2012 Rustenberg School talk

Thank you for the invitation.

I’ve decided to approach this talk by answering the questions I get asked most often.   

Why are your paintings so big?

Why do the people have no clothes on?

What do your paintings mean?

Who are the people in your paintings?

How did you become an artist?

And lastly,

What inspires you?

* To Be Alone installation

I’ll answer the first two together, because the answers are the same in a way. Why are you paintings so big, and why are the people naked?

This is called “To Be Alone”. As you can see, it’s big, and there are naked people!

I’m first showing it  hanging in the gallery so you can see the size. Scale is very important in paintings. If the painting is very small, you have to go up close to it and you are like a giant in relation to it. But if it is very big, if the people in it are even bigger than you, when you stand in front of it, you feel overwhelmed. You could almost step into it, you have to become part of the scene. If the people are looking straight at you,  then you really feel like you are in the room with them. And that is what I want, to grab you and make you confront my painting.

*To Be Alone

There are four naked people in a place that looks like a home. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s hard to make an actual story out of it. Or you could make many stories, but it’s not clear if there is a right story. And because the people are naked, maybe you want to look away because you feel embarrassed and then maybe you want to look again because it’s not something you’re going to see every day. And that’s exactly the feeling I want. You are forced to be in an intimate space with the people in the painting, because they are naked, but at the same time it’s not socially acceptable.

Underneath, we are all naked and we are pretty much the same. Just human animals.

Nakedness is funny, and ridiculous because it makes that so obvious – when we are wearing clothes, we have pretenses about who we are in the world.

*Beloved

It’s the same with old people. They don’t appear in ads, and we certainly never see them naked. It’s as if they don’t exist. And yet we will all get old if we’re lucky.

* Untitled triptych

This picture bring me to the next question I am always asked.

No 2) What do your paintings mean?

When you look at this painting, which is 5 m wide,  you might make an assumption about what it means. People think they know, and they can’t imagine that anyone else might think differently. So, here are some of the things people have said.  One person said it was terribly sad, and they could hardly bear to look at it, because it showed the moment just before death. Someone else said it was a wonderfully happy painting, because it shows the comfort that the wisdom of old age brings. And I was also told once that what this painting is really about, is that older people still have sex.

But actually, there is no meaning, not like that. I have simply painted two people. They were not together in real life, in fact they hardly know each other. They were not lying in this place, it’s made up. The still life was set up in my studio. I have made up something that seems like real life but isn’t. And I don’t feel like I need to do more than that. My paintings are just a reflection of life. There is no right answer to what they mean. They mean something different to everyone, because life itself means something different to everyone.

*Sea

All I care about is showing how life is. I used to think I had to prove something. I was scared of what people might think, if I didn’t have good reasons for everything that I painted. But actually, you don’t have to have any reasons. Reasons belong to the head. If you want to be an artist, the head is not enough. It helps, you need it to get things done, but what really matters is the heart. You have to feel what you are doing, it has to link in to something real about who you are. Otherwise no one will look twice.

*John brown curtains

My style of painting is called realism, for obvious reasons. I am not interested in making an expressive mark on the canvas. I don’t want thick paint, or anything that reminds you that this is not a real place, but just a bit of paint. In this painting, I photographed the figure, with lots of close ups of the body. The floor is the floor in my living room. The brown curtains are actually long. I took them down from my bedrom window and took pictures of them. Then I joined up the ends of one with the tops of another. It’s all fake, it’s like a stage. I don’t care what I have to do to make it work, all that matters to me is that in the end, it seems real even though it can’t be.

*Model for a Garden

To make this painting, which is called “Model for a Garden” I used lots of photos from all kinds of different places. I take bits from them to create this fantasy place, where your imagination can wander through the paths and stop under the trees. And people say, where is that? All I can answer is, it’s nowhere, except on this canvas.

So to the next question: Who are the people in your paintings?

People always want the gossip, they think there might be a secret scandal, or that maybe, if thart is me, that must be my father, and my mother. But it isn’t like that.

*History

I only paint a few people, and they are all people I know. I paint them over and over again. I use them as you would use an actor to play a part in a play. I am not interested in doing portraits of them. That’s probably why I CAN only paint a few. Because most people have their egos invested in how it turns out, they care how they look in it. They’d want me to do a bit of plastic surgery. But I want to paint the imperfections of their bodies, because we all have imperfections, that’s what makes us normal human beings.

*The Keeper

The people I paint allow me to do whatever I want. It is a wonderful gift they are giving me. Perhaps it is because we know each other well, or they are older and no longer care what the world thinks of them.

So my answer to the question “Who are they?” is that it doesn’t matter. They are just people, and I hope when we look at them we feel something.

*Subject 2

I hope we feel their vulnerablity, anger, sadness, happiness, because we have those emotions too.

*Red velvet

Sometimes I paint myself. But I use my own image in the same way I use other people’s. I don’t care about doing a self portrait. I care about painting an ordinary person. This painting should be a wonderful, over-the-top picture of comfort and luxury. But somehow it isn’t. The person in there is still vulnerable, ageing, and has her head turned away. This isn’t because I’m like that, though maybe sometimes I am. It just reflects those aspects in all of us. If you feel a need to tell a story about yourself, it’s good to ask how it can also be everyone’s story.

Why do you paint?

*drawing of stream

This is a drawing I did when I was 10. And it pretty much sums up why I paint. Even at the age of  10, feeling very homesick at a boarding school in England, I knew that drawing could rescue me from the worst feelings. I could make a world outside of this one into which I could escape. A world through the surface of the page, that was magical to me. And that is exactly why I paint now.

*If you want to be an artist, you might be frightened by the thought of not earning enough, or other people, including your family, might tell you to get qualified for a real job and do art on the side. *But art is more than full time. It is on the weekends, in the evnings, all day, and always in your head even when you aren’t actually doing it. *It takes years to start to understand what you are doing. *It means a lot of very hard work. It consumes your life. *But if you allow yourself to experience life, and trust the process, it will emerge in your work and other people will respond to it, and maybe even buy it.

*I used to love my doll’s house as a child. I used to gaze into it and imagine I was walking around in there, looking back out at the real world through the windows.

*And this is what my paintings are for me, like those windows, and I’m in the paintings, looking back out at the real world and at you looking in at me.

*The Lesson installation

This is called The Lesson. It’s made up of seven panels. Each shelf is a separate panel that links the three larger ones.

*The Lesson

Don’t ask me what the lesson is about, or if there even is one, as usual I don’t have any idea. What fascinates me is to make an alternate reality, so close to the surface of  the canvas that you could step in to it. It’s like the cupboard, in Narnia, or when Alice goes through the looking glass. And when you are inside there, maybe you can see the world in a new way.

*Surrender

This 6 m painting is called “Surrender”. It is made up of three panels. The joins are here and here, where the window frames are. Each thing in the painting adds to the feeling of  this being a real place beyond the membrane separating us and it. And the funny thing is, the perspective is wrong. The figure is really much too big. No such place exists. But it doesn’t matter, because everything looks so real, that we believe in it.

*Pond with sky

Making a place away from reality is very soothing for me, as long as it doesn’t carry a message. I don’t like handing out messages. But if I can sit quietly and just paint and paint, like knitting with a very small brush, I feel relief from the troubles of life. What brings us relief and joy is very different for each of us. If you feel you are an artist, you will find that thing. You probably know it already, and when you look back one day, you will think, oh yes, that was the beginning.

And now I come to the last question

No 5)What or who inspires you?

When people ask me this, I always say, pretty much any painting before 1810. I am not interested in contemporary art, I don’t go to exhibitions, I don’t read art magazines. I’m bascially a totally not arty person who stumbled into being a full time obsessive artist. And I love historical painting. We are only in this situation, country, lifestyle,…. because of what has happened before now. The same with art. Abstract painting, minimalism, conceptual art were all reactions to what came before. There are no rules, there’s no right way any more. So we must look into ourselves, and try to find a form of truth there. No one will tell us how to do it.

*Van Eyck

This is a Jan Van Eyck painting from the 1400’s. The madonna and child are in a very particular room, with things around them. The detail of the carpet, and window and copper bowl are very beautifully painted. I find it wonderful how it became important to make things look real at this period in art history.

*Guy

I also like to surround the people I paint with things. The difference is that they do not symbolise anything, but are simply the stuff that is all around us in the lives we lead.

In this painting, called “The Grip of Circumstance” the man seems to be almost trapped in this room with a build up of stuff.

*Descent from the cross Rogier van der weyden

In this descent from the cross every fold of drapery is lovingly painted, everything is real, yet this was painted in 1435.

*face detail

Every face has a different expression, and the emotion is clear to see. Northern renaissance painters were not interested in painting idealised perfection, but in reality.

*Betrayal

Here I have echoed the idea of a crucifixion. The painting is just called Betrayal. As usual, I don’t know what it means. But I am sure you can see the influence of the painters of the renaissance. I like to reference images from art history, so that it sets up echoes in the minds of people who know something about painting.

*Children’s Games

Another artist I love is Pieter Brueghel.

This is a painting of his from 1560 called “Children’s Games”.

He painted crowd scenes that showed people dancing and having fun, or working in the fields. In his paintings, the seasons of the year matter, and society seems to hold together.

*For Ever and Ever

I think society has changed, and we don’t know what our natural place is anymore. *Safety and Security

The few crowd scenes I have painted seem to show individuals who find themselves together, but are lost in their own reality.

*Brueghel Proverbs

Brueghel also did a painting illustrating lots of different proverbs, wise old country sayings. There’s a kind of madness to the scene unless you know what each saying is that is being illustrated. I liked this idea, and did this painting, called “Proverb”.

*Proverb

Again, it seems like it should describe a particular saying, but it does not. There is no secret behind it. It’s just some animals on a strip of concrete. I like the feeling of something which should make sense but doesn’t.

*Abraham Mignon Summer Flowers

I also love Dutch still-lives of the 17th century, because they are exquisitely painted. They have such clarity. But not only that. They are what are called “memento mori”. The beauty of the living flowers, insects and fruit remind us that life is very short, and that we will all die one day. So, while we look at them, we are reminded to enjoy every day, because it is a passing gift.

*Flowers

For my curent exhibition, I have painted all kinds of different things, but they are all in a way memento mori, reminders of our mortality. There are no horizons, and again they are very big, so we feel overwhelmed by them. They face us with just what they are. There is nothing beyond or around them.

*Grass

I wanted to make them beautiful, like those flower paintings, so that you can take time looking, and get a sense of what life is, from them. They could be of anything, it doesn’t matter, because everything matters.

Finally, last year, I was inspired by 17th century landscapes, most especially paintings of Arcadia. Arcadia is a mythological place in which humans are at one with nature.

*(Lorrain Coast scene with Europa and the Bull) For example this one by Claude Lorrain. These painters wanted to show humans living in harmony with the world. They tried to express  the order of nature in their work.

*Poussin, the flood

They showed people as small and insignificant in the face of the power of nature, of storms, accidents, and the fall of  light.

*Arcadia installation 1

I was very inspired by this idea, so I painted an installation of 11 panels that went round a whole room, and called it Arcadia.

*Arcadi installation 2

They show a decayed garden in the dusk.

*

It is as if we are looking through the pillars of a ruined folly into this landscape beyond

*

There is no horizon to lead us away from the place

*

I put in my two children. This one is running off into the wilderness.

* I included the children because I think that when we are children, we still see the world more clearly.

* We are able to live in the present and see the beauty and wonder of things

The pond is at one end of the room. To me it’s like a memory that you can’t quite reach.

*The plants are taken from hundreds of photos from lots of different places

*It isn’t a real place, but totally made up.

*

My other child is a little older, and is walking on the concrete structure that separates us, standing in the gallery, from the space beyond. It is as if he is just about to enter adulthood, and be expelled from the garden, as in the myth of Adam and Eve

* I didn’t want it to be too wild, or too much like a garden with a lawn and orderly flower beds. I wanted it to feel like a place we might remember from childhood.

*

This is a diptych, or double panel, at the other end of the room. The car is like an intrusion into this nostalgic garden, a reminder of the so-called real world.

And now I will show you a few details from this Arcadia installation as I finish.

*

We don’t understand what our place should be in the world. We try to control everything. We end up destroying the very place we belong to.

*So these Arcadia panels, and all my paintings, no matter what they seem to be of, reflect how we perceive. As soon as we are no longer small children, we can’t see the world anymore, because we are cursed with self-consiousness.

But I think we all feel what I would call a kind of homesickness, a longing for life to be different to how it is.

*

In the end, only you can know what you get excited about, what inspires you, why you do what you do. While you are doing it, you might not know why. And to be an artist, you have to be able to stand lots of criticism, admit mistakes, realise you are probably foolish for even trying, suffer self-doubt, and maybe not make much money for a long time.

*But none of that matters one bit when you are alone in a room, creating something, in your own world. That feeling makes life worth living.