Paul Hinchliffe: Alex, you’ve stated previously that your work is not abstract. Perhaps we could begin with you explaining a little about why you take this position.
Alex Spremberg: I am interested in painting not as pictures but as objects. In the early nineties I became very interested in the painting ground and worked with the distinction of support and surface. My work attempted to make these distinctions visible and treat them with equal importance. For some time now I have focused my attention on the substance of paint; paint as distinct from color. I have been working with varnish, which functions similar to paint without the unnecessary colour variations. It is transparent and its glossy surface is reflective.
I see my work as analytical in that I investigate aspects of painting and perception. I think we are speaking from a dualistic position when we use the term abstraction; it implies that there is a narrative source from which it is abstracted. Mostly, art and painting address issues external to their functioning, where the materials are used to evoke content metaphorically. My work is different in that it is self-referential; the materials are not used to represent anything; they are simply what they are and if there is a story it is the narrative of the work’s making, and that can be recognized by the viewer.
P. H. So, beyond the materials that are there then, in physical and chemical terms is there anything else to talk about?
A. S. First of all there is the experience of the viewers encountering the work. Once they have recognized the materials and activities that constitute the work, they are left not with a narrative, but with themselves. I do not want my works to carry information that is not related to painting. The information has to be self-referential in order to make it possible for the viewer to recognize their expectations. Pure seeing is difficult since we bring the conditioned eye to it. The way we perceive and make meaning is conditioned by our personal and collective histories. My work attempts to create awareness and consciousness around the act of seeing and meaning making. Painting has the power to directly challenge our preconceptions. I am convinced that these moments of recognition can be pivotal, when we move from content to context, when detachment from our identifications becomes possible.
P. H. The surfaces of your paintings, the quality of the surfaces - they are highly reflective. Is that a strategy to induce a sort of self-reflection in the viewer?
A. S. The varnish has this dual quality. Its transparency makes it possible to actually see into the depth of a painting while the glossy surface simultaneously distorts the reflection of everything in front of it. I think it invites the audience to consider their own participation in the act of looking and opens the possibility of perceiving one’s own perception.
P. H. Yes, if you had to quantify both experiences, it’s degree of reflection and it’s degree of transparency, I would say that they would be evenly matched.
A. S. Pretty evenly matched, yes I would agree.
P. H. Yet for me there is still a level where, in looking at that reflective surface it makes me think of things other than the painting. It takes me, through the reflection, to places other than this thing that is in front of me.
A. S. I think that it is determined by what each viewer brings to the process of perception, what kind of visual conditioning, projections and assumptions one carries. I mean, one is entitled to fantasize and to project one’s needs, but I think sooner or later the illusionary nature of these projections will become apparent and one is confronted with the compulsions to attach significance and to rationalize one’s actions. The human mind is incessantly active making meaning, analyzing situations and evaluating it’s own performance; I guess it’s an automatic survival mechanism and it needs to be switched off once in a while.
P. H. What about the dripping pieces, can the same be said about them? They seem to refer much more to physical science - to gravity.
A. S. For me, the dripping pieces, as you call them, visualise and give measure to temporality by a simple activity and by banal repetition. I am not interested in artful or skilled mark making. I think of different processes for the works; at times I submerge the boards directly into the paint (like in “Whispers”), at other times I pour paint over the grounds; no brushwork is used. The traces of these repeated procedures grow slightly with each treatment and become manifestations of these repeated activities. Sometimes the process is repeated over a period of years (like in “Shelf Life”).
Gravity is a phenomenon that we are rarely aware off, even though it constantly pulls us down; it is such a given part of our existence on this planet, that it fades into the background. Varnish with it’s fluid consistency reacts very sensitively to gravitational forces, it always gathers at the lowest point. The title “Pour Stripes” describes my activity of pouring alternating stripes of black and white enamel paint onto the board. The initially separated stripes begin to move and merge while they are pulled to the lowest point of the board before drying in the process.
P. H. And that shift through horizontal to vertical plane - the way they would behave and wouldn’t behave, that’s a significant action which is also present in the “Pooling Project” - they are produced in one plane and consumed in another.
A. S. Production methods are mostly quite different from the way works are received publicly. In my case we are talking about two entirely different spaces, the studio as a private place of contemplation and production and the gallery space with it’s bright lights and public scrutiny. But even so called easel paintings were not shown on easels and we all know that Jackson Pollock worked his huge canvasses on the floor and showed them on the wall. Some people consider that this act brought the tradition of easel painting to an end. For me working in the horizontal is just one method. “Shelf life” for instance is made vertically and “Turning Purple” is made by turning the work in five directions. It would make no sense to me to show my works on the floor.
P. H. Because it would cease to be about painting?
A. S. Yes, my work relates to the practice of painting and its close relationship with the wall. Traditionally artists have taken the wall as a given, just as the viewer’s attention is focused on the work and not on the wall on which the work hangs. The wall is as if invisible. The works I made in the early nineties explored possibilities of integrating the wall more closely and treating the wall as a prerequisite and physical context for painting. Facing the wall, as in coming up against yourself, and not being pacified and entertained by illusionary narratives, but facing the wall and being with that confrontation with yourself.
P. H. You downplay your own role in the production of the work and, I guess, would deny painting as a “heroic” activity. Perhaps we could touch on that, on your role in formulating the process by which the works come about, which at times seems complex - it’s not something that would happen by accident.
A. S. I certainly don’t want to put the artist on show. I see my role as to instigate and manage a process and the contingencies of that process; it is more akin to a midwife that is helpful in bringing the work into being. I am interested in gestures of non-interference, where processes are activated that create their own results. For me this is a way of letting painting occur, so I am confronted with my own expectations. Accidents and unintentional occurrences have become part of the ongoing development and as the first viewer I constantly become aware of my controlling mind, it’s a balance between letting it happen and making it happen.
P. H. How much do you find that formal issues come into it? Issues like design and composition and how those things affect your choices. I mean, they look good, if I can say that.
A. S. Most formal choices are made before building the ground. My intention with this work was to simplify and maximise non-interventionist procedures and attempt to convey a sense of duration and emptiness; not an emptiness of loss or scarcity but one of warmth and possibility. They are seductive and are intended to make you stop and look.
P. H. Are you conscious of an aesthetic in the process? Like, are you aware that there is a certain beauty in some processes as opposed to others?
A. S. The processes themselves are actually quite messy, highly noxious and with often unpredictable results. Frequently I come up against my assumptions; the initial idea not working, I find myself grappling with results that were not anticipated. Beauty has to be discovered or the work discarded. There were instances when I retrieved work that I had already thrown out. It’s a process of acceptance, of loosening control - I have to spend time with them, get to know them, interrogate them, in order to make final decisions.
P. H. To come back to that self reflection for a moment, at the time you are denying your “self” in the process of making it seems you are, at the same time holding a mirror up and asking the viewer to look at themselves.
A. S. I’m not so much denying my self in the process as not wanting to get in my own way. I don’t think the work is about me. It is this precious moment of self conscious realization, of becoming aware of oneself in the world, that is at the beginning of a process of diminishing ignorance; the viewer is given the opportunity to reflect and be reflected.
P. H. So, do you see painting as a problem to be solved? Is there a solution to be found?
A. S. I see painting not so much as a problem but as a task. Together with the other visual arts it needs to push the boundaries of aesthetic appreciation and to examine the ethics of the culture we inhabit. As we have seen painting has adapted to changing conditions, technological advances and shifting causes. I think painting is always of it’s time, it reflects and stimulates the cultural conversation of the time. I don’t think painting is entertainment; it cannot compete with the storylines on TV, film and video. Painting serves a different purpose, it relies on the original and has to be experienced personally. Painting respects the viewer and acknowledges the viewer as an active participant in the process of perception.
agree with the idea that a great part of modernist painting was about
the attempt to solve the problem of painting, to paint the last painting,
to basically bring it to an end. This search for absolute truth, this
almost linear development of minimization led to the end of that particular
endeavour. Today painting springs forth in all directions as if reborn
from the corpse of modernism. Freed from the need for certainty and
absolutes, it is revitalized and energized, it embraces ambiguity, detachment
and a sense of self-effacement.