Sam Cornish: In the notes you sent me you write about the need you have for (unresolved) conflict in your work, for working with ‘both sides of many coins’. In a very simplistic way three different techniques active in your recent work – that seem to partly merge with each other, whilst retaining a separate identity – are a loose gestural painting, automatic writing and collage. Do you see any of these as having a precedent other the others?
EC: If you mean, do I think of one aspect or element as being more important than another in those particular recent works, then the short answer might have to be no… but that’s a little brief so I better elaborate…and the answer might shift as I do so – it’s not a question I have asked myself and so it’s interesting to think about it in this way. Thank you.
This is quite a tricky question because I like to think I go into the studio to paint… and if I did not go to do that then nothing else would be sparked into motion. I would not learn from what I find. This reminds me of something that is understood in psychoanalytic thought – to beware of the idea of ‘I am the kind of person who…’
For me the gestural painting, automatic and/or asemic writing and collage have come about from a kind of chaotic soup of information and material; both internal and external to me, conscious and unconscious and in the relationship to matter that working in the studio generates. I don’t start the work with an intention to assert one thing (gestural painting for example) in particular, however collage does tend to enter into the making process at a later stage (so perhaps painting does have a precedent, but in ‘the order of things in time’ sense of the word). Does this mean that the painted elements are more important? I don’t think so, because they don’t exist in isolation and bleed into or are layered with the other ‘techniques’ as well as relying on one another for rhythm, different surfaces, spaces and so on. They come together to make a larger body. To isolate one as having a precedent might be a bit like removing a musician from an orchestra.
It may be that I am working with a burst of automatic writing initially (with paint or marker pen or other material) and certain forms start to emerge which I then have to respond to. Sometimes that can be a way in to the work. Speaking about gestural painting I could say that it is not enough for me, both in terms of working intuitively, and when I am not making but thinking about what is going on and why it’s going on and what it might mean to me – we have a lot to look at, a lot has happened since Abstract Expressionism, for example, and I can’t ignore that. In a way I am dissatisfied with the gestural being left at that in my own work. I often feel like blocking all the paint out. There’s the sense that the thing is not whole or is not addressing something. I might stop and return to the work or keep going and opposition enters into the work – the challenge, the other. Looking back upon my work, in the 90’s I was working with geometry and was very interested in mathematics, maths in nature, physics, space and the psychology of space, microcosm and macrocosm and had started to make paintings even then that involved other materials coming in and these were intuitive decisions also to do with the sensual, and the physicality of the object. The geometric elements in my work, even now, are another part of thinking through making… that I cannot put in order of importance.
I refer to the studio space and the residues, materials left on the floor and have found that bringing that material in, the potentially dismissed, the ‘asides’, that perhaps that which could be seen as having the least ‘precedence’ or importance is really vital to what I make, to the life of it. The ‘gestural’ motion creates much residue on my studio floor that I then bring back in. (To me) this means that something unconscious is being brought into the work or even something innocent and lacking self consciousness. The stuff beneath. This also reflects a spatial relationship, something triangular – with me, the work, the studio. The decision to move into collage was not one I made as a conscious thought of adopting a ‘technique’ or style (both words make me feel a bit spiky) but something that unfolded in time in the studio and as a response to my surrounding space and materials to hand. I work in a self-reflexive way. I’m not sure I could divorce the ‘active’ ‘techniques’ from one another and put them in order of importance, as they live in relation to one another and because of one another.
Sam Cornish: You mention ‘a larger body’, and ‘body’ here does not seem to be a completely neutral word. It seems to me there is a sense of the body in your paintings. In the gesture with which paint is applied, or the ‘tearingness’ of collage – but also in a deeper and harder to define way. Not a solid body, situated in three-dimensional space (as in the Western tradition), but something more diffuse, to do with actions or reactions, substances. A body that is not particularly comfortable or settled within clear limits. Do you recognise this?
EC: Yes. Perhaps some of the unsettledness you sense in my work is to do with an interest I have in the spaces, gaps between perceived boundaries – ? There’s a kind of interpenetration going on rather than keeping things apart. Maybe that can make for an off-key feeling at times. I think the sense of diffusion and substances reacting is also to do with the interlocking of psyche and matter. Nothing is quite apart, not only external, not only internal; a someplace in between. There is the need for some kind of “organisation of energies”within a work – even if that organisation is ordered chaos. (My work can get very chaotic and can be fragmented within that “body”).
I’m organising within certain restrictions when I work. Physically limits surround me – the limits of the studio space (I have a small studio), limits on what materials I can buy, find and use and so on. So I’m working within certain parameters. I have to find my own limits to work within so that it’s not some kind of boundless free for all. Material ideas, how I arrange things, visual ideas, building up layers of paint together with the other materials that are also brought in might also suggest something to do with being unsettled (in painting).
I’ll also move into the space of language in my work, introducing an element of something between reading and seeing. So again there is that in between place making it’s presence felt. There seems to be an impossibility of ever being really represented by words. This is important for me to think about – It is a frustration I experience and it goes into my work. Language as something potentially constricting, but as something I must deal with. The babbling of free association and of unedited material leads to learning about something (internal) we did not know about and this can be applied to my way of working visually too. So being nonsensical can be a way to uncovering something, finding it and forming it. Jacques-Alain Miller wrote something along the lines that Psychoanalysis “departs in the function of speech but refers to it in writing”. He writes that there is a gap between speaking and writing and that psychoanalysis “operates” in that gap and “exploits the difference.” I like the way that’s put. Painting as a non verbal way of thinking, operating in its own kind of space is constantly brought into the world of linguistic phenomena (in artist’s statements, press releases etc). There seems to be a gulf between the life of something, how you experience it, and then talking about it or writing about it. Language can’t quite grasp something, we come to an impasse… something remains always inexpressible. (This moment when language “fails” is the focus of Lyotard’s The Differend and I’m really interested in that). Donald Winnicott’s ideas about transitional objects and transitional phenomena interest me a great deal too. He talks about a “potential space” where there is an overlapping space between individuals, “neither subject nor object” but a bit of both. That’s not a settled or clear boundary at all. I find that fascinating and so it will find its way into my work.
Lacan suggests “we are who we are” only in relation to other people. This is important because limits will also be imposed by others onto our work. That also hearkens back to Rothko’s famous quote “A picture lives by companionship…” etc etc. A work can’t be a neutral entity because it gets intermingled with others and there is also intersubjectivity.
You ask about gesture in my work. (That word might still carry with it the “macho gesture” idea – Pollock etc). Gesture as motion I think also relates to emotion (there is a linguistic link to the Latin words movere and emovere – to move and to move out). This reminds me of relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience that emotion “sparks” rational thought. That without it we’d be unable to even decide what restaurant to go to and we’d all be running over people at traffic lights. I may have wandered off the point… but it is important to my idea about not insisting on pitting perceived opposites against one another but integrating them into some kind of (perhaps unresolved/shifting) whole… that opposites are part of nature and our natures. I need to work with that. Conflicts exist that are hard to reconcile within the work. Instead of resolving the (visual) conflicts I like to put them out into the open, leave such schisms visible in the work.
Sam Cornish: Though you showed me some large paintings when I visited much of your recent work is small, sometimes very small. Is this size just a feature of the ‘limits that surround you’ – or is it more than a practical matter of studio space and cash? Are there qualities you particularly value that come through working at a small scale?
EC: Yes there are qualities I value and want to explore in the different sizes for sure.
I think that part of working on different sizes allows me to address questions of scale in various ways. I’m talking about size and scale as being different things. Some of the small works I might say have a large scale to them and some of the large works might sometimes be handling smaller scales. In (my) larger works, at times, there are different areas that can get isolated and the eye moves differently in response to that and at other times scale changes within that large format, and so the visual energies are very different. I do struggle more to work things out with larger work and it’s something I want to get back to as I like a challenge. I find my larger works less successful at the moment and working on smaller sizes as an exercise might then inform my larger works in a different way. It’s about taking my time and learning really.
If I work on a large painting then it’s all I can fit in my studio. For many years I’ve preferred to work on one thing at a time. I have only recently started to work on several miniatures at a time. This means that they often seem to form a more coherent link with one another visually. Working on a large painting as an isolated thing in the studio, with not much reference visually to other of my larger paintings (because they don’t fit in there), means they can seem much more independent of one another and at odds too I think. At least that’s my perception. It takes me much more time to get to know them in a way.
There’s also the question of what my body is doing – I’m moving a lot more when I work on a large size. Gestures change, different concentrations, rhythms, surfaces in areas that are far apart come into play and how they relate. Whereas when I work on smaller pieces I might be working over them on the floor, not much of my body is moving at all, my breathing changes, and my (visual) focus is entirely different. Another thing about working small is how surprisingly physical the work can be. I mean that perhaps I thought something small would not extend itself too much but I have found that even a tiny bit of collage, or assemblage, can begin to come out of its boundaries and be a very physical object.
Yes, there are the considerations I also have about my small studio, or that a pot of cadmium red will vanish on a large painting so I must adjust what pigments I use too as things get too costly for me. But that’s not really a massive problem because I am not really interested in sticking to using fine materials, pigments and am interested in using more modest stuff. There are also issues of storage, but these more practical constraints to do with working where I live are not really my top priority. Not until I can’t move in my living room anymore at least!
EC will be showing paintings and collages in the group exhibition ‘As Wide As A Door Is Open: Material Images’, curated by Sam Cornish, at Fold Gallery from the 6th September to the 11th of October
“organisation of energies” is from John Dewey, Art As Experience, Published by Minton, Balch & Company, New York, 1934
Jacques-Alain Miller, extracts from his Presentation of the Theme for the Tenth Congress of the NLS, delivered at the NLS Congress in London, 3 April 2011
Donald W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Routledge, 1982