A Conversation with Philippe Aird
Phoenix Gallery, 8th August 2006
As part of the preparation for this book, friend and fellow-artist James Bloomfield talked to Philippe about his art. Below are some salient excerpts:
JB: Have you ever had a desire to be a figurative painter?
PA: No, because I've always been a figurative painter, I've always painted figuratively. Its just recently the last sort of two, no, three years gone abstract. But having said that, in some ways they're more figurative anyway because the viewer starts reading in all these figurative responses, whether its faces, animals, objects, fish whatever and also they're from space you know the explosions, which is abstract in itself. But they're just like anything else is, and images from the body. The book on the body appears to be abstract, so it's a funny mix-up. But also the abstract allows me to experiment more.
JB: You began doing figurative paintings, exploring different forms within those parameters. Do you think you've 'been there/done that', or is it something you've decided to leave for the moment and this is where your at now?
PA: Yes, This is where I am at the moment, but I certainly don't think I've done it as in the figurative aspect, also there are just so many figurative images when your driving, moving, you're just bombarded with figuration, and also the distortion of figuration, through, you know, computers and stuff, for me its more perplexing to a degree for the viewer; abstraction, maybe? It allows them greater freedom to read what the hell they want into them, I'm still reluctant to title them, so that freedom they have, they can start to impose their own interpretation on it. Whereas with a portrait of someone's head, its someone's head, do I recognize who it is, right? That's it, too a degree.
JB: Then you must enjoy painting this way; it must be freedom for you in a way?
PA: Yes, I'm not anchored down by the err , the figurative aspect that would hold me back, and also one's often subservient to , if you had a model its such a powerful thing, whether they're clothed or not clothed, you'll have somebody in a room, for me its difficult enough to paint when there's a spider, let alone if somebody's there or , even still life anything, you're subservient. The thing I've decided to look in, as in, into my stomach. As apposed to looking out and you then gather information, and then you recycle it. It was a different procedure.
JB: I've never thought of it in that kind of way.
PA: It's right for me
JB: So with this process you're exploring materials and ideas at the moment, so you're not subservient to any a subject matter as such .Would you say you're limiting yourself to exploring materials rather than subject matter?
PA: Not limiting, because that's the thing largely that keeps me going and excited. Its trying to come across new sorts of materials, new techniques and that takes, like these paintings here that are on show , you know they've taken me 15 years to suss out the technique of trial and error, and you lose confidence. When everything doesn't work, doesn't work , doesn't work try this leave it you know , there's something a gut , you know an instinct, your trying to, you don't know at the time, but know I've achieved it you get bored with it I want the next thing. There's so many unusual materials now on the market different things, that I'm always out looking for something a bit peculiar, you never know what you get. As apposed to going to an art shop, you tend to get art materials, don't you?
JB: So other artists are limited by their materials in that they generally only source them from one place, which is a more traditional approach - something you're working to free yourself from….
JB: I know you've destroyed a lot of your paintings in the past, I've seen them in the skip. Is that part of it? Do you think there's no great shame in doing something and admitting that it's not worked out and chucking it away?
PA: No, and in a way they're the best ones It was the same with snooker - I used to like losing to a degree, because I'd learn more, not all the time of course, you lose confidence. But in a way they're the best ones because there the ones I've learnt through - they're the crucial stepping stones to the ones you see on the wall and the ones I've sold. To get there you could argue, as with Jackson Pollock's really early work, how he got there was far more interesting than what he arrived at. Once he'd got there he was drippy drippy, like mad you know, one after the other. But the process of getting there was actually far more revealing, exciting and experimental. It makes we wonder why and how he carried on in that manner, you know? I'm sure he got bored.
JB: You get into that comfort zone, if you get something that works, and you're getting praise for things, for the way they look, you kind of get tied to it. Maybe a lot of artists think 'well, this is me, this is what I do so I'm going to keep doing this because this is obviously what I'm going to become famous for'.
PA Well, you've got to pay the bills, make a living, but you can't get out of your own skin - it's still going to be you by experimenting, and then you're still going on a journey you're setting sail each time, you're exploring, you know? This is the drive, the quest, for mastery - or as close as you can get. Yes, I've completed all these paintings, but there's also lots and lots of other things that I just haven't done and will never do, which turns me on in a way. I just keep trying to move forward through experimentation.
JB: Looking back through art history, do you think abstract painting still has a place out there? The great abstract painters like Rothko, I know you've mentioned Pollock and all those abstract expressionists, in the era from the 1950s through to the 60s, they were giants. And then it all seemed to stop. The art world declared the new thing was 'installation art' or someone else was the new future, or 'this is where art should be now'. Does that bother you or do you not really give a monkeys?
PA: I think it's a load of nonsense myself, so no, I don't give a monkeys. For me, the first sort of abstract images were and still are to be found in nature. Whether it be space, which is the obvious one for me, or on the body, the inside of the body, but also in rock formations, stratification, the patterns and shapes you see when you look closely at certain trees, the bark, the insides. They're abstract images in a way, especially when you focus in on an area, just as an artist does, it picks out a particular composition, if you move in, it will always be far superior to anything a human mind or hand can achieve. As for new art forms or fashion, then I'm just not the slightest bit concerned with it - it's so transient I just couldn't give a damn.
JB: You've said before over analysis leads to paralysis. Could you expand on that?
PA: There was a student in last week that told me that drawing was coming back into colleges, which to tell you the truth, having taught for seven years and heard different things every year about this being the new thing or whatever, it was such a, I don't know if the word is parochial or insular, but about the only people that care are the artists anyway. And then there's real fashion that's governed by certain people, it just changes from year to year or every two years or something. For me it's the integrity of the work and the individual that's of real, lasting importance - whatever he or she wishes to express, their emotions through shape, colour, writing whatever it might be, then as long as the bloody stuffs good it's OK. And contains an echo of their chemicals, an echo of them. As apposed to being some sort of pretentious superficial thingy dingy.
JB: So it doesn't matter how someone expresses themselves as long as it's an honest expression of what they wanted to say?
PA: As long as it's not violent, or inciting violence or any flipping political thingy dingy.
JB: So you don't do that ‘fundamentalist Catholics at school' and all that kind of sensationalist stuff?
PA: No, it's not for me. But it is a spiritual journey without a doubt, but it would lead me to, wherever it's bloody leading me to, mainly by being honest with the materials, to follow the colour to follow the shape, to follow the chance. It's taken years really, of breaking down all the logical nonsense and then being able to follow the messages, the signs. This for me is very spiritual indeed, although at time, especially living in the moment when you're doing it, it just directs me and it also breeds ideas up, I'll try this or I'll try that. So it has to be intuitive really , instinctive….it feels like, as if something else is in control at times, I don't know what it is..
JB: That's what a lot of painters claim to be after. That childlike zone, forgetting everything that you've ever been taught, or shown, or seen or conditioned into. It seems that at the moment your life is structured around being in that place as much as possible.
PA: I think it is, well, it is. I'm here every day and I have to put in the time I think because basically I'm not very good. Whereby I have to keep an eye on things, I have to, it's almost like some sort of very thin thread and once its broken a little bit it takes weeks to rebuild. And a lot of my work is based on rhythm and the flow of adrenalin any way, so I just have to put in the time and try and be organized for the chaos of when I do paint. Or be prepared for the complete freedom of when I paint.
JB: Is there a particular part of the day where you feel you get this more readily?
PA: Yes. Most simply early in the morning, early in the morning I've got a couple of brain cells left, usually until about half nine, half ten, and then its almost a robotic activity - plodding along throughout the day then with half a brain cell. I'm best in the morning, but I never used to be.
JB: I was going to ask, has it always been like that?
PA: No, I just changed one day. I used to lie in bed for ages, which I miss, but now I can't. I just get up and go. But there're two sides to a routine for me you know, I need that routine, I need that structure to keep moving forwards. As I say, there's so many other possibilities to be explored, which keeps me going, but there's also the other side of the coin. I suppose a holiday may help to break up the boredom of locking the doors, the same routine, each day this and that, switch this on, etc, etc, you know, there's also the numbing aspect of the routine as well. But then that's not the biggest burden in the world. Having got to know and seen the builders around here (there's huge rebuilding going on around Phil's studio), most of them going to work each day throughout winter, and working grinding metal, building, banging and all that, I don't think I've got much to complain about. That routine would do me in a bit more.
JB: Do you feel like you're totally inside that routine, or could you quite easily just forget it and go and do something else?
PA: I think all I'm protective over is the creative process, the highs and lows….its all I have in the end, so I'm very protective over that. If I wasn't it'd be very easy to fill my time. For example, last weekend I took Sunday afternoon off and went to this old folks home which has some paintings of mine. But even that affected me, the different atmosphere, the distraction if you like. The next day I was out of sync for most of the day, just wasn't in tune in the morning, so even that had affected me, but…
JB: Is that because it was throwing something new at you - new ideas or new possibilities or a whole new experience? Did you have to work through it before you could get back into your routine?
PA: I think so, yes. On the way home I had to find the same journey home, get the petrol from the same petrol station. I don't go to exhibitions, I don't go out to get, you know, so called 'inspiration', sketching in the landscape or whatever. It may be I just don't bother, I don't seem to need to, there's so many things in my stomach that I just wish I could bring out, really. The distractions that would lead me somewhere else, there's more than enough of my own chemicals, my own makeup that I wish to explore, through instinct. In any case, doing a painting is like going on holiday…..it takes me to wherever it takes me. So that recharges me. It's like going on a journey each bleedin' time. So in that sense I have holidays throughout the year.
JB. I suppose that really what you've just said is these are all still coming from you, coming out of you, like some mad coral thats continually ejaculating spermatozoa, breeding and throwing out?
PA: Yes. Yes, that's a good analogy. When I was sixteen on my moped, coming from Salford , it was like shapes and colours in my stomach that I just wanted to bring out. I even described it as visual puke. Puking this stream of colours and shapes from within, but this is obviously not a logical process. It's intuitive painting, it's instinctive, so they're subliminal images. There's so much of the sublime - seventy five percent of the head or wherever it is, there's so much for me to tap into there. But if I go out of that door now, there are so many distractions it confuses me. You know, if I'm out for a day or two, or take a week off, I lose that contact with myself because I'm bombarded with all sorts of bloody things. Even a traffic jam affects my rhythm and the adrenalin disappears…
JB: A lot of painters would find that a difficult way to paint.
PA: Well, for me it could be seen as a prison sentence. I'm in here every day - day in day out doing long hours, but again it doesn't matter to me. It's however you do it, you know? Differences among artists in terms how they do it are not important, as long as they do it. For example, a mate of mine, Charlie Shiels is going to bed when I'm getting up really you know he paints until early in the morning , starts late…but that's how he does it …its each to his own. But any artist for me should be expressing their own make-up, their own particular chemicals. They have to because of the fact that they've done it, and every single person is different, always have been throughout history, millions and millions of people.. So it's quite a beautiful thing to express your own…to find out about yourself. And sentencing yourself to this particular journey is err…, well it's fine.
JB: I look at your paintings differently now, they're not trying to stand up against another painting and say 'look at how good I am compared to you', or 'look how I do it compared to how you've done it - it doesn't matter.
PA: It doesn't.
JB : I think this is good because there are so many artists that have got this boil in their stomach that they want to get out , they want to do something, but they're so constricted, or so scared to do something.
PA: I think I've had some of that for years, but I saw some Korean art and read a bit about it and evidently they see artists as they would see a plumber or a cook - an integral part of society. One of the problems of being an artist in a society is if they try to put themselves - or allow themselves to be put - above other people. You know, this thing where you're an 'artist', which I still don't understand, that people are fascinated by an artist, whereas for me, if I'm like a cook or a plumber or builder, then I put the time in - the hours. And I don't want to be like 'I'm the best builder in the world because I've laid so many bricks' or whatever. But by putting in the time and the hours you know, it's a job! But quite a lovely job, it is a lovely job, because you learn about yourself, exploring and moving forward. But it's a very polluted area without a doubt.
JB: What do you mean by polluted?
PA: It's mainly polluted by the individual. I think there' s a whole structure out there, the way we discuss paintings, that I don't understand, but I think half of it is polluted by the individual.
‘I want to be an artist or write a book or do a painting', and the image of all that I think is a very dangerous path! I actually wouldn't mind as long as the time is put in and there's work there to back it up. If the time isn't evident, then it's not an honest reflection, unless it's bloody good!
But that's very easy to say but it's very difficult to sort of find out what you're about anyway and to put the time in as well
There's also that statement, "Luck is a matter of preparations meeting opportunity". To create your own luck. All that preparation and work and luck will start to come in, that's what I meant about the spiritual thing in the paint directing me. Then chance and luck for me will start to happen. It's like the icing on the cake, but I can't just start hanging out and hoping for a bit of luck to turn up - for me it doesn't happen. So the ingredients start to slot into place and hopefully through that foundation, that boring, solid, monosyllabic base, I can get on with the bloody job! Having said that, I spend two or three days a week cleaning. Ha ha!
JB That's where you're using all your luck up!
“It is said that Francis Bacon walked into a gallery in London one day, wrote a cheque for a very considerable amount for one of his own paintings, took it outside and destroyed it. In the summer of 2006, as we have seen, a 'collector' of Phil's work was preserved on CCTV clambering out of a skip with an unwanted canvas under his arm. This was one of hundreds of paintings which eventually find their way in the world - starting out at Phoenix and contributing to their creator's journey.”