About a year ago I stopped working full time in art schools, which is something that I had been doing since 1979. What I had in my practice at that point in time was a number of different strands in the work, or to put it another way, I experienced them as different projects, although that’s rather a grandiose word though for them. But I would like to start with a quote that came to mind when Alison was talking. William Carlos Williams insisted that there were “No ideas but in things”. I think that is similar to Alison saying, “Work comes out of work”. That’s one of the difficulties I have with my take on Visual Intelligence - it’s a phrase that somehow rings of knowing how to deal with things conceptually. My sense of it, is that Visual Intelligence operates at a quite an intuitive level and it’s about aspects of making the work which are possibly less predictable and schematic and have less of a laid down notion of how they can be dealt with. Visual intelligence is what happens when you’re with the work and working with the materials you use. There is a kind of helplessness involved and maybe visual intelligence is about how you deal with that, in front of the object. I reflect on the work all the time but I find that a lot of the reflection that goes on doesn’t lead to anything tangible. I write and I forget what I’ve written when in the studio the next day. When I stop working I have a rush of writing that comes on, often on ‘post-its’ which I put on the wall. So as soon as I’ve taken the tools out of my hand, and am no longer in contact with the materials, what happens is that I get overcome with ideas about what I should do next. And it’s perverse, and I think that visual intelligence occurs around that kind of ‘reversal.’
What I’m going to do is just show some slides to provide some examples of the different kinds of work that I have been doing. The first slide is of a painting which is about a metre high called Painting from Writing, made in 1990, by painting over lines of writing. I had hoped when I started to make the work that the lines of writing would be the work. My work as a whole comes out of geometrical abstraction and what I found as I worked on this is, is that I didn’t want any of the writing to appear, so the painting has happened because it’s obliterated the writing. In doing so it’s become a painting the concerns of which are to establish reversals of figure and ground the whole time, you could say.
The next slide is of a work in my studio in January/February of this year and it’s called Urbania. One of the things that I do is collect stuff and make collages and the collages always have revealed in various degrees the origin of the material. I was spurred to make this piece by the possibility of a commission (which didn’t come to be.) I wanted to make a piece of work where the origin of the materials was not apparent but their silhouette was all that remained so that their shape was all that you could see. This piece is acrylic on thick paper, blue-tacked to the wall. It’s about 23’ long by 6’6” high.
The next piece of work, is a series of small paintings on paper, which are all A5 in size, pinned up on my studio wall. These are titled “Dances with Michael.” They’re acrylic on paper with some collaged pieces on them. They are all a reaction to black marks made on the paper at the outset of the whole series, so I’ve got about 200 of these with black marks on, which were made “unthinkingly” in a single day. So something that was done very fast was followed by something very slow. These started two years ago and I am still doing them. What I’m interested in, in these pieces, in relation to some of your questions, is where do the boundaries of the possible lie? Regarding the question about ‘unforeseen outcomes’, the question that comes to me is how unforeseen is an unforeseen outcome? Where’s the boundary? In these pieces there are variations within which I’m trying to give myself permission to do different things from one to the other but there are themes running through them. Keeping the size constant is maybe a way of keeping a sort of stability. One metaphor for this, that I’ve found useful, is to do with casting a net. The net is a kind of grid; what you catch depends on how close together or how large the holes are in it. How tight do I want to make the holes? How wide or deep do I want to cast the net? Those are some of the questions round it. Because, devising a technique intended to facilitate unforeseen discovery is actually the classic technique of modernist art. The facilitation of unforeseen discoveries is what ran through the whole of the art of the last century, not all artists of course, but unstable techniques and techniques that negated standard and accepted techniques, the absurd and the illogical are all about the unforeseen, obviously.
This next slide is a close-up, so it’s hugely magnified, of one of those pieces. I just chose it because the main theme that runs through these works is the outside and the inside of a particular shape or form, with things going on outside it that are mirrored in things going on inside it.
The next slide is of another series of drawings that have taken place over the last year. These drawings are acrylic on paper and they’re made by a very fast movement of the paper, by putting the paint on with a dropper, a sort of pipette and then moving the paper and stopping it suddenly. At first I simply accepted what arrived but in subsequent drawings I’ve coated the paper in epoxy resin in order to get a surface that would resist wiping and scraping, so that I could make changes to it. Some of these drawings were made out of doors. These were made in Paxos, Greece when it was raining or just after rain using ink on tracing film so the blots in it are made by drops of water falling from the trees or by holding the drawing underneath the trees so that water would fall on to it. And this is just a slide of one of the resin pieces where I’ve re-worked the surface between movements of the paper in order to isolate a form if you like, and so that a certain amount of correction was possible.
The last two slides are from a series of 30 collages called “City Life” that I‘ve just finished and which I started four or five years ago. This one is called Under New Management, 14 x10 cm, so it is hugely magnified on the screen. These pieces are made from hundreds of collected pieces of paper that I’ve taken from packaging of all kinds that are in daily use or I’ve picked up over many, many years off pavements or out of wastepaper baskets and so on. This one is called Field Studies and there’s a sort of testing going on of absurdity, what could you use, what couldn’t you use, what would I think was just too absurd or too ridiculous to use? And they’re made quite literally by c
I think that part of what I’m dealing with is a predicament about where the work’s going or how to get a sense of continuity within the work. It seems to me that none of the work has a foreseen conclusion to it. As I said, I think that if I look at skills I could be very literal and say well I’m very skilful with scalpel and glue but I could also say that there is a kind of skill involved in recognising ….. When does good turmoil become bad turmoil in the work? When does the desire to destroy something or to change direction actually diminish the work rather than open up a new opportunity? When is it the right time to persist and when is it the right time to abandon? And I think addressing those questions could be called “skills of recognition”, although I don’t think they’re really skills at all but I think that they’re maybe in that area. I do title work, I’ve given you the titles for all of them, some of the titles are maybe slightly more ironic, like calling something Under New Management. When I’m at a stage in the work when I feel I need to be “under new management”, I call that piece of work Under New Management. There is a kind of “serious humour” if you like, in saying that.
What are the attributes that Visual Intelligence? I mean all those words that you have asked us to respond to, although they are necessary words, and somebody even said, ‘I‘d like them to be written about me’, I often feel that they are overused and have become clichés. I understand less and less as I go on what any of them actually really mean, “subtlety” and “expressive power” and so on. I suppose I agree again with something Alison said this morning, that the recognition of quality, like excitement, is experienced in the body. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or something like that. I remember seeing a Van der Weyden altar piece in Washington and maybe it was just the fact that I was very far from home… It was a deposition, but this body coming down on a red cloth was just something where something happened to one’s own whole self, one’s whole body from looking at it and you have to admit it that that is “expressive power” and there’s no way round it. I was making some work based on the drawings of a Japanese potter called Kanjiro Kawai. When Leach was in Japan and was talking to Kawai about how he made judgements about whether a pot was a good pot or not, and this is quite a mysterious area of connoisseurship with Japanese pots, Kawai said ‘you can tell, but the way you can tell is with your body’. So that was really interesting that there’s something somatic rather than simply mental, conceptual. One of the qualities that I really like in work is a kind of visual density, that’s the only way I can describe it, density but also clarity. A good example would be one of Braque’s late studio interiors; they’re very dense but somehow they are also extremely clear. They are paintings that come across very clearly, as a psychological as well as a physical interior world inhabited with real things and also imagined things, things arrived at only by, and through, painting and that will have to do as far as a “good piece of work” is concerned.
NW: You’ve mentioned complexity and density. The last collages you showed, the Under New Management and so on, there’s a very strong underlying structure to them which is almost like a grid isn’t it? It’s very non-hierarchical in the organisation and when you think of someone like Paolozzi using the same sort of source material it becomes very hierarchical and very pictorial. Can you say something about your attitude, or if you like, your visual intelligence, in organising material like that? Is that just the example that you gave when you talked about the density and clarity, is that why you used that underlying structure?
MG: If I can go a slightly circular route? One of the consequences for me, and I think it’s different for different people, of not making work for long periods of time was that I found I was either idealising or fantasising what my practice actually was. I’ve always been very interested in collage because of what can be achieved by the disruption of context. I’ve made collages for twenty years or something, not at all looking like those. So I think I was quite shocked when I looked at what I’d collected. I mean the point of actually having something is that it has, at the moment that you see it, some sort of potential for you, otherwise you wouldn’t pick it up and stick it in a drawer and keep it lovingly for many years. I think I was quite shocked by just the sheer amount of pieces of paper and bits of packages that I had collected, boxes and boxes of the stuff. So I had a real predicament about where to begin with these things. There couldn’t possibly be as much potential in them as I had originally imagined, and yet I was incapable of rejecting them. I was trying to flatten the hierarchy if you like. I was trying to test inclusivity, the idea that one thing is as good as another. So in a collage with elements such as a little grinning baby or an octopus, are incorporated the words “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” in an attempt to have the uncertainty I felt, actually stated in the work. I wanted a kind of evenness that would keep someone looking at it, going across it, because I felt suddenly I’d come to the end of hierarchy.
NW: That’s interesting.