David Ryan



Talking Painting

Talking Painting


Interview with Ian Davenport London 1998


David Ryan: Re-reading your Notes on Painting of 1989, it is astonishing how relevant they are to your current production. What, if anything, do you feel has changed since you embarked on making your first mature paintings?


Ian Davenport: I suppose I feel the paintings were mature even back then. It felt as though I had discovered something very rich; something that I really wanted to investigate. Every time I explored a new series it felt like it opened a new area, even though there might have been relatively modest shifts or changes within the range of procedures I was developing at that time. In one sense, that’s what I still do now, and I guess that is why they are still relevant to me. I’m still dealing with chance, process, fluidity, control, materials - very simple, basic things. I didn’t set out to explore such a progression intentionally, things just developed naturally, it’s as much a surprise to me that I’m still dealing with similar concerns ten years on.


DR: It is interesting that you mapped those processes out with your Notes, which act as both a description of your activity and almost a ‘score’ for various actions....


ID: It was simply a means of achieving greater clarity, a way of focusing. Each series has enabled me to examine one aspect more precisely at a given point. I think I said in those original Notes something like, “I always try to do very little, but a lot of it.” - and this remains true.


DR: Yes, and one of the things I picked up on was this: “I don’t say this painting looks like this or that, the whole painting might be about something, more likely a ‘phenomenon’ than an object. But the meaning comes from the making.” What kind of ‘phenomenon’ did you have in mind here: paint or something out there in the world?


ID: ...I think now, re-reading this, it remains a little too vague. I was trying to underline the procedural aspect of the work, discouraging a metaphorical reading or romantic associations. Phenomena is such a broad and also loaded word, so I doubt whether I would phrase it like this now.


DR: Phenomena could also refer to gravity....


ID: That’s right, and I think that’s a very sculptural approach in fact. I’m interested in making paintings that are sculptural - but not sculpture.


DR: One is almost tempted to say it is paint in its ‘natural state’, but that’s not quite right either, is it?


ID: Well, I like that idea, but my approach remains highly controlled. So no, it isn’t right. It is more a balance between the paint doing what it does and the controlled parameters that frame this activity.


DR: So you’ve implied that at the time of your Notes, you were trying to restrict this process of associative readings, by focusing on the ‘making as meaning’?...


ID: Well, I would say ‘redirect’, rather than restrict or be totally prohibitive about it. But I also think that the individual elements that I’d adopted did have other connotations; how a drip or a flow of paint might allude to something natural, for example. The problem with this term, ‘making as meaning’, is that we enter the vast field of discussion of meaning per se, and to tie down what something means is always tricky. Carl Andre once suggested that, as far as he was concerned, his artworks were expressive but without any intendent message. The meaning doesn’t come from any other message, but from the materials and the artist’s articulation of those materials.


DR: This is quite a modernist approach, isn’t it?...


ID: Absolutely, and one that I don’t think we should be too quick to reject. It’s easy to forget that creating form, itself generates meaning.


DR: And such an approach informs the current paintings?...


ID: The paintings are the result of a specific approach to the activity; they are placed on the floor, and already have a sprayed ground coat. Then, from the middle, I pour a liquid gloss paint until this nearly reaches the edges, at which point the painting is stood up, and the paint is allowed to flow down, forming an arch shape. After drying, this process of pouring is then repeated for a second layer, almost erasing the layer underneath it, leaving a very thin line, almost like an archway shape.


DR: What strikes me about these recent works, is the way in which these very clear, simple forms manage to traverse a wide range of art historical references:...Motherwell’s ‘Open Series’ or some of Mangold’s paintings spring to mind....


ID: Yes. Mangold, Kelly, Albers even...I don’t mind those associations. And of course, many different artists have informed the approaches I use, but such references are a by-product of the resulting ‘image’. So it isn’t ironic or about quotation, it is simply to do with the complex triggering of association that might be sparked by a focused, simple form. It also goes back to the idea that such severe restrictions can result in a kind of liberation - it opens up a whole world. Of course, the last thing I’m thinking of, is to make work that looks like Kelly or Mangold, but I don’t mind the fact that I’m touching on this history in some way, and through the processes that I use, re-inventing it for myself.


DR: Thinking about the fact that you work in series, do you see meaning as something that is accrued through the repeated activity? Repetition is often cited as a means of eluding meaning, like the repetition of a word, or the serial production of manufacture?


ID: Again, this is a complex issue. I think generally, repetition allows me to get into a particular problem, enabling me to perfect a technical quality, or whatever, whereby the more you repeat it, the more in control of it you become. But repetition also differs from particular series to series, and we are talking about a wide range if different works here. When I first started making the paintings, the marks would be repeated in a grid form or from one side to the other. So repetition acted in a very rhythmical, digital way - almost like a machine. But if you are asking if I think that meaning is located within the repetitive act itself, then no, not for me. Then again, I can think of somebody that I admire, like Monet with the ‘Haystacks’ - a very simple, abstract form that acquires different depths and nuances with each repetition....


DR: Yes, whereby Monet constructs maybe a sense of the general, from different, particularised representations that articulate minute shifts of difference. we are also talking here about repetition as a vehicle for intensive variation....


ID: I’m always happier when you see more than one work in order for this experience to take place.


DR: As I mentioned earlier, repetition can also have the reverse effect; an emptying out of meaning. Kandinsky referred to this in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and it is also an important aspect of Eastern Art....


ID: Well, I don’t consider myself to be particularly Zen orientated, but perhaps that relates to what I was saying about the approach to perfecting a technique, which could be seen as a focus; as a clearing-away of imperfections or inessentials. In one sense this is a kind of emptying out; slowly seeing the thing more clearly.


DR: Bernard Frize suggested to me the other day that painting gave him a specificity, a locality - the space, in a word, to be a realist dealing with real materiality....Is this something you can connect to?


ID: Yes, I think that’s right. I like this encounter with the ‘real thing’- this engagement with the materials. I’ve never thought of myself as an abstract artist but simply one who is exploring the materiality of paint.


DR: The way you, or perhaps others, describe your work, it might be tempting to think of the youthful Stella - “What you see is what you see.” or, “The paint is as good as in the can.” - etc.. What differentiates you from such an approach?


ID: I like Stella, and I admire the way that approach attempted to de-mystify art-making. The way he dealt with composition, especially in the ‘Black Paintings’; the fact that they were pre-planned - worked out and then executed - interested me. I think also there is a human quality to those paintings; the wavering line within the arena of the canvas, etc., that often gets missed when they are discussed. So there are overlaps, and I wouldn’t rush to distance myself from such an approach. I think that today’s material context is quite different, and therefore will generate a whole gamut of different meanings.


DR: How do you see the status of process in relation to the work?
ID: It is a tool; it’s not the point of the paintings. It is an important point to make in relation to the final outcome, but I am not a ‘process artist’ by any means. The point is the richness of the final outcome which is intertwined with a set of procedures. So it is a balance between the two, rather than any particular stress on either aspect. It is also important to think about the objectivity of the marks - in that they do not come from any psychological sets of concerns, I don’t have any attachment, in a direct way, to those marks; the process enables this distance. I’m interested in how Stella achieves this, and also Jasper Johns with his ‘0-9’ series.


DR: Since you mention Johns, I am also reminded of his practice of transferring a composition from one piece to another in order to allow himself to concentrate on something else, maybe the colour, or whatever....This is in line with a process-like approach to variation and repetition....


ID: Yes - I can see the use of that: absolutely. I think the use of chance in Johns is very interesting as well. The fact that to take ‘0-9’ as a starting-point is a pretty dumb thing to do, but it results in a highly complex and unpredictable image. I like that. Johns was influenced by John Cage, who I am also interested in. I remember reading Cage’s Lecture on Nothing from Silence, whereby part of the text is structured in such a way as to make this structure experiential - so on one level, it’s about nothing but also about something. This too, enables that encounter with the ‘real thing’, with the materiality of the text; rather than writing about something outside of the text, the text becomes the vehicle for us to experience something.


DR: You just mentioned distance as being important. There tends to be a movement away from the brush as an implement - the recognisable brush-mark (albeit as a starting-point for the flow of paint) - in favour of other, more distanced tools....


ID: I think that is right. Actually, I feel it is important to question pre-givens - I like the idea of making a painting without any recognisable brush-stroke. The distancing gives me more freedom to manipulate the materials; it is controlling, but without a brush, it’s controlling the material at one remove.


DR: Martin Maloney suggested that you are like a gymnast in terms of the attempt to improve technical manoeuvres and you, yourself, have discussed a sense of timing, or even tempo - a strict rhythm that is crucial to the work. Is this sense of tempo developed as you work your way into a series? How important is it that the paintings reflect this physicality as part of their own presence?


ID: Different series have different concerns. I think the paintings which required this sense of tempo, were the ‘Poured Line’ series, which developed a sense of rhythm that had to be kept strictly during the process, and I think this is recoverable in the experience of these paintings. The recent ones, if we keep to a musical analogy, are more like floating, single chords, maybe. In terms of working method, the physicality of the two series requires a very different rhythm to be developed. The idea of relating this to the activity of a gymnast arose because, at the time I started making these paintings, I was watching the Olympics and saw these divers doing somersaults or a flip or whatever, and doing it extremely elegantly, and they’ll score one point. Then they’ll go up and do something else very similar, just as elegant, and get a ‘two’. And you think, what was the difference? Sometimes a very small change can make a big difference. I liked the connection of something that is outside of painting, outside of art even. And I certainly don’t think of the work only in terms of modernist discourse as much as DIY or more everyday things. That makes them less precious, but it also affects the process; I have to be very clear about what I’m doing each day. When I was doing the ‘Poured Line’ paintings, I set myself a day of the week for each colour: Monday red, Tuesday blue, Wednesday green, etc.. This would intensify the concentration; it would focus the work....It became almost like a diary. It was a way of marking time, in many ways. In the recent work, it’s a sense of timing that’s completely different - getting that precise point-in-time when to lift the painting.


DR: How important is it to think of them in terms of manufacturing; almost an industrial model?
ID: Yes, definitely. I think that the idea of an industrial workshop can be traced right back to Titian or Bellini.


DR: Going back to the procedures of making, both Brice Marden and Sean Scully have stressed the importance of physicality, and its corresponding sense of presence as almost being a key to their work. Scully has spoken in terms of the indexical marks of making: the traces of the physical process being almost like a ‘footprint in the sand’; likewise, Marden with his emphasis on the unique limitations of the painter’s body. On the one hand, this might conjure up something of your activity, but I presume the concern with distance situates it elsewhere?


ID: They are both artists who interest me. Yes, those issues are important for their work - I’m thinking of Marden’s very precise relation of the scale of his work to his own body. While issues like this do concern me, I suppose I’ve developed a very hands-on, physical way of making my painting, for results that appear very hands-off and distanced from physical activity. It is contradictions like this that the work seems to feed on. So there is this relationship to the body, but it is more oblique than either Scully or Marden.


DR: It is also interesting how a painting can ‘behave’ quite differently from its physical components. Leo Bersani has written about paintings as a manifestation of a “non-spatial order of being within the space they take over”- here suggesting the spatial presence of a painting cannot be seen simply as the dimension of its physical limits...or the space it occupies....I was wondering if this optical dimension was left to chance?...


ID: Perhaps these are two different conceptions of space being touched on here: the literal space of the painting and the effect of the environment. I do attempt to control this to an extent - in the sense of making models of environments and paintings, etc., to work out those relationships. But, of course, such environmental factors are unpredictable. The viewing situation is crucial to the work....


DR: Yes, and it’s interesting that this is often discussed in relationship to the work. It’s a notion of reflexivity - with the materials literally dealing with absorption and reflection. How much does this consciously inform the choices and decisions at the stages of making?


ID: Well, that is important to the whole process. Just on the level of colour choice, the darker colours will absorb light....


DR: Yes, some of the individual paintings do absorb the environment in this way, whilst others seem very self-enclosed, like a coloured intervention that cuts into the space of the room....


ID: It’s strange the way some of the paintings operate almost like a mirror. It’s very odd to see yourself as part of the image, in contrast to the opacity of some of the others, for example. This is something that interests me very much in the viewing process. I think the paintings also encourage movement around them physically - and that is another sculptural aspect, I suppose. In this sense there is not one ideal viewing position, you are invited to move around them, as you would an object in space.


DR: The reflective quality can also really disrupt the viewing of the painting as ‘image’....


ID: Yes. I think the more reflective they are, the more modern they are, almost in a futuristic way. I think the viewer is so much more aware of the process of looking, of being part of the painting almost.


DR: This is another way of breaking down the classic autonomy of the modernist painting, the self-enclosed picture?


ID: It is another spin-off from the process and the materials; the way different sheens - gloss or matt - might behave, creating these diverse responses to the environment. But it is certainly something that fascinates me. Going back to the colour, though; these are very industrial. One of the reasons for this, is that in England, you don’t have access to really bright colour, apart from in the manufactured sense. So they will relate to cars and industrial lacquering with their particular surfaces and qualities. I think that’s also why I referred to them as coloured, rather than colourful. The colour has a particular self-contained presence in some way, rather than any sort of free, chromatic play.


DR: Brian Muller has suggested that your work fits into the category of ‘new modernism’, a genre of ‘post-post modernism’, so to speak; a reaction against deconstructionist, iconographic, referential art of the eighties and the early nineties. Thinking of your British contemporaries, a concern with representation, sometimes of the most abrasive sort, seems to be the order of the day, within painting itself as well. How do you, if at all, situate your work within this current climate?


ID: I think we should be wary of making any artificial distinction between abstraction and figuration. I think individuals are more important.


DR: Well, yes, I would agree - this would be a rather archaic distinction. I was simply wondering whether there is some feeling of mutual purpose felt between some of your fellow painters of monochrome abstractions?...


ID: There is no question of being part of a movement - ‘new modernism’, for example. No artist in their right mind wants to be labelled. That is more a concern of critics and historians of art. And my connections are also with artists who wouldn’t readily be critically connected with me: Gary Hume, for example. I feel that we’ve both learnt from each other’s work in a very interesting and fruitful way.


DR: Finally, many of the American artists I’ve already interviewed have suggested that the monochrome, or the field approach to abstraction, is a dead-end; that it invites perhaps too much nostalgia for the canonical achievements of classic modernism. Obviously, you would disagree with such a position?


ID: It is interesting that you say some of the American artists said this. I think this shows the weight of the Minimalist tradition, and the broader history of abstract painting, for American practitioners. Being an English painter allows me to be more free with that tradition, and to use it in my own way. I certainly don’t feel we can say it is a dead-end. If you apply that logic, then in the same position forty or fifty years ago, I’m sure they would have said that a figurative approach was an impossible avenue to follow. The current scene shows that such a statement is nonsense; each generation looks at the past from a different perspective. Although I admire the great modernist figures, I don’t feel they are sacrosanct, and that one cannot rethink their achievements. Someone is always going to do something that changes the situation; that goes against the prescribed view. As soon as someone says that you can’t possibly do this or that ‘today’, then that to me, is as good as an invitation to do it.
© David Ryan/ Ian Davenport 1998