Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Colin Crumplin

Ear: Evander Holyfield
286 x 238 cm

Frankfurt 1945
51 x 30 cm

CC: I’ve written statements from time to time and been embarrassed by them like many artists are, later. However each time I’ve written them I’ve thought of things that I hadn’t thought of before. So in fact today’s a case like that, I’ve thought of things I hadn’t thought of before for some things I’ve been doing throughout my entire adult life so it seems quite an interesting activity even if they (the statements) don’t really serve the purposes for which they’re published. I also talk about my work from time to time and every time the story comes out marginally differently. This time it starts with the statement that I’ve used ‘chance’ as a key element in the construction of my work for 35 years. I suppose that comes from one of the questions and I hope that the things that I say quite quickly answer all of the questions or if they don’t it’s because I don’t really want to address them. But you can press me on that …

Chance, why did I use chance? Originally it was an anti-aesthetic move, kind of a Dada move. I thought at the time it was a kind of anti-good taste, anti-good judgement, high modernist kind of view which I saw at the time as a class thing, it was a good taste thing that I didn’t relate to. I’ve continued with my use of chance but I now see it as being fundamentally much more like John Cage’s use of chance, as being a process thing to do with, as he said, ‘imitating nature in the manner of her operation’. What I would do was to set a programme in motion which would allow for variations in the event. In moving from one thing to the other, from the anti to a positive working method, it’s also become clear to me that chance is so absolutely fundamental to all of life, why we’re here, all of those things that we all know perfectly well.

I come from painting to sculpture and back to painting. The first painting type objects that I showed had on them small events that operated at the absolute limits of perception and these evolved into paintings using chance events which were repeated with great care, copied with great care. I then made sculptures that adopted some of the same strategies; things made very quickly were copied with enormous care. These evolved in turn into paintings that involved an element of copying or transcription and then to what I’m going to show you that I’ve been doing for about fifteen years. (Slide: Ear : Evander Holyfield 2000 . 286 x 238 cms ) So for about fifteen years I’ve made paintings and drawings and prints according to a set of strategies which evolved from those previous practices and my thinking about the colour and the processes and so on. A lot of the decisions were decisions that were set in previous practices but which I’ve opted not to change.

The strategies make work that doesn’t have a preconceived subject or effect but embodies certain kinds of principles. It occurred to me a couple of days ago when I wrote these notes that really these principles are really probably rather 1960’s principles and they’re quite close to the thinking of people like early Terry Riley, early Sol Le Witt, that you set something in train. So typically what I do, is a bit of cotton duck canvas is smeared with paint: black, or red or green or blue, or sometimes, red, yellow and blue – the top part of this is one of that kind – or another kind of secondary set, orange, green, violet, sometimes the cloth is wet as it was here. Half of the canvas is stapled to the floor, the other half is folded over and a blind monoprint is made, a kind of blot. So this is made very quickly; this painting is three metres high and the bit at the top is maybe made in a minute or two, as long as it would take to smear the paint around and blot it. I make a lot of these blots, these starts, large and small and I have sixty or seventy of them rolled up and I take photographs of them, because of the practicality of looking through the rolls, partly. I look at these photographs for what I am going to refer to as a likeness which is a term, others might use a term like a suggestion, but that sounds a little too active for me. Sometimes this process takes years, I probably have still some of the original blots that I made twelve or fifteen years ago and sometimes I act on them immediately and sometimes I throw out the ones that aren’t getting anywhere. But I work with, characteristically, books of photographs of these blots and think what kind of likeness is there in this apparently arbitrary image.

I have a bank of images, photographic images mostly, from many sources, photographs I’ve taken, sometimes photographs I take specifically for a painting, many of them found images and most of the found images are from newspapers. I have boxes and drawers full of these images and I think that by now a lot of them are as it were in my head, so I have a vague idea of image stock that I have. I associate a particular kind of image which has attracted my attention, with a blot. When I think I’ve found a likeness, a correspondence between a blot and let’s say, a photographic image, I would make a collage of these, sometimes paper collage. I work with photocopies of the blot and photocopies of the photograph or sometimes digital but I don’t have a preference, it depends upon convenience - whether the scissors or something else are nearer to hand. When the collage seems to be settled I make or get stretchers, they are not always the same size but it happens that in this case they are, typically, to accommodate all of the blotted surface. Now what I mean by that is the top left-hand quarter of this painting is where the paint was. An inch or so around the edge there is no more paint, so the size of the painting is determined by the blot as well. And in this case the collage suggested that the other panel was the same size and so there are these two stretchers and they’re made to fit together and then I work on the second panel from the photograph, in this case a photograph of Evander Holyfield’s ear having been bitten by Tyson. Sometimes I’ve asked other people to choose which paintings I should start, sometimes I’ve asked other people what the blot suggested to them and used that, sometimes I’ve asked other people for their photographs. In one case I can remember very clearly somebody was showing me their photographs and I just said ‘Can I have that, that fits exactly what I need’. Sometimes I’ve grown plants in order to photograph them to make a collage to make a painting, so all of those things happen all ways round

Most of the photographs I’ve used recently are from a common stock, they’re from newspapers so I have sense that other people could have seen them, they are not very often private photographs. One group of images are from newspapers, a kind common source. Mostly the images from the common source fall into a category that I think of as accidents, disasters, injuries, of which this is obviously one. And there is another group which are of flowers or bits of nature. They’re like a gardener walking around with a magnifying glass in their pocket and looking at flowers as organic machines, if you see what I mean, not as just coloured events in the garden but as functioning machines. These are almost invariably painted very much larger than life. In fact that’s a tendency in all of my paintings, to paint things much larger than they are in reality.

Titles; mostly they’re simply titled like a nickname that grows up as the painting grows. This painting’s called Ear: Evander Holyfield sometimes they have more elaborate and allusive titles though it doesn’t matter today because neither of the two images I’m going to show you, and here’s the other one (slide : Frankfurt 1945. 1997.51x30 cms) have that characteristic. This is a tiny painting; it’s less than a foot high. So it’s at the other extremity of size. This painting’s called Frankfurt, 1945.

When is a painting finished? I can only think of this as a matter of record, I think. That is, I often paint the apparently representational part at least twice; I’ve very seldom been content with it painted once. There’s a certain kind of fullness or balance between the two parts that’s an obvious correspondence that I seemed to aim for and have accepted when I’ve got to that stage. I’ve sometimes let work go somewhere when I think I knew at the time that I shouldn’t but I’m not sure that any of us are in a position to say that we haven’t sometimes been embarrassed by what we’ve let go in retrospect, I certainly have. I’ve put things in shows that I shouldn’t have put in shows and I’ve been in shows I shouldn’t have been in and I think they were ill judged things but I don’t think it matters very much, it’s up to the work to look after itself.

How one would want one’s work to be read? As others have said, I would be very happy with all of those descriptions because I think that, as you might have judged from what I’ve said, my part of the work is finished when I’ve done a certain kind of process and selected/made a certain thing. And I might hope that anybody might have one or all of those kinds of responses but it isn’t anything that I know how to aim towards or to target, I think.

I don’t think I can answer the question about which artist or work I admire because it’s too complicated and they’re too numerous, there are lots. Thank you.

RF: How did you select the two images that you showed us?

CC: How did I select them? I think in both cases I had the photographic image already. So they’re both of that kind. Does that answer the question?

RF: No. I wondered with the notion of chance and the kind of process that you’re putting your work through, how you judged their success or failure. I imagine that you picked two works that you think 'work'?

CC: Well I picked the ear is a ….ask the first question again!

RF: Well I wondered where the judgements came in about the success or failure of a work. Even if you find the image that you think was a ‘likeness’, can it fail to be a likeness? Where do you allow the judgements to come in?

CC: The first painting which I won’t now show you again because it won’t help, it seemed to me very clearly that it had a kind of ear form in it but it doesn’t necessarily look like that, not when it’s got an ear next to it. It seems absolutely clear to me but I would just proceed and put them together. The second one …….there’s an obvious rhyme in a shape between the road around the bombed area at the bottom and the mark that there was at the top but it’s a shape of no significance to the subject. I don’t see the ear in the first painting any more so it becomes for me ……..we have to skip back to the beginning, it seemed to me that the first part is made using the means of Greenbergian modernism that I was sceptical of as a student, acrylic on cotton duck and quickly made and the second part is made using the means of illusionistic painting, layered oil painting to construct a tonal illusion. That probably still doesn’t answer your question exactly.

RF: Can we examine a bit more the kind of relationship between chance and process that you’re committed to and the moments where you might halt that process? When you make your work and you come to the end of the process you must think that some are more successful than others, so when do you allow yourself to intervene in that process?

CC: I have two piles of things that have completely different sources. One is a set of visual accidents; let’s call them, the blots. And the other are a set of circumstances, they are the visual images that I have either in my drawer, or in my memory and a lot of which have do with the news, so they’re simply two sets, as it were, circumstance. The judgement of putting them together is the end of that question of chance and the performance, as it were, is under way.

RF: That’s why you’d paint it several times over?

CC: By the time I’m making or buying stretchers and doing that then there’s no longer any of that. And they’re more or less successful but I have seldom thrown them away later which also seems to be an acceptance that one just has to go through with it. If somebody asked for five images rather than two one would think about different considerations for putting a group of works together but those things in a sense are very conventional judgement things, I think, once the accidents have happened.

MG: Looking at this and listening to your description it seems as if you’ve invented a strategy at some point in time, some time ago, which has sustained or has the capacity for many years of production. I’m just thinking of this thing about the creative process and the judgements - has it come up, that you’ve revised the strategy or has the same strategy as you’ve described to us actually sustained …

CC: In a general sense it’s the same strategy but I think the description I give of it now is different than I would have given even five years ago which is when, let’s say that’s when those paintings were painted, one’s about three years old and the other’s about six. I think the strategy is substantially the same but there have been refinements (and refinements is a strange word to use in relation to accidents) but there have been changes. One of the things that seemed clear was that if I was making the blots, the big painting was made with the canvas soaking wet which I wasn’t doing until a few years ago, for instance. So that the changes are material changes in order to, in that case, increase the unpredictability of the first image. This was because I was frequently asked whether I carefully made the first image. So they’re strategic things to increase the difference between the two parts, to make one look more accidental.

PK: So is one image more valuable to you than the other or are they of equal value or can they exist separately?

CC: When I was first making paintings where there were two events made on separate stretchers and put together somebody suggested that the purpose of the first was only to make the second, but they don’t really mean anything to me at all except if they’re together. They don’t have any value except if they’re together, to me. That’s like bigger or smaller being more important in terms of painting, does that make sense to you? I know very well from working with students that they find it very difficult not to identify investment of time with meaning but it doesn’t have anything to do with the value. So they don’t mean anything, they’re not two separate things; they’re one event in the end.

NW: In the realm of chance would it make any difference if the two parts of the process were alternated and the photograph was painted first and the block made second. Would it make any difference to the final outcome?

CC: I tried to make some that way round in response to that idea and I found it not remotely engaging. There are certain key things that wouldn’t happen so that the relative sizes of correspondences and shapes or something would be extremely difficult to manage. But it would have no point for me either. Part of the point of making these things in this way is for me to make these things and to go through this process. Are you saying would it mean something different if?

NW: I’m just wondering whether or not it’s the process that’s important or whether it’s a revelation of coincidences because it seems to me if you did it the other way round you wouldn’t reveal a coincidence, it wouldn’t be poetic, it wouldn’t be layered in the way that you hope it is, it’s a bit of a leading question.

CC: But I think that’s simply a different kind of work that joins all of those kinds of work, where disparate images are set together for a poetic purpose and one might be accidental and one might be extremely carefully crafted, but that’s just a different kind of work.

IK: Originally you started the process of chance as a kind of reactionary device against aesthetic taste or as being somehow bourgeois and yet now you’re engaged in an activity that is part chance but also a great deal to do with some kind of aesthetic judgement. Can you talk about that change or development and where you stand in relation to that 70s’ stance?

CC; It may appear from two examples that there are careful aesthetic judgements being made of a kind that I would say I genuinely didn’t understand, which is why I was trying to find a device to avoid making those judgements. It seems at least possible that through spending a lot of my time looking at paintings I’ve habituated certain judgements of other people and they become incorporated in what I do. It seems inevitable but they’re not actually chosen like that, the images are not put together for that reason, sometimes they’re put together because they’re funny, or …well here’s another reason..… I have an increasing number of photographs of fires, it seems like we’ve been living through a period when fires of one kind or another have been all over our papers for the last few years much more than ever before. There are simple mechanical reasons for this, newspapers – it’s just become easy to print colour - so you get lots of fires. But I’ve got a huge stack of fires so I can imagine in the near future there’ll be a big fire painting. It’s not a modernist aesthetic decision. I just want to paint a big fire painting

PK: Does that mean that you have to somehow manufacture the possibility where you can make a fire painting?

CC: No. I think the answer is no. But I think that all these things do for me, is just they’re ruminations on correspondence and recognition and so on. I think I would look through my books and think,' I’ve got all these fires, none of these look like this fire', but then I wouldn’t be surprised that one day there’ll be a photograph in the newspaper that has a shape correspondence with something that I’ve looked at fifty times already, do you see? There’s no element of conjuring about it, in what I do, it’s just an idea of correspondence and setting things together.

B.H. Just following on from that, do you sometimes feel that your system restricts you then, because it seems a really interesting observation that there have been increasing amounts of images of fires in the newspaper and so if you want to paint a fire painting why not paint a fire painting? Does it have to have the blot that matches up to it? Do you feel that that’s an absolute structure that you can’t move out of?

CC: No, but I haven’t. There isn’t a rule like that. There are other sets of work, this is the longest set of work, but there are other sets of work that have, as I said, elements of the same kinds of strategy and they’ve been like for five years I’ve done this. For seven or eight years I made white boards with little holes in, which I would argue had the same kind of strategy. And then I was making paintings where I was very laboriously copying blotted accidents, incredibly laboriously so that they looked, until you were really quite close, identical. So the idea of painting a fire painting wouldn’t in itself change my practice. I think that I’ve opted to do this at this time but that doesn’t mean that tomorrow even your remark might not change what I do. I might think, she’s absolutely right, this is absurd, I’m just going to make paintings of fires!