1 January 1990

Interview: Mark Titmarsh's Conceptual Painting

Sydney artist Mark Titmarsh interviewed by Michael Hutak.
As the noise and the clamour of the last three decades subsides, one valuable legacy of post-structuralism is its foregrounding of how language deflects or complicates the philosopher's project. Deconstruction as a methodology works to undo the idea, demystifying the claim that at some point we are able to dispense with language and arrive at pure, self-authenticating ideas. Though much philosophy strives to efface its textual or 'written' character, the signs of that struggle are there to be read in its blind spots of metaphor and other rhetorical strategies.
With his construction of 'conceptual painting', Mark Titmarsh shows his concern with this entire field - blind spots along with sweeping unobstructed vistas. He talks of striving to produce an impossible but 'wise' object, speculating on what a painting might be like when it knowingly displays a relationship to Conceptualism. A painting which, although undertaken after the fact, does not exist in Conceptualism's shadow but instead embraces and celebrates its own impossibile status, concieved as it is within language and history, but constituted by enigmatic imagery. The imagery gestures meaningfully beyond these origins, exceeding them like a good pupil.
Titmarsh's hallmarks, (or trademarks, if you prefer) can already be catalogued: layers and transparencies, the prescence of the brushstroke, creating space without perspective, creating emotional effects without narrative, creating images of the act of creation. The work's work is the production of layers - of literal, and of other uncontrollable readings, a gesture of tears, a pop star eulogised, the trace of character etched in line and space. Titmarsh reaches almost casually for lofty themes - the personal, the tragic, the ecstatic, the sublime. In this endeavour he is guided by a Nietzschean conception of 'the hammer as cut-creator'. Thus rather than appropriation/quotation he claims that he "allows things to eternally return as they must.
These points of departure signal a 'fresh' attitude to painting, and to the role of the artist, in relation to philosophy especially.
Consider Titmarsh's notion of the artist-philosopher. The artist-philospher possesses expertise in both the field of action & ideas. With regards to action, the importance of manner over dexterity or artisanal skill is stressed in the production of sensory effect. This is complemented by the idea skills or 'knowledg-abilty' which the artist philosopher must possess. The artistic value of the work has no relation to the materials of the work except that it has been chosen over others. Titmarsh has nominated these as his concern.
Guaranteeing subjectivity rather than knowledge, Titmarsh charts innocently and in good faith the collision of the subject and the real. But not without duplicity, without a pleasure in lying and deception. We learn the maxim that all personality wilts, surrenders and fails if only taken at face value. But to take things at face value today invariably assumes the 'surface' as nothing but the skin of 'depth'. Titmarsh's painterly surfaces undermine this phallacy, displaying, rather, an indeterminate order: admitting nothing, denying nothing, telling all.
And so Titmarsh redoubles irony. He ironises irony in his figuring of an intentional sincerity, of the posture of the artist as creator, author. Irony, parody, simulation (which all rely on recognising an origin) must here be willfully produced by the viewing subject, for nowhere are they intentionally figured in the work. In this way it is Titmarsh who possesses and reveals our 'true' character. It is when confronted by his work that we recognize our own will to interpretation.
MICHAEL HUTAK: A metaphor you often deploy is the hammer. Can you tell me something about that?

MARK TITMARSH: The hammer is firstly a symbol of my opposition to all the ideas and practices of quotation, appropriation, pastiche, and parody. The hammer is none of these. It is a tool, a weapon, and a tuning fork. It occasionally smashes things into concentrated fragments, and at other times, like the hammer of the silversmith, it gently beats precious metal into shape. Obviously for me, my precious or base metal is a bank of images. Something of this idea obviously comes from Nietzsche, who as you know philosophised with the hammer.

You are not merely working with given forms...

As much as words in a dictionary are given forms. So certains fragments of images become elements in a new "visual sentence". You can ask yourself when talking or writing, how is it possible to say something new when all the words available to us are limited and pre-packaged in the dictionary. Yet it is possible for words, just as it is possible within my own use of available images.

So your work is not about questioning processes which arrive at meaning but involves simply the creation of new meanings.

It seems a dangerous, perhaps paradoxical 'yes' - but yes. New, but steeped in traditional categories of art history and philosophy: asking questions about the nature of existence, how one can see and know anything, and how those questions might be posed via the well known categories of still life and portraiture.

Do your paintings ask these questions or answer them?

Probably a permutation of both mixed with a prophecy, the true nature of which will not come into focus until it is seen or actively 'looked upon' by free spirits, fearless ones, perhaps the first born of the 21st century...

Fearless? Of what? Fear itself?

If you can hold your head while all around are crying "I must love, I must hate, I must do my duty, I must honour father and mother and history!" then you become the judge and avenger of your own law, and you preside fearlessly over history and over what will be. It's like being a star flung forth into empty space and the icy breath of solitude. If you can say 'yes' to this you can say 'yes' to anything, you can say 'yes' to life.

So are you seeking to express some rebellious inner tendency?

Yes and no. I'm rebellious and unruly in the prescence of the prefect. Otherwise I am studious and compliant because rebelliousnes would only deepen my ignorance.

Do you paint as 'therapy'?

Yes and no. I don't begin with an emotional problem and hope to work it out by pushing around oceans of paint on a canvas like Nick Nolte in New York Stories, but yes I do hope to solve my miserable existence through some glorious moment of insight in my work.

Do the works, then, necessarily portray this catharsis.

Defintiely not catharsis, rather a speculation on the brink of infinite wondering. Catharsis seems to me be linked to the bowel, bladder, and spleen of the artist. These are important parts of my anatomy but I'm drawn more upwards and outwards through the heart, the eye, the mind.
Getting away from the psychodrama, let's talk about works themselves. You have a number of 'tropes' which you seem to be developing as trademarks, signatures. For instance many works incorporate book covers, magazine photos, post cards and so on, and almost all your paintings utilise layers - for instance, line drawings of portraits which 'hover' above other fields of imagery.

Could you expand?

I like to construct plausible linkages across impossible distances, to make things co-incident, to occupy the same space and time, in contravention of the laws of physics, occupying a conceptual, fourth dimension. To produce those works you mention I had to produce my own speculative history of transparencies, which I call the Genealogy Of Transparencies. Beginning with Arcimboldo, this genealogy runs through Picasso's Synthetic Cubism, Picabia's 'Transparency' period, to the recent work of Sigmar Polke, and David Salle. This 'history in the shadows' is yet to be ratified but it's speculative nature is the machine for producing my own transparencies. These are a layering of solid, semi-opaque, and wholly transparent elements made up of a field of images from art history, and mass culture.

You seem to be foregrounding an awareness of the mechanics of perception. Are you buying into a more general speculation on the nature of perception?

Yes, I guess I want to try and pick up from Minimal art issues around the phenomenology of perception and present them in the very midst of figurative and semi-narrative work so that in some of my paintings an observer might initially only see spacial shifting between untramarine blue and alizarine crimson, and only later does it become apparent that those two colours are also the bearers of narrative information such as a face, or a scene depicting the battle of the centaurs. Or the whole process can occur in reverse, ultimately one is made aware of the very processes of both looking and producing meaning.

So is it the 'work' of the viewer to produce their own meanings or do you deliberately point the way?

It's both. Everything tends towards ambiguity but it is not chaotic. Nothing is fixed, things keep appearing out of the depths, even for me. Yet there are things that do suggest a general inclination towards the metaphysical. I'm reminded of that 19th century parlour drawing where at first glance one sees a skull, and then on closer observation it turns out to be a woman pondering her face in a mirror. And so I hope to achieve a similar ambiguity whereby a banal moment or object suddenly becomes shot through with symbolic prescence. Or again in reverse an image that appears theatrical or philosphical becomes mute and latent.

Is this what you mean by semi-narrativity? The narrative experience of working through perceiving these various moments or objects?


There's a prescence in your work of the figure of the Artist, the Author. Do you consciously construct that? How does that come about?

What I see in my work is a directorial expertise - giving things a direction and a prescence rather than expressing my emotions, I don't seek to give free range to my emotions rather I try to elicit an emotional response. However I do like to wear masks, become occasionally the paint-stained artist, the acid-stained alchemist, the heavy-browed philospher, the lonely wanderer above the mists.

Some of the works are very personal, judging particularly by some of the titles - 'Why I Am A Destiny', 'What I Owe The Ancients',

'We Fearless Ones' -

- the image is being claimed, possessed by the speaker, is it not?

Such titles are intended to accentuate this notion of masks, and to remain as open-ended as the images. Many of the titles are in the form of questions and make no attempt to tag the image. I like to suggest first person subjectivity - I, we, etc. - to draw the spectator into identification and contemplation, we free spirits, we lovers of danger, first born of the 21st century.

Do you think an equivalence or a nullity comes into play when you conflate images?

No. The exact opposite occurs. The images expand upon eachother in varying degrees of affinity. They are either dynamic or enigmatic in relation to eachother and never nullify eachother.

What factors are involved in you being engaged enough by an image to want to incorporate it into a work? Is it the same process every time?

It's not something that happens all at once. It involves a long process of collecting things, almost like a bower bird. These things vary from collections of book covers, post cards, and the compliation of something like a slide library of images I find in art school libraries or while casually leafing through magazines. What usually dominates are faces. What I look for inall these places are the elements to a language of faces. My ideal face is a sublime face. A face that has the same effect on a viewer as a sublime landscape. So the process involved in choosing the images is something like waiting to be transfigured by that face.

What about the relationship of the source image's history to your use of it - is that an issue? Do you use an image in relation to how that image has circulated in the past.

It's not fixed and not always obvious from the work itself but, still I like to have it both ways. Sometimes I use an image without any recourse to or knowledge of its history. Some aspect of its surface meaning is all I require. Say, a reclining figure in a preliminary sketch by Raphael or a picture post-card sent home by the survivor of a battle, some pungent anecdote that becomes a humble brick in another construction. Or, conversely, I can enter into the spirit of the image and attempt to deal with it on its own terms, let it tell its own story, to do what it has always done best, or argue with it, perhaps perfect it. For example the way I have used the still lifes of Morandi. Morandi is best known for the symbolic, metaphysical power of the his still lifes - they are just bottles and vases yet they seem to say so much about existence. And a whole lot more about the physicality of paint. They fill you with a wondering about the transient nature of things, what it is to have an almost synaesthetic relationship with paint and canvas. He says all this through inanimate objects. So when I use his still lifes I hope to evoke the same sensibilty -

and complicate it?

Not really. To simply re-evoke it, to press it back into action, to become part of a new team

Is this akin to calling on a character reference?

On a marker, I suppose. It's like declaring "I agree".

So within your schema you are representing a Morandi, rather than quoting, or appropriating it?

It's not representing it. It's not quoting it. It's not appropriating it - it's not even Morandi! All that remains is metaphysics and synaesthetics. And, of course, the all too human desire to know "yeah, but where did it come from?".

Me? I keep coming back to that lineage we talked of earlier. And the more I look at cubism in general and particularly Synthetic cubism, the more I find a kind of template for many of the "isms" of the 20th century. Particularly Abstraction, Minimalism, Contructivism, Conceptual Art. I find them all figured in the works Picasso produced between 1907 and 1914. But, to be more generous to 20th century art, I would say that it all begins with the triple tension between Picasso, Duchamp and Malevich, representing maximalism, conceptualism and the void. I mention Picasso first because I see him as creating all the preconditions which allowed artists like Duchamp and Malevich to work.

Is your own work art historical?

Inasmuch as I rely heavily on art history, learning as much as I can from it, and formulating my own interpretations from close study. I've accepted that the boundaries of my work fall within what's been conservatively defined as art history. I'm not trying to extend those boundaries at all. I want to concentrate my work within those areas.

You've nominated a perimeter?

Precisely, It's like what I do with film... I have never been interested in expanded cinema - multiple screens or incorporating performance or installation in to the filmwork. I'm quite happy to make everything work inside the frame and be projected in a totally conventional manner, to have everything at stake occur within those conventions. So it's the same thing with painting, I'm not interested in turning art into life or in breaking down the differences between painting and other disciplines. I guess it's something like the love of necessity, suddenly noticing that everything you wanted and everything that could be was already within arms' reach.

Does the crux of your work reside in the art object? You're not in any sense a conceptual artist where idea takes precedence over the object, where the object is devalued?

Well, Conceptual Art is something that was once, and can never be again. But it is something that's very important to me. The main push of Conceptual Art was to dematerialise the art object, probably to blend life and art together. Recently, I've been playing with the notion of Conceptual Painting. Conceptual Painting might be the work of one who is aware of Conceptual Art but runs against the grain of this dematerialisation to produce 'wise objects'.

Do you, therfore, value the object over the image? Must your work be experienced as paintings on walls to be fully grasped?

What I aim for is the best of all possible worlds. Some things can only be appreciated by experiencing the painting on the wall such as its 'theatrical prescence' and the sheer physicality of the materials - paint, varnish, resin, impasto, paper, and so on. At this level of observation, the two-dimensional image is quite secondary, and one is made more aware of a play of three-dimensional prescences on the surface of the canvas. Sometimes texture is image and vice versa. But of course, when the painting is reproduced and enters the information chain - magazines, etc - the image still retains its veracity to all the things we've discussed here.

But I don't a posit an ideal viewer. My hope is that the more you bring to the work the more you'll get out of it.


First published in Tension magazine.

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