Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Merlin James

Merlin James was unable to attend the artists seminar but he sent responses to the questions asked.

When you start a piece of work how much do you have an end in mind?  Do you start with an image of what it might look like or its effect/mood?

The process is very open-ended - much to do with suspending intention and anticipation, though working all the time in the context of an ongoing practice which does in broader terms monitor and control the decision making.

Some artists describe the creative process in qualitative terms - as a series of judgements about such things as aesthetic quality, communicative power, the work's internal logic and so on.  Other artists are more procedural and systematic. How do you negotiate and develop your process?  What type of decisions do you make?

It's intuitive, and much to do with AVOIDING 'looks' or 'affects' or associations one DOESN'T want, rather than trying to actively ACHIEVE certain aims. It's to do with trying to get to unfamiliar territory.

How much are non-visual matters or thoughts a part of your working process?  Do ideas or even words figure prominently whilst you are making work?

Conceptualising goes on after the fact mostly, rather than while working. Words don't feature much - maybe an interior, submerged monologue in the mind, but it's a commentary rather than prescriptive, and not much different from that which may be going on during other activities in life.

How and when do reflect on your work?

Sometimes being asked for an 'artist's statement' provokes real, useful reflection. Most importantly, though, it is one's thinking about other art - contemporary and past - that is simultaneously an active reflection on one's own work.

How might a work evolve in relation to other works you have made?

I am very attached to the idea of the self-sufficiency of each individual work (though expecting it to be read against the broad context of Western art). At the same time, dialogue and cross-reference between my works is continual and probably essential. Each one has to recognisably belong to the oeuvre, yet extend it.

At another level, it is frustration and disgust at one's past work that promotes development and changes of direction.

How do you choose titles for your work?

Very (enjoyably) problematic. I jump around - from obvious (just naming a main feature of the image) to cryptic to 'untitled' to generic ('landscape' 'portrait'). Sometimes I paint title on the picture like, or as well as, a signature I am aware of being (deliberately I suppose) sloppy and inconsistent with titles as published in catalogues, price lists etc. The same work may well be given different (or differently spelt) titles in different places (ditto dates and dimensions).

What specific skills have you developed in relation to your work?

On one level, it's to do with having developed a practical, creative pragmatism, rather than what people would think of as refined technical finesse. The ability to make my work almost anywhere, in almost any circumstances - to get it done.

On another level there is judgement and control and manipulation of all sorts going on, and evolving, but this is inseparable from - synonymous with -   the critical/conceptual/creative/aesthetic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it practice that is the work.

What scope is there for unforeseen events occurring in your process?  What is your attitude to them?

The whole focus is on the unforeseen. In a big sense I am after the not-seen-before in art, and in every little move in the studio I am trying to allow the un-anticipatable to happen. However, obvious strategies for supposedly distancing the artist from the product, via automatism or pseudo-systems or 'machines' seem naive to me. It's more implicit than that.

How do you know when a work is finished?  Could you consider a work to be finished despite it conveying a substantially different appearance or meaning than originally intended?

Pictures usually get re-worked over and over, and there's a lot of contingency. They always have to transcend intention in some way, but not be completely open-ended and arbitrary. There has to be a resolution.

Have you ever exhibited or sold your work before you felt ready to do so?  If so what were your concerns?

I've sometimes released work when I'm still a little uncertain - in the hope that it IS ready to show of course, and feeling that sometimes I have been too retentive of paintings, overworked them...Once or twice I have regretted too early release of a picture. I got one back from a collector once (giving him another work in replacement) and re-worked the piece he'd bought. The dealer went white.

Other times I have reworked pieces after showing them, but not because I thought they were shown too soon, just because I thought they could still be better. (It's not an absolute thing, a work's being finished, nor it's being 'good' either.)

There are still works out there (from as long ago as the mid 80s) that I'd love to get back and work on, even though I was sure they were finished when I sold them.

Do you ever write statements or notes or talk publicly on your work?  If so, do you feel it affects your work?  What sort of thing might you write about and why?

As I said above, I think making public statements can be an occasion for really useful reflecting on one's work. I've done it quite a lot. The last one I wrote, for a group show catalogue, involved answering a question about whether one thought of oneself as an actively 'contemporary' artist. It genuinely made me think out consciously things that I was always grappling with semi-consciously.

At the same time, though, I entirely agree with D.H. Lawrence: 'Don't trust the teller, trust the tale'. That is to say, artists often seem quite self-decieved about their own work. And there's an awful danger of self-indulgence in artist's statements of course. One reads some egotistical drivel.

If you had to choose one work to represent you form all that you have made which would you choose and why?  What qualities does it possess and how does it relate to your skills and understanding?

I don't tend to work in a way where there are 'major' and 'minor' works, and the hope of producing a 'masterpiece'. I am working continually, and ideally any single work should be in a way 'sufficient' to represent me. The issues overlap with the question about how the work evolves in relation to others above.

What does the term 'visual intelligence' connote to you?  Do you think it applies to the way you work?  In what ways is it (in)appropriate?

It's not a concept or attribute I find myself referring to especially. I don't for instance say of a work I find poor, 'this lacks visual intelligence'. I do quite like the way the phrase collapses the familiar opposition between the sensory and the intellectual; but if anything it is so self evident that, say, Titian or Velázquez has 'visual intelligence' that one would never really say it as baldly as that. If someone said it of one in a review, it would feel a bit empty or worthy.

The attributes of visual intelligence have been described as "resonance, expressive power, subtlety, sustainable impact, symbolic richness, poetic evocation, compelling vision".  Would you like your work to have any of these qualities? Which ones and why?

Single superlative adjectives or phrases, however pithy, can only be unargued assertions - barely more than an expression, by the speaker or writer, of 'Mmmm! I like it!'. To mean very much, they have to be used as part of a longer, more argued critical exposition of the work. Such an exposition can still never 'prove' scientifically that something is 'good art'; but it can build a more testable case, by pointing to specific and concrete things going on in the work. It can make analogies and comparisons to other art that enjoys a consensus of approval; it can appeal to broader ideas of what art can and should do, and explain why the writer or speaker thinks this art fulfils those criteria; it can give the reader/listener a sense of how the writer/speaker experiences the work; and so on.

Terms like 'subtlety' or 'resonance' 'compelling vision' or 'expressive power' or 'symbolic richness' all apply to great art, but on their own they are vacuous and will always sound like empty hype, or the expression of entirely subjective reverie in front of the work.

What other qualities does art that you admire have?

I am interested - though not by any means exclusively - in art of deceptive modesty. However, (as per 14 above) to say this in the abstract does not really mean much. Even to cite a specific Morandi or William Nicholson still life (say, Nicholson's 'The Gold Jug' in the Royal Collection) isn't enough. Because someone might say, 'oh, so you must like Fantin-Latour then' (which I don't). Or they might say 'oh, such works are really just smug and stuffy', and their statement would be as quite as valid as my statement 'such works have a wonderful deceptive modesty'. I'd have to elaborate a critical case, and so would they, and then someone could judge between our cases.