JB. So let’s start with a bit of history. When did you start developing a more critical understanding of the history of painting?
MS. I guess we should start with art school in Bath in the mid-80s. There was a lot of debate around where painting was historically and this was reflected in the wider art world. The art styles that were dominant then were Neo Expressionism and to a lesser extent Neo Geo – two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of painting. It wasn’t until I got to Goldsmiths in 88 to do my MA that I really decided to take on-board what these debates were really about. The end result of this was the ‘Stacked’ or ‘Layered’ paintings. They resemble a real cake in terms of depth and size.
JB. Were these the paintings where you forced oil paint through cake decorating equipment?
MS. Yes, they were a foot square (reference to Minimalism) and up to five layers deep. I’d lay the stretched canvases out in a row and repeat the same patterns of squeezed oil paint across each canvas and while still wet lay one on top of another. They would take a couple of months to dry – it was only the oil paint holding them together to make sculptures. They would then be displayed on the wall (as painting) at arm (touch) height. So the idea was that the paint referenced itself in the same way that Greenberg’s ideas of the purity of the medium would and at the same time they became ‘pure’ sculptures…. Except, of course, it was a joke!
JB. OK, so immediately we have this dialectical tension between an understanding of the history of Modernism according to Greenberg and filtering it through some kind of relationship with the mundane or every-day. You are literally forcing the oil paint and stretched canvas, with all their cultural associations, into a decorative process that belongs to an entirely different realm of cultural experience. So this tension is central to the idea?
MS. It’s a low cultural idea, you know? Making an iced cake was not what was expected of an artist and that is precisely why I did it…. I wanted to get some kind of a reaction from a high-end audience; that this was somehow wrong, naughty or bad – a bit punk. It was against painting, and particularly Modernist painting. Most of the early cake paintings were monochromes so they referenced that history too, going right back to Malevich.
JB. So what comes to mind when thinking about your process here is an explicit nihilism?
JB. You are undermining, unravelling, pulling apart this sense of a history of ideas in painting. You are rubbing its face, as it were, in a totally different set of cultural values. So what was the impetus for this approach? Were you trying to open painting up for something new?
MS. There are two strands to that question. Why did I do it? And why did I stop doing it…. Firstly, there was a lot of debate around at Goldsmiths about the ‘death of painting’. This was coming through in what we were reading painting’ (post-structuralists such as Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault etc.); it became an agenda for me in particular, to smash painting up, smash the history of Modernism up. It didn’t occur to me at the time that once I’d smashed it up, well, what would I do with the remnants?
MS. So after smashing it all up, I started to ask why I was doing this. I only made those paintings for two or three years. So by 1993 I was doing different versions of the cake paintings.
JB. So you were focusing on the base materiality of the oil paint itself?
MS. I tried to expand on that base materiality once I’d smashed Modernism apart. But the problem was it was still so very limited. I was squeezing paint out of mastic guns. I wanted to reference the mastic gun as a builder’s tool as I had done with the cake decorating tools referencing the patissiere. I wanted those low cultural references in the paintings. I thought that would be enough to rescue painting somehow. And maybe it was… I don’t know. But I found myself in a cul-de-sac. I had to re-think what I wanted from painting.
JB. I think you have articulated really clearly a special kind of anxiety that comes with this approach to painting. We’ve talked a bit about reacting against Greenberg for example and the history of the Monochrome. But I’d like to talk a bit about where painting was situated in the wider culture at large in the late 80s and into the 90s. There seems to be another level of criticality in your work.
MS. At that time?
MS. Well yes, I guess it was an underwritten subtext within my work. I was reacting against the idea of the emerging art market. The works are literally consumables, the painting as cake as consumable. That critique was definitely part of my thinking.
JB. So those paintings were also critiquing the social context of painting at that time. They involved themselves in the mechanics of the commercialisation of culture that seemed to becoming more and more overt?
MS. Yes those works were, in part, an examination of the culture that I was growing up in. We all know yuppie culture?
JB. As a way of coming to your more recent and new work, I’d like to bring Peter Halley into the conversation.
MS. Why Peter Halley?
JB. I guess I’d like us to talk a little about your relationship with abstraction generally and aspects of Post Painterly Abstraction specifically that seem to appear (transformed) in your work. I think Halley’s essay ‘Nature and Culture’ seems to clarify a paradigm shift in what happened to art, artists and their audiences after the Second World War. We see this cultural re-evaluation of the individual’s place in society. We had been confronted with the hell created by so called stable and advanced industrialised nations. There seemed to be this individual-oriented need to find some kind of moral centre again after the war, for example, Existentialism.
MS. An equilibrium…
JB. Yes. And I’m thinking about paintings involvement in that process such as Abstract Expressionism. Of course Halley talks about another way of examining society and how individuals are formed by it. He talks about the rise of Pop and mass consumerism. And so begins the critique of the bourgeois notion of individuality. I’m interested in how these tensions play out in your work…
MS. Halley is pivotal for me. He questions this Humanist angst. I guess after the Second World War it would have kind of made sense, if you were trying to define yourself, to go inwards given that what was outside was so destructive. But individualist inwardness can’t last and cannot be maintained. It became an end game in itself, finishing off the Humanist/Enlightenment project. Like Descartes’ separation of mind from body, it all seems so naive. I know I’m generalising here but this inwardness tries to ignore the world outside. But there comes a point when you have to confront the world out there. And your Art has to do that! That is what Peter Halley is telling us. Halley opens up the idea that abstract art could look like a picture rather than be a painting….
MS. I’ll explain what I mean by that. It’s like the painting becomes a picture of a picture. It’s an irony in a sense. Halley’s work looks like conduits, prison cells or electrical diagrams BUT they are not actually those things; they are an abstraction. In fact the electrical conduits are themselves abstractions or signs. So what we are talking about here is a semiotic understanding of the visual.
JB. OK. I’m intrigued by your use of the word irony. We tend to perceive irony as a negative term, no?
MS. Yes we do.
JB. That’s interesting because irony seems to me to be inherently positive! It pulls rugs from under things! It makes us examine our complacencies, the things that we take for granted. It questions the phrases that we use in every day speech or possibly the painterly phrases we might use in constructing a painting even? So Michael, how do you see the place for irony in your own practice?
MS. In the early ‘cake’ works I wore my irony on my sleeve if you like!
MS. There is a kind of irony in my recent and new work but it is not used as an immediate strategy. I think people confuse irony with satire, parody and pastiche. What irony does is allow its users to recognise their position in relationship to a painting or whatever it might be. When you are being satirical or parodic you are usually pointing a finger and metaphorically saying ‘eeeer look at that!’ But you yourself are not really recognising that you are making a value judgment. When you are being ironic you are pointing the finger saying ‘that’s really horrible’ BUT you are also being self-reflexive at the same time. As you are pointing the finger you are also recognising your position in relation to your accusation.
JB. We as an audience are able to explore our own insecurities about the cultural standing of a work of art for example.
MS. Yes. So it’s a generous way of stepping outside of oneself. In the kind of work that I make I’ve always been aware of that feeling. I think with the new paintings in particular, if there is an irony, it is in the recognition that there are components in them that do not fit into the canon of high painting.
JB. And talking of high painting maybe this is an interesting point to bring in another artist that seems to figure a lot in your work. Morris Louis. A lot of people have mentioned him in relation to your practice. Is he someone important to you?
MS. OK, I think it’s important at this point to make a distinction here. We’ve been talking about Peter Halley who brings this sense of appropriation and irony to high end abstraction in the 80s. With Morris Louis, of course, we’re talking about the 50s and early 60’s. He had no such ironic intentions for his work! His work concerned itself with the purity of his materials, all very much within Greenberg’s thinking. Halley and Louis are two artists that make no sense together at all. So it has always been my intention to bring these two ways of thinking together…
JB. OK! This is what I find fascinating about what you do. It’s sort of a courageous endeavour compared to certain other artists of your generation who seem to still be working with very distinct ‘finger pointing’ (as we discussed earlier) or referencing in their work. I think you are bringing something more risky and exciting to abstraction. So back to Morris Louis, what is it about his work that is important to you?
MS. I think his work is fantastic! One of the aspects of being ironic towards other artists is that you love them really…
MS. I love his work particularly the late 50s Veil paintings. They are beautiful things and they are intelligent things. He reached a moment in High Modernism where the stain sank back into the surface of the canvas. It was the ultimate in a certain reductive kind of painting.
JB. So it was a kind of pinnacle for you in terms of a particular notion of what Modernism was. Louis sums that moment up for you?
MS. Yes, absolutely.
JB. So this special moment haunts your work?
MS. I’m not sure ‘haunt’ is the right word. I think it has a relationship with my work. But that relationship is much more casual and stripped of the original context. So when I use transparent areas created with floor varnish (pointing to the painting above where we are seated), I’m pouring them like he would have done. But I’m using a non-art material, a builder’s material. This staining or transparency refers to Morris Louis’ experiments but, in a sense, mimics them in non-art materials. My transparencies act as ‘signs’, a casual nod of recognition without the baggage of the ‘purity’ project. The context of their making is very different to Louis, his work is only a reference point. I’m being cheeky when I use materials in this way. It’s a nod to him but I’m also saying ‘I don’t need that High Modernist crap thank you very much!’ So I’m being very naughty!
JB. This makes me think of other practitioners of your generation who seem to be taking the viewer on a very particular journey. Glenn Brown for example seems to leave us stranded between a notion of heroic gestural painting and representations of romantic or sublime searching in art. I’m interested in how you are bringing the viewer into a game with representations of abstraction in a visually dynamic way. I think your generation in particular had this juggling of ideas going on. Halley starts this debate off in painting but it is you guys who really push it.
MS. I grew up with Glenn Brown at art school and beyond. The conversations we had were around the idea of representations in art and culture. We argued that the language of High Modernism could only be another representation. Basically, its claims were false. I’m generalising here but those ideas about individuals being outside of society, those notions about the purity of the medium and painting somehow being apart from every other art – we saw all this as romantic fiction. The reason it’s a fiction is because it does not take into account representation as received through language, verbal or visual. We are not separate or unique or apart from language as a representation. I think this is fundamental to Brown’s practice and it’s fundamental to mine. Whether other artists of my generation or younger recognise this or not it’s fundamental to their practice too. Now I know certain artists, and I won’t mention names, claim the opposite because it’s fashionable to do so at the moment. There’s this idea about (draws quotation marks in the air) ‘a return to the real’ whatever ‘the real’ might be. Like that idea is not couched in representation? Sorry but I think it is!
JB. OK, so this might be a good point to look at these seemingly opposing forces in the history of Modernism that inform your work. We’ve talked about Louis and post painterly abstraction but I’d like to talk a little about the enemy here (according to Greenberg) i.e. popular culture and what we now call the mass media. Halley talks of the post war cultural dominance of the USA. Its industrial/military power and the new visual realm that grew up around its expansionism namely, the growth of consumer culture. For Halley there was a powerful turning point in art away from the internal struggle of the artist who seemed to be working as an isolated figure against society. We see the start of a new culture of artists who are engaging with the imagery of consumerism or immersing themselves within it such as Warhol.
MS. You’re talking about Pop art right? Pop artists were saying we are not interested in the inner subjective struggle that seemed to be the baggage that came with Abstract Expressionist painting. They wanted to look at what was out there in the commercial world of consumerism and kitsch. But for me the critical activities of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop are now defunct. They are both boring and old fashioned; they don’t belong to my generation, they have simply become historical signs to be stylistically plundered. So I want to somehow combine these two old opposing positions and create a third language, a third text if you like, stripped of their original meanings. I’m interested in the clash between a Pollock drip and the Pop signage of Warhol. This combination creates a fresh language of signification much in the same way as a DJ brings music from one source and combines it with another to create a new sound. And for me this is the way I think about making paintings.
JB. I’m very intrigued by how these opposing ideas about art physically manifest themselves in your abstract painting process.
MS. Well, when I think about abstract painting I’m thinking about representations of abstract painting. My work includes cyphers of Morris Louis pours but also popular cultural signage as you can see in this painting (points to ridges on the paintings surface), these are made with stencils. These stencils come from images found on the Internet. They are then blown up by a commercial Sign Maker onto vinyl.
JB. Perhaps we could talk a bit about the use of layering in your work and your process driven approach?
MS. A decorator has to follow a certain process while painting a door. He has to apply the first layer and wait for it to dry etc. This is a process that should be followed to get the right results. Well its much the same in my approach with oil based household paints and varnishes. I’ll describe how I start the painting.
MS. The painting is made flat on the floor on MDF board. I’ll put a ground down, usually in household paint. I’ll then decide to make a Morris Louis style pour or whether to use a vinyl sign which is stuck onto the painting. So if I start with a pour I’ll let it dry for a few days. I’ll then stick down a sign and pour over that or paint in the sign with a decorating tool. I then peel off the sticker and repeat this process of pouring/sticking/peeling ad infinitum. So this ‘dumb’ repeated action cements the relationship between the sign and the pour and the layers get built up and built up.
JB. So you don’t know where this process is leading in terms of this repeated layering process?
MS. No, you don’t know what’s under the stickers whilst you are working. So when you peel them off you reveal an awful lot you didn’t realise was going to be there. Maybe this is unique to painting, something that you don’t get on a screen. So these build-ups of contrasts between painterly pour and pop signage create multiple spaces and depths both physically and optically.
JB. Yes this optical play of edges and colours is very sumptuous. Could you talk about the importance of the quality of seduction in your work?
MS. Household paint is primarily for decorating. It’s used to create moods, atmospheres, to be pleasant, to seduce in a sense. So I have a decorator’s book of colours from which I choose combinations that seduce if you like. I’m very interested in the paintings becoming seductive because it’s an anathema, it’s anti-serious. It’s like the Warhol idea of the surface, it’s just a surface and that’s it.
JB. I’d like to focus in on the stencils and signs you are using for a moment. Sometimes you can see these signs quite clearly in the painting. They float quite close to the surface in a way. At other times they are buried very deeply in the layering. We get a fragment, shards of edges if you like. Is there a narrative drive behind your selection of the signs? Why the image of the dice for example? And why the grenade?
MS. When I select an image like this it is often for subjective reasons. When choosing a dice it represents gambling for me, the gamble of painting. If I use an image of a flame it might have connotations of disaster like images of violence from the internet. I tend to do paintings in series based on my choice of images. I did a series called the Vanitas paintings where graphic images from the history of the seventeenth century Dutch Vanitas genre are used. I also did a series called the Virus paintings where I worked with digital imagery and words. These images (as signs) are starting points. I’m attracted to these signs as images in the world.
JB. And then within your painting process the signs become transformed…
MS. Yes they are transformed because if I worried too much about legible narratives then the paintings would fall short of the process driven approach to my work. So what was once selected for its straightforward narrative becomes buried and extended through fragmentation. I think this represents and reflects aspects of the digital world and the way we receive all sorts of imagery which includes images of violence and disorder in the world.
JB. I’d like to talk a bit about the finished paintings Michael because for all the ‘dumb’ process approach we do end up with very compositionally dynamic works! Not unlike certain aspects of Abstract Expressionist painting! There is this exhilarating feeling, a loss of control but a sense of cool detachment too.
MS. As I’m making them I’m also erasing, I’m adding and subtracting all the time. The paintings become over burdened with a layered archaeology of imagery and pours. I want a feeling of excess, of delirium to occur. I want the viewer to feel this sensation. A lot of painters historically have this sense of archaeology in their paintings. I’m working with a Modernist conceit if you like. But I’m using this conceit in quite a random way. I’m composing the painting but via a competition between flat modernist space and perspectival renaissance space. At the same time the images and pours deliberately slide off the edges of the frame. What you end up with are colliding fragments of popular culture and art history.
JB. Yes, what I find intriguing about them is their inherent potential for transformation. They seem to be coming into and going out of focus all at the same time…
MS. I’m making, if you like, formalist decisions but I’m destroying them as well with these constant erasures. It occurred to me a few years ago that this process of layering and the way I’m moving between painterly flatness, imagery and abstraction resembles the world of the digital screen. I’m thinking particularly about the Windows programme where you bring up one window over another over another. It gives you this sense of optical depth but it’s entirely disembodied. It’s all surface, it’s all pixels.
JB. This makes me think about Warhol again and his playing with our ideas about subjectivity and imagery. So what is your relationship with the screen as a painter?
MS. The chatter of the Internet affects everyone’s lives. It changes our subjective experience of the world. When we used to look at gestural abstraction in Modernist American painting for instance, making that indexical mark was supposed to be a highly subjective act. But we see the indexical mark now in terms of representation and in particular through the digital screen. We look at the screen but we type on a desk or whatever, we don’t look at the keyboard anymore. Before all of this we would hand write onto paper. We would be looking down onto the paper. We view the world of representation through and on the screen but our eyes and hands seem disconnected. Also we move around with screens now. They’re on phones, iPads, Laptops. This moving realm of representations has caused a huge phenomenological shift in how we as humans deal with the relationship between subjectivity and the world of objects. In my paintings which are hand-made, there is a mimic of the optical screen. The paintings offer a sense of what it feels like to be in a disembodied screen-driven world even though they are physical objects.
JB. Yes, you are still very physically involved in the painting process aren’t you? You paint on the floor for a start. You move and tip the paintings to create runs and drips. You are applying stencils and removing them. In a way it’s a physical relationship with painting that goes back to Pollock. What is this physical, process approach to abstraction giving your work?
MS. I think for me there is a kind of openness about it. It is not a grand subjective announcement of one’s inner soul. The digital screen allows me to think about optical space in a different way from perspectival figuration and physical modernist flatness. I want the paintings to reference these given art tropes whilst simultaneously including the disembodied but still be a physical ‘made’ painting.
JB. That brings me on nicely to your new work where figurative elements are emerging from overt Pop signs and stencils that are sprayed through as in street art/graffiti.
MS. Yes, it is a major move for me. I’m not using the pour. They are still ostensibly abstract paintings AND still ostensibly Pop paintings. But I am using different materials. I am using car spray paints. I start with household paints initially of day-glow star shaped signs that are used in pound shops that advertise stuff very cheaply. I then take stencils that have been cut from Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Brushstroke’ and spray through those onto the painting. The final form I’m interested in achieving is a kind of portrait. So the ‘Brushstroke’ stencil acts as a signifier of Pop; a signifier of graffiti you see on the streets; but also suggests a face like a Frank Auerbach painting. I’m hoping to call these paintings, in a mock subjective kind of way, ‘Self Portraits’. There are also smaller works on paper which use the actual star shaped signs collaged into the work. So I’m running with the idea of abstraction turning itself into a figural form of some description like cubism, if only obliquely.
JB. You seem to be forcing these opposing histories of painting together but always bringing them into relationship with low-cultural signs from the here and now so to speak.
MS. This is an extension of my Pop interests. I’m using day glow pound shop signs and I’m stealing, not borrowing, from a known Pop master – i.e. Lichtenstein’s ‘Brushstroke’ – turning it into sprayed graffiti; these are all in their own way popular cultural icons.
JB. So do you see your role as somehow bringing these icons together in the process of painting to get closer to some kind of subjective response to the world of representations?
MS. There are two things here. Firstly there’s my interest in using what’s out there in the world which comes full circle from the cultural critique of ‘high abstract painting’ that is in the cake paintings. The second issue is an exploration of these interrelated ideas around subjectivity. I feel very close to the colours or stencils that I choose. I think this inter-subjective relationship with colour and the narratives of the signs reflects the world today and appears (through making) in my painting process as abstraction but the end result looks more Pop.
JB. But you need that freedom that abstraction gives you.
JB. To get to?
MS. A Pop subjectivity if that makes sense? Which sounds like a paradox- and it is! But paradox is key to my work.