The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. More information here.
14th September 2013, Emyr Williams’ studio near Chelmsford, Essex.
Those present: John Bunker, Emyr Williams, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Alexandra Harley.
John Bunker: I want to start with a couple of paraphrases from Motherwell and Picasso. First Motherwell and the idea that collage was his way of ‘actioning on the world’ or somehow feeling closer to the world – and whether that is an illusion or not is something to think about. The other is a cheeky Picasso quote: ‘Collage is the 20th century modernist invention… but also its great undoing’. I thought a lot about that idea and about where collage could take you in different directions. My work at the moment is very much in transition. I discovered that these different aspects of working in collage took me to odd places. I want to quickly talk about the ‘frame’ pieces. I think they can seem quite incongruous and the thing about frames is they are an artifice, something that comes from the outside… and then again with collage there is that interesting tension that comes from the outside – and in this case they are containing aspects of the work. I discovered a relationship with these things in a project for the re-opening of a refurbished theatre I was asked to do work for. I noticed as they were building that they were using a lot of trusses, and had broken through a lot of walls and they all seemed like framed areas of the building and I thought it might be interesting to start working with frames and reacting to them. I started to collect old frames and use what was already in the frame… so I collect them, dismantle them, turn the contents round and use the back side of the print as a ground. In ‘Sun Spot’ the mounting boards I included got me involved in picture making. So that’s a little introduction to these pieces. These works move on from that show [at the theatre]. They are all new. With the large pieces, such as ‘Oh Lucky Man!’, it uses the same format… I have turned it and splayed the whole thing out. Emyr and I were talking last night about finding different centers of gravity in the work, which ‘Oh Lucky Man!’ is aiming at. It is forcing the collages out into different directions, actually into real space, containing them in a very contrived space; or trying to bring them back into a formatted stretched canvas. Showing these together [‘Shadowplay’, ‘Sidewinder’, ‘Mackie Messer’, ‘Roughryder’], I can see obvious repeated forms.
Robin Greenwood: When you say ‘real space’, do you mean literal space, like these collages coming off the wall, as opposed to a ‘pictorial’ space?
John Bunker: Yes, it is a literal space, but I am also very aware, having just written a piece on Robin Denny recently, of this idea of painting as a ‘metaphorical’ space, and essentially that’s exactly what it is. I am intrigued with how collage works with that idea, how it forces these spatial tensions.
Anthony Smart: The thing I want to get off my chest, to do with this one [‘Room for Manoeuvre’] and some others is that really you are a sculptor in denial, and you do not seem to be much concerned with the picture plane. You seem to be wanting to make things for real. And I really like that one over there [‘Room for Manoeuvre’]. Part of it almost coming free; it is almost out in the world, where it belongs. It is sensitive and tactile… not keen on the colour though… but that’s not the worry. I am struck by this ‘halfway house’, because it ultimately raises ambiguity… these are real things put onto the canvas [in ‘Shadowplay’, ‘Sidewinder’, ‘Mackie Messer’, ‘Roughryder’], but you have not messed up the canvas…
Robin Greenwood: In fact, for me, when John is at his most ‘real’ is when he starts to transform these things he uses into something that is more genuinely pictorial. All this stuff in the middle of ‘Sidewinder’ is starting to do something, and the way the whole thing sprawls diagonally is pictorial too, I think. I don’t go with this circular thing [the coiled cable in the middle]. The problem is with these pictures [‘Sidewinder’, ‘Mackie Messer’] you just kind of fade out around the outside. When you get to here [round the edges] I’m a bit at a loss as to what you are trying to do. Whereas in the centers you have some very real stuff happening.
Alexandra Harley: I had a long chat with Nick Moore the other night about the way you [John] were ‘presenting’ these, and what the frame was doing, and we were talking about the ‘empty’ space around the outside and how it impacted into the middle. I felt that ‘Gasolene Man’ was really good. I like the faint line around the outside of ‘Sidewalking’ where you have got that double framing, and it seems to work better. But ‘Oh Lucky Man!’ harks back to what Tony was saying about you being a bit of a frustrated sculptor. I think that you have just flattened it [sculpture] and I feel if you had been even more three-dimensional with it you would not have just spread it out…
Emyr Williams: ‘Shadowplay’ is starting to talk to the edge and use the backing as an element rather than just a backdrop. It gets right out to the edge. This top on the corner with the torn edges uses the quality of the colour very successfully at creating a flow, a meaningful area of the painting, whereas some of the others are slightly more ‘arty’ at doing that. ‘Shadowplay’ surprises you and gives you a lot more rhythm. I read that ‘woodgrain’ [across the middle] as stepping in against that… but the more I looked at it the more I enjoyed the yellow lines pointing in and being picked up in other places, in subtle ways, in small incidents. These talk to one another. There is a nice use of blue, the light sky areas, then these other more cobalt blues.
Anthony Smart: Don’t you keep questioning why the canvas is the same canvas [wherever it reappears] with an image which is just plonked on it. I can’t get away from it and want to ‘take it off’. It’s about layers and you are back always to feeling the edges of the layers. You almost want to cut out that small piece of paint in the middle of ‘Sidewinder’ and isolate it…
Emyr Williams: I would do the opposite… put blue in there to punch a hole in it, so that it loses its central weighting and scatters, pushing to the edges. I said to John: ‘are you a sculptor?’ I asked him: ‘where are you looking, at painting or sculpture?’ It is a halfway house. It’s a question of committing 100 per cent in the direction you choose… come out and really deal with space.
Robin Greenwood: Are you saying there is no halfway house [between painting and sculpture]?
Emyr Williams: I would say there is no halfway house…it’s not a house. Well, it’s a hotel… [laughs]
John Bunker: I do feel it is a halfway house. This is part of where I am at the moment. I agree with what is being said. I have never seen it as clearly before except in the last few days. There is something fundamental though… I always get a massive kick from seeing work that forces right to the edge of things and I have always had that with assemblage artworks. It has always excited me and again it’s that nasty business of the fact that it is on the wall and it shouldn’t be. There is a mischievous thing…
Robin Greenwood: You are sort of getting off on this but not quite doing it…?
Anne Smart: Are you saying that you are enjoying the controversy?
John Bunker: Can’t say that I am… it’s something I just have to get off my chest, to work through, to play with.
Anne Smart: My overriding thing [about this work] is how I come to terms with the boundaries of the paintings. I would pull these four [‘Shadowplay’, ‘Sidewinder’, ‘Mackie Messer’, ‘Roughryder’, which were hung next to each other], together and treat them as one. I would want to try and make one from four, because there is so much stuff going on in each one, it’s too much. It’s terrifying! On the subject of tearing [paper etc.] I would say to myself ‘how can I get that feel in paint?’ Recently I looked at some early Kandinsky and he had scrubbed on wavy-edged blocks of colour not unlike what is happening here, but in paint. But I think the main issue is still the edge and the image within. If we look at this reproduction over here [reproduction of a Manet flower painting], the way the colour shapes are blocked in with space around them, and then comparing it with this [reproduction of a Braque collage] you can see how much clearer it is. How do we pull that together? The Braque is a central image and is a collage, but your collage is more like the Manet – except of course the Manet is figurative.
Robin Greenwood: I am not clear on what are you saying about the Manet…
Anne Smart: The Manet is very painterly and it’s got all that empty space around it.
Robin Greenwood: Are you saying that’s fine?
Anne Smart: No, it’s a problem, but it’s a painting…
Robin Greenwood: So it’s not a problem for painting?
Anne Smart: Not a problem for figurative painting, but it is a problem for abstract painting.
Robin Greenwood: [pointing to ‘Shadowplay’, ‘Sidewinder’, ‘Mackie Messer’, ‘Roughryder’] So you are saying that these are figurative images…
Anne Smart: Absolutely…
Robin Greenwood: …in the middle of the canvas? Which is why they are so obsessed with framing? Funnily enough, the other night at the show in Stepney when I saw all these on the wall [smaller framed pieces hung together] I thought you could get rid of all the frames and put them all together.
Anne Smart: Because they are a little indiscriminate at the moment, aren’t they?
Robin Greenwood: But they are beautiful images. ‘Pirate’ I picked out the other night… I mean if it were a Motherwell you wouldn’t worry at all would you? It’s a semi-figurative image that is done beautifully with lots of fantastic colours, great skill and dexterity; but then why would you still be doing that now?
Anne Smart: What I am trying to point out is the very important word ‘potential’. The potentiality of a truly abstract painting coming out of these is huge; I really feel that. But we are surrounded by figurative works; you can’t get away from that.
Anthony Smart: I like the idea of taking all the frames off and pulling them all in together because it reduces all that is contained and congealing into the centre of every one into incidents in a total, and it would put any conclusion slightly to one side for long enough…
Emyr Williams: I am going to disagree. I would not put them all together, because I think the problem with that is that it is a sort of solution that you know is going to work. Just because the frame is difficult, don’t abandon it. Looking at these ones, it is important in your practice to move between sizes, important or you end up making the same painting again and again. I just think he needs to be ‘nastier’ about scale.
They start with things that seem to offer that and disturb you, with the colour; they are rather beautiful, but ‘Mackie Messer’ then too quickly goes into subtlety, when what you need is some big sledgehammer punches… for longer. There is an acceleration to finish them which is a problem. Conclusions happens a little too quickly and as a result as you run out of materials. You then start to repeat with the smaller things and the whole of your vision begins to come in and in. You start to turn inside-out the rather beautiful bits. And possibly what you need to do is start back a bit and hammer in some bigger bits.
Alexandra Harley: A couple of things about your way of working… David Smith worked in series… there were times when he really did not sort the sculpture out, he just moved to the next one. 28 sculptures as a group did not sort out what he wanted to say. In our heads there are times when you see one of his sculptures being more than it actually is. It’s because you bring in all the little ideas from the other ones.
Anthony Smart: That is a phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism [in general].
Alexandra Harley: Yes, I get the sense that some of these [John’s work] need conflating… they need re-examining.
Anthony Smart: The perception of abstract art is that it is quick. There is a sort of ‘don’t mess with it‘ idea; don’t muddy it, so many don’ts, they say ‘leave it alone, its brilliant’. The first time you run around in the snow it’s great, but then it becomes a shit mess and you have to wait for it to snow again.
Robin Greenwood: The thing is, John, you are so bloody talented actually you could turn out these forever. We are being quite hard on you today, but it is worth saying that this work is really fantastic. You have got a great eye… but are you just going to turn out more and more of these things? Something is perhaps happening in these pieces that we haven’t spotted yet; and maybe you also John have not yet seen it. For example, I keep looking at this bit here [middle right of ‘Sidewinder’], made out of 20 different colours, and somehow if you could convince me that you have done it on purpose and it’s not just an accident, it would be extraordinary. That could really stump us next time [we look at your work], because mostly we know what we are looking at here. You yourself said it was slightly old-fashioned, like looking back 30 years. You should surprise yourself and find out what you are really trying to do.
Alexandra Harley: For me it’s the formula, the rectangle, scrunching it together doesn’t mean you get rid of the formula of the rectangle.
Anne Smart: I think we are all familiar with things that happen like that, we have all seen them before. It seems to be a question of whether you are going to put a lot of them all together or just take one out and expand it.
Anthony Smart: I thought that what Robin was getting at [bringing these works together without frames] was that instead of having these resolved individually, each of them could be seen as a ‘mark’ [within a bigger context], so you would have this massive amount of small detail packed in together – and then, how would that be resolved? You would be out of your comfort zone. He is right, you are very clever. If you did put all that together you would not be able to get out of it quite so easily – not in the first week anyway!
Robin Greenwood: We are not saying take the frames off and there you are! We are not saying that’s the way to solve all your problems, only that it might possibly be a way forward. You would have all these ‘things’, as Tony says, as individual ‘spaces’ and then you would have to say what sort of spaces they are. You might have to do something very different to all of them. Then again, it might be John’s thing to pull it all into the middle. That in itself could be right or wrong. If everything is coming to the centre you want to know why and be convinced that it is a new thing John is doing, and for a good reason. John has to convince us that pulling things into the middle is a really great idea, and that it is not just another variation on a theme, that it is something very special. Art can do anything if it is convincing. There are no rules. Convince us that ‘rammed into the very middle of the painting’ is a great idea, I’d go with that.
Anthony Smart: I think you know what you want to do, but maybe you are being too much of an ‘artist’ to allow yourself to do it. I have been looking at this work long enough to feel the weight of all this interesting stuff. I think you know what you want to do. You have the same problem as everyone in this room… can you shed your baggage? You are not on your own! There is no arrogance in anything any of us has said, because we are all in the same boat.
Robin Greenwood: So, Tony, do you still think John is a closet sculptor?
Anthony Smart: I don’t like to give advice [laughs all round]. Suppose this work here was being shown in an exhibition in an art gallery… when I walked away I would wonder which way he would go. That’s for him… but I do think you know, John.
Emyr Williams: I like the analogy of the muddy field…
Anthony Smart: …it’s a snowy field…
Emyr Williams: …that becomes a muddy field…