Paddy McCann at Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast, March – April 2013. Part 2 / 3: Paddy Donnelly interview

Paddy McCann interviewed by Paddy Donnelly, December 2012

Q: People who know your early work tend to refer, in particular, to a large painting of a waste container or skip. Sadly, that painting is now lost. But when first shown, at the Fenderesky Gallery in 1991, it seemed to announce itself in the manner of a mute manifesto, a silent but forceful statement of intent. In place of the great totems of Irish culture (icons of land, religion, national politics), in default of the human figure, the viewer was confronted by a brute presence: a monstrous object pressing frontally toward the surface of the canvas, crowding the space and dominating the view. And yet, in another reading, content is not the primary issue. The skip as image is barely even the subject of the painting; its role is to provide a pretext or an occasion to paint. A great structure in rust-and-yellow becomes the work’s true substance, its painterly concern. How did you arrive at this way of painting, and what did it mean to you at the time?

PMC: That was an important painting for me. I felt it at the time. And people certainly seemed to respond to it. But it was not quite the ‘manifesto’ it may have seemed. I was not strategically turning my back on the staple content or iconography of Irish art, although I had no wish to conform to it either. It was more a question of being focused on my immediate surroundings – the material reality of what could be seen and felt, and how that works its way into lived experience and the imagination. I picked out fragments of the visual environment, and gave them a place within the work. To mark up an image – any image – was a means to open the floodgates and get the process of painting under way. It served as a passage to the act of painting. But, at the same time, the image of the skip was not chosen at random. In the late 1980s, I had come across a number of skips in urban and rural settings, and was intrigued not just by their stubborn solidity but also their unexpected ‘painterliness’. This was at a time of public atrocity and a pervading sense of futility. I eventually settled upon a configuration of two skips, one sitting inside the other like a recessive image of waste within waste. In his book, Thinking Long, Liam Kelly writes about the ‘elegaic power’ of this image, which he interprets in terms of our two communities occupying the same plot of land. So the politics is there, and also the history, subliminally or indirectly. But the visual associations were what struck me most forcefully. The skips had an oddly military quality – a squat, heavy, metal presence. Like a navy landing craft or an abandoned tank, or a sangar laid siege by paint bombs. They were dented and beaten, gouged and scratched, covered with dirt and awash with graffiti, a whole mess of visual incident … a combination of waste and abuse that was an index, somehow, of what had been happening in our society for so long. I wanted to engage with that.

I began with small sketches, then opted to work at near life size. The painting became a diptych, about 200cm x 300cm across the two canvases, mirroring the duality of the two skips, with a fault line running vertically down the centre and the rust and yellow tones running in horizontal bands. There were also truncated cruciform shapes (the lifting attachments), adding to the sense of structure or architecture. At one point, I threw emulsion paint bombs at the canvas, and scraped and layered the paint, and folded it in. I also added copper wiring to the surface, to which I attached little house shapes cut out of film negative. Kiefer’s paintings of the bathtub (Operation Sea Lion) were a distant reference, another brute frontal object, although Kiefer’s is more overtly conceptualised and political. My own painting – it was called Leakage – was more about visual experience being subjected to the process of oil painting, and distressed by mixed media, so that something new might emerge. What generally happens is that something leaks through to stain the surface and trouble the imagination, and something leaks away unseen …

Q: The reference to Kiefer raises a question about the reception of your work. Despite successful exhibitions and public acclaim, very little has been written on how or why you paint. For want of an authoritative critical statement, your reputation has been built on perceptions of a certain existential authenticity, a solitary commitment to the truth of experience and the craft of painting. Your themes, or the moods in your work, are interpreted as personal and local, rooted in memory and the unconscious. This applies especially to those paintings which use the human figure as a source or locus of feeling. And yet – once again – a quite different reading is possible. In terms of how you paint, the proper context of your production would appear to be the recent history of painting in the wake of Expressionism in Europe (especially Germany) and Abstract Expressionism in North America. In that context, your work appears as a hard-won reflection on the contemporary condition and possibilities of painting, what painting may still achieve as a medium. It becomes less about depiction or representational meaning. Instead, it acquires a degree of impersonality – as part of a shared investment in the expressivity of a-signifying materials and processes. Where do you tend to locate your painting; what audience are you addressing; and what problems do you take up in your work?

PMC: For years I have admired the scale and physicality, the crudeness and energy, of works by German painters like Kiefer, Lupertz and others. Kiefer layers and roughens his surfaces with straw, shellac, oil, molten lead and so on. And he has taken risks by engaging directly with German history, Nazism and the holocaust. There is both warning and desolation in those paintings of devastated wintry fields with the high horizon line that forces the gaze inwards and downwards. Lupertz is probably closer to my own work in terms of putting pressure on the figure, and in being so overtly ‘painterly’. Richter comes across as more of an intellectual painter, in addition to having great technical ability. I find his work a bit cold and polished. But his interviews are revealing. He has insisted that, despite the apparent inadequacy of all artistic means, his goal is to achieve ‘a contemporary statement’ in paint. Put simply, he wants painting to have ‘more of an effect’. As for North America, Hopper, De Kooning and Rothenberg stand out for me. And I think Guston was one of the twentieth century’s great artists. He went against the tide of the time, which was abstractionism, and returned painting to the everyday and the figurative – to dealing with identifiable subject matter. He seemed to be saying that heroism, in art as in life, is all but over; we are left with a mix of emptiness, brutality and daily consumption; the idea of transcendence is a faded backdrop too remote to be noticed. Like the others mentioned, he was a painter of his time, engaged with his time. And, vitally, he sought the freedom to do that.

But admiration is not the same thing as influence. All of those artists provided important reference points, and showed what could still be achieved in paint – they were exemplars, if you like – but I had to find my own way. If I took anything from them, it was a desire to paint and to do so in a way that relates to the times we live in – as honestly and adequately as possible. None of those painters could be described as academic or merely formalist. They drew on life experience, but subjected that experience to a rigorous questioning and reworking through art. So, yes, the result can be something impersonal or ‘factual’. Something that stands alone, as a created thing, independent of whoever first felt or observed it. It becomes available to everyone once it’s relayed through the medium and placed in the public domain. My own painting often draws upon a memory of place or childhood – which may account for the romantic or existential reading of it – but it is has never been about simply depicting or reproducing anything. I feel perhaps it is more layered and complex. It’s about retrieving an image or feeling, often partial and unresolved, then folding it into the process of painting to see what begins to take shape. I rarely stick with my first thought or my first mark, but await the unexpected. I’m interested to see where it can all lead.

Francis Bacon understood that. For him, the initial image acted as a framework or armature to allow something else to happen. He tried to disrupt his figures in random, unpredictable ways, to allow them to escape from specific identity. When painting, a lot of what happens on the canvas is instinctive or unconscious. By unconscious, I don’t mean automatic or thoughtless. You’re always thinking and looking, adjusting as you go. But if things are going well, the painting will find its own destination and you just have to trust it and let it happen. It’s a mistake to cling to an image when whatever is working itself out on the canvas – the inchoate artwork – demands otherwise. The image can become a burden and an impediment. So you refashion it, or overlay it, or you reach for the palette knife and start scraping away the paint, ready to start again …

Q: You have just described what Matisse called la marche of the painting, the point at which it successfully mutates into a self-organising forward movement (literally, when it ‘gets going’ and starts to ‘work’ or ‘run’ properly). Commentators have named it ‘processual materialism’. Whenever this happens, it collapses the gap between thought and the creative act, between conception and execution, between ideas about the artwork and the actual process of making it. The artist finally attains to the level at which he is working intuitively with the canvas and its materiality, paint and its plasticity, colour and its sensations. Ideas about the work retain their importance only insofar as they are absorbed into the continuous evolution of the painted surface. That is an ideal experience for the painter, perhaps, but can it ever constitute a sufficient method of painting? Is it enough to enable you to move from an image fragment or a partial memory to a finished work? Or do you rely on a repertoire of mediating techniques and strategies? For example, in many of your works, a figure or a head is trapped in indeterminate space; perspective and figure/ground relations are rendered uncertain; there are strange scribblings, lumps of impasto or rolled out passages of paint; edges are thresholds marked by ambivalent lines or slabs of colour; the whole surface gets worked over in incalculable ways. That type of painting is both detailed and challenging. It’s difficult to know who or what is being addressed.

PMC: If you’re asking about method … I can only explain what I try to do. It’s never programmatic, in terms of how I set to work on a painting. Each new work presents a fresh challenge. I greatly value what the art of drawing brings to creativity in terms of developing images, ideas and direction, and providing a constant ‘store’ of concerns to work with. Sometimes one of these ‘stored’ drawings is transposed through paint by sketching an image directly on the canvas. At other times, if a specific issue or concern is being addressed, I might begin with a crude photocopy of, for example, a newspaper photograph. I need to get that distance and distortion – that material degradation – that comes from the process of repeatedly photocopying something: an image with a rough, fractured, unfinished quality. From experience, photocopying is as far as I feel I can go in terms of using photographic media/technology. I don’t feel the benefit of relying on photography to mediate or inform my practice. In the past, when I have used it, I found that the outcomes were slight and of little interest to me. Drawing feels truer and much more vital to what I do. Once I have made a beginning, I gradually build up the surface of the painting and look for a possible direction. That direction might come from within the painting itself, or from looking at other works and processes in the studio, or from the available ‘image store’. Everything happens through direct engagement with the materials and my own response/impulse. It’s an immanent process that is more instinctive than strategic; there is no overarching plan to be executed, nothing external to be faithfully reproduced or illustrated. And I avoid any attempt to ‘position’ myself in relation to other painters, the art market, or a fixed concept of art. For me, painting always feels like what I am compelled to do – or a painter is compelled to do – under present conditions (both the current state of the medium and the demands of everyday life). On the other hand, in order to act, I am obliged to make choices, to impose constraints. For example, oil paint is a constant. I rarely use another paint medium. (I also make prints and sculpture, but that is a separate question.)

Also, as much as possible, I try to work alla prima. That’s a method of painting wet-upon-wet before allowing a previous layer to dry. I try to keep the painting in motion and to complete it in one session. That can mean working quite quickly and at smaller scale. If you abandon the work prematurely, it’s hard to find your way back. You can lose momentum, and find yourself locked outside the fluid energy and the state of feeling of the painting. You can end up adding supplementary effects that don’t emerge from the process; they sit on top of the work like stylistic re-touchings. That’s a risk that comes with larger canvases that require several sessions to complete. A lot of time is lost circling around the painting trying to find a way back in, to hit the right note that allows you to pick up the mood or to regain the initial impetus. For me, alla prima has little to do with the so-called immediacy of self-expression. Again, it’s just a technique that allows me to focus on the process of painting – not representing, analysing, or communicating – and helps me to see the process through in and as an integral act. The work has more chance of standing up, of holding together, if it is made from one sustained effort and expresses a singular ‘moment’ of painting. It’s ideal to do that in a single session, but also possible over a longer period.

As for other techniques … I work consciously to develop a ‘grammar’ of painting: a set of working relations between line and colour, form, texture, etc. or a set of informal rules for bringing them all together. I research into different processes that can be found in old primers and second-hand manuals, and put them to the test. And I try to learn from other art forms: poetry, cinema, music. There’s no end to it. Something always breaks through, and often in unexpected ways. For example, you mentioned perspective. My work abandons single-point perspective. It replaces it with a ‘thickness’ or layering, in which everything happens on a mutually constructed plane made up of processes of interweaving and interlacing. That approach abolishes a stable figure/ground relation, and any reference to a single dominant or structuring point of view. Attention is not directed along specific sightlines; there is no hierarchy of places as in foreground, middle ground and background; there are no fixed parameters of scale and distance and relation. Instead there are layers and under-layers, opacity and transparency, all compressed together in a shallow space close to the surface. Every visual detail is up for consideration. Attention is dispersed and all-over …

In general, I’m very instinctive in my process. At times, I will make work that includes a dimension of political or social content. But both approaches come from an impulse to respond, whether to materials or to events. In all my work, the process is one of trying to organise the impulse to make it visually coherent, to be spontaneous and meticulous at the same time.

Q: And what happens to colour and light, and modelling and gesture? Are they reworked in the same way as figure/ground and perspective?

PMC: Normally, there is very little overt gesture in my figures, although their stance is always indicative or expressive. Nor are they fully modelled – although there is enough to make them plausible and readable – because they are not set in naturalistic space or lighting. The disembodied heads often have one eye, or a gaze that is turned away. They tend not to confront the viewer, to solicit attention or explicitly convey anything. But they are always on view, close up, there to be seen. I noticed much of this only retrospectively, when re-documenting a backlog of old images. It surprised me to see such a clear set of regularities, or what you called ‘mediating strategies’. It seems I may have enough of them to comprise a style…

As for colour … Well, I don’t live in the South of France. I tend to rely on local colours: of the weather, the light and the environment. For a given painting, the palette is often prepared in advance. I mix a set of colours and only add to them if the picture requires it, if it needs a highlight or a complementary tone, or a new note to draw the eye to another area of the composition. In the most recent work, the colours might be described as ‘Northern’: a set of earthy reds and browns, like the tonal range in a few paintings by Munch. Munch was a great colourist. Despite the fact that his paint was applied quite thinly, even his darker tones managed to sing out. That’s something to aspire to, that level of quality. It’s there in Per Kirkeby as well, another Scandinavian.

Earlier, you asked who or what is addressed in my work. I never quite got round to answering. But the answer is simple enough: I address painting, first and last. That includes the history of painting, and its contemporary possibility. I’m not consciously aiming to communicate with any particular audience, or to address a message to anyone. I try to present something visual rather than re-present a specific object or idea. A successful artwork will find its own audience. If that’s a tautology, it’s also a social fact. I don’t illustrate or analyse in order to provide a closed meaning or a closed form. A good painting will contain elements of randomness or chance, embedded in its production, so that it remains open. A linkage has to be made by the viewer, then carried forward into other areas of life. Some arts writers (Yves Alain Bois is one) have asked whether painting can provide a model for something else. As we have seen, painting can condense or bring together thought and technique, and it can do this in continually new ways that may help to disrupt our habitual modes of seeing and knowing. But whether it can serve as a symbolic or strategic model … that’s down to the viewer, to whoever has the will to make it happen. A painter can ask for only one thing: that the viewer tries to see the painting as it was made; that s/he gives it time to show itself as it actually – or factually – is.

Q: Those last remarks provide an opportunity to broaden the discussion, to ask questions that stray into the theory of art or painting. For instance, what is the source of meaning in your work? Is it the historical tendency of painting, which now seems to include explicit self-reflection; or is it the sensibility of the artist responding to the world? Is it something more social or material, filtered through the medium? Valéry suggested that poetry was a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. And Cézanne took so much time between brushstrokes that his work was described as a similar hesitation between mark and meaning. Developing on that, theorists have posited a threefold formal relation within painting: between syntax (the rules of articulation of the various elements of painting, the ‘grammar’ that you mentioned earlier); semiotics (the specific qualities of a particular mark, line, colour or form); and semantics (the production of shareable new meaning from out of a set of dumb, a-signifying materials). There is a reciprocal play, forward and back between the three, that is potentially never ending. Indeed, it has no assignable end, only a string of competing interpretations devised under specific conditions and invested by particular interests. Is that how you see meaning in your work? Or is meaning more relational, a pact between an artist and a community of viewers?

PMC: I don’t think there is anything historically inevitable that drives painting today in one direction rather than another. That may have appeared to be the case when Greenberg dominated art criticism, and ushered painting down ‘the road to flatness’, as someone once called it. But after all the talk about postmodernism, painting has been freed up again. I believe it’s a great time to a painter. Even conceptual artists are turning to painting when it suits their agenda, if it provides a strategic gain in what they are trying to say or show.

Meaning, on the other hand … I take a fairly pragmatic line. Meaning is what happens when someone is affected by a painting. When they feel moved to talk about it, to attempt to articulate just why and how it matters to them, and what difference that might make. If a lot of people find that type of ‘meaning’, and find that it challenges them in some way that they need to explore further with others, then the painting is working as it should. It can serve as a basis for dialogue, sociability, and collective imagining. And, as your question implies, that can go on happening for quite some time.

I think painting has a unique capacity. It can affect people in ways that no other medium is able to replicate, and it can continue to change from within and without, to remain inventive and surprising. I wouldn’t want to speculate beyond that. My work is motivated by a view of life, I suppose, rather than by a theory of art … For me, painting is an active human involvement in something that extends beyond the self, but it is also deeply rooted in personal experience. For the painter, the act of painting brings together the hand and the eye, the head and the heart, and it co-ordinates them in a single productive movement. That’s how it works and that’s how it feels. I sense that in the work of other artists, from Giotto to Van Gogh, and I find something similar in Beethoven and in various forms of contemporary music. Painting can embody human feeling, in all its ambiguity and uncertainty and lack of ready articulation. It can get at the mystery of things. It can make the mystery palpable.

Q: Before we conclude, let me risk a summary statement and ask for your response. What can be seen in your paintings is a play of form and openness. Your work is defined by a paradox in which you try to realise what is necessary in painting (what is truly required from it today), but each time you confront that necessity it turns out to be something provisional and contingent: a form that shifts and barely holds, no matter the weight of its content. It seems that contemporary painting has to accept that, today, there can be no fixed and essential image of our lives, no sufficient statement, no adequate distillation of the whole of our being or our experience. This is because, on one level, we sense that nothing can or will ever change; there is no possible exit from a world of ‘post-historical’, globalised neo-liberalism. Yet at another level, technology and information-communication are changing at such an accelerating rate that we can barely cope, mentally, emotionally or culturally. Everything is rendered precarious, including human labour and human life. Under such conditions, painting simply has to admit change and contingency, to enable or enact its passage. But it must not try to capture or represent that contingency in a symbolic way (which would mark a regression to tradition) and it must not thematise it by painting its concept (which would be to shift to the linguistic register that underpins conceptual art). This places a significant demand upon painting to find another way – rooted in line and colour and sensation alone – a demand that many art theorists consider to be beyond its powers.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that you’re not one of those who mourns for painting’s lost soul, accedes to its obsolescence, or damns its incapacity. Instead, you press further into the paradox, accepting that we, and painting, are overpowered by reality, fragmented by desire, hollowed out by consumption, displaced from ourselves, unable to maintain a unity … and can produce only contingent, open and fragile constructions. Yours is an unrelenting painting, it offers no transcendental compensation and is without remorse. It risks a high seriousness by placing the viewer at the point of a decision: either to walk away or to do something to make sense of the painting and the conditions that led to it. It activates the claim that we do not have art because it is created, but only because it has been preserved. An artwork is an artwork only insofar as – and for so long as – it is kept alive and current by those for whom it is a provocation to thought, a focus for dialogue, and a basis for the working out of shared values and aspirations.

PMC: Unrelenting, yes – definitely. I would also say ‘committed’ – my only obligation is to the work. As I mentioned, a painting has to be given time: time to be made and time to be seen. Good painting is defined by a certain slowness (no matter how quickly it’s actually painted) and a reticence that borders on silence. At its best it has the kind of ‘stored up power’ that has been attributed to poetry, and it releases that power, or realises that power, only gradually. Which means that, as an artwork, it is made to last. It must have the capacity to offer you something new each time you see it, to reveal enough of interest to keep you believing and to keep you coming back. You don’t necessarily have to understand it all, to contain it within a secure cognitive or conceptual grasp. You don’t need to translate or reduce its mystery, or refer what is puzzling back to something known and familiar. A painting works first and foremost at the level of sensation, through the indeterminacy of what you feel – that is what holds you and keeps you looking and thinking. That is an aspect of openness, or ‘open form’, as you put it. Contingency comes in because of the ‘hazards of construction’, the everyday fact that you are compelled as a painter to push things further, to take a chance and see how things turn out. There are lots of mistakes, lots of failures. But that’s how you learn. You avoid what comes easily, and what threatens to become overwrought. You try to steer between the two, and to leave a painting at the stage where it seems to be saying something important to you but you’re not quite sure what that something is …

Q: One final question. You are currently working towards an exhibition in the Fenderesky Gallery, in March 2013. Each time I come to your studio, you seem to be engaged in a struggle with one image or one painting or another, constantly rethinking, revising – even dramatically reworking an entire piece from top to bottom. What’s going on in this particular struggle?

PMC: Over this past number of years, I have been struggling with two strands of my practice or my thinking about painting. One is the instinctive approach, in which I start in without any definite idea of how to progress. The other is more calculated, based on preparatory drawings or pre-processed images that are already resolved to some degree. That seems contradictory, but – with painting – it’s possible to draw upon elements of both in turn, to have passages of free brushwork that are integrated with pre-selected images. It’s difficult to describe, but there has to be more than just a juxtaposition of the two methods, in which each remains what it already is. Instead, they have to form a conjunction in which each is mutually transformed beyond its previous state to produce something entirely new … a bit like individuals coming together to form a community rather than a mere collective. The word ‘empathy’ enters into it somehow. And that same desire for empathy has affected the choice of imagery. I noticed that I have started to include more recognisably female figures in the new work. Images of women affected by the troubles, of the dead and ‘the disappeared’. Two paintings, in particular, feature a woman whose body was found, years after her murder, on a beach. The natural process of coastal erosion had uncovered the remains; she ‘reappeared’ and was restored to her own story, but was left entirely ‘unrestored’ in terms of her condition of brutal bodily decay and in terms of justice or reconciliation. That’s a powerful image of incompleteness, of an openness that is problematic and calls for a response. When I painted her, I wanted her outline, her pose. So I worked from a photocopy of a newspaper photograph in which she stands in a doorway, with arms folded, staring off into the distance but grounded by the weight of family. It was her stance that drew me: the folded arms. I sensed straightaway that I had to omit or obscure the head. Some things can’t be painted. Not directly, or not yet. They have to be left open, so that we can go on feeling their call …

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