Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Paula Kane

Arbitrary Trees III
Oil on canvas
92 x 188 cm

Evening at the Forests Edge
Oil on canvas
76 x 142 cm

I currently make imaginary landscapes or make paintings of imaginary landscapes and within these paintings I explore themes of genre or what a proper landscape painting might be. I toy with the culturally accepted ideas of the visual language of  landscape and in particular my misunderstandings of the landscape. I don’t really know very much about landscape  so in a way,  I’m trying to make work about something I really don’t know very much about, trying to question my preconceptions.   I construct these images by using a variety of resource materials and so they’ll be constructed in part from drawings of imaginary spaces or photographs from places I’ve visited,  or quotations from the history of landscape paintings,  or from cartoons or video games. I play around with these fragments them and process them a good deal and then try and construct a space that’s convincing in some respects, convincing as a painting not as a landscape.   I’d measure it in terms of  how much it looks like a landscape painting rather than how much it looks like a landscape. I’m trying to be in a dialogue with the preconceptions of the history of the language of landscape, so that I’m trying to make them clearly fictitious but also in some ways kind of convincing.

Recently I decided to present the supporting work which is work that isn’t made for the public to see - it’s more an exploration of perhaps what goes on in my head.  It was a kind of stream of consciousness in a way, so this is where most of the decision making process takes place.   I play around with images, that become regurgitated and chewed up.  I play around with the materials as well and try and work round to what the structure of the painting would be. To some extent, I have a good idea of what the painting’s going to look like, formally, but really, when I actually start to make the painting then I realise what the problems are.   So there is the decision making process at this stage where it’s kind of little drawings on bits of paper and then the second level of decision making is when I actually start a painting.   And then I guess, you know, the other kind of decision making is how you actually move from one painting to the next and how you actually move the work forward.  

One of the questions was about “When are you ready to show a piece of work?”  In relation to the wall of support work, some people visiting from a museum in Germany wanted to include me in a show but they were more interested in this than they were  in the paintings, and so that’s quite a curious predicament in a way.   I don’t know if they do want the paintings or not or if  they just want something like this studio supporting work but it
does make me question to what extent  can I actually stand back from the work? To what extent can I separate myself from the process?   What do I prioritise and how much, or how little, can I interfere?   Because this is the rawest kind of part of the process.   The paintings are more to do with my dialogue with the visual language of landscape or the visual language of the history of painting as much as about landscape, because in some respects the landscape itself is quite incidental.  With this piece of work it’s more about trying to bring the content of the work back to being, returning it to a notion of the landscape. There are photographs of real places among postcards of paintings and so there is this kind of strange mixture of things coming in and out of focus.   It is also about how I actually deal with the materials because one of the questions was “What kind of work do I respond to, what kind of work do I like?” . I think that work I like is work that processes materials in a kind of unusual or interesting way.  When I’m doing these sketches I’m trying to loosen up and widen what that  language is, more so than actually when I go to make the paintings, so there’s a  strange  kind of conflict in the way that I work.

This is a detail of one of those painted notes, painted sketches, and I’ve put this in because something like this would be a starting point for making a painting.  This was just a little detail in a pre-Raphaelite painting and often the kind of things that I like and use is maybe just fragments from a painting.  The second-hand material  I use as first-hand material.  This was very loosely based on this fragment in a pre-Raphaelite painting and on other fragments, so I’ll get a whole load of ideas like this, these fragments, and from that this is the kind of painting that would develop. So if you can see in the left hand side, that’s where it went, that detail.  In many ways the paintings are about controlling and manipulating information and also my interest in forgotten languages, forgotten historical languages of painting. I want to make them as wide as possible in terms of the references.  I want the different elements to contradict each other.   One of the questions was about what skills you have developed in relation to the work.  I think that the kind of skill I’ve had to develop in relationship to these paintings is to do with editing out information.  I need to  gather as much information as possible and then just try to edit things out so that they remain in some ways reminiscent of the picturesque, reminiscent of places that  might be in the collective memory but at the same time kind of unknowable and unplaceable.   Some of the words that I think about when I’m making the work or some of the ideas I might be interested in are things to do with cultural tourism.  So in away I want the paintings to have the references, the sophistication of a cultural tourist but also the naivety of what that limited information might give you.  When I go to a new city often the first thing I’ll do is I’ll go and visit the museum there and that’s how I’ll get to know about a place, is through that second-hand information.  I’d like to kind of play around with that because I want these paintings to be about a subject that I don’t really know much about, I’d  like to be lost, so I’m trying to be lost in the landscape but also trying to be lost in the subject as well.   So the words I think about are things like the Collective Memory, the  Ideal and Paradise and also I want to make happy paintings as well, which is a kind of curious thing.   I suppose it’s a challenge in a way because to try and make a happy painting you’re doomed to fail but also you know how when you try and make something how often you’re doing the opposite to what you think you’re doing.  I'm interested in the idea of it’s being something of a spectacle because often the way I work is as a reaction to what I’ve made before or as a reaction to what I don’t like.  I want them to be abundant and fecund and for there to be almost too much information in there, so I think of nouns a lot, like I want there to be flowers, and hills and trees and clouds a

I suppose the way I might deal with an idea  of visual intelligence is to try and tune into known languages, into known references because I think that in particular in England people are very familiar with the language of the landscape.   It seems so ubiquitous whether it is on the packet of butter or whether it is to do with the tradition of English landscape painting. I try to use the boundaries of the genre and to work within that area. Pushing  around the idea of what you might think  you’re  looking at and what you’re in fact getting.

And one of the other questions about writing statements which is also something which I find really difficult because in a way, as was mentioned before, some things you kind of want to be unspeakable.  When you make a piece of  work, you make something visual because you don’t want to actually have to spell it out and I think that I can often be very literal in how I describe things.  I can often tell people too much in terms of how to read the work, so I think there is a problem with writing statements because sometimes you feel you have to be accountable for everything you do.  That’s often a really dodgy place to be in when you feel you have to quantify certain kind of elements in the work as opposed to experiencing something.   

RF: I wanted to ask you about that studio wall in relation to your other paintings. You said something about telling people how to look at the work and I wondered whether the studio wall was a ‘key’?   It was very hard to look at the paintings after you’d seen the studio wall, after you’d seen the sources, and not say ‘Oh, that comes from this and that comes from that’.  How much did you want to tell people how to look at the paintings?

PK: I hope it was quite separate in a way because they seemed quite separate to me.   The paintings can often seem really quite closed and I wanted to unravel them a little bit.  They actually could seem quite self indulgent in a way and I wanted the wall to bring people back to the experience of travelling through a landscape and experiencing this kind of abundance of stimulus and almost the impossibility of framing something, I suppose the kind of thing about the picturesque landscape is that it is a way of framing an image and it is a way of containing something and I suppose I wanted to refer to the idea that it’s kind of endless and it was just a different kind of way of zooming in and out of  a space but yes, it is a real risk. It’s a difficult one to negotiate because it was the first time I’d ever displayed that other work   I felt that because it was so different to the paintings or it kind of seemed so different, that they could possibly co-exist.

RF: I was thinking about the way the viewer encountered them, this first and then the paintings and I guess that’s the way you encountered the material and I wondered what it would be like to drive an even bigger wedge between them.  Do you think that could exist without the paintings?

PK: Well this is what I’m having to think about at the moment, if I did put this in the show.   Already I am kind of re-thinking this and I am actually restructuring it and actually being less ad-hoc.   If I was going to re-do it, I’ve actually been thinking about making paintings specifically for this, so this is actually moving into its own piece of work. I’m making a series of Sunburst paintings as well and that’s going to be the centre of this piece of work so it’s becoming quite different in a way so this was an experiment.  The work is going into two separate directions which I’m not quite sure about either, but I really like not knowing what’s happening, I really like being in that place now, where I’m not sure. I think the thing about that space was that downstairs it was a contained space, so there were three paintings downstairs and there was a kind of echoing.  The last two paintings I showed there was a repetition from one painting to the next and so in a sense, when I create a space where the paintings are installed, I’m interested in there being fragments from one painting that are repeated in the next, so there is an echo.  So that you’re in a contained space and there is a a quality of deja-vu when you are looking at the paintings.  Downstairs in that exhibition it was contained whereas upstairs the image was exploded. It's a real risk, I don’t want to lead people by the hand through the work and I’m not sure if I would show this on its own either.

IK: The relationship between the whole and the fragment in Romanticism is quite interesting.   Very often people think of the Romantic as the fragment or as the remnant but historically Romanticism is very much presenting a whole world, a kind of universal ideal and I don’t know whether you see these two works as being a contribution to that debate or tradition.   It struck me as very interesting that you consider your main paintings as the work, they are extraordinary because they are so complete in a time when we are so used to seeing the fragment and they are quite remarkable in that way.   In relation to this I think it’s an interesting dialogue, I don’t know whether you see it in those terms?

PK: I guess they are kind of complete but at the same time they are very economical and there’s an awful lot of stuff that’s been left out.   I was making some paintings about a year or so ago, in Belgium, and it was interesting.  I was kind of thinking that I was trying to give quite a lot of information, trying to make them really fecund and to do with abundance, in terms of visual stimulus and also how the painting was filled. I had a show in France, in the springtime up a mountain and actually being there made me realise how completely impoverished the work was, visually, and how it completely wasn’t doing what I thought it was doing.  That’s often quite an interesting thing in terms of how you are culturally situated.   When I’m working as somebody who lives and works in London and I haven’t got a clue about land so it’s all about misconceptions really, and misconceptions about what a painting should be and what the subject is.

NW: You said you wanted to create happy paintings.  Is that genuinely happy paintings or ‘happy’ in inverted commas, because they seem to be so much to do with visual representations of a tradition, and with cliché, and with mannerism, that the happiness that that tradition is supposed to evoke, seems to be straight away in inverted commas.   What you’re giving is a kind of saccharine, excess version of visual tradition that seems to be undercutting it, and in some sense deconstructing it, rather than providing something that is happy and positive.

PK: No, it’s really happy!

NW: Right, O.K.   I’ve always found happiness difficult. 

PK: Well I think that people are very distrustful of happiness and it is difficult.   I’ve always painted things that I love and before I was painting these I was painting still life. I was doing the same thing with still life because I was working very much within a boundary of what a still life might be and with landscape I feel that I’m doing the same thing.   I thought I was doing completely the opposite to what I was doing before but then I realised that I was doing the same thing in terms of how I was controlling and manipulating the elements within the image.   Because landscape painting is a more culturally recognisable framework that means I can play around more with ambiguities and so they’re not in any way ironic paintings.  They are very sincere and although the kind of happiness may be a red herring that was very much a starting point for making the paintings.  I guess in some ways it’s moved away from that but I do try and come back to that notion if I ever find myself steering towards the dark side, which I try and avoid.

BH: Could I just ask a bit more about the process of making?  I was really intrigued when I saw the show, how you moved from such a fragmented set of references to such a coherent and complete final image.  I just wondered whether do you actually map out the whole of the composition in advance, is that all very clearly worked out or do things change and develop as you go along?

PK: It depends.   Often they are clearly mapped out and often they’re not.   It depends on how impatient I am, really. I think that often it’s just things like being impatient when it comes to finishing a work, usually it’s when I give up or when it’s becoming too fussy. Often it is quite mapped in a linear way but actually that’s quite different to the problems of making the painting. I don’t want it to look like a kind of cut and paste image so maybe the way the work has to develop in making the painting by using things like light. I don’t really make very serious drawings, the drawings are very utilitarian in a way so it’s kind of other things that are difficult to draw, things like light or the space.  Then perhaps things are kind of disjointed and there are other problems that happen in the painting that have to be resolved in other ways. What looks good as a drawing is often completely the opposite to what looks good in a painting, so that’s quite an interesting problem to deal with, actually making the painting interesting - otherwise it would be a very mechanical exercise.