British contemporary artist Paul Neale was born when the Cold War was hot. JJ Marsh asks him about red lines and coded environments, fractured figures and distorted bodies.
All images courtesy Paul Neale.
What do ‘Borders’ mean to you?
A defunct chain of bookshops, quite good I thought.
The imperial response, redivisioning other people’s territory for mostly financial gain and resource acquisition.
Nationalism. Brexit. The Mason Dixon Line, The Maginot Line, The Great Wall of China.
Borders are entities to cross without permission, should you consider you need any. The current crop of wars are redefining so many borders at the moment: physical, ideological, religious, political, media but mostly by the point of a gun, the drop of a bomb, the amputation of a child’s limb. The break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia is another example.
Borderline, something to be crossed or not.
Borderline psychotic borderline insane borderline schizophrenic borderline nuts live or die pass or fail do or don’t do
Borderlands ill defined unpoliced anarchic, rusting coils of barbed wire, radioactive and risky.
The Thin Red Line.
That’s curious. The concept of a ‘red line’ in German is the central argument, the core that holds the whole together. But perhaps that’s what a border is. It’s a theme I wanted to explore with such an artist. You frame or reframe subjects in your work to create an unusual angle of observation. How did such a style develop?
First, I do not think I have a style, at least I didn’t set out to create one. A few years ago after making a whole bunch of drawings for a show, I discovered that my eyes had gone funny and nothing was in focus anymore, so I got glasses and started buying second hand cameras.
Although I purposely set out to work with a predefined set of imagery and transform it into something new, I was not sure how anything would turn out. It was terra incognita for me. Later on I started to work with certain ‘looks’, visual tropes.
I worked by instinct to begin with. Working with pre-existing imagery, changing, using the strategies of collage and appropriation, chance, control, choice, no choice, and so on seemed to be the way. Plus you cut out all judgements of craft/technique. The viewer is, as you say, complicit. It was and remains a way to think about the coded visual environment.
It does seem to me, however, that I am sharing something rather than hitting people over the head with statement imagery.
Agreed. It’s very subtle and yet some of your pieces evoke Picasso’s fractured figures or Bacon’s distorted bodies, immediately striking and visceral, even if the viewer can’t say why. How far is this an attempt to crack open the façade of what beauty actually means?
I sort of use a fixed vocabulary of images. Models on covers, the fit, the bronzed and airbrushed, the post-produced and ready for printing and distribution. Luxury items. Heavy metal. Kind of identikit really, I just move the elements around.
There is a sense of a lens. Sometimes scratched, sometimes out-of-focus but always a reminder that one is a watcher. Much like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, you make the observer complicit and aware of that complicity/responsibility. Would you agree?
It is because I often use an image from a magazine of some kind. We all know how they must have got there, right? So that sense is already part of the viewer’s expectation. What the complicity you mention may be is a sense of the viewer as witness after the event. Any complicity is due to iconographic familiarity. (I can’t believe I just said that.)
I can. How far is your art influenced by where you live? Or do other factors dominate the creative process?
Yes. And. No. Certainly I could use material from say French or Japanese mass-market publications. Having said that, where I live has great museums and libraries. The region has some great arts organisations. There are groups of artists who have set up their own thing, like Aid and Abet or Art Language Location. There is Kettle’s Yard. They continue to do great shows of emerging and established artists.
When your well of inspiration is empty, where do you go, what do you read, whose work do you study? How do you replenish your resources?
Well I am flattered that you think I even have a well to dip into, let alone run dry.
I keep notebooks religiously. I keep a diary. I draw a lot and take photos every single day, I am pretty obsessive. I am not too worried if I am not inundated by mind-blowing ideas twenty-four hours a day. I can’t pretend that my work makes that much difference to anyone except myself. I write as a way of sorting my ideas out.
That sounds familiar. So many artists, authors and creatives I’ve interviewed have endless scraps of ideas knocking about which ‘might come in handy one day’. Who, in your view, are the most exciting artists on the scene today?
Interesting word, exciting …
The Art Market has brought to the fore a whole bunch of fantastic artists and also an even bigger bunch of crap ones. So let’s ignore that. Transition Gallery and Workplace Gallery are good. Galleries pop up all the time.
My favourite artist at the moment is Corinna Spencer, also David Kefford. Paul Muse had a good visual diary. Of the big fish Nan Golding and Steve McQueen, an Oscar and Turner winner. Anybody working in expanded drawing or painting has my vote. Andrew Cross and David Cotterrell are both independent visual thinkers with international reputations. Once I find an artist I can relate to in some way, I tend to keep tabs on them. I am a bit of a fan really. William Kentridge!
In Switzerland you have Fischli and Weiss, and Pipilotti Rist, but I do not know any of anyone in the emergent scene there.
I hesitate to say who has influenced me, German artists mainly. When I was doing my M.A., I was all about the Vietnam War, Robert Mapplethorpe and Oliviero Toscani the Benetton guy, who did the AIDS and starving kids. Powerful. These days I’m hard pressed to say IF I am directly influenced by anyone or not. I look at a lot of art but I am pretty detached really.
Why do you make art?
A way of communicating through my shyness and lack of confidence in activities that others find easy. I find as I get older that it is easier to focus on the work itself, but the rest of how I cope is sometimes a bit iffy. Recently, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I have had quite a bit of ‘therapy’ as the Americans say. I feel better now.
Lately I have been working with reflective surfaces, steel and aluminium. There is a certain type of phone box, K 100 I think, which has a blank metal or aluminium back. It reflects just enough of the local area to make things interesting. There are not many of these phone boxes so when I find one it is quite an event. Anyhow I have got better things to do with my time than hunt down mystery phone boxes so I ordered some aluminium sheets and I’ll be using them to make landscapes and self-portraits. I spend a lot of time, it seems, just trudging around shooting stuff.
And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
I would say that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one that I can read and reread and always find something new to laugh at or admire.
“Get away from me you deranged trollop!” is a typical utterance from Ignatius, and one I have used on many occasions whenever strange girls have made a grab for me or even offered to buy me a drink. I like the character because he is comical, but if you have any idea about mental illness you soon realise the story is rather tragic, dealing as it does with failure and breakdown. He is also surrounded by some of the greatest comic creations to have had a supporting role in a book. Ignatius J. Reilly is also hard to act and hard to illustrate. It is fantastically written with a sublime feeling for New Orleans voices, vernacular and cadences. Unfortunately, the author killed himself. It was his only book. I believe it was published after his death. It is a classic. An epic.
Paul is launching Airburst magazine mid-2016.