STACKS AND STEPS
Extracts from Basil Beattie in conversation with Sarah Wedderburn, in front of Never Before 2001
BASIL BEATTIE IN CONVERSATION WITH SARAH WEDDERBURN 2001
I suppose I’ve always thought of the left hand side of the painting as being the past, the beginning if you like. And presumably you begin there, do you?
I do – I begin from the bottom in this step-like structure Are you left handed?
Yes, so that’s the natural angle really. The natural beginning. The odd thing is that if I was drawing, the natural slant of a scribble, for instance, would perhaps begin at the top but when I paint a structure like this – this step-like structure – I always feel going from bottom left to top right is a more natural dynamic somehow. Is there some element of ‘action’ that’s important in the process, a sense that you’re starting somewhere and you’re getting to another point. Is there a time factor – an urgency while you are doing it?
S.W. B.B. S.W.
Not really. I may be a bit breathless by the time I actually finish the top step! The thing that I know I want to do is the bottom rectangle. The bottom step if you like, is associated with and touches the bottom edge of the canvas, and that is like the earth. Then there’s a point at the top where the step does not touch the edge at all – or the sides. So it’s like a stairway that’s unfinished or doesn’t go anywhere. There is a sense of ascending – and perhaps descending – but more ascending, because the bottom step is lined up with the bottom edge of the canvas. I suppose I am fascinated by all the everyday things that we are familiar with, like doors and windows and stairways and corridors. They all seem to have symbolic possibilities in a way but are also ambiguous. You can associate them with opposites: you can associate a corridor with escaping to safety, or you can see it as a way of becoming imprisoned or claustrophobic. So there are all kinds of double associations. If you use such elemental combinations of shapes, what you are doing is expressing symbolism very strongly, but you are also leaving its interpretation completely open.You are not saying this is about anything? No. I wouldn’t want to fix the meaning. I have to leave it almost to someone else to interpret. But I can’t ignore these things, because I am not interested simply in the formal element. I’m interested in the formal dynamic.This stairway is, I find, an extraordinary dynamic. I like the idea of things being rooted on the earth, and things being free of the earth, suspended, floating, balanced or poised. In the past you have talked about things in your pictures being suspended on the edge of something that might happen. Yes. There is a kind of drama – a sort of narrative that’s hinted at perhaps. Do people talk about ‘signifiers’ when they talk about your work? Does that come up? One of the most compelling things to me about the Lacanian idea is the sense that you can have things that are incredibly potent psychological signifiers, but which remain essentially ambiguous; they absolutely have to, in order to have meaning. That’s how their power works. 83