Thursday, 6 December 2012


SOTP: These interviews traditionally open with a question about the relevance of critical theory to the artist’s practice. To what extent do you connect studio work to this field- is it part of the formulation of work, or more a case of reflection after the work is made?

SC: The materials, theory, ideas and making do not always come together at the same time for me. Most of my studio work comes from time spent looking; considering and questioning much of what I see, read or experience in relation to making objects. I have an established painting process and I am very aware of my methods of working with the material(s) I have chosen to explore, mainly (physical) paint; it is then a process of how to rethink the discipline/ material without sacrificing the medium of paint.
I have spent long periods of time for example making paintings and destroying them simply to learn the limitations of the process I employ- no theory or ideas involved there. For a long time it was very important to me to understand how this stuff worked and during this period it was not about making actual art objects so much as questioning my own interpretation, understanding and use of the material of painting, controlling my natural urge to do more and knowing when to read the signs when something is working.
In relation to reflection, I am constantly reworking or considering how to push my practice forward and I find a really good way to do this is by analysing and accessing previous work to see what more can be achieved (if anything) by continuing certain lines of inquiry. Sometimes I achieve this visually and instinctively, but not always; other times it comes from places such as reading through theory or art history. These are areas I really value and continue to feel are very important within my studio working methods, an integral part of how I make and approach painting.

Susan Connolly/ Studio images/ November 2012

SOTP: What have been the recent showings of your work; have these been instrumental in bringing new or alternative departures in your practice?
SC:  Last year I was involved in a number of group shows but I don’t think any of the shows I have been involved in of late have brought new departures. I just think people/ curators are more open to the aspirations I have for my practice. For example when completing my MFA in 2002 I was working directly onto studio walls, but this process is not an easy sell if you’re showing in spaces which have a high turnover of exhibitions, as the installation of much of my work can take anything up to a week. The outcomes are completely unknown (because of the nature of the process and through the layering and peeling of the paint which can break) and then there is the clean up afterwards.

Susan Connolly/ ‘Unexpected Logic’/ acrylic and household paint and medium, wood support and canvas/ 300x190cm/ 2011

Last year I was invited to show in Red/Rua, an amazing white cube space in South Dublin. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to think of these works in a more experimental way and thankfully they were up to letting me paint some of their walls slightly blue for the install. I also completed a much larger project last summer, ‘Unexpected Logic’ in VISUAL, Carlow, as part of Eigse Festival and with this work/ installation (my largest to date) I fully realised the importance of scale and site in the reading and experience of these works. The fragility and ephemerality of the work became more and more important, as did how I wanted it to be experienced/ viewed; in a way stripping (these) painting(s) of its self-evident familiarity, by creating a sense of the curious and the peculiar- which can also be read as painting with an identity crisis but always a visual wonder!

SOTP: There is a great plurality in contemporary painting today, ranging from various types of ‘realism’ through to renewed interests in geometrical painting, narrative figuration, gestural abstraction and also expanded practices that work outside of the frame. Where do you place yourself in all of this?
SC: I don’t know is the simple answer to this; I am interested in all aspects of painting/ art, and such labels can limit one’s own interpretation or possible engagement with art that is of value and work that can be of influence. I think it is a very exciting time to be thinking about painting, with all the rhetoric of ‘death’ within the medium proving sheer nonsense again and again. Theory is one way of painting assessing itself but there are many others with very different outcomes, pluralist you might say, but all good and adding to the continued development of painting as a discipline and not painting as a project.

SOTP: Within the expanded field, there seems to exist very indistinct boundaries between what might be considered painting, sculpture and installation. Are these boundaries, or borders, important to you?
SC: Yes these boundaries/ borders are very important to me in the sense that I am always questioning myself as to whether the work I am making is actually a painting. Most of my current research is looking at this, exploring the area of when a painting can no longer be called a painting- when is it just something else?  This could be when photography, installation, sculpture or video has been influenced by painting.

 Susan Connolly/ ‘Homeliography’/ DCR Guest Studio, The Hague, Holland/ 2009

One of the things that attracts me to paint is its limits and equally its limitlessness. I try to investigate these limits by setting boundaries for myself to work within; for example, I am currently only working with Process Colour Paint (a student once told me there was no need for any other tubes of paint, as with these three colours they could paint like Rembrandt) and I also tend to only use the source materials that are intrinsic to the making of a traditional canvas painting- wood, canvas, paint, staples/ tacks, ground. By doing this I reduce painting to its most essential elements, yet with limitless new possibilities.
Sometimes work that professes itself as painting is simply not painting and I am aware of this every time I make something in the studio; it is still very important to me to hold on to actual painting, but maybe I’ll get over this idea of medium specificity someday.

SOTP: Some recent works (that might be considered more akin to sculpture) you have entitled ‘still lives’. What was the motivation behind this?
SC: Ah, well I have been thinking about the term ‘still life’ and its relevance to historical painting and also the idea of capturing the gesture of an object through the layering of paint on a canvas. I was also wondering what it might be like to make an actual image of a real thing; with most of my work being monochromatic and leaning towards reductive, making a judgement call on what is ‘worthy’ of painting into an image is extremely difficult.

Susan Connolly/ ‘Still Life- Falling’/ acrylic paint, ceramic object, canvas/ 30x10cm/ 2010-11

Much of the painting I am attracted to is image-based and sometimes I battle within myself to see the worth of some of my own inquires. Therefore in this body of work I set out to make an image, or an illusion of an image. I was thinking about making randomly constructed objects from figurines (I have always been fascinated by the naffness and sentimentality people place on such mass produced objects) and collected and constructed a number of small sculptural ‘things’; this is when the painting began as I then proceeded to apply paint which I peeled away in layers, painting the object out of itself and giving it a new form through the painting process and the peeling and revealing. This was the first step within this ‘still life’ project. Some of the objects also became sculptural fragments from previous paintings. This is a recurring theme when making my work, all of which is predominantly intuitive and subjective.

Susan Connolly/ ‘Still Life- Fold’/ acrylic paint, medium, ceramic object/ 15x10cm/ 2010-11

When they were shown last year I installed them in a way that you could view them as flat surfaced paintings from a distance as well as three-dimensional spaces, stepping ‘inside’ or ‘around’ the painting. I am currently working on a number of actual paintings of the objects/ paintings; I’m not sure as to how this will work out, but as with much of my practice it comes from previous work or questions I have about how the work may operate if thought differently or constructed in a new way.

SOTP: What was the last visual encounter you had, with anything at all, that had an impact on your studio work?
SC: My visual encounters tend to come from rather unlikely places, for example I recently saw a small blue square painted on a massive hoarding sign which could only be viewed via a motorway roundabout. It intrigued me for weeks until finally I came back with my camera to discover it had been transformed into a Lidl advertising sign. Colour and its effect upon the urban and rural environment is something I’m drawn to and I have made paintings/ interventions which are directly related to this. The last visual encounter of this kind I had, which really has had an effect within my studio work, came from a project I was involved with earlier this year and was actually not really a visual encounter so much as an experience of watching people encountering a visual experience. The project, a collaboration between University College Dublin architecture department, Dublin City Council and the National College of Art and Design, involved developing interventions in and around the Grafton Street area of Dublin in response to the Council’s ongoing regeneration project. The challenge for me became about working through research and ideas in a visual way, while also making a work which would have a direct relationship to my own studio practice.

As an artist who mostly makes work for galleries, what I learned from this public gesture was the possibility of mass audiences encountering an artwork in the most unexpected way and the effect it can have. It has given me a whole new way to think about audience, the making of a temporary artwork and how to address the many issues which arise in relation to my own practice. Making work of this nature leads to considerations of how it fits within the expanded field of painting practice.

Susan Connolly/ ‘themonumentsdayoff’/ Stephen’s Green, Dublin/ various dimensions/ 2012

full information about the project can be found on

SOTP: Which painters and paintings, now or from the recent or distant past, have influenced you?
SC: The things I find of influence are extremely varied and not always painting or painters. The Conceptual and Minimalist artists/ writers from the 1960s and 70s influence me. The work of people like Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Blinky Palmero, Ad Reinhardt and writers such as Michael Fried and Rosalind E. Krauss. Robert Rauschenberg is someone whom I consistently find something new to think about within his vast oeuvre.

Susan Connolly/ ‘Everything and Nothing’/ acrylic and household paint, wood support and canvas/ 240x320cm/ The Cross Gallery, Dublin/ 2011
Other artists I am drawn to as of late are Ellsworth Kelly, James Turrell, Isa Genzken, Richard Tuttle, John Baldessari, Olafur Eliasson, Callum Innes, Merlin James, Karla Black, Rachel Harrison, Katharina Grosse, Mikala Dwyer (after recently seeing an excellent show earlier this year in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin) and Fergus Feehily.

SOTP: You have been involved in higher level art education for a number of years now. What has been your experience of this, both as a student and lecturer? Is it a good time to be at art college?
SC: Education, and the time and space to develop that is offered in Art School, is an amazing opportunity to anyone who is ready to commit themselves, so anytime is a good time to be at art school/ college- thankfully students do not exist or experience in the same way that lecturers do within the institutions/ colleges, so even though there are massive changes happening in relation to funding, fees and structure the one positive is that all of the art schools here in Ireland have some amazing lecturers who are completely committed to the idea of creative education and value the role of the arts/ artist within society.
I do worry though about students’ expectations when they finish art school; it is hard to know as a student the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead in pursuing a long-term career in the arts. Art school can be a bubble in this sense.
Another thing that has changed dramatically since my days in art school is the over- dependency on the Internet for information. It seems everyone can now view any show anywhere in the world and feel that they have experienced the artist’s/ work’s intention. Even though in my undergraduate days there was far less to see, the actual experience of seeing work cannot be understood fully through digital media. As a tool the Internet is great, it has made us all more globally aware, more international and less self-satisfied; but I do feel there is a danger of young students/ artists not really knowing about art history, about the time things take to resolve/ make and worse still about the physical experience of viewing artworks.

Susan Connolly was born in Dublin, studied at Limerick School of Art and Design (BA, 1994-1998) and the University of Ulster at Belfast (MFA, 2000-2002). She is currently based in Kildare.
Lecturing duties have included LSAD Painting Department (2002-2003) and  IADT Visual Art Practice (2006-2009), and she is currently employed by Waterford Institute of Technology in the Fine Art Department (since 2006 ). She is also currently studying on ACW (Art in the Contemporary World) at NCAD, Dublin.
Recent exhibitions include ‘Airport for Shadows’ at The Cross Gallery, Dublin, ‘Constellations’ at Visual, Carlow and ‘Connections’ at Red/Rua, Dublin.
Upcoming exhibitions include a 3-person show in Solstice Art Centre, Navan curated by Carissa Farrell, in late 2013.

Thursday, 19 January 2012


SOTP: SOTP is interested in how painters think about Critical Theory in relation to their practice. Or if indeed it is a driver of work at all. How would you describe the importance of theoretical discourse to your work?

JD: All paintings have a theoretical aspect: they result from a highly cultivated and artificial activity, one which is also physical and dependent on a familiarity with the world of sensations. A colleague habitually refers to artists whose thinking, or theoretical discourse, he considers insufficiently developed as ‘dumb makers’. I don’t believe there are such artists; just good makers and less good ones! There are some extremely intelligent, conceptually-led artists working today who turn their hand to painting. But sometimes the results lack the ‘complexity-in-depth’ that the best paintings have, and which would keep you returning to re-engage with the work. Paintings may fail if the thinking (or theory) that underpinned them is not supple enough to support the painting; like a floor laid by a carpenter who’s forgotten to allow for the expansion and contraction of the wood.

Encountering the right idea at the right time can be like a rocket under you! I think I’m just about bright enough to recognise one when it comes along, but if I needed another sack of critical theory every time I started the next painting, I wouldn’t get much done. It’s more frequently to do with a continuous engagement. Painting as an activity seems to lose any sense unless you are doing it more or less daily. My friend Simon Callery says if he pauses a painting for a weekend, he struggles to remember what it was all about.

My own painting is a very untidy project, and so my relationship to theory is rather difficult to map. The very stuff I’m working with – its physical pressure – seems continually to force me off-message, and I have learnt to work with that. If it’s the experience of the painting that you are interested in, then you have to allow for diversion (a useful word: it expresses being forced off-track, but also being entertained!) It’s quite a physical thing, with a hefty weight of paint in places. That may not come across in reproduction. Sometimes people assume the paintings consist simply of montaged imagery. But the slippage that happens, when imagery is rendered from other media into paint, and where paint is applied almost as glue, or mortar: that’s the life of it really.

Jeffrey Dennis/ The Master of Small Things/
oil and charcoal on canvas/ 142 x 122cm/ 2007

SOTP: As SOTP comes out of Northern Ireland, it is interesting to note your exhibition of 1993 at the old Orchard Gallery in Derry. Looking at the catalogue essay by Stuart Morgan, he had described some of the works as having the ‘bulge’ of television tubes. SOTP is struck by the fact that your resolutely consistent structuring of paintings over the years has nevertheless remained very much ‘of the now’, and remains very much connected to contemporary ways of seeing. To use a language term, why have you continued in this idiom?

JD: I want to mention that the tremendous opportunity to exhibit at the Orchard came out of the blue. The gallery’s director, Noreen O’Hare, was enormously enthusiastic about the work, and insisted I come over to see Derry beforehand. I had been aware of the gallery’s extraordinary record of significant exhibitions, but what I also understood, when I had spent some time there, was that the gallery was held in very high regard by the people living in the city, and that it was a vital ‘hub’ for the arts, with artists from all over Ireland dropping in. I’ve more to say about that experience later.

Regarding consistency within the work, there have been one or two moments when just about everything about the work changed. But having developed an ‘idiom’ that seemed to have potential, I have been keen to mine it as deeply as possible. To some extent, it only develops meaning with persistence. I have really noticed this change over twenty years: from the rapid turnover of ideas and forms, some years back, to the almost sedimentary accumulation of matter and content in more recent work.

The other part of your question related to the paintings’ relations to the contemporary world; depicting or reflecting aspects of ‘the here and now’. As a student I wasted a lot of time deluding myself that serious painting involved the exclusion of much of contemporary life. Then I gradually understood that it would be more fruitful for me to explore the margins of the medium; the zones that painting may share with other media: film, television, photography, the imagery of popular culture, even the non-visual, narrative and text. Granting myself this freedom seemed like quite a big deal when I was at the Slade: in 1970s Bloomsbury any legacy of Pop Art had been left to wilt like an unwatered pot plant. Suddenly, much more seemed possible, and I was able to be much more inclusive in how I constructed paintings. Of course, I wasn’t the only artist to have this realisation around that time. The critic Achille Bonito Oliva in the introduction to his 1985 show Le Nuove trame dell’Arte, in which I was included, noted that there was “ … the possibility of the work to represent not only the fragmentary pulse of the creator but also his relationship to the world. This relationship is the fruit of a linguistic model which synthesizes within itself an artistic vision and the constant rapport of an artist to his reality.”

However (and this relates to ‘sedimentary accumulation’), there is a cliché about the image-overload of contemporary life, with some kind of ecstatic drift through random mediated imagery as the only possible artists’ strategy to reflect this. There is something else; a kind of persistence of imagery that you notice if you have a daily journey through part of a city: perhaps a 1970s ‘Visit Jamaica’ poster, bleached to pale blue, that no-one in the travel agent’s office can be bothered to replace, or the ‘GEORGE DAVIS IS INNOCENT’ graffiti that endured long after the gangster had been caught ‘bang-to-rights’ for the second time. These are tokens of a historical discontinuity that tends to get glossed over. Perhaps the pace of painting – how it allows for layering and de-synchronicity – may be more suited to reflect this kind of experience, these kinds of connections.

SOTP: The French poet and writer Paul Valery wrote with great foresight that in the future all of our images and sounds would be piped straight into the home. One of the reasons your paintings appear to keep updating themselves is that in the face of our increasingly ‘virtual’ world of the digital, your very real and tangible painted surfaces of bubbles (read pixels), pipes (read optical fibre cables) and montage scenes (read computer windows opened together on a single screen) are keeping Painting ahead of the game. Does it strike you this way?

JD: I am of course aware that the way I have been ‘insetting’ spaces within paintings is somewhat like computer-screen windows. As a picturing strategy, I developed it in the mid 1980s, quite a long time before I ever touched a computer. It’s one of those cases where there is an interesting convergence. It was something that allowed me to bring together different areas of visual experience, and different currencies of paint-handling in one place. As I mentioned earlier, I feel painting has the potential to adopt a discourteous mimicry of the idioms employed by other media. Early on, I became envious of film-makers: they can cut away, pan, track, jump back and forth in a narrative. Of course they use time and sequencing to achieve this. I asked ‘how do you do that with a painting?’

The pipes and tubes emerged from my long immersion in the urban environment; working and living in buildings that were falling apart or in constant state of repair and renewal. I also have a great collection of photos of road-works! I still find myself paying unreasonable attention to the down-pipe arrangements on buildings. It’s similar to the anatomist’s curiosity to expose the body’s network of veins and arteries.
The ‘bubblescape’ developed as an analogue manipulation and extension of certain observed phenomena, like the bubbles of detergent in a kitchen sink. What it offered was a way of modulating, by layers of small marks, the atmospheric density of the picture space; a permeable, breathable space could also become a hard and pebbly, resistant surface.

Road-works, Whitehall, London, 2011

SOTP: Who have been your main Painting influences over the years, both in historical and recent terms?

JD: Early on, David Trenow, an artist and musician who taught at my secondary school. By actually working on his own paintings and sculptures in class while he was teaching, he made the pursuit of art look feasible. He was then a recent graduate from Hornsey; enthusiastic, witty and superbly untainted with that joyless earnestness that always threatens to clog art education.

At the Slade I fell under the influence of a kind of awkward squad of painters who at that time were trying to find ways forward from Anglo-American abstraction: Mick Moon, Christopher LeBrun, Michael Porter, Ed Whittaker.
After graduation I was fortunate to stumble into a part-time job at Whitechapel Gallery. Serota was just getting into his stride, presenting a succession of shows by artists that no-one before had told me about: Richter, Lupertz, Beckman, Guston, Kahlo, Keifer, Baselitz, Atkinson, Morley, Clemente, Schnabel; it was the best possible postgraduate experience I could have hoped for.

The East End in wider terms provoked consideration of different kinds of assertive figuration. Around the corner from the Whitechapel, Brick Lane was plastered with posters for Bengali films, where you would often get a jumble of characters from the film depicted at different scales. In Limehouse you could see old banners of the trade union movement at the old Museum of Labour History (now in Manchester). There also was still plenty of work visible by the East End Mural artists, including Ray Walker.

Film posters from the 'Palaseum' Cinema, Commercial Road,
Stepney, c.1984

Part of a trade union banner from the old Museum of Labour History,
Limehouse, c.1984

The ‘New Image’ tendency overheated quite quickly: everyone (including some former hard-line minimalists and conceptualists!) was suddenly painting huge, dramatic figures. But I found the paintings of Nicholas Africano at about that time, and a little later Öyvind Fahlström. Both deserve to be more widely known. Both of them provided important ideas about alternative ways to structure a painting; an economy of means.
I’ve tried to keep looking where others weren’t. I also spent time looking at painters and craftsmen associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement (I’m probably still the only artist to have discussed John Everett Millais in a lecture for Goldsmiths Fine Art course!) I still use the wallpaper and tapestry designs of William Morris as an (eventually hidden) armature to nearly every painting.

Jeffrey Dennis/ The New Refusniks/ oil and charcoal on canvas/
36 x 47cm/ 2009

SOTP: Going back to your Derry connection: a Google search for ‘The Siege of...’ quickly offers up Derry as the number one search term, and Leningrad as number 4. In 2000 you were commissioned by the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham to produce a work which you entitled ‘The Siege of Birmingrad’, in which you layered a fascinating series of disparate histories. This work appears all the more prescient in the light of the recent London Riots which spread to Birmingham and Manchester. It was also another example of your tendency to sometimes ‘move out of the frame’. Can you say something about these aspects of your practice?

JD: It was mildly surreal to visit Derry. I spent my teenage years in Colchester, garrison town of the Parachute Regiment. There were some pubs it was generally thought unwise to enter if your hair was longer than collar-length. When I visited Derry, a place that looks to me much like Colchester, I was shocked (even though I had grown up watching the news-footage of bombs and riots) to see foot patrols of the same troops in full camouflaged battle-kit, padding cautiously through the town, assault rifles pointing in all directions. Of course the locals had lived through more than twenty years of it, and were getting on with their shopping. It was an almost comic juxtaposition.

Many cities are like clusters of villages that have expanded until they have been squashed together. This is particularly my impression of Birmingham. Very different communities live alongside each other, usually quite happily. For the Ikon commission, I wanted to speculate on what would happen if this co-existence broke down, as happened in Sarajevo. It was a way to celebrate a catastrophe not happening! The form of the work was deliberately unfinished, changing throughout the exhibition; an analogy for how ‘town-planning’ is constantly outflanked by actual events and by the way people actually choose to use their cities.

I now live in Tottenham. The fact that thirty different languages were spoken at my daughter’s school is certainly not the cause of it becoming the epicentre of the recent disturbances. But now it’s my neighbourhood that’s burning down, it would be strange not to consider making a painting that somehow touches on these events. That’s what I’m working on now.
I just mentioned Morris: in his novel News from Nowhere there is a visionary collapsing of time and alternative futures. One episode, a description of Victorian civil unrest in Trafalgar Square, seems to forecast the London poll-tax riots of 1990, and the book seems to share some territory with Philip K.Dick’s The Man in the High Castle where the narrator encounters ‘bubbles’ of alternative realities.

Jeffrey Dennis/ The Artist Successfully Levitating in the Studio/
oil and charcoal on canvas/ 35.5 x 40.5cm/ 2011

SOTP: Finally, you continue to have strong connections to- and influence in - Fine Art higher education. What are the challenges and exciting things within this today, for both tutor practitioners and students?

JD: I don't think I have much influence. I’ve never, for more than a short time, ever actually ‘run’ anything. Probably just as well! But I guess I have visited about ninety percent of the art colleges in the UK at one time or other.
A big challenge will be how to continue to accommodate artists as teachers within what has become an increasingly ‘pedagogically-professionalised’ system. I started working in art schools in the most casual way. That route, of being absorbed into teaching almost by osmosis, is drying up.
I belong to the first generation of UK art students to get a degree rather than a diploma, the change that some of my older colleagues regard as the point where things started to go wrong. I can’t share that view. Stephen Farthing, who ran the Ruskin, used almost to have punch-ups with Oxford academics from other disciplines who voiced their scepticism about whether Fine Art can possible be worth a degree. He was absolutely right to defend the academic credibility of the field. But a BA, an MA or a PhD will never be a prerequisite to being an artist. There has recently been a lot of fresh thinking about alternatives to the established art schools (just Google: ‘alternative art school’ or ‘the future of art education’) and I would hope this will develop the critical momentum to change the landscape.

We are fortunate that art schools still attract really inventive, questioning, ambitious students, and there are plenty at Chelsea where I work now. We shall soon see what effect the rise in fees is going to have, but I have to say that, currently, the demographic mix on the course I teach is wider than it’s ever been in the past. I enjoy being there too. One day, I was waiting for the elevator. The doors opened to reveal the lift-cage completely rammed: four students, with guitar, drums, keyboard, saxophone, amps; noodling their way through some improvised free jazz number. As the doors closed and I turned to take the stairs, I thought ‘This is a good place to work’.

Jeffrey Dennis was born in Colchester, England, and studied at The Slade in London. He has been a Lecturer in Fine Art at The Ruskin School in Oxford and Chelsea College of Art and Design.

His most recent solo show was ‘Extracts from the Log’ at Michael Richardson’s Art Space Gallery in London in 2008.

He’s currently working on the next painting.