Chris Shaw: Does your work rely primarily on inspiration and the knowledge that it will come sooner or later or do you sit down with a blank sheet of paper/canvas and make it happen? A drawing before lunch, perhaps, and one after?
Phil King: That totally varies. I have different disciplines at different times. My work is somewhat, and often literally, marginal. The best stuff happens I find when I’m doing something else apparently more important.
Are they sometimes gifts of circumstance you then go to work on?
Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes though it is very focused and conscious and I like it when I can put different approaches together.
Tell me about the materials you use.
I try and vary what I use… so I can show a watercolour, an oil and an acrylic next to each other for example… ideally that is.
In your Three Works show there's a Philip Guston-like piece on canvas with a tear in its surface. How did this piece come about and does it tell us anything about your feelings for Guston's work?
I can’t really speak to what it tells others but I realised the other day something about Guston, (he had a big effect on me back in the days of my BA) and that’s this: there’s a sky in one of his paintings that could equally be a blue wall… sky or wall or wall and sky… but it is paint anyway. This blue wall or sky has a wall socket on it, but also a cloud. But it is also clearly blue oil paint. Guston painting is a verb. He is painting. Even though the painting is there finished and on the wall of the museum it still gives the impression that the painting of it is ongoing. And it’s that sense of ongoing habit; of painting as the Guston identity that I realised. Guston will always be painting. Painting as ontological state seems to be a problem of his. For me that sense of transcendent consolation irritates me no end. Now Cezanne, for example, was continually actually destroying his paintings, throwing them out of the window, slashing them. There are a number of examples of rescued and repaired canvases. And Pollock had doubts at times whether what he was doing was even painting at all. But Guston, even if he scrapes off and destroys the image, is always painting and always will be painting. I find that kind of unbearable. Not necessarily in a bad way in his case… but unbearable as a model of art which has become a kind of ongoing norm, a kind of a self-justifying activity.
The painting in Three Works speaks to that. It is based on a picture posted by Claude Reich, a really passionate Guston expert, that he believed to be a fake. It’s kind of terrible in many ways and like a lot of fakes is sort of a collection of an artist's cliches … that alone makes it suspicious I guess. So I had a feeling that I wanted to paint a really bad insulting Gustonesque painting, because I felt, like a lot of painters maybe, inhabited by him... that my line or handwriting is infected by Guston stylistics, by his groove or continuum, and I just wanted to acknowledge and maybe break that somehow. And then this probable fake came up and I roughly copied it. The good thing is that it seems to have exorcised my irritation with Guston and I really connected with his recent London show.
It’s partly a question of rhythm. Rhythm indicates a past going forward predictively… in that sense his marks, his approach goes on - he is still painting. He sets up a sort of sense of ongoing consistency. A kind of Guston habitat. It’s like being in the middle of an animated film. And the comic linear style is more than just expressionistic; it is a rhythmic identity - a kind of tone, it foretells its own ongoing nature. I find that both compelling and really awful and I want to break with it because I feel its sentimentality overwhelms the kind of multiplicity that I’m interested in glimpsing somehow, that is everywhere in art. It’s why de Kooning is finally much more interesting than Guston. His work genuinely breaks down, and a whole infinite load of things start happening; as a sense of unplanned feeling multiplicity. The whole structural weight of the Western canon is there but it’s crashing and we see lots of bits of other options bursting out in all directions. As odd as it may seem I believe that de Kooning really digested Duchamp into painting. He struggles with painting. Guston can persist as a kind of status quo in a way that de Kooning, while obviously standing for a kind of painterly status quo for lots of people, actually doesn’t.
Do the lives of artists matter or is it simply about the work they produce?
They don’t matter to me in terms of middle class identity heroics, as transcendent biographical romances, but it somehow matters to me that Georges Braque was wounded in the head or that Matisse’s daughter was in the resistance and sent to a concentration camp for example. In terms of how artists coped with wars etc. I think art can give access to history in a visceral sense, maybe more so if it appears to resist direct anecdote or commentary and often that history is very singular, and that matters a lot. Also Agnes Martin’s work finds real breath in terms of her life story - her friendship with Barnett Newman matters to me. I don’t think her personal life as such matters beyond the fact that I was very moved by the vulnerability and persistence that I felt her work itself offered as a lesson. The simple facts of an artist’s life are enough for me I think, particularly when they contradict the dominant mythologies around their work. The lives are all part of the rich multiplicity of it all to my mind. Such multiplicity used to be equated with an ideal liberal pluralism, or something, but I see it differently. Art often indicates terrible solitude. Often artist's personalities are deliberate constructions, identity is something up for grabs and masks are in play. Picasso was fond of quoting Arthur Rimbaud saying "I is another".
You sign some works but not others. Why?
I paint paintings so it’s important to me that they look like paintings. And paintings are often signed. But more than that I think that maybe it is a way of claiming responsibility for my errant borrowings and lack of immediately apparent identity. It signs my signature style, the momentum or pictorial energy that ties the work together but equally I find it interesting that that signature itself gets put in question by what I do. I realised the other day that I sign with my initials PK, initials that could also indicate Peter Kinley or Paul Klee! I also signed a work Dali once, and one JC. And it’s important that not everything is signed. The signature is a thoughtful pictorial element in specific pictures. It’s also generally a kind of humorous device to be honest, and feels a bit absurd and hopefully problematic… a break with current conventions somehow. Signatures fascinate me - Vincent, Magritte, Philip Guston… and Pollock could make an entire painting his signature. Then there is the whole tagging phenomenon. Maybe I’m tagging the architecture of my work somehow.
Is it important to you that your works have a groove or syntax that carry some sort of identity that is recognisably yours?
Yes. It is important but the interruptions to it are equally as important. I’m pretty passive and have given up in terms of working to ideals. I’m a huge Paul Klee fan and I think his experience of working in aircraft maintenance in WW1, witnessing the crumpled aftermaths of lots of primitive plane crashes speaks to something in his own work. There is a relation to the ideal, to engineered perfection, but also an understanding of failed realities. It makes painting into the possibility of becoming a rich mixture, of accepting failure but keeping on with a sense of realism. I think humour is key for me but then I really try and take it out because I think it is somehow a shortcut. Humour is a kind of shared groove and I find it funny to try and interrupt, or accept interrupting to that too! I really think I’m kind of terrible to be honest, or at least really challenging in terms of having an artistic identity.
Do you listen to music when you work?
I never generally remember to put music on. I guess The Fall have been a constant in my life since I was a teenager and remain perpetually inspiring to me.
What's your favourite book?
Kafka by Deleuze and Guattari. I re-read it constantly and have no idea what it is about.