Biggs & Collings
Oil on canvas
100 x 50cm
Out of Heaven
Oil on canvas
140 x 106cm
Harp and Organ
Oil on canvas
100 x 50cm
Chris Shaw: There is up and down, left and right and corner to corner. In other words vertical, horizontal and diagonal. A line can be drawn between each extreme creating various directions of travel. Using these means it is possible to divide surfaces into geometric parts, for example triangles. Paintings such as Join and Harp and Organ – a couple of works featured in your Three Works show – are created in this way. Do you begin by pencilling in the underlying structure?
Biggs & Collings: Yes. There’s a banal simple grid of pencil lines done with a ruler. Then we elaborate that grid with colours and colour tones. The process for us is always just to go on and on, putting in colours and altering them a bit, putting more in, altering them, getting the awkward results of so many differences to balance out, so it all seems like one inevitable unity. It must not be dowdy: there must be a sense that light is coming out of the painting. So if we have a played-down feel in a certain place, as far as strong colour goes, or bright colour, there will always also be a countering feel somewhere else of the glinting or stinging or transparent. The painting mustn’t be pretty. If there is prettiness, or everything is too easily or glibly balanced, then there must be something added that is visually off or surprising. It might even be nasty. We go on creating those relationships in the painting, as we are working on it, again and again. In general, our paintings are not the kind of work that reflects or expresses individual subjectivity: neither of us, neither of our inner psyches, is the subject of the painting. The subject is always an objective thing, a visual proposal about reality, that makes sense on its own, outside of our individual personalities and biographies.
It is easy to believe that the abstract painting created about a hundred years ago is some kind of ground zero for painters painting today. But if we look at the way we have built and decorated our churches and mosques; if we look at the almost imperceptible lines that criss-cross and make up the skin on the back of our hands, then we see that geometric division is ancient and all around us – part of the fabric of life itself. Is this what your exhibition handout The Whole Earth is saying?
Yes. And our paintings aren’t responding only to the tradition of abstraction but to all the visual art traditions. But to be more specific those art traditions interest us most that really are very powerfully visual, and that will inevitably involve more pre-modern and classical modern traditions than contemporary art, for obvious reasons. (Well, to spell it out, contemporary art is often ideas-oriented only and not at all seriously visual). That’s why, in that hand-out, which is really our favourite catalogue (it was for a show five years ago), we talk a lot about mosques and churches. Those surviving monuments are always great to us, because of their sheer visual power. But we can see that too in paintings by Baselitz, even though he says deplorable sexist stuff. And many individual instances of contemporary art: it’s just it’s all much more chancy as far as visual power goes, when art is done randomly for random customers with no shared artistic ideas except sentimental moralizing. When art was done for pharaohs and Sultans or whatnot you know it’s going to be visually uplifting. That uplifting, glorifying purpose forces the objects whose job it is to conform to it, to be marvellous. Impressionism and the early traditions of modernism are still in that marvellous mode. They’re experimenting with degradation but it is in order to redo the marvellous. I think that’s true even of Dada: it’s very indebted to cubism as well as mocking it. Dada is hardly ever not fantastically compelling visually, even when it’s about degradation, and even when the visual is reduced right down: for example, Picabia’s assemblage painting laughing at Rembrandt and Cezanne, is still, for all its theme of mockery, deliciously ordered. Sacrilege and glorification, well, any opposites: there’s always a necessity to fuse things, to use one attitude to force another attitude you’ve also built into the work to be seen. One thing is seen because of pressure on it by another. Dada mockery isn’t only mockery anyway. It’s also looking forward to something better after the bourgeois world has been destroyed, and that hope is implicit in all Dada’s degradation of the visual.
The images of your paintings in the The Whole Earth handout are black and white. Your paintings are largely about colour. Would you have preferred the images in the handout to be in colour?
No absolutely not. We wanted them in black and white because no colour reproductions are ever accurate. They always brutally distort the balances we spend months arriving at. Black and white reproduction looks less gross. At least it gets the elegance of our tones. We’d like ideally always only to have black and white newspaper format catalogues.
Colour in a painting like Harp and Organ falls in line with and combines to work against the geometric grid you employ. The eye is caught between the predictable nature of the grid versus the intuitive colour relationships you create. Colour appears to open up the painting into fresh territory only for the logic of the grid to snap back into focus. Is colour on an equal footing with the grid?
No it does the things you say in order to bring up that banal grid to something high, to bring it to a level of visual richness which we consider to be a worthy analogy for the ambiguous richness of reality. The grid is still there at the end of the process of making the individual paintings (which is always rather drawn out, to our regret, because it exhausts us). But eventually the painting has become, in our eyes at least, an abstract version of a landscape: a landscape without the landscape.
Another element you employ is texture. There are areas where the paint is crusty. In other areas the paint is applied scratchily over the top of a previously laid down area of paint. How does the way you apply paint affect the painting?
Crucially. Textural contrasts are part of the play of differences: hue, tone, intensity and texture. Also lines are sometimes sharp and hard, sometimes softer. We do something like, in our own way, of course, that which we appreciate in the tradition of painterly painting since Titian: a geometric compositional underlay which is completely certain, visually, with an ambiguous overlay, which is uncertain visually, which seems to be shifting as the viewer looks: it will never stay still.
You have said in the past that your paintings are nothing to do with obsession, passion or individual quirks. You have said you bring no ideas to painting. How does your slow-to-produce, ideas-free painting fit in with the flashy, pluralistic, subject-obsessed times we're living in?
Well we are of these times, too. No one is beyond their own times. We just do what feels right to us. All the judgments about what is real and what is false that everyone makes all the time, we make them when we’re painting. We reduce the options. So we set up a situation where we have very little to work with, with which to express all that richness of perception of the world and reality – what’s out there – that everyone negotiates the world with. We’ve got to make an analogy for it to come about, with only colours and shapes. Their arrangement has to be convincing like reality is convincing.
The centrepiece of your Three Works show – Out Of Heaven – is a new direction for you. There are still the careful judgements to do with colour and tone. There is still the immaculate application of paint (albeit with less range in texture than is usual for you). But you have broken through the rigid geometry that regulates a painting like Harp and Organ. Why did you choose to make a painting like Out Of Heaven in 2017?
We haven’t stopped doing triangles. We just did some, in fact, in mosaic form for a big building in London facing onto the street: classic coloured triangles in rows. And we have done several new paintings featuring triangles, which draw on our discoveries with that mosaic. But with the new linear formats, that we now do as well as the triangle ones, we’re branching out rather than breaking through. In fact the lines ultimately describe triangles within rectangles but it’s like an exploded view of a small area of one of those triangle paintings. You’re seeing all the quantum physics inside a tiny point of a triangle. We don’t care what the format is, it could be anything: we’d be happy to paint portraits of Jesus or Emily Bronte. A reduced geometric format is convenient for two people working together purely intuitively, as we do, because it cuts down on the likely chaos.
Ostensibly, diagonals dominate Out Of Heaven. Horizontals are few and far between and verticals are a series of nodes rather than anything linear. Do you ever consider stretching your oeuvre to include curved shapes and lines?
Yes as I say we’d be happy with any format probably because formats are not the thing for us: reality is. And so far, since we’ve been collaborating, these simple formats have produced results that we can believe in.
The title Out Of Heaven suggests you were out of your comfort zone making this painting. How does making Out Of Heaven compare with making a painting like Harp and Organ?
That’s a clever interpretation! But no we think of ‘out of’ meaning it comes from it, not that it’s outside it. The painting comes from heaven. They are different operations, though, yes, you’re right to ask about that. The grid is all there to begin with, with the triangle paintings. But with the coloured lines paintings, we build that structure up as we go. We start with a brutal set of dumb lines that cover the whole surface. They are made simply by laying lengths of tape against each other, then peeling off every other one and filling the empty areas with thick paint of a muted light colour; and then peeling off the rest of the tape: revealing stripes of alternating bright white primed canvas and very slightly darker muted creamy oil paint. Then when that’s dry, we start building a more intricate and delicate set of substructures. Taping lines, painting, peeling off the tape, then taping more lines, and so on – always elaborating existing lines as well as building new ones. It’s streamlined but made very organically and instinctively.
Do you have a favourite essay, article or book that has greatly inspired you and that you often return to?
Films and books, we’re both completely susceptible to them. One body of literature we like is explanation of the history of Roman and Byzantine mosaic art. We’re interested in the way types of forms peculiar to those times correspond to ways of seeing that are relatively timeless. Another is iconographic studies of Christian art in terms of classicism as the repository of all ideas of figuration: the new metaphysical ideas of Christianity in the early years after Christ have to have an existing figurative form to convey them, and existing classical art provides it. We love the bizarre hybrid results, the Jesuses of late antiquity that are rather female breasted and chubby, or who get given beards but look surprised to have them. Another strand of reading that we’re both equally into, is historical materialist explanation of the Bible: how what is said relates to what it was possible to say and think, the historical context. We don’t know where we get these thoughts from that we’re conveying to you now, but we’re sure someone in the future will have an idea about it.