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Harry Hay in conversation with Simon Gardam at Fort Delta, Melbourne

Harry Hay: Well we’re at Fort Delta in Melbourne, looking at Fields, an exhibition of recent paintings by Simon Gardam. Much of this conversation will be a chance to follow up on some of the issues raised in a review I’ve written for Abcrit, a UK based website devoted to discursive argument about abstract painting and sculpture. This discussion will be an opportunity for us to formally sink our teeth into a few of the points arising out of it. Did you want to jump in, Simon?

Simon Gardam: I was going to say, well this might be jumping into the deep end a bit…

HH: Jump away…

SG: I think for me, reflecting on the writing for Abcrit, and also some of the responses to the writing as well, some of the interesting directions or questions raised were particularly to do with the stitching, but also the question of whether the human or physical intervention that takes place in putting the work together is actually negating its being abstract, and whether you can have that kind of intervention and achieve something that’s not fighting against a purer abstract content.

HH: Or even just a less interrupted visual experience where you aren’t being taken out of the picture so much. The stitching could bring in a very literal dimension, and that could negate visuality.

SG: It could potentially. But it’s one of those things that you do and there’s such a risk to it, but I think looking forward in a long-term sense, the potential payoff for that, to find something really new, it’s necessary to undergo that experimentation or risk, or simply trying things.

HH: And maybe if it’s not taken to as warmly as the single canvas paintings, then maybe that’s a good thing because you’ve been doing them for longer and they perhaps should have less uncertainty about them.

SG: I just think it’s a really interesting take on what you think about the term ‘abstract’ and what it actually is. If evidence of human interaction is so present, and that is actually stopping it from being an abstract thing, it’s sort of gone beyond whether or not this is figurative or not figurative. Sure, it’s obviously not, but in some ways, are we at this point where if there is that human evidence and decision in there, does that stop it from being abstract as well?  

HH: Is ‘figurative’ potentially just something recognisable?

SG: Yeah exactly, it’s not just a figurative space or rendition, it’s turned into a much broader term, where intervention or obvious intervention can fall under that.

HH: So in that sense the interventions happening in Prelude are potentially making the picture less abstract. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that evidence of human intervention is figurative, but there is definitely the potential for a literal reading, because one of the parts I struggle with in Prelude is getting past the presence of the stitching. Even though I can single out patches and really enjoy them, I always find myself coming back to a similar spot. I want to look here but I can’t, because that tusk keeps dragging me up. So that comes back exactly to what you started off saying. That these more abrupt interventions, evidence of your thinking in an explicit way, are detracting something from my ability to navigate the space as a whole and that can be a problem. There’s something very appealing about this, the impact it gives off and the fact that you’ve done it at all, but that can be dangerous because there can be a temptation then to avoid addressing the purpose of all the areas and you can end up with parts that are quite redundant.

SG: I think another aspect to take into account, which this probably does in far too much force, is how the shapes can work in it from a distance as well. Part of the decision making behind the stitching, whilst I think it is over pronounced in this case, is thinking about how the spaces work up close but then also giving something from further back, and maybe because of the nature of the marks, trying to avoid it falling into a sort of monotone, singular, pulsing thing. Whereas from this further distance you still have these compositional elements and bolder shapes which get more complex as you work towards it, and maybe that (pointing to the bottom half of the painting) is a more obvious way to do it, but this transition at the top is subtle enough to achieve that and could be even subtler still. It’s funny, you could easily assume that the cutting up of something is a very abstract process but it’s evidently far from in a way.

HH: It’s an interesting history, not that I carry it around with me as I look at these, but you know, Manet was cutting up paintings, for very different reasons to you, but with lasting consequences on how those works are seen.

SG: And then Matisse.

HH: Yes, Matisse with his paper cut-outs and of course the whole history of collage before that. I think one of the things I mention in the essay is that it’s sort of unusual to see this kind of assemblage with paintings that are already so dense with information, because there’s almost an implication that… I can’t think of any painter that would start cutting up something like that. Just because it looks like a lot of work went into these things. So, it’s unusual in that sense. I’m not sure if I’ve really seen that. I’ve seen paintings stitched together, but thinking of a certain Modernist sensibility, it’s usually very minimal and reduced sort of stuff, often to emphasise the particular material that might have been used.

SG: Revealing the frame behind it sometimes too.

HH: Yeah it brings in this element of deconstruction, but these aren’t doing that. These aren’t about any sort of gimmick, or making an ironic statement or revealing the materiality. It’s almost more of an attempt to get away from that. It’s just that in this case it’s maybe a bit rudimentary, so you do run into those material facts a bit, but you can see where the intent lies.

SG: I’d agree, and I think that in the end it’s still working with paint and trying to make it show you things, and a way of doing that is also manipulating the surface that you’re applying it to, it’s just another avenue to see where that goes and find new things that haven’t really shown themselves to you before

HH: Yeah, it’s a big experiment.

SG: And it is always exciting, as difficult as it is, not really knowing how this thing is going to end up once it’s stretched and how the lines get a bit manipulated and you’ll have curves where you didn’t know it was going to curve or something like that.

HH: It’s still a little bit of a revelatory thing happening. It’s not some concerted, designed, ‘I know what I’m going to get before I do it’ approach… there’s still an element of discovery. And the way you’ve always worked has been to find things out through making. It’s never been the case of just going in with some idea or some plan and just executing it.

SG: It’s a very broad plan and each picture finds its way into it somehow, but it’s not by any means a designed, thought out thing, so it doesn’t feel that much different really. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. I’ve actually tried doing some stuff in the studio since, collaging more with paper, but I also tried doing some stuff with canvas as well, and I was surprised by how much I didn’t like it, because I think one of the problems I’m going to face from now on in trying to make these go further is a material question, and it’s how to make more complex shapes and transitions by stitching that stuff, because it’s bloody hard to actually manipulate. The obvious thing would be to just cut it out and you stick it on, but it didn’t feel right. It felt a bit amateurish. As much as the stitching in these is quite obvious, it’s amazing how a line like that is far less evident than if that was stuck on top of another panel and you get this weird 3D drop shadow going on, which was obviously a problem from as soon as I started doing it. I find that quite intriguing. There’s something about the stitching itself that really excites me.

HH: I don’t envy you this task. But you’re right, the way that these come together, parallel to each other is really important. You wouldn’t really want it to be on top. I’ve seen some paintings before, I can’t remember who by, but there were bits of canvas that had been painted beforehand and then stuck onto the painting and it looked kind of naïve, casting everything into a shallow relief.  

SG: And that’s the amateurish thing, it’s quite dangerous. Not that I’m saying these aren’t, they’re still clumsy in some ways. But with the sticking there’s that lack of finesse that’s a bit too far unfortunately, because it would make things easier! But that’s beside the point really.

HH: Yes, I suppose we’re here to try and wrap our heads around the ones in front of us. It’s funny seeing Temple Master next to Prelude. The paint application is very different, but there are some similarities. Obviously, Temple Master has none of the stitching going on, but there are some structural things I’m seeing that are similar, like that (points to the central shape), and this horizontal line that loops in from the side. I think I was aware of that already, and also the big white tusk in Prelude, how they bother me a bit, the length of these things in relation to the whole. Not to say that you should rule that possibility out, but it gives you this idea that it could just disappear off the end of the canvas, and I wonder if that works against the sense of it being a contained work of art, that everything you’re seeing is in a sense integral to what’s going on before you. It’s something I think about, particularly with the tusk in Prelude and this horizontal curve in Temple Master. That it carries you too far away from what is going on and suggests something outside of the painting.

SG: Yeah, I think that’s quite an interesting point. Maybe I’m still sub-consciously doing this, and maybe it does come from cutting up pictures and working back into them, as in cutting up bigger paintings and then stretching them into a smaller one. With Temple Master that wasn’t the case but with Fluff it certainly was. That was from a bigger picture and then I worked into it. I think I employ it as a strategy to try and get away from my own personal compositional tropes, but I don’t know, maybe that’s something that’s backfired, if it’s stopping you from engaging with all the vital elements.

HH: With Temple Master, I’m struggling to see anything else right now other than what I would term this inverted ‘V’ with this other line cutting across the top, all of a similar dark blue. Is it acting against a certain abstract intent if I have to keep coming back to an image?

SG: But that’s the bloody hard thing, making something which holds its own and presents itself in a way that there’s a wholeness to it or there’s a roundedness, or a completion, I don’t think that’s a bad word necessarily to put on it…

HH: No, not at all.

SG: To find something that has found its place if you want to call it that, yet still is open enough that there’s not this bullying kind of over-arching thing to it that’s stopping you from really experiencing what’s going on within it. It’s a really hard thing to achieve and I think there’s something really exciting about trying to find that in an abstract painting. It’s fraught too, because that kind of wholeness or holding itself that I’m talking about can be really close to a figurative notion or something that becomes a dominating thing. It’s really hard to find this thing that’s not total mess but more of an endless loop in a cycle where you can just keep going and going and moving through this thing without it being some expressionist brush mark party. It’s finding that wholeness in a really unexpected way, and wholeness that’s not literal, not contained. You can’t explain it, but if all the different elements, even though they may fight each other, can make it a whole thing because you feel like each part really has a purpose and that can equate to something being whole and making sense, by fighting against these structures.

HH: In that sense, Temple Master may be setting up a kind of conflict in the painting, where there is still room potentially for a dominant area.

SG: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s one of those things. The more I look at it the more it fluctuates between being more and less dominating to me, and again I don’t necessarily have a problem with that happening in the work. It’s a hard thing because you still want to spend time with these things. I don’t think that a good abstract painting necessarily has to present itself in a way that you instantly know how to navigate your way through it.

HH: No and I think that’s a very good point.

SG: And so dominating factors as they can be bad, also I think can be things that you can work through and find your way past them.

HH: I think what you just said in a sense unlocks a lot of what is going on in these paintings. Because whilst we can look at them and say that this stitched element is a bit of a distraction, or this area’s a bit too dominant, I think you’re trying to challenge these things, not in an annoying perverse way, but just sort of saying oh well, what’s wholeness? What is unity? Things shouldn’t necessarily have to ‘read easy’.

SG: Exactly, what if you did look at it for 5 minutes and that shit didn’t matter, I mean you can look past it and find all that stuff.

HH: And that’s quite common, the more time you spend with something that looks difficult at first suddenly you completely accept it.

SG: Exactly. At the same time, it doesn’t really appeal to me to make difficult things, and I don’t think these are difficult… Well, I can say that, but…

HH: Well the question is what kind of ‘difficult’? There’s difficult in the sense that you’re doing something that we’re not familiar with, or there’s difficult in that it just doesn’t know what it’s doing and struggles to set something up for us, but that’s not accusing any of these of being either.

SG: Yes, but, I don’t think they are difficult because I think most people can look at these and instantly feel a certain level of appeal towards the palette, what it does in certain sections, the shapes, all that kind of stuff which I’m totally fine with and feel that’s something to welcome, probably.

HH: It’s funny, speaking about what might be difficult in this show, I’ve noticed from talking to a few people and also on social media, that a lot of people seem to really like the painting that we both have the most difficulty with, and that painting is Cortex, so maybe we’ll go over and have a look at that…

SG: Yeah, I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to that reaction.

HH: I guess some people aren’t bothered by the same things that bother me, and I think I’ve said this to you before, that you were a bit ambivalent about this painting and I think we predicted that some people wouldn’t be, and maybe it’s got a lot happening in it that people really respond to… It’s very bold and it’s…

SG: I guess, and you’ve touched on it, and we’ve spoken about how the optics that come into this are basically an anti-visual way of making things, which you and I, just by our general opinions and the way we look at things would probably have more of a hang up about than other people possibly, and maybe that’s just not a problem to some, they find it quite appealing.

HH: Well, Bridget Riley is very popular.

SG: Exactly.

HH: No one really seems to have a problem with Op art.

SG: Yes, that’s right, that’s all I can think of.

HH: And it’s not necessarily surprising, it’s just something I’ve noticed.

SG: And maybe in its boldness there’s more to hold onto, maybe it’s easier to deal with in a way. Even though it’s visually difficult in this optical vibrating sense, I think it’s kind of easier, it’s probably the easiest picture in the show to figure out because it’s just all there.

HH: Well even if you can drag yourself away from the optic thing, what takes place in the busy parts of the painting is way more locked in together, unified in a more literal way than what you’re doing with the more recent application of paint, so even that has a kind of seductive charm about it.

SG: Yeah definitely, that sort of waxy slickness.

HH: Yeah, but I also think the way the paint is put on in this doesn’t work as well with the stitching.

SG: You’d think it would though, it’s weird…

HH: Yes you would think that because it’s so smooth, but it’s probably more built up in a way, it’s become like you say, slick and thick.

SG: It’s like a leather couch.

HH: It is quite leathery, and that is a little bit off putting.

SG: It makes it feel a bit more like a dungeon sex object… Or maybe that’s too far! But like you say, the paint application in the others is seemingly more built up but for some reason…

HH: Well they don’t join together as closely in Cortex. They bulge and you get these quite big crevices that you could really just run your whole finger through. And then you get a bit of sheen on it too.

SG: It’s far less like a conventional painted surface. The other ones, even with the stitching, still hold that closeness to the plane, which this one definitely doesn’t maintain so much, and there’s a whole other set of unfortunate outside factors that have nothing to do with abstract painting that people could read into the feel of the material, which maybe is appealing to some people.

HH: Dungeon sex objects?

SG: Yeah, each to their own I suppose.

HH: There must be something about it that still interests you.

SG: Oh for sure, I’m not ashamed of it, and in a way, if I was I wouldn’t let it out of my studio. I get the problems with it but maybe at the same time…

HH: Maybe it’s the troll in you.

SG: Well, yeah…

HH: So many of these paintings are in and of themselves throwing things into the mix that contribute an element of difficulty, and it’s not for the sake of being perverse necessarily. Maybe it is being perverse, and maybe that’s a good thing in certain doses. But in a sense, the inclusion of Cortex in this show is almost emblematic of what’s going on with some of the other works in their own contained way. It might speak something of your sensibility.

SG: I think so. I think you’ve probably hit on something there which I’ve probably not been able to articulate so much. I think that makes a lot of sense, to just say ‘fuck it’, maybe I’m not going to be so hard line and tight, and this thing happened and it was actually what led into a lot of other pictures and a lot of other stuff in the show that I feel more strongly for, but you know what… at the same time, let’s just put it in the mix and see what happens.

HH: It’s a big part of what’s been going on through what you could call a period of experimentation. It’s got just as much right to be here as the others. It’s just kind of amusing how it’s been so well received.

SG: Yeah, well it’s the only one. Enjoy it while it lasts! Again, I don’t hate it, but it’s a bit of a one liner, and it would be quite easy to keep making stuff like this, and it wouldn’t really matter what’s going on here or there…

HH: Yeah, just put a bunch of things together that don’t have much correlation and whatever will be will be. Because I read the optical illusion element happening in this as being accidental.

SG: Oh, absolutely. I had no idea it was going to be that dramatic. Obviously, I knew there’d be these two shifting spaces, as in this main one and that blurred out one. Naturally, you know that’s going to happen but I had no idea it would be so intense.

HH: Yes, that dense patchwork area in the middle floats dramatically further out in space than the blurry frame to its left, and to the one on its right to some extent. And it’s pretty extreme so that even when you’re not looking directly at it, the blurred part appears to actually move, and it keeps dragging you back to that vertical relationship. But maybe other people aren’t really seeing it that way.

SG: I don’t know how you couldn’t. But maybe that’s enough. Maybe people are okay with visual one liners. Maybe that’s selling it slightly too short, but I can see how that would be appealing. It’s a real punch.

HH: You feel like you’re really moving into something when you’re looking at it, maybe not too unlike trompe l’oeil painting. This thing looks kind of real, I wonder if the kick that people get out of Op art is similar to what they get when they see a piece of tromp l’oeil trickery, ‘Is that real? Oh no, it’s just a painting, damn!’

SG: Stooged again! Sure, I think that’s a part of it and I don’t know whether it speaks badly of me for putting it in the show or if it speaks badly for everyone for responding to it. I don’t know, maybe I shot myself in the foot when I could have been concentrating on the better pictures. Oh well, it is what it is. But I think you hit it when you said that including this picture in the show is indicative of some of the motivations that are within the other pictures, but this is within the scope of the show. And as much as it’s really important for these works to support themselves on an individual basis, I still think that there’s something to be said for how you navigate them as a group. I would never change anything within a picture because of how something was in another one, that would be ridiculous, but the way I made this show was really like trying to find something different in each picture, or something new, something new gets revealed in each one, which adds to the next and so on.

HH: It’d be interesting to look at LWO now, because despite attempting a fairly similar thing to Cortex, that optical effect is diminished in this one. There’s still something kind of unsettling about it, but it’s nowhere near as extreme, and in fact some interesting questions were raised on Abcrit about this painting. How much do the blurry strips on the side contribute to making the central piece of activity more engaging, and does that then make you question again the role of the strips, or even the central piece, because what are the strips getting in return from it?

SG: Well, I’m the only one whose seen it without them, so I can say that they do make it more interesting.

HH: Oh well, the strips on the side are undoubtedly more interesting for having that central piece next to them.

SG: Oh yeah absolutely, but the debate is whether the central piece is more interesting for having them on the sides.

HH: Okay, basically, the central piece is benefitting from the flanking strips, and the question is how are the flanking strips benefitting from the central piece? The obvious reason is that those bits on their own, blurry and rather bare, wouldn’t really be much to look at without this, but then they wouldn’t even be there anyway. So, put into the picture together, what’s happening here beyond the mere fact that they create this contrast? But I don’t know if we can answer that.

SG: I don’t know if I can answer that. All I can come to is that for me, the fact that the centre benefits from them being there, that’s enough. I think it’s a really interesting point, and only natural to ask that given the nature of it and the boldness of it. But it’s a really hard thing to answer, and I think it’s more prone, rightly so, to that kind of question than perhaps something that was just one singular piece and painted. You make a painting, nothing within the picture exists within a vacuum, so you can’t really say that this mark is benefitting more than this mark next to it. They’re both benefitting because they’re both there together, that’s the way that they interact.

HH: Yeah, it’s just more pronounced in this case.

SG: It’s a lot more pronounced in this, and I understand that, it’s going to draw attention to that, but it’s still a very difficult thing to say, to pull that apart. And I get that, compared to what’s going on in the middle, these side sections have nothing there, really. But, it’s still not really that much of an issue for me.

HH: I suppose you just have to keep asking these questions to stop it becoming something of a trope that saves the day and distracts from underlying issues. Because it is benefitting from them in a way, that if you do remove them from your sight, this blue thing becomes much more prominent. But I like the prominent shapes in this painting, I like them a lot more than in Temple Master.

SG: Yeah, and it’s interesting how it’s pretty much that blue, in almost the same spot as Temple Master, and here as well.

HH: I hadn’t thought of that, yeah, so I wonder if there is almost a kind of tendency there.

SG: Oh yeah, I think there definitely is.

HH: Yeah, but I like the way the blue sits in this, and some of the colours around it too. They speak for themselves a bit more than in Temple Master.

SG: I think one of the exciting things that the strips on the side do to this though, is work with these white marks in here, and they create this wave like shimmering across it. It’s not to the point where it’s like Cortex, where it’s a really obvious optical effect.

HH: Well I wonder if the white might have something to do with why there isn’t an optical illusion going on.

SG: I think so, because you’ve got this same level of highlight going on throughout the main section as you do in the sides, and also a similar kind of tonality in the blues as well, so you’re not having something recede back like in Cortex where it’s quite dark and going to push the other way, I think that has a lot to do with it

HH: There isn’t such a dramatic confusion.

SG: Yeah, which again, it comes back to what we were saying. I had the exact same intention with these two pictures. LWO was made later on, and obviously has taken some benefits from seeing how it panned out with Cortex, but at the same time it was still the same intention, and the scale probably helps I think with this one, being a smaller picture, you can contain that edging a lot more, you don’t have these things happening out the side or the top of your vision so much. You can really focus in on it, which probably again aids in the lack of an optical effect.

HH: I think those are all valid reasons why it’s working so differently.

Interview continued in Harry Hay in conversation with Simon Gardam PART II…