in conversation: MW SR (ongoing)
An email conversation, starting in February 2018 and ongoing… occasionally
MW: We operate in different spheres, so even though we're both interested in the way visual images are used outside our area of expertise, we carry a whole lot of baggage and also knowledge that comes from how we were trained and how we work and what we look at. I don't know much about graphic design other than what I come across by chance – I don't read about graphic design or study it as a field of activity, whereas I'm constantly reading about and looking at painting and, because I teach, I have to be up on the theory around visual art as its taught in universities and art colleges. For me, my main area of focus is abstract painting, both in terms of practice and theory, so one of the things that has been fascinating is to put the abstract imagery I develop into someone else's hands – or maybe eyes – and see it manipulated through a different set of conventions.
SR: There are certainly conventions within graphic design and more precisely commercial work. The need to appeal to a particular audience to make them do something: buy a product; use a service; understand a set of guidelines; to believe in a particular way of thinking. In the work I do day-to-day, it is nearly always about presenting a clarity of message – there is rarely room for abstraction. Visually, there are conventions in design language and practice to achieve this but with The Image Exchange pieces I have always tried to work against these, creating a balance of clarity (the muscle memory) and ambiguity (to rebel). This is the case with the text selected to use and the way of applying it to Mike’s paintings/drawings/prints – as well as further abstracting the images themselves. There are many choices made while creating the pieces that are both conscious and unconscious – made through experience and playfulness.
MW: Let’s talk about the text. You started putting text in right from the beginning and I remember the very first words came from the cardboard box that contained the first set of drawings I gave you. And straightaway you even had a term for that – you called it default text. When did you first have that idea and can you say some more about what you mean by default text?
SR: The idea of default text is finding language in things that are made for a purpose but that don’t have a marketing or advertising agenda. It’s a reaction against this – to find interesting turns of phrase and poetry in something not meant for a commercial purpose. This is most often found in the digital world of warnings and messages. For example, a phrase such as ‘content no longer exists’ relates to a common issue online where something has been moved or deleted but applied to abstract painting it creates a new narrative. It is both banal and fascinating. A lot of my approach to The Image Exchange (IE) is working against what I do in my day job, to use those skills acquired over the years but to put them to use in a different way. When you work on IE paintings/drawings, do you find yourself working differently to other kinds of painting you do?
MW: Maybe at the beginning, but less and less so as we've gone on. The Image Exchange allows me to do things I might not normally, so I work with a degree of freedom, but it's not as if I'm constrained in my studio practice. I'm not working for clients or anything, I do what the hell I want most of the time. I'd actually have to sit down and think about it now to try and separate what's just for IE and what's just for my own practice and I'm not even sure I could do that anymore. I'm making similar work in both areas, even if the end results are quite different. The big change recently has been making screenprints which has brought my studio practice closer to some of things we've done together.
I still wouldn't insert text into a painting, so that's one huge difference. I really enjoy the text in IE images and I think what you've said about the way meaning shifts once that text is inserted into these abstract images – and the way the image shifts as well, so that it becomes inflected by the words – opens up all kinds of possibilities and interesting avenues of thought. Outside of IE, I avoid that kind of shifting of the image. Until recently I've even avoided titles that are in any way leading because I didn't want to close down the image in any way, I wanted to keep it open to interpretation/response. This seems to be changing as well. I've been titling works recently and even making works with a title in mind. I've just finished a painting called Blue Bayou. I'm about to do a complicated screenprint which will be called Jarrett. I think one of the effects of IE on my work has been to make me more open to pulling in references from other areas of interest, such as music, for instance.
SR: It’s become clear that IE makes us work in slightly different ways, leading you into titling work and me to relying on a numbering system for the names of each piece. From the beginning I liked the idea of the collaboration taking a rather linear trajectory, where one piece influences the next which influences the next and so on. Titling the pieces by days, i.e. Day 20-4 (the day followed by the image number in that sequence) allows a clear cataloguing of what has been produced and in what order. In this way, I like removing meaning in this work, as a way of working against standard Graphic Design practice, which is all about clear meaning and messaging. Of course, this may just be a way for me to give order to a project which is largely abstract, not something I’m familiar of working within. The temptation would be to title the work based on the text that is featured. This though seems to remove the spontaneity of the text, turning it into a considered title instead of the default manner in which it was found, and in some cases written.
MW: I like this idea that you’re completely bound by having to produce meaning and a clear message and I’m a free spirit roaming the wild plains of abstract painting. I’ve always been influenced by Michael Fried’s writing on modernist painting and his notion of working through the problems thrown up by the art of the recent past – which in turn relates back, through generations, to much larger traditions. Fried talks about conviction and work, or a practice, that comes from having conviction – having a genuine investment in what’s gone before and how you respond to it. That’s what I see myself as doing and you work like that as well – it’s that whole business of recognising what works and then trying to decide why.
SR: You’ve written a lot on art and for artists. I think if I were to write a book on Graphic Design it might be entitled ‘Truth & Lies’, which reflects the different ways in which design is employed in any number of situations. These could include; ‘helping’ a person to make a decision, informing people of a ‘fact’, selling a product, selling a service, persuading an audience to believe an idea or viewpoint (and so on) – which is a truth and which is a lie? In what way do artists or the work of abstract artists deal in truth and/or lies?
MW I think that becoming an abstract painter is wrapped up with all kinds of negations – things that you don’t do, like representation for instance - and those negations come from a feeling, or a conviction, about what is valid as an artistic statement. In other words, you’re aiming for a kind of truth, a sort of integrity, and refusing to do things that aim for less. Michael Fried puts this in moral terms – the moral integrity of the modernist artist and critic – but on a more mundane level it’s just placing your bets on what you think has value, or longevity, or what is exciting rather than dull. I don’t even think any of this comes into play unless you’ve looked at a lot of painting because that’s the only way you form a judgement about what might still be worth doing. And very few people agree. But I’m afraid I’m one of those sad individuals who still holds to something like this modernist line – that you judge your work against the best of the past, especially the recent past, and that those standards set a kind of tension that exists in what you do. I feel pretty sure that as a graphic designer you’d hold to something similar – that the manifest function of the work - selling the product, etc – is secondary to its latent function, which is to do with aesthetic quality.