MR: There is of course always idle speculation on the state of painting as it might relate to the cultural vacuum. One cannot dismiss the fact that painting provides an entertainment for the masses, as do all the other mutant forms of so-called fine art. But its popularity at any given moment is certainly irrelevant. Would you agree that there are essentially two kinds of painting: painting that responds to the world and painstakingly embraces it, and painting that conjures up a world of its own and reflectively embraces itself?
RO: I have no interest in the window-on-the-world kind of painting for much the same reason that I’m bored by what you handily call the mutant tendency. They both tell me dull things I already know.
MR: There is the idea, although now wisely dismissed by most theorists, that the mutant forms – anything with a brash concept behind it – must evolve, as was once thought of painting. Would you say that the mutant forms are not evolving, and neither is painting? Was the idea of painting evolving – what might once have been called the modernist approach – bankrupt to begin with?
RO: Like poetry, painting’s got its own language of metaphor: I think of van Gogh’s The Night Café, a bowl of flowers by Rousseau, many Matisses: the aubergines still life in Grenoble, Music, the Red Dessert. Matisse sometimes managed to achieve wonderfully direct drawing within his painting like he does with the box of pencils in the Red Studio. Aren’t these paintings modernism? A rich vein, you could call it metaphorical modernism ; it makes the rest of painting, ancient and modern, so much framed tedium. They’re a hundred years old, but that’s not so long in the scale of things. Do they mark the end of what’s possible? Spengler? Gombrich? We don’t need them to remind us; it’s obvious that ‘we’ve lost faith in the superiority of our own culture’. The rush to abstraction was a diversion, the dismantling too fast; the dialogue dried up – in abstraction there were no metaphors to make. Philip Guston made a defiant counter-attack but just now the language of painting seems to be foreign. But when cat-walk art has finally imploded perhaps there can be a fresh and essentially evaluative look at metaphorical modernism. That could initiate a continuation of representational painting.
MR: I was reminded recently by James Campbell’s excellent Paris Interzone that liberation from “the tyranny of form” dominated the thinking of artists in nearly all media following WWII. This obsession was still very much in play when I began painting seriously in the 1960’s. I’ve found my emancipation from the strictures of form paradoxically in a very personal pursuit of representation. I sense this may be the same for you.
RO: Obviously by form you don’t mean unarguable things like round being distinct from flat – or those Neo-Plasticism type issues about balance and ‘structure’. But form, I think is useful as an expression in a more elusive sense. I would say that a painting has form when it has achieved something of a life of its own – something more compelling than a surface smearing of colours.
MR: A painting’s success or its failure now hinges, it seems to me, entirely on the strengths and/or weaknesses of the subjective realisation at work. For a century at least, objectivity has held no philosophical imperative in painting. That is not to say that the world created – in one’s painting – does not run parallel to the real world in all its chaos and, with poetical acuity, penetrate and re-order that chaos.
RO: The irony is that, as it evolved from post impressionism to abstract expressionism, the technique of painting, as I have chosen to see it, is essentially very straightforward. But this means that the language of this kind of painting rests upon a balance of relationships which, however apparently crude in application, depend upon finely judged decisions. You could say that the skill of the painter derives from her/his seeming not to have any. But decisions without a criterion are meaningless. And how do you get to a criterion and one with informed consent? For any number of reasons I think the public is for the most part blocked off from getting to grips with this.
MR: I have been meaning to ask you if a sense of the absurd comes into play in your painting. I often find a whimsical aspect to your drawing and colour that, for me, strikes rather a melancholy note. If your pictures are resoundingly joyous, and many are, that vibrancy does often seem tempered by a profound sense of the absurd.
RO: So much painting, particularly during and since the High Renaissance, has required formidable, painstaking and even awesome skill on the part of the artist. But I can’t help thinking that the acres of painting out there are not only mostly pretty boring, but for the most part, preposterous. So perhaps now, the whole business of painting, and certainly my own painting, in the absence of a direct symbolic function, is fundamentally absurd. More positively, through an acceptance – even pursuit, of the apparently absurd, there may be fresh criteria to be found.
MR: Would you say finding the image that will ultimately sustain itself on the canvas is a kind of excavation, the missing bits to be filled in at will, or is that image a mirage that drifts in the mind, finally to be delineated and consequently fixed to the canvas?
RO: In my case the painting has to start with something, some drawing, some colour, something speculative. Additions, subtractions and revisions may then eventually turn out as something worth keeping.
MR: A few years back you referred to your painting as being of the French variety, which I took to mean somehow un-English. What about the idea that there was a School of London, best typified in its diversity by Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, and Kitaj? This was the international perception. But there was of course another school of London, which remains the school of esoteric English painting. Ivon Hitchens, who might also be considered un-English even though his pictures have everything to do with the English landscape and interior, never became recognised internationally while being altogether international in his approach.
RO: My reference to French painting must have been ironic. The problem with French painting is that it all seems a bit Montmartre. Apart from Matisse, the only French painting I really like is the early Cézanne – especially his portrait of Achille Emperaire. As you would expect I don’t have a lot of interest in the so-called School of London. Particularly I dislike Bacon’s work. Before I went to art school I did, oddly enough, rather like Ivon Hitchens but after working at Bomberg’s class I found Hitchens too slack. English painting? Perhaps we all have to struggle to avoid coming out like Vaughan Williams.
MR: I wonder why some painters, for some obscure reason, simply refuse to develop the eccentricity (ie. push the envelope) of their style, therefore leaving that most interesting aspect of the work – one’s psychology and its relationship to the society in which we live – unexposed. I find Howard Hodgkin’s efforts particularly unexposed and therefore not very interesting. He won’t allow himself to make mistakes while in pursuit of what he considers to be an aesthetically acceptable image. His pictures therefore strike me as strangely saccharine – not at all revealing of the human condition, although some would say they are quite sophisticated in their intimate revelations.
RO: Any sincere attempt to paint must be a personal exposure. As I see it every gesture in a painting is a demonstration of the painter’s judgement.
MR: Evidently, many painters listen to music when working. I seldom do, because I find it too greatly affects my emotional strata. My impression is that you do. And I particularly like your picture with bach 48 inscribed in the paint and the skeletal figure of yourself conducting. It brings words into play in a completely natural way, and, as you know, I like bringing words – or the shapes of words – into a picture. Yes, words are musical. How profoundly do you find the music acts upon the painting?
RO: You mention my painting No.13 Book 1 with its reference to Bach and the 48. In fact I’m not conducting the 48. The baton is accidental; its misreading understandable – but regrettable. An orchestral version would be unspeakable. I hate serious music as background to eating or talking. You either listen or you don’t. So it’s odd that I do ‘listen’ to music while painting. The two things seem to live in a compatible ‘other world’, separate from the day-to-day. Bach and Mozart especially offer a subliminal connection to sheer positiveness, to an impossible standard of excellence. This music is formative. It matters. I listen and not listen, mentally singing along with Uchida or Glenn Gould. Alongside that what else can you do but try.
MR: I often carry on a kind of discourse in my head when painting. It is almost like a song. Conversations occur. I say things to people when painting that I wouldn’t say otherwise. I probably can be heard painting, at moments, like listening to a play being performed in the next room.
RO: Painting is a funny business. It falls between the extremes of music and literature – both of which can be done seriously in the head in the way that painting can’t. Does this make painting a more elusive art form than the other two? You can sing in your head classical ‘hits’ like My Heart Stood Still; the enchanting tunes wrapped up in the bombast of Brahms’ Paganini Variations; the Prelude of Bach’s first keyboard Partita. Popular or ‘classical’ classical share the same context and intuitive ground.
MR: Writing within the painting is another matter. I usually only scribble notes on the canvas – exhortations, intimate musings, the picture’s title as it occurs to me, etc. I rarely transcribe an entire poem onto the canvas, although I have.
RO: Inscribing the painting with writing fixes a contextual background for the work. One of Philip Guston’s finest paintings East Coker T.S.E. registers his attachment to that poem and Eliot’s notion of tradition. In a similar way, writing the word Bach in a painting becomes an acknowledgement, a tribute, a talisman, a declaration of serious admiration. It risks being read as pretension; but then so could any attempt at even painting itself.
This dialogue is reproduced with kind permission of the participants and Art Space Gallery, London, from the catalogue of the exhibition, ROY OXLADE : STANDARDS at Art Space Gallery, London, 11 March – 10 April 2004