Interview with Patrick T. Murphy
PTM: I first became aware of your work in the mid eighties, large figurative canvases painted with a hot palette and an expressionistic style. Were you just out of college then?
AG: I had just finished art college in The Netherlands, in Arnheim in 1982 when I decided to leave for a while. I came here for year.
PTM: Why here?
AG: I wanted to get away, to get away from student life, to get away from a personal history and disappear for a while. I had met some wonderful Irish people, mostly musicians, living and working in The Netherlands in the early eighties. They were my introduction to Ireland, a country I knew very little about until then. After a holiday visit I decided to come here for a year. What attracted me was the unfamiliar and the immense sense of space in which I could get lost for some time. I also wanted to get away from art there, because I thought it too formalized, its infrastructure was very present and dominant. I found that claustrophobic and intimidating. Of course, there was none of that here at the time which was attractive to me because it gave me the freedom to emerge from art college. It was 1984 and I can still recall the image of walking into Temple Bar Studios, looking for a space and there was Jenny Haughton standing on this huge mountain of clothes in the old entrance hall. it had been an old sewing factory, and she showed me upstairs to a big open space on the top floor which was to become my first studio there.
PTM: Of course it was a good time for expressive painting, the New Painting exhibition in London had given credence to a whole wave of figurative painting that was coming out of Germany.
AG: When I was in art college New Painting had just emerged with the New Expressionist painters from Germany and Italy like Baselitz, Kiefer, Polke, Chia, Clemente, and Cucci. At the time they turned everything upside down; because the connotation of progress was associated with the ideal of reality and objectivity, and art overcoming its own material
limitations ‘as manifested in Neo Constructivism and Minimal Art’. This attitude had pushed painting to the sidelines for several years. Then when New Painting (Neue Wilden) came along it was ok again to become personal and subjective. The autobiographical style of writing had come back in again (Joyce, Hesse, Grass). I found in Temple Bar Studios artists like Paddy Graham, Brian Maguire and Pat Hall. I found colleagues. It’s interesting to see that similar shifts are happening again; progress seems to go in spirals and circles, it constantly acquires different connotations.
PTM: And of course all of them and you had a great platform in Blaithin De Sachy’s Lincoln Gallery in Lincoln Place.
AG: I had my first exhibition of works on paper in the Lincoln Gallery in 1984 (and my first exhibition of paintings in the Project Arts Centre in 1984). Many artists who were there shared a similar sensibility. Beside Paddy, Brian and Pat there were Mick Cullen, Eithne Jordon, Gene Lambert, we all did very well for a couple of years there.
PTM: But New Expressionism was pretty macho stuff.
AG: Indeed it was macho stuff alright and I wasn’t part of that. Expressionism here and everywhere else was very much male dominated. In art college the majority of lecturers and
students were male. The Irish expressionists in the eighties here were mostly guys too, and at the time female artists were still referred to (and sometimes still are) as ‘Women Artists’ to set them aside. I didn’t present myself as a woman artist or as a feminist. My work wasn’t dealing with feminist issues per se. I was trying to chart the transformation into adulthood in the early work. Stylistically it had more antecedents in the COBRA movement than in German painting. Using a vivid, mostly red, palette and using a semi abstract expressive style of painting. They were heated paintings. I connected with COBRA’s inspiration of children’s drawings as children’s drawings are a direct response to and an affirmation of being in a personal space and I was trying to define my territory being on new grounds- I used my own drawings I made as a child as inspiration and used them in collages. I started to exhibit this early work in the Independent Artists shows in the eighties.
PTM: This early work was very brutal aggressive work
AG: The approach was very direct and had an urgency. Images would emerge from violent brushstrokes on the canvas as I was making them. It was very physical work. The process of the conception and of capturing the image happened on the canvas. I would initiate the process with some marks laid out on the surface, mapping out the space, to which I would
respond. It was a constant dialogue between me and the work, responding to the mark making. The spontaneity of the pictorial and the distinction between looking and the ability
to see became all important in this process of painting. Now I bring the idea to the canvas, I can perceive and investigate them in advance so that I have a much more informed idea of
where I am going. The preparation before I approach the canvas is all important now. My studio has become a space which extends beyond its physical walls; I am always at work so to say; I am always observing, looking, listening, reading, mapping my ideas. I draw, I take photographs and write before I go near a canvas.
PTM: I think we are all familiar with artists who have a great talent to quickly render a convincing image. But such a process is so contingent it must be scary at times.
AG: Yes, it’s about more than this though. For me it’s aboutfollowing chance, seeing its position, discovering its possibilities and progressing it to a more effective level. In those earlier works the meaning appeared too randomly, it was left to fate if the process and the meaning conjoined. Now I am more interested in the pattern that creates chance; why, where and how chance happens.
PTM: There is no melancholy in this early work.
AG: I came from a rigorous art education, in The Netherlands, in which all attention was demanded for how you paint not so much for what you paint. On leaving college I was equipped with good skills and a great aesthetic sensibility but had I no attainment in conscious or effective deliberation of techniques for personal references and survival. I didn’t connect my being with the work. Painting, in college, was about perception of
phenomena outside myself. My predominant sense was my eye. Motives for storytelling were not predominant in art college nor are they in Dutch painting, and there were no emotive values informing the work. The main consideration and ingredient in painting was light. Arriving in Ireland I discovered a very different impetus to make art. Art was narrative, it was born from a necessity, a historical suffering. It was angry, political, poetic, lyrical and displayed a deep mythological belief. I found these forces hugely attractive because they fulfilled my need to connect with something inside me. My early work was all about searching for personal meaning while developing my skills and bouncing between these two worlds as a young artist.
PTM: But there is such a severe change to your approach. The gesture completely recedes, canvases become multi paneled.
AG: When I had a child I became more reflective. Psychologically the physical act of pregnancy and giving birth is a hugely significant time. I had to grapple with many aspects of myself. One day, not long after the birth of my son, back in the studio, I realised that I was more than just one identity. I remember that moment vividly. I recognised that I was the sum of constituent parts. What does it mean to be an artist and being a mother, partner and teacher? What does it mean to be a mother and and also to be an artist? I started to make connections between these parts. The birth of my first child signalled a turning point in my work. For the first time I became aware of my own personal history, my roots, my survival, past and present, and my own mortality. I recognised that my life was affected by the experience of some desolate times in my family. This experience still follows me. Work emerged that came from a deep sense of loss yet at the same time affirming and celebrating life. I became conscious of my own limitations. I became aware of the human condition. It was again a time of great transformation. It demanded a new approach. The singular image no longer offered me a solution at the time. I needed the sequential, the series to make sense, so I segmented the paintings into several panels.
PTM: But paint itself seemed to have become too singular for you.
AG: Yes, I used collage during the Sediment series of works. I had started to use collage before that in the series called Passages which was shown at the Taylor Galleries. Collage was applied in order to force the meaning in the painting to more than one surface. I used shape and composition to create windows within windows, rooms within rooms. I put layer upon layer. Nothing seemed straightforward to me at the time. I used pieces of lead which I shaped into fish images and applied these to the canvas and onto paper. This created a paradox of meaning and possibility. Passages chosen as a title is the first indication in my work of the idea of movement through time. Sediment as a title was chosen for its allusion to growth in/through time. Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral and meaning changes through and because of time. I wanted to fuse the aesthetic meaning and the poetic meaning to give equal credence to thoughts, feelings and form.
PTM: And as you mention it the Sediment series from the early nineties had a very defined area of exploration. Your immigration to Ireland had become a reality.
AG: Well after about seven years I challenged myself to make a conscious decision as to where I wanted to be. Before that I was pretty much extending my stay year after year. But then, meeting a wonderful Irish man and starting a family together impelled me to make a choice. The severing of my options to return to Holland forced a whole new set of questions about myself. The question of identity was an obvious one. Living in a different culture forces you to reflect on your roots, your history and cultural heritage and your understanding and appreciation of social codes. It is an enormous learning process in which you find yourself looking into both worlds. There comes a point when you are not connected to either one. For an artist this is a privileged place to be because it creates the freedom of being outside and enables you to observe oneself in a situation. But as a person, as a social being this can be an alienating place at times. So in order to survive I had to become more philosophical. Philosophical ideas and thoughts are important motivators that negotiate the direction of my work. This is a long process. I want the work to be informed enough to interrogate issues of identity, loss, and to offer the viewer a meaningful place to reflect on these things.
PTM: The actual manufacture of the work was becoming more dense. In the exhibition Heartlands you were applying things to the surface, painting language onto the canvas, actual snippets of personal letters from your mother were included.
AG: That work was very personal. I remember when I brought it into the Rubicon Gallery I was thinking that this was too personal to show. It was all about who I was. Foreign in Ireland, mother and daughter, how do you communicate with your family back home. What is home and where is home? I needed to locate myself, I needed to belong somewhere and I needed to find where that somewhere was. I was writing to my mother once a week and she to me. I kept all of the correspondence. My reality with my ancestral family was in letters, yet I became more and more alienated from my family and roots. I began to incorporate words onto the images I was making, trying to create further layers of meaning. I started to use text out of a necessity to make sense of me. When I came here I had to learn English so I paid great attention to words and their varied meanings, how context could shift meaning. So words came into the work, sometimes I would repeat them in the image in order to expose their ability to shift or lose meaning. In certain contexts it exposed a vulnerability. I would obliterate parts of text, hide it with Tipp-Ex, knowing that the viewer would still try and read it and I wanted the viewer to participate in completing the picture. Sometimes I would use phrases, common everyday phrases, like ‘how are you’. Which in Ireland is almost an unanswered greeting but in Holland receives a detailed response. Expressions are antithetical in different cultures. What seems obvious in one culture is not clear in another. You cannot take that for granted. Language, words and their various constructs are important to me.
PTM: And has writing as a creative art in itself attracted you?
AG: I write often, using words in my visual notebooks, in a journal to record ideas or reflections, trying to make sense but I don’t consider it for publication. It’s a way of thinking for me, it is a way of learning. Writing helps me to organise and structure my thoughts and work.
PTM: Of course now you added another medium to your practice with video, when did the moving image become important?
AG: I started using video a couple of years ago. Looking at the Heartlands series I had layers built up from the raw canvas to the outer appliqué. I built it up and the viewer enters the work from the top layer back. These were complicated and slow works. They were not easy to digest. You had to chip away at each layer before the next became visible. It took time to discover and comprehend the work. Yet the significance of a painting lies on the surface. It must reveal and articulate itself visually in the first moment. The significance is there, before you start interpreting it. It is an instant recognition, it happens at first glance. Simultaneously, meaning reveals itself in time and is completed by the engagement of the viewer. Because it is this dialogue, this interpretation, which completes the work. So time is a factor in delineating meaning. I explore this theme over and over in my work. Video offers me a similar movement but sequentially, in time.
PTM: Interesting enough, video though offering a huge opportunity for personal narrative seems to have offered you strengthened visual limitations to the production of your images-almost simplified them.
AG: In the first video I produced, in Interdum, in 2002, I used a simple sequence to play with the idea of the transient nature of reality and the idea of what is real and what we perceive as real. The transformation between images was very slow. This allowed for an illusion of a whole new image to appear, for about 1 second you could grasp it, in between the real images (images I had drawn for the video). Illusion becomes reality. For Crossing I have made videos of scenes in which you anticipate something is going to happen. You are waiting and then there is nothing happening, or so it seems. Yet everything is happening in that space, in that moment. I find myself in the space of waiting, not unlike Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The work is not about entering into a narrative but about opening a door to show you a passage into a narrative. I am interested in that moment, that space where we ‘realize’ our potential. It is the moment where past and future converge. It can be a moment of arrival or departure, I am interested in the point where past and future engage with each other. I think that this is tangible in the new paintings, drawings and the videos. It is a new departure for me, yet it evolves naturally from the previous work. The antecedent to this was the series of Interdum drawings in which I deliberately sought to be less ambiguous through using the direct medium of ink and watercolour on paper. Yet I found that this was also relative and that meaning changed too because of a sequential proposition.
PTM: Almost a return to your early work, image found through gesture?
AG: Yes, a much more direct image. In the Interdum drawings I used the horizon as a visual and symbolic device. A feature that can seem a certainty in one moment is not a certainty in another moment, this reflects my own thinking. It is the particular Dutch horizon line, which is very straight, that I wanted to use. Everything seems in view, clear, logical but life isn’t like that. I have played around with the water and the land whose relationship in Dutch history and geography is tense because half the time the sea level is higher than the land and what may seem to be a land horizon is only a mechanism of holding out the sea. For me this is an important metaphor of life’s dichotomies and fragilities.
PTM: Coming to this new body of work Crossing, the road, or more precisely the way we mark and demark our roads is the central image.
AG: The road is a great metaphorical device to explore the state of journeying without the need for reference to point of departure or destination for arrival. It presents itself as process, as thinking. I started from exploring very conventional perspective forms to molding and shaping them into different unexpected forms. The verb ‘crossing’ signifies movement, a movement which is not uniform but is drawn back and forth. Crossing implies impermanence. It is the motion of nature and being. I developed this work during the last three years during which I travelled close to 12,000 kilometers by car, in Ireland, in The Netherlands and between here and the continent. Traveling by car allowed me to experience the space of distance closer to real time. Being on the road, I feel invigorated, I feel suspended in space. Being on the road became the journey, a passage, a destination, not unlike a road movie. The road became my landscape. The large paintings and the small drawings delineate movements of thought processes occurring in space and time. The traces mark the surface turning the surface into visual patterns. What you see is the physical manifestation of the layers of routes and directions taken and their manifold meanings in this process. I use the suggestion of symmetry as a device to imply order and balance. The work explores the concept of journey as destination looking at the amorphous nature of being. I started to use oil-sticks on canvas, a painting medium closer to drawing, as elemental documentation and as mark making of ideas. The paintings and drawings are like stills beside the video sequences, transient moments fixed in time.
PTM: One of the great assignments you have set yourself in this series is the eradication of colour.
AG: What is seen as an absence of colour is really a reconsideration of the effect of colour. Throughout the development of my work you can see the vivid colours slowly making way for a more considered muted palette. Working here in Ireland, under the influence of Irish light transformed the intense range of colours into a subdued scheme of greys and other neutrals. Colours also changed because of a synthesis in my thinking and in my approach to
painting. I wanted to work more clearly with ideas, so colour had to change. The choice of colour became a crucial element in the contemplation of the ideas in the work. I want my paintings to be quiet, they have to hold silence, they can’t be loud. The image, the surface is presented as a rumination of ideas. However these black and white paintings are colourful as I have imbued them with great tonal variation, earth bound colours. By reducing your palette your knowledge of colour develops and what can be achieved within those constrictions grows. I started out by using blackboard paint, which presented a totally impenetrable screen with no illusion to space within the painting. But ironically this deep mat, neutral black paint took me back to more translucent, colourful blacks. This process of deduction became an enrichment and allowed me to open up the surface again.
PTM: There is a peculiar thing that happens in this series that doesn’t surface in the previous work, there is a humour here. Both a comic and a comic book element to the images.
AG: Yes there is. This is possible because I am more able to detach myself from situations. That doesn’t mean I am not engaged or that I am unaffected by them. It means that I can observe myself in that situation and in my roles in life and as such I am capable to see its relativity and its humour I suppose. Sometimes situations or conversations translate themselves directly and visually into shapes and movements in my mind, I can see situations as abstract shapes and as colours as the situation unfolds. I am using the meaning of abstract here as essentially a manifestation of life outside, without and before figurative reality. The humour doesn’t compromise the intended profundity of the work, instead it aids the transference of its significance and makes it hopefully more accessible.
PTM: The video section of this series is very strong. It takes simple movements, left to right, up to down, circuits and through repetition augments the metaphor.
AG: The videos’ viewpoint is confined to the camera being on the road -which does not burden the paintings- there is a movement going outside of the frame or going to the horizon. This deliberate play with dimensionality in video allows for other possibilities than those within the paintings. What I have been doing in painting and video is a process of reduction, of stripping out the unnecessary, bringing it down to basics, subtracting until I uncover the essential forms. It is about ideas of the minimal, of the unadorned. I am trying to pare down ideas and find the most necessary gestures. For me this is about communication and being honest, true and clear in your practice. There is such a deluge of images and information from the media today, telling us what is in and what is out, offering us answers and solutions and allowing so many appropriations to how and what we should be. I feel we are continuously defusing truth and deluding ourselves. For me it is about putting that torrent aside and identifying what is important. Art allows me to find out about what my existence means in this world.
PTM: And indeed by such a manoeuvre helping us find our priorities, Anita Groener, thank you.