In July abstract critical interviewed Simon Callery about his exhibition Inland Sealand, commissioned by Exlab and Sherborne House Arts. The exhibition is on in Newland, Dorset until the 9 September. More details here. Simon would like to thank Andrew Stooke and Amanda Wallwork, commission managers at Exlab and Sherborne House Arts.
abstract critical: We could start by talking about the upcoming project in Dorset and how the series of works you are making at the moment relates to the commission and to the land, to the place where they will be shown.
Simon Callery: Yes. I have been working on a commission called Inland Sealand in Dorset. It is a challenge because the work has a given subject. I started the commission process with a five-day overland walk between Sherborne and Portland last December. I have been commissioned to work to reveal the qualities of the somewhat overlooked inland geology in Dorset as opposed to the well known, well documented and popular Jurassic coastline. So my challenge was to be aware of the geology under foot, to recognize its impact on the character and use of the landscape and importantly to work out how this might influence the paintings. There is a very vital equation that needs to be made absolutely clear in this situation and that is how the experience of landscape impacts on painting. Since I don’t use painting as a way of depicting the surface appearance of landscape it is the experience of the material landscape that I go to for clues to develop my paintings. I see it as how the experience of landscape can serve the needs of painting rather than how painting can serve to represent landscape.
AC: When you say experience, are you talking about the feeling of being in it, or are you talking about a conceptualization of certain aspects of landscape? Do you see painting as recreating a bodily experience or as objectifying some kind of concept which relates to the landscape?
SC: I think it is important to understand that the viewer’s experience of painting shares characteristics with my experience of being in the landscape. This equivalence of experience is what I think painting is capable of achieving.
AC: Would it be to literal to say that the paintings slope in the same way a hill slopes?
SC: Well, it is possible to pick out literal aspects and I don’t really mind that too much. More important to recognize is that the physical qualities of the painting involve the viewer in a physical encounter. We do not just understand these works visually, we also need to understand them bodily. It is an intention of the work that we can get involved with all our senses and not just the eye, much like we do in landscape.
AC: So with a traditional landscape painting, for example, you might explore it as you would explore a view – you stand on a hill and look across a panorama. Would you say with these works that you want to explore landscape as if you were walking through it, physically exploring and moving from one aspect of it to another?
SC: The walking aspect is significant because I think when we are in motion all our senses are active. Everything is connected and everything is operating at an equilibrium. Moving around a painting to examine it is really different to the conventional static viewing experience. This convention has grown into a specialized activity which is pretty much exclusively about how we analyse and process images. What frustrated me was recognizing how much this seemed to be out of balance and the extent to which the emphasis in contemporary painting was on image and the eye, with a suppression of the other senses. I felt that painting was functioning in exactly the same way that all the other images that surround us in contemporary life function. What I’m trying to do is create an experience of looking at painting that actively engages the other senses. Funnily enough, the clues that really highlighted this imbalance in painting grew out of an awareness of how we respond to landscape.
AC: You’ve spoken before about wanting to get rid of everything to do with the image, and opening up painting to all the senses seems to have required getting rid of the image from your work. Does that loss worry you? Do you ever think, ‘how can I keep the visual operating within these physical aspects of painting?’
SC: It doesn’t worry me in the least because in the world we inhabit everyone is generating images with their cameras or with their phones. I have no urgent reason to make images. I actually have better reasons not to make them in order to develop other ways of communicating in painting. It feels perfectly healthy not to have to worry about image–making since everyone else is.
AC: If it is about exploring physicality and opening painting up and pushing it out into the room, why stick with the flat plane of painting, why tie it to the wall, why not make something which is closer to sculpture?
SC: What I want to do is to test the limits of what painting can be and what it can do. I think that the excitement in opening painting up to physicality lies in the potential tension with the convention of what painting is understood to be – not what sculpture is understood to be.
AC: Do you mean that you make use of the assumptions people bring to what a painting is? – i.e a flat thing on the wall.
SC: I come up against what people assume paintings are supposed to be quite a lot. They don’t always agree with what I say. What I’m really trying to do is push at the margins and see where it can go.
AC: But do you think that you need or use those assumptions…?
SC: The way I see it is that I use the vernacular of painting, the traditional materials of painting, but I use them in a different way and for different reasons. Using materials in a different way makes a different painting. One of the things that I have recognized as important in terms of seeing where painting can go by is by having a clear understanding of where it came from. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in Italy, the birthplace of a tradition in painting we continue to be a part of. Following my logic, in a Byzantine church I could see that painting used to belong to a group of objects – an ensemble – that contributed to the total environment of the church. A painting could be part of an altarpiece and it would communicate through an established image-based iconography. It would sit alongside the sculpture and alongside the architecture. These were all part of a very focused and refined environment with a defined function and intention. Gradually painting became removed from this environment and this function and over time ended up standing by itself. All the elements that constituted the whole that it used to be a part of were detached and now painting floats in its own highly specialized and dedicated environment. Within my own painting a point arrived when I began setting about removing the vestiges of the image from the canvasses – which is not at all straight forward – and I have found it liberating because the conventions that govern painting are all to do with its image based origins and functions. The height it goes on the wall, the rectangle, the presentation, every single aspect of painting has been determined by the requirement that the image must communicate; this was all up to be questioned and challenged. As I realized it doesn’t need to have four sides to be a painting, or for that matter it doesn’t need to be flat on the wall – it can tip out at an angle, it can be soft, it can be hard and it can still be a painting.
AC: How related are the pieces you are making to the environment they are going to be displayed in?
SC: I have the opportunity to show them in a house.
AC: It is a grand house?
SC: No, it’s not a grand house. It is a cottage but the height of the first room is almost four metres high, so it’s not a tiny pokey little place. What interests me is to make paintings that can be robust enough and make their qualities evident in an environment far from a dedicated art space. So I have thought about the rooms, the scale of the rooms, how the viewer would move around from one room to another and how a story could unfold in terms of what I’m doing with painting and with the relationship of those works to Dorset, its geology and the walk I took through the county.
AC: Yes, that’s something I wanted to cover. The commission is around a very specific environment; how much does that radically change the way you work and how much does it function as a kind of nudge, which slightly diverts what you are doing?
SC: It makes you think about things that you wouldn’t think about otherwise. One of most challenging things was looking at geology and considering time scales which are inconceivable. I am not sure we are designed to be able to grasp how long it takes for these geologies to form. So I end up with an intimacy with the chalk, the limestone, sands and clays, the actual material of landscape and a sense of time as material.
AC: Are those things directly in the work or does the work sit in them as a sort of correct context for them?
SC: Its difficult to pin down but perhaps it’s best to say that those ideas, those understandings of material landscape and our position in relation to timescales all establish a context within which I can place the work because they are also qualities I associate with painting. I’m not trying to make works which are desperate to grab your attention. They are slower, the understandings and investigations of the work are slower, things get slowed down. The material side is very heightened and I think that has a strong and quite direct relation to the landscape. The process of working from an experience of landscape to finding form to embody those qualities is above all a process of filtering one material through another. The filtering enables a transformation to take place. Above all the results must be compelling as paintings on their own terms that refer to landscape rather than depictions of landscape that happen to be paintings.
AC: You mentioned to me before that you had been asked to include some explanatory images and that that felt in some ways like a compromise; why does it feel like a compromise?
SC: What I enjoy is a piece of work which doesn’t bend to please or soften itself to make it easy. I prefer it when it can be simply be what it is.
AC: What do you mean by ‘it is what it is’? That it has a particular physicality, a particular way of being in the world, a particular structure?
SC: Good work can be unapologetic about its characteristics and qualities and reveal no sense of compromise. Integrity is important to me – of the work and of the artist – so that the work is the result of serious thinking and has been made in a particular way for a reason. As a viewer sometimes you have to rise to the challenge to accommodate work. After all, it’s not the entertainment business.
AC: Do you think that the explanatory images potentially short-circuit some kind of direct relation to the work? And also, and maybe more problematically, do you think the very idea of having a connection to a particular theme – to geology – could also short-circuit the relationship?
SC: Potentially. The images I am using are ones I have made myself, so I’ve really thought about them. They are images of limestone exposures in landscape. For me it is a way of directing the viewer’s attention to the story of the geology. As it is a commissioned public show, which is not in a private gallery situation, it seems to be a requirement that we direct quickly to the central theme. The idea that seeing the photographs and the paintings together could short circuit the experience is true but it might also add another level of understanding – so I’m very interested in how that is going to work.
AC: Is there a reason you choose to explain them with photography rather than drawing or a painting?
SC: Well, there is a drawing. I’ve always made photographs but they have never become part of the work. Now it seems like this is the right moment to use photography in a show, alongside painting.
AC: In the same way in which people look round the work jutting out from the wall and have certain expectations of a back and front, do you think people will read the images – the photographs and the drawings – as things which have been displaced from the works themselves? So that showing the images alongside the paintings will seem like another deconstruction of the painting, where you have just moved the image far away from the painting-object.
SC: I don’t know. The images are not huge, they are domestic scale on a domestic wall and I hope they will operate as a clue, for a public which isn’t used to seeing really difficult and challenging painting, to inform them. It might go wrong, they might consider that a photograph has an authority and a painting that doesn’t have an image has no authority – that can often be a problem. Or even worse, if the painting doesn’t have an image they simply won’t see anything at all, which does occur, strangely enough. They will look at the painting, ‘agh, there is nothing there’…. I am amazed by this when I witness it. In fact I’m absolutely gobsmacked by it, when I come across it. I do quite a lot in this country, but as soon as I’m anywhere else in Europe it’s not a problem, only here.
AC: There is probably a wider acceptance of abstraction on the Continent than here.
SC: Without a doubt.
AC: You said that you didn’t need to create images because people are constantly creating images in a way that is almost like breathing… Some people have conceptualized certain types of abstract painting by saying that it is influenced by the sorts of relations we have to a computer screen. Presumably your work is directly against that – do you think your work is atavistic, do you think you are trying to escape from the modern world?
SC: I can’t escape from it. Some things annoy me and some things don’t, I get annoyed if I have to spend my whole evening with someone playing with their phone, or someone who can only talk about films or TV. What I do think – and this is where I stick my neck out – is that we do risk losing our sensitivities. We learn to understand the world around us as we grow and we educate our senses and we learn to respond to the world, we learn to hear well, we learn to see well, we learn to understand things physically and to develop our tactile sense. We educate our senses as we grow up and if we don’t do that we risk being less sensitive. I think one of the things which art is very good at is educating the senses.
AC: So it creates a space where you are attentive, and where you are focused, where you can learn?
SC: I’m not trying to project my thinking, my ideas, my personality onto an audience. What I’m trying to do is to find forms and strategies in painting that will engage the viewer in the work on many sensory levels. I hope this leads to the possibility that the viewer can be aware of themselves and their perceptual process. That is the ultimate goal.
AC: So you are creating an arena for them to be in, rather than communicating something…?
SC: Well I think the communication I’m trying to send is not a literal one. It is more about developing a language of form, colour and surface that engages and animates the senses and creates an engagement with the painting as a physical event rather than as an image bearer. When it works well, when the viewer is animated and moving around exploring the work physically as well as visually it can be emotive and have meaning, then you have good work.
AC: Would you say its also quite important that there is a sense of craft and that this helps to draw people in? It seems to me that the appreciation of something being well made is a much more basic type of appreciation – one shared by many people who might be confused by a painting without an image, where they can see nothing to look at.
SC: In some works there is a lot of wood work. I wouldn’t call it carpentry, that is misleading, as it is very expedient, studio-orientated activity that revolves around what is possible with your hands and a few tools. I do think it opens a window onto the making process. You can trace evidence of the process, and that to me is an engaging element. I always like it if there is a way one can enter into how a work was made and discover traces of decisions taken. I find it very human actually. It’s a very understandable human decision making process of putting one piece of wood on top of another; does it go there or does it go there? Leaving traces and evidence is a way of finding a form in the physical world for the incalculable number of decisions taken when making a painting.
AC: And they function to draw people into the work, into exploring it…
SC: It opens up possible ways in. My work is not a finite polished object which beams information at you. The works go through a process of being made and of decisions being taken and those decisions influence how we look, how we stand, whether we move in to go close, do we stand away, do we go to the side, do we walk away and immediately want to go back or carry on because we think we have it. If you engage a viewer in your making process it is a way for the thinking to find form and become tangible.
AC: So you want to be able to use active spectatorship, this active engagement in the world?
SC: I would like to think that the way we look at art can be taken out of the gallery and applied to the world beyond its walls. Better still, the common sense way we look at, navigate around and respond in the world needs to be brought into the gallery, rather than being left at the door. From my point of view this a constant and on-going process where what is seen and experienced is material for painting and the experience of painting informs the way that I see the world around me.
AC: So when I was talking earlier about whether the Dorset commission was a nudge or a new beginning, really from that perspective you would see it simply as a different aspect of the constant cycle between the work and what you see and what you experience?
SC: This commission has inland geology as a subject. Since I can’t make geology and I didn’t want to depict it in painting the challenge was to see how turning attention to it as a subject impacts on my painting. That is really about art-making and painting. It is not about geology but about the impact of geology.
AC: You’ve done a number of projects in the past which have related geology or archaeology to painting. Presumably there is an element of momentum in that – in a practical or pragmatic sense – that when you get one project you are likely to get another; are there are any other subjects that you would want to make painting in relation to?
SC: I think I was very lucky because my first collaborative project was with archaeologists. Archaeology is a very broad discipline. It embraces such a range of human activity past and present and fascinating methods and processes. It is very rich and fertile territory for an artist. I didn’t get involved in archaeology as a strategy as I was invited to take part. What was really useful was being able to take a more objective view of my activity and discipline from the vantage point of another. The art world can often be a very mean spirited environment, not always that smart and certainly has some twisted values. Being able to step outside that, albeit temporarily, was very healthy.
AC: Do you mean simply that you moved out and were looking in or was it direct interaction with archaeologists, with people who were responding to your work as you were making it?
SC: Well it was more to do with working alongside archaeologists in the field and speaking to them in order to understand their principles, motivations, how they carry out their work; this revealed the questions that drove their activity. I recognized that there was a common ground and that we were asking similar questions but going about dealing with them in completely different ways. This common ground, in the terms of field archeology, it is do with how we begin to understand our physical relationship to a place initially within a landscape and our place within what they term the continuity of use of landscape. This suggests that our presence there in fact was contributing to a continuing use of a place and did not mark an end point in its story. I felt that this awareness of prior human activity, our presence and what is to follow, offered a grasp of temporality, an understanding of time in material terms. This seemed a model that offered a lot to an artist.
AC: Do you mean that the artwork is part of a continuum of things which have been made and that you are inserting yourself into that continuum?
SC: We are inserted into this continuum the minute we are born. It is just a matter of how aware we are and the degree to which being aware begins to reward us and addresses fundamental questions. Artwork is useful for this very human form of measuring.
AC: But you are physically making something which is durable…
SC: Yes, well I’m not talking about the actual physical artworks but much more about these fundamental questions regarding our relationship to our environments and how we become sensitized and find our place within them. Those sort of questions can be applied to artwork; where is the place for painting, how does painting relate to its viewers, where is a good place for painting at the moment? These are kind of questions that emerged when I began to prod at the parameters of what painting could be if it wasn’t an image-based activity. The question of where is the place for painting had a lot of meaning because it has direct physical implications. If it doesn’t have to be at eye level wall height at 130cm to centre anymore then it can be on the floor, it can be on the ceiling or it can be hanging off the wall at an angle. There could be a new place for painting and a new place for the viewer. These kind of questions all became entangled and began to unravel around archaeology and working in the landscape. It is also worth saying that for me the most tangible thing about being on an excavation site is often the physical landscape and the activity of the archaeologists at work rather than any clear and uncontestable picture of what happened there two thousand years previously.
AC: So archaeology is not about the results it comes up with, so much as it is a form of activity or enquiry that is very contemporary?
SC: This is my view. I am sure an archaeologist would add to that or possibly contradict it. It reveals to me more about our current efforts to define ourselves than it reveals the workings of the mind of someone who lived two thousand years ago Their minds are irretrievable, there is nothing more irretrievable than that. I can apply the methods and processes of archaeology to what I do. They ask where is our place in the continuity of use in a landscape and I can say what is the form and where is the place for painting? For me these are very relevant questions.