Q + A : August 2017

marc blake painting Clyff Notes 2017

Marc Blake Clyff Notes (2017) Acrylic on board. 75 x 60cm

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.

EG:  True.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing (2017)

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Marc Blake.  Clearing (2016-17) Acrylic on board. 150 x 120cm

This work went though half a dozen or more radically different stages.  It began in 2016 as an all over landscape based upon aspects of my local environment in terms of paintings I did from 2007 – 2012.  It was then almost totally sanded away, left as is, restarted in a different way, sanded, left out in my carport for a few months, started again, abandoned outside again and then about a month ago, finally brought back in to the studio once more.

At that point the work was mainly just a light pinkish colour, with large lupin flowers in the bottom third.  I covered over the entire work freely and without consideration using a variety of colour and paint, before finally deciding to sand it back once again.

The result is a work, which to me at least, is a kind of combination between two American painters who influenced me in different ways at the very beginning of when I started to paint; Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Faint ghosts of the lupin flowers from the earlier iteration can still be seen in the work and with them, what also appears to be fragments of hundreds of other images.   Yet aside from the remnants of those flowers, there is not a single representational image in this work that was directly painted.  Through controlling the sanding process as much as I am able to, as well as allowing multiple accidents or unexpected results to happen, the resulting surface contains an almost infinite amount of detail.  Within this detail , the viewer is free to imagine images as they “see” them, much as is the case with the rhythmic forms in Pollock’s “Mural” (1943), and in a different way, the representational elements in many of de Kooning’s works from the 1950s.

Like those artists, I applied many, many layers of paint in this work, however, it was in the subsequent varying degrees of removing the majority of this pigment and undoing the brushstroke, that the true nature of what I am trying to do, is able to emerge.

Until now.

I began painting some time around 1998/99 and the first public exhibition of my painting was in 1999, in Kingsland,  Auckland.  The show was divided into two groups of work.

The first group were black and white acrylic paintings on paper and canvas, representing the simplified street maps around the area where I was living at the time.  Khyber Pass, Symonds Street, K Rd, Cross Street, Grafton Bridge.   These were painted in a way that referenced the visual language of Colin McCahon, however the predetermined composition of the street grids, as well as the stencilled street names, came more from thinking about Jasper Johns.

The first painting I ever looked at and felt I truly understood in a way that was completely intuitive and personal, was a triptych on paper by Colin McCahon at the Auckland Art Gallery.  It seemed to not only directly suggest the commercial and industrial landscape of central Auckland at the time, but also the unknown, somewhat paranoid atmosphere surrounding the end of the 20th century.   It was at that point, that painting went from becoming something in a museum I couldn’t understand, to something that had the power to communicate in a very unique way.

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Through learning more about McCahon and encountering of his work, I subsequently became interested in the New York Abstract Expressionists who had influenced him.  It was paintings, more or less sampling and borrowing from the ideas of many of these artists, which formed the second group of works in my first exhibition.  I continued to develop this kind of abstract painting for about the next year or so, until through looking increasingly at pop art, figuration began to dominate.

In 2002 I moved to live in Fukuoka, Japan.  I had always been interested in Japanese arts and culture and had previously been there on holiday at the end of 1999.  When I arrived in Japan in 2002, painting didn’t fit in with what I was experiencing.  Everything was moving so fast.  It was the true explosion of the internet, digital video and photography was everywhere.  I saw for the first time, a friend’s cellphone that also had a camera built in.  Everything was changing and the pace and formality of painting felt too slow.  I did however do the first painting in which I traced the outlines of a work directly from an LCD monitor onto paper and then impressed into board.  An evolving method of tracing images would continue throughout the next decade of my work.

In late December 2004, I moved to Yokohama.  This was the city my good friend Kosuke (Ko) Masuda was from and we had been friends since meeting in Auckland a couple of years earlier.  Ko had graduated Elam and then returned to complete a year’s trading as a Shingon Buddhist monk at Koya-san.   Following this training he returned to his family’s temple in Yokohama and as well as his monk duties, also began to paint again.  It was sharing Ko’s small 3 x 3m prefab studio on the temple grounds, where I also returned to painting after what had been about an 18 month break.  Since early 2005 I have continued an almost daily practice of painting.

2005 was an extremely important year for me as well as my painting.  Ko and I were both finalists in an art award at the Kyoto Museum and we received a studio residency and exhibition at the impressive and fairly newly opened BankART Yokohama facilities.

At that time of my life and in that place, everything was extremely visual for me.  The contrast with New Zealand was impossibly overpowering and all of my paintings began to incorporate what I encountered.  Based on figures from ukiyo-e and updated to contemporary hairstyles and fashion as well as compositional ideas from screen paintings, I began to create all over landscape paintings on wood populated with these figures and trees and birds.

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Marc Blake.  Yokohama Day + Night (2005) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil on board. 60 x 75cm

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Marc Blake.  Watergarden (2006) Acrylic, acrylic modelling paste, graphite, colour pencil, pigment ink and gel ink on board. 90 x 140cm (Painted, Yokohama, Japan)

Upon returning to New Zealand in late 2006, I staged a one night exhibition with photographer Jos Wheeler at a friend’s warehouse in Grey Lynn.  I sold the 20 works I had brought back from Japan and subsequently began to work with two galleries; a small fledgling one based in downtown Auckland and the other very established one in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.  I was almost immediately able to start taking part in shows throughout the country and continued to sell work.

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Marc Blake.  Where it all begins (2007) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil on board. 100 x 140cm (painted Auckland, NZ)

 

In 2007, Sir James Wallace bought his first painting from me.  It was a tiny triptych.  He would go on to continue to support me over the following years, with fourteen works now in the collection.  In 2008 I shared a small studio in Kingsland with the painter Kirstin Carlin.  Although our work was almost the total opposite of each other’s, it was an enjoyable and very productive time.  I made the work for my first solo show after Japan and became a finalist in the Wallace art Awards for the first time, having previously tried and failed in the two previous years.  The work, which was a large painting and drawing taken from a  Dolce & Gabbana advertisement.  It was included in the salon des refuses and subsequently became the second work in the Trust collection.

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Marc Blake. D&G#2 (2008) Acrylic and colour pencil on board. 120 x 150cm (Painted, Auckland, NZ)

I made a handful of paintings based on this style of drawings from magazines, but the vast majority of my work at this time was based on stained plywood, using the woodgrain as a basis for landscapes.  Now peopled with a hybrid of Japanese memories and New Zealand experience.  An early 2008 painting titled, “Picnic on the Grass”, was the first work I did in this way.

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Marc Blake.  Picnic on the Grass (2008) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil and pigment ink on board. 59 x 90cm (Painted, Auckland, NZ)

At the end of 2008, as the global financial crisis hit and galleries began to fold, I decided to move to Sydney.  During the three years I lived overlooking Rushcutters Bay park, this style of landscape painting developed further.  I subsequently began to work with a dealer in Sydney and then concentrated on a dealer in New Zealand who I would continue to work with for the next 6 or 7 years.  It was not until midway through 2017, that the way I considered images and materials would fundamentally change.

The large work, “Future Fund” was the culmination of my time in Sydney.  It was again selected as a finalist in the Wallace Awards and this time became part of the traveling exhibition.   “Future Fund” is also significant because it is the first major work to include areas of sanding as a means of both disintegrating and partly concealing the image.

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Marc Blake. Future Fund (2011) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil, gel ink and pigment ink on board. Tetraptych; 160 x 280cm (Painted, Sydney, Aus)

Another work done in Sydney around the same time, “The Value of Persistence”, became quite a one-off in this regard, as it contained for the first time, a large area of thick, layered paint which was again partially sanded back.  I became struck by how evocative and suggestive of image this random sanding became, but again it was not until 2017 that I would revisit this idea.

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Marc Blake.  The Value of Persistence (2011) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil, pigment ink on board.  60 x 95cm

After returning to Auckland in late 2011, I began working towards my first New Zealand solo show in a number of years.  I believe that many of the works done in the second half of 2012 were the best examples of landscape painting I ever did.

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Towards the end of 2012, I made the painting “Infinity Pool”, which remains one of my most favourite works.  Besides the image and the shifting manner in which I was starting to use the wood grain, the work contains large areas of bare wood, sanded right back and left for the first time.

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Marc Blake.  Infinity Pool (2012) Acrylic, graphite, colour pencil on board. 80 x 96cm (Painted, Auckland, NZ)

In December 2012 I moved to Busan, South Korea and lived there for 6 months.  The resulting works I made there further reduced and refined my painting, increased the use very thin stains of colour and also sanding.  They were the peak of this six year period of landscape work, first started upon my return from Japan.

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Crossing

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Magic Hour 2013

Returning to Auckland in 2013, the following works took a different turn.  Gone was almost all of the sanding and instead images were heavily planned in Photoshop and traced and painted almost monochromatically in very thin applications, concentrating on shadow.  This body of work remains quite unique, as it’s glassy, misty almost transparent surfaces played a stark contrast to the sanded works.  These works peaked with “State of origin”, a large and very dreamy painting based on an image of a forest outside Glenorchy.

 

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Marc Blake.   State of Origin (2013) Acrylic and colour pencil on board. diptych; 200 x 240cm  (Painted, Auckland, NZ)  (studio, Auckland, 10 2014)

 

These glassy, reflective, muted paintings were extremely evocative of memory for me, particularly my time in Asia.  They further refined with thin glazes and almost photographic scenes into 2014.

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At the beginning of 2015 I moved to Queenstown, which was the one place in New Zealand I constantly thought about during the decade I was overseas.  I have now lived in Queenstown for two and a half years.  After decades of cramped living in big, polluted cities, I am now constantly grateful to breathe the freshest air in the world and be surrounded by some of the most incredible natural scenery anywhere.  As a landscape painter, moving somewhere like this was somewhat visually overwhelming in an entirely different way to how Japan had been.  The mountains and lakes here are virtually untouched, the light and colours are never the same from one moment to the next.  The seasons are perfectly individual.  10 minutes drive from my house and I can be alone and completely immersed in nature.

I received the opportunity for an exhibition for the TSB Bank Wallace Arts centre in Auckland, which would again be divided into two groups – half all new work and the other half, works from the collection spanning over a decade.  The exhibition culminated an extremely difficult two year period, in which my output had been drastically reduced due to the illness and passing of my brother.  The new works for this show were started not long after my brother’s death in July and were all completed by the end of November.  I worked quickly and with a new approach, allowing the pouring and mixing and chance reactions of numerous bright and vibrant pigments to form on the surface of the board.  From there, I was able to envision landscape forms as I had done previously with the wood grain.

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Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view) TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland. 2015-2016

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Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view) TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland. 2015-2016

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Marc Blake.  DNA (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil, pigment ink on board. 60 x 75cm

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Marc Blake.   What We See and What We Don’t See (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 60 x 75cm

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Marc Blake.    Second Sun (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board.  75 x 60cm

After the conclusion of that show, I have concentrated solely on the studio and chose to stop working with my previous galleries.   I felt I was heading in a direction that was no longer my own and that the only way to find that again, was to stop exhibiting and concentrate on allowing the work to take its course.

The resulting period was one of intense experimentation where almost each work looked different to the previous.  With no consideration for creating a body of work or any type of exhibition, I was free to once again return to the very essence of what I enjoyed about painting.  Increasingly, most often out of abandoning works and wanting to reuse the board, I was sanding very often and in doing so, started to actually become equally as interested in the act of removing paint.

Amidst all of this natural splendour, I have once again found myself slowly leaving images behind and focusing on the mostly abstract painting where I first started.  Thinking again of those old New York paintings from the 1950s.

The works I made for “The New Landscape” show involved numerous layers of poured, very intense pigments and it was through sanding away some of these abandoned works, that two very significant paintings suddenly took this idea forward.

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Marc Blake.  Park (2016) Acrylic, colour pencil, pigment ink on board. 100 x 80cm

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Pacific (2016) Acrylic, colour pencil, ink on board. 100 x 80cm

 

It was now only a few weeks ago, during the final stages of making of the work that would go on to become “Axiom” (2017), that I experienced what I can only describe as a fundamental shift in my understanding about painting.  For the first time, I felt image and material join into something I had never anticipated.  For that reason, I consider “Axiom” to be maybe the most important painting I have ever done.  If only solely for the reason that it was during this work where everything suddenly made sense.  I feel that there is a clear and distinct separation between every painting I made before this work and now every painting I will make after.

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Marc Blake.  Axiom (2017) Acrylic, graphite on board.  150 x 120cm

The paintings I am making now may look radically different to what I was doing a few years before, yet it directly connects back to my beginning.  It has reached this point in a constantly evolving way over seventeen years.  Each work contains fragments of every step along the way.   I am still painting intuitively and it is still developing.  I feel like I am back at the very start, thinking again of the works I was making in Auckland at the turn of the 21st century.   However, instead of trying to make something and thinking about how to make it, I am now able to just make it.  Everything is intuitive, nothing is planned.  Paint is applied thicker than ever.  It is left as is, or scraped, or sanded away.  There is no longer a distinction between image and materials, something that needed to be in order to learn about each of these aspects over the past decade.

It is very easy to mock abstract expressionism and the seriousness connected with it, perhaps rightfully so.  Pop Art did this perfectly but the resulting legacy of jokey, bad painting made by adolescents who graduate as artists still continues.

Yet at the core of what these old abstract painters were doing is something that remains perhaps more vital than it has been at any time since the 1950s.  The internet and digital technology has greatly influenced painting in a number of ways and as such, many contemporary artists feel the need to directly reference that in their work.  Some even paint like robots, seemingly without the awareness that it is the robots themselves who will soon be doing the best paintings.
As such, human painting needs to once again return to what defines it.  Handmade scribblings, which wether image or not, go directly back to the caves.  The materials and the image and the technique need to be what only painting can be.

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Marc Blake.  Sower (2017) Acrylic, ink on board. 50 x 40cm

 

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Marc Blake.  Boy as T-Rex (2017) Acrylic, plastic on board. 75 x 60cm

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Marc Blake.  Maria Dragging Her Canoe (2016-17) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 75 x 60cm

 

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Marc Blake.  Mitten (2017) Acrylic on board. 50 x 40cm

 

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Marc Blake.  Floored (2017) Acrylic, newspaper on board. 50 x 40cm

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Marc Blake.  Clearing (2016-17) Acrylic on board. 150 x 120cm

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Marc Blake.  Hudson (2017) Acrylic on board. 50 x 40cm

Q + A – July 2016, part 2

2016 7 31a Marc Blake paintingWork in Progress.  (Left) 30 July 2016, (Right) 31 July 2016

Emily Goldsmith:  So in continuation from part 1 yesterday, of course the painting you were working on has utterly transformed yet again.  Can you talk us through this somehow?

Marc Blake:  Well I went to bed last night thinking that the painting had reached a certain point where it had communicated enough to me.  I’d made enough of a kind of story about it and tried out some stuff and then I woke up this morning and it was lightly snowing.  So I put the painting outside and covered it in water and poured paint over it and the snow fell on it for a while and then I rubbed moist of it off and sanded and added more colour.

E.G:  I’m sure there is a case in thinking that you should just leave the painting as it was, that many people would have found something of interest in how it was yesterday.  How about just starting a new one?

M.B:  Well ultimately, for better or worse it’s just how I work.  There are many points along the way when someone will see the painting and like whatever stage it’s at, but then equally I’m guessing there are people who will like it more at yet another stage.  Trying to please everyone is pointless, trying to fit into a market, or clique, or whatever equally so.  I’m just trying to resolve and express an idea, or ideas, through paint.  It leads me where it leads me.

E.G:  How about you?  Have you ever regretted sanding back or covering a work?

M.B:  Yeah a few times.  But then those were only just paintings that I liked the look of for whatever reason.  They looked good on their own, in their own right, as one-offs in a  way.  They weren’t works that suggested new possibilities, or ways forward.

E.G:  Like those ‘dead ends” you talk about?

M.B:  Yeah exactly.  Only liking a painting visually is never enough for me, it has to challenge me and push me forward, have something in it that says I’m on the right track.  There’s more than enough painters out there who seem to crack onto a winning subject and then endlessly repeat the same thing.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, everyone is different, it’s just impossible for me.

E.G:  So speaking of repeating things, this question is asked a lot, “what is painting today and is it still relevant?”

M.B:  That old chestnut.  I think it’s the kind of question that painter’s have no business concerning themselves with.  Painting is everything from decoration, to wallpaper, to movies, to high art these days.  Then even within painting as art there are thousands of different approaches.  There is no dominant school of painting any more, despite how much certain galleries want to push the idea.  The internet has long since made that whole idea redundant.

E.G:  In what way?

M.B:  There’s just too much going on and now it’s possible for everyone to know it and see it instantly, whenever they want.  Seeing the work in the flesh is of course so much different than seeing a 3cm Instagram pic on your phone, the experience is completely different, but even still, ideas can be communicated so quickly.  As a visual art, painting adapts and it still works.

E.G:  How does it work?

M.B:   Well I can really only talk about how it works for me, I’m sure other people have different ideas.  So I can talk about what happens when I see a painting by someone that affects me in a good way.

E.G:  What happens?

M.B:  It communicates something to me.  Possibly in line with what the artist was thinking, possibly not, possibly both, but it communicates to me and it feels like it’s doing it in a way that is both in terms of language and also something beyond it.  It’s communicating to me what it means to be alive, to be human, to be conscious and on the earth at this point in time.  And it’s doing all this in something static and visual.  What I don’t like is painting that just looks like art.

E.G:  So that’s as a viewer, what about as a painter yourself?  What is the way a good painting affects you as an artist?

M.B:  The best feeling I can ever have when I see a painting is a kind of humbling admiration.  Like they’ve cracked it, cracked the code.  That feeling when I see a painting and I instantly want to get back in the studio, not to incorporate their work into mine, or be directly influenced by it or whatever, but that it encourages me to make even better work.  To pick up my game.  However, I have to say that rarely happens these days.

E.G:  Is there another active painter who you feel influences you particularly, or whose work has a kind of kinship or whatever for you?

M.B:  No.  But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy or admire other artists, because of course I do.  It’s just that my approach to painting has followed such a path that I don’t really concern myself with what other people are doing around me.  I’m glad that they’re doing it for sure and I respect anyone who’s succeeding as an artist, I’m just not interested in being especially influenced by other working artists out there.  Constantly looking at art results in a myopic, insular view.  I’m more interested in looking at what has been done over the history of painting and somehow trying to add to that and incorporate the current experience.   I read reviews and with some specific painters there’s always a mention of other contemporary painters in their review, like they are a “version” of someone else.  That would really bum me out to read that all the time.  All that says to me is that they are still trying to work through what is probably a pretty heavy influence.

E.G:  So how do you work through an influence?

M.B:  That’s a good question, I’m not sure.  I guess it’s different for everyone, but really it just has to be through your own painting.  Somehow reaching a point where you go beyond always having to surround yourself with other people’s images and trying very hard to desperately be like someone else and wanting what they have.  My approach to learning about art and becoming an artist was to go and live in a country where the tradition and art history really spoke to me the most, and then to stay there and make work until I understood why.  But of course that’s just me.  I had friends at art school and it didn’t appeal to me at all.  I’m not anti art school, I think it is really important for certain people and knowing about art history and ideas is vital, I’m just anti the idea that art school is the only way.  Just in my case, I never considered being an artist as something that could come through graduating an academic course.  My art is from experience, about experience.  That’s the only way I know.  Each to their own.

E.G:  When you compare the painting you were working on yesterday, versus what it is today, it’s like you’ve almost purged yourself of imagery.  There were at least a dozen, very graphic images in the work yesterday and now there is just the barest hint of faint imagery remaining.

M.B:  Yeah I’m slowly learning that freedom of idea is a big part of it.  Having the freedom to put in whatever images I like during the making of a work is quite liberating.  There’s no pressure to keep anything, or to make the work stay the same forever.  Sometimes it’s fun to be literal for a while or make up stories, who cares.  I’m realising that time is becoming a key aspect of what I do, allowing time into the work in as many ways as I can.  Giving up attachment and fighting the ego.  Having fun, being serious when I need to be be and carefree and idiotic when I need to be.

E.G:  Is there the danger of working on it for ever?

M.B:  Yeah I thought about that and it’s funny.  But I use pretty thin wood, so eventually I’d just end up sanding it into dust.  That may be what I’m doing when I’m 80.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q + A – July 2016, part 1

Emily Goldsmith:  With The New Landscape exhibition, you had some of the brightest, or at least most densely coloured paintings you’d ever done.  Then it seemed you almost obliterated that way of working, stripping things down to the point of almost nothing.  Now again, with perhaps the most recent works I think you’ve started to come back in a way.

Marc Blake:  I had a couple of works in my studio that I hadn’t included in that show and even though I liked aspects of them, I wasn’t really happy with them as a whole.  This led to me sanding them back almost entirely as usual, except with these ones, what I started to like was how it looked with parts of the paint completely sanded away and other parts still remaining.  I’d done variations of this kind of thing for many years, but never really in this way, or to this extent before.  What happened was that the remaining pigment sort of half suggested a landscape and half become just a kind of abstract background in a way.

E.G:  I think the first one, and I know you’ve talked about his before, was the basketball hoop painting based on the park next to your house.

M.B:  Yeah that work was like a kind of accidental revelation, the whole way through making it was like a constant series of accidents that seemed to work together.  From how the landscape revealed itself after being sanded back so intensely, to accidentally pasting the image of the basketball hoop on to a photo of the work in progress in Photoshop.  It was sort of the peak of making a painting that was very much based on my immediate environment, but it all happened in such a haphazard and free-associative way.  In a sense that work was so perfect for me, but at the same time it was a kind of dead end, there was no way I could really reproduce that again.

E.G:  In what way specifically?

M.B:  I mean every now and again I stumble across an image, like the basketball hoop in the park across the road, that is packed with so much kind of meaning and association, both personally and collectively, that’s like a one-off.  The way forward is to either keep using that image for ever, or try and think of another one that has a similar impact, or else change direction entirely.  I decided to change direction because the other two ways are dead-ends for me.  But rather than completely change, I went back in a way to what I was doing in all the works for that last show and with many other paintings before that over the years.

E.G:  We have three images I want to ask you about and see what connection there may or may not be towards them.  The first is, “Second Sun” from 2015 and then “Pacific” and the newest one you’re still working on at the moment.

Second Sun

Marc Blake.  Second Sun (2015) Acrylic polymer, colour pencil, pigment ink on board. 75 x 60cm

E.G:  With “Second Sun”, there are several figures and trees and few other things that are fused into the paint in a kind of swirling, neon dreamscape.  There’s no clear realistic intent with the work, it appears almost completely abstract from a distance and the pigment is intense and sitting on the surface of the board.

M.B:  Yeah like we’ve talked about before, pouring all those very thin layers of colour on at the start of the work enabled me to give up so much control.  I had no real idea how it was going to end up when it dried.  Even though I could manipulate it a little along the way, it was more of less just down to wind and sun and gravity.   Once the layers dried, I could then start to imagine a kind of landscape and gradually, one by one, figures or whatever would start to suggest themselves and I’d  look for pre-existing images from any source to try and best convey those ideas.

E.G:  You’ve always used pre-existing images.

M.B:  Almost exclusively in everything since about 2008.  That doesn’t mean to say the painted image necessarily comes out looking anything like the original source – sometimes it does, usually it’s completely different.  The only thing I care about is that a pre-existing image served as the starting point.  Photos, things from other paintings, graphics, drawing, trawling the internet, whatever.  Ultimately it’s all the same to me.  A way to take something that already exists in the world and bring it directly into the context of the work.

E.G:  With “Pacific”, the intense pigment as well as the imagery has been almost completely removed or obscured, almost gesturally, or violently.

Marc Blake.  Pacific (2016) Acrylic polymer, ink, colour pencil on board. 100 x 80cm

Marc Blake. Pacific (2016) Acrylic polymer, ink, colour pencil on board. 100 x 80cm

M.B:  The first painting on this board was very bright, with deep maroons and golds and it was all quite thick.  Then that got mostly sanded off and another painting went on there and then that got mostly sanded off and on and on for about five or six utterly different works over a series of months.  Yet at each stage of sanding, something of those works remained and added to what was already there.  The more I worked, the more it started to suggest something to me, a kind of Pacific scene impacted by conflict.

E.G:  You’ve also developed a new way of incorporating images it seems.

M.B:  Yes for the past three or four paintings I’ve been working on a new way to get images into the work, rather than tracing the outlines of prints into the board.  Essentially it’s like what I’ve alway done, just in a different way.  The difference is that now images kind of sit on the surface as well as soaking into it at the same time.  In “Pacific”, this is probably the first painting I’ve ever done where all the imagery is really “behind” the background colour and the board itself seems to almost float out in front.  I’m not even sure that’s physically possible.

E.G:  Defying physics!

M.B:  Definitely defying the traditional logic of figure and ground anyway.

E.G:  “Pacific” is another very abstract work at first glance.  There is no obvious imagery until you look closer.  Much in the same was as ‘Second Sun”.

M.B:  Yeah this work actually had so many images along the way and all of them were quite graphic and obvious, but for whatever reason I’d just keen sanding them back.  The result is that the sanding started to become the work and ultimately it reached a point where I was looking at it and it just seemed finished.  Kind of scarred.  Lately I’ve been really interested in old Asian paintings on stone and paper that have deteriorated, or been damaged, or defaced, or altered over centuries.  There is a real feeling of time in these latest paintings and I think without it they wouldn’t really work.

E.G:  Despite the fact that for almost everyone else, this work probably seems completely unfinished or like a mistake even.

M.B:  Right!  It’s all quite funny.  It probably looks like the least realised work I’ve ever done, but it’s almost completely the opposite.

E.G:  However obscured or faint though, there are still images in the work.

M.B:  So many times lately I’ve sanded these colourful paintings away and thought that they could be finished just like that.  They’re actually quite beautiful objects in their own right.   It really made me question about why I feel compelled to add images at all.  Ultimately it comes down to what kind of painter I am and that is someone who thinks in terms of images.  A painter who wants to have an image, somewhere, somehow in the work.  It doesn’t always matter to me how clear or obvious they are.  If I was a different kind of painter I could probably just leave them as purely abstract works.  Who knows, maybe I will at some point, but what’s important to me is that everything is constantly changing and progressing in terms of the work itself, in terms of the working.  Not just me making some kind of radical strategy for some external reason.

E.G:  Finally we have a work you’re still making, which from what you’ve just been talking about may be totally gone or different tomorrow, but I’ve seen this progressing piece by piece in detail photos on Instagram and  it’s crazy how many twists and turns it’s taken.

M.B:  And that’s only the photos I’ve posted, there’s been so much more than that.  I can’t even remember what this work was before, but it’s had so much sanding and layering of things that it’s reached a new point.  A huge amount of detail and sources.

E.G:  The background itself is stripped back and muted, it’s almost featureless, yet somehow you’ve still managed to make a landscape out of it.

M.B:  A landscape is really an image made of other smaller images.  What people tend to forget is that there is really no such thing as landscape.  There’s always only just a truly massive amount of minute information, which our eyes tend to combine into a larger, simpler image to enable us to process it.  A perfect example is when I look at these huge mountains behind our house.  Usually we just see what we call a “mountain”, this enormous jagged thing.  It almost looks flat.  Really though it’s billions of rocks and stones and pebbles and dirt, all just lumped in the same place.  The closer we get, the more detail we tend to make out, but it isn’t until our face is literally right in the dirt that we really start to see what the mountain physically is.   Sometimes when the light is right, from a distance I can start to almost zoom in on details on the mountains and then again further in on details within that and it’s mind boggling.  If our eyes suddenly worked differently and we saw all of these nearly infinite details rather than the “mountain”, I think we’d go insane.  But in a way this is really so much closer to how the universe is.  An infinite amount of detail.  Depending on your position to something, it takes on a whole new form.  For that reason I try to make paintings that are as subjective as I can, in every possible way.  As you move closer or further away the story changes, the relationships between figures and objects change, the patterns change, the images change, the techniques change, the whole work changes.  That’s what I look for in painting.

Untitled (Work in Progress) Acrylic polymer, ink, colour pencil on board.  75 x 60cm

Untitled (Work in Progress) Acrylic polymer, ink, colour pencil on board. 75 x 60cm

 

Park

This particular board probably went through more changes than any other work I’ve ever done.  There are remnants of about 5 different paintings in this, each one was radically different to the next and a couple were even considered finished at some point.   Finally after 12 months of sporadic interest, multiple rotations in orientation and complete abandonment, about 2 weeks ago I dug it out again and removed about 95% of the paint.
From this stripped-back state with only stained pigment in patches of the wood, I was able to make out a new landscape in what remained.  A landscape that had in no way been painted or planned previously, yet it instantly reminded me of the immediate environment around where we live.  I was then able to add subtle, faded colour to what I saw and bring out features of this landscape.

The final work, at least to me, is the best I have done in a very long time.  Many a day I have stared at the basketball backboard in the park and marvelled at how it breaks up the enormous mountain range behind it.  Then again after it rains and loved how it is mirrored in puddles on the wet concrete.   This work intuitively brings together the environment I live in, as well as the geometric forms and more organic fluidity of painting.  In its working it is loose and uncontrolled as well as finely detailed and precise.  In short it sums up everything I like about painting.  It hits a balance I only very rarely achieve.

I could not have made this immediately, or deliberately.  I could not have made it without time, experience, accident, cameras, computers, walking my dog and for the first time even Instagram.  Beyond that, there is only the inexplicable and almost illogical motivation that somehow keeps me continuing to return to painting.

untitled 2016 4 8 copy

Untitled (Park) 2016 Acrylic polymer, oil, colour pencil, pigment ink on board.  100 x 80cm

1 (19)1 (20)

On recent paintings: “The New Landscape” exhibition.

‘At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it.’ Associate Professor Andrew Truscott, Australian National University, via http://www.sciencealert.com/.

“A work of art normally behaves as if it is a statement: ‘This is a sculpture of the Old Testament hero David by Michelangelo’; or ‘This is a portrait of the Mona Lisa’.  We may, of course, ask questions such as ‘Why has Michelangelo made David double life size?’ or ‘Who was this Mona Lisa?’, but these questions follow on from an acceptance of the initial statement that the artwork proposes.  We accept it both as a representation and as being ipso facto art.”  Godfrey, T. (1998). Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon Press Inc.

Landscape painting, also known as landscape art, is the depiction in art of landscapes – natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, especially where the main subject is a wide view – with its elements arranged into a coherent composition. In other works landscape backgrounds for figures can still form an important part of the work. Sky is almost always included in the view, and weather is often an element of the composition. Detailed landscapes as a distinct subject are not found in all artistic traditions, and develop when there is already a sophisticated tradition of representing other subjects. The two main traditions spring from Western painting and Chinese art, going back well over a thousand years in both cases. The recognition of a spiritual element in landscape art is present from its beginnings in East Asian art, drawing on Daoism and other philosophical traditions, but in the West only becomes explicit with Romanticism.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landscape_painting

 

Since 2005, I have been making paintings that I call landscapes, thereby placing them within the context of the genre of landscape paintings in both the Western and East Asian painting traditions.   Although as an artist who is aware of both of these traditions and incorporates ideas from them into my paintings, during the past decade of work, only one of my paintings (Kōyasan, 2014), was of a specific, actual geographical location.   Simultaneously over this ten year period, as information technology has continued to develop and become increasingly fused with our lives, more and more of our time is being spent in a new and evolving online environment; a new landscape that goes beyond our actual physical space.

To give an example; it is now summer, I am sitting at home in Queenstown.  I have a cellphone on the table beside me.  Half of my Instagram feed is of people lying on sun-filled beaches during summer vacation, the other half is of snow covered mountains and forests.  Both are happening at once on opposite sides of the world and as long as I am viewing the images, then I am experiencing beaches, snowy forests and my own living room at once and I can go in and out of all of them in milliseconds.

So what is my real “landscape”?  Is it the beach or the mountains or my living room?  The traditional idea may suggest it is my living room, but then from my living room I can also see mountains and a cloudy sky and trees through the window.  So is my landscape the inside, or the outside of the house, or both?  Is the outside necessarily any more real than watching a TV?  I would say it is all of these things.  Then add computers and tablets and phones and books and everything else into that mix and really we realise all of it is our landscape.

To give a different example; a workman just cut down a tree in my neighbour’s front lawn.  The tree is gone, but I can remember it being there.  If I look out the window, there is no tree in the landscape.  If I close my eyes and remember, then the tree appears again.  I know that one of these states is “real” and one is not, yet it is my belief that reality, not what is “real”, is only ever where our thoughts are at any given moment.  We often describe dreams as being realistic, yet in my opinion they go beyond that into actually being reality – at least while you’re in them.  If I am in bed dreaming, my reality is far more the world of the dream than the body lying motionless and unaware in bed.

Similarly, even though I may physically be sitting in my living room at home in New Zealand, if I am lost deep in memories of lying on a beach in Hawaii, then for that moment I consider my “reality” to be more in Hawaii than New Zealand.  Even though of course I know I am “really” in New Zealand.  If I am engaged in viewing videos or photos, at least for the minutes or seconds I am actively looking at these images, my conscious focus is very much directed at a place outside my physical body and location.  If this wasn’t the case, I doubt advertising as we know it would exist.  The same could be said for reading books, watching films, drifting off while listening to music, daydreaming, taking hallucinogenic drugs, engaging in a creative, imaginary act, or even occasions where the mind can seem to “divert” itself away from the body during intense physical pain or trauma.  Essentially it is any moment where the mind ceases to be present and aware of the physical location and immediate surroundings and in doing so, “transports” you someplace else.

For this reason, my paintings incorporate aspects from all of these states of being to present a new landscape.  A landscape where times, seasons, places, cultures, dreams, real and imagined events all come together and everything happens at once.  A landscape of what painting itself is and has become.  A landscape that goes beyond any intention by me as an artist, or any statement by the painting itself of being an artwork.  There is no intention, there is no statement.  There is no story I am trying to tell, no meaning I am trying to communicate.  Instead, the paintings themselves are simply presentations of information from the bias of my own experience, with which the viewer is then free to engage and interpret in their own terms.  Some of this is based upon their own unique, individual experiences and some of it will be the shared experiences of us both, or culture and society at large.

Therefore, unlike Michelangelo’s “David” or da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, the latest paintings I have made for this exhibition do not state anything other than that they are just paintings.  Yes they have representational elements like trees and mountains and figures, which are ways to engage or enter the works, but they do not become art until they are seen.  It is only through this viewing and interpretation of the paintings that they can simultaneously be viewed as both objects and materials, as well as art that conceptually engages the viewer.

Even though during the making of the paintings each element suggests the next, it is not until the work is complete that I can begin to view it as a whole and engage the work as a viewer myself.   For this reason, despite any feelings or thoughts I may have had during the making of the work, I have no more of an idea, nor could be considered any more of an authority on what the work “means” than anyone else.   There is no meaning other than what each person choses to place upon it, nor is there any single way, either “right” or “wrong”, to view or interpret any of these new paintings.

Finally, another aspect that sets these new works apart and further removes any statement or intention from me as an artist, is the fact that many of the patterns left by the pigments also suggest multiple associations to different people.  One example is how people have told me they can see owls in one painting that I had neither “seen’ nor even thought of myself.  Likewise, what someone sees as a bird may be a cloud, or what someone sees as an eye, may really be just the way the paint settled.

As humans we are pre-programmed to recognise patterns and especially faces.  Making out images in random patterns, like seeing the shape of a horse in the clouds, is called pareidolia.  As an artist I encourage a pareidolic response to the dried, random pigments to form the basis of the landscapes while I am making the works, but it seems inevitable that someone else may have a different response.

Therefore what I always considered to look like a cloud, may in turn look like a tsunami, or a storm, or the edge of a forest, or a mountain, or a nuclear blast, or a tropical paradise, or even a fiery planet to another viewer.  No one is right, no one is wrong.  It is all and one and none of these things.  The work does not state anything, it is simply materials and colour and outlines.  Only when viewed and engaged does it become art.

This is my painting.  This is the new landscape both us and painting now occupy.  This is the new landscape painting.

Marc Blake
January, 2016

 

Second Sun

Marc Blake – Second Sun (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 75 x 60cm