Gareth Kemp is an artist based in Liverpool at The Bridewell Studios and Gallery. He was recently awarded Arts Council England funding through the Artists’ International Development Fund to spend time in Texas, raising his international profile, through meetings with artists and curators and collecting source material for making new work. We visited Gareth in The Bridewell to see his new work presented in the gallery. Gareth and Josie then had a correspondence conversation about recent developments in his artistic career, his trip to Texas and his new work.
JJ: So firstly, thank you for letting me interview you, because I know it can be a bit difficult when you make paintings that attempt to represent how we perceive the world, when words are just not able to do that and then someone comes along and says, so, please can you explain, in words, exactly what it is you are trying to do.
But don’t worry, we can start with something else.
I think you know I have been following your work for a while. I remember going to see your solo show at The Bridewell about five years ago and thinking, this is really good, and quite different from your previous work, especially the largest painting, which I think was Palaces of Montezuma. I remember thinking it looked like you’d just painted it really quickly and confidently without getting too hung up on the whys and wherefores.
But I know a lot has changed since then – you’ve done the Turps Banana Correspondence Course, been in some pretty prestigious shows and been awarded Arts Council England funding through the Arts Development Award. I was wondering if you’d like to talk a bit about progression, how things change and how your work has changed?
GK: The exhibition at The Bridewell happened shortly before I started the Turps Correspondence Course. I am self taught as a painter, so it felt like the course was something I wanted to do, and it turned out to be a great experience. I had previously studied Art History and had worked in various galleries over the previous fifteen years, so I had a kind of alternative training as an artist and this came through in my paintings which often referenced other artists such as Caspar David Friedrich or Henri Rousseau or more recently Donald Judd My paintings have definitely developed and evolved whilst and since doing the course. My imagery or motifs have become more reductive or simplified. Having said that, I am still interested in a lot of the same things as a painter that I have always been interested in. Last year I received Arts Council funding through their Artists’ International Development Fund to spend four weeks in Texas. The aim was to raise my international profile through various introductions to painters, gallerists, curators etc. Whilst I was there I also took a road trip out west to Marfa and Big Bend National Park, where I did research, including location photography. I am now starting to make new work based on that research. So yes, I feel a lot has changed over the last five years in terms of my painting practice. And as result of both the Turps course and the Artists’ International Development Fund trip to Texas, I now also feel a lot more connected to artists outside of the North West of England.
JJ: Now I have loads of questions. I didn’t know you studied Art History. Why not Fine Art? And when did you start painting?
GK: I started a Foundation course but dropped out and switched to Art History. Maybe I just wasn’t ready, I don’t know. Anyway, I started painting again in the early 2000s and became more serious about it around 2006 when I started renting a studio.
JJ: I am intrigued by the Turps Banana Correspondence Course, being delivered online without face to face meetings and mainly just one mentor. You feel that worked for you?
GK: I had reservations about the course for those very reasons and was thinking about it for a couple of years before finally signing up. I was drawn by the people ‘mentoring’ on the course, lots of painters I admired. You can do the course as a stand-alone one year course or carry on for two or three years. I ended up doing the course for three years. My mentors over that period were Jennifer Coates (New York based painter and art critic), Covadonga Valdes (painter) and Phil King (painter and writer and co-editor of Turps Banana Magazine with Marcus Harvey . There are strict deadlines each quarter to upload images of paintings to an online platform along with some written context and then there is written feedback correspondence between yourself and your mentor. Even since the course finished, I have received lots of support from Turps. It’s not as isolated as it sounds; I and the other painters who have done the course are connected through social media platforms such as Facebook group, Instagram etc. I have been in a number of shows curated by other painters who have done the course; likewise I curated a little landscape show in Berlin last year that contained two of my mentors and one or two other painters I met through the course. Like a lot of things, you get out of the course what you put in. I definitely think alternative art schools like Turps are on the rise, and they are now recognised by people like Bloomberg New Contemporaries.
JJ: …Which you were selected for and the John Moores Painting Prize in 2016. I mean that must have given you real confidence to apply for the Arts Council’s International Development Fund.
GK: Being in the John Moores Painting Prize has given me a lot of confidence. For a UK based painter it’s the big one, and I’d obsessed about being in it for years. Even though I’d entered and been rejected two or three times before, for the first time I felt very confident about the painting I had entered. I’m just as obsessed about getting selected again, and obviously being in once doesn’t give you any advantage when you apply again. Arts Council funding is just as competitive, but having some good shows on your CV does give you the confidence to apply. I do feel I’ve got a bit of momentum at the moment and I’m working hard to keep that going. But I’ve also got a long list of rejections, you just have to keep going and have self-belief.
JJ: So with the trip to Texas, what made you decide to go there? What kind of expectations did you have and did it work out how you thought it would?
GK: I had previously made lots of paintings of “American” landscapes which were based on vague ideas that come from folk law or popular culture, songs, films and novels etc. I wanted to make some paintings from more specific research. Texas seemed like the right place to go to, the landscape is so varied. Also, as part of the application procedure for the Arts Council funding you had to have a letter of support from a contact over there, and that was perfect because Sara-Jayne Parsons who was previously curator at The Bluecoat Gallery is now director at a TCU galleries in Forth Worth. The fund was specifically to raise your international profile as an artist. This involved a diary full of meetings with various people in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. I met lots of amazing painters there as well as curators and gallery owners and visited lots of studios, artist-run spaces and galleries. I got to visit Vernon Fisher’s studio, he is the big star of the Texas art scene. I also saw lots of American landscape painting by people like Frederic Edwin Church and the Hudson River School painters, and also discovered the work of Marsden Hartley, who has become a firm favourite. I rented a car for a week at the end of the trip, and drove five hundred miles west to Marfa and then Big Bend National Park. Texas has so much open space and the landscape is incredible. I drove a few hundred miles along the river road alongside the Rio Grande and got quizzed by Border Control about I was doing hanging around on the Mexican border. I took lots of photographs specifically for making new paintings on my return, which I am doing now. The trip worked out pretty much as planned, but I had no idea what the paintings I’d make on my return would be like.
JJ: Now, I know that your most recent paintings are based on sculptures by Donald Judd that you saw when you were out there. What made you decide to make these paintings?
GK: They felt like a good starting point for making new paintings. I think of these paintings as ‘landscapes’ and they are painted from photographic source material gathered during my trip to Texas, but equally, they are painted from a phenomenological position. In other words, they are based on my experience of how the landscape felt as well as how it looked. This series of paintings is called Marfa Abstraction and is ongoing, they are painted from photographs I took of Judd’s outdoor sculptures in Marfa. Marfa is a small town in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, Judd moved there in the late 1970s, and it is now home to the Judd Foundation. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
The Marfa Abstraction series combines figurative and abstract elements of the landscape. I have tried to capture aspects of the Texan landscape: scale, flatness, space and light, colour and vastness.
This new direction differs from earlier work, but it also draws on ongoing themes that continue to interest me, including signs of human intervention in the landscape, art historical reference points, polarised elements, and a strong formal interest in composition.
JJ: I can definitely see elements of your previous work in these new paintings. There is the same simplification that, to me, references what our minds do when we are trying to make sense of what we are seeing. But the abstraction and subject matter in these paintings makes it harder to know if you are looking at something completely abstract or not. Would you say that is something you intended? It sounds like you were really taken with the minimalistic features of the landscape there.
GK: Yes that is something that drew me to make paintings from the photographs I took, the combination of the abstract and figurative in the images. It’s seems to me to be quite a difficult thing, to make paintings that live in that space between the abstract and the figurative. These seem to work. The Judd sculptures in the paintings are held in a kind of liminal space. Some of them are floating within the landscape, others contain the landscape.
I don’t really make sketches or studies, I usually plan a painting and its composition in my head over a number of weeks, and then paint them straight on to the canvas with everything already worked out. These Marfa Abstraction paintings took a bit of working out first on paper, with a bit of maths involved working out the proportions and altering the perspective or position of the viewer. In new paintings I am trying to break down these abstract elements further.
JJ: So you have made new work since the Marfa Abstraction paintings? Do these use other imagery from your Texas trip?
GK: I am still working on the Marfa Abstraction paintings, developing them further. Breaking down the forms and elements further so your brain has to kind of work out what you are looking at. I’m experimenting with colour combinations and making some feel really sun-bleached.
I am also making a series of paintings based on the landscape around Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande which forms a natural border between the USA and Mexico and which is far more impenetrable than any wall Trump could build. The landscape here is beautiful but also unforgiving and inhospitable. These paintings are made up of simplified motifs from the landscape, three or four on each canvas; rivers, cactuses, old shacks, road signs etc and the Casa Grande mountain peak which seems to be omnipresent. Some of these canvases also contain broken-down abstract elements within them, taken from the Marfa Abstraction paintings. I am hoping to show some of my Marfa Abstraction paintings in Texas in early 2020.
You can find out more about Gareth’s work here