Kevlar, cotton duck,
MDF and matt emulsion
112x81cm / 2017
Framed inkjet print from
by Paul Reitmeir
51x37cm / 2017
International Standard #19
Basic alpha plaster
35.3x25x2.3 / 2016
Chris Shaw: The A4 handout at Three Works exhibitions is basic. There is no supporting statement. Information is matter-of-fact covering dates, titles, mediums, dimensions - and that's pretty much it. Talking to you over the couple of days we spent together during the install, you seemed comfortable with this set up. You seemed happy to allow the work to speak for itself without pointers and back stories.
Nevertheless, looking for a way in is inevitable and a way in for me was to consider the formal qualities of the work - how colour, light, space, line and the general interplay of materials produced a sort of total, all-encompassing effect. In other words - those three works in that space infused with the quality of daylight we had over that opening weekend had a really pleasing impact. What are your thoughts about the Three Works hang?
Alastair Levy: I’m interested in the way that different forms and media play off against each other and how the contrast between them can amplify the qualities inherent in each one. It’s similar to the way that a radio DJ might play a track that is very heavy or industrial and follow it up with something calm and melodic. That clash heightens the specific characteristics of each piece of music and makes you hear them differently to how you would if they were isolated or played alongside similar tracks. It was the first time that I’d seen these three works together on their own and it felt like there was a good conversation happening between them. Each one brought out things in the others that I maybe hadn’t seen when they were in the studio.
It’s always a difficult balance with what you choose to include in supplementary information for a show. You don’t want to explain the work but you also don’t want it to be impenetrable. As you say, there are back stories to each piece but how much of that do you want to reveal? This is something that I’m still figuring out but I feel comfortable with the approach that we took.
It may be to-the-point but a quick survey of the handout throws up a few clues. We're told, for instance, that Pelican is a recently completed work and that it is a framed inkjet print from a transparency taken by Paul Reitmeir. Who is Paul Reitmeir?
I’ve recently started collecting transparencies via eBay and this is one of the first that I bought. Paul Reitmeir is the person who took the original photograph. He’s also the seller in this case and so I was able to ask him for permission to use the image. That isn’t always possible, but I’m trying to do this when I can. All I know about him is that he lives in the States and that he took this photograph in Florida in 1979, the year that I was born.
You were uncertain about including Paul Reitmeir's name in the handout. In fact, you spent time thinking this through before deciding in the end to include it. What difference do you think including or not including Paul Reitmeir's name makes to the piece and why was it such a difficult decision?
The original impulse to include Paul’s name in the title info was firstly to indicate that this was a found image and secondly to credit him in some way. As I continue to think about it I realise that it’s more important to reference the fact that the slide was bought on eBay. There’s something fascinating about this seemingly infinite and constantly renewing archive of vernacular imagery; the fact that many of these items might be listed only once and then disappear forever. I think about what will happen if I don’t buy a particular image. Will anyone else buy it? Will it be preserved? Probably not. So it becomes a kind of archiving process - salvaging specific images that, for whatever reason, stand out amongst the thousands of others.
The largest piece in the show is Untitled and it goes some way, I think, to deflect the viewer's gaze… and after a few moments perhaps even their attention. It is quite inscrutable. Materials beneath the surface - matt emulsion on MDF - produce a barely noticeable effect. The slightly see-through surface is made up from a strip of Kevlar on the left and cotton duck on the right sewn together by a seamstress. In the context of the show it acts almost like a buffer or a prop sending viewers back towards the other two pieces. It helps give the Pelican piece in particular, punctum - or a sharpness. Tell me about Untitled - is it a painting?
It’s definitely made using materials associated with painting, but it also has sculptural qualities. I see it as an experiment in relations of form, colour and material and as you say the painted board behind the fabric is very quiet. That is something that I’m always trying to push - how quiet can you be before there’s too little information. I remember seeing one of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings at Tate Modern a few years ago and it had a huge impact on me. These different hues are at first barely discernible but over time gradually reveal themselves to the eye.
I’m interested in the contrast between traditional fine art materials and those associated with industrial or domestic purposes. Kevlar is used in bullet-proof vests and the parachutes for drag racing. There’s a levelling out, or democratising of materials here which I really like. It’s something I want to explore further in the work going forward.
Reminiscent of Ben Nicholson's carved white reliefs from the 1930s, International Standard #19, for me, bridges the gap between Pelican and Untitled. Its cast relief elements give it a number of surface planes that trap shadows in a composition that resembles an aperture caught halfway between open and shut. It is enigmatic, like Untitled, but not quite as sewn up... and while the shadows trace a linear path to a sort of central area, it never has quite the vortex-like draw of the eye in Pelican. What can you tell us about International Standard #19?
This is one of a series of works which uses the dimensions of A, B and C paper sizes as a structure for making. It's very liberating working with a limited set of predetermined forms as well as the single, neutral colour of the plaster. The decisions being made are essentially reduced to placement and scale. With that very simple set of rules you open up a system which has a real sense of continuity and a relatively large number of permutations. I had been thinking about this structure for several years and experimented with drawing and assemblage as ways of manifesting it. It wasn't until I started making these sculptural pieces that I felt that I'd found a good 'home' for the concept in material terms.
You mentioned Martin Creed's name a few times during our conversations and it's clear you hold him in high esteem. Why?
I’ve loved his work for a long time and I think it’s the combination of honesty and playfulness which appeals. There’s also a clarity which is really important - it’s precise even when it’s messy. I think it was Carl Andre that said something along the lines of ‘art is not a struggle between simplicity and complexity but between efficiency and inefficiency’. It might be slightly unromantic to think about art in terms of efficiency but I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Creed’s work is pretty much perfect in that respect.
There's a fastidious quality not only to your methods and materials but also to the way you packed your works for safe travel to Three Works. We fetched them from the car and they were wrapped in protective layers that had an elegance all their own. I suppose it's simply good practice and professionalism, but I was impressed. This care and attention to detail obviously informs the kind of work you do and explains some of its formal tidiness. I wonder if you've ever thought about where it comes from... and just for the hell of it, can I ask if you've ever thought of engaging in a wildly different approach?
That’s a really good question. The obsession with neatness goes back as far as I can remember. To be honest it frustrates me hugely but as I progress in my work I realise that you have to harness the things that are intrinsic to your personality, otherwise, you’re just pretending to be something that you’re not. It’s when you really begin to own those peculiarities that you start to get somewhere.
As to where it comes from, there’s a very rational, logical aspect of myself that I’ve inherited from my dad who was a chess player in his younger days. Ultimately I think I’m striving for a kind of order and calmness. That’s increasingly what I feel the work is really about.
Aside from Martin Creed, who else do you rate and can say you've been inspired or influenced by?
Fernanda Gomes is someone whose work has been very important in relation to the ideas around quiet I mentioned earlier. Her lightness of touch in relation to materials, scale and space is compelling. She had a show recently at Alison Jacques Gallery and I went very early on a Saturday. I had the whole space to myself for about half an hour and I felt like I wanted to experience that every day for the rest of my life.
Wolfgang Tillmans is another artist who has been a constant inspiration. The way that he combines figurative and abstract elements, his handling of the everyday, his use of colour and the oscillation of scale and modes of display. There are many others whose work I look at frequently including James Richards, Ian Kiaer and earlier artists such as Reinhardt and On Kawara.
Do you know any good books, articles or essays you can recommend to readers?
There’s a fantastic photobook called On Duty which is a collection of images produced by a policeman and amateur photographer called Arnold Odermatt. It’s an archive of police activity in a rural district in Switzerland spanning the 1940s to the 1980s. They almost feel like film stills but they’re pure documentary with a dose of unintended humour. I think it’s quite difficult to get hold of now but it’s worth tracking down.
The recently published Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting is a really nice survey of current work. And completely at a tangent, Jay Rayner’s Guardian review of Le Cinq restaurant in Paris, which came out about a week ago, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.