Interview with Sean O'Toole and Whitney McVeigh Smac Gallery, Nirox Projects, 2011 Archaeology of Memory
S.O. I want to start by asking about your experience in 2007 when you knocked on the latticed ironwork door of Louise Bourgeois’s New York brownstone to attend one of her famous salons. How did the invitation come about? Were you nervous in anticipation? Was she as curt and stentorian as one writer attending the salon portrays her?
W.M. Not at all, she was rather self-contained and quiet. A friend of mine, a painter, invited me. He said there would be an opportunity to discuss the work and to present a specific painting to her. There were twelve of us, mainly artists and curators all sitting around her NY sitting room. It was full of her books, papers, there was nothing grand about her or her life. An Iranian filmmaker friend was recording and leading the discussions. A Brazilian woman performed from on top of a ladder a piece she’d written with Louise Bourgeois about her and her father. A curator from the Pompidu centre was discussing his problems with installing Anselm Keiffer’s show and she was listening quietly. I was grateful for the opportunity, absorbing all; I felt there was genuine intent and support in opening a dialogue with other artists. I talked about one of my earlier black paintings. She asked if I’d return with one of my Head paintings, which I later did.
S.O. I am obviously curious about your artistic sensitivities here too. Sculpture notwithstanding Louise Bourgeois also created psychologically complex ink drawings. Did these figure in your looking as a young artist?
W.M. I first discovered Louise Bourgeois when given her book Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father (1998), a collection of her writings and interviews in the late nineties. I didn’t know her work well and I was immediately drawn to her and her honesty about her life. I later went with a writer friend who I was collaborating with at the time to the archive library of the Tate where we listened to several recordings of her in interview. I hadn’t seen her ink drawings and very little of her sculpture. When I eventually saw her work, particularly her fabric sculptures, I saw an artist’s transformative qualities, utterly fearless in her work and who reflected every aspect of herself in what she did.
S.O. In a telephone conversation, you mentioned that you learnt a great deal from reading interviews and letters by artists. The obvious question is which interviews? But before answering that, could you perhaps speak about the difference between looking and reading as a way of learning and acquiring insight?
W.M. One can look at paintings and understand a great deal but a large part of my learning came from reading interviews and letters by artists. In these the artists reveal essentially who they are and how they came to make the work. David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists (2001) taught me about process. When I read Bill Viola’s Reason’s for Knocking at an Empty House (1995) I’d known his work for some time. His writings however revealed a profound thinking behind the work, and I had a far greater insight into what in fact later became another world. They are thought provoking extracts on the human condition. When you hear about the personal and metaphysical from artists you learn something quite different. More recently I read a book called Twentieth Century Artists on Art (1986) edited by Dore Ashton. It was published in 1986 and touches on the vitality of primitive art and through interview shows the artists intent on expressing powerful beliefs and fears through painting and sculpture.
S.O. I know that you regard David Sylvester’s famous interview series with Francis Bacon as important to your own development. I can’t help but think that Bacon’s statement that his image “is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction” somehow describes what is happening in your work too. There’s this attempt, to quote Bacon, “to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly”. Or am I interpolating?
W.M. Not at all, this is true and one can either fall into the great space of abstraction or lean more into the figurative and in a sense this can be the ongoing battle between painter and the materials, it’s virtually impossible not to be distracted by the movement of paint. To work freely and openly with the materials invites unseen possibilities within the work. The marks that make up the painting become more than the figure itself. Each is a step forward to the next. For example within some of the heads, I began to see active landscapes, the more I looked the further I came from representation, they became another psychological place quite removed from the more figurative image I’d begun with. And yes, the David Sylvester interviews with Bacon were very informative. With regards to the second quote, I remember when I was in my twenties seeing Auerbach’s E.O.W. black head drawings for the first time and recognising an understanding of the suffering and violence of life. Damien Hirst shows brutality versus surface beauty in the physical sense with his dissection pieces. And in fact early Flemish and Italian altarpieces address all aspects of life and death. If you remove the fact that they are religious paintings, they are powerful and sensitive portraits, one could almost even say quite modern.
S.O. How has working in London, especially during the time of the rise of the YBA’s, which definitively heralded a sort of post-painterly attitude to making, feed into your work, which is firmly rooted in painterly myths and debates?
W.M. The YBA’s opened everything up and the art world became alive and vital and talked about; it was the beginning of something new and an exciting time to be in London. It confirmed that art is really about invention and a dialogue between the subject and the viewer. And that within art, be it writing, painting, conceptual, performance it’s surely about pushing the boundaries of what we know. This is what they achieved raising new questions and highlighting the transformative qualities of art in that it’s possible for change and to give new meaning to life, that nothing is ever fixed or stagnant. Isn’t this what art is about, some sort of quest for truth? I don’t think we’d be artists if we weren’t searching for something.
S.O. The Archaeology of Memory monoprints were made during your stay at NIROX. The titling of the work suggests a play – perhaps even tension – between the physical and the psychological. Being a somewhat monastic artist’s residency, away from the bustle of the city, one has a lot of time to oneself. How did being in NIROX’s mix of cultivated garden and pristine wild feed into yourLit another way, did you first go on walks before working, or wake up and start working immediately?
W.M. I worked from the early hours of morning but my studio was a short walk from where I was staying, through the land at NIROX, located in the World Heritage Site the Cradle of Humankind where limestone caves containing the fossilised remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids belonging to our human ancestors. Just up the hill from the lakes and lawns of NIROX you are into wild bush land where there are caves and leopard tortoises and stones that were layered in the land like graveyards, arrangements that seem to belong to ancient civilisations. It is a powerful landscape. Before going to NIROX I had been making work around the subject of identity and memory and it occurred to me to do a series of responses to the land. I came up with the idea of the Archaeology of Memory. The idea of drawing these heads out of the land that echoed humanity and that essentially reaffirmed that we belong to and come from the land. It was only in the last week that I realised that the texture in the stones around NIROX were in the heads that I was making. I was working with what I believed was a psychological landscape.
S.O. Both the Archaeology of Memory series and ink and water heads are unusual in that they demonstrate a fair bit of intentionality, especially if one compares them with your abstract monoprints. I know that the latter series was started in Berlin, but I am curious, was it difficult directing your technique towards a more defined form than is usual in your work?
W.M. The only real difference here is that the head is involved. There is still an openness to the materials and to what they might bring to the painting. At the time I was in Berlin without a studio and I bought a soft cotton small format paper and began making these works where I was staying. The size and texture of the paper governed the direction and fluidity of the water and materials. Different surfaces yield different results. But the process of all of these works is the same, regardless of how definitive the end result is. The materials lead and I follow and then alter their direction and course. The Archaeology of memory series were intended to be heads and the large-scale black monoprints began with the shape of a body but they change in the transformative process of the mono-printing. As do the interiors of the large black heads but the shape it’s true is more defined.
S.O. You describe your Floated Small Acrylic Monoprints with Heads as “almost drawings”. I saw Bridget Riley speak not so long ago and she said everything derived from the pencil. Do you draw or make sketches in the traditional sense?
W.M. I would say with my work that everything comes through the paint and movement of the materials. In the case of the small monoprint heads I draw into the paint with a hard pencil. I use a black that has little movement for these and then draw almost without seeing before making the print. They become like sculpted paintings. Yes I do draw as a record and keep notebooks. I also photograph and film almost all of my trips.
S.O. You’ve said that the works on found paper stem from an interest in how time changes the paper. But the works also speak of layering, the palimpsest if you will. Can you talk a bit about the process of rummaging through second-hand in Johannesburg for the paper? Did it give you a different sense of working in Johannesburg?
W.M. It’s quite something discovering books that have been neglected and passed through hands and time. There is an intimacy about them and somehow they appear to have an energy and life of their own. Much of the paper I found in South Africa came from small towns around Nirox. Strange timeless pawnshops with abandoned mining manuals and other such books in them. One book had a personal note to a woman inscribed in it about how landscape can have religious connotations and can be used for prayer. In the book were photographs of trees. She’d collected leaves from the trees in life and pressed them into the book and they matched. It was a window into a life and I haven’t touched the book as it feels I’m interfering with something personal. The pages of old books raise notions of identity and transference, how books, objects take on the lives of those who have owned them during their lifetime. When in China in 2007, I dismantled old medical texts that I found in a market. The pages were intricate and stained, water-marked with age. They were bound with string and taking them apart was a delicate process. I made small linear monoprint drawings on the pages.
S.O. You have spent significant periods in Europe, India and China traveling, now South Africa too. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between your travels and your creative work?
W.M. Traveling opens up ones mind and brings new ways of thinking. I’m lucky to have traveled for much of my life. I moved from America when I was seven years old and since then I’ve felt a strong sense of displacement and I enjoy being in other countries. I’ve photographed a great number of people and drawn them and have later made paintings from these. One man in India I sat with for long periods of time (many years ago) and in the absence of language we became friends through sitting and engaging and drawing. Intuitively a great deal can be learned from people. Travel enables us to have direct experience with life, particularly in the modern day of computers where it’s possible to stay put yet feel connected. I was invited to China because of my black work and it was challenging, I had to learn new methods of absorbency, the ink and papers were entirely different to anything I’d previously used and it altered the work and its direction.
S.O. I’m particularly curious about your trip to China. In an interview once, you stated: “My trip to China showed me the parallels between the Eastern approach to calligraphy painting and Abstract Expressionism, both approaches have the same pulling back or holding of energy before bringing it forward onto the page. It seems that abstraction is more about sensation.” Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant here.
W.M. That it’s about a very direct communication between the mind and the materials. And that energy is channeled and transferred to the paint. The American painters were exploring automatism and the subconscious mind. The calligraphy painters were concerned with technique through the brush but equally it is a psychological process that’s almost choreographed through energy. There was recognition of this in the work in China but I’d never worked with Chinese painting in mind. Automatism has always interested me. There’s no such thing as randomness for it’s own sake. The American painters were painting these vast psychological landscapes that explore all aspects of the psyche and there’s interplay and channeling of energy into the paint. Peter Doig also comes to mind here. His work has great emotional sensitivity. Though they are essentially figurative paintings, his marks and use of colour convey something of the inner self. This is I think what it’s about, the artist communicating something of themselves through paint and seeking an alternative reality through painting.
S.O. Can you talk a bit about your technique, especially with regards the use of the brush. As I understand it you pour and use tools more than brushes. When will you decide to use a brush?
W.M. A brush simply produces another kind of mark. I use large brushes to pour ink with. In the Archaeology of Memory heads I use a brush to apply the paint. I remember reading Motherwell describing his Reconciliation Elegy paintings, twenty-five foot paintings as “mopping a ship’s deck under a black starry sky, calm anxiety anxious solitude…” I found this evocative and I related to this almost fundamental belief that one could transfer energy into the paint. Returning to tools though, I draw with a needle sometimes or with a metal nail, to reduce the black. I use a whole range of tools and materials to form the painting.
S.O. A final question, one that defers to an important mentor, but perhaps engages him obliquely in relation to your work. In an interview, after discussing the confusion most people experience in the presence of visual art, Robert Motherwell remarked: “What I hope is that someday in the future there will be more people who can see the way most people can hear music. You know, that it won't be necessary to explain.” Does it frustrate you having to explain your art?
W.M. Not at all. In a sense it helps to form and articulate ideas when discussing the work. When it is exhibited, however, it should speak for itself. Ultimately as an artist one hopes to communicate with the viewer something that is perhaps indiscernible in life. Painting is a visual language that speaks more widely than what is immediately in front of us. In some way we hope to be able to see beyond the material.


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