Interview by Huw Roberts
Former Head of Public Policy of BBC Wales and Director of Welsh Affairs for the Royal Mail Group. He worked at Number 10 Downing Street - home of the British Prime Minister; the Welsh Development Agency; Head of the Press Office at ITN; Director of Corporate Affairs at Swalec; and Senior Special Adviser to Rt Hon Ron Davies, Minister of Parliament, London; Secretary of State for Wales. He is currently Chair of the Institute of Directors in Wales; Chair of Arts & Business Cymru; Deputy Chair of Artes Mundi - the contemporary visual arts initiative; Wales Trustee of National Energy Action; and a Fellow of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
HUW ROBERTS: Edward, I observed the evolution of your art from my position in the BBC, and seeing your current paintings I’m struck by the way you have changed the function of the human figure, and set it in a context with pure abstract forms. How are you bringing these two ‘antagonists’ together?
EDWARD POVEY: I’m interested in how Picasso could take so little, and create so much robustness. I mean, he made art that has a robust eloquence requiring no explanation, as opposed to cerebral art that cries out for elucidation. Nude Dressing Her Hair (Pablo Picasso, 1940, oil on canvas, 51 x 38 inches (130 x 97 cm), MOMA New York) is a convincing motif in which he lays out a visual language and then confidently shouts in that language, in a way that anyone can understand. This painting has been a helpful yardstick in my career.
Artists have persistently been expected to have a unity of style, and also Pure Abstraction has been forbidden from mixing with Realism, like a stylistic apartheid. But music has comfortably paired narrative lyrics with entirely abstract melodies for centuries. Gestures in Abstract Art communicate as clearly as gestures on a first violin, and they do make thrilling duets with realistic forms.
HR: The Expressionists successfully abstractly warped forms, but that was something else. You’re using accurate, un-warped representation of the human form, like the body in Deuteros (see PAINTINGS - RECENT), which is then dismembered and set abruptly against pure abstract objects, and it visibly makes a seamless statement. Where else can this be found?
EP: Francis Bacon dealt with these ingredients simultaneously, and in the early 1960s R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney (Doll Boy, 1960-61, oil on canvas, 48 x 39 inches (121.9 x 99.1 cm), Galerie der Gegenwart (Museum of Contemporary Art), Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany) took these two elements but marched sideways into abstracted figuration, losing accurate representation so as to deal with causes like homosexuality and the art of the displaced Jews. Jenny Saville though, is currently using sheer scale and gesture as her abstract elements, and is sticking to a correct proportion in her figures, with monumental results - while working flat on the floor of her studio.
I read R.B. Kitaj’s First Diasporist Manifesto, and in history I notice that these gangs of like-minded artists have tended to make manifestos: statements of intention, which were a philosophical consensus for their proponents.
HR: These manifestos were the flags behind which ragtag groups of artists unified themselves to explore artistic theories, because what they were researching was complex.
A case in point: the human figure has predominated through all the chapters of your paintings and public sculptures, but in these new works the emphasis has changed, giving your figures an unexpected intensity, which I ascribe to a decrease in the ‘staging’ of the figures somehow. In the Mannerist and Baroque traditions the human body was a political marionette, for example in Caravaggio’s marvelous Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1600, oil on canvas, 91 x 69 inches (230 x 175 cm), Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome) we are looking at a stage set with dramatically posed and lit actors. How are you able to make more articulate statements with less demonstrative figures?
EP: I’d always painstakingly designed my paintings, making accurate cartoons and then posing carefully chosen models, lit and dressed to suit the designs. I tried to use this familiar method on my current paintings, but I couldn’t get it to work. I concluded that the figures carried too much intention, which brought shades of narrative along with them, prescribing certain interpretations and so narrowing their possibilities.
I changed my approach and deliberately found twelve models, by asking people at cafe tables, friends and artists, choosing people who were distracted by health or financial difficulties. I set them up in an empty studio, within a 4 X 7 foot taped rectangle of floor space. Then I coached them on the impassive facial expressions I required, and each of them was provided with a laptop screen which gave them rolling instructions like: ‘stand’, ‘look at your partner’, ‘consider the regrets in your life’, ‘sit’, ‘take off an item of clothing’. I left the room with a recording of rain and thunder running, and a camera set to take photographs every six seconds, resulting in four hundred photographs of each pair of models over a forty-minute period.
I continued until I had 2400 photographs and then searched for images of non-specific poses between acts, which would cut away the shell of ‘intentional procedures’. Individuals are incessantly involved in distinct acts. Art on the other hand, has tried to explore human experience, and so I have to use everyday people, disengaged from set tasks so as to show the concept of the human state, rather than the story of individuals.
Like in all the lying arts, my apparent non-involvement is a contrivance, constructed to give the appearance of detachment from staging. Next I plan to return to single models, and abandon the laptop instructions in favor of a voice recording that guides their thoughts and emotions, with the goal of having them lose awareness of the positions of their bodies. I need to harvest more unself-consciousness so as to achieve my objectives. I am now looking for slightly overweight middle-aged people in their underwear, to push further into the ordinariness and vulnerability of my figures. I hope to extract more gravitas from these subordinated models.
HR: I’m interested in your desire to lose the specific individuals and actualize the conceptual human state, and I believe that it has deep roots. A line of philosophy came up from the first existentialists to René Magritte’s Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) , 1929, oil on canvas, 235/8 x 317/8 inches (60 x 81 cm), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California): a painting of a pipe under which is written ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’). Magritte’s point was that figurative pictures are not actual experience but are only the illusion of experience (the painting of a pipe will never in fact be a pipe). The Postmodern period represents the flourishing of Magritte’s seed because under its watch, all narrative art was condemned in favor of the direct experience of Installation Art and Conceptual Art. When I last saw Magritte’s work in Brussels, I was struck by the analogy, in that for you as well, the conceptual was preferred over the specific. The position of the viewer was strengthened by Postmodernist theory, and instead of being led by prescribed stories with authoritative interpretations, finally they could rely upon their own personal response to art. But returning to your figures, your elaborate way of reaping your source material is just the start. I notice that you push your figures into a crouch, or marginalize them at the edge of your canvas, and then draw negative space across parts of their bodies, amputating limbs and often cutting them in half with abstract forms. You place floating ‘blindfolds’ across their eyes using glazes and scumbled layers of paint, blinding them and curiously increasing our sympathy for these distressed figures. You boil clouds of abstract objects out of their bellies, of which they are as unaware as we are of our intestines.
Frank Auerbach (Head of Gerda Boehm, 1965, oil on board, 13 x 13 inches (33 x 33 cm)) and Lucian Freud (Naked Girl Asleep II, 1968, oil on canvas, 22 x 22 inches (55.8 x 55.8 cm), private collection) attacked their subjects in a visceral response to their mortality, Freud publicly scandalizing strangers with his brush; and Auerbach closing the gap between his gut responses and his subjects. But you are doing something very different from Freud and Auerbach, and something wonderful using both intuition and engineering. How do your figures engage our affinity?
EP: I do have theories, but I may stray to explanations after the fact. In 1906 the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch hypothesized about our empathy response to images resembling human beings; and in 1970 the robotics professor Masahiro Mori proposed the Uncanny Valley Theory, demonstrating that as images of human beings approach precision, our empathy turns to loathing and suspicion. This is dramatic in our response to very fine waxworks and realistic robots.
I dismember my figures, effectively attacking their precision, which deepens our identification with them, because I need my viewers to catch what is revealed between the removed tasks, roles and identities. I want my painted figures to be excoriated back to the mortal element which is the truth they share with their viewers. Behind the scenes of my relatively happy life, I feel this chilly mortality, and can’t resist exploring it.
As we said, every style and period in art seems to have its own ‘constitution’, and this Abstract-Realist Marriage has its own laws: the figures must remain in near-perfect proportion, and be set in near-perfect perspective, otherwise the concept falls apart, because too much is being attempted.
Another reason for breaking up my figures is that it connects them with the surface and the materials of the painting, thereby reminding my viewer of the honesty of the image, that This Is Not A Pipe/figure. The experience of spreading layers of paint across the figures, and streaming glazes over finished bodies is worrying and also sensually euphoric. When my studio was in the West Indies for seven years, I learned anatomy by making working diagrams of the cadavers at the Saint George’s Medical School there, feeling fascinated and horrified at the same time.
The anatomy professors would slice away layers of skin and fat, and then saw away bones and viscera as their students studied their way inwards from the skin to the internal organs, and they would call me when the sections I needed had been exposed in the bodies. As I dismember the bodies in these paintings, I’m repeatedly trying to discover what remains when our tasks, roles and personalities have been eliminated.
I make decisions using a giddying Auerbach body-intuition, as well as a cooler kind of engineering, listing and executing the tasks on each current painting, for example, the red strip in the right side of Leibniz’s Continuity (LINK) needed to be smooth and soft to provide a silky modern stripe to set against the blinded figure’s struggle to stand. This had to be carefully layered over days. In contrast, the negative space in Indices (LINK) had to be rough and messy, worn and geological. The model, Dave Whitaker had a stroke last year, and loved being valued so much as a model that he cried at the end of our day of work.
HR: Your figures have a slow perennial struggle with their dismemberment and dissolution, like a reverse rendition of Michelangelo’s late career Slaves, who were left only half-realized out of the stone, and too large for the Sagrestia Nuova of the Tomb of Julius II (Captive (The Awakening Giant), about 1519, marble, 8 ft 6 3/4 inches (261 cm), Florence, Academia). Unlike Michelangelo, your figures are fully realized, and only then are dismantled and re-captured into the paintings.
Picasso deconstructed forms in search of a way to convey the ‘idea of a figure’; and Hockney played with style to see how flamboyantly he could mix its conventions so as to discuss art itself. You are not primarily discussing art. You are marrying two existing modes to enable you to disassemble human beings, allowing us to see what exists in ourselves behind the ephemera. In your genius, when you have done with them, we expect to see their pathetic remains, but you leave us with a formidable presence. You are invoking the cross-eyed Hieronymus Bosch, whose degradation of sinners only deepened our sympathy for them.
You mentioned the making of your surfaces. Over the last century, and in the wake of Magritte and Postmodern sensibilities, non cognitive surface has become an important consideration in many paintings, some of which imitate rich and eloquent surface, but without life or understanding. Have you theorized on a defining process behind powerful ‘surface’, since these paintings have such varied and patinated paint?
EP: Powerful surface in paintings is a quality that engages the body of the viewer, because we cannot see texture without intuiting its feeling sensually. I’ve found that elemental and instinctive paint is essentially a by-product of authentic process; of multiple layers, each of which was applied as a legitimate solution in its time. Each patch of canvas becomes accordingly stratified with the memory of previous resolutions, and de Kooning (Woman I , 1950-51, oil on canvas, 6 ft 3 7/8 x 58 inches (192.7 x 147.3 cm), MOMA New York) has made many perfect examples of this. Look at a Picasso painting lit steeply, so that light grazes across its surface, and you can see all the previous layers of paint running in half-buried lines, showing where he had progressively adjusted and corrected the figuration. Balthus’s paintings were allegedly more than an inch thick in parts, all stratified by alternating ‘glazures’ and pebbly oil paint doctored with plaster. He and Braque, who was known to use sand (Georges Braque, Guitar and Still Life on a Guéridon, 1922, oil with sand on canvas, 75 x 27 3/4 in. (190.5 x 70.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), have been valuable helpers to me.
The layering occurs in imagery as well as in paint itself, like the flickering between the two overlaid kneeling figures in De Quincey (LINK). It lends an uncertainty and confoundedness to the woman, with that delicious red chair set just around the corner.
HR: That same searching uncertainty occurs in Leonardo’s drawings of groups (Studies of Figures and Putti for an Adoration , undated, pen and ink over metal point on purple prepared surface, 6 3/4 x 4 1/3 inches (17 x 11.1 cm), Hamburg, Kunsthale), in which figures are pressed together, virtually repeating their poses, so as to re-state an idea. In the case of your De Quincey painting there is also an important duality, with its two clear perspectives - left and right, two overlaid poses, and two written statements: the Latin words: ‘Hoc non faciunt. Non faciunt’, meaning ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ There are even two black and white patterns in the woman’s tights: human uncertainty, awfully revealed to be everywhere.
Whilst the apparent haloes of color around the figures seem orchestrated to fit in the abstract motif, do you have other motivations for including them? You also tend to gather abstract objects and shapes around the heads of your figures, reminiscent of symbolist early church iconography. I am surprised by my own inability to separate them from the overall composition, which is how I respond to Chagall’s indubitable and delicious leaps of illogic.
EP: I often intuitively paint and replace these objects twenty times before I arrive at the correct solution, hence all those layers; and I have no intention to symbolically convey ideas even though I know that they may resemble haloes, auras or thought-bubbles. They are something entirely different and necessary, wrapped up with the belief that the figures are special or important, and perhaps powerfully complex, or should I finally say, human.
HR: These paintings are on substantial canvases, not huge by current standards, however the weight of the themes is seismic. They are dauntingly impactful and verging upon religious, but I increasingly sense that you are moving into new internal territory. The BBC followed your development through two major styles and several formats (for example the multi-storey murals during your apprenticeship) and I propose that there is a unifying quality throughout these periods: a palpable and unsettling urgency in your relationship with your art. Is your work or your life the source of this ‘discomfort’?
EP: The two are intertwined. My fearful childhood might suggest that I grew up with a proclivity to angst, but the dear Welsh professor, artist Selwyn Jones introduced me to Stanley Spencer’s erotic and religious paintings (The Beatitudes of Love: Worship, 1938, oil on canvas, 36 x 29 inches, (91.4 x 73.7 cm), private collection) in my early 20s, which shaped my attitudes somewhat. Spencer has become regarded as a modern British master, who inhabited a closed and eccentric world which paralleled my own, and fed in me a belief that art must be both profoundly intimate, and also be breaking new ground in order to have life. I think that urgency is a necessary state.
During my long period of figurative symbolism, I believe that I protected myself from my childhood which I was expressing in my art, by secluding myself behind a wall of symbolism and craftsmanship. My art was cerebral and complex, but shrewdly didn’t involve internal exposure. These new paintings are however so intuitive in their process that they require a constant state of precarious and instinctual judgment. It’s like a high wire.
HR: In 2006 when you were proposed for a CBE by the British government, it was supported by Sir Anthony Jones, then President and Co CEO of the Art Institute of Chicago. On that occasion he said many positive things about your work, but I recall he also mentioned your ‘…debt to the Italian Renaissance…’ Where do you now stand in relation to the knowledge of the masters?
EP: Postmodernism was necessarily a rejection of all authoritarian attitudes and techniques, which was philosophically invigorating, and it also completed a cycle of evolution in art, reaching a height of sophistication and ridiculousness contemporaneously. It turned away from Pythagoras’s ancient laws of composition, and from all the new understandings of color that had been accumulated by the Nabis and early Expressionists. Vuillard and Maurice Denis made singing and ambrosial color combinations, like Denis’s The Legend of Saint Hubert (Maurice Denis, 1896, oil on panel, private collection), which delights me.
There are also basic laws of color temperature that govern how form is made, cleverly based upon the truth that almost all forms have either warm lights and cool shadows, or cool lights and warm shadows. I am always laying down temperatures of color to describe form, sliding between cool areas and warm areas alternately. Human beings have grown up on a planet with a warm sun and cool ambient light in the shadows, and so this is how we comprehend form.
In music it is the same. However rebellious music is, it still obeys the same Pythagorean laws that keep the instruments in harmony, and preserve structure, even in the most aggressive heavy metal music. When we talked about the abstract melody of music, we were citing upon the selfsame law that composes visual abstraction.
Despite some losses of the last half-century of Postmodernism, there have also been some fabulous gains – philosophically and artistically, with a crop of artistic giants as always. Meanwhile, I am busy discovering all the parameters involved in the knitting together of two stylistic battleships, and each of these paintings is some kind of an experiment.
Like an iceberg, twenty percent of my decision-making is above the surface making conscious decisions, like my attempts in Leibniz’s Continuity (LINK) and Deuteros (LINK) to remove the visual space from behind the figure. But probably eighty percent of my decision-making is intuitive, working with all the determinations about abstract forms, the need for varying types of surface, and the presence of numbers and words.
HR: Once again, just like your choice of subordinated models, and your compositional relegation and dismemberment of the figures, you have ‘obscured’ the words and numbers by translating them into Latin, Hebrew or Greek, allowing all the parts of these works to be discreetly drawn aside. In life also, persistently sought explanation is deftly obscured, allowing human persistence itself to become center stage.
When I first saw you on BBC television you were a young apprentice, high on your mural scaffolding. You were painting intimate ideas on an enormous scale, and now I believe you are painting enormous ideas on an intimate scale.