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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.