As part of our traditional drawing week, we’ve interviewed one of Jackson’s members of staff, Neil Gordon! Neil is a prolific painter who has exhibited his work all over London in both group and solo shows. He studied at Oxford Polytechnic and Camberwell School of Art and Crafts in the early 80s and has since taught drawing, written essays, and made an exceptional volume of work.
Debbie Chessell: What is your definition of drawing?
Neil Gordon: Drawing is probably the most flexible and versatile medium there is for spontaneously capturing ideas; fleeting, passing, evanescent, recalcitrant or persistent, stubborn or fluid, easy or hard to access, in any and every form imaginable, from the slightest scribble to the most elaborately worked and finished state. The method of drawing employs marks, in any way, shape or form. The results are usually of an informal nature. Often used as preparation, or accompaniment to painting, therefore a means, they may also stand completely independently in their own right. Drawing is a presentation of shapes on a flat two-dimensional surface. It is those shapes that communicate an idea.
What do you think the distinction between drawing and painting is?
Painting is a more formal presentation of shapes, in colour. I had been trying for a long time to find one definition for all painting and have written a short essay about it. I got it down to lines and shapes in colour. But as lines are shapes also, but not vice versa, I’d define all painting as shapes in colour on a two-dimensional surface. The rest being the application of meaning to those shapes. It is in the nature of coloured shapes to communicate. Each painter uses coloured shapes to communicate ideas. It is interesting how languages evolved out of a combination of both abstract and pictographic forms. It is these forms that communicate the most simple and the most complex ideas.
What is your process for making a painting? From our previous discussions I know you make many studies and the end works can sometimes take over 20 years to complete. Is there a structure you always follow to make work?
I don’t have one process for painting. An idea will require specific approaches to its communication. I sometimes paint from direct observation. I sometimes paint from imagination, with reference to various painted studies. I sometimes paint using photographs, although I have been trying to phase the direct transposition of photographs out of my work completely and only use photographs in a very general way. I sometimes make studies of a subject, both drawing and painting, and work from these. I sometimes work in a combination of all these approaches. I may start from imagination, then make studies or set things up in front of me and paint from direct observation while the painting continues. I do have paintings from the 1980’s I still want to finish, and everything in between as well. Often it is circumstances that intervene or the paintings may not gel together and it is only later that something will bring a work to a conclusion, years later. The last part may only require a few days or even hours work.
Do you prefer to draw from life or from a photograph? Do you think there’s a distinction between the two states?
I prefer to work from direct observation. It would be hard to get Marylin Monroe to sit and pose for me, or Federico Garcia Lorca, both of whom I have begun paintings of, but not quite finished yet. My painting of Andre Breton could not have been made without some kind of likeness of him left over from his life.
Working from photographs is of course easier, working from a flat 2-dimensional image to a flat 2-dimensional image. Whereas from observation there is the added 3rd dimension, with time and light changing constantly. But photographs obscure objects and leave out things which can be seen with the subject physically present, where if necessary something can be viewed from other vantage points quite easily. Generally working from observation is more difficult but more rewarding. A painting from a photograph often ends up with what you started off with and there is less of an unexpected or surprising result.
On your website you explain that you feel art is an attempt to record humanity which provides your continued inspiration to paint. What makes you choose some objects over others in your effort to investigate this huge theme? Do some have qualities that others don’t? If so, what are these qualities?
Actually it is abstract shapes in colour that interest me and an underlying structure that may become something insistent and determine an object, or subject to paint. Everything in the cosmos has a form, determined by shapes, and these are carried by all things equally. It is impossible to paint everything so inevitably a particular shape, form or structure will cause a narrowing down of interest to something particular. My painting of a piece of cake was due to an interest in the pyramid or wedge form.
Do you find writing essays (like your one on pure technology) helps your practice?
Yes, I do find absolutely that writing an essay is extremely useful to my practice. It helps clarify ideas or free up new ideas when I may re-read something much later. They then become reminders of the course I have given myself to fulfill in making paintings.
What’s an ideal day in the studio for you?
An ideal day is a day when at the end of it I feel as if I have made some progress with whatever I have been working on. It is even better when I may also have gained insights into other ongoing works that I may not have worked on that day, but have seen solutions that I can go on with at another time. On some days I may even finish work, but usually allow something to settle for a while before I think it is really completed.
Do you have any projects coming up? Where can see your work, both online and in the flesh?
Currently I am focusing on making paintings and trying to finish ongoing works, until I reach a point where it would be of interest to show something, perhaps as a group of small paintings. But I am happiest making paintings.