… at his one man show at Koukan Gallery, London in 2012.
SB Someone came into the show earlier and started talking about the space in the painting - how you have to orientate yourself around the surface, and weave through the space, and he made a connection with music evoking certain emotions, and in the paintings the space is doing that – as if you’re going in and coming out, and you notice a kind of twist in the space that seems to evoke a different perception..
AW And the layering in music.
SB Exactly that – multi-layered.
AW It reminds of the experience I once had listening to a piece of Gurdjieff’s piano music and I said to someone that when you are trying to listen as consciously as possible you notice how difficult it is to hear the whole thing, and he remarked that in fact it was impossible. It was a relatively simple piece, on the surface, but you still have the before and after, and the relationships from one moment to another.
SB I think in some ways, in the paintings the layers aren’t obvious at first glance. Maybe the work begins to speak to you after a period of time, thinking about a portal or a doorway – the more you push the door open, or begin to allow yourself to be taken in by what you’re looking at or what you’re feeling. In this painting (Laque Blue), the idea was to bring something in that could appear in front but also behind, yet twisting the space around it, wrapping it or warping it around to some degree. I found it was an odd thing, unexpected, because what I was trying to do initially with that shape was to find a way of blocking a lot of the activity that existed beneath it.
AW So the blue and orange are not necessarily to be seen as separate? It’s like there’s a dance going on between the two. In places there’s more separation and in others more proximity.
SB It depends which part you’re looking at, it could be both.
AW It’s a bit like that Nozkowski we were looking at with students the other day. There were these elliptical forms that at a glance looked as if they had the same relationship with another form, but when you looked more closely they were all actually doing different things.
SB Yes, independent of each other.
AW Well in quantum physics you have this idea that something can be in two places at the same time – simultaneity.
SB Yes I like that idea of something being determinate or indeterminate, and how something can be in both camps. When I finished this painting I was quite shocked by it. I was wondering how I could leave it like that. But the more I thought about it, it seemed that you do have to let go or step back. It was like a step forward.
AW Is it possible to say what was significant about that moment?
SB Well it was the way the spatial dynamics changed, the twisting of the space. It was this oddness that surprised me. It’s like a scientific discovery, where something happens, and it’s there to disprove, and I’m not really sure what it is or why it has occurred. But having said that, I couldn’t replicate it, or I’m not ready to think about how I could replicate it. You don’t understand the causation of it.
AW Is there a point reached where what is happening is more intimately tied up with your perception from one moment to the next. You have a fluid sense of movement in the painting, but does it start to engender a fluid relationship between the observer and the painting?
SB I would like to think so. I like the idea of something having elasticity or flexibility.
AW I was talking to someone the other day who was mentioning a documentary she had seen about the nature of gravity, and what surprised her was that we tend to think of planetary bodies in space as positive and negative, something or nothing, but in reality this space is more like a jelly that is more dense in some places and less dense in others, and gravity warps that space, so actually there’s all sorts of things going on in that space. You seem to be saying that in your paintings there’s something more dynamic going on between those extremes.
SB It’s not so clear cut, there’s a subtle layering going on – it’s also got to do with history, revealing and masking.
AW So it’s not just about painting-out.
SB No, it’s opaque one minute, but then you look more closely and you start to see other things coming through. It’s not immediate.
AW I suppose there’s a dialogue with modernism here. You had this idea that a painting had to be as flat or tight as a drum head, with a lot of positive and negative going on.
SB Yes, if you look at an Ellsworth Kelly for example, you’re seeing that. There’s no real evidence of the brush-mark, or even the hand, in some paintings.
AW But these are very different to that aren’t they, because you’re allowing the deep space to come in, but also much more ambiguity, and I’ve often thought that even in those modernist paintings, the idea of flatness doesn’t hold water really. But what painters do you gravitate towards. You’ve always been interested in De Kooning and Giacometti and artists like that haven’t you.
SB Yes. I’ve been looking at Graham Sutherland again recently, particularly ‘Entrance to a Lane’, and when I made this one, called ‘The Gate’, I was thinking about that piece, but also De Kooning’s ‘Door to a River’. I wanted to bring more structure and more drawing into the piece because the blue wasn’t working the same way as in other paintings. Some see heads in some of them, a human relationship. With the larger ones there’s more of a relationship with your torso and head as you look at them.
AW When you speak about your paintings you talk in quite an analytical way which I suppose relates to what you understand intellectually, but I was wondering, when you are actually making your paintings, and you step back from them, in what way do you work things out? Is it a feeling process, or physical, or what?
SB Both I would say. I don’t sit back and look at them – it’s more a fleeting glimpse or something that catches my eye. It’s like when I was turning the pages of the catalogue to the recent Sutherland exhibition at Oxford. Does looking at those drawings jog some kind of reaction? It’s almost a spontaneous response, although it was kind of expected. Whether that was from some kind of memory I’d had of looking at a Sutherland, or whether it was because it needed some kind of orientation with the world seen rather than perceived, I’m not sure. Most of the paintings evolve from feeling my way around and making judgements intuitively. Usually I don’t know until I try to make a mark that it can’t be replicated and something different is called for.
AW You’ve used references to other painters in the past haven’t you – like Constable.
SB Yes. There’s a familiarity or a security in that. I was talking to a friend at the private view, who has known me for years, and she could see everything I’ve been through in these paintings – drawings of Falmouth Docks when I was at college, the landscapes, the whole journey, which wasn’t clear to me. Your memory or subconscious twists your experience then suddenly presents it in this guise, but the traces of the journey go right back.
AW That adds another dimension to this idea of the twisted space doesn’t it, not just moment to moment – it can go a long way back.
SB Well the materials I was using back then – things like wax – you couldn’t actually get rid of it. It was always there to stain the surface, yet the final mark made would be kind of indelible. You talk about memory and time; when I’ve looked at people like Bomberg and Auerbach – how do they really influence you? Where is the actual trace of that understanding and how does it manifest itself? I don’t think it manifests itself through a re-interpretation of their work. It’s got to find its own language. In terms of contemporary artists like Nozkowski, Kaiser or Mary Heilmann – there all sorts of people fizzing and buzzing around, but I couldn’t really say what it was about Mary Heilmann’s work that inspired me.
AW How do you see your work in relationship to what is going on around you and the state of painting today?
SB I’m interested in a sophistication which is implicit rather than explicit.
AW Some of this work makes me think of Ian Mc Keever.
SB He’s someone I’ve looked at. He said some very interesting things in ‘In Praise of Painting’. I think there’s an integrity in his work and that’s important to me too, but what does integrity mean? What is integral in the painting? Ones knowledge about the materials and processes one is using is integral to the process but they are not contrived. There’s always something new and unforeseen coming out of the process – that intrigues me. The outcome often comes from undoing something, so a new statement or new form can emerge.
AW So you respect most of all those painters who engage in that risk taking as opposed to when you see a formula being used.
SB I can admire them but I can’t work like that – it’s down to the kind of person you are, which dictates your decisions. A constant battle goes on.
AW You talked earlier about looking a glance at things and that that probably relates to other aspects of yourself. Talking to my wife about your work, she was wondering whether the title of the show, ‘Surfaces’, was a bit of a red herring because in fact there are many layers going on, and I wondered whether this related to an ambivalence in you – about whether you want to be seen or not. In a painting you are to some degree laying yourself bare, and she said, well it’s really about a dialogue with yourself, although he probably wouldn’t want to put it that way.
SB No but I think it’s true. I thought about it afterwards and didn’t think it was the right title.
AW It’s physically what’s there.
SB But it isn’t necessarily what’s actually there.
AW It isn’t what it’s about.
SB No, it says something about the work, but not everything.
AW They’re more like excavations aren’t they.
SB When you look at someone like Giacometti there’s that constant re-assessing and re-affirming, and questioning what he‘s doing.
SB Yes, one can’t help seeing that in what I do. I like the idea of the hard-won image, although it’s become very unfashionable. It’s hard to let go of that. Whether that’s a by product of the time one grew up in or whether it’s just a characteristic one was engendered with I don’t know.
AW Like a work ethic.
SB I think it is, and I don’t think one should be ashamed of that. I think it gives a kind of gravitas to the work. One can see that it hasn’t been an easy ride, and maybe one can respect the fact that something can emerge out of bloody mindedness and hard work. Some contemporary work I look at I enjoy but at the same time there can be a jokey or ironic sense to the painting, which is fine, but I like to get underneath that – I want to see the evidence of how it has been made. When one looks at a Bacon, Bomberg, De Kooning or Nozkowski – they are not easy paintings to make. They may appear to be effortless at times but you know they’re not.
AW Do you therefore see yourself as part of a tradition that includes these people?
SB Yes. Maybe it’s a kind of Englishness, a mistrust maybe of anything that appears too easy, too obvious on the eye.
AW You remind me of Sutherland again. When I saw his show yesterday, I was aware of him in this landscape, and this stuff was done just previous to the war and there was this sense of foreboding – quite apocalyptic in some ways. They’re about a kind of drama between opposites. You were talking earlier about getting in there and having to push things around, and I was thinking that’s very much like walking in a landscape, treading the path, going on a journey, where you feel the physical elements around you, and I suppose you’re doing that in a painting aren’t you. Does that connect with this Englishness?
SB Yes, and for the younger generation of artists, that experience is maybe less relevant to them, and what is more relevant is this bombardment of noise and imagery and stuff, and that ends up being their landscape, whereas ours comes from something different. Maybe the paintings are ways of trying to orientate yourself in relationship to what surrounds you.