Martin Herbert in conversation with Fiona Rae
You’ve always struck me as a very rigorous artist in that you periodically refresh your practice: you create problems for yourself, roadblocks to navigate in order to get somewhere new and surprising. In the case of these recent paintings, various changes are evident—shifts in tonal palette and iconography—that seem related, at least in part, to the drawings you began making last year. What was the starting point?
It did begin with those charcoal drawings. I wanted to reboot my practice, and one of the first things you do at art school is charcoal drawings on paper—so I thought, let’s start from first principles. The inspirations for the drawings came from a variety of sources, from Dr. Seuss to Dover Books of dragons and demons, and Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage, photographs of Europeans dressed up as wild animals for pagan rituals. I’d also seen Chen Rong’s thirteenth-century Nine Dragons at the V&A, and printed it out almost life size to tape up on my studio wall: it’s about fifty feet long. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the artist had conjured up swirling clouds and dragons out of black brush marks and a touch of red here and there. And then there was something else. I sometimes go off on workshops to try different art forms—partly to shake myself up, partly to see whether there’s something useful there for my own work—and I did a trance mask workshop. It was bizarre. You put on a half-mask and are suddenly shown your image in a mirror. For some reason, people behave very strangely when they see the mask fused with the bottom half of their own face; they become something else. I tried to use something from that experience to approach making the charcoal drawings–as if I was inhabiting some other part of myself that isn’t usually so directly expressed when making an image.
It’s appropriate, given your interest in dragons, that this process seems to have a long tail. We’re not even at the paintings yet.
Well, the same set of things led to the paintings, although I’d add to that the experience of seeing the display at the National Gallery of two of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers paintings last year. I was very struck, and moved, by the intensity of the mark making. Every single mark on the paintings seems intended as an urgent communication by the artist; and yet there’s incredible pathos that this urgency is being communicated by bristles on the end of a brush, with a bit of slightly murky paint. It inspired me to move towards a much more direct way of painting, where everything on the canvas was a result of my hand making a mark.
Very different to, say, your application of stencilled images onto canvases, which you previously used to force the redirection of your brushstrokes. Maybe once you know how it’s going to be redirected—these things can only work for a while?
Exactly right. Those stencilled images, with their raised edges, were like hairballs in the cake mixture; something that stopped both the viewer, and my brush, in their tracks. I think that particular series was an endgame—actually perhaps painting is always an endgame, but I’d invented an obstacle course and once I became too familiar with the hurdles, I felt I had to change them or get out of the room altogether. So I decided to get out of the room and do something else completely. This new series of paintings has no splashes, no drips, no pours of paint. There are no little cartoon images, no hearts, no stars, no signs, no symbols, no distancing. And yet I feel that these new paintings are entirely what I do, even without the usual colour. Another key thing that happened last year is that I decided to trust that whatever I did would look contemporary. And that was incredibly liberating.
A few of these paintings seem very explicit, even programmatic about that. You could look at what goes on with the figure—for they do, uncommonly for you, strongly suggest a central figure—and say, well, there’s a relationship to Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) there, but also a relationship, in the blurring and rubbing out, to the way you might work with the tools of Photoshop.
Aha—you got the two big things, the Erased de Kooning and Photoshop. When I was making the charcoal drawings, I wanted to be de Kooning making a Woman drawing or painting, and at the same time I wanted to be Rauschenberg erasing it. That seemed to me to be the perfect answer to the problem of allowing oneself to make a drawing of a figure without disappearing into the past. Doing it and undoing it until some kind of image just about arrives. With the paintings, I had the same notion of erasure, while at the same time both longing to make a figure appear and wishing to remain in the field of abstraction. As for Photoshop, it’s hard now to remember a time when it didn’t inform the way I see the world. Desaturation, blurring, inversion; all those easy Photoshop tools have become a part of me as an artist.
Is there a larger aspect to this—that you could say erasure, in these paintings, is a form of making, but it’s also the case within your practice as a whole because you consistently go forward by saying ‘I’m not doing this anymore’?
Yes, I’m delighted to be able to erase the previous painting paradigm in order to start something else. And yet these new paintings are only possible because of the previous paintings; it’s not a negation of them, erasure is the best word really, because in an analogue world complete erasure isn’t possible, there are always traces and clues left behind. I want to continue to explore what’s possible in the realm of abstraction because for me that’s the most exciting and inventive place to be, but I also want to see whether I can hang the painting on the notion of a figure that’s there and not there—to use that to hold all the paint marks together and make a convincing composition.
Certainly some aspects of the previous works seem there—the way that there are explosions going off across the canvas, but here they’re reframed by the connective tissue that suggests the figure. The figure, amid those explosions, seems like it’s being blown up, immolated, beginning to assume form but not quite. There are these cartoonish tortures it goes through. There’s something you could interpret as pretty bad going on, but it’s happening to a cartoon character, almost. Yet that cartoon character is also paint strokes, so there’s a seriousness about what it means to make a painting and take a painting apart. A version of angst, but there’s also real anxiety in there. Whenever you try to pin them down, they’ll tend to flick and offer the opposite reading.
I hope so; that dichotomy of intention is something that I’m aware of while making them. Cartoon violence isn’t real violence, yet it’s a powerful image; I remember a campaign to ban Tom and Jerry at the end of the 70s because people were disturbed at the sight of a cartoon character being hit on the head with a drawing of a saucepan. I also remember discussing Lichtenstein’s Whaam! on a radio programme, and the interviewer seemed genuinely concerned that a pilot was actually being blown up. I guess that although it isn’t real violence, it’s a necessary acting-out of violent urges. There’s something about representing human experience in cartoon form that to me seems meaningful and bathetic; not real but attached to the real. Cartoons by themselves can seem quite narrow; they don’t really transcend themselves. But when artists use them as inspiration, that’s when it really takes off. I believe Picasso used to look at Herriman’s Krazy Kat—many artists did, of course—and there’s so much in it that’s poetic and open, the inventive language, the way the landscape flips from day to night, the way objects randomly appear and disappear. But when I look at Picasso’s late Musketeer paintings, which have a cartoonish aspect to them, something quite amazing has taken place that’s both visually exciting and emotionally satisfying, and goes beyond the delineated forms on the page of a cartoon. Perhaps it’s just the use of paint itself with its unpredictable behaviour that completes the transformation.
I wonder how strategic you are being about using cartoonish imagery as a reference in expressing the problem of painting, and finding a way to speak about that without alienating viewers with sombreness. If you can only make a modern painting, then right now an artist might start with the position that painting, per se, is a ridiculous activity but deeply serious at the same time—and ask, what’s the language for that?
Exactly, and each painter has to figure that language out for themselves. I love the idea of being engaged in an activity that is both ridiculous and deeply serious; that seems apposite considering what it’s like to be alive. There are so many ways to make paint language, and there are so many kinds of paint language that I’m interested in and that I reach for, but even as I’m doing it I’m wondering whether it’s the right language for this particular moment. Is it OK to use these easy cartoon curves or to use the brush backwards so that it scuffs? I know the answer too, I suppose—it’s OK because look, I’m doing it, and in the doing it, I’m making it OK. I think it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties, to be aware of them, and nevertheless to propose this.
The rectangle itself helps with that. Geometry, which never lies, presents the work as a fait accompli.
Yes, there’s an authority to the geometry of the rectangle that’s helpful in laying down the challenge. And these are quite specific rectangles; they’re six feet high and fairly narrow, so that they can fit a human in them, unless you’re six foot three. The studio with these paintings lined up in it looks like a skew-whiff version of those grand stately halls of full-length portraits. They’re also more or less my height; when I’m making them it’s all within the reach of my arms. It’s a bit like a session in a gym; there are a lot of stretches, lunges and star jumps.
Now in that regard, and given that you have to make this physical effort and movement, and what you’re constructing is both very sincere and aware of its own absurdity, does this process then scale up beyond questions of painting, to an attitude to life? I wonder how far one could push this, because you’re allowing something to be seen as a cartoon that also depicts disintegration, a body that’s coming apart—or coming together.
For me, my paintings are a reflection of what it’s like to be alive. I don’t experience the world as a complete whole with clearly delineated boundaries; there are terrible mismatches between myself and the outside world. And yet, it’s strange how the body and mind work together to help take care of the difficulty, so that one can look complete, even if from the inside it can be a bit of a disaster. One can see the consequences in oneself and other people, that there can be a constant coming apart, a constant undoing, and the optimistic thing is that one reconfigures and puts it together again, even if just for a moment. I guess I hope these paintings reflect that: the difficulty of moving through the world and looking like a whole person.
Against all that, there’s a lightness about this work: a physical lightness, they’re almost lighter than air.
I think the direct painting of ‘wet into wet’ suggests an immediacy and a lightness to the proposal; the brush marks are mutable and contingent and change track at the drop of a hat. If things can be so easily added and subtracted then it suggests a fluidity to the world being created, that nothing lasts for ever. I was also concerned to give the brush marks lots of breathing space, to allow some of them to be themselves and act themselves without necessarily having to acknowledge or be affected by the painterly flurries going on around them.
They move fast, too.
Absolutely; I think that’s because every mark is made in the moment, is a representation of a real-time gesture or impulse. Also, many of the fast speed marks are allowed to survive, they’re not always worked over and turned into something else. Possibly the slowest thing is the ground, but that’s just a given starting point: take a blank canvas, paint it a tone of grey and see what happens next.
Actually, colour in general might constitute another speed—the relationships, the subtleties in the colour are slower, and that makes your eyes recalibrate.
Yes, like reading a book in a darkened room. Also, if you’re using a number of colours, the colour relationships start expanding exponentially, and maybe that in itself suggests a kind of visual speediness and activity. I had no idea whether I could make a painting just using a tube of black and a tube of white; it seemed the logical thing to try after the charcoal drawings–to see whether they could lead to paintings–and there didn’t seem to be any need to add colours from the spectrum. Although, conversely I do think they’re surprisingly colourful. When you look at the photographs of the paintings in Photoshop, the RGB values show there’s red in the white and pale greys, and blue and green in the darker greys. It wouldn’t be possible to make an oil and acrylic painting that was literally desaturated, as if from a Photoshop process. And it would look very different to these paintings, probably quite flat. But because these paintings are not really just greyscale, there’s a slight colour buzz and a liveliness to the tonal relationships.
It seems you want every mark to count now. That might be a lesson from Van Gogh?
I get to spend my time doing all the best bits, the bits I like doing: making paint marks, drawing with the paint, un-painting with the paint, un-drawing. All the stuff that’s engaged, that’s performative, that’s to do with moving paint around, gets to happen much more than previously. Once I’d decided what wasn’t going to appear in the paintings any more, that cut out many of the lengthy setting-up processes that I’d used over the years. Stepping out of those systems felt very refreshing.
How do you actually compose these? Do the compositions come from drawings?
I pin up a printout of a drawing in order to feel that I’ve got a helpmeet–a little Tinkerbell thing that says, oh look, this is what the painting could look like. It never turns out to be particularly helpful apart from maybe suggesting that I might put something top left and not bottom right. It’s a safety net that doesn’t take my weight at all, so I have to completely improvise anyway. I don’t know whether the entities in the paintings are the same figure albeit in different outfits and in different moods, but I like the idea of phantasmagoria; shifting images made out of smoke and light.
You take aspects from the sources you’ve mentioned. What actually gets taken?
It’s hard to say exactly. It’s something as nebulous as ‘things I like’. An image with a strong graphic shape or visual texture is useful because it helps me invent something dynamic or particular on the canvas, but then it’s merged with other things, and fused and corrupted by my imagination. In the studio at the moment, I have two calligraphy paintings from my parents’ house, done with the thumb; I noticed that from a distance my new work can look like somewhat unruly Chinese calligraphy.
How autobiographical do you think your work is, how inextricable from your past?
I think it probably is inextricably linked to my childhood experiences and background, because no matter how much I might make conscious and strategic changes, the work always looks like I made it. The constant factor is me—what goes to make up me, my predilections, my likes and dislikes, my horrors. Things shift as the years go by, but I can’t ever escape myself and become someone else. The love of cartoons, calligraphy and the attachment to Chinese dragons must come from my early childhood, but there was also the intense experience of going to art school and the things I encountered there at a very formative moment. And school as well—I loved literature and language, and thought those were what I would pursue, not art. I wonder whether using words is something that’s important to me that I don’t get to do: I use paint instead—and I guess the way I use paint is something to do with the way I would use words.
You’re titling all these works some variant of ‘Figure’.
Again, a return to first principles; it’s probably one of the simplest ways you can title an artwork. Figure also means example. I hope people read it like that—it’s not just ‘here’s a figure’, it’s also ‘here’s an example’. Because the paintings are a series of examples.
It’s exciting to me, the way you create a structure for something to happen within. It seems really clear that that’s going on, from the gradient within the series of canvases—very light to very dark—to the programmatic disassembling and reassembling of this figure. But it never goes quite the way you expect, and it’s an evocation of possibility. Painting is always enacted in a tight space, but within it, huge things can transpire.
Yes, the instructions are really quite clear: black, white and grey brush marks coalescing around some abstracted notion of an entity, a thing, a figure. But when I start painting, everything goes quiet, I forget that it’s a tight space and I find that I am swept up into the compelling world of painterly possibilities. Nothing turns out quite how I intend it, nothing falls out the way I think it will, but that’s the excitement and challenge for me of the way I make a painting.