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Harry Hay met painter Simon Gardam at Fort Delta gallery in Melbourne to discuss his last show there and his new artworks. Read the first part of this interview here.

HH: I suppose another one to move on to now would be Come on Let’s Go. I think I’ve said that of all the stitched paintings in the show, Come on Let’s Go is probably the most sensitive, even though the effect it creates is kind of disorienting, and the effect that I’ve noticed in it, well maybe effect is the wrong word, but the way I perceive the space in this painting is almost of looking down into it, as opposed to feeling upright and vertical. It has this feeling of vertigo, kind of like you’re seeing it from above, and I don’t know whether I like that or not, but it’s just something really strong that I see in it, and you know, if we want to think about how we invent more abstract ways of experiencing space, maybe that is something interesting to think about, if it’s kind of unfamiliar, not feeling like you’re gazing off into some landscape but more as if the space is underneath you. And that’s not necessarily abstract at all! The danger is that it reads as aerial, birds eye view sort of stuff.

SG: Exactly, that’s still a description based off a space you still understand and isn’t invented or isn’t something necessarily that new, because we’ve all seen, or for the most part seen space in that way and seen figurative space flattened in that way. But I can understand that reading.

HH: To describe it in that way would make it sound as though it’s definitely not an abstract sort of space, because to just say it that way is quite general, but to look at this and experience it…

SG: I think though that maybe what you’re describing raises a really good point, in that the picture doesn’t appear to look like that. You’re trying to describe the way that it makes you feel, and the only means with which you have to do that is by using that aid of a figurative space, because that’s the only descriptor that you can fall upon in how a space makes you feel, and that brings up quite an interesting question, in that are you forever doomed to have to speak about these things in these kinds of terms? Even though you are trying to find a way to look at and articulate something that is hopefully abstract. Because it comes back to feeling, you’re talking about feeling, you’re not describing the work as such when you say that. I can understand how you feel like that, but if I had never seen this picture, or if someone had said something like that about a picture, I’d have a very different image in my head of what the painting looks like. I wouldn’t think it would be a painting that looks like Come on Let’s Go. So, you’re using it to describe an emotional response or a feeling about what it’s doing to you, but inevitably that falls on a figurative term, which again, I don’t know how you avoid that. It’s something that’s really hard to do.

HH: Well because when you look at it, it doesn’t look like a figurative painting.

SG: Exactly. How do you get away from that? I think in the end, if you really want to try, you can draw a figurative connection to pretty much anything you want.

HH: Yes. You can indeed.

SG: You can just keep going and going.

HH: But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The flipside here is abstract art’s capacity to reveal the inadequacy of language when it comes to describing something visual. And let’s face it, the majority of mainstream discussion about abstract painting is really dumb, so the challenge is to strive harder to articulate yourself in a way that is more befitting of what you see before you. To me, the vertigo feeling in this painting isn’t the whole story. That’s almost the beginning, and then you can start to go into the why, or move on from that completely. You don’t have to look at it that way either. It’s just a feeling that I get. Do you see it?

SG: Yeah, I see it, absolutely. I don’t think I get full vertigo from it.

HH: Yeah, vertigo is in a sense an exaggeration. It’s sort of vertigo in relation to what you’re used to experiencing when you look at a painting.

SG: Sure, so I do get that weird curvature thing that’s happening.

HH: That was definitely something that I saw initially, the curvature almost returning on itself, and unfortunately, I even thought of a roller coaster or something stupid. But I stopped seeing it that way and started seeing it as, and this might sound even more stupid, a kind of swing. Not a literal swing a kid sits on, but a swinging movement that’s to do with the way this one recedes back into the top…

SG: Yes, because it narrows

HH: It narrows, but it also gives a kind of impression of coming back somehow as well, and maybe that’s assisted by this one, which narrows much less, and so that has a feeling of returning, so I feel this kind of swinging to and fro between the two elements. And that’s where I start to feel this thing happening in the space, which might even be there still without them, but we don’t know it’s not the work we’re looking at.

SG: It’s quite interesting that the focus on this one is so much about these two lines, which I completely understand, and I think it’s probably a good thing that we’re not actually speaking about these other sections very much. In this case, I think that’s actually a good thing because at least it doesn’t feel so much like you’re looking at it wondering what it would be like without those there, it’s just doing what it’s doing.

HH: That’s what it is.

SG: I think that’s part of them being, well, not in the centre, but not framing the picture either. I think that’s a big part of it. Even though the thinner bits are quite similar to the others, I think if these pieces were on the sides you would still ask whether it needs that device there.

HH: So in a sense this painting is kind of worlds away from LWO.

SG: Yeah, it’s doing the opposite in a lot of ways.

HH: It is kind of more sensitive the way it’s stitched together, because the elements that come together already seem to have a lot more in common than in LWO or Cortex or even Prelude.

SG: I think that definitely came about through realising that the stitching in itself is such a prominent thing that you don’t have to have much variation in the individual sections in order to achieve that kind of feel or compositional pull if you will, to the various sections. It’s like you have this idea or way you want to approach things and you go in with this total extreme because you really want it to work, you don’t want to come back from it and go, ‘oh fuck that doesn’t really do that much’, and then you slowly dial it back and dial it back and realise that you don’t have to be so gung-ho about stuff. Yeah, we get it. We can see that it’s stitched.

HH: So to move on to Pamela’s Letter, there’s nothing stitched together in this one. It’s a big painting, all one canvas, lots of activity going on, quite a diversity of mark making. It’s got pastel in it, which I think all these paintings do, but something about it in this one is a little bit more evident, it’s a little bit more drawn in some of these swirly white marks, which I think are doing something pretty important in the painting. There’s a real energy of movement but it’s not just rash and out of control. It also has a fair bit of deliberation about it too I think. I like it, but I’m not completely sure why.

SG: I think one of the interesting things about this picture compared to the others is that for quite a while it was worked on the other way up, and it gives it this level of density towards the bottom of the picture, working up into this bit more open space at the top. I find this collapsing heaviness at the bottom quite intriguing. It’s kind of the opposite to National Acrobat.

HH: Yeah, I think this one benefits hugely from being inverted. I think with National Acrobat the opening out of the space at the bottom and the scale change that happens there, as it was commented by Robin Greenwood on Abcrit, is a bit more conventional. Interesting for having the shifts in scale, but more conventional for the bigger forms to set themselves up at the bottom. It builds from big to little. In a way, it’s a very architectural idea of laying the foundations, but it also creates a bit more of a receding figurative space, a perspective thing as you travel further into the distance as things get smaller. I don’t get a landscape feel from National Acrobat, it’s just that the loading of weight at the bottom is maybe a touch familiar. In Pamela’s Letter it gets a little bit bigger at the top but not dramatically. I guess the orange is a little bit more prevalent somehow, even though there are no blocks of it.

SG: I remember very distinctly working into this in a way that was quite blocked, starting with these segments of complementary colours.

HH: So you went red here, green here. That’s interesting cause that still remains to an extent.

SG: It’s still there, it’s very much there, and I think there was probably a lot more. I don’t think any of the other pictures in the show were worked on in that way at all. I don’t think it’s a problem in this one because I think there’s quite a lot of activity going on over the top.

HH: You wouldn’t look at it and go, oh that’s how it was begun. Speaking of which, it’s funny, when I was writing about Fluff, I completely forgot what you said about it being an off cut from a larger painting, because it just doesn’t look like it. It looks completely intentional in a good way. It’s at ease with itself, that’s sort of how it was meant to be. And you obviously cut it from a painting then continued to work on it, so it’s not as if you just said, ‘oh that’s a good bit’, and left it as it was.

SG: Oh very much so, it was really a good few sessions of working over the top of what was there.

HH: And it shows. It’s probably got the most tactile surface of all the paintings in this show. It doesn’t necessarily have the most information, but I feel like there’s enough there to create quite a lot of drama and tension between parts, particularly the bottom half I think, the way that there are certain forces dragging you to this blue area, but all the while you can kind of travel about and observe little hooks like that, and little scars here and there.

SG: It’s actually very different to a few of the pictures too in that some of the lighter and brighter parts are towards the centre and upwards in the picture as opposed to Temple Master which has that receding dark centrepiece to it.

HH: So, as you know, we both respond to this painting a lot, and I know that people, other people on Abcrit for instance, have responded well to this. Is it worth asking if there is perhaps something easier about it?

SG: I think so, I think there is.

HH: It’s an interesting thing to think about. Do we like it more because it’s less challenging?

SG: It’s such a hard one. But I think that’s a really important thing to talk about, because if you’re going to talk about the stuff that’s going on with Prelude and this division, it does make it more difficult, but that can also mean that it’s difficult and maybe less challenging for being less visually complex. I think Fluff is easier, but I think the complexities within it are stronger.

HH: I think so too.

SG: Which is strange, because sometimes you would equate complexity to difficulty, but that’s not the case and that doesn’t have to be the case. I think Fluff really lets you in and I think it’s quite a rewarding and satisfying picture to look at on first instance, but there’s a lot of visual complexity that’s not being held back by the stitching and things like that.

HH: I think you’ve said that really well. I think there’s heaps of reward. It’s maybe a more navigable painting, not as disruptive but not necessarily less challenging, and probably more advanced in how it transitions from one area to another than Temple Master which has more distinct form, and of course the stitching in Prelude. Those are things you can grab hold of and come away with. You can read all sorts of things into that shape (points to the centrepiece in Temple Master). You could ascribe certain things to it in an almost symbolic way. Fluff doesn’t give you that sort of leeway.

SG: No, it doesn’t.

HH: It gives you a freedom in a way, to just…

SG: Meander around?

HH: Yeah meander, but hopefully not too meandering, maybe have a bit of purpose. I think there is a bit of purpose here. I think I find some of the ways it sends you in certain directions quite strong, but still subtle. So that’s why I think it maybe does have quite an advanced thing going on. It’s an interesting comparison, as in are we responding more to this because it’s more familiar and we’re being reactionary fuddy duddies by questioning the stitched ones, and that’s something that someone could easily say.

SG: Exactly, like you say, fuddy duddies. That you’re being too caught up and need to let that stuff go. The way forward is to forget about it.

HH: That this is an old formalist way of looking at paintings. That there’s a world in the stitched stuff and that is what you need to be doing.

SG: And it’s ‘great’ to have this stuff that actually doesn’t quite work, but it makes me feel something and I can respond to that.

HH: It’s a hard one, but my instinct tells me that there’s something going on with Fluff that’s not conservative, not that there necessarily is something conservative about Prelude, but there could be…

SG: There could be.

HH: There could be something conservative in the arrangement or just the idea.

SG: I think so. I think if your argument is just to say, oh you’re being reactionary, well that’s not really backed up by anything beyond that statement. You’d say ‘okay, great, now where do we go?’ Do you just keep doing that until painting totally disintegrates and there’s nothing left of it? There’re no legs for that to stand on. It’s like saying, ‘oh you’re just being uptight.’ It kind of seems like some contrived, almost trying to be punk argument. That’s great, but the reality is that we’re here to actually talk about these things and unpack them and try to find out a higher level of sophistication and complexity and so sure, if you can find that within this (Prelude), then go for it, talk about it and I’m all ears. Now I’m talking about extreme cases here, but I think that Fluff offers more, even though it is probably easier to connect with. Which is strange, but a great place to be in as well, because in the end you want to make stuff that pulls people in quite quickly and makes them stay and get more from it. That’s an ideal situation, that’s what good paintings do.

HH: It’s continued reward, not just a brattish gesture that leaves a quick impact then gets lost in the ether.

SG: And often brattish gestures just exist within their own vacuum anyway, like with painting becoming very self-referential for instance. It’s fine to a point but in the end, I just want to be with these things and find more from them. But in saying that, I’m still going to keep stitching stuff together.

HH: You’re clearly comfortable with the possible divergence of opinion over what you should be doing. In some ways, it’s a polarising show and you’ve clearly wanted it to be so.

SG: Yeah definitely. I think it will be exciting to see where they go, particularly with the stitched ones, but also with not stitching them. As I’ve mentioned to you before, you don’t want to feel like you’re cutting up your dregs and trying to save them by making a stitched painting, but at the same time you can’t make something, or it’s very hard to make something knowing that it might end up that way, so you just try. In the end, you’ve just got to try to make it work with what’s in front of you.

HH: You’ve just got to be as genuine with each piece as you can, treating it as if this could possibly be the finished thing with each mark that you make, each decision you make, and resisting the temptation to think three or four steps ahead to what might end up on the cutting room floor before you try to resurrect it somehow. The moment you start doing that, you’re probably fucked.

SG: Yeah exactly, and I remember with Prelude, that was a whole other stitched painting, which was a bigger version of LWO. It had these blurred edges on it. So that went from one painting, to another stitched painting to cutting up another stitched painting, so there’s this continuous thing.

HH: Oh that’s interesting, the more stages these things undergo, potentially the more the literal aspect of their making gets taken out, potentially.

SG: Yeah, which I think is interesting because we’ve kind of come full circle to how we started to talk about that. Anne Smart mentioned on Abcrit that paintings once had to deal with being dripped and worked on the floor etcetera. And this isn’t to say that what I’m doing hasn’t been done before by any means, but perhaps by introducing something ‘foreign’ to how these things are constructed, there is inevitably going to be this pronounced human presence which can be difficult to deal with, and maybe you just have to keep doing it until it falls by the wayside. And in an ideal place you wouldn’t even be talking about the fact that they’re stitched together, that’s the ideal thing. Let’s just talk about what is in front of us and how it’s visually operating and this is beside the point.

HH: Sounds like a good note to end on.


Harry Hay’s review of the exhibition can be read at https://abcrit.org/2017/08/13/75-harry-hay-writes-on-simon-gardam-at-fort-delta-melbourne/

List of Images:

  • Installation, Simon Gardam at Fort Delta, Melbourne, Australia
  • Prelude, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 152 x 112 cm
  • Temple Master, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 56 x 46 cm
  • Cortex, 2017, oil on canvas, 152 x 112 cm
  • LWO, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 56 x 46 cm
  • Come On Let’s Go, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 56 x 46 cm
  • Pamela’s Letter, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 168 x 122 cm
  • National Acrobat, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 168 x 122 cm
  • Fluff, 2017, oil and pastel on canvas, 56 x 46 cm