OBSESSIONS: Peter Clossick NEAC PPLG elucidates obsessions around work, process and practice

painting of a reclining nude woman

It is a combined experience trying to create work, to paint, to gain knowledge and understanding from the activity and also operate within the complexities of the art world and the world in general. I find it can be frustrating, cathartic, make me happy or sad and can definitely leave a dose of anger, joy, pleasure and a strong feeling that I am not wasting my limited time of existence. There is no point in regret at past choices, or having hope for the future, but just making the most of the existing moment, the here and now. 

I count myself lucky, privileged, as a child brought up in a London council estate living in my imagination, loving to play and enjoying drawing. I remember my first report from the grammar school I was expelled from saying, “he tries hard in his own peculiar way” – which even then I thought appropriate because nothing has changed. I don’t have solutions, just questions, with a belief in perseverance. Prior to Camberwell School of Art, I spent 3 years at Leicester Polytechnic studying shoe design. Then, through a design studio, working for high fashion retail outlets and for a short period worked as a croupier in Charlie Chester’s casino in Soho.

‘Venus de' Medici' 

There is a quote by John Constable which says, “It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature, but to make something out of nothing – in attempting which, he must almost of necessity, become poetical”. And put another way by W. B. Yeats who said, “out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, from the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry”. Probably from my experience of working on building sites as a student I always felt that was what I was doing, hammering out a poem.

First I’ll get my gripes about the art world out of the way so as to put them behind me. Constable would be regarded as figurative – but why are artists labelled figurative, abstract, conceptual, video, etc when these titles have no meaning? All artwork has a concept/idea whether it comes before or after. All painting is a performance of one kind or other and a painting on a wall is a form of installation. But real painting today is rather looked down upon as a source of communication. It is not on many people’s radar. A friend said to me there are far too many artists with too few crumbs on the table – and the majority of them scrabbling for notice within the market place. There are as many fine arts as there are artists, whether they are in the spotlight or in the shadows it matters little, it is their engagement that counts. The audience not necessarily interested in what they do, but what they believe in. If you sell and are marketable the art system will glamorise your position, but if you critique the system nobody will see your work.

We live in a time where we continue to applaud the grandiose, with governments ennobling not only the richest bankers but also those developers and architects who make the tallest and most fanciful buildings. The public has now been conditioned to pay attention to no one else but celebrities and none more so than in the art world. The artist personality has overtaken the artwork and the curator has overtaken the artist. We are swamped by large-scale, institution friendly gallery fodder that avoids identifying anything conceivable as a statement and is now just a comment within today’s random pluralism, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere” Seneca once said. And New Yorker Ben Davis wrote, “The halo around art grows ever brighter and more distinct even as the light source itself, the artwork, vanishes from view”. 

The attention has gone from the object to marketing. “Art News” giving dignity to commercialisation. A so-called “risk-taking” publicly funded gallery is applauded for spending money on an artwork consisting of a gallery attendant singing to visitors because they bought an “uncollectable” work. I’m sure the German choreographer is sincerely delighted to have his song played in a major public gallery and I have no doubt many would consider the performance a great work of art.

‘The Architect' 

George Orwell said, “There are some ideas which are so absurd that only an intellectual can believe them”. We are surrounded in the arts by intellectuals. I would love to put the painting into a music competition calling it “silent sound”. Novelty is not the same as originality, which is extremely rare, originality must have an origin – it comes from somewhere. The problem for people like me is that we live in a world of instant gratification and I produce as many others do, slow-object art. Some would say Neanderthal art - it has recently been discovered that 64,000 years ago Neanderthals did draw on the walls of the cave, so maybe we are not alone.

In our modern global world artworks, both old and contemporary, are just big business. Quoting a rant in the Guardian which said, “…all public funding should be stopped and all public galleries should be closed. If there is one thing contemporary art doesn’t need is public funding to enable the corruption that goes on in the art world. Indulging in what, in the financial world, would be considered insider dealing, rigging interest rates, skimming and the like”. Stefan Kalmar, director of the ICA, has said, “The big question for us all – but particularly for artists because it’s more pressing – is essential, can we bite the hand that feeds us?”

One of the questions I ask myself is why use oil paint, easel painting, closely connected as it is to the idea of aesthetic autonomy intrinsically valuable, and also free of social function – a historical condition that the rectangular easel painting is left with. I think the answer for me is that it is an experimental esoteric game of infinite depth – with my own conscious beliefs and attitudes shaping my activity as a painter. I use thick impasto because to a certain degree it puts the control out of control, becoming more physical and haptic which I find more real. A combination of two forms of awareness is necessary for depiction which is held together in the mind as a single composite. Applicable to all forms of two-dimensional pictorial signs Sam Taylor Coleridge in 1818 wrote in “Poesy or Art”; “It is sufficient that philosophically we understand that in all imitation two elements must co-exist, and not only co-exist, but must be perceived as coexisting. These two constituent elements are likeness and unlikeness, or sameness and difference, and in all genuine creations of art there must be a union of these disparities.”

‘The Last Few Days' 

Does Figurative mean resemblance or can it be representation? A portrait resembles the person but does the person resemble the painting? Can the copy theory of resemblance be sufficient? A photograph is not real or even like the subject, it is a photograph. When you look at an image, rather than a “window onto the world”, you are simultaneously attending to both the marked surface and what that surface represents. When looking at a painting I have to attend to both surface and subject to create mutual enhancement and meaning.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-220AD) said “credo quia absurdum est” - “I believe because it is absurd”, a remark later repeated by the existential thinker Kierkegaard (1813-55) who also said, “(truth) is an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness”. There is never a definitive answer, as noted by Giacometti. 

In my studio, I have pinned my favourite quote to keep me going, “The model could sit for a thousand years and I’m certain in a thousand years I’d say everything’s wrong, but I’m getting a little closer. There’s no reason to change the model, my only concern would be to focus more on the same subject and try to push it as far as possible, without worrying about the outcome. Because, whether it’s a failure or a success the truth is exactly the same. There’s only success in relation to failure. The more it fails the more it succeeds”

. . .  where there is no hope left, there is no fear, you are not left thinking is this right or wrong but just doing, conjoining within the experience. At the expense of sounding idealistic my goal is the impossibility of painting as you experience, drawing out the spirit of the subject, it is not just about yourself, it is what you bring to the activity.

Peter Clossick NEAC PPLG, 2019

This article was previously published in the Autumn 2019 NEAC Friends Newsletter. Discover the benefits of being a Friend of the New English Art Club here.

Find out more about Peter Clossick on his artist profile page where you will also find a selection of his original artwork for sale.