Interview with Paul Coldwell at the Deluxe Gallery
15 November 2002
John Haworth


JH If you wouldn’t mind talking a little about how you came to do ‘Jacket and Frame’, and your concerns with Morandi’s work.

PC Jacket and Frame came about after a series of work I did on the Freud Museum. I was very interested in the idea of absence. The Museum was set up as a memorial to Freud and yet he’s the one person who is absent. So what you’re left with is a museum which was also his house and the aura of the person. So you are left to glean aspects of his personality and his life, from the objects that are there. In Jacket and Frame the object on the left, the picture frame balanced on an open book, was part of a sculpture installation for the exhibition at the museum called Memories and Momentoes. It was a series of gleaming white books with objects within them. In Jacket and Frame, the book is open with a kind of white picture frame. I deliberated wanted to strip all colour from these objects and in a way, texture, so that they are a kind of apparition. Through that I wanted to refer to Freud’s medical history, the fact that he was a doctor, and that kind of clinical factor.

The jacket on the right is from an old suit of mine which was a silver striped suit, which was quite interesting because when it was inversed it created a very eerie quality. I suppose really what I was trying to do was set up a juxta-position between the coat as a signifier of absence, and the picture frame as indicating absence in another kind of way. The way that photographs record past events and chronical time passing. The open blank book is to suggest that a history has either been eradicated or is awaiting a history to be recorded.

But obviously this also relates very much to my interest in Morandi who for me uses the language of still life to try and say something about the passing of time, about the relationships between people and the dynamic of spaces inbetween.


JH Yes, I think that the work itself has been much appreciated by several people at yesterday’s seminar. It has to me a very captivating surface but with a depth to it. One of the comments in an essay that you wrote on Morandi’s work is that his work demands an appreciation of the language of silence.


PC If I can go back first of all to the idea of surface. I think that one of the interesting things about Morandi’s work is that you read a Morandi picture across the surface. Although there is the illusion of depth, you’re not invited into that depth, you’re invited to actually read across at the relationships between things, and in a way the spaces inbetween become as tangible as the objects themselves.

In Jacket and Frame I was trying to do this, to reinterpret that kind of surface. The surface has a highly pixelated dot over the surface, which in a way keeps you on the surface. Although there is a depth, I think there is quite a rich depth created through the high contrast of the black and the white. I think you are continually returned to the surface as the container of the information, and I think that’s something which contributes to the kind of intensity of it.

I think that silence and stillness have become synonymous with Morandi’s work.
I suppose the challenge for an artist is to make silence or stillness dynamic, otherwise its just boring. In some ways you have to animate a silence or space. For example, in the plays of Becket, he is extraordinary, probably almost unique, in terms of playrights, because of the way he writes and constucts silences that are filled with dramatic tension. I suppose that is completely different to everyday life where a silence may just be boring or insignificant. Those kind of things I’m very interested in. I like an image which is contemplative, something which invites you to revisit it and experience it over a period of time. This is a key difference between the plastic and the performing arts. You can experience the Mona Lisa in an instant and say that you have seen it. But with the Mona Lisa you can experience it over time so each of those viewings gets added on, gets built upon the previous one and so accumulates into an experience over time. I am very interested in trying to make work which hopefully invites an audience to come back and look at it again.


JH Yes, I think that you’ve really got to the point of this fundamental property of the plastic arts where you can keep revisiting, and that revisiting is really important, getting experience over time. How do you feel that the new technology, the digital technology, adds to printmaking. For example, you might have done that same picture as a traditional etching.


PC Yes, though it would have been totally different. I don’t see a distinction between old and new technology. I think we just add on new things all the time. In a way they go back to your personal childhood experiences of doing a scribble. Then you actually become aware of more sophisticated technology and you just build these into your practice. I would never describe myself as a digital artist. I’ve been quoted as saying ‘what does that mean in the case of a power cut.? Do I cease to be an artist?’ Those kinds of definitions are of no interest to me at all. I would rather define myself in terms of the ideas, the kind of connections with other artists and writers, and leave it at that. But I think what I have been really interested in, is the potential the digital has for me at this moment, in the ability if offers to look at each individual part. The new technology has enabled us to totally open up the image into its constitute parts, its pixels, for example, where each pixel can be individually altered, changed and effected. In some ways that leads me to becoming much more obsessive about what is happening on the surface, because in a lot of my images I’m literally modifying dot by dot across the surface. So the degree of control over the modulation across the surface is something that becomes in a way quite obsessive.


JH That’s fascinating. That level of operation with technology is really an interaction between thought and technology, with the two influencing each other.

PC When I’m working with illustrator and photoshop I use incredibly small aspects of the programme. I’m not particularly interested in filters. I’m just interested in that ability the computer has that enables me to modify each bit. Often that is just to do with expanding the dot, reducing the dot, or changing its colour by using an alternate value.


JH In a sense that refers back again to your appreciation of Morandi’s work, that within very limited parameters using paper, the ink, properties of the ink, properties of the etching, he came to make very poetic statements.


PC That’s right. Its very interesting that when Morandi first started etching, etching wasn’t very fashionable, lithography was all the rage, so he was very much looking backwards. He worked from a very old manual, from, I think, the 16th century. It was really a workman’s manual of how to etch. He very quickly established the fact that he was just going to use line, and for the most part, the prints are single immersions in acid. The modulation and the drawing is all done at the drawing stage. Having said that, he would test the acid in order to establish the quality of the line, so that he knew exactly the length of time to leave the plate in the acid to get the critical result he wanted. Only on a couple of occasions did he feel the need to expand into the use of aquatint. It is all simple line onto hard ground. I think that I am drawn to artists that close down the picture space and look at a small range of options to see what can be extracted from that.


JH In a way the technique and process that you use is one which you say leads you to explore ideas between intimacy and distance and the conflict between, what is known and what is fact.


PC What I look for is the kind of conflict I think is in all human beings. We are continually having to make decisions, going one way or going another. Rarely are those decisions without a degree of conflict. The desire to have children as opposed to not. It would be ludicrous to think that one state is bliss and the other one is pergatory. There are conflicts all the time, and there are moments when every parent feels like running away and abdicating. But I think in a way that tension is the thing that actually holds you in your position. I feel that I’m a sort of a mass of conflicts between wanting a slightly more public life and demanding a private life. How one resolves issues as an artist for example what to lay bare as opposed to what to keep private. These kinds of conflicts are fundamental.


JH Yes, you said that working digitally has led you towards a clear understanding of your physical relationship to both the work and to the viewer.


PC I think that in working digitally you’ve got to work quite hard to overcome certain things. Most of the software programmes we use are created for designers. In some ways you’re working with things that purport to be good for art, for facilitating art, but in actual fact are not until you’re working in opposition to it. You’re continually working against this unity that the digital imposes on everything. The moment you do anything on the screen you have something that is unified, because you know there is this unified surface, everything is either in or out. When you’re working more traditionally you start off with imbalance and then you struggle to get some kind of sense of equilibrium by the end. With the digital you’re the opposite way round. You start off with this balance but you’ve got to somehow knock it around until you can establish some kind of new dynamic. For me that’s very interesting. It means you have to have all your wits about you, about how you want to engage with the audience. You have to make a lot of kind of conscious decisions. When you’re working with an etching you intuitively decide in the size of a plate, and things like that. But when you are working digitally you do have to specify what size you’re working. That immediately stakes out a kind of relationship between you and how you think that work will be viewed. If it is going to be a 10ft high image then you know that’s the decision you need to make quite early on as a kind of conscious decision, and you may not see it that size until quite a long way on. Whereas if you made the decision to make a 10ft high painting you could be staring at this 10ft high canvas right from the word go. So working digitally requires you to make lots of conceptual decisions, that remain as ideas until the work is realised and outputted.


JH You said that much of what you actually do is predicated on your need to have a physical engagement with the process of making, and that you do this in order to explore your relationship with the world.


PC One of the things I find very difficult about the screen is that I find it very neutral.
If I’m happy with an experience of the work of art, I want to feel that my body is present in that experience, that its not just come out of my head. Also that the work affects the space that the viewer is in. But I suppose it also comes from being rooted in traditional practice of sculpting and printmaking. I do think that the body has an intelligence. In England we’ve been brought up with this kind of Protestant ethic which roots all intelligence in the mind, and from this, the notion of intelligence being rooted within the word. I don’t agree with that. I feel that the way we handle things, the way your body interacts with things, is just as much a demonstration of intelligence and a way of mediating between you and the world. I often used the analogy that, when shopping, people use their hands and their senses to experience an article of clothing. You can often see people brushing the item up against their skin and feeling the texture. That seems just as much an intelligent way of finding out about what something is and your relationship to it as just actually looking at it. I suppose one of the reasons why shops are still with us in spite of the fact that e-mail shopping is so easy, is because we want that kind of experience. That also connects us very much with our histories. I think that many experiences that one remembers are physical experiences. If I recall some of my very early dates as an adolenscent and the intensity of the journey that my hand would make in the cinema around my girlfriend’s neck in order to try and touch a bit a flesh, this was a journey I experienced every centimetre of the way. And that experience was in a darkened room with my eyes shut.


JH That’s absolutely fascinating. I think it really has put a lot of extra light on your work.


PC I think that one of the difficulties with the digital, is that it can sort of endorse the more Protestant notion of intelligence as being to do with the word and that kind of knowledge. I suppose that’s why I think that there can be a problem with the digital between people that are incredibly knowledgeable about digital matters but actually have very little to say. In returning to Morandi, I feel that Morandi was able to build a profound language out of an extraordinary tight repertoire of precepts. I think that I should be able to do that as well. I feel that I don’t have to sit down learning whole new programmes and things like that in order to say something. In the same way that if a pencil is doing the job that you want it to do, you don’t need anything else. It’s only when the pencil can’t do what you want it to do that you have to find something else. But that’s very different to thinking you’ve got to find it all out and then when you’ve got the knowledge, you do something with it, because life’s too short, you’ll probably be dead by then.


JH Thank you very much Paul.