I want to start by saying there is clearly always a lot more going on in your work that what we see – a psychological aspect. Looking at your work can feel like analysis to me.
That depends on your personal disposition, how much you are looking for when looking at something but yes I would hope the individual things are a starting point for the viewer. I’m interested in the mental connections we make that make up the shape of whowe think we are, and how we see ourselves in relation to others. Who am I, what part of me is the fundamental essence of ‘me’ – or am I simply an idea. Those are the questions that keep coming back. The work may take different physical forms, but that’s partly the point. It takes very little to shift for our concepts of self to be completely fragmented.
Can you tell me a bit about the show at LOG – the title of which is The Shape Kept Changing.
The title is very simple but has different potential meanings; it suggests something morphing, in constant transition but might also describe an attempt to grasp the meaning of something or solve a problem that remains elusive. To me, it’s about relationships – between people, between things. The shape of a personal relationship, always changing. As they always do.
In the last paintings I saw of yours the imagery was drawn from photographs of wounded servicemen – soldiers and pilots with missing or reconstructed faces. This new body of work is different. The show suggests some unspecified ritual taking place.
Most of the reference material I’ve been looking at lately is documentation of performance art events from the 1970s. The imagery was still very charged to me, but the original meaning had changed because while these brief, intentionally transient moments had been preserved, we view them through the lens of our own time and everything inbetween. Some of them are like photos of an alien world, it’s so hard to relate to what the people in them are doing or why.
There is something romantic about much of it.
It’s totally romantic, and very earnest; this desire to communicate through primal means, a search for ‘realness’, question accepted modes of social behaviour and gender roles and so on. And so much of it about love, personal relationships. But because they were interested in these primal behavioural aspects of our nature there is something left which still impinges on us.
I half recognise where images in your work come from, and this is a quality with the sculpture as well as painting. Is this half recognition, glimpsing qualityan intended quality?
It’s very much intentional. That interests me a lot, the things which resonate – what we instinctively recognise or sense without fully knowing. Psychological triggers.
But you’ve taken the subjects somewhere I recognisefrom previous shows – it’s like a half-world, nobody in your paintings seems ‘complete’, and everyone seems alone, and waiting. And there’s always this stillness. I would use the word ‘atmosphere’, if it weren’t such a tricky term.
I think when you’ve been working for a while these things settle. I mean, your work is your own, your outlook is there always present whether you like it or not. The stillness you describe – I guess that’s a quality I was both looking for and found was always there regardless. And I am interested in the atmosphere of the work – in the varying degrees of focus and clarity between each painting. I like painting things in isolation, picked out. Very often the subject isn’t entirely graspable, something is undefined.
As in all your shows of recent years there’s quite a mix of work, paintings and sculptures. There almost seems to be the hand of several people involved – but you make everything yourself?
Yes and that’s important to me. Everything comes out of a period of work in the studio, things that bubble up to the surface and get made and then the real crux of the matter is sorting through these things and finding the relationships and combinations that mean something to me – that trigger other possible meanings. This is also informed by the space the work is going to be in; I’m always very interested in the atmosphere of the exhibition space in question.
So would you describe the work as installational, site-specific?
I’d say the work is keenly aware of its setting, that’s all.
All this work was produced during a guest residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, which you are about to complete. Has this had a direct impact on what you are making, your practice?
Yes I think the impact has been great. I went there to work mainly on my second novel but immediately set about trying to do that and develop my visual work – experiment with materials I’ve wanted to for a long time, like ceramics. In recent years I’ve made numerous objects that kind of imitated ceramic and glazing processes, so I was keen to see what would happen with the ‘real thing’. What pleased me was finding it was all about accidents – I was never sure exactly what I was making to begin with and it never turned out the way planned, no one could ever tell me how a thing would be when it came out of the kiln. There’s some alchemy at work. And that process, the intense heat of the kiln as a changing power, appeals as well. Pieter Keminck at the Rijksakademie was a great person to work with, someone interested in these kind of ‘mistakes’ and generous with his time.
Is that you then – a cracked plate?
Well I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I certainly related to it.
I notice that nearly all your paintings are vertical / portrait shaped, often a little narrow, and generally small by painting standards.
I like the proportions because they make things feel slightly claustrophobic, and glimpsed, as if there must be more going on outside the frame. I don’t like large paintings on the whole. I like to be drawn into a world, not have a vista before me. It feels like scenic painting otherwise. To me a head or torso sized painting is about perfect. And now I’ve said that I’ll probably start making giant paintings about the vastness of space, or something.
You work in series, and work on several things concurrently – is this because this is how your mind works?
Absolutely. The thought of producing one thing then repeating it immediately is impossible to me – as I finish a painting something different or a new object suggests itself, or is already waiting to be made. Then another. Then I realise that I have made different things that have close relatives anyway. The work starts to organise itself.
Many of your objects reference antiques and old artefacts, fragments of things, some recognisable and some abstract, body parts too, especially in this show –
To me the objects are like artefacts found in some future imaginary archaeological dig, an impossible excavation. This reference to the past, to objects perhaps re-discovered, to me is like thinking – the process of digging, the revelation of finding something that is a mere fragment, dirty and in disarray, cleaning it and knowing what it is because it’s oddly familiar – all that is like the excavation that goes on all the time in our heads. The fragments are pieced together to make sense – but are constantly being rearranged.
You stopped making films and videos about five years ago and started painting and making objects again – why?
I never stopped making films and videos – there was a new video work in my show last year at Diana StigterGalerie. And I’d made objects on and off ever since college. But yes there was a moment of real change. It was necessary. It was the only way forward. I wanted to paint, work in a more intuitive and less ‘certain’ way, and it meant confronting a lot of deeply held convictions that I saw were actually prejudices, self-imposed limitations holding me back from my own work. I’d always rejected studio-based practice and then found it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes you just have to say fuck it and do what feels right even if you have no idea where it might go or what anyone else might think. I think that’s a no-lose situation.
You stay quite close tothe photographs you work from.
I think that’s partly because of the recognition thing we were talking about before. I’m very interested in the process of painting but I’m not A Painter and would never claim to be – I’m an artist who makes paintings as part of what they do. That isn’t to say I treat painting flippantly or ironically, I’d hate anyone to think that. I believe in painting and its validity. I always work from photographs, constantly look for images that just have that something, than quality that I know I can exploit to my own ends. None of my paintings are ‘of’ anything – they are of the idea of the thing not the thing itself. It’s like a proposition, a proposal for a thought process.
You mentioned you’re working on a second novel, the first was called Stunning Lofts – are you intentionally so diverse?
The idea of me doing anything intentionally, to some greater plan, is amusing. I think I just try and do what feels necessary as I go along. And I think the perception that aesthetic singularity is a desirable quality or goal in an artist’s work, indicating seriousness, focus and clarity, is hugely overvalued. Show me the products of an interesting mind at work, even if it’s completely random, any day. If the work isn’t growing, even at the risk of confusing your audience, you’re done.
I know you collect news items as much as you collect images, and that many of them are small, bizarre stories.
I do, on and off, have done for years. Some are I suppose macabre, many aren’t. It all filters through in the writing, and in the paintings.
What would you say is the single biggest influence on you – what is that makes you make these things this way?
You’ve referred to this often over the years – for instance I can think of a video installation from 1998 called The Insomniac and it’s in your fiction too. So this has always been part of your life and an influence on what you do?
That and its counterpart; deep dream-filled sleep, the kind that impinges heavily on the waking hours.I always seem to be in the grip of one or the other.
Tom Gidley - The Shape Kept Changing
Until June 19, 2010