“the art lesson”
Some answers to some questions I was asked recently…
Q. Would you call yourself a contemporary painter, a traditional painter, or something else?
A. Because of my general preference for oil paint, a medium that by some would be considered ‘traditional’, many people consider me a card-carrying art-reactionary. That tends to be the usual pejorative association of the term ‘traditional painter’. By definition of still bearing a pulse and consuming air I must also be a ‘contemporary painter’ – a description I don’t mind. If I’m dealing with the art world, and it’s already assumed I’m a visual artist of some sort, I don’t mind calling myself a painter. But I wouldn’t say this to a stranger who just asks what I do for a living. In that situation, if you answer ‘painter’, people then sometimes ask me to quote for decorating their bathroom or kitchen. Generally, for the sake of not having to turn down unwanted decorating jobs, if someone asks I tell them I am an artist. In France it’s easier – even the state considers me an ‘artiste-peintre’.
There is, among some artists when faced with the same question, a preference of calling themselves ‘painter’ rather than ‘artist’. This is done to give the impression that they consider themselves a worker and not a pretentious aesthete; they will then qualify the statement with something along the lines of ‘it’s up to others (or history) to decide if I am an artist’. I used to do it before I knew better and generally consider this more pretentious than calling yourself an artist. It plays on pandering to the snobbery and pretentions of the intellectualism and connoisseurial credentials of the questioner; it’s almost fishing for compliments.
Q. Where do you think the traditional easel painter stands in the art world today?
A. Once again, who would we consider a ‘traditional’ easel painter? It all generally comes down to the critical acceptance and celebration of individual artists. Currently, the likes of Lucien Freud and Paula Rego can generally do no wrong as far as critical acclaim is concerned so ‘traditional’ figurative painting is as valid as ever. Admittedly they are probably considered by some as the last of a certain generation of painters but then painters like Antony Micallef and Jenny Saville has shown how the medium moves on without losing its relevance to a younger audience.
Q. Is beauty and aesthetics important in your painting?
A. The aesthetic of the medium certainly is important. I was always influenced by a potential visual punch delivered by interesting paint effects, generally best exemplified through abstraction. This is why I am so impressed by the work of Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Joseph Turner and Gerhard Richter – I love the way they manipulated their media.
As to an idea of a general aesthetic, or beauty, in my painting I’m not sure. I don’t set out to make something that is either ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. Each piece of work is generally established though its subject and not its depiction. During its painting it will present different problems that have to be addressed with different painting solutions that are learnt as you progress as a painter.
Personally I think that painting can never be totally autonomous or separated from its social function; certainly not if the work is planned for public exhibition. I used to think it was very important and disappeared into painterly abstraction for about five years before I realised that I was disappearing up a formalist dead-end. There was nothing I was doing that hadn’t been done by abstract painters before me.
Q. What is your opinion on the art market and the value of a painting?
A. The art market is a necessary evil that allows me to paint fulltime and exhibit to the public. I am not independently wealthy; I have no state or independent private patronage so I have to accept that I am at the mercy of the market. If the success I have recently benefited from stopped tomorrow I would be grateful for the last three years of very good sales and go back to supplementing my painting income with another job as I did for the twenty odd years before I moved to France.
As to the value of a painting I am permanently puzzled. I have bought other people’s work and clearly the value is no more and no less, that which the market will accept. I do not put the prices on my work as I cannot begin to relate a financial value to my work that a selling gallery will agree with.
Q. Where do you think painting is at today in relation to contemporary art and the advent of new media such as film, photography, digital art, installation etc.?
A. This is an enormous question and vast tracts have been expounded on it. Western visual art history is centred on painting, particularly since Vasari wrote his ‘Lives of the Artists’. I think too much has been invested, financially and philosophically, for painting to ever be side-lined at the expense of newer media. I do think though that over the last forty years painting has suffered through deluded intellectualised debates over its ‘death’ through irrelevance. Certainly the choice of potential media has broadened for artists and that is a good thing however there is something urgent, primal and immediate about mark-making that will always allow painting and drawing to be relevant media. I have used photography and I have dabbled with film and digital art but personally painting has an authenticity of personal expression that has not been matched by other media.
Q. We live in an age where anything goes in art. What is your opinion with this regarding painting?
A. My only objection to the ‘anything goes’ approach to painting is when technically deficient work is being critically defended as ‘intentionally’ bad. This is lazy both in terms of the work’s creation and in its critical interpretation. If a critic cannot assess the capacity of an artist to competently make the right mark in the right place they need only ask another artist who can. There is a vast difference between a skilled artist attempting to make work that displays an attitude of creative naivety and an art school graduate of limited technical ability, disguising this inability with hackneyed, half-considered and half understood intellectual defences of irony and self-regard.