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Phil King

26.06.15 --- 17.07.15


Q&A with Phil King

Collect work by this artist

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Phil King with Chris Shaw

CS: You were born in Bristol, grew up in France, and you've recently returned to the UK after residing in the US for a time - how has travel and setting up home in very different cultures impacted on you and the work you make?


PK: It has had a whole range of impacts, pretty impossible to be exhaustive. There is a certain distance in my work that I feel is in tension with all the interruptions. At a certain point I realised that making work for me is a kind of habit, which is related to creating a form of habitat. But then that habitat becomes continually interrupted. I hate travelling but have ended up living in various different places. To be honest I haven't really set up home as such since getting back to the UK.  I draw a lot so there’s a lot of projecting forward, making plans for work that I kind of know will never be made, and yet I often use the drawings in what I do. So the work itself often feels like things that have crashed out of the ideal plans I might have had. They are a form of making do in whatever situation that I find myself. I find that that actually connects quite deeply to any new life I might be in.


Then there is something of a fortune telling thing I half believe in, like a soothsayer reading the entrails of some dead animal, I tend to find my paintings and objects point forward to something. In retrospect I get quite amazed. I drew and painted panoramas (or tried to), for example, and then found myself living at the top of a tower block with the most panoramic views of London that it is possible to have. I’ve a terrible memory though so the art can act as souvenirs on some basic level. They feel very grounded in the circumstances of their making, but then also have this predictive edge. I tend to believe there is a visionary aspect to what I do, I guess. I’m certainly open to surprise. None of that aspect is at all organized. Part of my idea of showing my work in threes is to have pieces from different environments next to each other indicating some consistent thing. I’m never sure what that thing is in each case, but I do feel that there is a sense of travel.


In cultural terms I was a kid in Toulouse in the late 60’s early 70’s and I think that that was pretty culturally specific, very Latin. My father was in the aircraft industry working on Concorde and I was in regular French school and neighbourhood. Basically a little French kid. I was renamed Philippe. This led to a certain internal conflict when I was back in the UK, one that only resolved itself when I lived in California. It’s very Latin there with the Spanish influence, and the climate too, but obviously protestant USA dominates. I really felt some kind of resolution happened there. I’m sure that impacted my work. For me art is synthetic, about form in the sense of having incompossible things working together. That’s probably a result of the culturally split upbringing. France and England really are very different! I tend to hope that this is all embodied as a kind of openness in what I have to offer.


CS: You say you use drawing to make plans for work that you have an inkling will never be made. What might a fully realised Phil King project look like and what prevents it from becoming reality?


PK: Well I developed lots of plans for years, token abstract paintings arranged in rhythmic groups, endless constructions, part diagram, part layout ideas for vast shows. I feel that I inhabit the reality of those reveries when I do a show. The word ‘realisation’ is a good one to describe the feeling… and I’m starting to get an idea of what a more realised Phil King art world might look like. That aspect of my work though is a somewhat transcendent ambition so isn’t something realisable by definition, I cherish interruption too much. The big ideas are part of my motor I guess.  I use them as part of what I do and don’t do, they have their own rhythm but might actually be a bit Albert Speer or Corporate Identity-like if they were to be allowed! I have at times imagined my work on a vast inhuman scale as a sort of endless monologue, but I love real relationships, so…


CS: Is it important to you that your works have a groove or syntax that carry some sort of identity that is recognisably yours?


PK: Yes. It is important but the interruptions to it are equally as important. I’m pretty passive and have given up in terms of working to ideals. I’m a huge Paul Klee fan and I think his experience of working in aircraft maintenance in WW1, witnessing the  crumpled aftermaths  of lots of primitive plane crashes speaks to something in his own work. There is a relation to the ideal, to engineered perfection, but also an understanding of failed realities. It makes painting into the possibility of becoming a rich mixture, of accepting failure but keeping on with a sense of realism. I think humour is key for me but then I really try and take it out because I think it is somehow a shortcut. Humour is a kind of shared groove and I find it funny to try and interrupt, or accept interrupting to that too! I really think I’m kind of terrible to be honest, or at least really challenging in terms of having an artistic identity.


CS: You sometimes sign your works, don't you?


PK: I paint paintings so it’s important to me that they look like paintings. And paintings are often signed. But more than that I think that maybe it is a way of claiming responsibility for my errant borrowings and lack of immediately apparent identity. It signs my signature style, the momentum or pictorial energy that ties the work together but equally I find it interesting that that signature itself gets put in question by what I do. I realised the other day that I sign with my initials PK, initials that could also indicate Peter Kinley or Paul Klee! I also signed a work Dali once, and one JC. And it’s important that not everything is signed. The signature is a thoughtful pictorial element in specific pictures. It’s also generally a kind of humorous device to be honest, and feels a bit absurd and hopefully problematic… a break with current conventions somehow. Signatures fascinate me - Vincent, Magritte, Philip Guston… and Pollock could make an entire painting his signature. Then there is the whole tagging phenomenon. Maybe I’m tagging the architecture of my work somehow.


CS: Fifty years ago there was a relatively quick turnover of movements in the art world. No sooner had the precepts and principles of one movement been laid down when another would come along. However, that all seems quite sturdy by today's standards. Now there are no dominating movements that rise and fall over a period of, say, ten years. The internet has made it possible to recall any painting by Cezanne, in one moment, and in the next to take a lesson in creativity from the nomadic people of Ethiopia's Omo River Valley. There is so much choice, so much to get inspired by, to see, share and chance upon. Yet I hear a lot of grumbling - usually to do with how difficult it is to make art when there is no consensus and very little meaningful criticism. Do you think it's harder than ever to make art now or do you thrive on all this choice and difference?


PK: I was really impressed with Robert Smithson’s explorations of entropy. I think his kind of humorous anti-idealist take on art gets to something in our current situation. All that mix of stuff gets mixed into a sort of inertia. He matter-of-factly took his notions beyond humour and I really feel his influence on people like Koons, who is a sort of mad attempt at resisting Smithson’s entropy in the realm of exploitative appearances.


I’m not sure about harder. It must have been pretty hard to make art leading up to and in WW2 for example. And how possible was or is art under capitalism anyway? It is a grinding military industrial complex after all with a whole machinery of smoke and mirrors and wilfully necessary ignorance. It does however give the opportunity for contemplation and resistance that enables difference to flourish. Our labour ancestors for example fought successfully for the 8 hour day which arguably enabled a different class to participate in art - it doesn’t just free up time for watching TV and shopping! (Yet of course it is precisely this that is now under attack by employers and their governments). And within the dissolution of coordinated flows of images vital differences do explode into genuine forms of multiplicity. Art does relate to the acceptance of death in some ways, it’s always been hard, and the loss of meaning under advanced capitalist conditions is almost a perfect form of death - it always was. A sort of living death, something art can both realistically accept and resist with all the forces at its disposal. The lack of available form or consensus to cope with the multiplicity made available is something to be worked on by all of us. I’m basically a painter though and relate to the life I see in painting from all periods.


CS: You said: 'And within the entropic dissolution of coordinated flows of images vital differences do explode into genuine forms of multiplicity'. Can you unpack that sentence a little? It sounds very interesting but I don't understand it. What do genuine forms of multiplicity look like?


PK: In the kind of philosophy I often find myself reading multiplicity is not representable or even significant in conventional terms, it wouldn’t be something that we could see as such, it is linked to notions of the unconscious or desire as a marvellously down to earth liberating thing that cuts across and undermines conscious categories. Pluralism represents multiplicity by limiting and categorising; hence it’s a kind of fake or not genuine multiplicity. In a deteriorating system all the differences get gathered up into separate identities that become more and more alike, get merged. Actual multiplicity would have to burst into life within that ‘becoming all the same’. It can be a virtual thing or life, like choosing possible separate and irreconcilable identities to live by. Really it is a challenge to a blended ‘common sense’ with its exclusive categories and rules.


It’s like when we over-interpret dreams. The meanings that we ascribe to them, even if we accept lots of things going on, actually limits the actual energy of the dream, which might be in the richness of the setting, the marvellousness of it, or the multiplicity of things that we might be frightened of in the dream; the things that don’t conventionally make sense working with a simultaneous desire to make sense of them. We try and make dreams conscious, yet their power is that we can’t really think them consciously. That thing in dreams that we can’t think is something like a multiplicity… a flood of emotion maybe... not any one thing is generated. It can be tied to something in the dream that might not appear at all significant. A difficulty in the corner of the ‘eye’.


After WW2 people generally began to be allowed enough leisure time in order to consume energetically, though this consumer imperative seems like it is petering out as the great mass of consumers retire and pull in their spending. Consuming things is a kind of job in our societies, we need to keep the economy going, and this particularly circumscribed freedom of choice also allowed many people of all classes to experience and value art and the often awkward problems that it creates and that come with it - that often awkward unknown nature that we have to work at creating, one that escapes the limits of conventional freedom of choice. Because consumerism demanded leisure time, the genuine sense of multiplicity that art can embody was given time as well as the more normal chaotic pluralism that a particular form of economy demands. People on holiday, or in their free time, often go to museums etc. I think the current popularity of contemporary art, the wide interest in it, the numbers of art students and galleries compared to when I was at school is a measure of how the 60’s generation generally embraced and were willing to invest in more creative lives for their kids. With that comes a lot of difficulty - I’m fascinated in the boom in art college admission at the moment, and that it has become so expensive. It’s not that the students forking out aren’t aware (well maybe not consciously) of how difficult it will be to actually live as an artist and also be a dutiful consumer when they graduate. And yet they are encouraged and supported in going into art. Sure art can easily become part of a dominantly inert drift if we categorise, accept and represent its multiple nature like we do everything else - a good investment like anything else - but it is closer to difficulties and fault lines I think. It isn’t a common sense or even necessarily ‘a good thing’. I loved LA because I intuited a really general crunching sense of creative industry there, but part of that is maybe that it is on a major earthquake fault line. (The inert entropy felt equally forceful though, which leads me to speculate that lively multiplicity and dismal entropy might go hand in hand somehow... come to think of it I can see that in my own work.)


CS: Does your work rely primarily on inspiration and the knowledge that it will come sooner or later or do you sit down with a blank sheet of paper/canvas and make it happen? A drawing before lunch, perhaps, and one after?


PK: That totally varies. I have different disciplines at different times. My work is somewhat, and often literally, marginal. The best stuff happens I find when I’m doing something else apparently more important.


CS: Are they sometimes gifts of circumstance you then go to work on; for instance, could an idea for a drawing/painting come while watching a chewing gum ad on TV?


PK: Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes though it is very focused and conscious and I like it when I can put different approaches together.


CS: I find art materials unwieldy a lot of the time. No help at all! Can you tell me about the materials you use, which you prefer and whether you care about them?


PK: I try and accept the materials as they are, the notion that they are profoundly unhelpful is a good idea! I try and vary what I use… so I can show a watercolour, an oil and an acrylic next to each other for example… ideally that is.


CS: In your Three Works show there's a Philip Guston-like piece on canvas with a tear in its surface and you've chosen to display it on the floor leaning against the wall. How did this piece come about and does it tell us anything about your feelings for Guston's work?


PK: I can’t really speak to what it tells others but I realised the other day something about Guston, (he had a big effect on me back in the days of my BA) and that’s this: there’s a sky in one of his paintings that could equally be a blue wall… sky or wall or wall and sky?… but it is paint anyway. This blue wall or sky has a wall socket on it, but also a cloud. But it is also clearly blue oil paint. Guston painting is a verb. He is painting. Even though the painting is there finished and on the wall of the museum it still gives the impression that the painting of it is ongoing. And it’s that sense of ongoing habit; of painting as the Guston identity that I realised. Guston will always be painting. Painting as ontological state seems to be a problem of his. For me that sense of transcendent consolation irritates me no end. Now Cezanne, for example, was continually actually destroying his paintings, throwing them out of the window, slashing them. There are a number of examples of rescued and repaired canvases. And Pollock had doubts at times whether what he was doing was even painting at all. But Guston, even if he scrapes off and destroys the image, is always painting and always will be painting. I find that kind of unbearable. Not necessarily in a bad way in his case… but unbearable as a model of art which has become a kind of ongoing norm, a kind of a self-justifying activity.


The painting in Three Works speaks to that. It is based on a picture posted by Claude Reich, a really passionate Guston expert, that he believed to be a fake. It’s kind of terrible in many ways and like a lot of fakes is sort of a collection of an artist's cliches … that alone makes it suspicious I guess. So I had a feeling that I wanted to paint a really bad insulting Gustonesque painting, because I felt, like a lot of painters maybe, inhabited by him... that my line or handwriting is infected by Guston stylistics, by his groove or continuum, and I just wanted to acknowledge and maybe break that somehow. And then this probable fake came up and I roughly copied it.  The good thing is that it seems to have exorcised my irritation with Guston and I really connected with his recent London show.


It’s partly a question of rhythm. Rhythm indicates a past going forward predictively… in that sense his marks, his approach goes on - he is still painting. He sets up a sort of sense of ongoing consistency. A kind of Guston habitat. It’s like being in the middle of an animated film. And the comic linear style is more than just expressionistic; it is a rhythmic identity - a kind of tone, it foretells its own ongoing nature. I find that both compelling and really awful and I want to break with it because I feel its sentimentality overwhelms the kind of multiplicity that I’m interested in glimpsing somehow, that is everywhere in art. It’s why de Kooning is finally much more interesting than Guston. His work genuinely breaks down, and a whole infinite load of things start happening; as a sense of unplanned feeling multiplicity. The whole structural weight of the Western canon is there but it’s crashing and we see lots of bits of other options bursting out in all directions. As odd as it may seem I believe that de Kooning really digested Duchamp into painting. He struggles with painting. Guston can persist as a kind of status quo in a way that de Kooning, while obviously standing for a kind of painterly status quo for lots of people, actually doesn’t.


CS: There are quite a number of works in your Three Works show. What was your thinking with regards to the hang and how do you feel about it now?


PK: Initially I wanted to present three works… each work made up of three separate paintings. Then in the hang, which was a group effort with you and the artist Nick Fudge, that idea broke down somewhat. (I kind of expected that it would). I’d brought the three ‘sculptures’ along and they meant that I thought I’d have six paintings. But the paintings kind of claimed their own space, I was surprised at the result and the sense of a sort of odd generic museum or gallery happening. And that feeling persists. Within that I think a really strong immediacy happened and I feel my work really connected to both the separate art chamber feeling of your project and to the carnivalesque context of the seaside workshops, galleries and quirky paintings that it is surrounded by. I’m really into Holiday atmospheres and I remembered the other day that I wrote my MA seminar project on the nature of Holiday - Holiday as a sort of contained utopia. I’m not sure if that fed into being in Weymouth. At the opening, where I talked at length to one of your neighbours about the sculptures, he was convinced that they were a response to the quarries at Portland Bill, and the next day when I realised that he was totally right despite the fact that I haven’t been there since a childhood holiday, I had a continual sense of deja vu going on.  One thing that I hadn’t really processed was that there is an element of Anselm Kiefer parody going on. On one level the sculptures are like a piss take of his vast concrete shipping container stacks.


A friend of mine has seen the show and wrote about being really shocked and finding it overwhelming. Particularly the windmill painting on paper with lots of mad dots. And the ripped crumpled paper. For them the show was ‘wild eyed’. I think that’s ok, I really like the sense of ongoing in process project of Three Works, the to be painted walls… and the way that acts against the somewhat art history museum aspect of the work. I think the playful distance that the work generally has is less evident in this show. It is very hands-on and the sculptures evoke a sort of hands-on hard to follow any logic complexity that brings the same aspect out in the paintings. I think that it is kind of an event for me at least. I’m very interested in notions of acting, in the way that an actor’s craft only lives in its delivery. I thought of the show in terms of delivering a possible identity… and that there is an authentic immediacy to that. But it is still acting.


CS: I first became aware of you and your work on Facebook. I friended Matthew Collings and not long after became aware of you and the quite large amounts of discourse you get involved in, mostly I think it's true to say, on the subject of painting. How important to you is this platform for sharing your work and thoughts?


PK: Well it’s helped me develop a voice for sure. It’s not something I rely on as being something ongoing. I love to argue and develop my thinking and Matthew really created an amazing thing out of Facebook with this vast resource of images and thoughts over the years. I wasn’t aware of how many people were reading my comments to be honest. I’m not really sure how to process that and do meet lots of people at art openings etc. who say they’ve read my comments. The flip side of that, and my not really holding back, is that I’m sure that lots of people think – he’s that guy. I’m pretty forgetful of what I actually write or say and Facebook is generally an exploration or experiment for me… not really meant as any kind of platform. I tend to respond rather than initiate.


CS: You gave a talk in Cardiff recently and I managed to watch a film of it and in it you speak quite a bit about Kounellis whom you met a number of years back when you were a student. You mentioned that he had quite an impact on you as an artist. Does his work still resonate with you?


PK: Yes. Being so intimate with his work and installation in Bath had and has a big affect. It was the first time I really experienced the power of art to synthesise separate experiences. In that case there was such a powerful southern ‘Latin’ affect in damp Bath for me. There is the literally underlying Roman nature of the place of course. I’m still trying to figure things out, I was equally influenced by my painting tutor Peter Kinley.


CS:  Do the lives of artists matter to you or is it simply about the work they produce?


PK: They don’t matter to me in terms of middle class identity heroics, as transcendent biographical romances, but it somehow matters to me that Georges Braque was wounded in the head or that Matisse’s daughter was in the resistance and sent to a concentration camp for example. In terms of how artists coped with wars etc. I think art can give access to history in a visceral sense, maybe more so if it appears to resist direct anecdote or commentary and often that history is very singular, and that matters a lot. Also Agnes Martin’s work finds real breath in terms of her life story - her friendship with Barnett Newman matters to me. I don’t think her personal life as such matters beyond the fact that I was very moved by the vulnerability and persistence that I felt her work itself offered as a lesson. The simple facts of an artist’s life are enough for me I think, particularly when they contradict the dominant mythologies around their work. The lives are all part of the rich multiplicity of it all to my mind. Such multiplicity used to be equated with an ideal liberal pluralism, or something, but I see it differently. Art often indicates terrible solitude. Often artist's personalities are deliberate constructions, identity is something up for grabs and masks are in play. Picasso was fond of quoting Arthur Rimbaud saying "I is another".


CS: Do you listen to music when you work? I always say The Fall for working and The Smiths for drinking!


PK: I never generally remember to put music on. Drinking to The Smiths sounds interesting. I had a drink standing next to Morrissey and Marr once. I guess The Fall have been a constant in my life since I was a teenager and remain perpetually inspiring to me.


CS: I feel like I ought to rephrase this question so it sounds less like a Metro interview but… what's your favourite book?


PK: Kafka by Deleuze and Guattari. I re-read it constantly and have no idea what it is about.


CS: What's next for you Phil?


PK: Hanging a show in Hastings in this ruin ripe for redevelopment that has created this cavernously huge and raw gallery space (with unpainted walls!). Nick Fudge and I somewhat over-ambitiously said we’d do the first show on a month's notice. So we are. After a bit of fighting we somehow decided on the title Obscured by Clouds nicked from a really entropic 1972 Pink Floyd album. I’m thinking of a large group of paintings as one big painting or installation piece and working hard on “museum” labels. I always dreamt of getting hold of a space like this and indeed helped create a couple over the years without showing in them myself. But this is just two of us creating a whole crazy group show vibe. It’s epic but weirdly domestic also.