The length of this blog is telling, given it explores obsessive compulsions. I had intended it to be about two hundred words.
Later this year Acumen are publishing a book called “Figuring out figurative art”. It brings together an international team of leading philosophers to address diverse philosophical issues raised by image based paintings from the 21st Century. Each philosopher takes one artist. There are twelve essays in total, including pieces on artists I hugely admire like Cecily Brown, Adrian Ghenie, Dexter Dalwood and Paula Rego.
Two of the essays are on my work, and it is a genuine honour to be sharing the critical space of the book with such amazing figures. One of the essays on my work is by the Philosopher Professor Lydia Goehr, who is based at Columbia University in New York. Through the process of her researching the essay we met a few times. The dialogue from these meetings and the interrogation of my work and approach in her essay have been remarkably useful, and we have met a few times since to continue discussions free of the burden of a piece of critical writing. During the process of the meetings we covered a lot of topics, and ventured beyond the remit of the specific canvases. Because we both seemed to feel comfortable in each others company the conversations were often as much about personal topics as anything else. In the process of writing the essay Professor Goehr’s very close friend, colleague and neighbour, the world renowned Philosopher Arthur Danto died, aged 89. My Fathers death had come a few months before our meeting and was inevitably still at the front of my mind. My eating, quirks of thinking and a number of other personal topics also came up across various conversations.
One of the paintings discussed in the essay
When I read the first draft of the essay I was interested to see that these personal elements had been threaded through her brilliant essay. Normally I am quite firmly against any kind of biographical connection, both in regards to my own work and in writing on art in general. The problem with such connections is they are normally crass, often equating the content of an artists work with their biography. The reality is that any connections are far more insidious, more likely to impact upon process in complicated ways then be explicit in subject matter. Yet in her essay Professor Goehr touched upon a number of connections which I had not been aware of before, and which have given me much cause for thought since. I don’t wish to talk explicitly about the points she raises, as I will be repeating (with far less lucidity) her argument. Instead I want to use the essay as a starting point for a wider discussion about the things it has triggered in me.
When I was 16 I made a series of large paintings, two of which are below: I can distinctly remember three separate people making comments to my mum, which were broadly suggesting that the ‘dark’ subject matter must be of some concern to her. One of the commentators was a psychologist in training and seemed to think the images provided some kind of clear window onto an unsettled psychological condition. The stupidity of the analysis is worrying from not just an art critical point of view but, in the case of the professional psychologist, terrifying in terms of the crass simplicity of such an assessment. NB: The developments in psychology over the last hundred years have been, broadly, a wonderful thing, giving tool kits to practitioners from a range of approaches to help a vast number of people who suffer to varying degrees with a vast number of psychological problems. On the flip side it must be one of the most dangerous professions in the hands of idiots, which seem to include a large number of professionals, policy makers and entire sections of the health service.
The concern with the judgements on my work come back to the problem of trying to directly and simplisitcally align the creative output of an individual in terms of subject matter with their broader psychological state. The thing that interests me about the second picture, in the context of autobiography, is not the rich expressive colours and dark tonal range, nor is it the teenage moodiness of the imagery. All of this feels quite surface, quite inevitable and more to do with aesthetic tastes than anything particularly troubling. The thing that interests me is the number of images. I can distinctly remember coming into my A-level class with about 100 photos. This was pre digital (for me anyway) so I had developed about six roles of film over the weekend. The teacher suggest I pick one image and use that as a start point for a series of drawings which might lead into a painting. I did drawings, studies, collages, photocopies and experiments with nearly every image. When it came to picking images to make a final painting from I now not only had the 100 photographs but about 200 of studies in different media to explore. I felt I couldn’t pick one direction so ended up making about five large works, each of which exploited imagery from about ten of the studies. The quality of the studies and photographs was not great, and the energy was one filled with a slightly manic anxiety. This is what interests me in terms of a wider connection to biography.
In the following years my approach has be similarly inefficient in terms of whittling ideas down. was working on some images of a figure sprawling himself around on a bed in 2009. One example below:
It is quite a simple image in many ways, yet the process to get to the image was not. I took a few hundred photographs. I positioned a camera in the top corner of my bedroom and set it on a ten second timer. I then jumped down from the chair and flung myself acrobatically (by acrobatically I mean in strange uncoordinated fits) across the bed. The aim was to try and capture the energy of a fall of a figure wrestling with itself, within the confines of a domestic setting, thus making the action futile and absurd. I repeated the process over three days for about an hour each day. I then printed multiple versions of each photo. Over the next few weeks I did drawings and monoprints of each photograph multiple times. I then did a number of paintings from these images. Over the years that have followed I have gone back to some of these drawings and redrawn from them. Consider the following images:
The first image is a fairly simple return to those images. I did a new series of drawings from the photographs and then used those drawings to work on a series of falling figures. I eventually settled on three. These drawings were then scanned and arranged into a three piece group on photoshop. I then flipped and rotated the group to create a series of three options. These three options then became the building blocks for a repeat tessellating pattern which had nods to William Morris wallpaper (or perhaps Ikea wallpaper).
In the second image the process is more layered. A number of years after I took the photograph I was working on a new painting which had Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Ruben’s ‘Fall of the Damned’ in mind. I wanted a falling figure which would repeat over the surface. I worked on a large number of new drawings but in this instance happened to go back to some of the photos I had taken years before. I did a series of drawings. I particularly liked four of them. I then cut these drawings up and collaged them back together. I scanned the collage in and then printed it out and then did a series of drawings from this. It was from here that the central figure of a new painting was formed. Sometime later I was working on a graphic novel (which is coming out this September- it is a collaboration with forty poets) and a poem by Alan Buckley had made me want to include some creation type images at the start. I used the above mentioned painting as a start point and then started manipulating it on photoshop. I ended up taking a large section from the painting and then flipping and rotating it to create a four way symmetry. The image, which will appear in the book, is the second of the two images above. The central figure from the original painting is now a strange series of figures who seem to be morphing and forming doubles out of themselves. The repetition and self multiplication in the image seems to fit in nicely with the point I am trying to make. Over the course of five years a series of photographs I took (which were meant to be the basis for one painting) have been obsessively drawn, redrawn, cut up, painted, repainted, repeated, multiplied and manipulated across a number of canvases and countless boxes of drawings and folders of digital images. Somewhere in all this there is a point.
I will return to subject matter briefly. Over the years in which I have made the above images I have had a wide variety of really odd comments about the work, in regards to weird presumptions that the subject matter must somehow be reflected in me. The most common is a surprise that I seem in person to be a fairly happy, upbeat person. I think i am. Yet people seem to somehow think this is at odds with a person who makes paintings full of often violent, erotic or threatening subject matter. I see no contradiction here as I see no reason for the two to marry up and certainly even less of a reason to presume the subject matter might reflect to elements of the psyche which are bubbling away under the surface. It is the process by which the images come about that is more likely to reveal something. It is with this in mind that it is worth making some links to my childhood.
When I was about nine I played this game every weekend with white berries. i collected 64 of them and named each one (with little hand written tags). I would then draw lots from a hat (an actual hat) and pair them up. I would raise them in pairs down a hill. The winner made it through to the next round. There was a draw for each round- 64, 32, 16, quarter finals, semi finals and final. Each week there was a winner who took their place (it was a gender neutral sport) on the mantelpiece, as if the berries were their own trophy (it was more meta than I had realised at the time). Around the same age I also played football and catch (with one of those crazily bouncy balls) in the garden. I would spend hours playing football with my step dad or friends. I would also, however, happily spend hours doing either by myself. From about 7-11 I was obsessed with marbles, I used to get into school early to play against friends. I also set up day long tournaments to play against myself and an imaginary double of myself. I did the same with chess, my double tended to be better than me. I collected slightly obsessively- cans, conkers, stickers and flowers in particular.
From the age of about three my eating went strange. Over the course of about a year I cut out most foods, not that unusual at that age. I was soon eating no meat, no veg, no fruit, no rice and no pasta. An incident early on at primary school exacerbated the problem. The school tried to play the card of not letting me leave the table till I had eaten all of the meal. I, being a unpleasantly stubborn child, did not have one mouthful. I was and am amazingly stubborn, so I would happily sit there till they could not longer afford to play the game. It was ludicrous, of course. My parents tried every single approach possible, and I hate the idea of how much stress I must of put them and the rest of my family under with how difficult I was. My mum (who gave us an amazing and loving upbringing) in particular must of given the problem so much time and thought as she went about every option possible.
There is a danger of me venturing into long dull passages of autobiography here, so I will stop. The point I am trying to make is that the child portrayed above is clearly the same person portrayed in the creative process I describe early in the blog. It would not matter if I was painting flowers and cats, the chances are that the obsessive working and reworking of images, the intense thinking around a single idea and the way of working and processing thoughts and images would remain the same. It is the methodology that tells us something about a person, and the chances are that their biography will tell us the same. Which is to make that point that when we try to link events in a biography to subject matter in an artistic output we are dealing with things which are at a few steps removed. Neither of these things are necessarily about the person, they are things that the person happens to have done. It is the way people go about doing these things (regardless of what they are) in both their artistic output and their lives that is more likely to throw up some accurate, and potentially interesting, conclusions.