“I think there are certain images, or ways of setting things up within a framework, within a canvas, or room, or sculpture or whatever, that are so idiosyncratic and specific to the artist. A way of arranging things that is as personal as handwriting.” A conversation with Luke Skiffington.

Luke Skiffington is an artist based at Make Hamilton Square. Luke moved to Liverpool from Oxford in 2019. He studied for a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London, from 1997-2000 and for an MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art from 2003-2004. He was artist in residence at CAMAC, Marnay-sur-Seine (near Paris), France in 2006 and La Napoule Art Foundation, Chateau La Napoule, France 2005.

He has exhibited internationally since 1999. His exhibitions have included ’Blue Screen’ at The Glass Tank, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK 2019, ’Manuscript-Letter Home,’ China Academy of Art Museum, Hangzhou, China 2017, ‘Artist Of The Day 2016’, Flowers, London, Luke Skiffington/Andy Jackson, Interview Room 11, Edinburgh, 2015 and ‘The Unassuming Eye’, Sobering Galerie, Paris, 2014.  His work was selected for BEEP Painting Biennial 2020, Elysium Gallery, Swansea in October 2020.

We met with Luke in his studio not long after he moved in. We started off talking about Luke’s recent move to Liverpool.

Luke: Oxford is a nice place, it’s photogenic and has a certain charm. Of course the University is omnipresent, often swamping other things in the city. I never felt totally comfortable there though, it’s almost as if there’s too much history and it weighs heavy (at least for me). Its niceness and privilege began to feel a bit superficial. It’s very personal, but we felt more and more detached from it, it was time for a total change!

Josie: Is there much of a contemporary art scene?

Luke: Not all that much. I feel it has a bit of an identity crisis in relation to Contemporary Art? There is OVADA (a contemporary art space) where I taught classes and showed work and there is Modern Art Oxford that has great exhibitions but there are not many grassroots venues. There are some great artists working there, but there’s not the same cohesive community I’ve noticed in other places.

I’ve got extended-family connections to Liverpool. I’ve always liked the energy, the industrial history and grit of the place. I think it has a very strong identity. Since moving I’ve enjoyed exploring the city (and surroundings) and revisiting some places I went as a young child. We have young kids and so does my cousin, so it kind of made sense from that perspective.

In terms of my work, because I’ve started again here [in Liverpool], I’ve kind of gone back, in order to try and move forward. I’m just in that process of re-establishing my thinking about what I’m doing and the connections between the works and ways to continue. I’m kind of in a weird, transitory place at the moment.

I have always made objects in some form. I mean, I went to a conceptual art school [Goldsmiths] where the concept precedes the object. If you were making paintings it was like you were on the wrong road to a large extent (although this may have been my paranoia) and painting at that time, when was that? – ’97 to ‘98? – was really quite un-cool.

Of course it was exhibited and there were well known painters, like Gary Hume, Richard Patterson and so on, but that didn’t seem to be reflected in the university. It was a very different situation from now, where there is just loads (probably too much) painting and so many more galleries and also Instagram! It was almost like you were a rebel if you were painting at that point, sort of a dumb painter.

Josie: But not a cool rebel?

Luke: No, never cool. There was a lot of video installation at that time and obviously you had the YBA stuff. In the crits, the conversation was always like, now how is this work ironic? If you said it wasn’t ironic then there would be this whole thing about why is it not? Why is it? It was tweaked in a certain direction, so people would end up talking about Baudrillard or French theory in a crit, when somebody was showing something that they had made. Often the discussion would drift into talking about semiotics or post-modernism and you wouldn’t end up talking about what was there in front of you. Having said that, it was probably a good challenge for me. I was always like, this is visual art, this isn’t philosophy! I still joke with friends about the things we said in the crits, but in retrospect I see it as the politics of an institution at a certain moment.

The tutorial system was excellent, and I managed to connect with a few of the tutors. There were some very good painters there, Avis Newman, Basil Beattie and John Murphy, David Rayson were all very supportive, as was Paul Winstanley, who I got to know better later. They were all really good at just bringing it back to the object.

Josie: But you can also look back on those sorts of times as quite romantic, can’t you?

Luke: Oh it was totally romantic. It was a great place to be. It was the beginning of some ongoing friendships and I was lucky to have my fees paid which made a massive difference.

Make Hamilton Square is a former council treasury building, which opened as artists’ studios not long before Luke moved in. Luke occupies a whole room with two large windows and a carpeted floor.

Josie: You live in North Liverpool but you decided to get a studio here in Birkenhead?

Luke: I came to visit for an exhibition and I didn’t know that there were studios here. When I found out, I was straight on the phone. I love these kinds of buildings and it sort of fits/mirrors my work somehow.  And it’s so close to town.

Josie: There have been lots of creative things popping up in Birkenhead. It’s exciting I think. In Liverpool, there is a bit of an issue getting the perfect studio space. It’s like they just don’t exist. The closest you can get to it, I think, is at the Bridewell, but even then you’re dealing with the cold quite a lot.

Brendan: The spaces are all very different in the Bridewell, different sizes, different atmospheres. Once you get a studio, when spaces become available they get offered internally first, so everyone moves around before the remaining studios are offered to the waiting list. So you might have to start with something that you don’t really want and keep moving into better spaces.

Josie: I think in Liverpool there are also very few studios with natural light that are not really expensive. At Arena where I am, we have one window and the biggest studio is maybe half the size of this room.

You’ve got the the most amazing storage space in here.

Luke: That’s why I wanted this one.

In Luke’s studio there are some large paintings covered in protective wrapping, some smaller paintings propped on the window ledge and on the walls and some free-standing work, made using wooden panels assembled together, positioned on metal stands.

Luke:  I’ve made a whole series of these works. I call them panel-works or composites because I didn’t know what to call them; they’re a kind of hybrid, part painting, part sculpture.

Josie:  So the stands are part of them?

Luke:  Yeah, very much so. That’s a bike stand. I showed them to someone who put them online somewhere but cropped the stand off and I thought, no!! They just thought it was standing on it, that it wasn’t part of the work.  I’ve begun thinking about them in a really basic anatomical sense. They are almost like feet…

Mimic (2), 2016, gesso on marine ply on metal stand panel

Josie: These are plywood? You like plywood?

Luke: I love plywood. It’s used everywhere and it’s relatively cheap.

Josie: I was wondering if you respond to the grain?

Luke: I do try to have the grain going in the same direction. There are vertical bandings on these and I do try to have the paint as a mark that sort of follows that in some way. So there’s kind of a truth to it. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to take the mark in the other direction, It would seem kind of odd. I wanted the ground to come through, so you have a definition of a different surface. It’s basically like a liming technique that they use on furniture.

Luke: I was really in love with… you know, John McCracken and his standing panels? I was reading into that sort of thing at the time. I did a talk to a degree group down in Kent, I wasn’t meant to, but I ended up talking most of the time about John McCracken! His work often began as plywood planks, although you wouldn’t know it necessarily.

Brendan: These are figures?

Luke: Yeah, although my work has played with abstraction on lots of different levels, there are always specific starting points. I’m very much in awe of people who make abstract paintings, in the sense of going without any representation at all. I love looking at abstract art, trying to establish where it comes from, how it’s made.

The kind of imagery I’m attracted to has an ambiguity to it, but at the same time there are recognisable elements. You know, somebody could say, ‘that’s a head’, ‘that’s an eye’. I hope there are several layers to the reading of a work.

We focus on some different paintings.

The image in this painting is from a Miro sculpture. I was attracted to the way reproductions of the sculpture changed its mood somehow and offered me places to explore. My last show was all based on that one image, but it was going across from sculpture to paintings and so on, just repeating the same image. That’s something I do a lot; that repetition and variation in repetition. This is based on a Kasimir Malevich collage.

I’ve also made a number of works based on a Bauhaus poster by Oscar Schlemmer. He created this logo for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. Since then its been used loads in advertising and by the band Bauhaus. These works sprung from a postcard I found at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin and they became a whole series of works, including a group of sculptures.

This image is probably the closest to the original post card.

Mr Bauhaus (Stasi interview room), 2014. oil on canvas over marine ply, 40x30cm

They take quite a long time to make, even though they look quite direct. There are lots of layers. This kind of brush mark was a sort of an erasion, rather than an additive mark. I put that green on about seven times to get that kind of mark, then I took a really old stiff brush and pulled the paint back off again (see image above)

And then this is probably the most stark one. The most kind of reduced, minimal image.

Mr Bauhaus (construction), 2015, gesso and oil on canvas over marine ply. 40x30cm

Josie: The stuff that’s going on on the edges is really nice as well.

Luke: Yeah, that was a hang-up from Goldsmiths too, everyone used to make these things that were just super neat then, in the nineties, its more varied now. But yeah, it got a bit obsessive, like, how many layers of primer are you doing? It was like you’d be painting the edges of canvases all the time.

Brendan: Yeah, if it suits your work then fine, but if it doesn’t don’t put yourself through it, just paint it.

Josie: You don’t want it to be a distraction, but if it’s not, then it means you can see what’s been happening on the edge, while the surface has been made. I personally find that really interesting. Here on your painting, I can see whatever extreme colours were going on before you’ve done something to it to make it lighter. The edges are capturing that.  From this angle you’ve almost got a frame made from this edge, which is really nice.

Luke: I think a lot of my work has this tension between stuff that is recognisable and then, this kind of intuitive mark making, but within a framework. So with those paintings, the grid is a well-used thing obviously and the idea of a window is really the most basic thing.

That’s something I quite like; trying to make work that uses quite basic things, trying to deal with the head, trying to deal with the figure, the idea of the painting as a window and where that can go.

Josie: So let’s say when you’re making this, are you really getting lost in the painting of it?

Luke: Yeah.

Josie: Is it one of those paintings where you could put paint on and then never get back what you had, or is it something where if you make something that doesn’t look good you can fix it?

Luke: No, once it’s down it kind of fastens.

Josie: But you still are lost in it? It’s not highly planned other than the structure that you’ve got.

Luke: The structure is highly planned and also the placement of certain elements, like the figure in this.  So normally they start as black and white monochrome paintings and then the colour is added over the top, almost like a filter. It’s like what you might do with Photoshop or something. So it almost becomes one painting superimposed on top of another

Josie: I could imagine that is quite a nice process. Where there are certain things you can plan, where you have some control, then you can sort of get lost in each individual window and feel expressive.

Luke: I like having a kind of duality between things, elements of control and intuitive mark making and colour choice. I would describe my work as the sum of numerous quick moves rather than prolonged, continuous painting. The final surface can arrive quickly, an accumulation of lots of sessions stacked up to make the final painting.

Brendan: It’s quite surprising, the way that just changing the top layer colour actually breaks it up quite significantly.

Luke: There are different consistencies as well. So for example, this bright green was painted up to here when I actually put the colour on [indicates a higher point than the green is clearly visible]. I think you can see a bit of a tide mark there and then it has kind of dissolved. You could achieve the same thing by mixing a lighter colour, but somehow the physical dissolving of the paint gives you a different space than if you mix a lighter shade of that colour. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s definitely there. This was painted fifteen or sixteen times or something [indicates an area of the painting]. I remember someone coming into my studio saying, are you still painting that one section?

If I think about all the work I like, it generally has quite high contrast in it, whether it’s films, literature, sculpture or painting.  These works were made for a show called Blue Screen.  I used this blue – it’s actually a fluorescent blue but doesn’t really look it.

The Understudy, 2019, gesso, flashe on birch ply

Josie: Yeah, the colour they sell as fluorescent blue is strange, it doesn’t look fluorescent like the other fluorescent colours do. Maybe you can’t make fluorescent blue?

Luke: I wanted to use a blue that was the most inorganic I could find and most oil paints are too organic, or recognisable as themselves – you know, you could say, oh that’s cobalt blue or that’s cerulean blue or whatever.

Josie: You can look at them forever. You can keep looking and find something new.  That’s the great thing about layers. It is also a quick way of establishing space in a work, in a pictorial sense.

Luke:  Yeah. I am totally obsessed with layers.

Josie: But also you know you said about how the grid is used a lot in art, which it is; well, I like the way that these are rectangles and they’re stacked up, it’s not a classic grid.

Luke: It’s like brick work, but the other way obviously.

Josie: They feel like windows.

Luke: You see this structure everywhere; it feels like a global language somehow. You see this structure? This is a a market window in the south of France. It’s this really cool building. I really started thinking about it as a starting point for a painting, after a trip to Vietnam where it seemed to be everywhere, usually as a window or gate, but sometimes it was painted on the sides of buildings.

Josie: This one is France?

Luke: Yes, it’s a market building in Royan, that we stumbled across. We went there on the way down to somewhere else, and then we went back the following year. I said, I’ve got to go back to Royan and take more pictures…

I think there are certain images, or ways of setting things up within a framework, within a canvas, or room, or sculpture or whatever, that are so idiosyncratic and specific to the artist. A way of arranging things that is as personal as handwriting. There’s always something that people drift towards, you know. I think you always drift to a certain kind of image and I think you can make variations on that, but essentially there’s going to be a certain thing that is you.

Josie: I think so much of what influences you is to do with the time between being a child and a teenager. I just wonder whether there’s so much stuff stuck in your head from that period that you’ll never get out.

Luke: I was listening to a really good talk by Thomas Houseago. He was talking about this idea of an identity, he deals with the figure a lot. He was saying, when he was young he used to go to this firework display and they had this big mask thing above the doorway where you go in. He had forgotten about it but was reminded of it when he was researching for a talk. He found an image of himself stood in front of it and it looked like one of his sculptures. But he didn’t recognise the similarity until later on. It’s like you almost work backwards to where you started somehow.

These images of tiles in a supermarket in France were taken a while back.

We just stopped to get some bread or something. I just took hundreds of these pictures of tiles. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve been doing over the last 10 to 15 years and when I saw those images, I thought, they actually look like things that I did on my Foundation year.

Josie: Oh yes, going back to where you first started?!

Luke: I was like FFS! Why am I going back to that? But it was obviously something within that, I respond to. I think there is so much intuition in making work, but you just can’t help trying to impose some order on what is otherwise a sporadic trajectory! Following one route, then realising you’re off-piste and somewhere different that you couldn’t have imagined.

You can see more of Luke’s work on his website http://www.lukeskiffington.com