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Jonathan Lasker, Patrick Heron, Katie Pratt

14 February 2006 - 08 April 2006

Where does an abstract painting begin? With a drawing, a doodle, a chance event, a colour? And how does this define the appearance of the final work? This exhibition explores the process of ‘cause and effect’ within the work of three painters, spanning three generations of art.

British painter and critic Patrick Heron (1920 – 1999) is arguably Britain’s greatest abstract artist, sustaining an international reputation throughout his lifetime and beyond. Three works from the 1970s will be on show, each featuring dazzling areas of colour, juxtaposed across the canvas in a series of jigsaw-like shapes. These shapes are formed at the beginning of the work through rapid freehand drawing. Expanses of solid colour are then created with thousands of small brush strokes, using a Chinese calligraphy brush. The resulting surface is both uniform and intricate, contrasting spontaneity with a labour-intensive technique.

Produced almost twenty years later are three works by New York-based painter Jonathan Lasker (b.1948). Rising to international prominence in 1980s, the artist has exhibited at events such as Documenta IX and the Venice Biennale. Lasker initially creates small doodles, which he then reproduces, vastly magnified, within large paintings. The results are a flat, almost cartoon-like array of dots, lines and squiggles. These are jarringly overlaid by smaller areas of thick, more disorderly paint. The controlled, methodical finish of the works contrast dramatically with the frenetic, subconscious activity of doodling or scribbling, from which they began.

Created a further two decades on are three works by Katie Pratt (b.1969), who, in 2001, was the youngest ever winner of the Jerwood Painting Prize, Britain’s most prestigious painting award. Her canvases are scattered with seemingly arbitrary marks and globules, around which circulate a network of dots, lines and accretions. Pratt begins abruptly, throwing paint randomly onto the canvas. With this initial structure established, the artist then creates rules and systems to ‘complete’ the work, to which she adheres almost mechanically. In this way, the paintings develop their own ‘fuzzy logic’, with their appearance virtually ungoverned by the artist.

Artist's interview

SF: Well good afternoon Katie Pratt and welcome to the John Hansard Gallery. This interview is on the occasion of the exhibition of your own work, alongside the work of Patrick Heron and Jonathan Lasker. We will share copyright of this interview. I would like you to begin by telling us about your working processes and how you go about making a painting from scratch. Could you describe that please?

KP: The motion of making a painting from scratch is obviously quite daunting when faced with a white surface, an empty expanse, and I like to overcome that quite quickly by getting an image down very very quickly, almost instantaneously, by throwing paint. So I do have some kind of pre-decisions about the paint I am going to use and roughly how I am going to direct it. But I establish very early on the main features of the piece and then I allow a certain space for analysis of the splash of thrown paint, and detail and see rhythms or repetitions, that I might happen to notice and literally pick them out and illustrate them.

SF: So when you start this initial act, this throwing the paint, what are you thinking about, what’s in your mind?

KP: I suppose the point about that moment, is it masquerades as a kind vacancy in my mind.

SF: So you try and keep your mind as blank as possible.

KP: I say masquerade because it is like a performance of vacancy, but actually of course there is anxiety about how things are going to slot into a series of work, or how the painting is going to pan out in full, and also a particular nuance that I might be investigating in that particular piece, so I direct or establish the arena for that to be relevant.

SF: And by that time you have already made decisions I suppose?

KP: Yes I guess.

SF: Which is what colour paint you are going to use. But you don’t always use paint when you are throwing material at the canvas do you?

KP: What - For the pieces that I used at the John Hansard show? This show. I use masks, so that you get a negative splash, it is still a splash of the painting consistency, but it takes you back to the raw canvas of the layer beneath. You throw the material on, paint over the top, then remove the material so, it’s an immaterial splash if you like.

SF: So after this initial period, this initial action that you engage in, there is a period of when you move away you leave a fair amount of space; is that a period of hours, of days or weeks?

KP: Yes. Any one of those! It depends partly on where in the series the painting is and time pressure. But I find that when you are working in series, it seems to speed up because you have time to think about a piece of work without having to directly work on it, so you have had a kind of resting meditation period, so the analysis has been subliminal or on a very slow burn.

SF: So after this long period of reflection, what happens next?

KP: Well I suppose it depends very much on my interest at that particular moment because it has varied over the time that I have been making paintings, but definitely some kind of examination and analysis of this splash so that I can find a way of converting it from just mere paint to plotting the regularities, the rythms that I can perceive that I happen to put my finger on, and I tend to focus in on a particular detail. In the white painting, Skelington, I used kind of multi-coloured paint to throw at the canvas, well white with staining in it, and then I picked out the precise colour of the stain and spun it out in a line of successive brush marks, working round in sequence so there’s a route, a circuit.

SF: So after this immediate action and this period of reflection, you engage in a second stage, which is a much more painstaking, thoughtful, slow process.

KP: Yes, much more detailed. Slower pace and much more instantaneous; it kind of eclipses any sense of picture making, of how the rest of the painting is building up, or what I might do next or before. It is very much about the moment in hand but it is a mechanism for giving myself space to think.

SF: So you move into this very much slower process of painting. How long does it take for the rest of the painting? How long does it take you to make a painting in fact?

KP: Well because they are unseen, because they are not visualized in my mind or planned, I can’t tell how long a particular piece will take. Because the painstaking detail is mapped out by descriptive paradigms, observations which define – well definitions which come from the observations I have made about the rhythms, so most of the dots that go off in a north westerly direction tend to be round, therefore I am looking for round dots and I will give them all the same treatment, to draw out lines going to the top right hand corner of the canvas or something.

SF: And that’s one thing you might do. You might say ‘how many dots can I find?’ or whatever and actually start to identify?

KP: I tend to say ‘I must join every dot’. If you draw up a category then everything must fall into the category that is described by the category, you don’t get to ignore a particular splash for convenience. Which is how the images are determined, so it might mean that you kind of sneak yourself so you might have to take a very elaborate route, so the image on the canvas will be very convoluted perhaps. But it can’t be seen, you don’t know until you actually make it how it is going to be determined and how things are going to relate to each other and it’s very much determined on an instantaneous decision about which dot to go to next; or if two things are equidistant It is just chance which one you happen to take.

SF: Is it fair to say that the first stage that you engage in is a very irrational, unconscious activity, and the second stage is a much more conscious and rational, or is it a more mindless or absent minded or conscious-free stage?

KP: Yes, well it is repetitive. They’ve just got very different speeds. I mean yes, the splash appears to be an accident, but as I already said, there’s a lot of directing that goes on in that accident, and whilst the detailing appears to be very very rigid and almost artistically intuitive, at the same time there is decision making but it is on a very instant by instant and a very negligible basis, so one decision to the next is tiny, but the overall build up is quite significant as you can end up adding an extra 300 hours to a piece of work just by a split second insignificant decision which has taken you on a different route around the canvas!

SF: As you know Katie, originally we brought the three artists together because we perceived a common way of approaching a means of working. Patrick Heron described very articulately his process, which was to sit and stare at a canvas for some time with a pencil or something in his hand and when the moment was right, he would very very quickly draw out the major shapes that would occur. Within a matter of minutes. And then he would go through the painstaking process of filling in, and even the two small paintings we have in the exhibition here are painted over a period of some years. Jonathan Lasker similarly begins by making very often doodles or scribbles, often with felt pen or biro and these he will get back out again, sometimes many years later, and effectively make a new painting based on the scheme of what is on the piece of lined or scrap paper, or a little piece of card or something. As a thematic approach to work, does that make any sense to you?

KP: Yes absolutely. I think, part of it is a kind of ruse for distraction while you are making key decisions about the work. Whether those decisions are made very quickly, or in Patrick Heron’s case, staring, waiting almost for a visitation from the muse before beginning his work, but actually it has a lot to do with the continuum of the work and intention that has probably been boiling beneath the surface, and it’s a way of structuring your own practice, essentially from nothing or from the sum total of your experience. Abstract painting is not something that pre-exists or is a given, it is something that has to be determined by the artist, and the burden of nothing can seem quite heavy I guess.

SF: And before you start throwing the paint you are not sitting waiting for the muse, you are actually allowing some kind of physical activity to take place. It is an event - does it create a kind of dynamic? Does this kind of fling the paint, create a compositional dynamic which invigorates the subsequent work?

KP: Yes it does. It sets up an appearance, or a theme – a strong visual element for the painting which is then very difficult to counterbalance if that’s what you intend to do. But I suppose, more importantly, it sets up a historical balance I am opting into, or acknowledging, a way of making work which is just to do with moving stuff around and just to do with being seduced by the paint, which I happen to think is not interesting on its merits in itself . But at the same time it is a kind of ruse for - well it is a performance, and it is a ritual in a sense as well.

SF: As you know we brought three artists together from very different generations; Patrick Heron especially is associated with high modernism, and in fact was a contemporary of the American abstract expressionist artists. Jonathan Lasker is still a very very active artist now and was making a very substantial career in the early 80’s, the period from which these paintings have come, and you very kindly have made paintings especially for the exhibition. All of you are abstract artists, and you are each of your own era and there are great differences in your approach to your work.

KP: Well I think that one thing that shifts is the relationship to irony. Jonathan Lasker and Patrick Heron are very influential on the language of abstract painting, which I use and it’s a discourse that I’m part of. But I suppose the emphasis put on creativity or invention is shifting and the degree of reverence really which you are giving to creativity has changed, so Heron is perhaps of the generation that still, to a certain degree, believed that they took entire responsibility for visualising something. I suppose maybe he was at the beginning of it. But people are increasingly mediating that, either through appropriation or various tricks and ruses to subvert the course of creativity.

SF: In a sense you have already answered my next question, but I would like to explore it a little bit, and that is that Patrick Heron can be seen as the epitomy of high modernism, in a sense and he wrote a great deal about his relationship to that. What is it that makes you distanced from the modernist position?

KP: Well I think it has a lot to do with the relationship to formalism, and taking an increasingly meditative stance. Not rejecting formalism as such, but finding ways to distance yourself from it or have it interpreted for you. And also irony has to be a factor which is still increasing in influence, and I don’t think that a mid 20th century artist would have considered irony in any way.

SF: It was deadly serious. And in fact perhaps it would be more accurate to call Patrick Heron a formalist rather than a modernist because he wrote again - it’s about shapes and colours – and the sensual experience of such, and you are dealing with something much different from that in a way.

KP: Yes and also I think about the image or the beauty if there is any. Sometimes my work can be quite gawky. Jonathan Lasker has an uneasy relationship with elegance as well. You know, sometimes they are highly elegant but not in a conventional sense. I think that that’s because it is not a contrived, or designed beauty or elegance or image, it is something that has arrived at through a construct of processes, through almost a conceptual rigour rather than a visual rigour.

SF: I imagine a traditional abstract painter’s position is the minute they make a mark on the white canvas, they set up an imbalance which has to be responded to in some way and the traditional notion of what a painter might be doing is taking it to a total resolution. But you discounted that. You appear to be working towards the completion of the composition to put it in simplest language.

KP: There is a point of resolution, but it is not a visual resolution, it is a point where the criteria have been fulfilled so I have contacted every round dot as opposed to long splash in the predetermined manner that I had set for myself. But it is riddled with loopholes, it is not an exact science, so you can fulfill a particular system that you have designed, but you then decide that perhaps you should develop that a bit further, and it doesn’t look right, so you have to contrive a new system or a new pathway of image making as a sequel.

SF: Abstract painting is now in its second century, but I think there is a misconception about abstract painting revolving completely around that. Do you think the three of you were addressing that in some different way - the process of painting?

KP: Yes I think it’s one thing that describes the differences as well. A lot of my work has visual jokes in it to do with it – when you see a splash on the canvas you have this image of an angst-ridden artist talking about expression, which is dubious to say the least, because it is not expression, it is paint, and it is one gesture and it’s not necessarily to do with emotion, or expression or ideas, or anything like that; it is to do with gravity and physicality. And I think that it’s a changing stance, but it is definitely a misconception that abstract painting is about emotion really, and I don’t particularly think it is. It is a rationalization of an irrational vocation.

SF: So the opposite of abstraction I guess is the figurative element, and in a sense one has to look at figuration to define abstraction, and it seems to me there are very different levels of figuration in abstract painting. Yours above all the three of you artists, tends to be redolent of a particular mood which might look like something figurative. How do you feel about that?

KP: Well I think for Jonathan’s work, I think it’s worth mentioning that in a sense they are figurative, in as much as they are a reproduction of something that does exist, although it is a scribble. It might be meaningless in itself, or subliminal. But I use processes which are figurative in themselves, they are diagrammatic processes or they are processes that you might easily find used in other disciplines - cartography is a common comparison. Sewing is another one which I find slightly more troublesome, because I am sure they don’t say that to men who do dotted lines!

SF: It’s interesting! Yes, women and work is the thing that is often invoked. But do you think that there is a new kind figuration, where artists are invoking symbols, which are not exactly objects from the real world, but they are symbols of objects from the real world so artists are very often making figurative representations of scribbling or doodling, or symbols or known signs and symbols, or, in your case, stitching or pixellating images?

KP: Yes, and another strand to the figuration would be that it is a illustration of something that is non-visual, that it is an illustration of direction of thinking, or of decision making, or of thought models that hopefully, if there is a consistent logic to something, then that logic would be transferred to an altogether different discipline.

SF: The system of signs becomes a subject in itself in a sense. In many cases there is a very definite theme. Some of your paintings look quite cosmic, or cosmological, some of them might look like things rushing down a stream in the snow or something very organic, of things growing, how do you feel about your work being interpreted that way?

KP: Well no, it is not in my mind when I am painting because I am involved with the actuality of the paint and the materials, I mean I am aware that people will always project onto undescribable images or images that aren’t placeable as such. And that really says more about the viewer and the viewer’s experience than it does about what is actually there although there are going to be common obvious signifiers.

SF: Does it bother you?

KP: It depends on the context. But if I was to be bothered by it, I would probably not be taking responsibility for my own imagery, but I guess I would get bothered by it if someone is getting to comment in a very public arena as if it is a given fact that it is potato peelings or –

SF: I think people do use it as short hand because they find it difficult to describe. If it was easily done in words you would be a poet rather than a painter. And people use it as a short hand. It is when the short hand takes over that it becomes a difficulty I think. Well I think you have certainly have brought an approach to abstract painting which gives it a vigour and a challenging nature which is really very interesting.

KP: Thank you Stephen!

SF: How do you feel about the state of painting? Painting is always thought to be in crisis - how do you feel about painting right now?

KP: In a sense, we all want it to be in crisis, because we don’t want to have too much of an easy ride of it. We choose to be artists, or curators, because it gives us problems, it gives us stimulation in resolving the problems, the issues. I think that there is a predominance in Britain to – there isn’t a great deal of sympathy for abstraction in Britain. I think that the idea of equivalence or alternative applications that aren’t directly related to empirical experience is something that seems to be very difficult to understand here. But of course I feel optimistic about it because I think there are as many different paintings to be made as there are people who want to make them.

SF: That was really fascinating, very revealing and I would like to thank you Katie very much.

KP: Thank you Stephen.

This exhibition has been organised by the John Hansard Gallery. The Gallery wishes to thank the following lenders for this exhibition: British Council, Jonathan Clark Fine Art, Jonathan Lasker, Timothy Taylor Gallery, Katie Pratt and Kontainer Gallery, LA.

Katie Pratt has been supported by

Jonathan Lasker, 'Canaletto', 1988. Courtesy and copyright the artist.