Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
Saturday, 10 March 2018
Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
‘I don’t do art to make everybody like me and I don’t have any problems with people not liking my work.’ For an artist who has more often than not courted controversy with his paintings, films and installations, this is doubtless a good thing. A lesser character might have kowtowed to criticism and given up his art-making, but not Bjarne Melgaard. ‘I believe in freedom of speech. I don’t see my work as very mainstream, so when I get reactions saying it is stupid, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I am also entitled to my opinion. As long as you know yourself what you’re doing, and you’re convinced about it, then you can handle anything.’
Melgaard’s current exhibition, which opened on 23 February at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, is by no means as controversial as many of his earlier offerings – which have seen him variously accused of racism, paraphilia and paedophilia. Showing alongside an exhibition of works by Sturtevant, Melgaard’s solo show – his first with the gallery in London – sees the 17th-century Ely Room filled with a suite of 14 new paintings, Bodyparty (Substance Paintings), each 180x180cm. Because of the age of the building, the heavy canvases could not be hung on the walls, and so they stand about, propped up on marble blocks. Melgaard, however, likes this ‘improvised’ feel, echoing the ‘casual easiness’ with which the works stand on the floor in his studio, and describes the whole coming together of the exhibition, proposed to him ‘at very short notice’ by Ropac’s new senior global director, and former director of Serpentine Galleries, Julia Peyton-Jones, as ‘very organic and very fast’.
Read the full interview on the Norwegian Arts website here
Friday, 2 March 2018
In Conversation with Alan Rankle
Art Bermondsey Project Space, London, 2016
AMc: Alan, you were trained at Goldsmiths and there was conceptual art going on but, despite that, you remained pretty much faithful to painting.
AR: I didn’t expect it would take so long to do what I wanted to do in painting. At Goldsmiths there was an emphasis on conceptual art, which was a radical, new position. There were also some tutors who were among the best abstract painters, Basil Beattie and Albert Irvin, and that was mainly what the college was all about at that time. Going to the National Gallery as a young student and seeing, for the first time, the art of the 17th and 18th century was the outstanding influence.
My initial idea was to make artworks using the subject of 17th-century art as a found object in the spirit of Arte Povera and so I was using photography, making installations with projected images, taking for example a slide of a painting by Ruisdael and making it go in and out of focus, on the wall, and things like that. I decided I’d like to learn much more about how these artists worked and to be able to quote them. In fact, there wasn’t a particular moment, but something had stuck in my mind as being relevant. At the Greenwich Theatre on a Sunday afternoon listening to some jazz, there was an avant-garde pianist with a trio and, in the middle of all the improvising, he started quoting Bach, which I recognised, and it occurred to me I would like to be able to do that, you know, to quote these painters from earlier periods and use them in my work – doing it for real. That’s how I got started.
AMc: You said quoting from the 17th century – there are lot of art historical references in your work…
AR: Well, it’s changed over the years, but that was the starting point, and in particular the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century – there’s something remarkable about them that got my attention really early on.
AMc: But there’s a very contemporary edge to your work as well – there’s sometimes a political comment, or is it a social comment?
AR: I think it’s impossible to make paintings about the environment without it being political. There have been lots of influential people, John Berger for instance, whose critiques of 18th-century paintings like Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews made a fundamental impression.
AMc: You mentioned before that you see the arts as being a kind of lightning conductor for the zeitgeist and that art-making isn’t something that you can plan. So is it something that you don’t plan in advance at all? Do you know what your painting is going to look like or do you have ideas as to what you’re going to do?
AR: I have ideas that are really quite unfocused, as if you were writing a film script and you didn’t have any dialogue or locations, but you had a sense of the feeling you want people to have when they watch the film. That’s how it starts. There’s something that I can’t easily put into words – but, in a way, I put it into colours and so I walk around for a few days – maybe a few weeks – and have an idea about an impression that appeared to me as a dark red with a flash in it and I wouldn’t really know what it was about. Then, when I start working, all the figurative elements come into focus. I’ll get ideas and there’ll be a particular place that I’ve seen and want to make a painting about. Yet it comes first as a kind of, it’s not really even a feeling, it’s just like something that hovers in the back of your mind, you know?
AMc: Do you make sketches at all or do you start directly on to the canvas?
AR: Well, I used to make a lot of sketches. This goes back to the Goldsmiths question, we weren’t really taught techniques as such – there were some life drawing classes going on but there wasn’t anything that really explained how paintings had been made over the centuries and so I had to try to figure it out. I had a couple of friends who were interested in traditional painting and we had to teach ourselves. There was quite a long period where I was drawing a lot but not exhibiting, just trying to figure things out.
AMc: Didn’t you spend some time doing painting restoring as well?
AR: Yes, that was part of the plan always. I realised that art restorers had an informed tradition and I started hanging out with them initially and then getting some work and learning how to do these things. Yes, they were a big influence, I could meet people working for Agnew’s and Sotheby’s and they were grinding pigments and they knew exactly how Rembrandt did something and why it was different to how Rubens did it, it just seemed like a whole other world, and one I needed to understand.
AMc: Do you think you learnt more from that than from college?
AR: Well, in that sense, yes – on the subject of painting as an art.
AMc: Can you tell us a bit about the process of making pictures? I saw an early film that was made of your work by Judith Burrows and you were explaining how you worked and it was really physical – you were using your hands to paint and so on.
AR: Yes, there was a lot of using hands and fingers and forearms going on.
AMc: Do you still work like that?
AR: Yes, and I’m always evolving techniques in different ways. You have to try to expand the vocabulary; to create a language to make the paintings. There’s something that Francis Bacon said, that he was always looking for new ways to put the paint on, and I think that’s quite crucial – it keeps it fresh and it keeps the vitality going as well. It’s important to me that the painting doesn’t just stop on one plane or style. What I’m trying to do is keep on undermining the concept of having a style and letting other unexpected elements in.
AMc: Recently you’ve added photographs to your work, too..
AR: Yes. I had some commissions, from an hotelier, to go to foreign cities and make paintings that reflected the city and also the art of the city. I had the idea of making photo-montages as studies from shots of the locations. The first one Serpentine was for a hotel on Hyde Park, a Rankle & Reynolds project actually, and the second one was in Paris where I asked Rebecca Youssefi, my assistant on some projects, to do the photography. So there became a random element where I’m not even aware of what she’s looked at or shot until I see the images – she makes photo-composites, like the sort of thing Surrealist photographers were doing.
If you make an image where you have two or three different layers, you get these unexpected narratives that no one has ever seen before and yet there’s an uncanny feeling that you’re looking at a subliminal reference to the subject. In the case of the Paris and Venice works, you’re getting some very interesting signals about what the city is about. We print the montages on to already painted, textured canvases and then carry on with the painting with the layers of printed imagery embedded into the paint. It’s a modern equivalent of what Warhol and Rauschenberg were doing with silkscreen. I then use this as a basis for overpainting, leaving fragments of the photomontage coming through like pentimenti. It’s a new thing, I’ve never done it before.
AMc: You’ve done other collaborations though, you said.
AR: Yes, quite a lot, and I’m very interested in doing that.
AMc: And do you see that as part of your own practice, or is it separate?
AR: It’s definitely part of what I do and, in a sense, whoever I have collaborated with, when you look back at it, I’m the common element. I like the way other people’s ideas come at you in a quite random way – it’s completely unexpected and you have to respond to it. I slightly envy musicians who are in articulate ensembles where they’re all improvising together. I’ve always been attracted to that and, yes, through collaborating with other artists on a particular project, you can get close to it.
AMc: Do you listen to music when you are working?
AR: A little bit.
AMc: What kind of music?
AR: It changes. If I do listen to music, I tend to listen to something that I choose in the morning and then play it all day – obsessively. So, if it’s an album, it could be – one of my favourites – Sibelius or maybe Bob Dylan. I’ll choose one and it gives you a mood; a particular piece of music fills the room and gives you a kind of energy and when it stops I just press the button and play it all over again – which is perhaps not so nice for anyone else in the studio! It’s like creating a tone around you, a sonic environment.
AMc: I guess it leads to the question that we sort of touched on, but how much of your painting would you say is an instinctive emotional response and how much of it is guided by rational processes?
AR: I’m not altogether sure how much a rational process comes into it; I can see what you mean and clearly I have to be quite controlled to do certain things. If we consider these paintings we are looking at today, they are all from a similar series so they have things in common, they have a certain look and they were painted to reflect the style of earlier paintings and other periods of art are referenced and I need control to do that. Yet working in this way does come out of being instinctive, and then it goes back to being instinctive quite quickly. There are artists who’ve worked in equally eclectic ways. If you think about the assemblage pieces of Rauschenberg, for instance, he would take a photograph from here or there and put on these silkscreen images and then, instinctively, paint across them. It’s not that different really, he was doing a similar thing there in just jolting you from looking at something in a particular straightforward way and, I think, if I add anything to that way of working, it’s to make it more integrated.
AMc: When you are not using the photographs, you are painting first, do you paint from photographs? Do you paint outdoors ever or is it all done in the studio?
AR: I did a lot of painting outdoors and a lot of the locations in these paintings are from particular places that I keep going back to. So this series is called River America – it’s not a title for one painting, it’s a concept. It’s about a place in New York called Sands Point on Long Island. I was just attracted to it, I started drawing there, and I went back a few months later and took photographs and made more drawings. I’ve tended to build up a sketchbook about different places but now, at this stage, I’m painting places from memory. It’s like if someone writes a song and they start playing it in a different way, they’re really playing variations on the memory of the song and I can relate to that.
AMc: You’ve mentioned that you work in series. Do you work on one series at a time? What defines a series for you?
AR: Well, it becomes a series later on, you realise that this painting is linked to these others and it hops back and forward through the years. I’ve just started again with the gold paintings, which are here in this exhibition. I began the series Further Tales from the Beach House in 1992 when I rented a modernist beach house, with a 360 degree view on the top floor, about 50 metres from the English Channel, and I wanted to make some paintings that would reference the way the elements were crashing into the cliffs and disgorging landslides, and it occurred to me I could do so using metal leaf. Working with sign writers’ gold leaf, which contains copper, I could paint on it using chemicals that would alter the metal leaf’s surface and release the copper essence as verdigris. The process became a metaphor for the way the wind and the rain and the sea were changing the cliffs. So that was in 1992 but I have just started doing some of those things again, so they are all part of a series but it’s not a logical thing really and I do lots of different things all at the same time.
AMc: Talking about gold leaf – you’ve said before that you make a painting and it becomes an object of passion…
AR: Did I say that?
AMc: You did! [laughs] I was going to ask you to explain what you meant by that but if you don’t…
AR: I think I know what I meant. Going back to some of the artists who were early influences, I was very keen on Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounnelis, Yoko Ono and then Gilbert and George came along. They did a very interesting thing to create art from their total physical presence. The idea that artists are catalysts, not only for people’s ideas, but also to show the art within people’s lives, where the art is not just about looking at the drawing on the wall but actually is the wider context. From Beuys saying ‘Everyone is an artist’ and doing very similar things with his performance lectures and then, significantly, leaving iconic traces of his performances – blackboard, felt, fat and so on – as relics of the experience. For me this is where painting comes in. I was thinking about those kind of Tantric objects, you know, from India and Tibet – objects that people used to meditate on, or via – they have a certain tangible quality, a kind of magical quality. They’re objects yet also a form of transport towards other ways that you can see things.
I like the idea that you can make an object, a painting, that’s totemic and that has some energetic power in it. If you can make an artwork that does this, it transforms perception, it’s a catalyst for the way you can just notice things in a different way. In the 1970s, when I was getting ideas like this in my 20s, there was a quite a drug influence on my generation at art school. I have to own up and say these were the days of LSD and reading about ethnic Shamen, the Hopi Indians and Sufi philosophers. So this might have been an influence on how I interpreted Beuys or the Arte Povera artists. All the same, it’s about art as magic, yet rooted in square, straightforward things you can see.
AMc: At least that’s what you are trying to achieve really to go from there.
AR: I’d like to, yes. There was an experience I had in the British Museum, there was a sculpture in one of the galleries – I think it’s in the Oriental Gallery Number 2 – of a Bodhisattva; it represents someone who’s going to become a Buddha. It was just the way the sculpted figure was sitting, it was a kind of yogic posture and it just got to me. I looked at it and instinctively began to move – there wasn’t anyone around in the gallery – and I just got into the posture the statue was showing me and the immediate effect was quite electrifying. I realised that by simply assuming that pose, energy can suddenly ripple through your body, and I thought this is real art, you know, who was this artist? Can you get your art to do this? So it’s always the goal that the art transforms things when people look at it.
AMc: You were talking yoga postures, but you’ve also studied T’ai Chi quite a lot.
AR: Yes, I was becoming familiar with T’ai Chi at the same time. It came about incidentally, I was trying to find someone who could teach me about Chinese Ch’an and Zen painting and so I just started to fall in with people who were studying Chinese art.
AMc: And did you like studying with them, the teaching process and what they were doing?
AR: Yes, enormously. I’d written my thesis at college on the history of Chinese landscape painting and the reason I wanted to find a teacher is that, after three years of being quite academic, I realised that I was ready to really learn something. So yes, that’s how it came about.
AMc: Actually in China?
AR: No, I tried to get to China, but you couldn’t easily in those days. I went for an interview at the embassy in London and I was being hopeful, you know, and I was shown into a very big room and there were two chairs, both facing the front by a little table with flowers on it. This guy came in and sat down and looked straight ahead and I was invited to sit and we didn’t really glance at each other. ‘Why do you want to go to China?’ I’m staring at the wall and I said: ‘I’ve been studying Chinese landscape painting and I want to tour around these ancient sites’. The minute I said that I could tell he realised that I didn’t know what I was doing at all. So the interview was over very fast! They weren’t letting anyone in, apart from diplomats. So I’m grateful to my teacher of Chinese art in London, Liu Hsiu Chi, who was massively important to me.
At the same time, I was studying with the art restorers, so it was all study in those days. I was watching some of my friends becoming quite established artists while I was still at the drawing board stage, but it’s what I wanted to do.
AMc: What about the scale of your work? You are known for doing quite large pieces, commissions in particular.
AR: Yes, they’ve just come about really. I mean you just sort of say ‘yes’.
AMc: That’s because you are commissioned to do it that size or because you are particularly keen to do large-scale works?
AR: For some of the commissions, I rent a temporary space, but this one here is the largest I could have in my painting room and even this size I have to take them through to my friend Oska Lappin’s studio and open these double doors then hoist them down on a rope on to a flat roof. It’s mad. But I would rather like to be able to make canvases the size of this wall – I just need the right room to do it in.
AMc: What about the title of this show, Pastoral Collateral – where does that come from?
AR: I wanted to relate ideas about historical, idealised, pastoral landscape in art to the grim reality of the environmental crisis that we are in, which isn’t just an environmental crisis anymore, it’s a totally impregnated social and political crisis heading towards disaster. Considering the historical origins of the genre in relation to my own paintings, I wanted to convey the irony implicit in how the 19th century Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the idyllic natural world of an imaginary past, was sponsored by people who, having made gigantic fortunes out of the Industrial Revolution by building their empires on the slave trade and the criminal use of the Enclosures Acts to force the poor from their traditional peasant homes to work in their factories and mills, also laid the foundations of environmental pollution on a catastrophic scale.
Turner and other artists were commissioned by the kings of the Industrial Revolution to do the Grand Tour to pick up ideas from artists such as Claude Lorrain and Poussin, who were themselves employed to evoke the fantasy of a golden age, a sort of Narnia in Ancient Greece and Rome, where people talked to animals and fucked gods.
While you can’t look at any period of history without seeing similar scenarios, where the art is created for the tyrants and oppressors, this dichotomy of the landscape of Romance is particularly and acutely about the subject that I’ve been interested and involved in. It’s impossible to work in landscape art without being politically active, and I thought let’s put this right up front. So that’s the title. The superb catalogue essay by Judy Parkinson explores these themes with some panache.
AMc: So it’s important to you for people to know this sort of back story, if you like?
AR: Well, it’s been a motivation. I’ve played around on the outskirts of this theme over several exhibitions. I’m trying to stimulate people’s ideas and precipitate a dialogue.
I’d always wanted to relate to landscape painting in the way Francis Bacon transformed portraiture by showing the violent undercurrents in the human condition and using body language to show how both wretched and exultant the inner self can be. Twisting it around in the paint until eventually he’s created something awesome and of singular beauty.
AMc: Do you think what you’re producing is beautiful? Do you want it to be beautiful?
AR: I think it might be. I’m not sure. But I like the idea that it’s a catalyst for other people’s ideas and I think that’s beautiful. I can see there’s a quality that links the paintings and that’s my idea, really, of what I like to look at.
AMc: You talk about people’s ideas, and I’ll open for questions in a minute, but can I ask just one more thing? You mentioned about figurative elements and I just wondered actually – I can’t see any in here, but, for example, take the stag painting next door – is there a particular significance in the piece?
AR: Yes, there’s a significance. I got the idea from a particular painting in my favourite museum, which is the Musée de la Chasse au Nature in Paris. It’s a museum that used to be dedicated to hunting but now also includes exhibits about the environment. There’s a fantastic collection including this grand painting by an anonymous artist of the 19th century. It’s a painting of a stag crashing into a banqueting hall and flooring the table as it collapses. The antlers are there and the tablecloth, with all the dishes flying everywhere, and the look of terror on this creature’s face. I’ve just lifted it really, I took the image and started drawing it and then copied it in, so far, about six paintings. But I moved the animal from this pantomime situation into the actual landscape. The beast is panicking because it’s running scared and then it’s fallen and doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
When I was making the early stag paintings, Sarah Lloyd was writing a piece for a book to accompany the exhibition and she asked me to explain them. I said: ‘Well, the animal is running and the title is Running from the House, and it’s a metaphor for nature itself being overrun and being hunted’. So that’s where the stag came from and these themes appear and reappear.
AMc: Does anyone have any questions? Do say ‘yes’!
Q. In terms of your process, you mentioned your interest in themes of Chinese art. Is being conscious in the present important for you in your painting?
AR: Being conscious in the present is the whole point.
Q. Is it why you paint? Is it your compulsion to paint?
AR: I think artists feel more when they’re painting – you feel more alive, and you feel more with it. Francesco Clemente once said that if he went more than a couple of days without painting, he’d feel sick, and the minute he’d pick up a pencil and start drawing, he felt more alive and healthy. I think you can increase your perception by drawing. Michael Craig-Martin, one of my tutors, thought of drawing as a way of thinking and so, if you are drawing, something unique happens in the way you perceive – we are talking about observational drawing now, where you are looking at a view or a figure or a tree or whatever, and what happens to your mind when you draw. He thought it was a way of thinking and it makes you more alert. I think it shows you how you can shift your attention from one way of looking at things to another, and I’ve found that really important.
Q. And that’s something else I wanted to ask you actually, about the meditative process and the fact that you were so inspired by sitting in front of a Buddha and doing yoga – do you still practice yoga?
AR: It wasn’t really quite like that. T’ai Chi is a martial art, you know, and yes, I practise, sure, yes.
AMc: But we won’t find you in the Oriental Gallery Number 2, striking a pose?
MB: It’s great having you here, Alan, having a conversation with Anna, it’s really wonderful – a lovely treat from the gallery’s point of view. I would like to ask you about your next projects. What are you doing in the next six months?
AR: I’ve been invited to work with an Italian interior designer, Veronica Givone, and we are going to transform six suites – so called VIP suites – at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester. So, if you are a famous footballer or a member of a rock band and you go to Manchester, you’ll get to stay in the rooms that we designed.
BH: Do you think that the average person who buys your paintings and comes across your paintings actually gets the message that you are trying to put across and how important is it actually that they do?
AR: Well, they get the message that they get. I mean, that’s it, isn’t it, really? I can’t force it. I’m not going to test them. Some people might get it completely wrong, of course, but if it’s a catalyst for a different way of looking at things, then that’s fine by me. That’s the whole point. I had this idea that there’s art that can be a gateway to a greater freedom in contrast to art as propaganda, which closes down options. It occurred to me, if you draw people’s attention to a point, the way tabloid TV does, or the kind of false political advertising, manipulating public opinion like a corrupt politician, like Goebbels for instance, it’s also drawing people’s consciousness into a point – more and more blinkered; and really great art opens wider possibilities and that’s what I’m trying to do. I think great art is a catalyst for being more aware instead of being led by the nose. If that works then it works. I can’t control what people are going to think, but I hope they will start thinking – that’s the thing.
AMc: Any other questions?
JB: I have one. I have known Alan for a long time and I love his colours and he draws you into the picture. Looking at all of the works here, they’ve all got side positioning things and you are drawn through into the distance, which kind of explodes at you, and yet you are always drawn through. There are very beautifully crafted trees in the style of a 17th-century pastoral landscape. You are drawn through to this sky with beautiful colours. I think you had that throughout and yet now, you are still using that, but they are changing and this exhibition is slightly different from the earlier ones but they have that same wonderful technique..
AR: I guess I’ve been doing things that look a bit alike for quite a time, it’s taken me a lot longer to do what I wanted to do and I thought maybe I should be a bit faster in moving on to some other subject.
JB: That’s their beauty, they are alike but different and they’re not – they are all different and yet –
AR: I like to think it’s an ongoing series, I call it Landscape Painting Project and the idea is that I can tie it up and put it in a box one day and move on and do different things. But, at the moment, it’s still relevant; I’m getting a lot of ideas and wanting to follow this route. I’m glad you’ve liked the paintings over the years.
JB: What would you want to move on to do?
AR: I’m going to make some whole room installations that use everything from painting directly on the walls, to objects I’ve made, plus projected imagery and sound. It goes back to my roots. I’ve accumulated a lot of objects, some that I’ve made, and found objects that I’ve done something with, and they’ve all gone down to the studio in France to be assembled.
I’m interested in the works of Larry Bell, the conceptual artist from Los Angeles, who, in the 1970s, made plates of glass that drift into mirrors, which I can relate to as landscape interventions, referring to the 18th-century concept of the Claude Glass.
Sculpture that can alter the environment with subtle reflections and refractions of light – that interests me a great deal.
Q: What’s your starting point when making a painting? Do you start with a drawing or do you actually start with the paint and making shapes?
AR: I’ve always thought that if you put a drawing on first and it’s wrong then it shows through, but lately these paintings are all about things that are wrong and show through. I like the idea of pentimenti, when you see something that’s already there but slightly covered up, and, by using layers of glazes, I can do that. These paintings are all started with a red imprimatura like they would have used in the Venetian School, where they would make a canvas and colour it in a dark red and draw the shapes of the composition in monochrome shades of dark and light, the idea being that – particularly if you were painting blue, a sky or the robe of the Virgin Mary or something – the blue really stands out because, if it’s on white, it tends to be chalky. So I often start with a red or an ochre background and just start painting.
Q: Yes, but would you prefer to draw, say, landscape drawings, where you have a basic idea of composition?
AR: I tend to draw when I’m travelling. I have a lot of pocket sketchbooks and I draw the shapes of canvases and sketch what I’d like to do, then I almost obsessively do repeats of the same image until it becomes just right. It’s quite a commitment to do a large painting like this, and sometimes you have to do a lot of work before you know it’s going to work. So I draw compositions, scribbles really.
AMc: I have a question relating to this series, these ones here, about the text and when you started adding written lines.
AR: The text here was suggested to me by a friend, Tom Burke, who has written about my paintings and is also an environmentalist; he’s done some amazing things like helping to found Greenpeace and running The Green Alliance. He was first of all saying we should read a lot more TS Elliot and get ideas from The Wasteland, and then he quoted a fragment of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Strange to see all that was once relation now fluttering hither and thither in the breeze’. And the minute he said that, it really struck a chord. The author was writing about a premonition of the First World War and how everything you think is real, that you can rely on and the way you think you know things, can suddenly evaporate completely into chaos. I think that’s a good metaphor for modern times. Politically, environmentally, we are standing on quicksand in every area of life that you can think of. So I’ve been writing the quote on the canvases.
Q: Of one poem?
AR: Yes, for a couple of years. Yet the writing, the calligraphy, becomes hidden, There is something magical about the power of writing, isn’t there? I have a quote in mind and, at some point while painting, I feel like writing it on the canvas, and even though it becomes abstracted and it’s sublimated and you can’t properly read it, in a strange way, it still retains the energy of the handwritten word. If you look at the really abstracted types of Oriental calligraphy, you can sense this. Within the different styles of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, there’s very formal script, and then there’s a more elegant style where the words are there, the characters are there, but it’s also kind of pictographic where the calligrapher tries to give a hint as to the subject in the way that the characters are made, like a concrete poem. Then a third style, the free or grass script, is almost completely abstract, yet for someone who is a real connoisseur, it embodies the essence of the poem or the text within it. If someone can do that, they’re elevated to be a master calligrapher.
MO’R: Alan, the painting of the deer, is there a direct link with Monarch of the Glen?
AR: I recall Monarch of the Glen as the kind of art that I’m not so interested in. The apotheosis would be Peter Blake painting a pop version for Paul McCartney – how unreal is that? I did have an experience, though, when I first began the Running from the House paintings. I was in Copenhagen and my friend Bjarne Neilsen came into the studio, took one look, and exploded into laughter – he said ‘You can’t do that here, not in Denmark, it’s only two years ago that everyone threw their antique stag paintings in the skip!’ I’d thought of my take on deer paintings as a comment on how society relates to nature, yet on reflection I should own up. I also had a commission to make an unapologetic, monumental stag painting for Marco Pierre White to hang in a restaurant. So I guess I did my own pop version, just like Peter Blake.
MO’R: What’s this stag doing for you, the other one next door?
AR: Well, it’s about everything I’ve said: the chaos and the sense of anxiety in nature… and then, I suppose, it’s about sex… [Laughter] …if I’m really answering the question. It’s a fairly esoteric thing, yet you know that energy flows out of and around your body when you’re highly aroused, and don’t you think there’s often a kind of antler effect that comes out of people at those moments – like a subtle lightning you can see flashing around the person – and it’s like antlers?
MO’R: Well, the stag was kind of Shamanic in Celtic culture.
AR: Yes, and also in stories about Herne the hunter and the stag. I think there’s a lot in those myths, these stories go back to very early times. I think they have meanings that are more fundamental than commonly thought. I’m making some works based on the Titian paintings Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon where the Greek myth seems overly simplistic to me and just not right.
The idea that there’s a young shepherd, who inadvertently comes upon Diana and her nymphs bathing and so she immediately turns him into a stag and hunts him, kills him and the dogs eat him.. it’s like a cartoon.. I think the myth was originally about deeper things than punishing an accidental voyeur, suggesting symbolic ideas about men and women that come from a much earlier time. I had the mad idea that by painting and drawing this I could somehow get an insight into the meaning of the myth. So, it’s an ongoing project.
MO’R: Well, good luck with that!
AR: Thanks! I’ll try my best.
AMc: You couldn’t say more to follow up on that. Thank you, Alan.
Audience questioners: Q Unknown SM Serenella Martufi, JB Judith Burrows, MO’R Mark O’Rourke, MB Michael Barnett, BH Ben Hamilton
Images: all © the artist
Study for River America
oil on canvas
triptych, each panel 84x60cm
Untitled Painting (de Loutherbourg)
oil on canvas
Untitled Painting XI (Herne)
oil on canvas
Also published in the International Times