Emily Goldsmith: Only a couple of months ago you were making paintings that seemed to be referencing the new landscape around you and at the same time almost trying to avoid it; either by suggestion, or a kind of blurring abstraction. Now in these last few works you seem to be taking it on directly. What happened?
Marc Blake: Well like I’ve said before, I never really plan anything with my work. I’m not talking about sketches or working ideas for individual works, I mean I don’t strategise about where my work as a whole should go or what path it should take. I just make a painting and that painting suggests the next one and so on, and this has been happening since I first began. The main thing when I moved here was a kind of overwhelming sense of landscape on a grand scale as well as an alpine aesthetic. All of my paintings for years had these flat lines in them, horizon lines, because everywhere I lived I could easily walk or drive to the ocean and there it was, one line that separated us from time and geography and culture. It was always a sense of me looking offshore towards the rest of the world. But here there’s no horizon, everything is broken up by hills, or mountains, or trees, even incredible clouds making geometric patterns. The closest thing to a horizon line here is a lake shore. This change has been so positive for my work, it’s allowed me to free up composition and bring in curves to counter lines, to break things up and tilt and shift things.
EG: There is a lot more expressive brushwork in these new works. Drips, strokes, multiple layers of working. The mountains in your new paintings are just dripping paint, but at the same time they are very suggestive of actual mountains.
MB: There are so many paintings of mountains. In New Zealand a lot of them are kind of striving for a sense of realism or even photo realism, which is something I’ve never tried to do. I don’t want to make a painting that says this is a certain hill at 6pm or whatever. Even though I’m sure that hill at 6pm has something quite incredible about it. I will however, take a photo of it and maybe use part of it or try and recreate it later, but never just the whole scene. First I see the whole thing, but then very quickly I see fragments and this is how my photography comes in to it. Pieces from a larger scene stand out to me and I’m not sure why they do, but they have a quality that makes me think I can use it in a new way, a way that suggests possibilities to people and not specifics. I’ve found that through bringing in certain elements of a landscape I’m able to remind myself of the feeling or atmosphere of a place, or memory, or event.
What I’ve realised with the mountains, is that the best way I can paint them right now is to try and control things as little as possible, to let the drips and the accidents just happen. At first mountains appear to be the complete opposite of the ocean, they are the ultimate in stability and never move. But of course they are constantly moving and growing or shrinking in such a different way and on such a different scale. The mountains I’m looking at out my window right now are changing 24 hours a day, it’s quite amazing to watch it. Every single moment they look different because of the brightness and colour and angle of light and shadows, and then the weather conditions and plants and falling rocks. For something that looks so solid and gigantic and utterly immovable, they’re actually incredibly fluid, living things to me. It’s all connected.
EG: You’ve said before that the shapes and form of objects of your work is just as important as any meaning or association you or a viewer may have.
MB: Exactly. A mountain, a tree, a person, or an animal each has a form and that form fills part of a composition in a certain way. That also relates in yet another way as to why, or how other people in art history filled their compositions. Beyond that comes both individual and collective association.
EG: How about control in your work?
MB: I’m always trying to balance it. If anything for me it’s harder to let go of control than maintain it. I’ve done works where they were very controlled from start to finish and even though the result was successful, they were almost like a test of endurance to make. I guess there are times where I need to do that. But whenever I try something new in a painting, if it feels like a chore, or like it’s stopping spontaneity, or if it feels boring and I can’t imagine doing it again in the future, then I know it’s a dead end. The works I’ve done in the past couple of months are probably the most fun I’ve had with painting in a long time.
EG: So fun is important?
MB: It’s hard to explain. I’m not sure it’s ever really fun in the usual sense. Sometimes it can be a nightmare if things aren’t working easily. It’s more like the fun is also the hardest part, like life. It comes from never really knowing where anything is heading, then reacting to the challenges and surprises that come out of the blue – some good, some not so good. I’ve slowly learnt that the more open I leave a work while I’m making it, the more I’m able to react to it and take it in directions I could never have imagined at the beginning. The worst thing I can do is try to repeat something, or else have an idea of how the work is going to be when it’s finished, that usually means it was wrong from the start. For me to ever have a complete feeling of satisfaction though would be really strange. I think that would probably have to be the last thing I made wouldn’t it? There is always at least one small part of each painting that says, this was good, but it stopped short or it went too far, so let’s take it in a new way and see what happens.
EG: Do you feel satisfied with a finished work?
MB: Yes in a way, but not really for long. It’s a kind of peace that says it’s ok and time to let go. I think when a work’s done I get an initial feeling that there’s no way it could go any further in this particular form and with these materials, short of sanding the whole thing back again. But then even that often happens too and the work takes months and goes through multiple variations before it ends up being utterly different in the end. I do get the feeling that I could just keep working on one painting for ever, which in a broader sense is exactly what I’m doing. But things need to finish to go to exhibition or whatever.
EG: The latest works seem like they’ve been worked through a lot.
MB: Yes it’s happening more and more recently and with the last 2 works in particular. In my mind this seems to make the works even better, it gives them something more, but it can be a fairly tortuous process. When a painting is stuck it can be pretty depressing, but what I’m learning is that often what I’ve thought were dead ends, can suddenly become part of a whole new thing after the work’s more or less forgotten about and some time has passed. Then it can be re-evaluated and possibly continued. This is something I used to do a long time ago and now am slowly coming back to.
EG: One other thing that seems to be going on recently is colour. Your works over the past year or so have seemed to become much more vibrant and full of new colours.
MB: In 2013 after I got back from Busan and started to work in Auckland, my works all became very muted. I wasn’t consciously thinking about trying to do that at the time, but again it just happened. Now I can look back and kind of see why that happened. I seem to go through stages of reducing things or concentrating on one particular element or part of the process for a while, or else following some kind of tangent. Also every time I move somewhere of course my work changes. I also had to move out of two studios at the end and of 2013 and half way through 2014, so for a few months there was a lot of other stuff going on and I didn’t really have a work space. This gave me some time at the end of 2014 to do quite a few small works and really try some new stuff, which opened up a lot. It’s actually still going on in a way, I feel like I’m constantly experimenting and yet at the same time there’s a connective thread running through it all. Part of this has to do with using oil paints again, as well as being in a new environment.
EG: Do you think your work changes a lot?
MB: Well I don’t know. Compared to what? Every single painter shares certain similarities and yet is completely unique in other ways. Some seem to be able to stay incredibly consistent in terms of how their work looks but I have no idea how they do it. Others seem kind of calculated or strategic about what they’re going to do next and I have no idea how they do that either. I think there’s a difference between having a natural style and trying to make things more or less always look the same, or look a certain way for someone else. The way I work means change is essential and it just couldn’t happen any other way. If you look at my work from about 2005 until now, I think it’s pretty easy to see every step. There’s a body of work that has certain similarities and then a shift into a new body of work and then on it goes. The shift may seem to happen fairly quickly, but really for me it’s been happening somehow through every single work. Just one thing suggest a new possibility to follow. I could explain exactly how each change in my work came to happen, where a particular connection took place, what country or studio I was in and what was going on personally and globally and any of the other infinite possibilities in life. The one fact is don’t see a single thing around me that isn’t changing. Everything is constantly changing, nothing lasts, so why would I ever want my painting to stay the same or even believe that it could?