Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118“. From the series ”Helen's Odyssey."
For nearly four decades, San Diego–based artist Eleanor Antin has provocatively engaged histories real and imagined through photographs, performances, films, videos, writings, and drawings. Since 2001, she has completed three series of allegorical photographs based on Roman life: “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Roman Allegories,” and “Helen’s Odyssey.” A survey that focuses on these works, titled “Historical Takes,” is on view through November 2 at the San Diego Museum of Art.
ALL MY LIFE I have had a passion for ancient Greece, since reading Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. At the time I first read it, I wished that I could live in ancient Greece. But then, later, when I found out how badly they treated women, I kind of cheated and just shifted my allegiance to ancient Rome, where women had some rights and might even have lived interesting lives. One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad. There is always something autobiographical in my work, and when I made the connection between where I live now and my first love, I jumped on it.
“The Last Days of Pompeii” provokes an immediate response, since the story has entered the poetic imagination of Western culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to use contemporary people in my own Southern California and pass them off as more or less believable Romans. Stylistically, I used the image structures of nineteenth-century French and English salon painting, which had flattered colonial Europe by depicting it as the new Rome. “Roman Allegories,” which I did next, is, I think, less accessible—perhaps because allegory, despite its rich history in premodern art, is not part of contemporary culture. Only recently have artists become interested again in telling stories. (Allegory is, of course, related to representation, and for some time, representation was anathema to an art world that glorified abstraction.) Whereas my Pompeii depicted everyday Roman life, in this series, I highlighted theatricality and explored a number of commedia dell’arte archetypes and their shifting relationships to one another. I believe this series was more complex. I was going through a bad time in my life, so there’s a darkness that pervades the images that I think adds to their mystery. (In fact, a skeleton that I’ve kept in my studio for decades makes a few cocky appearances in some of the photographs.) These photographs work like a hall of mirrors. I like to think of them as defective narratives that can be made whole by looking deeper into them for layers of meaning, for more stories. “Helen’s Odyssey,” which I just completed last year, is a kind of amusing riff on the male epic. Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.
Looking at all three series together, as I’m now able to do, I find even more connections between them —psychological, political, philosophical—than I had previously suspected. When I was working, I moved both intuitively and intellectually. But perhaps I couldn’t realize how deeply each series flowed into the next. Looking at the images now, I think, Wow! I didn’t waste the last eight years. This exhibition reveals that my three series constitute a complex single invention that was worth the effort after all.
The works themselves blend pathos and comedy, or comedy and tragedy. This may be due in part to the influence of my mother, who worked in Europe on the Yiddish stage—and we all know the Yiddish theatrical and literary tradition: “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.” Comedy and tragedy go together; I could never separate them. We’re on the edge of the abyss at every moment, and it doesn’t make sense for an art world to be entirely too committed to one mode of expression or the other. We live both all the time.
Left: The cover of Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Right: Antal Strohmeyer, The Philosopher's Garden, Athens, 1834, oil on canvas.
Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Here he discusses that book.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.
In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.
This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.
In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.
The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.
Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.
Laurie Anderson, Homeland, 2004–. Performance views.
Many people came to know Laurie Anderson through her 1980 song “O Superman,” which rose to number two on the British pop charts. Anderson has had an eclectic and wide-ranging career as an artist, developing music and multimedia performance works for numerous venues and films. In 2002, she became NASA’s first artist-in-residence, and in 2007, she was the recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. She will perform her latest work, Homeland, a “concert poem,” as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, July 22–26.
HOMELAND HAS TAKEN all sorts of guises. Most things you write in the studio, and then you go out and play them. Much of the material for this project, about forty songs, was developed on the road, and it keeps evolving. (There are about sixteen that I’ll use at Lincoln Center.) While it’s stabilized a bit, it’s not a final form; it’s really fun to do something that doesn’t have a final instance.
Homeland is one-third politics, one-third pure music, and one-third strange dreams. The project began while I was at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. I was doing a film called Hidden Inside Mountains, a series of visual fables presented on a huge stage. They had written words—postcards of sorts. One of them had a story about the feeling of losing things, like when you’ve lost something and you’re trying to put your finger on what it was. And you think, what’s that thing you’ve lost? Car keys? Password? The Japanese translator was asking me, “What did you lose?” And I said, “No, it’s about the feeling of losing things, not the thing itself.” And she asked, “Well, when did you lose it?” And I thought, “Ah, now I’m being psychoanalyzed by the translator. How great.” But I really did try to think about when this happened, and I realized it was when we were invading Iraq, and that what I’d lost was my country. That was the moment I discovered I’d really like to write about this sensation. How does your sense of place affect who you are?
I was feeling very detached in a lot of ways. Homeland currently begins with a quote from Aristophanes’s The Birds. Last summer, I performed it at the Herod Atticus at the Acropolis; it was the most hallucinatory experience to be quoting an ancient Greek play in an ancient theater in Greece. The theater was full of birds, and the story was, of course, about birds. There’s a part of Aristophanes’s play that describes a time before the world began. Since there was no land, only air, the birds were constantly in flight. The first bird was a lark, and one day, her father died, which was a colossal problem. Burying your parents was a big deal in Greek tragedy. What do you do with their bodies? So the lark is panicking, wondering what to do, and she finally decides to bury her father in the back of her own head. I describe this act as the beginning of memory, and to me, it had a haunting connection to our century, in terms of groundlessness—how much we’re detached from a sense of place. It’s all very theoretical, very digital. A lot of the stories in Homeland are about the disappearance of things. Record stores, phone booths—what it means when things turn into numbers, and how you deal with that.
The war was the thing that inspired this. And since this is Artforum, I’ll say I was really surprised at how quiet artists and intellectuals were, after Susan Sontag stopped talking. When I say Homeland is political, it’s in a very loose sense—though some of the work is quite specific. I’m sure some people will find it didactic. And I can see that reaction; it’s actually my biggest fear. As an artist, I want to create something that’s very open-ended and that gives people, myself first of all, a feeling of freedom. Something people could use as a way to get out of traps. I’m always looking for that: How do I get out of the most recent trap I’ve built?
I wrote a song with a verse that goes, “Only an expert can deal with a problem.” It comes—like a lot of this stuff—from being annoyed at things, and one of the things that really annoys me is living in a culture that’s so much about therapy. We always assume there’s something wrong with us. I like to start from the opposite place, which is that there’s nothing wrong, you’re just trying to live. It’s hard to live. And so all of this stuff about “Ask your doctor . . .” seems preposterous to me. Of course, I’m not talking do-it-yourself brain surgery. I’m just saying, step up to the plate a little bit. That’s one of the things the Dalai Lama is always harping on. The news is about bad things, but those are exceptions. Look at how well behaved most people are all the time. You know, we should probably loosen up a bit, actually, not be quite so buttoned up. I like the world the way it is; I’m not really doing this to change anything. Art can change the world, but the relationship between art and politics is so problematic, and I’m careful to steer away from making art into propaganda. I just like to, as an artist, try to describe stuff in a way that maybe is a little bit different than it seems at a first look.
that open space within (detail), 2008, dead horse-chestnut tree, rope, and findings, dimensions variable.
Anya Gallaccio often works with and transforms organic materials, and in her new exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Centre, titled “that open space within,” the artist presents the reconstructed fragments of a large chestnut tree. Here she discusses the undertaking.
WHEN I WAS INVITED to exhibit at Camden, I knew almost immediately I wanted to bring some aspect of the garden inside, to develop a relationship between the gallery’s interior and exterior. Eventually, I settled on the idea of finding a tree roughly the height of the building and bringing the middle section into the gallery. I contacted a number of tree surgeons, gave them the gallery’s dimensions, and asked them to call me if they were about to take something down that might fit. This introduced an element of chance to the project—having to work with what I was offered—and we ended up settling on a dead chestnut quite close to the deadline. I’m not a tree hugger, but I couldn’t justify felling a tree for a temporary project; I wanted one that was already slated to come down.
I had aimed to have the tree dissected in uniform eight-foot lengths (roughly human-scale) to emphasize the physical experience of being within the space of a tree and to impose a serial, rational logic. The actual form of the tree disrupts this logic. Despite showing the tree surgeon my detailed drawings for and documentation of one art, a similar work that I presented in New York in 2006, the fact of the matter is that he was up on a cherry picker with a huge chain saw, and the cuts were necessarily a bit haphazard. The tree had been dead a long time and was going to become unstable and dangerous. This was both good and bad for me. It reduced the weight of the wood, but it also meant that it was incredibly brittle—there was no flexibility in it. I enjoy that improvisation, the on-the-spot, pragmatic decision-making.
Some of the resulting pieces are fragile; others are hideously heavy and overbearing; the first section weighs one and a half tons. I’m amazed at the strength and engineering of trees, with their huge branches that spread out horizontally and resist the forces of the weather. Obviously, I destroyed the structural integrity of the branches by choosing to cut them, and in putting them back together chose to emphasize the mending or fixing. The bolts extend way beyond the surface of the wood—like pins in a fractured limb—and the ropes hold it in traction within the space. There’s no illusion there, and I’m not trying to disguise the artifice of the reconstruction.
The gallery in London is on the second floor of the building, so we took the middle section of the tree—beginning seven meters [twenty-three feet] from the base, the height of the gallery floor from the street outside. The trunk seems to be coming through the floor and fills the space. I hope it is like being up in a tree. (The stump was left at the site as a habitat for bats.) I’m interested in basic, rather banal stuff, like how big trees are and how we relate to them physically. I’m a real townie; I’m a little bit terrified and overwhelmed by nature. My curiosity is more morbid than celebratory.
The artist, musician, designer, and impresario Malcolm McLaren is perhaps best known for his role as the manager of the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow and for the mercurial clothing store on Kings Road that he founded in 1971 with Vivienne Westwood. From now through mid-August, Creative Time is presenting McLaren’s multimedia project “Shallow,” a series of “musical paintings,” on MTV’s HD screen in Times Square. McLaren is currently at work on a Broadway musical about the rise of Christian Dior’s fashion house and the emergence of pop culture after World War II.
LAST FALL, some contemporary artists invited me to participate in a show at I-20 Gallery titled “Shallow.” I probably would have turned them down had the invitation occurred in Paris or London, but for some reason—and probably no one else would ever say this—the idea of doing an art project in New York sounded very romantic to me. The project I came up with is a multimedia work. I call the pieces musical paintings. (I wanted to steer them away from movies or videos.) They’re very slow-moving portraits of people thinking about, desiring, wanting, wishing for, and imagining having sex. The series features original musical “cut-ups” done by me—that’s not “mash-ups,” but rather wholesale grabs from the entire history of pop culture set to new grooves. (They’re loosely inspired by William Burroughs in that regard.) The result is a hypnotic look at this moment in some people’s lives that I compare to the moment you first, having reached puberty, heard a pop record, a rock ’n’ roll record; that moment of liberation, if you like—of the potential for unbridled sex. (Not that you were necessarily ever gonna get it. More often than not, you didn’t.)
I ended up making twenty-one of them in all, and the series was first shown in its entirety at Art Basel. I was trying to produce—not to sound pretentious—something that navigates what I’m obsessed by: the look of music and the sound of fashion. I suspect my next project will be what these people look like after they’ve had sex. That will definitely be accompanied by a very different kind of sound track, but I haven’t gotten there yet.
I did all the music first. (The launching point was actually “About Her,” an earlier cut-up of mine Quentin Tarantino used in Kill Bill.) I sat in the studio, worked for twelve weeks. Every day, I would go back down to those awful record stores, and I’d troll around and I’d bring back fifty to sixty CDs and go through them all and nitpick and cut ’em up and stick them together and bash on some simple groove that I’d grabbed from some piece of software and cut them up again until I thought: “That works, day’s ended. I’ve done one.” I ended up with about thirty pieces, of which I’ve used, obviously, twenty-one.
I cut the movies separate from the music. I didn’t want them to connect in that way; I wanted them to be somewhat disconnected. That’s why sometimes the music is longer than the picture, and sometimes the picture is longer than the music. It didn’t matter. When I’d finished all the movies, I just stuck the music on. Though I didn’t choose it originally, the word “Shallow” stuck with me. I thought, well, everybody accuses pop culture of being nothing short of shallow, of having shallow feelings, and in many respects, that’s right. But often where something is shallow, there’s also something much deeper.
I took the shallowest movies, which are these sex movies with charming little preambles, pre–1972–73—the kind of movies I remember projecting on 8 mm in my squats with other art students when we were bored and cold on those winter nights. They’d write these shabby little stories, ten-minute intros, just to give the movie some integrity beyond a bonking session. For this project, I watched something like five hundred intros from between 1962 and 1972, because in 1972 or thereabouts, that part of the movie industry changed radically and became just pure bonking. When the earlier movies were made, porn stars didn’t really exist, and a lot of those people might have been students, or just ordinary people having fun, or wannabe actors or actresses. There’s a fabulous naïveté to them that is very revealing, especially when you slow them down.
Today, we’re so used to being stuffed with eye candy, with fast food, fast art, fast culture, that to take something really simple and just slow it down is the opposite of how we live. I think our culture today can be summed up by two words: authenticity and karaoke. They can both fit together, but you’ve got to be a bloody magician to make that happen, you’ve got to be some extraordinary alchemist. And some of these contemporary artists are. Many contemporary artists spend their days trying very hard to authenticate a karaoke culture.
Gillian Wearing came to international prominence as the winner of the Turner Prize in 1997, and also as one of the artists selected for Charles Saatchi’s exhibition “Sensation” that same year at the Royal Academy. Wearing works in a wide range of media, always provocatively plumbing the most ordinary human dramas for their extraordinary, often ironic, content. Her latest exhibition, “Pin-Ups,” is on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles from July 12 to August 23, 2008.
THE INSPIRATION FOR my latest project came from a statistic released in the UK last year that said that two-thirds of young females would like a career in glamour modeling. I thought that this sounded unrealistic; one of the catalysts for this increase is a model called Jordan who has become a multimillionaire for selling her image (and also for being very frank about her life). This must seem to many people a quick way to get rich. It got me thinking about the reality and fantasy of being a pinup.
I advertised in newspapers and on the Internet for people who would like to be transformed into a pinup or glamour model. I received hundreds of replies, and by looking at the images I selected around thirty to audition. The audition had a twofold reason: to explain the project and to see how genuine the models’ interest was. I only wanted people who were enthusiastic, who had real aspirations.
I wanted the images to reflect a more Hollywood type of glamour as opposed to a “Page Three” style (as in the UK tabloid The Sun). Perhaps this was because I was also thinking of Regen Projects and about having the exhibition in Los Angeles. I took pictures of the models and then Photoshopped them, but I wanted the final product to be a painting, because with painting there is a seductiveness that enhances the transformations of the models; it looks less manufactured than an overworked photograph. Painting isn’t simply a substitute for Photoshop; in the process of Photoshopping an image, it can become quite dead, and painting, through its physical processes, brings the image back to life.
While I love America’s Next Top Model—I’ve watched every episode—it wasn’t an inspiration. And besides Alberto Vargas, I didn’t really look to art history for sources. The pinup has a very particular language, and Vargas essentially invented the proportions: extending the models’ legs and giving them tiny waists and regular features. I did entertain briefly the idea of having them painted in watercolor, as he did, but in the end decided to go with acrylic, as it has a more Photoshopped look; it’s also the medium the painter Jim Burns was most familiar with. The realism of the final image was important. In fact, many who have seen reproductions of the paintings in ads have assumed they were photographs.
It wasn’t easy to find someone to paint the pictures. I wanted to have someone who could do airbrushing. (Vargas used to airbrush photographs before he found a technique for his paintings.) Current technology is all airbrushing on computers, and those who can do great retouching on computers usually can’t do anything with paint. I ended up turning to science-fiction illustration, where airbrushing is still frequently employed. That was where I found Burns, who’s rather well known in that field. His work is completely different from the pinup genre: planets and people in sci-fi costumes and landscapes. But I knew Jim could go to the fantasy level I needed and still make it look realistic. I wanted him to stick very close to the Photoshopped picture; I didn’t want the image to become illustration. The final work has the painting in a frame that you can open like a book to reveal letters from the models explaining why they want to be a pinup, along with snapshots they have taken of themselves, which are placed behind glass. This makes it feel like the archive material is embedded in the work, and that the fantasy and reality are inextricably entwined.
Before launching her own studio in 1998, French designer Matali Crasset spent five years working for Philippe Starck, first in his studio and later as head of design at Thomson Multimedia. Last September, Crasset collaborated with the artist Peter Halley for an exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris; she has plans to collaborate with Halley again next year at Cais Gallery in Seoul. Some of her recent major projects include design for the Hi-Hôtel in Nice, as well as for the temporary site of the Stedelijk Museum's–Hertogenbosch. Here she discusses some of her ideas on design and logics of living.
WE JUST RETURNED from an opening for the beach I designed at Hi-Hôtel in Nice. The Hi-Hôtel is an experimental hotel that I designed in 2003, the idea being that this might be a space where one could break certain domestic codes—or even hotel codes—and explore different logics of life. Rather than sticking with one color, like a bland chocolate brown, or having a uniform design, we decided to invite guests to try different things. We only had thirty-eight rooms, which we designed according to nine unique concepts, each of which involves a different level of experimentation.
One type of room is called “Up and Down”—the idea is that there’s nothing on the wall, because normally when we organize a space at home we put all the structure on the wall and then live in the center. In this room, there’s a big shelf—180 centimeters [seventy-one inches] high—in the middle, in which one finds the bed, the shower, the toilet, plants, etc. The most experimental style we developed was called the “Strates” room, which features seven different layers. If we normally live in a horizontal way, why not try living in a vertical way? Each of the room’s functions is piled at a different height, up to the last layer, which is storage. This type of room is very experimental because the shower is in the middle; it’s covered in colored glass but it’s still transparent, so it’s very . . . specific when you go there with a friend or something. We did the beach in front of the Hi-Hôtel to show that one could do an outside space according to different logics of living as well. There are three different sections with three different colors, and you can choose one according to your mood or the type of activity in which you’re engaged. (One section is better for children playing; in another, you can connect to the Internet and schedule your evening.)
When I work on an object, I’m already thinking of the space around it. I try not to work object by object; I prefer to make networks of things, because I like to conceive of an object as a life scenario. One of the first pieces of furniture I did is called “When Jim Comes to Paris” ; it consists of a simple column you can unfold when friends come to your home—say, if you don’t have a guest room. So when “Jim” is not around, it’s very compact, just thirty-five centimeters by thirty-five centimeters and two meters high [fourteen inches by fourteen inches and seventy-nine inches high], and when “Jim” arrives, you just have to open this column and it becomes a bed with a lamp and an alarm clock. The idea of the space and the situation is already embedded in the object.
Recently I collaborated on a show with the artist Peter Halley; I like his use of color, the way he creates different mental spaces using simple geometric shapes. I think that there are fewer and fewer differences between art and design. Before, we would talk about the artist as the one who does the unique piece, while the designer was the one who did mass production. But today I’m doing small series and some artists are doing bigger series. What is more interesting now is what you do in which context; what I try to do is, say, when I’m working on a piece with an art gallery, I try to make a piece that makes sense for that gallery, in the context of the gallery’s history and with regard to the people who will come. I’ve spent a lot of energy over the past ten years developing my own personal approach, but now I’m more interested in collaborating with other artists and craftsmen. Sure, designers are always working with people in the studio, but I’m learning to enjoy collaborating in the creative part, stretching my thinking in a different way.
The painter Victoria Morton, who lives and works in Glasgow and in Fossombrone, Italy, opens her third solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ in London on July 2. Here she discusses dividing her time between Scotland and Italy and the work included in the show.
I SPEND ABOUT a third of my year in Italy and have done so for about four years. In Italy, obviously, I have access to a vast amount of historical painting: For example, I work in the area in which Piero della Francesca painted, and it’s fascinating to drive through the landscape that appears in the background of his works. Working here is very different from working in Glasgow. That city has a brilliant, always-changing art scene, and I’m lucky to be part of it. But having a combination of the two works best for me: I like to be involved but then to disappear and work quietly on my own. In Italy, my working life and my private life are integrated such that I can spend more time looking at my work, and things develop in a more organic fashion.
In my last exhibition at Sadie Coles, the paintings I showed did not rest flat against the walls, but rather were freestanding. This time, my continued interest in the space of painting—and how it operates psychologically on the viewer—has again led me to move around the normal conventions of the practice: Several of the pieces will rest on the floor, and others will be surrounded by a frame that has been painted as if it were an extension of the canvas. Neither of these are canny, “strategic” developments, but instead are natural explorations made during my time in the studio.
I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s album The Letting Go constantly while I was working on the paintings. It’s a very strange record; there are slightly odd but nonetheless beautiful songs on it. There is something about its storytelling aspects and its atmosphere, which is slightly dark but intimate, that could certainly characterize one or two of the works in the exhibition. I’m interested in the idea of folklore and storytelling, which is why I don’t describe my paintings as abstract; for me, there is a definite figurative element. I’m not trying to structure a particular narrative, but the creation of each painting is a chance for me to bring to the forefront some aspect of what’s going on around me. In the works in this show, I have used quite specific images that have perhaps ended up seeming abstract, but it is a body of work that to my mind is interrelated and hopefully makes sense as a situation that unfolds around the viewer, akin to a long novel with many characters and complicated scenarios. In a sense, then, the viewer can become part of that structure—can become the “figure” in the painting as the show is reconstructed in his or her mind. For me, that kind of clashing and bringing together of lots of different elements is a kind of realism.