EG: With this latest body of work you have been making, it would seem that your paintings have radically shifted from what they were before, almost the total opposite in fact. Yet I know that the manner in which you reached this point has been a gradual evolution over more than a decade, albeit with quite a recent leap. Can you explain a little about how you have come to be making these abstract paintings?
MB: Yeah if you just look at a work from before and work from now, they obviously look very different. Without all the steps that led from one to the other, it’s a bit misleading. Never the less, they are certainly in some very new territory at the moment and it’s a great feeling to have no idea where it’s going.
EG: When you first started painting, you made fairly large and quite minimal abstract paintings isn’t that right?
MB: Yes, they were oil on canvas. Most of those got destroyed when water leaked on to them in storage, but there are a few out there still.
EG: How would you describe those early works?
MB: Well even then I was using thin washes of paint, rubbing the pigment into the canvas and staining it, then adding another layer on top of that. Those were kind of colour fields I guess. I really liked those famous abstract expressionist paintings and without really knowing much about what I was doing, I was trying to make versions of them I guess. I made a series of these and a guy in Auckland put them in a gallery space in some basement on K Rd, must have been some time around 1998 or 1999. I remember him trying to tell me at the time that Rothko paintings were actually very thick, almost impasto works, but I just couldn’t imagine that being the case as they had to be thin to get this staining effect. Anyway, he was kind of schooling me even though neither of us had ever seen a real one. It wasn’t until years later in Japan I saw my first actual Rothko and sure enough it was painted exactly how I imagined it had to be. I remember thinking to myself, “I knew it, you asshole!”. But either way, the paintings I was doing then weren’t great, they were just the first paintings made by someone who had no idea really what he was doing. Just a lot of rubbing the paint and scraping it away. Basically doing that again now.
EG: So when did you shift away from these abstract works into imagery?
MB: After my first trip to Japan in November 1999. The explosion of images that hit me on that quick trip blew my mind, especially at this point in history that seemed so different. The turn of the millennium, the internet was new and digital technology was exploding. It suddenly felt to me that the most idiotic thing in the world was to make paintings from the 1950s that didn’t somehow include images from real life. It then took me 17 years to get back to the point I am now.
EG: Do you think you will ever make representational paintings again?
MB: Well I’ve learnt to never make any concrete statements about my intentions as I almost inevitably do the immediate opposite with the very next work. What I do know is that I am in the middle of experimenting and figuring out a whole new process for working, wether or not that continues on its own, or else somehow fuses back into what I was doing before I have no idea. Perhaps it will be more a case of working in different ways for different ideas.
EG: Over the past couple of years, I had noticed you sanding your works more and more. Whereas before this was a way to erase certain areas of working, it started to reach a point where almost the entire work was being sanded away, leaving these ghostly remnants of all the working that had gone on before it.
MB: Yeah that’s right. Slowly this act of sanding and removing paint started to become just as important as the painting aspect. It’s unusual being left with almost bare sheet of wood, yet dozens of tubes of paints have gone into making it. It’s not the most economically sensible method perhaps.
EG: Some of the works are sanded right back, while others are maybe the most texturally built up works I’ve ever seen you do.
MB: It’s funny, but I’ve always been drawn to very flat paintings. I don’t really like thick, chunky paint at all. Maybe only Van Gogh is the artist where I really like thicker paint. I think a lot of people can start fetishising paint and especially oil, which is something I’ve never gotten in to, probably mainly because I don’t have the patience for it. I think I like acrylic for all the reasons many people don’t like it.
EG: Why do you think you’ve returned to this abstract way of working?
MB: Funnily enough I had the same kind of realisation I had all those years ago, but in reverse. I was in the middle of making a work that was really giving me trouble and at one point during the making, I started to experience this kind of blurring of image and materials into something new. For the first time I could let go of concentrating on these things separately and was actually aware of it happening at the time. That work was subsequently finished and to me its the most important one I’ve ever done, not at all for how ended up, but it what it revealed to me.
EG: What were the main things it revealed?
MB: I don’t know. I guess that trying to think of what to paint was the most ridiculous thing in the world. To sit there in the studio and try to think of an image to paint. I just couldn’t do it any more. I had lost all of the reasons why I wanted to paint images because it was the actual painting itself that had started to become the most fun and interesting. I realised liked the process of working and investigating what a painting was, not the process of image making. Some people can combine these things very well, but I had lost that personal attachment to the images I had used for so long and didn’t know how to use them any more. For a long time the images in my work really had nothing to do with the image themselves, I was only using them for shape and form and colour how they fit into a composition. So I guess I started to really question why I was using them at all, I didn’t want any kind of meaning or association. There are only a few components of painting that I really like and now I feel free to focus on those.
EG: What are they?
MB: Mainly as much freedom as possible. No idea where I’m going, how it will turn out. No sense of restraining myself to a certain repetitive mode of working. The best work is the one constantly surprises me, like when I’m working on the computer for a while in the studio and turn around and the painting on the wall is like a shock, like I can’t remember it or have no idea how it came to be. If this has happened naturally then it’s a success. I think I’ve managed to do that with about 4 or 5 of the new works so far. The key for me is still the same however, fighting the urge to repeat successes, repeat ways of working for the sake of it. Churn out endless variations on the same thing. It gets very boring, very fast.
EG: What about how these paintings look?
MB: I like looking at paintings where I can see layers of working and underpainting sneaking through, where this kind of balance between control and chaos is at the very tipping point. Where unexpected results occur and it’s difficult to work out the order in which the colours were applied. With these new paintings, I am able to make whole works that dive into all this stuff and it’s really fun, like it was at the beginning. It’s amazing how difficult it is and how the more I try and control it the less successful it becomes. I guess what happened is that I started to have all these new ideas and so I had to invent a new way of painting to communicate them.
EG: Even after a hundred years of abstract painting, for a lot of people there is always the, “my six year old could do that” argument.
MB: Well I don’t think you should let your 6 year old play with electric sanders for a start. So maybe my work is more in the 13 and up age range.
MB: I have a feeling that most artists would agree that kids are the best at drawing. Every kid is a genius in how purely they approach drawing and their parents feel compelled to share it on Instagram. The thing is, if the kids have grown up and are still doing this after another twenty years, then it may be time to start paying them some real notice. I think the key is to try and always approach the work like a child does, without a clear idea of how it’s going to end up.
EG: You mentioned that it was around the time of the start of internet and digital photography etc. when you decided to switch from abstract painting to images. How do you feel now that the internet is so deeply intrenched in our lives?
MB: It feels equal parts amazing and terrifying.
EG: How has the internet affected painting?
MB: Well that’s a huge question and there’s so many answers. There are the technical aspects of course and the almost infinite source imagery, which is a huge one and was the main way in which I used it before. Then there are the people who feel compelled to try and trick you with inkjet prints of brushstrokes and adding pixels and all this, or just painting out versions of their computer drawings on canvas, but that’s such a flash in the pan for me, it’s almost instantly irrelevant. Honestly I have said this for a long time, but it is AI and robots who will be doing the best paintings very soon, so why the hell would you spend your time at this point in history trying to paint like the most basic version of one? Painting is very unique in the way it has this ongoing lineage through thousands of years and at any time you can pick up one of these threads and start to work with it and if you approach it right, it still has so much relevance. It’s a never-ending conversation with the past in terms of the present. Really, I think there is one key way in which the internet has influenced painting, possibly more than anything else and that is the fact that for the first time ever in history it’s now more or less possible to know exactly what is happening in every corner of the globe. Back in the day you had to move to Paris to see what was happening, now on Youtube you can go to more or less every gallery opening, on Instagram and websites you can see the very latest paintings being made everywhere. It is this massive instant awareness of what is happening everywhere that I see is the main influence the internet has had on painting. Everything is possible now and if you ignore that it seems a bit stubborn. You can be as jokey or serious as you want, there’s no dominant school or style, you just have to try and be good at it and the only way to be good at painting is to basically spend your life doing it. You can’t force it, or skip steps, you have to just spend hours in the studio and work through it all. It’s a very slow process in an increasingly sped up world. The way I see it, painters always leapt on any new technical invention that they could use in their work. But for us now, the technology is slowly becoming a part of us, becoming so deeply connected with our lives that it’s hard to see where one stops and the other starts.