Beyond Artifice: An interview with Lewis Chamberlain, Christiane Monarchi
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Beyond Artifice: An interview with Lewis Chamberlain
By Christiane Monarchi
London, November 2003
When people see your work for the first time they seem particularly struck by your immense attention to detail. I'd like to begin with this aspect of your work. Can you tell me about your technique and how it affects your approach to a painting or drawing?
Technique has to be at least adequate for the translation of one's visual ideas. Obviously the more complex or ambitious the idea in terms of problems identified and tackled, the more versatile the means of expression or depiction. But, I am well aware that demonstrating an apparent technical competence has in itself little to do with being creative, with having something worthwhile to say and still less with originality. Disciplined rendering, whether in drawing or painting, is only of use to me if I can purposefully employ it, for instance to convey the essential character of things or places.
Do you prefer working in pencil or with paint?
Pencil is appropriate for some subjects, paint for others. They're both difficult to work with. Though I have experimented with watercolour while working out of doors, it is too spontaneous a medium to bring to my current work.
What kind of pencils, paints and other tools do you use to create your work?
I buy regular artist-quality paints; they're expensive but I'm not interested in mixing my own paint or stretching and preparing canvas, which is time consuming, not a lot cheaper, and has little bearing on the outcome of a painting. I don't know what make my pencils are; they cost about 80p.
You studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1984 - 88, having been interviewed and accepted by Lawrence Gowing. This institution, steeped in the tradition of Henry Tonks, William Coldstream and Euan Uglow, has placed great importance on observation, drawing, and particularly drawing from life. How has your practice been shaped by your experience at the Slade?
I had no formal training before entering the Slade and I did most of the work for my entrance portfolio some years before applying. I didn't study art at school and didn't do much art at all until I was 18 and went to art school. It's hard to gauge what effect the Slade had on me. I wasn't drawn to traditional Slade painting, though of course I've looked at painters such as Coldstream and Uglow since then. My final year - in a studio ambiguously titled Narrative Painting - was more successful personally. The studio offered a lot of freedom and provided for both abstract and figurative painting. My work developed; at that time I concentrated on landscape, not still life.
How would you describe your work today?
Observing from life. Close scrutiny of objects and landscape. Slow, time-consuming landscapes and still-lives constructed from objects in my studio. They're inhabited by any number of diverse figures - toys, dolls and animals - objects which relate, however indistinctly, to people.
Where do you work now?
I've never had a proper studio. I've always worked in bedrooms or spare rooms, wherever I've happened to be living. My current studio is really a bedroom with a 200 watt light bulb. It's claustrophobic but self-contained - I couldn't function in a communal studio.
What is your working day like?
I start early in the afternoon, working in daylight for a few hours, then all night until 5 or 6 in the morning.
Do you work on several things at the same time? Both drawings and paintings? Night and daytime pictures?
I usually work on two or three things at any one time; it depends on the time of day and the weather. I can't work on a sunny painting if it's grey outside. When I can I paint in daylight, but I like the jaundiced light of the room at night and the streetlights outside. Artificial light is controlled and, generally speaking, more claustrophobic.
Aside from lighting, the physical components of my immediate environment - walls, doors, floorboards and window frames - are more than a mere backdrop, they are integral to the subject-matter. It's not an easy room to work in - too clean. The walls are smooth and whitewashed; there are few of the blemishes and disfigurements that suggest depth or distance or betray time: cracks, scratches, stains and furrows.
So you are in your studio, looking at the walls. How do you begin a work?
I'm rarely attracted, initially at least, by specific objects or by a need to provide a narrative for them. But I may start with an idea, sometimes relating to something from a film or book, something in my own head. I consider all elements of a painting from the onset: the shape and size of the canvas, composition and placing, lighting, colour, tone and depth. I need to establish where I will sit or stand, which objects work and which don't, and how they relate to one another.
Once you've started, how long would you plan on spending on a particular piece?
I work on a number of paintings at any one time, so a work may sometimes not be finally resolved for a year or more. Night Interior with Lay Figure took four years. Assuming there are no disasters, a drawing will take two to four months and a painting a little less. So I only complete around five or six works a year. Daylight painting takes longer, partly because I get up too late, but primarily because of the changing light.
Given the importance of the imagery and the time it takes to produce each work, why not simply use photography? Why do you need to paint or draw your subjects?
The point you make is one I have often had to deal with. There are many photographers whose work I admire, like Cartier-Bresson, for example, and I have definite preferences, but it is not my chosen medium and remains of strictly limited use to me as a painter. I do take photographs, mostly as snaps, sometimes as documentary records, and occasionally as reference material for my work, and have done so for years. It can be useful when dealing with some of the compositional matters that intrigue me and also in exploring tonality. But I must emphasise it is only of limited use and all my work is done directly from life .
Most people are much more familiar with photographs. They look at them quite differently from a painting or drawing and are unlikely to find the sorts of things I'm trying to convey in my work. In a photograph, anomalies occur such as awkward angles, distorted perspective, ambiguous shadows and irritating coincidences. I could, of course, make use of these, exploit or reject them, but in drawing directly from life at least I have choice, and consequently, complete control to resolve a composition.
Photography would not provide me with the opportunity to examine so closely the essential character of the things I find and select. Also, the surface of a drawing or painting, mine perhaps less blatantly or consciously than most, will invariably reveal uncertainties, changes of mind, areas of apparently trouble-free progressions and others that show signs of real struggle.
The imagery you present varies from picture to picture, yet a certain mood links your works. There seems to be something happening, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly what. The eye searches for clues in the infinite details of your compositions. Is there a way to summarise the things that you are communicating in your work?
As an artist, you place these objects together, then you study and consider different possibilities and then undertake the process of rendering the image. The rest is up to the viewer. Any picture, especially one depicting objects and incidents that are, for the most part, recognisable, if not always familiar, has to draw people in, involve them; so it is satisfying to motivate people to read things into my work. It is not, however, about story-telling, not about illustrating scenes. There is no narrative, no plot, no single message.
The subject matter may suggest that an incident has taken place, or is about to take place, albeit in a separate self-contained world. There are hints, visual clues, a certain mood, the dominant one being rather tense, expectant, uneasy, but not intentionally sinister. I would hope, however, that humour is not entirely absent.
I rarely stress a particular drama. Consequently, the works are open to interpretation, but perhaps not all that open. I consciously look hard at images and incidents, collect and sometimes manufacture props and then work out relationships between those selected through lengthy repositioning, eventually stabilising the composition and beginning the process of depiction. So it is hardly a matter of straightforward execution.
Somewhat of a contrast to your use of observation and working from life, you have a deep interest in staging your pictures in the studio. There seems to be tension between, on the one hand, extremely detailed observation, and on the other, a more Surrealist sensibility as in your use of found objects.
In theory I select objects that are immediately available, but I sometimes also need objects appropriate to a more specific context. That requires constructing or searching. I don't use deliberately strange objects but they may subsequently appear strange when taken out of their usual context and given new surroundings: an unfamiliar world dictated to a great extent by memory and atmosphere.
When did you start to construct your sets?
I became interested in constructing these sets around 1993-4 after showing in New York. I'd seen Balthus' paintings The Street and Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André and started by placing figures in a window frame in front of an eerily lit Brixton Academy, and constructing, from wood, a street scene on a battered chest of drawers. The resulting drawing depicts random, unexplained incidents in a street, below which is a strange dark space; an open door reveals unidentified papers and a mysterious skipping rope.
Your constructed sets contain an aspect of fantasy, with combinations of figures and toy houses, and arrangements of objects that you've selected. Is it important to you to have the set in front of you, rather than working straight from your imagination?
I can't paint without seeing the subject. It is difficult to convey the characteristics that govern an object's uniqueness purely from memory or imagination. Elements peculiar to the individual, markings and discolourations, fractures and fault lines as well as the effect of light and shadow, have to come, ultimately, from observation.
Certainly working from life is very important to your rendering of the objects, yet what about the compositions you create, are these at all influenced by your dreams or memories?
My works are loosely derived from real experience and incidents. They are psychologically accurate and realistic to me. I'm not interested in dreams, though objects may be salvaged from memory. History and memory instil a veiled meaning. That's why de Chirico's work is important to me - an object can acquire various meanings through memory association.
Yet the constructed fantasy world seems to stop at your window or door
I have moved between the interior and exterior - some works deal with both. But even wholly exterior works may have an element of construction. For example, Brixton Academy - South Wall, Grey Day is dominated by a vast brick wall that I extended slightly to obscure any hint of sky, increasing the sense of entrapment. In Brixton Academy - Wet Rooftop with Reflections the Academy is revealed in reflection, the building itself almost entirely unseen. The drawing Dark Doorway, Brixton is both interior and exterior and without foreground objects to focus on, it draws the viewer from the lit interior into the darkness beyond. The doorway forms a separate picture within a picture.
In Horse Racing you've put a lone figure on a crate, against a night-time view of an apartment block. How did you decide on the elements of this composition?
The wooden box simply provided a base for the figure without distracting from it in terms of colour and tone. There is, I think, a sense of movement in the galloping figure, charging headlong towards the edge of his world. In the background, lights glimmer in a tower block - you can make out the tiny green glow of a TV that never went off.
When I'm constructing a particular work, I combine detail with areas that are more empty; but I may spend as much time on the side of a box as I do on a running figure. This is key to my work - understanding that everything is potentially important - and was also fundamental to Vladimir Nabokov, whose writing left a big impression on me.
One of the things that interests me about Nabokov is the way he drew upon his experiences of childhood throughout his novels. He wrote in a manner very akin to painting, continually challenging the process through which we interpret experience, allowing nothing to go unnoticed. Shadow of a Street makes reference to the worlds of both children and adults. There is a skipping rope, a swing and a slide, but also a drawer, slightly ajar, containing scissors and needles. In Brixton at night - Two Figures in a Window two dolls stand in a window frame at night alongside a (possibly) threatening window bar. They face away from each other.
What about the relationship between figures?
I rarely show characters in genuine isolation and it's inevitable that relationships exist between figures sharing the same space. Once I've drawn or painted them, the objects take on a life of their own and develop their own relationships.
Toys, figures and animals obviously have a human reference but less clearly interesting objects like boxes and wires can also gain new significance when placed within a constructed landscape or cityscape. In this respect I like the work of later British Surrealists, like Conroy Maddox and Dorothea Tanning, and the strangeness of everyday objects appearing to be more than they are.
Your paintings share with theirs a sense of hazard. Toys may be in quite precarious positions or seem threatened by sharp scissors. A naked doll sits rather vulnerably on a hardwood floor, or is stranded upside down.
Yes, there is clearly tension, or perhaps fragility, in some objects; some of them do appear vulnerable.
But they are still only objects. There's an absence of people in your work
Yes, but some of these figures clearly represent people. The fact that they're not organic doesn't deny them presence. I'm employing them, however indirectly, to say something about the human condition. They inhabit an artificial environment, as I do in Elephant and Castle.
You haven't really used living things in any of your paintings.
That's primarily because of where I live. I stared at the brick walls of the Brixton Academy for ten years; now I'm between a railway line and a Ford garage. I'd paint trees if I lived in Sussex. I'm not bringing things to life, I'm using objects in a way that suggests the presence of living things.
I did once do a painting of a cow's foot; it rotted after one or two weeks in the studio, so I had to return time and again to the same stall in Brixton Market to buy a replacement. The butcher was worried about my interest in the cows' feet.
In the present works, the closest you get to an animate object is the taxidermied monkey in Interior with Lemur. How did you arrange that composition?
The monkey has a strong human presence. It is, of course, dead, but he once spent his days perched in a tree, scratching his head and chewing on crickets. Behind him the bars on the window could, I suppose, be construed as those of a cage. You can read what you will into the significance of other objects. In the background a book lying open reveals a small landscape - a path winding across a field. It has the look of a painting by John Maitland, a wheelchair-bound English painter who worked quietly and obsessively in London parks. It's as obscure a tribute as you could get.
A giraffe has also made an appearance in your work, albeit as a toy.
He works well on his own. He's proud and aloof - he carries himself well, though he has a shadow like a dog.
Why did you choose to draw rather than to paint this composition?
I thought that there was too much yellow and brown, with the greasy fireplace and nicotined woodchip.
Your works feature figures, dolls, animals, play houses. How did you become interested in using toys; are they ones you used to play with?
Toys obviously recall childhood as well as representing the figure but I don't know if I'm using anything from my past. If necessary I will construct figures to fit a specific work.
Do your dolls have a gender?
They do but it is not necessarily of significance. The mannequin in Night Interior with Lay Figure, for example, is female; at least I think it is. I always referred to it as a she while working on that drawing.
How did you come to draw this mannequin?
My brother removed it from art school through a window at night and brought it to London by train in bin bags.
How did you relate to it during the four years of drawing it?
The mannequin is another object with a strong, uncannily human presence, accentuated by its current rather derelict state. Certainly this object had a history that interested me. But I don't consider it a portrait.
How did you decide on the objects that surround the mannequin?
I plan my work with precision and arrange all the elements of a composition before putting pencil to paper. Inevitably, however, as the image comes together I become aware that changes may have to be made and that some elements may have to be shifted or removed or brought in.
The globe entered this picture late on. Being spherical it doesn't distort the perspective on the far left of the composition. Because it's brightly coloured it would have dominated the composition had this been a painting. The accumulation of dusty light bulbs simply reflects the passing of time.
When do you decide a work is finished?
Obviously the main pictorial problems must be resolved, but problems will always remain and in that sense none of my works are truly complete. The exceptionally long time they take to complete is irrelevant to me; they just could not have been made any other way.
One of your most recent work Connected Figures is another quite dramatic interior composition, this time with a domestic scene fully laid out, even including the tiling as a sort of stage. Can you tell me more about this arrangement?
I positioned most of these elements deliberately. It could be said to be staged. It's not duplicating a real, inhabited, furnished interior. Look at the giant plug socket and the linoleum cut off in the corner.
And the mirror is above the toilet, not above the sink.
I don't know where mirrors normally belong. I have little potential as an interior decorator.
What is happening between the figures in this composition?
Well, they gaze out of the composition to something beyond the edge of the picture. What, if anything, is out there is a decision for the viewer.
What colours are they in real life?
She's in a lurid, psychedelic dress; he's in conservative green and grey. I made their outfits.
I'm interested in your decision to draw some compositions and paint others, especially where there are bright colours involved. In recent years, there is only one composition, which you both drew and painted, Disparate Figures, although the positions changed slightly
It's simply a subject that, in terms of colour (the contrasting figures) and tonality (the heightened shadows) lends itself to both drawing and painting. Some elements in these works - the figures conversing and running and the curious receding arches - may echo de Chirico, and certainly contribute to the rather eerie, uneasy atmosphere. But if there is a specific incident either occurring now or having previously taken place, it has not been revealed to me or to the viewer.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently completing a slightly larger painting which continues to explore the same themes and returns to many of the same figures, though this time they're not positioned so consciously and much of the canvas is occupied by a view at night down over darkened railway lines. I am also close to finishing a further painting of the galloping horse with figures in the foreground. It's a daylight painting, a sunny day, which has presented something of a challenge recently.
and in the future?
As I develop my ideas, I intend to extend the range of my source material to include themes I have not previously investigated and to make more direct references to incidents and events, perhaps from film or literature. These will not be intended as definitive statements. Each will be a version of what is observed; the result of selection, re-arrangement and alteration, exploring formal problems, geometry, the precise positioning of pictorial elements and the setting up process of subjects made up of objects and incidents.
In terms of imagery, I'm becoming more selective in order to get to the core of my subject without detracting from the main idea. I'm always aware I could improve a picture by simplifying it, by a more intense, more deliberate relationship. Concentrating, narrowing down, excluding all that which detracts from my ultimate objective.
But it's never easy to describe specific ideas for future paintings since many of these works will simply never come into being. I am, however, developing ideas for a series of works derived from more recognisable, though for now anonymous, environments where individual figures are dwarfed by the sheer enormity of their surroundings.
At the same time I want to continue to explore existing themes. I want to do a painting of the red running figure who has appeared in a number of my previous works and to do a smaller composition containing just a single object and its shadow on linoleum. But I haven't yet decided what this object will be; for now it's just the germ of an idea.
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