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 – January 2016

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.

marc blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


Marc Blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


marc blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


Marc Blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


Marc Blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


marc blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


marc blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


Marc Blake painting

Marc Blake: The New Landscape (partial Installation view)


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.

Jump (2015) Acrylic on board. 50 x 40cm

Jump (2015) Acrylic on board. 50 x 40cm

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.

Marc Blake painting

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


Marc Blake painting

Dawn (2015) Acrylic, oil, colour pencil on board. 80 x 120cm (Detail)


Marc Blake painting

Dawn (2015) Acrylic, oil, colour pencil on board. 80 x 120cm (Detail)

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.

As a Human I'm Going to Try and Compare This to Everything in Li

As a Human I’m Going to Try and Compare This to Everything in Life (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 50 x 40cm

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.

Marc Blake painting

Nude Descending a Staircase (2015) Acrylic on board. 150 x 120cm

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.

Marc Blake painting

Nude Descending a Staircase (2015) Acrylic on board. 150 x 120cm (Detail)

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?

marc Blake painting

Second Sun (2015) Acrylic and colour pencil on board. 75 x 60cm (Detail)


Marc Blake painting

Second Sun (2015) Acrylic and colour pencil on board. 75 x 60cm (Detail)

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.


Q + A – October 2015

Emily Goldsmith:  When we spoke last month, you had completed a few new works for your upcoming exhibition that marked quite a significant development in the evolution of your process.  How has it been in the studio since then?  You seem to have been doing a lot of work.

Marc Blake:  Yes it’s been a very productive couple of months.  I’ve got another month to finish things off and so far it’s all looking in good shape.  Once the first few works happened it kind of opened the floodgates in a way, the ideas have been coming through quickly and most importantly it’s been the most fun I’ve had painting in quite a while.  There’s a real flow happening from one to the next.

E.G:  You said before that you think this body of work is perhaps the biggest jump since 2008.

M.B:  I still think it is.  Of course a lot has happened in those years and it’s all shaped where I am today, but there is a whole new freedom opened up with these new works that I haven’t felt for ages.  Some periods of working have a more defined characteristic about them, as if the work is really just for one specific show or avenue of experimentation, but recently I can feel the whole thing opening up a lot, suggesting there is a lot more to investigate.

E.G:  Even with the past couple of works, it seems clear you are still opening up and letting things happen.  The first works I saw early last month were very free and seemingly spontaneous, but now it seems to be even more so.  Particularly with this latest one titled, “The Magnificence”.

The Magnificence 2015 Marc Blake

The Magnificence (2015) Acrylic on board. 40 x 50cm  Marc Blake

M.B:  I’m still experimenting with different ways of treating the board and the paint.  New uses of mediums and preparation affect the way in which the very thin liquid pigment flows and dries across the board.   I am dabbing at the wet paint and interacting with it a bit while its wet, but I don’t want to try and control everything.  The wider “landscape” usually starts to appear very quickly in the process, but it doesn’t have to be logical or realistic in any way.  It doesn’t have to always make sense or be polished or perfect.

E.G:  The paintings all have a sense of cohesion and obviously work together very well as a group, yet there is still something unique that differentiates all of them.

M.B:  Well there is two kinds of disciplines going on in these works I think.  The first being the unpredictable application of very thin colour and the second being what figures or objects to place within the landscape and how to render them.  With the first layers, I am outside with the painting lying on the grass.  I’m using very fluid paint and literally a garden hose to soak everything.  Add to that the effects of the wind and sun, even snow and rain and the angle or slope of the ground and you realise there’s a whole lot of factors at play.  I could attempt to try and paint two works the same but it would never happen, it’s impossible to ever completely duplicate.

E.G:  And then as you mentioned, the figures and animals and trees start to populate these landscapes, yet even between how they are painted there is a big variation of how you handle the paint.  How solid or detailed the figures are, or how much they advance or recede from the background.

M.B:  Again it just comes down to the intuition of working.  I don’t know how the figures, or trees, or whatever is going to be painted until I’m actually painting them.  Even then sometimes it changes midway through, or maybe again further down the line when something else is added.  But then this is how I’ve really always worked anyway, each step influences the next.

Monument Valley (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 50 x 40cm Marc Blake

Monument Valley (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 50 x 40cm Marc Blake

E.G:  You always have quite a lot of variation with how the paint is applied in a single work.  Like there are a number of different techniques happening at once.  This isn’t something you often seen in painting, but for you this kind of thick and thin, soft and hard contrast seems to be important.

M.B:  Again this has only happened over years of working.  It’s an intuitive thing I do and I just have to trust it.  I think a lot of it comes down to a kind of focus in the work, like a camera focus.  Having soft areas and crisp areas, thin areas and thicker more textural areas is more interesting to me.  It makes the eye wander around the work more I think and switch between focusing on one spot and then another and then also taking the whole wide scene in.  I also want certain things to advance and recede like we’ve mentioned.  My works are all very, very flat landscapes and this comes from the strong Asian influence.  They are literally almost the thinnest application of paint I can use and particularly with these recent works, it’s mainly just one single colour being applied, so in that sense it’s like ink.  All of these things combined means an illusion of focus and depth and different planes can appear, all within a super flat work.

Bannockburn Nights (2015) Acrylic on board. 80 x 100cm (detail) Marc Blake

Bannockburn Nights (2015) Acrylic on board. 80 x 100cm (detail) Marc Blake

Bannockburn Nights (2015) Acrylic on board. 80 x 100cm (detail) Marc Blake

Bannockburn Nights (2015) Acrylic on board. 80 x 100cm (detail) Marc Blake

Q + A – September 2015

Vision Quest (2015) Acrylic, oil, graphite, colour pencil, pigment ink on board. 60 x 75cm

Vision Quest (2015) Acrylic, oil, graphite, colour pencil, pigment ink on board. 60 x 75cm

Emily Goldsmith:  Having seen a couple of images of new paintings for your upcoming exhibition, I’d like to ask you about control in your work.  What does the notion of controlling a painting mean to you?

Marc Blake:  For me, painting or art making is a fairly difficult thing to explain.  In terms of the kind of person or artist I am, the more I live and experience, the better my work becomes.  I am always looking to art history, at what other people have done before me and how I think I may be able to continue and add to at least some part of what they achieved.  In this way a great deal of painting comes from the past, in terms of continuing a tradition or legacy, a kind of unbroken line back through all cultures and societies to the beginning.  These days I think there is a real split between art that is only about other art, or exploring what art can be, versus art that also attempts to communicate something more directly about being alive.  About living.  For me, I am closer to the latter approach, but that doesn’t mean I think either of them is more valid or important.  Control is a difficult thing to approach, I have gone through periods of painting in which I wanted to be almost free of control and other periods where it was important to almost remove accident from the equation as much as possible.  These days I have come to understand that the less of an idea I have about how a work is going to conclude the better.  In life you quickly realise that there are certain things we can control, or at least like to be able to think we are in control of, yet there is also the flip side that so very much is beyond our control.  Just open to chance and circumstance, timing, whatever.   For this reason, my painting needs to reflect both of these conditions.

E.G:  Can you tell me how these latest works have evolved, or at least something about the process?

Untitled (Detail) (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 60 x 75cm

Untitled (Detail) (2015) Acrylic, colour pencil on board. 60 x 75cm

M.B:  At the moment I am doing works where the first real step is to more or less freely pour very thin washes of colour or pigment onto the surface of the wood.  By continuing to add more water and other colour, everything moves very slowly across the surface, swirling and fusing or separating until eventually drying.  During this process I have very little control, although I am at least able to tilt the work somewhat or dab areas if something suggests itself.  The other day I was working outside and while the paint was still wet it started to snow lightly, the resulting snowflakes landing in the wet paint left a pattern and texture that was unplanned, random and essentially impossible to replicate.  In this sense I had no control other that making a decision to leave the painting outside.  Through doing this I was able to actually incorporate the very notion of an uncontrollable external force into the work itself.

E.G:  And then once this initial phase has dried?

M.B:  For a number of years I used to look at the woodgrain and use this as a suggestion for how to colour and make a landscape in the work.  With the new works, once all these washes of colour have dried, the pattern and form they leave in the wood is now what I look at to try and find the basis of the landscape.  I am able to make forms of mountains, sky, water, whatever, from the fairly uncontrollable process of simply pouring water and colour onto the wood.  I realised I missed this whole side of making a work, where I can just look at it and in a sense be directed by it in terms of what to do next.

E.G:  Because you live and work somewhere where the natural landscape is so dominant, we’ve spoken a couple of times about how this affects your painting.

M.B:  Essentially I don’t want to make works that are about some place in particular.  Absolutely the landscape of anywhere I’ve been in my life informs the works, but I don’t want to try and sum up anywhere.  Capture anywhere, or try to be the guy who paints a certain place.  If I have memories of a place I’ve been, then that place is always relevant to me, it’s a part of who I am.  If something stands out or triggers that memory it will come into the work at some point.  It’s hard for me in a way, trying to make paintings about a state of being, rather than any specific place.  It demands a certain amount of letting go from both myself and the viewer.  I’m trying to make a painting that is open to interpretation and grows with you, is never one thing forever.  Not just a single gag, or a single place, or a single time, or single way to see.  As strange as it seems, the internet is now a landscape for people too, somewhere most of us visit fairly frequently almost every day.   The way you can jump from time to time and place to place on the internet, makes it very unique.  It’s a lot like our thought process really, the way we can go between remembering the past or imaging the future in a matter of seconds.  Or the way one moment we can be dreaming of something so fantastical and then suddenly be awake lying in bed.  I’m trying to show all of these things happening at once.

E.G:  So in that sense you’re not trying to capture a certain place, or a certain memory and present that to the viewer; something that can be easily summed up.

M.B:  Right.  But I’m also not trying to be deliberately obscure or difficult.  And because I have spent my life in various parts of the Asia Pacific region, then a lot of that visual language comes through.  I hope there is something in every work that when people really take a bit of time to look at it, they can relate to it in a whole new way, no matter where or who they are.  I just think that so much of our life is spent either in thoughts, or online, or in dreams, or in situations that seemingly come out of nowhere, that this in itself is a new landscape.  As such, because I am a painter and have this connection to painting history, I want to use paint to show this.

E.G:  So you’re painting this new landscape.

M.B:  Yeah I am and in a sense I always have been.  I can’t just try and do something as well as, or better, than someone else has done before me.  I have to follow exactly what path I am on and trust that.  If nothing else, I want people to see a whole new side of painting and communication that comes from the time we live in.

Q + A – March 2015

Emily Goldmsith – It seems like every time we catch up you’re living somewhere different.  Tell me about Queenstown in New Zealand, where you’re living now.  When I think about major art centres it doesn’t exactly spring to mind!

Marc Blake – Haha, yeah it’s about as far away as you can get.

EG – So why live there?  Obviously it’s world renowned as one of the most spectacularly scenic places anywhere, is that the reason?

MB – Well about halfway through my time living in Japan my thoughts quite often turned to Queenstown and I’m not really sure why.  It just always had a kind of calling to me since I’d lived there for six months or so when I was 20.  There’s just something about this place that fits so well with the kind of life I enjoy.  It’s the only place in New Zealand where I feel I can be surrounded by an incredible environment and find myself in awe almost every single day, yet also have a real sense of connection with the outside world I guess.  It’s a very busy area here and there’s a huge international presence through the tourism, filmmaking and wine industries.  So I don’t feel like I’ve gone bush at all.

EG – But you can if you want to.

MB – Exactly.  But in 3 hours from our home I could be either driving around the bottom of the world or landing in Sydney.  The fact is, I’ve lived in urban areas for almost my entire life and now I’m just at the point where I don’t want to any more, plus New Zealand is still just New Zealand, city or not it’s on the opposite side of the world.   I followed a strong lifelong influence of Japanese art and lived there for five years, but I’ve never been someone who feels like I have to live in Berlin or New York just because I paint, that’s not the kind of work I do.  For me those are great places to visit.  The fact is I need a connection to what I’m painting, which is always based heavily in ideas of nature, but I don’t want to completely lose myself in it.  With technology being what it is these days, for the first time in history as an artist I can now literally live anywhere in the world and have immediate connectivity with anyone else.  There’s also an airport 10 minutes from my house, if I want to be in Tokyo or LA or somewhere tomorrow I can do that as easily as from here as from anywhere really.   My understanding is that I need the best environment to make new work and right now this is certainly it.  Then beyond that it’s up to me or a gallery to take that work and try to put it in front of people.  To be honest it’s pretty nice living somewhere where people constantly travel half way around the world to come and experience.

EG – So that brings us to a big point, which is how much has that environment impacted your work since you arrived?

MB – I’m not quite sure yet.  Right now it’s almost like scenery overload, we’re literally surrounded by mountains and lakes in every direction.  I’ve often had mountains in my work before but now of course they’re something enormous that I stare at or walk around every day, so the first few works I’ve made here have unavoidably reflected this.  Ideas of looking at nature on an overwhelming scale and ideas of capturing that photographically and in paint, of taking pictures of yourself with nature as a kind of backdrop, and then beyond that still ideas about painting and about how a mountain can be just a form or shape in a composition.  Not paintings about mountains, or paintings trying to “capture” the mountains as such, I’m always making paintings primarily about paintings I guess.  I’m not a scenic landscape painter and I certainly have no interest in realism, or repeating the same kind of work ad nauseam.

EG – The first work you made there was called “Invisible Mountains” and actually had a kind of negative space where the viewer almost has to imagine the mountains.  And then with the stars there, it’s as if we can also see through the mountains.  Was this a deliberate attempt to try to deal with the landscape there?

Invisible Mountains (2015) Oil, acrylic and colour pencil on board. 40 x 50cm

Invisible Mountains (2015) Oil, acrylic and colour pencil on board. 40 x 50cm                                                Copyright Marc Blake

MB – Yeah that work was a first for me in many ways.  It was the first painting with oil paints I’d done for about 15 years.  It was the first painting in my new studio and it was the first painting to reflect the new place we’re living.  It’s based on a photo I took of my brother Steven swimming in Lake Wakatipu, which is the largest lake around here and the one Queenstown is situated on.  He and his wife were visiting us just after we’d moved here and it was an incredibly hot summer’s day and we’d pulled off the road for some lunch and a swim.  We were all quite amazed by the environment that day I think, it was so enormous and so idyllic and overwhelming it was hard to believe it was even real.  It had a real impact on me, on how this space can suggest so much about life and make you reflect on things.  I hadn’t initially intended to leave the mountains blank like that, but when the paint dripped down and stopped as it did it just made perfect sense to me, so I just stopped too.  It was a way for me to begin to paint here without really panting at all, if that makes any sense at all.

EG – The other two recent works go in a different direction, but still the background or the mountains are abstracted, blurred like a photo to the point we can instantly kind of recognise the landscape and at the same time ignore it or turn it into something else, like a pattern or wallpaper.

Wanderer [CDF] (2015) Acrylic, oil and colour pencil on board. 50 x 40cm

Wanderer [CDF] (2015) Acrylic, oil and colour pencil on board. 50 x 40cm.                                                      Copyright Marc Blake.

 MB – Exactly.  That’s exactly what I am trying to do.  Really trying to create areas that are in and out of focus, in and out of association.  Also I like the idea right now of people looking at mountains or taking photos of each other in mountains because that’s what I’m doing too.

EG – And CDF from the title?

MB – Caspar David Friedrich.  The artist who painted “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”.  I took the famous figure from that work and used it in mine.  But I flipped it and used multiple versions and just kept the silhouette, one painted, one not.   It’s a way I can show it’s like a sample of a pre-existing image and also hopefully open up some new questions or possibilities.

EG – The next work, “Viewmaster”, seems to take that idea further again, but this time there are multiple levels to it.

Viewmaster (2015) Acrylic and colour pencil on board.  60 x 75cm

Viewmaster (2015) Acrylic and colour pencil on board. 60 x 75cm                                                                          Copyright Marc Blake

MB – I stumbled across the source image for this work entirely by chance and it instantly connected with what I’d been doing and seeing here recently.  That was both watching tourists taking photos of themselves in scenic spots and also taking photos myself and being in photos by friends and family as well.  I love the idea that families takes these kind of photos and everything is frozen and then when the kids are older everyone looks back on it and it kind of triggers these abstracted memories.  But of course in this image, we are watching that event taking place, it’s a photo of a photo of a moment and so it adds more layers.  That’s something I wanted to do through the painting of the work as well, a work that has multiple layers of depth and picture planes; completely flat and at the same time almost 3D.  It reminded me of the old Viewmaster reels I spent hours and hours looking at at my Grandmother’s house when I was very young.  I also quite like that word “Viewmaster”, it’s like a joke about landscape painting.

EG –  At first I didn’t even notice the two people in the foreground.

MB – Yeah and really they’re just negative space left by the ground of the work itself, just the board, which is something I’ve done a lot over the past few years in different ways.  Painting on board and the way I use it is a lot about rearranging the traditional hierarchies in painting – support, ground, foreground, figure, background.  I like to rearrange these things and make it kind of everything at once.  The man and woman in the front kind of blend into the figures of the family in the mid ground and the wall.  I wanted to make a work that shows what it’s like both capturing an image and a memory and at the same time the way in which photography and then time distort and abstract things.  Selecting areas of detail and no detail.

Q + A – April 2014

Emily Goldsmith – So the last time we spoke you were in Busan, now you’ve been back in NZ for a while, how do you think that time over there has shaped your work?
Marc Blake – I think those 6 months in Busan really gave me some time to experiment in the studio and free myself up from certain things that were starting to run their course in my painting.
EG – The large work ‘Road Dog’ was the final work you completed over there?
Marc Blake – Road Dog (2013) Acrylic, graphite and colour pencil on board. 120 x 144cm

 – Yeah it was the last work I did there, but I actually shipped it back in pieces and then assembled it back in Auckland to enter in an award.
EG – And how do feel about that work in particular?
MB – As a work on it’s own I really like it, it feels like a culmination of a lot of things I’d done over the past years and has quite a personal significance for me in that way, plus a kind of nostalgic connection to working in Busan.  It was light hearted and a bit of a joke in terms of the subject, but after that work things took quite a jump forward in a lot of ways.
EG – I can see that obvious progression since you’ve returned to NZ, but in what way specifically do you think this happened?
MB – Well technically one of the main things that happened was starting to use glazes of paint and experimenting with acrylic mediums.  That’s shifted a lot of how I could layer colour and keep a kind of translucency at the same time.
EG – And what about the wood grain?  The importance of that in your work seems to have really shifted.
MB – Yeah but that had been happening for a long time.  I started doing works specifically with the wood grain in Japan in 2005 and then really investigated that a lot since I moved back to NZ in 2007 onwards.  It reached a point where the significance to me about working on wood was not so much about the visual qualities any more.  Plus since then I’ve seen a couple of other painters in NZ using wood grain in their work and honestly I just don’t like it and don’t want to be associated with that kind of thing.  Wether or not they saw my stuff first I don’t know, but I’ve been exploring the qualities of painting on a specific kind of wood for almost ten years and that whole time it was evolving towards something else.  I think that’s the difference with what I’m doing, it’s never going to stay the same, I’m wary of all these traps that pop up.
EG –  But the grain is still there in your new work.
MB – Yes is it, but less and less and also it’s more of a concept to me now, not just a physical thing.  Plus I’ve been doing a few lately where the grain is totally covered.
EG – So does that mean the work is going to be more like a canvas painting?  Why even work on wood still if that’s the case?
MB  Because I still use the physical texture and surface hardness of wood a lot, particularly in how I transfer images, which we’ve talked about before.
EG – Do you think you’ll ever use canvas?
MB – I don’t know.  But if it’s something that happens, it will just happen like everything else I do.  It won’t be a matter of just deciding to be a different painter for the sake of it.
EG –  What did you mean when you said you’re wary of traps?  What kind of traps?
MB – Just these things that come along in the work and then suddenly they’ve roped you into having to always incorporate them in what you do and they end up owning you.  Like painting a specific way or specific subject or whatever.  Oh he’s the wood grain guy, or she’s the pink flowers girl or whatever.  All that stuff is a dead end to me, endlessly repeating the same thing like facsimiles of themselves.
EG – So is wood becoming a trap to you?
MB – Not it’s not.  But if and when it does, you’ll see!
EG –  Why do you think some artists seem to become facsimiles of themselves as you put it?
MB – I don’t know.  I can see how on one level a constant investigation of something can go on for years and maybe even a lifetime, which is totally understandable, but I really see so many people making what feel like just copies of their own work.  Change for change’s sake is bad, but then so is repetition for repetition’s sake.  I know everyone has their way of doing things, but if I felt I was just in this never ending loop of work I’d probably have to stop.  I mean I’m not sure they’re thinking that way or not.  Maybe one factor is a commercial success that comes from one specific way of working and it seems like something to keep doing, something the market associates with and you become that guy.  Makes sense I guess, but it feels like the ideas and art has stopped and the painting and the routine of it has just taken over.
EG –  I’d like to talk a bit about two works you’ve done lately.  The first is titled “Evanescent”, which I actually had to look up in the dictionary to find out what it meant; 1. the process of vanishing or fading away.  2. the condition of being transitory.
That word seems to really encapsulate so much about what I feel comes through in your work.  This kind of feeling of things coming in out of reality or dream or memory, especially in the work you’ve been making since Korea.  I know you said it helped you to experiment and free things up while you were there, but I think there’s more to it.
Marc Blake – Evanescent (2014) Acrylic on board. 86 x 90cm

MB – Yes something definitely pushed me in a new direction while I was there, but I don’t know what it was.  It might be something I can understand after more time maybe.
EG –  That work ‘Evanescent’, as well as the large forest works you did last year have a whole new quality about them.  It’s almost like they are this strange combination of being abstract and also quite realistic at the same time.
MB – Yeah that’s completely true and is something I’ve really been trying to do.  I want these works to almost disappear when you’re not looking at them directly and then almost manifest into representation when you focus on them.  But I have to add that this just doesn’t work at all when you look at photos of them or jpegs or whatever.  In fact hardly anything about my work translates well onto a computer screen.
EG – And is that good or bad?
MB – Well it’s both really.  Good in the sense when people see the actual works they are able to see how much it changes with the light and their positions and viewing angle and everything, but bad in the sense that 99% of people will just see a flat photo of the work and never really get what’s actually happening.
EG –  That title really suits that work in particular.  It has such a fading, nostalgic feel to it, which is at once almost photo-realistic and then also almost disappearing before your eyes.
MB – Yeah it does.  But it’s a slightly cheesy word though too, so it’s a fine line.  That work is based on an image from Narita, Japan and at least to me it really has that feeling I got in Japan and Korea very often of this kind of timelessness, a sort of feeling that the historic has merged with the contemporary and created this other world, especially in the afternoon or morning sunlight.  Plus that figure has a kind of melancholic isolation about him, a loneliness.  Some people have said he’s kind of ghosty or ethereal, but it’s not that to me, it’s more of just a moment when you are alone in a new place and it feels like everything fuses into something else.
EG – I think it is also because with these recent works, the figures have been left without clear detail or definition, which is something that separates them a lot from your previous works.  It’s almost like ‘Road Dog’ built this painted figure up to it’s peak and then after that you completely stripped it away.
MB – That’s exactly right, ‘Road Dog’ was this total personality and ego and character and after that I wanted all of those things to disappear.  I just wanted a kind of void in the works that a viewer could almost transport themselves into or just see the figure as the bare essentials of what they needed to be – a child, an adult, a man or a woman.  No races or emotions or anything else.
EG – The final work I wanted to ask you about is the new small one, ‘The First Night After the Last Night’.  It’s based on the dark flat background and seems completely different in that you can barely make out any idea that it’s painted on wood.
Marc Blake – The First Night After the Last Night (2014) Acrylic on board 48 x 40cm

MB – Yeah that is the latest one I’ve done and it’s more of a test really.  I’ve been wanting to do works based entirely on dark grounds for ages and again it’s just a matter of finally trying it and getting out of traps like I have to leave some of the wood grain visible.  But really it’s a matter of me learning how to get the right way of painting these dark grounds, I don’t want them to be totally flat so I actually do want some kind of grain or something else there, and if not grain then at least some kind of layering within the paint itself.  It looks very black in the photo but it’s actually a mixture of blues and blacks and has micaceous particles in it that catch the light, which pretty much all of my works have and again that’s something you can’t see on a computer.
EG – That work has an interesting atmosphere, particularly because of the colours.  It has a kind of eeriness even though the actual subject, which I think is just a mother and daughter at the beach, is quite light.
MB – Yeah it is quite eerie and I wanted that, a sense of foreboding and especially on the mother’s face, like she understands the reality of this situation that they are now in.   All of my works actually have an eeriness to them, even if it’s not so obvious in certain ones.  I think that’s a very important aspect of my work, something that feels a bit off, like it’s not just simply the picture itself, but it’s something else and something that’s within you.  I’m using landscape painting to try and show human ideas and that’s something I’ve always done.