Emily Goldsmith: Can you tell me about your current exhibition, “The New Landscape”? What was the concept for this show from the beginning?
Marc Blake: For this show half of the gallery space is dedicated to a selection of works of mine from the Wallace Trust collection since 2007 and the other half is all new work, created this year. So as a show, it’s like a kind of snapshot over the past decade that also leads into a whole body of new paintings created specifically for this exhibition. Together, the old and the new hopefully combine to tell an overall story about the way I feel about painting, what I’m trying to do with it and possibly what direction is coming next.
E.G: The works from the collection are each quite unique and yet there is still a thread running between them that defines them as being your paintings.
M.B: Part of how I work involves a constant evolution and not being afraid to try new things. For me, every painting I make contains something that is then put into the next one. Sometimes this is more obviously or directly connected, but other times there is just a spark that sets me off in a new direction. The key for me is how far I follow anything. Sometimes it’s just a single work, sometimes it goes on for a few, or even a lot, but ultimately there is one feeling I’m trying to identify; does the kind of work I’m making feel like it has possibility to continue to evolve? Does it have potential to not only challenge me and keep me interested, but also to expand into a new area that feels unknown and makes me want to keep going. If each work keeps suggesting a new one and the feeling of anticipation is building and it feels new and fun and difficult all at once, then I’m on the right track. For this show I don’t think I have ever experienced such a continuous and intensive period of painting. Everything came all at once and not only seemed to capture everything I’ve done until now, but also took me in an entirely new direction. I believe this is by far the best show I have done and I can already see that it is a launching pad for a whole new lot of works to come this year.
E.G: You have quite a lot of works in the Wallace collection now, how does this, if at all, affect your painting.
M.B: I have fourteen works in the collection at the moment. I know Sir James collects a substantial amount of artists’ work, but for me personally it’s been incredibly positive and without a doubt I can say it has enabled me to continue to become an artist, in almost every way, over the past decade. To then also make a show like this where people can see almost 30 works of mine in a room across 9 years is such a privilege at this point. I am so incredibly thankful for the support I have received.
E.G: So how do you feel about the new works? I think there are about 14 paintings and 2 new multi-media works in the show? There are also collaborations. But for this talk, I’d like to focus on your paintings. Is there anything you really wanted to achieve with this exhibition in particular?
M.B: I think there are two things I want to try and achieve with every exhibition I do. Firstly I want to make and show work that is completely true to who I am as a person and an artist, which continues the evolution of my work and how I feel about contemporary painting. Secondly I want to present paintings that are original, that people have never seen before, which somehow, in whatever way, makes them reflect on something – wether it’s art, or life, or anything. Of course it’s great when people like the work, but ultimately I don’t really care if it’s liked or not. I know that sounds kind of strange, but really I just want to the work to illicit any kind of reaction, a reaction that at least for a moment takes the viewer into some kind of new place. So with the new work in this show, like them or hate them, at least people will have seen nothing really like these paintings before. The worst thing I feel when I go in to galleries these days – and it happens way too often – is just indifference.
E.G: They are very original paintings, yet again as someone who knows your work, I can see the evolution and progression that has somehow gotten you to this point.
M.B: Of course I have influences in my work and I react to the aspects of art history that I connect with, so this manifests itself in my painting. But ultimately I see it as my job to take all of these elements from the past, including even my own work and to somehow make something new from it. Painting is so rich and varied these days it’s actually in an incredible place, yet at the same time I have to make work that asserts my own belief about what is important in painting.
E.G: And that is?
M.B: It’s difficult to articulate exactly what it is that I’m trying to achieve, because even though a painting has a conclusion in the sense it gets “finished”, that painting itself is never the conclusion for me. There is always a suggestion of what comes next, about what that work achieved, or what it lacked, about how something can be tweaked, or altered, or radically changed, or explored, or abandoned. Each painting is only ever just one manifestation of a series of moments.
E.G: And what do you think is important in painting?
M.B: Painting is so broad and I have a fairly broad appreciation of it. There are so many painters trying new things these days, but I guess for me personally I’m always trying to find a balance and not let the concept take away either the fun of making work, or the human element.
E.G: You mean a human connection to the making, or the viewing?
M.B: Well ultimately both. I choose to incorporate images from reality in my work because many years ago I realised that a figure, or animal, or tree or whatever is an entrance into the work and to communication with a viewer. It’s something for myself and for the viewer to lead into, but ultimately it is still form and colour and composition that interests me, not telling any particular story. I think with these latest works and especially the most very recent of those in this show, I am starting to understand this more. How to use the form of actual things to also add to, or go beyond what they may represent as associations to the viewer. I’m trying to do both things.
E.G: Figures, horses and especially trees are so prevalent in all of your work and have been for so many years. Even often it seems you have used the same source image numerous times. What is there in these particular images that keeps coming back to you?
M.B: Honestly I really don’t know. It’s funny, but I never really think about why an image keeps coming back. I can say that those images have been prevalent from the very beginning of painting over thousands of years and this is a big reason. Also that I want to include things from the world into the work and not have just purely abstract paintings. There are so many different kinds of trees, but I usually just paint the same ones more or less over and over again. These are mostly pine trees, which aren’t even native to New Zealand and are actually taken from photos of old Japanese screen paintings. So it’s not just about the tree itself, or what a tree is, or what it means. That’s so far beyond what I know. It’s also about the form of the tree, the shape and how it fits into the composition, how it can be arranged. It’s a pattern. Those pine trees I paint are really one of the few things I have found that are working both vertically and horizontally at the same time. They also have a balance between organic nature and human manipulation, which is the same as horses I guess.
E.G: Yes what about horses? Especially the white horse.
M.B: Of course there are so many associations with what horses are and what they represent and their very unique relationship to humans. I guess they suggest both freedom and domestication at the same time, as well as power and tranquility. People are free to make up their own minds, but again, it’s mainly the form. There are really not many things that again, like the pine trees, work in both a horizontal and vertical way and especially things that are white. The form of a horse either adds that element of white to a work and/or breaks up the composition in the same way those pine trees do. There are horses very close to where I live and growing up in New Zealand, that image of one or two horses standing in a field beside the highway is a fairly common sight out of the city, but I’ve never even ridden one and barely touched one. I have no personal connection to them on that level, but there is just something in the complexity of their associations with humans and art and the colour and form that keeps me constantly including them in my work.
E.G: You mentioned the latest works in this show and also the newest ones, which I think are the ones with the more vivid and intense colours. When I see these works it seems like there really is no one way to look at them. There’s no single, central image and from a distance they are almost abstract, yet up close there’s also so much detail and then detail within detail and images that seem to appear out of nowhere.
M.B: Yes and this is something that’s still ongoing for me. The more these works for this show developed, the more they moved away from a figure/ground kind of thing. So many of the images kind of fuse into the ground in these paintings and vice versa. With the very loose and almost uncontrolled way these layers of pigments are applied, it’s quite amazing how many images and forms seems to “appear” within them. Obviously for me it means I can use this as a starting point to suggest landscape, or elements within it and then the way these things interact. It’s funny but I had a few people at the opening of this show telling me they could see things in the works like owls, or faces for example, but I had no idea and certainly hadn’t painted them at all, people just see their own things in the patterns left by how the paint has dried. This is exactly what I’ve done when working, but they were seeing completely different things. People are naturally geared towards pattern-recognition, especially faces and eyes etc. It’s something that’s pre-programmed in us and beyond that, I think it’s really a case of things that trigger images from within our own subconscious. We are always making images from clouds, or shapes in the rocks.
E.G: It’d be easy to just leave those pigments and not paint in anything else.
M.B: Well the last work I made for this show called, Nude Descending a Staircase, is the biggest painting in the show, yet it actually has the least amount of elements painted into it. Actually the entire bottom two-thirds of it are just the patterns left by the pigment, which was so intense and intricate that I really felt like there was nothing left to add.
E.G: From a distance it’s almost similar to a colour field painting, or something purely abstract.
M.B: Kind of, but for me even the large areas of colour in that work are still suggesting some kind of figurative connection. I’m not interested in colour field painting, I don’t think they ever came close to what Matisse could do with large areas of colour for example. I think Peter Doig shows exactly how that idea is still expanding today.
E.G: The title, Nude Descending a Staircase, obviously references the Duchamp painting? Also there seems to be more reference to other paintings and artists in these recent works.
M.B: Yeah that title is from Marcel Duchamp and also Gerhard Richter did a similar kind of idea too. Basically I saw the form of a staircase in the pigment and this gave me the idea of having a figure, or figures walking down it. Initially I was going to have them walking down into a pool or some water, but again the lower part of that work is so swirling and intense and suggestive in those blues that I left it as it was. The figures of the women were taken from a “female nude motion study” by the photographer Edward Muybridge in 1887. Yet overall, and this is something my Dad actually commented on when he saw it, it reminds me of an old record cover from the 70s; that kind of weird combination of psychedelic and classical imagery.
E.G: And what about the other figure playing the violin?
M.B: That’s from Matisse’s painting Music.
E.G: It’s as if the music he is playing is resonating through that profile of the head beside him.
M.B: Yeah they fit together very well I think. But again, that “head” is actually just the lines that were left as the wet pigment gradually evaporated and dried in the sun. The profile of a face that it left was uncanny to me, but all I did was draw in the eye.
E.G: So how does taking images form other artworks differ from taking images from found photos or other sources?
M.B: Well in one way it’s completely the same. Really why I first started tracing every single image in my work from 2008 onwards was because I wanted to incorporate things from reality in the paintings, but I didn’t want to try and sketch something that already exists. I think other artists before me right through history, up until midway through the twentieth century were so devoted to that. By the time Picasso had completely dismantled everything and rearranged it and put it all back together again, I don’t know how I could possibly add to that, or why I would want to either. I see this period of history that I live in as being one deeply influenced by the beginning of digital technology. For me, Warhol really kicked off the photographic process in painting back in the 1960s and now it’s digital and everywhere. While I was living in Japan, in 2002 I saw basically the first cellphone with a decent camera-built in and I knew everything was going to change. There are probably billions of photos online now of everything you could imagine. So for example, if I want to put a bottle in a painting, I will either take a photo of a specific bottle myself and trace that image directly, or else search online until I find the right one to use and then trace that. By keeping the form exact, my interest becomes what I can do within the parameters.
E.G: So if you want a figure walking in water, you may either use a photo of someone actually doing that, or else a photo of bathers from a painting by Matisse for example?
M.B: Or in this case, both at once. The difference is of course that tracing over an image taken from another artwork not only changes the context of my painting to specifically referencing art history and that particular artist, but aesthetically it also looks more like a “drawing” than a tracing of a photo does, because of course Matisse or whoever, were drawing freehand. In that sense I’m kind of playing around by drawing with their drawings.
E.G: But you have been using elements of other artworks in your own painting for many years.
M.B: Yes, but almost exclusively from old Japanese paintings and prints. I think these are the first ones I’ve done that directly incorporate European art.
E.G: We’ve spoken about the profound influence of Japanese art on your work and also how recently European art history has become increasingly significant to you, but I have to say with these new works, I have honestly never really seen anything like them before. There are definitely some elements of Eastern and Western ideas in them, but they have seemed to go somewhere completely new. They are a complex hybrid.
M.B: I agree. I honestly think these are the most original works I have ever made. They have taken all the ideas and trial and error from the past ten years and somehow made something really new. They were such a liberating group of paintings to make for me, they truly felt like they were something only I could make.
E.G: So finally, do you have any idea about what’s coming next, or are you just happy to be taking a break?
M.B: It’s funny because I was really looking forward to taking a break over summer, but I’m starting to get ideas already. First there’s a bit of work I want to do on our house, then I’ll be back in the studio again. I’m already starting to see images and how the works in this show have really started something new for me.