Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Art Space Talk: Guy Denning

I recently interviewed artist Guy Denning. Mr. Denning, a member of Stuckism International, has been very involved in the arts throughout his career as a painter. In 1997 he founded the Neomodern group and went on to establish the Bristol Stuckists group in 2004. Denning recently exhibited work in the Triumph of Stuckism exhibition at the Liverpool John Moores University. (October 2006.) The exhibit was part of the Liverpool Biennial.

Mr. Denning is an artist who has a working knowledge of the physicality of paint. His expressive brushwork conveys a sense of raw emotion that can only be captured by an artist who has studied the manipulation of paint. His bold use of paint allows him to create images that I find to be psychologically striking. There is a certain 'cruel energy' about this work. An energy that reveals the plight of humankind.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "I think I’d always had ideas that it would be around in my adult life, but it wasn’t until my rejection from art college when I was about twenty that I was determined to make it the foremost part of my career aspirations. The first sign of my bloody-minded determination in the face of rejection!"

Q. Tell me a little about your background. Are your past experiences reflected in the work you do today? If so, how?

A. "My family owned a bakery in a small town in north Somerset. Consequently, certainly through the seventies until the ubiquitous supermarkets destroyed locally owned retailing, we were relatively well off.

My father had a love of the arts (I think it probably developed from an unfulfilled desire to do something formally recognized as creative) and my natural ability was fully encouraged. Also my maternal grandmother was a local schoolteacher and she had a huge influence on my development in terms of appreciation of literature and the arts generally.

I’ve always felt that I ‘belong’ to this area of the west country which has an enormous historical tradition with the labour movement. From an agricultural origin it became increasingly politicized through mining and then the railways. Though these industries had faded away by the time I was an adult there was still a strong socialist, communist and anarchist base in the area.

During the eighties, and the slash and burn politics of Thatcher, the area seemed to become a magnet for the traveler community and these people also informed me politically. You also have to bear in mind that I was probably on a permanent teenage guilt trip as many locals perceived my family as being particularly well-off (incorrectly – the business was collapsing).

Some of my earliest work that I felt happy with was fairly run of the mill politically informed stuff. Anti-war pieces in opposition to the Falklands affair, another concerning the gassing of the Kurds at Halabja and a piece about the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal.

I can remember various tutors and older artists wagging their fingers and advising me to move away from that kind of subject matter – but I think the die was cast!"

Q. Did you pick up on other artist's techniques or did you always have your own style?

A. "I’m always accusing myself of stealing other people’s ideas - in all honesty everyone does it; currently I’m taking a great interest in Caravaggio (of all people!) and Balthus. It is both flattering and interesting though that you think I have my own style – though I do think that if you saw a bit more work you’d realize I’m not particularly original at all stylistically! It’s only paint on canvas after all."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "I was given my first set of oil paints when I was about ten or eleven. My father used to occasionally knock out little paintings of 1960’s sports cars but he obviously got bored and I ended up with all the kit. That was in the mid seventies and I’ve used them since. I’ve tried acrylics but didn’t like the feel of them and spent a few years in the nineties working with gouache which I quite enjoyed – but they were always coming a poor second place to oil paint."

Q. What’s the longest time you've ever spent on a piece?

A. "Some pieces hang around for ages waiting to be finished - there's a piece that I started on September 12th 2001 that I didn't finish until 2005. I’ve generally got several pieces on the go at any given time, that’s why work tends to pop up in groups on the web site.

Perhaps of any given idea I might start a dozen pieces simultaneously, as slight variations fall by the way I’ll perhaps be left with two or three finished paintings.

There was one occasion where I started and finished one large abstract in a day (this was when I was combining layers of gouache with finishing layers of oil glaze), but this has been the exception. I was so overjoyed at the outcome that I immediately took up another canvas and repeated the ‘formula’ to see if I could achieve the same buzz that the first painting gave me. Needless to say it didn’t – and I destroyed the second attempt. That’s the only time when I’ve had a feeling like that from my own work – a bizarre mix of elation and achievement."

Q. Do you work in a studio with other artists?

A. "No, I couldn’t work in an environment like that. Artist’s are a pain in the arse to work with – I prefer to paint alone, with music, wine and my pipe and do so at home."

Q. Do you think art has helped you to become the person you are today?

A. "Definitely – rejected, bitter, twisted, further depressed, paranoid, angry – then elated that I am capable of something people consider ‘special’ (whether I realize that challenge is another issue), fortunate in having something that has meant so much to me and determination to continue with it."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "I don’t think the trend for endless novelty regardless whatever in terms of content, will ever go away. Certainly not in the short term, there’s too much serious money tied up in too many corporate collections for that to happen.

I’ve always maintained that there would be no ‘death of painting’ – something that was briefly and ludicrously touted around in the early to mid nineties. There will always be room for the traditional media in the minds of the general public and mainstream collector, a fact borne out by Saatchi’s recent ‘Triumph of Painting’ show.

I’d like to think that there would be a move back to issues of craft, whether the medium is paint or video. If you could at least argue for a credible ability within the creator to actually ‘create’ competently it would remove a lot of the criticism that contemporary art attracts.

I would also like to see a reduction in the amount of artists who contract out the actual labour of their work – particularly those that contract out tasks like painting and sculpture. It seems to defeat the point of calling yourself an artist if you’re going to employ someone to actually do the work; I know what the ‘intellectual’ arguments are behind this and I don’t agree with them. I couldn’t hire a top class racing driver to win grand prix events for me – and then claim the prize as my own because I came up with the concept of ‘winning’ the races."

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "There was an occasion where I hired a gallery to take some publicity shots of myself and the work. Because the minimum period of hire was 2 weeks it eventually turned into an exhibition.

As the date of the show approached many of the paintings were still in need of some slight finishing and none had seen the light of day outside of my studio, but despite this the manager of the gallery telephoned me to enquire about the subject matter of the work. She had been forewarned by another public gallery manager that my work at that time could potentially be considered offensive or pornographic.

Basically I just faced it out, ignored her requests to see the work in advance, took the work on the day of the hanging and showed them anyway – though the gallery insisted on putting up an A-board outside on the street to warn passing people that they might find some of the work offensive – accordingly I had more interest than I may otherwise have had.

There seemed to be a problem with a male artist painting explicitly sexualized female nudes, particularly in the politically correct obsessed mindset of the manager involved. Ironically the equally sexualized male nudes (some were even masturbating) did not present the same problem.
I did attempt to instigate a debate about her patronizing approach to the work which in her terms was either ‘misogynistic’ or ‘homoerotic’ depending on whether the work’s subject was male or female. The transgender and bisexual issues in some work were conveniently ignored and she hadn’t even heard of Camille Paglia so I walked away from the argument before I lost my temper."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "Any rejection from a gallery, public or private, is hard - but more so when they won’t even take the time to see the work. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t care about not selling my work – provided that I had the opportunity to at least show it.

There was a period about six years ago when I was struggling (and failing) to get through the hoops put in your way to obtain public arts funding for a show in disused shop space. This tied up with the usual patronizing rejections from commercial galleries led me to destroy a huge amount of work in a bonfire one night. Another pointless gesture!"

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "My subject matter does take heavily from my opinions on current affairs; I just wish that what goes on in the world affected the greater number of the population in a similar way.

I don’t think art can change the world – but I do think it can record a position that honestly reports on an individual’s challenge to the official line.

It is sometimes difficult to not produce directly referential work, particularly with regards to a war you disagree with, but I have tried to avoid it – even if the method is clumsy (using allegory)."

Q. Do you think that as a painter you views are taken seriously?

A. "On the subject of art I hope so – on anything else, I hope not. I’m only expressing opinions and I’m no expert in the other fields that I have an interest in.

It’s a shame that in the wider world, non-experts (generally creatures from that strange breed known as ‘celebrity’) get given air time to view half-baked opinion at the expense of the knowledgeable in all arenas from culture to psychology, war to moral philosophy.

If I had a motorbike that needed fixing I would take it to the appropriately experienced mechanic – not the local pub singer."

Q. In terms of your total career, what would you do differently if you were starting out again?

A. "Looking back now - if I could combine my general bolshiness and refusal to listen to tutors - then 3 years at a serious college would probably be the only thing I’d hanker after. But you can't go back - so there's no real point in thinking about it.

I used to be bitter about being excluded - now I can't be arsed (plus the fact I’m too busy painting). What happened in the past made me what I am now – and I’m fairly contented on that front. The only reason I’d want to go back in time would be to constructively use the time I wasted."
Q. How has creating art shaped you professionally and personally?

A. "Every day that I have to go to another day job has made me more determined to aim towards working at painting full time. On a personal basis it can give me a huge sense of hope in aspiring to achieve this, but it can also work the other way.

I do have a past medical history of depression – and the art doesn’t always help. My partner helped get me off a substantial volume of medication about ten years ago and that was extremely positive for me.
I now realize that the negative aspects of my personality are not a fault; they’re just part of what makes me who I am.

There’s also the strange situation of the positive responses an artist’s work gets from people which can lull the artist softly into a sense of perpetual un-fulfillment – well, it will if the artist is honest about their work.

I don’t think any of my work is a fair account of what I think I set out to achieve, which is probably difficult for people to understand – but that’s the way it is."
Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?
A. "There’s only one piece that I’ve previously gone into depth regarding an explanation – generally I want the work to be taken at face value without my explanation clubbing the viewer over the head with a ‘correct’ interpretation. The painting "process of erasure (the triumph of painting)" online here: http://tinyurl.com/yx2hyr this work involved painting over a previous painting with white paint.

Here’s the explanation that I had to send out to all the people that queried what I had done. The original painting was a piece I had considered fairly acceptable (in terms of what of my own work I am happy to leave as being acceptably 'finished') and certainly one of my personal favourites of the work I had done lately - and I rarely have anything finished that I'm happy to consider a 'favourite'. It was one of the few overtly readable political pieces of late - and accused by some of being just the usual 'right-on' angry artist fare.
It was a personal response to the continuingly complex 'Middle East problem' that seems to be endlessly pumped, via all media, into our living rooms - without any real depth of analysis. All we (the viewing public) are fit to know is the ongoing body count and the hierarchy of virtue in the reasons behind the violence depending on whether it was Israeli or Palestinian inspired.

No gallery that took the other paintings in the set would take this one (which annoyed me as I thought it was one of the strongest of the series) and I only showed it once in a theatre bar/restaurant space for a month.
The original text on the painted out piece is 'A hierarchy of suffering' - I try to keep it obvious when it's important! We don't want the punters having to think for their selves do we? At least that's the attitudes of our masters.
The choice of this particular painting for erasing WAS difficult - because it was an important piece to me. But the whole action was in response to the mainstream media's misreporting and collusion with UK and US government in supporting the ongoing state sanctioned terrorism.

Considering the subject of the original painting then, its choice was simple. Essentially the original painting remained unfinished until I had also included the whole reason for carrying it out in the first place. All I have done is finish the painting. And, in general, the public don't really care (about unknown contemporary artists or the reasons underlying the political tensions in Palestine) so why bother leaving a piece of visual polemic? Another good reason to have it painted out.

The art world's journos are generally just as bad - it's basically turned into the bastard child of Hello magazine and Modern Painters. Anything that engages with politics is mocked as being irrelevant or old-hat (unless of course it deals with establishment safe 'issues' such as the alienation of immigrants, 'wimmins' issues and is either publicly funded or sponsored).

Oh - the title of 'the triumph of painting' - I'm glad it managed to turn up for Saatchi (even if it was fashionably late). This was not a negation of painting, or a Rauschenbergian 'silencing the visual'. The silence I am painting is the audience's non-challenge of the news media. I'm celebrating painting. I'm actually doing the job properly and ensuring the piece is finished, even if in the process it becomes invisible to an unknowing audience. The painting out was done carefully and with attention (in a true Modernist fashion) to what the final textures and layerings look and feel like.

The choice of white paint was because it's like an 'anti-paint' if you like. Paint up a totally black canvas and it's been painted... totally black... an audience is happy to consider it finished - white paint doesn't do that. White paint always has the association of being the primer, the blank canvas - waiting to be started.

In painting the canvas white I simultaneously finished the work AND erased it - taking the canvas back to a point where it could be used again.

Now the problem lies in what to do with the canvas - originally I was going to burn it because I wanted to be sure that I wouldn't paint over it (always tempting when you're short of the money to buy new materials). But I think I'll leave it as it is, for now at least.It's opened up some new avenues to explore around the relationship between the anti-colour white and the art world.

A friend brought up the comparison with Malevich when he moved to the notion of suprematism - it's the ultimate colour an artist can use to indicate that work has been done but the piece has not been sullied by a mistake in the process. It's primer, topcoat, finishing and all. All in all I'm satisfied that I've done the best job I can do with the subject matter, the medium and my feelings for both."

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Guy Denning. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.

Here are some sites that you may find of interest:




Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

so much more can be said in white than in anyother concept

P.G said...

Guy ,if you ever read this ,I would love a cuppa n a spliff with you one day , I,am an up and coming artist ,and my work is somewhat simlar to yours (although not as good!] ..I leave this mssage adrift in the vast bounds of hyperspace ///......................