SOTP: It’s great to have you do the first interview. In light of this SOTP would just like to begin with a bit of context, seeing as you are the first to sit down and respond to these questions. In doing so you’re breaking from your usual studio routine, or fitting it in somewhere else in the day. One of the goals of SOTP’s interviews is to see where the distinctions lie between the painter’s practice (‘the doing’) and the painter’s context (‘the theory.’) Of course the two are never far apart, but we perhaps make work now in an increasingly critical/ theory-driven environment of contemporary art.
Do you think there are any current critical debates within contemporary art that you can relate to as a painter? Is it important, to you, to think about the wider field or are you mostly thinking about questions of Painting itself?
EM: I suppose I could draw an analogy between painting and the music scene today, where no one style or ideology prevails- perhaps this is healthy as it allows for a freedom of engagement with the medium; this may also make it difficult should you wish to comprehend any coherent theory. Living in London I’m aware of things going on in the current climate, but I’m not so preoccupied with it all as I feel too much over-contextualisation can lead to stilted or frozen responses.
SOTP: Your recent exhibition ‘Green Light Wanes’ at the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin was a wonderful show of relatively smaller works, which seemed to be taking on a wider range of narrative references within the imagery you were using. Embedded within all of this was your continued commitment to a ‘sense’ of landscape. Could you say something about the intentions within your approaches to that Kerlin show?
EM: The look of ‘landscape’ appeared in my work about a decade ago, it was a way of placing thoughts in a wider space- literally this illusion of distance in my landscapes allowed me to step back and see what I was doing. All art is kind of organic in that it delivers itself from a previous state. My approach to painting is always experimental, allowing for previous attempts to give way to newer ones- it’s a kind of unfolding openness I try to follow.
I often use the scenic background from my upbringing in the Antrim Glens as a kind of backdrop or template for a notion of landscape. This can be tricky though as I don’t see myself as a ‘landscape artist’ in the traditional sense. I feel more like an artist who sometimes uses landscape to convey or bring out something from within.
SOTP: In recent years there has been quite a lot of commentary on Painting’s ‘new relationship’ with the photograph or digital media. Some painters, like yourself, have always found new and interesting ways of employing the photograph to inform the painting process. In one body of work you made an explicit presentation of museum postcards of paintings which you had over-painted, to hang alongside another painting of your own (I’m thinking here of your postcard of Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ and your work of the same title which is in The Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery collection. You use personal photographs for paintings, ‘found’ images and also sometimes photo-collage elements in the paintings themselves. What does all of this say about the relationship between your paintings and photography?
EM: The postcards you mention have been an ongoing preoccupation. I love seeing exhibitions and trying to analyse how a painting has been made, what brush marks are used, what level of control is applied or casual disregard adopted to make the piece. At the same time I’m trying to grasp what underpins the intention of an artist. Often over the years, like many artists, I come away with postcards from particular shows and leave them hanging around my studio. At some point I’ve had enough of the postcard or I just get bored and paint over it, like I was trying to say goodbye to the image and at the same time re-establishing some of myself in the work too.
The piece you refer to on display at the Hugh Lane is a painted postcard from a Courbet show I saw in New York a couple of years ago. I was struck by how easily he seemed to move between landscape and an explicit nude work. I tried to turn the postcard image back into what looks like a darkened landscape. I really like his title too- ‘Origin of the World’- it’s poignant, funny and profound. Titles are another thing I enjoy- very often they reveal a whole new layer to a work.
To get back to your question, I think photography is just another form of image making; I use nearly all my own photographs for my work. Somehow with these landscapes it’s important for me to have a connection with the land the landscapes are taken from. I think it’s something to do with the unreliability of memory, whereby I can remind myself: that was ‘here’ or ‘there’ for sure. Subsequently I’ve this vast archive of photographs taken over 30 years or so, from everywhere but mainly from Ireland. For the final painting though, I don’t really want the emphasis to be lodged anywhere specific- I’m just using what seems familiar to my visual experience. Like an armature or a compositional construct I use it as a springboard towards something else.
SOTP: There is a fantastic juxtaposition of sorts that can be viewed just now between two adjoining rooms in The Ulster Museum in Belfast (the hangers of the work probably did not intend it.) Your painting ‘Chronicle of Orange’ can be viewed standing slightly to the right, and through the doorway to the next room can be seen Turner’s ‘Dawn of Christianity (Flight into Egypt)’.
The connections between the two works in terms of atmosphere and colour is quite remarkable, despite being 165 years apart (a sense of this is increased more so if you view the Tate Gallery’s database image of the same painting, except here it’s out of its circular frame and you can see his ‘test marks’ around the edges of the painting- this makes it an incredibly ‘contemporary’ image!) http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=71935&searchid=9515&tabview=image
This is a long way of asking you how you position your work in relation to the tradition of Romantic landscape painting?
EM: Thanks for making that observation with my painting in the Ulster Museum- I hadn’t noticed your connection, and seeing the web link to Turner’s work the first thing that struck me is the centre bit of his painting which looks like a blue explosion. It’s a great work by a great artist.
I do find this term ‘Romantic’ a bit problematic; it has many definitions, sometimes contradictory. Perhaps the very act of painting is in itself ‘romantic’, I don’t know, but I do get this label and the description never feels quite right. The Romantics from the late 18th and early 19th century seemed to be more of a god-fearing lot, living at a time in a much less secular society. Perhaps their need to portray awesomeness was a genuine shudder in the face of a vast, unknowing universe. Today, with the progress of science and globalisation, the perception of our universe seems different.
SOTP: SOTP would also like to ask its interviewed painters a straightforward question about any discovery that may have, in a background sort of way, influenced or connected with the painting process. It might be a passage from a novel, or a scene from a film, or a colour you saw on someone’s scarf. Is there any one ‘encounter’ you’ve had that sometimes slips into your mind when you’re painting or looking at a painting?
EM: Yes, there are lots of connections and triggers that find their way into my work.
The title of my recent show, ‘Green Light Wanes’, comes from Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’- the sentence is much longer: ‘…green light wanes to mauve…’ I’m attracted to writers who can use colour to convey emotion. After reading ‘Ulysses’, I felt a freedom of subject matter and a fluidity of thought. I like the way he allowed the past to flow through the present, I’m interested in this juggling with time. There’s a beauty and crudeness with his language too, which is quite an extraordinary balancing act.
At times I try to posit opposing positions in my work, sometimes deliberately trying to sabotage the work’s potential beauty… then trying to rescue it again. It’s a bit like a crazy polarity of intentions with mind and matter, and at best turning energy into form.
SOTP: One other straightforward question- whose paintings do you really love looking at, now or from the past?
EM: Another work from my recent show at the Kerlin is called ‘C.C. the C’- it’s a transcription from a painting I saw when I was doing a residency in Venice a couple of years ago. I was there for a while, which was great as it gave me time to really look at the art treasures there. In one church, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, there’s a painting by Giorgione on an easel surrounded by Tintoretto’s wall, floor and ceiling depictions of biblical scenes. The whole place is a bit overwhelming with imagery, then there’s this small work of Christ carrying the cross. It just seems to stand out in this claustrophobic environment like a moment of recognition. Oddly too it’s not completely certain who made the work, as it has also been attributed to Titian.
With contemporary artists it’s usually the feel of the whole exhibition I remember, instead of individual works. Maybe this is because artists today are often working in white gallery spaces and the whole space becomes a canvas rather than individual pieces.
I’ve a painting by Prunella Clough called ‘Array’. It’s an abstract work- I love its presence and looking at it, I also like what she’s says about making art: “Anything that the eye or the mind’s eye sees with intensity and excitement will do for a start. A gasometer is as good as a garden, probably better.”
SOTP: Finally, you have had experience over the years as a lecturer and external examiner on Fine Art Degree courses. SOTP hopes that as well as being a resource for any painter to consult, this series of interviews will be of particular interest to painting students. In the main, art college institutions are the ones that the majority of practicing painters have come through. Views and speculation have been rife for a while now about the uses and benefits of an art education in today’s world. A recent book ‘Art School- Propositions for the 21st Century’ contains a range of interesting takes on where it’s all heading for art students and art educators today. How does your own experience of being a professional practicing painter square against what is being asked of painting students today? Are there still good things about the models of painting education out there just now?
EM: I wonder about the changes in art education. A question I ask myself: are people fundamentally different from previous times? Has the need to make art altered?
I think it’s important to have some structure, but all the bureaucracy imposed from above isn’t really the most conducive way to foster a good creative environment.
I feel that some of the main things to help educate students should be support, space, funding and inspiring tutors. But ultimately it’s what they gain from their own peer group that can be the most important thing and no structure from above can prescribe these kinds of connections.
Elizabeth Magill was born in Canada, lived and studied in Northern Ireland and London, and lives and works in London now.
Represented by the Wilkinson Gallery in London and the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin, she is also featured in Phaidon’s recent survey book ‘Painting Today’ by Tony Godfrey.
Forthcoming show: Towner Art Gallery & Museum, Eastborne, March 25th to 19th June 2011