of Velasquez for exactly that reason. His economy and his objectivity, that’s what gives his empathy such credibility. FW there seems to be an issue to do with genres emerging here. the depiction of objects is generally referred to as still life and when subjects are depicted this is most often referred to as portraiture. am i right in saying that your paintings hover somewhere between these two genres, perhaps nearer still life but nevertheless a sort of hybrid? do your paintings represent remembered human subjects, or do they represent an amalgam of material objects that suggest rather than remember human types? JG Some of them appear more like portraits than others, and that’s an interesting point actually. Since we spoke about it, it occurred to me that they often start as archetypes but end up more specific in my mind. they seem to inevitably assert their individuality over time, whether i like it or not. FW this suggests an identification process going on as you first make, and then paint, them. JG they live in this odd hinterland, not quite still life and not quite portrait. i’m reading a book Pinocchio, Puppets, and Modernity: The Mechanical Body (2011) by Katia Pizzi that talks about the marionette as ‘a figure characterized by a 'fluid identity’, informed with transition, difference, joie de vivre, otherness, displacement, and metamorphosis’ and that makes a lot of sense to me regarding my own practice.1 FW are there historical still life paintings that you use, quote, refer to, appropriate in any way? if not still life, maybe others? are you able to reflect on how you do this and how it contributes to your painting practice? JG Chardin (1699-1779) is a huge figure for me, but i think that has more to do with his engagement with the medium of paint than the fact that he is a still-life painter. He has this ability to find painted equivalents for objects and surfaces that is astonishing. the notion of an ‘arena’ within still-life painting interests me greatly too: a non-specific place/stage where anything can occur. i’ve looked a lot at photographers like Jeff Wall, whose

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 55

practice has parallels to someone like Poussin for instance, in that they have both constructed an artificial environment for their image making. it’s still-life using humans. my student paintings were still-lifes that were full of quotes from other artists, specifically Chardin and Walt Disney. i don’t see myself straying into such overt territory again, it seems a little too easy to go down that path and play those games with the viewer. FW i had never thought of poussin’s paintings and Wall’s photographs as ‘still life using humans’, but you’re right, they are, and also because time stands still in their arenas – allegorical time, or the ennui of suburban daytime. i’ve always thought of Wall’s The Destroyed Room (1978) as a still life, a post tipping point sort of composition, an arranged collapse. there’s arguably a detachment in poussin and Wall though. that’s not something i pick up in your paintings. is this something to do with the physical and emotional distance they set up between themselves and their subjects do you think? and by the same token, does the still life’s closeness offer up the opportunity to empathize in ways that poussin and Wall’s images do not – but that chardin’s still lifes do? JG i agree with you about both Wall and Poussin, there is an emotional distance, a coolness about the work of each of them that’s certainly lacking in my work. i think that comes down to the fundamental approach of each artist. the creative engine for each of them seems to me to be an intellectual one, clear ideas precisely executed. For me it’s a little different. i feel more like i’m chasing something less knowable, it’s more like a process of excavation and my ideas seem to crystallize through the process of making. FW could you explain how ambiguity seems to be reinforced at different levels of your painting? that is, if your paintings hover somewhere in-between still life and portraiture, is this ambiguity reinforced by the way in which you paint, inbetween painterly and photographic representation? JG i see my style of rendering as being ‘documentary’. i have a complete ambivalence towards photorealism, it’s not something that really interests me. i try to avoid being overly fussy, don’t use those super-small brushes or feel obliged to paint every detail. i just do what i think is necessary to convince the eye that it’s looking at something that has a life and that is valid and concrete. Once again, that’s all tied up with my urge to do justice to a subject that appears flawed or pathetic and easy to overlook. i’m aware that there is something ridiculous about the notion of me trying to assert human rights for a lump of dirty old plasticine, but as you picked up on when you visited my studio, everything i’m doing here has a background hum of politics. it’s not overt by any means, but i do feel like my politics are implied/implicit by the very nature of what i’m trying to achieve. FW i’d like to ask you something about abjection and the breakdown of meaning to try and understand the paintings in the exhibition a little better though you may disagree and think that the writing of Georges Bataille and Julia kristeva doesn’t come into them? JG Bataille has some relevance to me personally, also Pasolini. FW are the objects you make in some way informed by pasolini’s film of the roman underclass? JG Are you referring to the movie Accattone (1961)? i haven’t seen that movie for twenty years but my memories of it are largely sympathetic, particularly the affecting awkwardness of the acting. there is an underlying warmth to his treatment of his subjects. i remember being hugely affected by Salo (1975) too. i left the cinema in a very agitated and disturbed state, and it took me weeks to process what i had seen. it left me with a sense of political indignation that has stayed with me. i’m not a big one for immersing myself in too much philosophy, and i’m wary of too much psychoanalysis. i like to stay informed but try to keep my thinking about my painting grounded. For instance, this notion of Kristeva’s of ‘abjecting the maternal’ just makes my heart sink a little. But the idea of the abject being something that is the underbelly of society, something that confronts and is at odds with it, is at the core of what i’m chasing.

56 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

FW is there something about Bataille’s cool approach to documentation, expressed poetically, a contradiction that appeals to you? For example, are the ‘brains’ extraordinary objects that you first make, and then set up, as if for an absurd debacle? do you then interpret them objectively as if you were an artist/ethnographer like Bataille positions himself in some of his writings? JG Bataille is another figure that had a very early impact on me. Story of the Eye (1928) was/is pretty standard reading for most young art students, but for me it was a book that i kept on coming back to, trying to decipher it for myself over the years.2 i don’t know how much of an influence it’s had over my work but i suppose the parallel you made has some validity. Your reference to Encyclopaedia Acephalica isn’t quite what i meant when i used the word ‘documentary’ to describe my approach, although i think you were spot-on about his use of a complex poetic language to deal with very concrete ideas.3 my own documentary approach is very much a denial of certain modernist notions about ‘expression’. i have a strong drive to describe things in clear terms within my paintings, being pictorially specific helps me to clarify my ideas and make some sense of things that are perhaps too big or overwhelming. FW yes, i can see that. that’s what comes across. But do you set things up like this as a way of coming to terms with ambiguity? ambiguity is threatening to us because we are unable to explain it; it is boundless and evades interpretation. you take what is already ambiguous, and make it massive in both in scale and size, the paintings Babel and Fracaso for example. yet, your painting of the ‘brain objects’ also seems to be an attempt to contain the threat of their ambiguity whilst also empathizing with their attempt to withstand the ambiguous debacle they find themselves in. JG the question of ‘what’ they are is the one that contains the ambiguity, and that’s exactly my intention. You are looking at something that is highly realized in pictorial terms, but you don’t know what it is, you have no idea of its provenance or its intentions. the ambiguity i’m avoiding is more of a formal one. i want to clearly describe this entity to you so that the questions it asks are not clouded by something vague or uncertain. FW one thing we should just mention is the intermediate stage of photography and whether you see this as a process that disambiguates the objects or one that makes them more so by evocative lighting and blurred arenas? is this what you mean when you say your painting is a documentary rather than an ambiguous practice, one that seeks to document ambiguously constructed and manipulated things in non-specific spaces? do you rely on describing to also evoke a sense of empathy? or is there a tension here rather like you’re being pulled both towards the detachment of poussin and the empathy of chardin? JG As for the photography, the crucial part here is that it’s the point where the decision is made about the presentation/viewpoint, the reduction from three dimensions to two. the switch to this static, fixed state takes time. Decisions about what is shown and what is concealed, how light falls onto the object etc. are all walking the same tightrope, so really at this stage i’m both disambiguating and occluding. Conceptually this is where the biggest decisions are made, the painting that follows becomes a document of those decisions. the descriptive aspect of my painting method is relatively neutral i think, at least as far as evoking feelings about the depicted objects is concerned. i’ve already gone though the process of manipulating and selecting the image that i feel conveys what it is i wanted to say best. if something extra happens during the process of making the painting, i think it’s out of my conscious control. By this stage i know what i want from the final image, and my energies are concentrated on the practical and technical problems of making that a painted reality. Still, oil paint often has a way of being transformative, even if you don’t want it to be. Further information on the artist is available at 1 2 3

mizzi, Katia, 2011, Pinocchio, Puppets, and Modernity: The Mechanical Body, London: Routledge. Bataille, georges, 2001, Story of the Eye, London: Penguin. Bataille, georges, 1995, Encyclopaedia Acephalica, London: Atlas Press.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 57

ALEX HANNA CORRESPONDENCE FW alex, i’d like to start this conversation by asking you what it is you paint? ah i paint objects from my immediate surroundings. these objects are frequently selected for their qualities of colour and tone. Subjects are important in that they help to connect ideas so many of the same motifs are repeated and reworked. i like to paint materials and surfaces that present a degree of visual paradox or that offer unexpected questions regarding structure and form, size and scale. i am interested in the pattern of shapes hidden within an area of fabric or plastic packaging and how its structure may or may not reveal itself. i frequently paint within a shallow pictorial space and find this to be an important part of my work. FW having talked with you recently, and from what you write here, i am aware that the tension between representation and trompe l’oeil exists for you at every stage of the process of the painting, and not solely in its perception by a viewer. your paintings seem to be what remains of this tension. you confine yourself to a predominantly white palette and consequently to a minimal use of colour. though barely there, it is a curious feature of the objects, surfaces and spaces in your paintings that they are all represented as being equally material. By this i mean that they all seem to exert a substantial presence in your paintings. ah the paint is applied as a deliberate layer of colour. it is fairly thick and solid. it has its own material qualities separate from the things depicted. i suppose it's not trying to be anything other than paint. ultimately it has to read as paint. Because of the heavy and solid nature of the material (the paint) and things like its oil/lead content it produces a matt and unreflective layer. However it is not opaque and allows for some passage of light through the layers. the layers are very much part of the process of development which goes on when i paint and also determine the end result. Although they don't stand out as layers. it's the build of the paint that seems to inform some of the decisions. in terms of how information is depicted, to some extent i try to give substance to all aspects of my field of vision. So spaces, shadows and other similar phenomena exist as objects in a way. FW could you tell me more about the material, and visual, qualities of these shallow pictorial spaces and how they speak of ideas. ah in terms of ideas i think that our conversation in my studio brought to light a number of interesting ideas. i particularly liked the notion of trompe l'oeil having a role in the development and also the presentation of the work. this emerged through our discussion about the shallow space and my attempt to recreate a parallel kind of space within the pictorial space. Also, the concept of painting objects actual size through the use of accurate measurement. Further to this we discussed the notion of painting a painting and how this could work. FW When spaces and supporting surfaces in a painting also become the subject of painting rather than mere object of it, when they become affective rather than passive, that seems to be operating at the boundaries of representation. When painting represents space as solid, and objects as drained of colour and qualities, does the subject of painting then become ambiguity itself rather than the things depicted. Where do you think trompe l’oeil fits in to all this? incidentally i have been reading a good article: ‘ambiguities and conventions in the perception of visual art’ by pascal mamassian, i think you might find it interesting.1

58 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

alex hanna Bubble Sheet, 2013, oil on canvas, 60 x 95cm

alex hanna Incubator 3, 2013, oil on canvas, 25 x 30cm

ah Near the start of the article there is a revealing quote from gombrich. it refers to the history of representation and the inability of the artist to escape from convention. Perhaps this is significant. going back a bit, i think that giving substance and a degree of form to spaces such as shadows tends to rely upon the coexistence of the inevitable positive forms as a stabilizing, or a reference, point against which these sometimes undefined areas can be discovered and given presence. Having carried out several paintings that have as their theme 'the shadow', i still needed to include at least two planes in each to enable them to be read as shadows. Conventions keep making their appearances to either assist the notion of ambiguity or to remove it. to some extent when you start a painting you sign up to some of the terms and conditions that are part and parcel of it. Trompe l'oeil in painting might find itself at the service of these conditions. But it can also be at odds with them. Or, perhaps, painting is at odds with trompe l'oeil. FW thinking back to Gombrich, maybe you already know his Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, michael Baxandall’s Shadows and Enlightenment, victor stoichita’s A Short History of the Shadow, and Francesca Fiorani’s article ‘the colours of leonardo’s shadows’ each of which take different critical positions regarding the shadow.2 ah i have recently been working on a painting of the shadows cast from an object onto a wall in daylight. the object is only slightly revealed and the shadow has become the focus. However the painting is far from being resolved. Regarding the boundary between representation and trompe l'oeil. this has become a perplexing venture into interpretation, boundaries and classification. FW you seem to be interested in this double ambiguity: the representation of air, light and shadow as substantial and material, whilst at the same time unsettling viewing by playing at the boundary between material representation and trompe l’oeil? ah Regarding the boundary between representation and trompe l'oeil, this has become a perplexing venture into interpretation, boundaries and classification. in order to attempt to find some answers i have embarked upon a painting which tries to get closer to this representation/trompe l'oeil boundary. FW your writing about the solidity of space reminded me of what sontag wrote in her essay ‘on photography’ (1977): ‘photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.’ your paintings might challenge that claim?3 ah if you are referring to the giving of substance to the visual field through paint, then there might be a sort of challenge. Perhaps this does lead on to the painter morandi (1890–1964), and certainly when one refers to the representation of shallow space and the way that space operates almost as a form. in fact i can think of a number of morandi’s paintings in which spatial ambiguities are the result of the substance of paint. By this i mean that the paint in some cases brings an area of the composition forward or flattens a space between two objects. Some of these ambiguities may be responsible for the strange interplay between the objects depicted in his paintings. in terms of the solidity of space, i think i have been trying to give equality to space, shadows and other passive phenomena. From this point of view does the 'object' really exist? using solid flat paint could be my way of compensating for the many ambiguities observed or implied. By doing so it makes the painting more of a real thing, an object. FW are there other paintings that you look at to help you with substance and shadows? ah in terms of gaining assistance from other paintings i must confess to being particularly unloyal in terms of who i rely upon. i have a steady stream of paintings and artists that i think about

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 61

when painting. However tangible evidence is sometimes hard to identify in the resultant work. i have on a number of occasions made reference to Vermeer, particularly when trying to organize arrangements of objects. in one case i based an arrangement on a Vermeer composition, which featured a map of Delft. in this, i replaced the map with a piece of bubble wrap. the composition like the Vermeer is lit from the left and both paintings rely upon an illuminated interior. However, they are different in that the ‘Vermeer’ is a composition with a figure in a room, and the other (my work) has become a still life. the painting depends upon an area of detail made big as the starting point. the renaissance painters of both the north and south of Europe have always been important as reference material. i have observed how they tackled spatial issues through the use of perspective and applied these to open up areas within the composition—Piero della Francesca (1415-92) springs to mind.4 At times these perspective tricks can become very illusionistic. FW as you know i am interested in how contemporary artists make use of historical art, so i am interested in your use of vermeer, and the way in which you transposed a composition of vermeer’s so that his structuring of space underpinned your own painting. your implementation of vermeer’s scheme must have made you particularly aware of the logic of his painted illusions. But ambiguity and visual disorder are never far away either. i’m thinking of vermeer’s fragmentation of light on a loaf of bread, and also of della Francesca’s inversion of the main action in the Flagellation of Christ (1455-60) where the narrative is subsumed by the mathematical system he imposes on it. Fragmentation and inversion are strategies of ambiguity i think? ah Yes, The Flagellation is a painting that provokes many questions. With the camera obscura the reversal of the image occurs through the technology of the camera and then becomes rectified when transcribed onto the canvas. Yes it could be to do with the structuring of the paintings. i think when i used the Vermeer idea i was looking for a way of painting an almost flat subject. How could this be developed? in Vermeer the maps in his works form part of a subtext. they are part of the background but have an active presence. i didn't want to lose the space entirely in my painting and needed the indication of some shadows to assist with this illusion. i also felt that i needed the object to be real size. to some extent this works against the idea that it is a still life painting of an object in a shallow space in a room, because it shares some real qualities with the real thing. Trompe l'oeil makes something of a return. FW i sent you a postcard of adriaen coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus (1697) from the rijksmuseum in amsterdam as i thought you might be intrigued by the representation of translucency of a natural white object rather than a fabricated one. the representation of the asparagus against a black background is no doubt partly responsible for this effect. in Zbigniew herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle (1993) he writes about a very ambiguous still life painting Emblematic Still life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle (1614) by Johannes torrentius (1589-1664) that also hangs in the rijksmuseum. it is assumed that torrentius used a camera obscura because of the angle and presentation of the objects depicted. herbert writes: ‘the background was the most fascinating of all: black, deep as a precipice and at the same time flat as a mirror, palpable and disappearing in perspectives of infinity. a transparent cover over the abyss.’5 of course, the lack of an attached or cast shadow on a black background also makes for an ambiguous spatial representation. ah in the Coorte painting the translucent nature of the asparagus is interesting. in fact it is remarkable. it seems to be something of a focus. i now need to pick this image up and look at it further. Still Life with Flagon i have only encountered through online images, so scale and the nuances of the surface are something of a mystery. through the black abyss he has certainly created a powerful sense of uncertainty and the suggestion of form emerging from the black seem indicative of the use of an optical aid.

62 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

FW could you tell me a little more about the actual objects that you use as models for your paintings, and the qualities you seek in them. they change little from painting to painting, though they do seem to fall into categories: disposable clear plastic boxes, bubble wrap, radiators, pill packs, forms of comfort, storage or making secure, and there are recurrent themes such as ubiquity and disposability. ah i do like to experiment to some extent with subjects and to see what happens when a particular object is placed in front of me, moved about and removed, or when it becomes part of a series of paintings. Disposable objects are also useful because they rarely have much history behind them, or symbolism, other than their references to consumerism. FW you tape a sheet of bubble wrap to the wall, or paint a radiator in situ, or prop a pillow against the skirting, or position pill packets, shampoo and the like at the far edge of the table to steady them in readiness for painting. and when you have painted them, you title these works descriptively. they are what they are, except of course they’re not; they have also become something else in their painted form. your painting challenges my assumptions and enriches my perceptions of such objects, the spaces they occupy and the negative spaces they create. yet you title them with the words by which they are generally known. When it comes to the paintings of fruit containers however, you present the viewer with a dilemma. these paintings have become ambiguous in a quite different way to the other paintings that i have seen, and the ambiguity lies in your titling: Incubator 1, Incubator 2 and so forth. your titles do not describe or categorize the objects. instead these titles bring with them poetic and empathetic associations that expand my understanding both of the disposable, ubiquitous objects themselves, and of your painting of them. so, with your descriptive titles you set us me up for a surprise – i get more than i expected and this persuades me how much more painting can be than mere description. With the suggestive titles, you ask me to meet you half way — i must bring my prior understanding of another object in the world, the incubator, to your depicted object. this process creates a painted paradox, a magical protective container of a cheap, insubstantial structure into which i am able to imaginatively project myself. ah Yes, i wanted to transform the object with the incubator paintings and make them appear different from their actual function as plastic disposable containers. it allows one to look at the structure of the object as separate from the function and make clear, to some extent, that the object’s role in this instance is a secondary consideration. the other point, and perhaps motive, for this is that the container itself only performs a marginal role. it might have been to suggest that the object is the vehicle for the painting here. it's the ‘thing’ that enables the painting to be made. But it's painting that becomes the subject. in addition it can allow a dialogue to occur between object and painting.

Further information on the artist is available at 1 2

3 7 8

mammassian, Pascal, 2008, Ambiguities and Conventions in the Perception of Visual Art, Vision Research. Available from: [2 April 2015]. gombrich, Ernst, 1995, Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, London: National gallery. Baxandall, michael, 1995, Shadows and Enlightenment, New Haven and London: Yale university Press. Stoichita, Victor, 1997, A Short History of the Shadow, London: Reaktion. Fiorani, Francesca, 2008, The Colours of Leonardo’s Shadows, mit Press Journals, 41(3). pp. 271-278. Sontag, Susan, 1979, On Photography, London: Penguin. Della Francesca, Piero, On Perspective for Painting (De Prospectiva Pingendi), first published 1480. Herbert, Zbigniew, 1993, Still Life with a Bridle, London, Jonathan Cape. p.83.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 63

JANiCE mcNAB CORRESPONDENCE FW i have chosen to include your ‘ice cream paintings’ in this exhibition because they seem to me to be an expansion of what still life has to offer in terms of scale, the metaphorical use of materials, approaches to model making, and a sensuous feminism amongst other things. to begin with could you tell me a little more about the materials you use in your model making, and your painting processes and procedures? Jm We all spend our lives 'making models' and my approach to still life embraces what this metaphorical approach to the genre might have to offer my wider project. i'm interested in making images that resonate with women's lives as their own 'images' come undone, when the lifestyle, the face, the body, no longer fits its given box. my working materials are from the home, contemporary versions of traditional still life subject matter. Never the best china however, i'm more interested in how meaning flows through the low-cost materials of our day, the things we barely give value to. ice cream moves around in this territory: a quality of emotional gifting is often attached to it, and it's sticky with memories for many people, adult/child memories very often, domestic memories of touch, taste, sensation. i want to bring attention to this private part of life, to the economy of sustaining and sheltering, the sex, pain, and play of the home. FW your ice cream paintings look like ice cream and paint at the same time, painted ice cream, ice creamed paint. are they ambiguous because they appear to be two viscous materials at the same time? Jm Yes, but i'd like to think the ambiguities stack up more deeply than just these two bodies, ice cream and paint. Within the painterly body of the painting as a thing, there is a representation of a body of ice cream, but these ice cream bodies seem to also represent other forms, and i like to think of the figurine—the little ornamental figurine, often with its own bit of landscape to sit on. there are also ambiguous suggestions of our own body parts of course, with their mobility and decay, and then there is the trace of my body in the manipulation of the paint, and of the ice cream model before that. All of these bodies should ideally oscillate within the literal body of the painting, their container. FW do you mean that the ice cream and the paint operate as mutually reinforcing metaphors for an absent body, or perhaps one that cannot be spoken of? it’s an interesting idea, two materials that both collapse and reaffirm each other in their allusion to the body. so painting metaphorically enables you to speak of more than two things at once. Jm the body that cannot be spoken of is the monstrous-feminine one. Society still seems to ask women to aspire to an image they can never fully attain. Woman-as-image, though meant to be flat and still, is always a pretty active process from the woman's end, a continual working up and falling down, and about as doomed as a model made of ice cream. FW i like your reference to a figurine—especially if, like the staffordshire flatback i saw in your studio, they have that strange softness from being cast in worn out plaster moulds and glazed with a viscous lead glaze. the figurine is an object, an object that we put on show. Jm i am a bigger fan of the flatback than of meissen, and it is exactly that quality of the material almost bloating through the representation that i enjoy. their pre-modern decorativeness also has a pleasantly ambiguous place in the terrible calculus that is the 'contemporary lifestyle', so

64 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

Janice mcnaB Promised Land, 2011, oil on linen, 115 x 150 cm

Janice mcnaB The Bloodbathers, 2011, oil on linen, 135 x 180 cm

although they may be put on show, i think there's a question mark there, one that re-iterates my bigger question. FW cezanne painted that famous Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1894) in the courtauld institute in london. Figurines are also sometimes to be found in traditional dutch still life, when their tiny size can radically change the scale of the other objects around them, making familiar foods seem gigantic. i’m thinking of abraham van Beyeren’s banquet pieces that often have a silver or gilt cast figure atop the lid or handle of a metallic vessel. i like the way simon schama writes, in The Embarrassment of Riches, that in the banquet pieces ‘the eye is merely the trigger sense that awakens other organs of appetite’.1 Jm And desire is what drives us all. FW taking this idea of a suggestive and ambiguous practice further, does your painting describe the way ice cream appears and behaves or does it go further to conjure up the contradictions between the pleasure we take in its sweet softness and the pain of its ice coldness. visual associations seem to spill over into other associated sensations; our viewing of your paintings becomes a somewhat synesthetic experience. Jm the great paintings i like to look at all have a certain quality of attention in their describing, and it touches my body memory to look at them. it's to do with the way the representation has been achieved as a bodily act. i can only have the ambition to manage this myself. FW When i saw your paintings for the first time it was as images on my laptop. i had no doubt then that they were still lifes, and i still think of them like that, even after seeing them in your studio in amsterdam, but they’re very big, as tall as i am, and in my face. Jm When i played with my food as a child, making monsters and castles with my dinner, my materials were both what they were and what they could be, just for that moment. in my paintings, the movement in scale helps to indicate this movement into metaphor. they are still life, but the category no longer completely contains them. ice cream is a material we have all experienced, perhaps one associated with early memories of excess and pleasure that we can then re-visit through the painting. this doubling of adultspace/child-space is also fundamental as it touches on infantilization, which any woman who has ever been called ‘baby’ has experienced. in a way i'm trying to accelerate that action, push it 'in your face', as you put it. FW could you tell me more about play? is the openness that play requires important to your painting? Jm the open-endedness of play is a good way to think about material creativity. When i pull together a few tubs of ice cream or other bits and pieces, i have no particular goal in mind other than documenting my exploration of these materials. in order to stay with the material through this process, and avoid taking a critical distance towards my models, i use a camera to record my process, which may go on for a few hours. Afterwards, these photos are always full of compositional surprises and it is from them that paintings begin. i need the surprise of play to open up a viewpoint i could never have planned. the paintings never quite look like the photos however; there is always another movement to get to the completed image. FW When we sat opposite your ‘ice cream paintings’ in your studio you told me that you thought of them as monstrous. is this because of their formlessness, their ambiguity? Jm if we all make models in our minds, we also make monsters. the monster is a literal ‘embodiment’ of our fears and desires, a completely cultural construction. using still life to refer to the monster-making of children is my way of approaching this more dangerous adult territory of cultural, social, monster-making. And as i get older, the monster that is cropping up for me

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 67

is located within the image of the older woman. these days i'm using the domestic nature of the still life, the figurine, and children's play to present the disallowed aspects of this figure: the detached, decomposing, crinkling, scarred and temporal body of ageing. FW in the context of a traditional still life, the shriveling, spilling, spotting, of deteriorating foodstuffs threatens to disgust us, but never does due to the sheer beauty of their depiction. are there some parallels here? Jm Yes. i'm attempting a sort of detournée of materialities that are culturally unwanted. FW it is often the body’s orifices and leakages, the way they look and feel, that your paintings evoke. is there more to tell about the monstrous-feminine and the way in which it informs your work? are there particular writers and ideas associated with this? you mentioned Julia kristeva?2 Jm the monstrous-feminine is a term coined by Barbara Creed in her book of the same name, and in which she looks at Kristeva's writing on the abject.3 i came to this text after making the paintings that are in this show, but the term has become important to me. i have also become interested in the body sensation paintings of maria Lassnig, where she tries to paint how it feels to be in her body sensing outwards, rather than how it might look from the outside. FW these interests of yours are interpreted through quite traditional conventions of object presentation, the still life. is this an intended confrontation of contemporary feminist art- making with historical, generally male still life painting? or are your paintings at play between cultures, part historical quotation, part postmodern sensory seductive excess, part ideological feminist perspective. Jm i like the idea of a seemingly conventional image, one that can easily be put in a box, but then the bottom falls out of the box because actually the question, What is it? cannot, after all, be easily answered. FW your painting The Bloodbathers seems to be a complex work into which you have introduced references to viewing and being viewed as well as the body metaphors already discussed. you told me that you had been thinking about velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656). What sort of a conversation did you have with that painting? Jm i have thought about Las Meninas a lot, and when i looked at a particular set of images one day, the infanta, with her pannier dress and golden hair, just seemed to be there as one of my models, and to the right, the adult female dwarf, both looking out but this time with no eyes, only the single sunglass lens sitting at their feet. trouble with the gaze. i just had to paint it. it is my humble homage to something great. FW until you mentioned it, i hadn’t realized that the darker, lurking form in the foreground was originally the lens from a pair of sunglasses. i had certainly understood it as somehow different and distinct from the ice cream, but now i understand it as materially and functionally different too whilst also connected to the ice cream through reflection. now that i realize what it is, or was, i am interested to know whether you also made use of Foucault’s essay ‘las meninas’ in The Order of Things?4 Jm i know the Foucault text, and the bouncing gaze in the Velazquez fascinates me, but there's a space between my interests and research and the actual images i make. Everything goes down into the marsh and forms, images, even titles, come back out. Perhaps working out exactly what might have happened in the marsh is for someone else to do. FW i am interested to know whether being viewed, and viewing, and being mirrored and mirroring are important here or whether it perhaps suggests an absent eye just as the ice cream seems to suggest an absent body.

68 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

Jm it's a lens but it's dark and i think i see it as marking a problem for the eye, for the gaze. it seemed to be a sort of moebius object that acts to both shield the eye and absent it from the other, to protect it, allow it to see, and create a barrier to vision. it depends on whether you position yourself behind the lens or in front of it, viewing, being viewed. However instead of richocheting or funnelling the gaze, the lens here acts more like a black hole. And then there is the lens and its identification with a whole historical world-view. FW personally, i’m again reminded of those objects in the banquet still lifes that also reveal the reflections of the artists who painted them. there’s an important article by celeste Brusati on these reflections entitled ‘stilled lives: self-portraiture and self-reflection in seventeenth-century netherlandish still-life painting’.5 Jm i tend towards the idea that all art production contains a portrait of the person who made it, no matter how seemingly documentary the approach. Reflecting takes many forms.

Further information on the artist is available at 1 2 3 4 5

Schama, Simon 1987 The Embarrassment of Riches. London: Fontana. p.161. Kristeva, Julia 1984 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia university Press. Creed, Barbara 1993 The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Routledge. Foucault, michel 2001 ‘Las meninas’ in The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Oxford: Routledge. Brusati, Celeste 1990 Stilled Lives: Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Still-Life Painting. Simlolius: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 20 (2/3), pp.168-182.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 69

PHiLiP NiCOL CORRESPONDENCE FW still life forms only part of your painting practice, a genre that you return to periodically inbetween painting the interior and exterior spaces of your urban environment. your landscape paintings in particular seem to rely heavily on a form of observation that is extended by physical experience of a place and sensitivity to its ambiguities of scale, space and light conditions. pn Firstly, the exteriors were not just the result of observations and physical experiences but also came from memories and felt parallels with other art forms, novels and films such as black and white film noir. i have written before about how the experience of art can have echoes and influences when experiencing life, as well as the reverse. So i was often concerned with psychological feeling as much as the physical terrain. People often talk about urban alienation when trying to describe these paintings but actually i wanted to give them something of the pure, dreamy, sheer excitement that my own memories of being in the city late at night gave me—a similar feeling to that evoked by Cesare Pavese when describing a gang of youths walking the streets of turin and the surrounding hillsides, just talking between themselves until the dawn breaks.1 the space and time is big, and they are aware of being on the cusp of growing up. the passage of time and the excitement of space are metaphorical and connected with their state of mind. FW What you have to say about the experiences and references that fuel your wider painting practice helps to put your still life painting into a wider context. how do you think these inclinations of a landscape painter come into play when you are painting still life? pn Observation is paramount. i think the still lifes that i paint are to do with the metaphysical qualities of things, both in their there-ness and, (through representation), something also about their fugitiveness. An important aspect of this comes from the feelings i have of concentration and time passing, of compacted energy within the painting. this stems from an intense period of looking. i think this is embedded in a painting as it becomes a melded, impacted and intimate object. the experience of the space when painting still life is very different to that of painting the exteriors. the world of the still life addresses the body in a more explicit way. the objects are usually within arms reach and are about corporeality. i like the specific quality of this spatial engagement; it is physically and psychologically intimate. FW the aim of the exhibition is to identify and explore ambiguity in contemporary still life. these ambiguous practices reveal tacit and unacknowledged debts to the genre’s origins as well as associations with recent and contemporary practice as you mention above. still life’s origins are often masked in one way or another in contemporary painting, yet contemporary versions of still life also rely on its conventions both for the making of meaning and for its ambiguation. it’s probably true to say that a lack of knowledge of the genre’s origins renders aspects of a contemporary work unreadable and thus unavailable to this ambiguation. in this way contemporary art that makes implicit or explicit use of the genre always exists both in itself and in the place of its the origin. and this can give rise to an interplay between artist /viewer, past art and contemporary art. are there historical still life paintings that your own painting practice depends on and can you explain how? pn Well, Chardin (1890-1964) is in my top ten of great painters. in the Louvre The Brioche (1763) and The Jar of Olives (1760) are amazing in being both modest and mysterious. they appear close to you but also seem distant and atmospheric, almost akin to a landscape. morandi (1890-

70 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

philip nicol Chinese Pot 4, 2014, oil on linen, 36 x 41 cm

philip nicol Mate, 2012, oil on linen, 36 x 41cm

1964) is another favourite. Although such precedents are good company and provide pointers i don’t depend on them, or at least i don’t feel dependent. they are simply compelling and joyful things that add to my world and set markers for what is possible. i don’t think an artist must defer to the past, even if working in an obvious historical continuum. i think you must absorb and possess precedent so that the act of doing becomes second nature. You have to be in the moment and attend to the now for the work to breathe and become. FW the observation of objects set out in front of you complies with the traditional conventions of still life. is that the point? What i mean is, when a convention is so embedded in our visual culture as the representation of still life, you the artist can take advantage of that prior knowledge to unsettle it. ambiguity is thus dependent on fixity. pn i tend to see painting itself as the understood convention, Still life is a sub-division with its own set of parameters. Perhaps like the short story is to fiction. i like the fact that in still life you don’t deal with obvious narratives. this is something that invariably the exteriors did do, to a greater or lesser extent, perhaps through the suggestion of time passing, of what is happening now, or what is to happen. time in the still lifes is obviously different! i respond well to the more formal, variable nature of composing or putting together or ‘testing’ in still life. i guess this is close to the idea that the still life, within the laboratory of the studio, is experimentation. it avoids overt narrative, but also allegory, symbolism, surrealism etc., which is okay with me. But what i am very aware of is the inevitability of metaphor to intrude, and i embrace the idea that representation needs the power of metaphor to ascribe qualities and particularity. Often this means referring to something other than itself to help define or express the object. FW could you expand on this idea of metaphor as it plays out in your still life paintings. how does it operate in comparison to association, allusion, reference, quotation for example? pn my engagement is to do with the compacting of time experienced. the metaphor lies in the act of painting. it’s something about the sense of touch and intimacy. i don’t have a programme before hand of what metaphor will refer to this or that. it comes more from the act of discovery or revelation as you form the painting i can respond in more particular fashion if talking about the two paintings in the show. in both there is a play in the relationship between parts. Mate is a title that alludes to the two constituents, that is, the two columns of wooden blocks. they are alike, yet separate. the relationship is a tense one. the blocks are offcuts, the residue of work or process. they sit on a wooden workbench, a ‘work-mate’ that is distressed, cut, chipped as well as being smeared with paint marks. So its surface is also the result of work, process or activity. this could be referring, of course, to the more mundane or physical processes involved in making art. the scale is ambiguous, not quite settled or normal, and it is almost architectural because of the abstract quality of the blocks. the ‘work-mate’ advances quite dramatically to the bottom of the rectangle; its own edge impinges illusionistically on the stretcher edge itself. Chinese Pot 4 is one of a series of paintings that depict the same objects repeatedly and in various ambiguous states. this firstly involves context. Where exactly is it? inside or outside— or both? And, what is the relationship (if any) between the teapot and the piece of timber with the embedded nails? the other more obvious ambiguity is the nature of the piece of timber itself. People who have seen this are often desperate to cite violence or a threat from this object.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 73

i hope the viewer can get past that, it’s not my intention but i obviously get that this interpretation is possible! Actually the first point of it was to reference Philip guston (1913-80), who used similar ‘lumpy’, functional objects. i also had in mind a piece of African sculpture, from the Louvre, of a wooden dog covered in rusty nails—like a porcupine! i responded to both as transformative things. So i wanted to make a thing a little odder but one that was, in its strangeness, also decorative. the pattern of the nails makes for a circular or elliptical shape. in fact both objects in this painting are decorated by pattern. And the foliage in the background also forms a pattern. So all of the ‘players’, despite the differences, are somehow ‘married’. the vertical timber assumes a more alert role, like a protagonist. And this energizes the space. FW i would like to explore the strategies of metaphor and ambiguity in your still life painting a little further, though i appreciate that they are not foremost in your mind as you paint. metaphor draws meaning into something through association with something else, whereas ambiguity blurs boundaries of meaning, operating in the in between, or from two places at the same time. taking the two paintings that will be in the exhibition, and others if you like, could you describe instances where the paint itself is made to operate metaphorically, and, where it operates ambiguously? this may start with the way you set up viewing conditions, preparatory drawing and painting, whether you approach painting as a protagonist or a provocateur perhaps? the way you lay down paint, the function of the effaced or gestural mark, the qualities of mattness, opacity, resistance and viscosity, that sort of thing. is the way you paint leaving traces of processes that act as metaphors? one of the reasons, and not the only one, that i respond to the ambiguity of your painted series of the wood blocks and tea pot is because the size of the painted marks is much the same in the foreground, mid, and background, as is the level of abstraction of its elements and this seems to brings the background forward. i’m writing as an observer here, not as an experienced painter, this is why i ask. pn i don’t consciously court ambiguity because i believe the very essence of painting is implicitly ambiguous or at least contradictory. For example the act of making space involves touching a flat surface. through attending to this surface i can invent air. that is the magic and problematic nature of the activity. i also never paint with the idea of metaphor or ambiguity foremost in my mind. i am often in a non-verbal state when in the act of painting, that is, i live it rather than analyse it. Of course i do eventually stand back and discern qualities (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) that can be added to my visual concerns. But these become a somewhat skeletal set of concerns to arm myself with. metaphorical states can be about time, weight, stance, energy etc., which are not directly associative. i think visual metaphor is different than verbal. i cannot define what it is that actually interests or excites me when taking on a subject. in fact it only through the act of painting that this might become evident. my aim is first to be as clear and specific as possible (anti ambiguity and metaphor). But visual signs often veer towards other qualities in the service of describing qualitative states. So to emphasize particularity (an object, a space, a set of relationships) you bring to bear qualitative states through the material and it’s processes. this is when other interpretations become possible. So when you say to me, describe metaphor as the manner or process, i cannot, it’s absolutely entwined. the same about ambiguity. i understand that the painting of the pot and piece of timber has an ambiguity of meaning regarding why are they together. But it could easily be so in actuality. And i have been very clear about this relationship, it exists in the clear light of day i think. But i was interested in the potential fragility of the teapot, even though it’s painted in a harder fashion than the stick. this stick is painted in a soft, out of focus way (close up) and i think because of this it becomes rather mute. As a result i think the pot is more animated and the stick more

74 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

reticent. is this metaphorical? maybe. is it ambiguous? i don’t think so, other than that everything under the sun has the possibility of possessing conflicting states embedded within itself and on its outer surface or skin.” FW What emerges here is that the objects become subjects during the course of your painting. the wood develops a character, the teapot a quality and so forth. part of their subjecthood is due to the way in which you draw the world into them by metaphorical means, and another part is their ambiguity that you endow them with, though as you say that may not be your intention—ambiguity is ‘slippery’. For the viewer your painting has the effect of estranging the objects, that is, they are less familiar than they might have been prior to your painting of them when they were thought of as mere utilitarian or non-objects. in both cases, the metaphorical and ambiguous subject of still life comes to exceed the artist’s original attraction and engagement with it. let loose by you in painting these objects are open to interpretation in different ways, giving rise to speculative narratives beyond the painting, or at least of feelings of being unsettled. What do you think? pn Well, it’s undeniable that every viewer brings with them their own interpretation to the artwork. And as the artist is, of course, the first viewer, then i can also speculate and interpret on what it means. this is usually best done after the event. Let’s say the day after! And yes, the works are usually open enough to accommodate possible narratives. So although the objects are apparently ordinary, they might possess particularities that are extraordinary in their relationships? And representing things in the medium of paint does involve strange trade-offs, playing with a colour or mark to seek a form of correspondence. i am not anti-ambiguity, but i am aware that it can easily be self-fulfilling. And the world is already quite odd and exciting, so it just needs a little nudge to achieve what you describe as estrangement. For example, teapots are strange shapes, don’t you think? Put it next to a piece of timber and things happen. And any pairing encourages comparison, whether it suggests similarity or dissonance. my final thought is that because the world is already full of ambiguity, we rely on context to help settle it. Once this is ruptured then the imagination takes over.

Further information on the artist is available at www.philipnicol 1

Pavese, Cesare 2002 the moon and the Bonfires. New York: New York Review of Books.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 75

CHRiStOPHER NuRSE CORRESPONDENCE FW since first encountering your work, a practice that leaps confidently between painting, printing and assemblage, i have always been impressed by the freedom and speed with which you capture your subjects. in painting, where you are not restrained by the physical exertions of printmaking or construction processes, your mark making seems to be in a race to keep up with your imagination. this gives a lightness to your painting that alleviates the somewhat pathetic and absurd nature of the objects you depict. With this speed comes a freshness of palette that further inhibits weight and gravity, qualities that to my mind often bring about feelings of sadness when viewing historical still life painting. could you comment further on these observations? cn if you spill a pot of paint it automatically has energy, the more i work into paint the more dead it becomes. However it is hugely important that i am describing something rather than responding to the paint itself. Caring consciously about mark making is like thinking about grammar rather than meaning, and stumbling over your words. Not that the grammar or mark making aren’t hugely important. the surface of the canvas has to be wet and spread with colour at the outset so that i can draw in paint with the speed of pencil on paper. Rather than keeping up with my imagination the speed is about relying on automatic hand eye coordination. Now that i paint from things i have made all my imagination goes into making the set up of the still life yet i don’t think of the set ups as still life because i am playing out a fantasy in placing the objects together. usually i am making representations of people, places or animals. However, the crude way the models are constructed undermines any fantastical element and presents the viewer with a choice. Ambiguity in still life is exactly what interests me. Your postcard from the Rijksmuseum of Four Studies of Frogs by Jacob de gheyn (1600s) is a good example. When i am looking at it i am immediately wondering, is the frog dead or alive? maybe it is like Schrödinger’s cat, it is both dead and alive depending on how you look at it. FW What you say about the relationship of gesture to meaning in painting, as opposed to being over concerned with grammar, is very telling. you are a keen and imaginative observer, but your painting does not tend to explain so much as it suggests and beckons. you use painting to decontextualize objects by inventing highly ambiguous settings, sometimes without even a horizon line to which they might relate. and then there are the contexts that you bring to mind, particularly absurd ones like garden fêtes, agricultural competitions and battlefields, all of which have their tragic side as well— losing, for example. Would you agree that ambiguity arises in your paintings when the everyday and the monumental collide for no apparent reason. i think this is what i understand when i look at your enormous painting of a plastic fish bowl which, given its actual size and proximity, must have had your nose practically pressed up against it. it’s made to host a nativity, a plastic one presumably, a tragi-comic surprise? or, take another of your paintings in the exhibition, a still life turned paint recycling factory, ettore sottsass style, but in actuality a childlike model made of paint containers, clothes pegs, paper cups, palette, brush and sponges, the stuff of the studio but as a child might put it to use. like so many of your paintings of objects, they exist in scenarios that are nowhere in particular, and confined by nothing, often witty, but unsettling. cn the lack of background context definitely helps the assemblage of objects hover between mundane still life and the pretention to fictional scenarios. Empty space and suggestion through paint definitely create space for the viewer to read into the image and develop their own

76 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

christopher nurse The GoldďŹ sh Bowl, 2003, oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm

christopher nurse Paint Factory, 2008, oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm

thoughts. i hugely enjoy the compulsive vision of outsider artists that incidentally seem to have more appreciation in France than Britain (although Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane have highlighted numerous examples of British homemade art in their Folk Archive). i recently discovered the work of André Robillard who seems to obsessively make model guns out of brica-brac. His inventiveness in turning anything into a gun is amazing but his monomania is scary and absurd. As you say i am definitely attracted to the collision between the everyday and the monumental, which, i guess, could be a definition of kitsch. Holy family fish bowl ornaments, if they existed, would definitely be kitsch. the nativity in the gold fish bowl was actually a flat postcard reproduction. FW i agree that the potential for fictional scenarios is a feature of all your paintings and that it comes out of your playful approach to object making and composition informed as it is by folk art and other marginal art forms. But your paintings also seem to be about play itself, about being open to objects and their power to open up worlds. this call to the imagination seems to extend beyond the depiction of any particular object, it’s more an attitude. i wonder if it might be useful to compare this playfulness in your painting to other still life paintings of the past, paintings such as the cabinets of curiosities by Frans Francken (1581-1642), pantry paintings by Frans snyders (1579-1657), pronk still lifes by abraham van Beyeren (c.1620-1690), or notice board paintings by cornelis Gijsbrechts (1630after 1683). you might agree that in all of these subgenres of still life we can see evidence of a similar delight in play— heaping, arranging, combining, constructing, deceiving and despoiling—all of which are surplus to description or signification. cn Frans Francken’s paintings of cabinets of curiosites have always appealed to me because of the delight of finding visual comparisons in collections and typographies. there is an excellent exhibition ‘magnificent Obsessions’ exploring artists’ collections at the Barbican gallery at the moment and it is fascinating to see what Sol Le Witt chose to collect compared to martin Parr or Andy Warhol and how the visual language of their practice is played out in the objects they select to keep.1 i often focus on a single object within a painting but it is almost always part of a series designed to encourage comparison across the set of paintings, prints or drawings reflecting a way of looking implicit in the original context, rural competitions for the bestdecorated biscuit or the best vegetable sculpture for example. the pronk still lifes of Abraham van Beyeren may be beautifully luxurious and opulent both in subject and painting style but i much prefer those of Frans Snyders where the still life is overrun by mischief and chaos with cats, monkeys, parrots and other animals destroying the symmetry and order of the self consciously arranged table display. FW Would you agree that there are some parallels here that suggest that play is necessary to expand the genre of still life, to explore its boundaries, to estrange and ambiguate it, to keep it alive. and, that for you and other contemporary artists who don’t refer to their paintings as still life, playing with still life’s conventions helps situate and unsettle the objects and the world-making in your paintings. cn the anarchy of play definitely brings life into the otherwise formal description and is an essential part of my creative process. Surprise is a key component i am looking for in the viewing experience and play is the best way of surprising myself. i admire the mocking informality of Olaf Breuning’s photographs or Fischli and Weiss’s Equilibres (1984-7), the sense of pretention playfully brought down to earth. FW certain artists working around the turn of the century, christian Boltanski, cornelia parker and Jeremy deller for example, played with the transformative potential of objects, making them magical and captivating in themselves. others artists such as tracey emin, tim noble and sue Webster for

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 79

example, playfully elevated ubiquitous and disposable objects to evoke postmodern notions of nostalgia and isolation, while phyllida Barlow, michael landy, and Fischli and Weiss, in their appropriation and destruction of objects, played with ideas of the abject, bathos, and the unmonumental. For me, these sorts of practices throw light on your playful approach to object making especially as they too were created in the context of a professional practice rather than folk art or outsider art. cn Art is often treated with too much reverence but to me it is about the everyday remade through simple interventions. this is brilliantly achieved by Boltanski and Parker but their work is much more poetic and refined than mine. i have more in common with the other artists you mention where the detritus of contemporary living is a ready material for turning into something more elevated yet essentially flawed by the origin of the raw material. ‘Bathos’ seems a good description with serious or profound content destabilised by silliness. Statues of public figures such as politicians are interesting only because they seem so wrong in the contemporary world. FW your object making methods range from bricolage, assemblage, low tech and no tech diy construction—i imagine you must sometimes laugh out loud as you make them! could you explain how you understand these objects—that is, are they art, faux naïf, visual jokes perhaps, kitsch as you suggest above, or homage to the artistry and inventiveness of individuals who are largely overlooked by the art establishment? are you embracing an outsider anti-aesthetic and re-positioning it for your own contemporary painting. cn i haven’t fully resolved the answer to the question whether my bricolage assemblages are art and this has become something that drives me creatively, whether i can reconcile the 3D and 2D work so that they coexist or become one. i exhibited a set of cardboard characters in 2011 including a lady in Welsh national costume and a bishop with some resemblance to Rowan Williams, at Brecnock museum.2 the 3D bricolage figures made of packaging were in a glass cabinet in the entrance to the museum among the historical portrait busts while the paintings based on the models were in the gallery proper. Anyone encountering the 3D figures would have assumed they were a children’s project until they saw the paintings. this wasn’t how i intended the work to be displayed. i wanted the cardboard versions to be treated with more reverence than the paintings. the perceptive critical response was that the sculptures had more life and spontaneity than the paintings. i am now making 3D forms and banners out of woodcut prints on paper, such as my cardboard television sets, that are displayed off the wall so that they become sculptural. making paintings into sculpture is something i am working towards. FW But it is your painting that ensures the ultimate transformation of your models, that removes them from their lowly state to a precariously elevated one. can you tell me where your painting of assembled and constructed objects fits into contemporary communities of practice, particularly ones that acknowledge or pay lip service to the still life tradition while perhaps being situated at its margins? cn there are many contemporary artists working with similar aesthetics and attitudes to materials. i think the best art around is made by artists determined to defy the given boundaries of media, genre, and convention. i would pick out William Daniels as someone close to my own practice. He paints from, what look like, models based on figurative or still life paintings remade in cardboard or aluminium foil and he paints from these constructions in an extremely fluid way. matthew monahan who starts by drawing and printmaking but seamlessly extends his work into 3D is also a useful model for developing my work. i would also say my work has a strong affinity with the work of Simon Ling for the construction of environments in the studio to observe and work from, and to ged Quinn for his subversion of historical still life.

80 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES

FW my knowledge of William daniels’ work extends to his reconstructions of seventeenth century still life paintings in reflective foil, and also his reconstructions of morandi’s still lifes in cardboard. as i understand it daniels is undertaking a transposition from one material into another, a process that transforms a traditional or modernist still life into a model that exists in shallow threedimensional space. From here it is transposed again, into another painting, one that is now a form of quotation. there is another artist, daniel Gordon, whose work i saw recently at Foam Gallery in amsterdam who raids textures and patterns from the internet and reassembles them, collage style, to photograph them.3 no transposition occurs here, only the creation of a digital original. his still lifes pay lip service to the tradition and then play havoc with it, but he only takes this so far, so that an idea of an origin still remains visible. When you paint your models are you conscious of managing and restraining them so that they too operate within the conventions of the tradition, however obliquely? and when they hover at the boundary of the genre does this liminality give rise to a sort of tension? cn Yes, i think you describe that well. A painting i was working on last year failed because some paper cut out figures i was painting started to look too 3D and real rather than a painting of flat paper cut out figures. the suggested fictional world was becoming dominant over the static mundane still life rather than remaining true to fact.

Further information on the artist is available at 1 2 3

‘magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector’ Barbican Art gallery, London, 12 February-25 may 2015. ‘Cardboard Characters’ Brecnock museum, Brecon. November 2010. ‘Daniel gordon: Shadows, Patterns, Pears’ FOAm Amsterdam. 12 September-2 November 2014.

AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES 81


Still Life: Ambiguous Practices Exhibition Catalogue