The following interview appeared in Studio Critical (January 2013), a blog featuring interviews with contemporary painters.
1. What are you working on in your studio right now?
A group of paintings that have floating or hanging forms over a more structured painted background. Some of these paintings are older unfinished works, which have become transformed with the new elements. These floating forms are directly painted on the surface or collaged pieces of painted cloth or paper. I often work with them flat on the floor or on a low table or bench. In these paintings there is an ambiguity, it is unclear whether things are disintegrating or coming together. I feel time is the governing force in these paintings; their shallow spaces arise slowly from the process of time.
2. Can you describe your working routine?
I have a pretty regular routine. Most painting is done in the mornings, as that is when I prefer the light. In the afternoons or evenings, and if I’m not teaching, I usually work on drawings in an area of the studio with a drawing table. There are moments of doing nothing, of being mentally or emotionally engaged but without physically working. Doing nothing is doing something. Learning what not to do and what to avoid is just as important as what I choose to do.
3. Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?
My studio is on street level in an apartment block. It’s about 130 square meters with a high ceiling and has two large ceiling to floor windows, one of which faces northwest. As I usually work on many paintings at the same time, the large workspace allows me to line them all up and see them all together if need be. I also have a good storage area where I can hide things from view for periods of time (something I find an absolute necessity during the process). The space is also very suitable for presenting work when I have studio visits. My studio is a kind of oasis, a place I constantly escape to, but also a place to return to things in a more intimate way. It’s a sensorial place as well as a mental space.
4. Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.
My process has become very organic; reworking things, interweaving things… paintings can have their origins in the history of my own work or the wider history of art. Some small aspect or detail can be enough. A memory of something or even certain sensations. I also use my immediate surroundings and day-to-day life as a source. For me this is important, it’s a way of transforming it into something else. The everyday can have a blind weight to it; the challenge is how to open it up, break it open even. The marvellous is always close at hand and often overlooked. There is also an element of recycling; discarded paintings or studio debris can be incorporated into a work, something from nothing, a kind of radical humility.
5. What are you having the most trouble resolving?
One could consider each painting as a problem to be resolved but I shy away from this idea. A painting should be a lived thing, it is lived through in its making and in the viewing, as such it will often contain certain failures or inherent problems. It is very often the case that the unresolved has a lot of truth in it. For me a painting is an entity that should not depend on a fixed one-dimensional face to the world. It is an accumulation of evidence which reflects the life of its own making and the daily life that has gone into it. The only real things that need resolving are those that most people have… life things, practical things. In my case, it’s creating a balance, which enables me to work, finding time and a certain tranquil state of mind. This is not always easy to achieve.
6. Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?
Essentially, I use traditional painting materials such as oil paint on linen or canvas… but I will often add other things, collaged elements, flanking wooden additions on one side of the painting, holes or openings in the surface etc. But I need to have certain limits. They define and articulate the freedom of a painting. I really don’t like painting that uses a lot of very obvious techniques or elaborate processes. I have always tried to find the most direct way of working at any given moment, keeping things within certain limits enables me to do this. Painting is a bodily extension of thought, a haptic experience. It arises from the dark pools of who we are. Light and dark light weave, forms arise through marks, colour and contrast and if I am lucky and have followed the painting to where it wishes to go (although this is not always clear), the painting will get to a state of affairs in which it pushes me out of its limits and yet holds my attention at the same time.
7. What does the future hold for this work?
That is impossible to say because I’m seeking an unknown outcome.
8. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I recently read something by George Steiner on Heraclitus in his book The Poetry of Thought, which expresses something I can identify with (I have added the word painting): “He quarries language (painting) before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent… Where it follows on the shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded.”
Finally these words by Juhani Pallasmaa from The Embodied Image define a wider territory where my paintings might function: “In my view, in the near future, the notion of the ‘real’ will increasingly imply what is justifiable in the biological perspective, both past and future. The notion of the real in our settings of life cannot be endlessly expanded and relativised; we are are biological and historical beings whose entire physical, metabolic and neural systems have been optimally tuned to the reality of physical, ecological and biological facts. The human reality, as well as our future, is undeniably grounded in our biological and cultural past as much as in our wisdom concerning the future.”
Conversation with Chris Ashley 2009
Patrick M. Fitzgerald lives in Bilbao, Spain and Chris Ashley lives in Oakland, California. This conversation was conducted via email between December 2008 and April 2009.
Chris Ashley: This is a rather general observation, and I’m probably simplifying more than a little, but it seems to me that, during 2008, the shapes, spaces, and boundaries in your paintings have transitioned from fields, blocks, and solids to lines, nets, and softer shapes. You’ve long had fractured shapes, but they now seem broken down more. The greater use of line allows for more visible layering than was implied in previous work of the last few years. Rather than painting in fields and shapes, the line of the brush is now more visible. Just thinking of other artists as a way to illustrate this shift, consider the mass and solidity of Morandi versus the looser, linear accumulation and openness of Giacometti. Is this at all an accurate observation from your point of view?
Patrick Michael Fitzgerald: Well, yes, what you say and describe is correct. Over the last year, I have been mostly occupied with this new “family” group of paintings, but I don’t think that there has been some kind of evolution. I don’t really believe in that kind of linear development; we succumb to chronologies because it’s difficult for us to conceive of things outside of a certain idea of temporality. I see all my work, everything I’ve ever made (including those destroyed or recycled), as co-existing in one realm or space where contrasting family groups relate to each other. Ideally, I would make lots of different kinds of paintings at the same time – in fact, I do occasionally try this – but the demands on time and concentration make it almost impossible. When exhibiting the paintings I do play around and mix new works with older ones because the idea of contrast interests me a great deal. In any case, with the new works it’s a question of trying to expand the components and vocabulary that make up my paintings, though not in an ideological or analytical way. I have recently focused on a much greater softness while maintaining fractured shapes and structures; this resulted in “nets” or “lattices” which are a way of slowing down the gaze and the initial apprehension of the image.
CA: I have serious doubts about anyone’s claim to a linear evolution in one’s art, or, for that matter, even in one’s life. More typically, I see the development process as circular or looping, iterative or intuitive, with gaps and leaps that are often surprising. I know many artists, myself included, who have said something like, “I didn’t expect things to go in this direction.” This can lead somewhere new, or even backwards and then off in another direction. I am experiencing this in my own work now, a revisiting of approaches, impulses, even imagery from very far back. I see this in many of the painters I admire most, for example, de Kooning. I would think this is what you mean when you talk about expanding the components and vocabulary that make up your paintings.
PMF: Yes, in many ways it is like a constant recycling or re-forming, which mutates everything in such a way that even works made before are re-valued and then potentially change their status, or the way they are comprehended.
CA: Some recent paintings are titled “Territories” and “Jardín.” I think of topography and landscape. I don’t think of wilderness, but instead terrain that has been marked or shaped by human presence, land that is labelled and defined, perhaps even planned, built, or cultivated. I think that in many of your paintings there is more than a hint of architecture, as well.
PMF: In the end, nature is inevitably experienced through our representations and synthetic constructs whether it be thought, painting, architecture, the creation of gardens etc. That we are condemned to “mere” representations reflects the limits of our thinking, but I think it’s important to remember that representations are the result of creative processes and that can be a very positive thing. Painting is inherently synthetic, but that is the beauty of it, and I still believe that painting can respond directly to the world of things, experience, and “reality” on its own terms.
CA: I’m not sure I believe in any art, in painting, that is absolutely abstract and without representation. A few examples come to mind. Kandinsky’s paintings still had gravity, and Malevich was never far from the figure, often one in flight. Mondrian went very far, but one can always associate his images to architecture, plans, diagrams, scaffolds, even the skeleton. Pollock may have gone the furthest, though the color and light still reference spaces we know. Matisse and Picasso never crossed over to abstraction; each talked about the need to keep representation in their work. I often think that artists who claim complete non-referentiality in their work are simply avoiding dealing with the harder question of associations, and what the artist can and can’t control. What is abstract is how form, color, and material can provoke and confirm thought, idea, and emotion. This experience can be solitary, but being something we can share it can also be social, and I see that as yet another layer of representation.
PMF: I think the concepts of “representation” and “abstraction” are frequently misunderstood or misused in the sense that they are seen as two different, even opposing meanings. As I suggested before, I feel that all representations are synthetic and, as such, abstractions (and all abstractions are some kind of representation). This idea is not new, of course; it goes back to Arthur Schopenhauer, who thought through the problematic nature of how we try to deal with the “Kantian” thing-in-itself. Painters are often aware of this constant tension between the ungraspable nature of things-in-themselves and the reality of what is grasped through the senses – phenomena – which in his or her case is what becomes manifest in the physical reality of a painting. And through the act of painting one feels one’s way with mind and body towards things, often refocusing and reshaping the contours until paintings collapse into themselves, and what we see in a “finished” painting is evidence of this movement.
I recently heard a radio interview with a quantum physicist who said that the reality of the world on an atomic level is so utterly strange that though the initial models of discovery are mathematical and arise from mathematics, scientists constantly need to resort to images, mental or otherwise, to try and “see” what these un-seeable worlds are like. This does not differ greatly from the endeavours of the Pre-Socratics, who also resorted to images in order to make sense of the world (think of Heraclitus and his river). By contrast, images as paintings, when they are fully realized as self-conscious creations, fold in on themselves; contaminated by the world and plagued by their own impossible nature, they occupy a territory which is quite unique and beautiful. Paradoxically, they even seem to be sustained by the abyss from which they arise.
CA: I’m puzzled by this idea of painted images as things that “fold in on themselves.” No doubt, paintings are “contaminated by the world and plagued by their own impossible nature,” but I had to pause and think about what you mean by this. Maybe it has something to do with a painting being an individual creation that develops its own internal logic and reason for being, and maybe even its own external shell, an imperviousness. However, if a painting folds in, it must also fold out. Can paintings contaminate the world? To be unique and beautiful is also often to be porous and vulnerable, perhaps fleeting and risking irrelevance or being ignored; that often thought of as paintings status today. I think of the fully realized painted image as something that blossoms and retires, ebbs and flows; while a painting is by definition static, certainly making, looking, experiencing, feeling, and understanding are not static. As you say, to be “sustained by the abyss,” I think, means teetering between being and nothing.
PMF: Yes, exactly, “teetering between being and nothing” is the undeniable truth, at least in my work, of the essentially fragile nature of things and our own lives. I think that many paintings (and this is how I see my own) seem to have a force that pulls things into them – a centre of gravity – where the peculiar fragile reality of a painting transforms everything into its own mode of being. This is how I see a painting folding in on itself. It’s not a process and experience that moves away from the world, on the contrary, it intensifies it. Everyday experiences, things, places, always things close to hand and mundane; these are the starting points when I paint.
CA: You had asked me recently if I had any thoughts about the difference between American and European painters, and while I think there are distinct differences, I struggled trying to articulate that. So, to turn the tables, what differences do you see, and what do we have in common besides paint? When I asked earlier about “Territories” and “Jardín” I mentioned the difference between a landscape that is cultivated versus the wild; I wonder if this is a difference. For me, actually, it is possible to think about the images in my recent work as being connected to wilderness and to some degree apart from society. Do you see our work differently than this?
PMF: The American tradition of painting arises from the European one, as far as I can see. Perhaps American artists have felt less pressured by the past, and while not starting from scratch, can certainly work in a less cluttered historical landscape. When you talk about wilderness, I see it in this way as an historical condition, as well. Think of the likes of Richard Tuttle and Agnes Martin in New Mexico, and Donald Judd in Marfa; I’m not sure if such positions in art could have originated in Europe, but I do think that fundamentally the essential idea of painting is a shared tradition, or one that is extra-territorial.
CA: I agree that, at least in Western painting, there is a shared tradition. We have the rectangle, and, when you think about it, quite a small number of types of supports and paint and color and ways of applying it. I wonder somehow if the European attitude is, from the beginning, that the contemporary artist is working within history and is part of the lineage. Whereas the American artist, especially the further one gets out of New York or from the East Coast (and this is the point of view of a West Coast native emerging here), has to chase after and work his or her way into history.
PMF: Perhaps, but if you speak to a lot of younger European artists today, they are often not interested in the art of the past. What’s important for them is television, the Internet, different aspects of consumer culture, and above all that which relates to contemporary urban experience. History is deeply problematic and unnerving for them because it puts ones life into a greater context, which can be a huge burden to bear.
CA: That the painted plane can be seen as a window or mirror is an old idea, as well as the issues about space and flatness, size and scale. However, put a bunch of painters in a room and it turns out that, despite how much they may appear to have in common, they can actually be quite far apart: is painting expressive or analytical, descriptive or poetic, literary or primal, political or religious, illustration or allusion, mimic or invention, critical or personal? Each painter might select various components from this menu, or write up his or her own menu. The differences between New York and LA or San Francisco are talked about a lot, for example, and it seems to me that these differences often reflect attitudes about life and outlook. You know, the New York painting attitude is, say, harder, darker, intellectual, urban, while the San Francisco painting attitude is softer, lighter, more feeling, connected to nature, more personal. I was talking to another painter recently who mentioned how German painters often have a position, a stance that they take and defend, which is the foundation of their work. My point is that painting is not really a single thing, that instead there are many approaches. Where do you see yourself in all of this?
PMF: This reminds me of what has often been said about New York jazz of the late 50s, that it was tight and nervy (Thelonious Monk) compared to the more serene and laid back jazz of the West Coast (Dave Brubeck), so it does seem to be perfectly valid to consider these regional cultural differences (and in Europe they are also still taken very seriously). But ultimately, I always feel it is the specific practice of an individual artist that matters, because when it breaks the mould it becomes a kind of exception, and I am very interested in the idea of exceptions. A position, a vital stance arises from this, I think, and can need a long time to mature. I prefer my work to lead me, so I try and feel where it might be going and let it flow that way. I don’t think my work has any kind of ideological motivations. It is an extension on my own sensibility, which is perhaps nomadic within a certain geographic and historical terrain.
CA: You’ve professed a great admiration for Bonnard, and have mentioned the importance of his painting to your own. Can you talk about that?
PMF: The amazing thing about Bonnard is just how generous he is. The viewer is always given a lot to take in. I always find it fascinating the way the pictures are divided up and how everything is flattened without sacrificing a sense of space. I especially love the tabletops in the interiors on which there are invariably everyday domestic objects. What’s so engaging is the way these surfaces start to rise and become parallel to the picture plane. And then there is the fact that everything seems to be painted in the same way (made from the same unstable material): pots, chairs, trees, faces, etc., are all depicted using the same rich vocabulary of marks and woven together by the same intangible light. His paintings on one level obviously emerge from a bourgeois world, somewhat withdrawn and domestic, yet there is something that seriously challenges our perceptions and sense of things in a phenomenological way that gives them a wonderful slowness.
CA: We are both admirers of Raoul De Keyser, and when talking recently about Milton Avery, who it turns out we also both appreciate a great deal, you pointed out some connections between these two painters. Can you talk about those connections, and whether anything you admire about these two painters are components of your own work?
PMF: Both of these painters belong to what we could call a tradition of “serious” painting or “advanced” painting. Maybe one could loosely describe it as “Braquian”; there is a certain austerity which is not necessarily reductionist, and a tendency to explore the possibilities of the medium without resorting to spectacle or rhetorical modes of expression. Very evident is a lightness of touch, a hinting at things, and a speculative approach, especially in De Keyser. One senses the importance of the studio, a workmanliness which is not ashamed of revealing the process, the materiality and debris of production. There is also a fragility and sometimes a humility (on occasions the paintings are hardly anything at all, hovering on the edge of extinction or coming into being), which comes, perhaps, from the acceptance of the innate problematic nature of painting in recent times. I was recently looking at some aquatints and lithographs by Braque and was struck by how much they reminded me of Raoul de Keyser. And speaking of Raoul de Keyser, who like many younger painters I feel especially indebted to, he is from Belgium, of course, where there is a specific age-old sensibility in regards to painting. And then there is Matisse, who is often regarded as a Mediterranean painter, though he was actually born and raised in French Flanders, and in looking at his work I think it helps to take into consideration this other more northern tradition as well. This way of seeing painting has no geographical boundaries, and when I see paintings by Milton Avery, I see underlying connections with both Matisse and de Keyser. Avery is perhaps more trustful of his medium compared to de Keyser, the latter being truly a post-Duchampian painter! Avery is marvellous, and we can learn a lot from his paintings today, just how well constructed they are as painterly images for example, and without any apparent hang ups; I mean, the obvious pleasure in them! Ultimately, of course, I am looking for my own way of doing things, and that means constantly working through all the external visual material that might pass my way until it all becomes something specifically my own. Painting is something at once highly personal (on an existential level, in my case), and something very impersonal, in the sense of it always being intimately related to other painters and traditions of painting. It’s for this reason that I feel I belong to the “Patria” touched upon here, in terms of my identity as an artist.
CA: What do you mean that de Keyser is a post-Duchampian painter?
PMF: Duchamp was obviously part of a larger questioning of things (at a certain moment in modern experience), the status of things and their apparent value or lack of it. Nothing can be taken for granted and meaning can appear in unexpected places. De Keyser, it seems to me, continues a tradition of painting – especially strong in Belgium and Holland – yet there is a certain underlying tension. His paintings are self-conscious in a good way because De Keyser has been able to incorporate a problematic quality by creating images which are by nature very uncertain and even fleeting. One senses a certain distance, which is ironic in a sense, but is perhaps a way of making sure there is room to manoeuvre and continue. The application of paint (light and not heavy), his touch, usually direct and loose, seems to embody this.
CA: Can you say a few things about how your painting is highly personal and, as you say, existential?
PMF: There is a basic existential aloneness (conditioned by the fact that we all disappear) that we can never really overcome. We can sense this in ourselves but also looking at others, especially those we love. This is just a fact, and people deal with it in whatever way they can, some in very desperate ways. Painting and drawing for me has always been a way of assimilating this fact and responding to a certain longing; even as a young child it was something that others recognised and helped to forge my sense of self. It is problematic because there is a desire to hold up a substantial image created from elements which are ultimately artificial, fragile, and constantly escaping one’s grasp. Reflecting on the fact that it is often too easy to side with the genuine against the artificial, or life against mere objects and the museum of objects, Claudio Magris in his novel Danube recalls a story written by a little girl and published in a local Italian newspaper in 1973. This brief little story is called The Rose. “The Rose was happy. She got on well with all the other flowers. One day the rose felt that she was wilting and about to die. She saw a paper flower and said to it ‘what a lovely rose you are!’- ‘but I am a paper flower!’ – ‘But don’t you realize I am dying?’ – the Rose was already dead and spoke no more.” All my work (so it’s difficult to speak of just one painting) has as its source this combination of an overwhelming emotion and an idea. To try to make this kind of painting is an enormous challenge, a life-long project, and for this reason a wager in the Pascalian sense (Blaise Pascal made a huge impression on me when I first read him in my youth). There is always risk, and frequently the absurdity of the endeavour tempers one’s sense of what one might have achieved. The secret is to find some joy in it all; it’s important not to underestimate the pleasure in painting.
CA: Many painters talk about the color, light, and geography of different locations. As an Irishman who has lived a great deal in the UK, what effect does the area of Bilbao have on your work?
PMF: Potentially all manner of things in my immediate environment and beyond can end up being absorbed into my paintings, as I mentioned before, even very small insignificant everyday things. Colour and light are the fundamental components of painting, but I feel they are conditioned by time, the other main concern in my work. The province of Vizcaya, where I live, lies on the northern Atlantic coast, not far from France, so the light is not Mediterranean, it’s more diffused and variable. It is the one place I have lived the longest in my life, so it’s difficult to be objective about how the quality of light has entered into my work and consciousness. I have always liked the idea, though, that paintings have their own light because after all, colour is light. The environment here combines both rural and industrial/post industrial landscapes due to the rapid process of industrialization and ongoing urbanization that took place during the 19th and 20th centuries. The visual contrasts are often shockingly extreme. Added to this is the proximity of the sea and a very mountainous landscape, which means one’s vision is always interrupted by diagonals and sloping contours. At the present time there are a number of ambitious infrastructure projects underway, such as highways and high-speed railway lines, which are very visible and give the landscape a very savaged aspect. Most cities and towns lie in valleys, and are dense and compact. Most buildings are tall due to the lack of space. I remember my very first vision of Bilbao on arriving one hot July day over 20 years ago; I was astonished at the density and energy of the place. These may be the reasons why I find it hard to work in horizontal formats: one’s view of things here seems to be conditioned by the vertical. I have to say though that my physical surroundings inform the paintings up to a point but it’s not the whole story, there is always a light and spirit proper to the paintings themselves which is difficult to define. The paintings are always something else.
CA: I wonder also if the vertical format has to do with the figure. Your imagery might originate in or connect to the natural world, but beyond being a painted, abstract response to the world, it might be that the object of the painting, and perhaps even the painting’s subject, is a vertical figure in the painting and/or the vertical figure who is outside and views the painting. Initially, this figure is you, the painter, but it is we, the viewers, who ultimately come to either stand beside you or even take your place. A horizontal format wouldn’t lend itself so well to the figurative presence. A vertical format more readily invokes a life-scale sense of the figure, while the horizontal format would more imply the inclusion of a smaller scale figure, a picture of the figure, inside the painting. This is something I think about quite a bit. However, what I don’t see in your painting is consistently vertical mark making. For example, a 2008 painting of yours, Territories XI (durations), carries a lattice-like layering of horizontal and vertical painted lines, and neither dominates. These criss-crossing lines build into an almost regular grid, and the forms that sections of the grid hold or define fill out the vertical canvas. Scattered eccentric shapes – more form – are laid mostly on top of the grid. There is very little in the actual painted marks and forms that is itself strictly vertical except for how they are distributed through the composition. I see this in other paintings of yours, too. Barnett Newman, for example, practically all of his zip paintings, is strictly a vertical painter, even in paintings that are a horizontal format. For you, the vertical is mostly a format choice, but I’m not sure I would call you a vertical painter.
PMF: Your observations suggest the complexity of these new paintings, and I accept the figure aspect as you see it; the body, in fact, which for me at least is always present as the maker and viewer, but also in the sensuous sense. By verticality I was suggesting the format as a dynamic scenario where the painting takes place. Also, I don’t really see the lattices in these paintings as ‘grids’. I think of them in softer terms, as something like an interplay of light and shadow which results in a quality of denseness, something I like to think of as a ‘Bonnardian’ quality. They also have something of structural elements in a garden, or architectural screens such as windows, fences etc. I have no intention of making some kind of reference to the modernist grid though; I arrived at these lattices unexpectedly via the organic painting processes I employ. In another painting, Among the deepening shades (2008), the same qualities are achieved without the criss-crossing of horizontal and vertical marks. What I mean to say is that there are different ways qualities of denseness can be achieved in painting.
CA: It seems to me there are as many painters as there are reasons to make paintings. Barnett Newman says the painter paints a picture so he has something to look at, and, in essence, that idea is not as silly or redundant as it sounded to me when I first read it thirty years ago or so. The flipside of that scenario might be the painter with something to say, a position and a message,. I have in mind a continuum, where one extreme would be painters with something to say, and the other end would be those who are involved in discovery. The former comes from a position, and is more programmatic, literary, or critical, and the latter is more involved with intuition, exploration, or process. In the end, both painters tell a story, but how they tell it, and the kind of story they tell, can be quite different. Does this make sense? Of course, most painters would slide back and forth on this continuum. So, let’s pretend what I’ve said is reasonable, and that this continuum is a workable example – do you know where you might locate yourself on it?
PMF: Over time, a body of work will define its own territory. It will embody a vital position, which will have grown from what is ultimately the enigmatic heart of the work and is not imposed on it from outside; this is how I see my own work as a painter in any case. I follow it rather than it being the result of a preconceived conceptual project. I have always wanted to create a state of affairs in which the painting process has enough momentum to lead the way and carry me along and which is especially fecund when I have to struggle to keep up with it. But the real source of the work: where does that come from, what is it? Why are we so seduced by its fruits?