London, June 2010: Known for paintings that "interweave contemporary themes and extravagant environments" (taken from http://www.gedquinn.info/index.htm), Ged Quinn presents a darkly romantic and visionary landscape that both disquiets and captivates the viewer. ArtSlant's writer, Mike Tuck, had the occasion to discuss Quinn's new body of work at the Wilkinson Gallery in London. The following comes from that discussion.
Ged Quinn, I Am a Dream of My Soul, 2010, Oil on canvas, 61.5x49.5 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
Mike Tuck: Your show at Wilkinson Gallery (Somebody's Coming that Hates Us, on view from 20 Mary - 27 June 2010) presents a new body of work which is broadly characterised by its relation to Romantic painting. Is there something inherently dangerous about romanticism?
Ged Quinn: I think there are some qualitative similarities between where romanticism or any other orthodoxy may stray or decay into – how and where it goes bad – in the distillation of the ideal something else happens and, particularly pertinent to romanticism, whilst your back is turned in reverie that which you thought was pure turns sour. Some uncomfortably threatening political orthodoxies, or even by extension, notions of personal identity that in my opinion might encapsulate neo-paganism, Odinism etc.. It is significant for me that one reading of the origins of fascism posits that it was conjured by depressed dreamers. There lies a threat in that it shares the seductiveness of a thing like the fascism that Ortega Y Gasset describes in Sobre el Fascismo. The apparently positive, valuable, idealistic concepts such as regionalism, ruralism, traditionalism, notions of the family and an anti-imperialist view of the world conjured by romanticism also find an echo in the ideals of the far right and radical left.
There are some ways of self-identification that in an unconnected way appear valuable and positive but are now impossible to conceive of without this darker more malign parallel view. If you took it as an abstract equation, I think some of the same factors would be present in each and I thought it would be interesting to explore some areas in common where they have shared components. I didn’t want to directly or consciously adopt a position but maybe just highlight or leave space for those layers and readings to open up; to allow a view of the curdling process of those ideas within our knowledge of the cultural landscape. I’m interested in some of the codification of various things that comprise it and the way they are coded. Say, nature’s correspondence to mind, the equivocal and indeterminate, to paraphrase Joseph Leo Koerner; a fascination with the faraway, a celebration of subjectivity close to solipsism, coupled with a morbid desire that the self be subsumed in nature’s infinities. Then there’s the preference of night over day, a symbolising of a rejection of the Enlightenment and rationalism. A foggy but all pervading mysticism and finally a melancholy, sentimental longing and nostalgia which can border on kitsch - the way they relate, bleed into arcane things like regionalism, the bucolic, the elevation of a specifically local aspiration. Interestingly, Nazism is at once both medievalist and technological. I think that it shares some of the semiotic signs and signifiers of right wing philosophies. Since World War 2, romanticism has been discredited by both Marxists and liberals as the ideology of fascists. I wonder whether it is impossible to get on that road and stand still at one point or whether there is an inevitable collapse into themes like sentimentality, nostalgia, nationalism and also the associations with the Ideal, beauty, emotional extremes, Symbolism. And I think there is an inherent risk in that elevated, high romanticism - like it’s a pot that needs to be watched in case it boils over.
I am also interested in the analyses of modernism here, most critiques of modernism come from the left, support it as a product of socialist ideas, but there is a firm strand in its emergence that links it too with the agenda of fascism. I suppose this encapsulates a broad area of my interest; the history of ideas and how ideas travel through time.
Ged Quinn, The Anxious Attempt of Art to Mourn the Silence of Melancholy Over Everything, 2010, Oil on canvas, 61.5x49.5 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
MT: Much of your work contains a dark humour, I’m thinking here particularly of your rendering of Hitler with breasts. In the face of such malevolent imagery what does this humour offer us?
GQ: Well, the role of humour I think is extraordinarily important, both on the relatively superficial, direct level of satirising and debunking and the more complex, subversive, concepts raised by ideas of the Carnivalesque and grotesque (as exemplified by Swift and Sterne) – the manner in which humour drags tragedy with it (and vice versa). Those marginal social spaces that art and that idea of the Carnivalesque occupy between the utopian and the destructive.
Also, humour, if it can be seen as a genre, a visual strategy (since Freud I suppose) can be read, amongst other things, as a representation of the expression of the repressed self. I am struck by the positioning of the “I”, the Self, in a visual form such as portraiture that can be read as essentially Patriarchal and the positioning of the Patriarchal figure within it. The gaze, the projection of the returned gaze, produces an encounter, an exchange, that encompasses the psychic and the cultural that can say, “I am the great leader”, “I am the great father”, “Gardener”. In one sense Simply hanging a pair of comedy breasts on highlights all of these readings to me. For me it works because there are multiple other readings that involve our Oedipal relationships to power and status, respect and dignity. An enforced (comedy) feminisation of that “I”. I am aware at every level that we are manipulated into thinking, accepting, believing things. Also I wanted to highlight the way people fictionalise, create mythologies, classes of importance that lead to authoritarian concepts like status and venerability. I think we have a shared understanding of it…straightforwardness; we share it as a social thing like a manifestation of collective unconscious. It’s ambivalence, its ability to shift between amusement and discomfort
And then there’s the flayed arm from D’Agoty that suggests to me an academic autopsy, or as though it would be possible to make a dissection of the personification of evil - which of course you can’t.
Ged Quinn, Sombody's Coming that Hates Us (installation view), 2010; Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
MT: Alongside the paintings you are exhibiting two large geometric forms, with objects placed on top. What relation do these sculptures (if we can call them sculptures) have to your painting?
GQ: I don’t know if we can call them sculptures. The two pieces, ‘Favourite Child, 2010, wood, slate, chalk, resin, wax, cardboard, paint, led lamp’ and ‘The Beginning of the End Of Forever, 2010, wood, bronze powder, glass cake stand, cherry Madeira cake, varnish’ are on top of two polyhedrons. These objects are three-dimensional recreations of the solid form- the truncated cube- in Durer’s print ‘Melencolia I’. It was a way, I hope, of fabricating/conjuring an echo of the intellectual space within that print inside the gallery. I was hoping it might resonate a memory with an audience in a not too specific way, unlike putting a copy of the print on the wall. I thought that using them as plinths for small-scale homemade little models might pull them in a good direction. The plinths are very heavy, with a sculptural integrity and in a quite formal way, sincere, and the models are intentionally lightweight, flimsy, impermanent and somehow ridiculous. Much of what I do relies on an acceptance of the authority of the ‘museum piece’ to produce a contextual meaning, the introduction of these monumental structures added a flavour of the museum gallery to me. The small black cardboard model represents Edison’s Black Maria, which is significant as the birthplace of the film, so I cherish it like the site of the nativity might be cherished, I romanticise it, I know. I think film’s relationship to romanticism is self-evident (too long to discuss here) and parallels the social and political history of the last century in a quite overtly romantic way. In a way, I think they introduce another story; they’re like minor characters in narrative fiction. The Tower of Babel carved from a tower of cherry cakes is a conceit - like a whimsy equivalent of building Salisbury Cathedral from another inappropriate material like lollipop sticks or the temple of Jerusalem ... I deliberately wanted them to fail, I wanted an echo of outsider art. A mirroring of an innocence and an ignorance of the wider scene or visual art context not unlike a totemic or ritualistic object. I do paint from these models too…so they have a purpose. Interestingly, Friedrich painted his ‘Sea of Ice’ from a small wax model he’d made, probably simply to explain visually some physical problems, but who wouldn’t want to see that model now? It would inevitably be instilled with some sort of psychic significance.
MT: I’m interested in how you manage your source material – how you build up the allegories and visual codes within your paintings. Can you describe something of the process you go through to distill a wealth of visual information into a single painting?
GQ: I suppose I am aware when researching images, whether a scene is pleasantly bucolic with open spaces, or darker like a forest, or where a scene is bathed in that numinous golden light that I read as shorthand for a mystical idealisation and which possibilities they present for an extension to some sort of internal narrative. You understand quite elemental shorthand’s of mood that correspond to states like elegiac decay or awe of the sublime. I try to get between what I believe the artist is trying to describe about the world through their philosophical and cultural positions, however apparently straightforward, or nature or gods or time and get inside the intellectual spaces and absences left in which to create and explore. So for instance in the painting ‘on reaching the heart of the trackless forest… Lancelot lay down, 2010, oil paint linen.’ an empty forest ride by J E Millais interested me particularly because it was part of a later journey into a more directly painterly and spiritual dimension on his art. This shift struck me as something to be curious about. The scene was imagined, but what is striking is a golden numinous light that leads the eye through the dark avenue of trees into the metaphysical distance. I am thinking about a journey and the metaphor of the forest path or holzweg. Imagining the place as real, and in a reference to Heidegger’s clearing, I wanted to represent wanderers who had lived and whose narratives had passed into a cultural repertoire or discourse. I was thinking of the eternal qualities of the young Adonis from the Golden Bough, the young sacrificial god who is ritually killed in a fertility rite – those romantic anti-heroes, Maldoror, Melmoth, Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Then there’s a grafting on of other locations that might come together in an imagined universe, and that some of the original locations might have been occupied or squatted by other visitors and that the original narrative has been replaced, kicked out, assaulted, invaded, expressing this social fear that is around of being taken over. In one of the books I am reading, this notion of place and time and how it wears, is symbolised vividly by the Goethe Oak outside Weimar. In Goethe’s day it grew on a tranquil sylvan hillside where he would sit in it shade and compose poetry. As Weimar expanded, it became encircled and most tragically, found itself surrounded by Buchenwald Camp in one of the yards amongst the huts, perversely, and in a zenith of banality, it was labelled in that context as “Goethe’s Oak”…without any apparent irony. So I’m looking all the while for these possibilities in a Sebaldian sense of shifting stories, fragments of stories moving into other contexts and filtering other imaginations, reducing…You could be aware of Altdorfer’s anti-Semitism when looking at a forest scene and see it in quite a filmic way as a space that will be filled with stories. It plays with Heidegger’s idea of the ‘clearing’ as an unencumbered location for ‘the happening of truth’. It could be argued that art is not a tangible product, its actuality is the clearing it produces, a way of revealing…
Ged Quinn, The Exiled Forever Coming in to Land, 2010, Oil on canvas, 200x320 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London
MT: Do you have a conception of how the paintings will appear before you finish them or do they develop on the canvas?
GQ: It’s a combination. I have the bigger picture in my head. But the detail I am adding and adding as I go along, for instance the horse in the foreground of ‘the Exiled Forever Coming into Land’ appeared as a formal solution to a problem of reading the painting -something inserted to counteract a dwindling vista and a focus on simply one area of interest, creating a visual interplay between the floating Hut at Todnautberg in the sky (where Heidegger wrote) and the ground in front of it. These characters or objects became involved in some way like they were watching or waiting, creating a sense of expectancy. But the white horse appealed to me specifically as a worn out symbol, a sentimental apparition of an acknowledgement of death. I was interested to play with that imagistic tiredness, redundancy or lack of visual potency. The drawing on the easel suggested to me that it could be imagined that Friedrich had used the location to draw his ‘Self Portrait With A Visor And Cap’ - the reading of the symbolism in that small drawing I suppose is not well known, but it involves with one eye obscured a growing eccentricity and isolation on the part of the artist. The placing of the hut was inspired by a certain shot from an alien invasion movie, like Independence Day, Close Encounters etc. The group had the look of being part of a refugee flight, cleared out but then it developed into another strand of event those and possibilities.
There is something of both about them; the bigger picture and the intervention. Being painting, it never looks exactly as you imagined.
Although I mention narrative strands and a process that weaves them together in an open-ended way, I wanted to be clear that really what I do is add pieces. Truncated stories, half stories, unfinished sentences that hang in the air. Something that might have happened that you’re unaware of here. Alterations to the past in a quite Arthur C. Clarke way, or Ballardian way. Each time you revisit a character they are very slightly different even if that is just by one letter in a name.
MT: If I was to visit your studio today which books would I find open?
The Silent Angel, Heinrich Boll
Black Water, Alberto Manguel.
Dark Romance, Sexuality in the Horror Film, David J Hogan
The Tears of Eros, Georges Bataille
My Life in Pictures, Erich von Daniken
Man, God and Magic, Ivar Lissner
Rings of Saturn W G Sebald
At The Minds Limits, Jean Amery
John Martin; His Life And Times, Mary L. Pendered
Gerhardt Richter; Doubt and Belief In Painting, Robert Storr
Jacob van Ruisdael, A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, drawings and Etchings, Seymour Slive.
The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts; Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, ed. Wilton & Upstone
The Destruction of Memory; Architecture at War, Robert Bevan
The Romantic Imperative, Frederick C Beiser
On Beauty, Umberto Eco
The Infinity Of Lists, Umberto Eco
The Romantic Spirit In German Art 1790-1990 Keith Hartley
Kandinsky; Russian and Bauhaus Years; exhibition catalogue Solomon r Guggenheim museum, New York.
Underground film a critical history, Parker Tyler
Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, Joseph Leo Koerner
MT: Your work is painted entirely by yourself and without assistants, how important to you is the control of authorship?
GQ: It’s a complicated thing. There is a difference between authorship and production that is utilised by many artists. There is both a critical and a practical dimension to this question. On one level is a work ever the product of a single individual, which can be read in isolation? Does the physical assistance of another somehow dilute the ”purity” of authorship? I’m obviously aware of those Barthesian/Deleuzian ideas but on a day-to-day level they don’t figure in my conscious thought processes. Partly, for me, I appreciate that you cannot detach from authorship entirely, it constitutes a large part of doing it. Perhaps the requirements of pictorial representation you know the direct purpose of taking an artificial space and filling it with objects and then trying to make sure that these languages collapse and either create a different one or at least harmonise with each other.
Otherwise, it could be something like the game of Consequences where the rules make you add one line of a story to another that you aren’t allowed to see. It would be another process entirely and may become altered by the sensibilities or imagination or ability of or in your relationship with your assistant/s.
I find the very process of decision making quite a dubious one. One day I would love to have these painting x-rayed as there is an underworld of dead and forgottten characters and ghosts beneath. It is a question of value and as painter you are constantly testing it; does it solve the problem I had yesterday, does that problem even matter today? And then even quite traditional formal things like balance and proportion and light, which are quite personal choices to make could become even more complicated, It would limit an expansion of the terms of painting then in another way there is a double authorship going on. Because these paintings were already painted/authored o it’s me and not me at the same time. This notion of familiarity like it’s held somewhere like in an antechamber of a collective unconscious waiting to happen, we might not recognise it precisely but we know it’s part of the history of things. That there’s a respect we’ve already bestowed on work of this nature. You lure someone into the narrative then you frustrate the narrative.
MT: The show is titled “SOMEBODY’S COMING THAT HATES US”. Where is this taken from?
GQ: It’s a found line from a song by John Cale called ‘Magritte’. ‘Somebody’s coming that hates us, better watch the art’. I liked its vague sense of millenarian threat that either art can save you or that the art needs protecting in that line. The song itself seems to deal with a particular ebb and flow of time and memory and the image of this figure flowing backwards and forwards, coming into fashion and falling back out again. It seems to condense the feeling that your best endeavours could or will be dismantled, like Babel. One painting in the show, “The Emigrant Moon’ is a portrait of an Austrian selenographer, Phillip Fauth, who devoted his life to mapping the surface of the moon by minute observation and detailed drawings, only to have his efforts superceded just as he was completing his life’s work by the far faster and more accurate method of astronomical photography. Or the standard theme of a horror movie - you know what’s coming and enjoy that anticipation. It removes the idea of threat into an abstraction that isn’t really threatening at all. It’s a game, like the myths of the werewolf or the vampire. The feeling of the last century as a mess of ideologies deconstructed…
ArtSlant would like to thank Ged Quinn for his assistance in making this interview possible.