Explorations > Keith Tyson in conversation with Beatrix Ruf

nature painting

Keith Tyson in conversation with Beatrix Ruf

Beatrix Ruf: So let’s start with the many different surfaces in these works. The Nature Paintings for instance, here you’re talking about liquids and solids and you have these layers…

Keith Tyson: Yes, the Nature Paintings are like a thin atmosphere on the surface of a metal sheet. They’re paintings by nature rather than of nature – because it’s just naturedoing what it does, instantly and across the whole surface. It’s physics, heat, air pressure and all the forces that are in those chemical reactions, but when you look at them afterwards, they have created a surface that mimics certain patterns that you see in nature. This is obvious because the same forces that make the natural world make the paintings. The layers are frozen halfway between a low and high entropy state. Initially, the paint is all ordered in the bottles and different containers but when you pour themonto this surface they become disordered and freeze in a liminal state between the two places. They can look quite extraordinary and for me they reflect something of what it is to be, not be anything in particular, but just to be. Like an existential mirror I suppose. A state of transition between the past and the future, between subject and object and everything else, all of these dualisms. Those surfaces are reflecting back the dynamics and conditions from which they emerge.

BR: That reminds me in a way of your early Art Machine works, where you had are rlationship towards composition that was externalised from the will of the author or the artist. The Nature Paintings in a way have more to do with this process of the Art Machine works, I wonder how did you get this new body of work from there?

KT: Well the Art Machine was never about an interest in computers or any of that stuff, and at the time I programmed it there was no Internet (well there was but it was only very simple and it wasn’t widely used). It was much more to do with the mechanisms at play that bring something into being. The world as a creative mechanism as it were. Since childhood I was fascinated with this idea. I tried to create a system that would filter out the thing that I thought was most mythological at the time – which was the idea of the independent will of the artist with their unique vision, you know? So I made this device that brought more of the world in and filtered more of the ego and personal preferences out. It was really just a philosophical experiment and it was never meant to be a conceptual device that I was going to do for the rest of my life like On Kawara. Then later on, when I was doing the Nature Paintings I began to see paint as a superabsorbent material with forces constantly acting upon it. This was a very liberating idea for me because there isn’t much difference between the force of gravity or the force of ideas or emotions – they both cause the paint to move and you still end up with this richly enfolded surface. I started thinking that paint always accurately betrays the conditions of its making. Then painting becomes about maintaining a certain attitude. A faith in emergence, whether working with the flow of liquids or the flow of ideas. So I set about the task of approaching it this way – with the idea of painting from the perspective of the paint – as a surface that absorbs what is around it, physical, emotional, political, conceptual – everything. Painting suddenly became much more open to me as a practice where before I’d struggled. Analogue paint is so exciting to work with and so versatile.

BR: Going back to the history of painting, what I thought was interesting in the studio was to see work that was everything basically from 15th Century Dutch Painting to early modernist collage techniques to Richter’s universe of using everything from abstraction to realism and photorealism to digital evocations of images…Why? It’s obviously the whole history of painting in there?

KT: It’s not that I set out to purposefully work in diverse styles for some kind of strategy. It’s more of a kind of inability to privilege any particular one. I see it as all part of this richness that’s emerged over time.  For me the history of painting is about the artist’s cosmology and technology at a

particular time, whether it’s religious in Michelangelo’s time, or whatever it is in our very complex and fragmented world today. The point is history is always descriptive and never prescriptive, one paints in the present so I don’t think about it that much. I’m aware of it of course, and it’s not to say that I don’t have a full toolbox of options available to me. You know – there are the stalwarts of painting – there’s the still life, there’s the portrait, there’s the landscape, the abstract and they all deal with particular things. When you look across all these new works however, although they jump from still life to this to that, style-to-style, they all have the same kind of complexity of surface – and that’s what I’m trying to get to, which is what I see when I look outside this window here, there’s just a richness of complexity going on, in the actual matter that’s out there. It’s being acted upon by radio waves, by forces of nature, by landscape gardening and politics. You just have to let it all emerge, so it’s a very subtle line between painting something and letting it be painted.

BR: Obviously there is a composition initiated which is not about subjectivity or process, but you have evocations of stems – things that look like this work, or that artist, so does that matter?

KT: Not really. You go to the studio every day and you’re going to create something, you make decisions based on intuition, poetics, influences and ideas etc, but most of your own process is actually out of your control anyway if you were to really meditate upon it.

BR: Is it post-Internet?

KT: I have absolutely no idea what that means [laughter]… When people talk about the Internet they talk about connectivity and this and that and the other, and it all seems very surface and slight to me -compared to the true interconnectivity that’s going on all the time in nature. It’s such a weird pantomime of what’s really there.

BR: Yes that’s true, it hasn’t developed into the full power you describe, but still it’s reality like, or it defines a new reality where everything is sort of available.

KT: Yeah, well everything’s collapsing, you know? It’s all folding in on itself. I feel that when I set out as a young, out-of-art-college artist, my stuff looked all over the place, unfocused and somewhat confused and as such it looked out of place with my peers who at least appeared much more sure of what they were doing. Maybe because of their Goldsmith’s training or something, or maybe they were just better artists, who knows? But it seems to me that society is exactly like that now, kind of all over the place. Everything’s user-led, there’s no consensus of what the particular movement is. You don’t even watch a television programme with the rest your population; instead you can go all over the world and pick what you want. But that’s not to say that there aren’t patterns, trends and histories that emerge, virally, from one thing to another. And I’ve got great faith that the evolution, if you can call it that, the evolution of human creativity that will all work with this new model, because it’s a model that mimics the way things really work. It’s effortless, it doesn’t need lots of energy to maintain it, it’s structures work. I think the hard part is maintaining the old structures. So much energy is required – when you see some politician still desperately trying to say he’s saving the economy by bailing it out, and you’re like, ‘No one’s controlling the economy, it runs its own dynamic’ And everybody sort of intuitively knows it too.

BR: For some of these paintings you used existing models of representation, existing paintings, and over painted them, over worked them, which in art history is something known in early modernism and it creates, it’s affecting the surface. And you’re not doing something to it that equalises the surface, you actually show the layers, you’re not equalling them out in the end. With the Nature Paintings there is one surface and although there is complexity there is just one surface, and when we talk about digital and analogue we’re not so much talking about the information itself but the surface that is being transported. A photograph is happening on very particular material, so there is a difference because the surface it’s happening on is defining the existence of it, and in the digital you always have surfaces that it’s happening on but it is only information. The other one is only information, but we only know it in that materialised form. I was wondering, in regards to these works

where do you place them in that transit or movement of thing between information, naturalisation, identification?

KT: I know what you mean, but to me it is all the same thing. There is no differentiation really between those two models. For instance the electron is a mathematical entity, it’s a probability field. So called material plates that happened before ‘digital’ were essentially digital in that sense. Conversely it’s impossible to depict a digital image without an analogue representation, even if it’s a screen. You can’t repeat a digital print. It’s Duchamp’s infrathin difference between similar things.  Human beings have an idea of non-materiality, of information separate from the physical universe in some way, ideal, digital, abstract… that we exist in this physical world on a temporal stage. For instance, it’s half past two and we’re in a room now discussing my work as if at half past two we could be somewhere else, we could be on Brighton Pier now having fish and chips but you see we couldn’t, because half past two IS us in this room at this time. Time, space, digital, matter- they’re all one thing. David Bohm said that not only does everything change, it actually IS flux. It is what is becoming itself and all the specifics, events, entities, objects and dimensions are abstractions derived from that process. This isn’t to say that the ‘digital’ isn’t having an effect on the way artists work, of course it is. I think that the analogue surface, the paint or ink itself is just acted upon by these new technologies, by all the things that you’ve mentioned- the digital realm, the internet, the information, and it isn’t a challenge to that surface at all, it’s an excitement of that surface! It excites the surface and allows it to become all kinds of new things but I don’t think that there’s a philosophical difference between those models. As for scraping over existing works, sometimes its much more simple. In that little Panta Rhei painting where I have painted boats over an old sailing scene, two artists and two events that occurred a century apart have been woven together into a single surface, like a wave interference pattern… I simply find that poetic.

BR: So talk about the frames, they are not neutral frames, the carry a lot of information and association. Signifying that the object is not a neutral object.

KT: When I used to work on Studio Wall Drawings; I worked with really three elements, which were a pictorial element, a textual element and a frame. There tends to be, as you pointed out, a lot of diversity in what I do so I have to have some kind of container that prevents slippage from one work to another work. The frame allows one to say, ‘this is the area that I’m working on.’ A lot of my work in the past has also been modular, in that one work might be 100 paintings or 300 sculptures, and I’ve worked in series a lot. I’m trying now to condense that, to get down to single works and try to get that modular idea of difference and infinity, possibility and probability onto a single surface. So it became very important that they were framed and I picked traditional frames. It’s just because the world happens to find no frame and the word ‘untitled’ neutral at the moment, but they’re just conventions like the old frame is.

BR: And there’s no irony?

KT: I don’t like irony in art. No, I’m not being ironic.

BR: Really? I’m just wondering. I still wonder. My impression, very strongly, is that there are obviously many taboos in there, and they used to be taboos and they’re not anymore.

KT: What taboos? Painting flowers?

BR: Painting flowers with titles on them. All that kind of tabooed elements. Historical elements. Which I find, and not with the Internet as a machine, but with the access to information and the presence of things together all the time kind of swiped away this taboo. So, taste-less, style-less similarities are totally accepted now.

KT: Why did flower painting become taboo? It was seen as bourgeois, originally. It was seen as pleasing, decorative. All these things that it was supposed to be… it’s kind of the opposite now. If you want to sell something tasteful I guess you make it out of neon. Make it be about some charged political issue or something and send it to an art fair. Is this so different to the old salons?

When I’m painting some flowers, I’m not painting them because I’m trying to say, ‘Oh, you know… art history. Wink. Wink.’ I was actually thinking about the correlation between species of flowers and the species of brushstrokes. A bouquet of paint, memory and history. But I’m not particularly interested in art history as a creative focus as I said earlier; my art isn’t ‘about’ art, neither is it ‘about’ science. They’re fascinating ways to explore the world but what I’m creatively interested in is nature. And that includes the cities, ourselves and the full, rich diversity of everything that’s emerged. That’s the stuff I’m really interested in. These are just languages that can be used and played with and, you know, it’s not so serious. Playful yes, but never ironic. And, you’re right, it’s all much more democratic, disparate now. Rhizomic to use a phrase that is probably out-of-date now…

BR: Out-of-date. Totally out-of-date. [laughter]

KT: Totally out-of-date! Ah well, that’s how it goes I guess.

BR: But, I think that it is interesting to talk about. That kind of de-tabooed surface, similarity of, like simulacrumicity of things that is creating, it’s creating a surface, and a different experience of how we read the relationship of things and I think that is something that is happening in those paintings as well.

KT: The diversity in my work isn’t there because I’m fighting for diversity. It’s always naturally been that way because I can’t see one thing as like…the answer. You talked about taste and taboo and so on. I just never… maybe I’ve got some mild form of cultural Asperger’s or something, but I just can’t function that way. I don’t see it, I don’t have that sort of functioning. I want to paint some flowers, and next I want to paint a map, because I look at that and I’m amazed at what was necessary for it to turn out the way it turned out. On a political map many people died to make that yellow section next to the red on those political boundaries. There’s lots of frontiers in the work, between the edges of chemicals, between images, between ideas. And the art, for me, is to try to maintain that without collapsing it down to a solution. So that something complex emerges. And then when it does, it’s got a ‘rightness’ about it. Don’t ask me to explain this rightness because I can’t. A particular work might look comical and ironic or something, it doesn’t mean it is. The outcome doesn’t always equate to the intention.

BR: Let’s talk about decision-making. Because obviously there is decision-making in initiating the process and then something occurred from it. It seems to be more decision making involved here than in the Nature Paintings or Art Machine, to decide to make a flower bouquet or a map or a cityscape or a fantastic garbage bag or a sci-fi painting. So…

KT: Infinite possibilities and specific decisions. Well how does that operate? The painting The 2nd Law (Mythic Dad) for instance is a meditation on entropy and emptiness. That’s why I chose the bin bags and imagery I did but I have no authority over what it means for you. It’s hard for me to say how I made the decision, it was a process. I know that I do find it quite hard to make such decisions, and yet I’m making them every day.

BR: Your show always includes many other shows. So it’s temporary, like a photographic moment of a decision.

KT: Yes. I’ve always had a difficulty with exhibitions. It’s something to do with what happens in the studio being very dynamic, experimental and fluid. Then comes an exhibition and you’re supposed to present a snapshot and say ‘Boof. Here I am.’ That’s where you have to make the difficult decisions because, before then, everything’s always in transition. That’s part of the reason I’ve painted over other works, painted over my own older works because everything is in flow. Everything is deteriorating, moving, in flux, and so on. Even though these are the decisions that have been made, they’re always open to change in that way. I’ve never been a big one for meanings. You know, I think meaning is experience. In painting… there’s something quite essential about it. It’s moving ground rocks around, basically; rocks in solutions around a surface. And it’s a dance, it’s a movement and a movement always requires energy and energy is in fact, liberated matter. There’s this very enfolded order going on. There’s a painting of dancers in the show that relates to this called The Orbits of Heavenly Bodies. David Bohm, the scientist, talked about the implicit order of the universe, that things that look disordered in fact have an enfolded order to them. The art of painting this is not to try to; it’s a kind of paradox. I don’t really know what I’m doing – and that’s a good thing. I think it’s really bad if you are too sure of what you’re doing.

BR: Yes. I totally agree. So how do you deal with the solid and the liquid in the actual act and fact of the show?

KT: Badly. I struggle with it, changing titles and moving things around till the last minute and then thinking different combinations would work better but I guess that’s like any sort of creative composition, you’re evolving it all the time- refining it, refining it, refining it. The aim for me is to express something. I know that’s a loaded word. But I mean it in the true meaning of expression as an outpouring. It’s more of a channel, because when I feel that the dynamics of the world are flowing freely through the work, then I think the work’s good. I feel it resonates with something that I find beautiful in the world. Settling in between conceptual and physical, between abstract and figurative, all these different things and it just sits well with it… and that’s why the show is called PANTA RHEI: Everything flows. That’s just it, the work flows. There’s a great interview with Richard Feynman when he’s talking about what’s going through an empty room: the radio waves, the light, the sound and so on. That’s all happening and the whole universe is coming to bear on you, on everything.

BR: That’s quite frightening.

KT: Well! I used to find that frightening. I find it really quite extraordinary and beautiful now. Well, that’s after a lot of therapy [laughter]

BR: Language always plays a very important role in your work… and language seems to almost travel to imagery here. And, can I talk about poetry?

KT: Poetry? Please.

BR: In that relationship too…

KT: Yeah. I think poetry is the most elegant and economic of written expressions. You take a novel, it’s got all these characters, and extra stuff; I often find novels tedious. All that plot. And then, you get down to the essays, and then there’s poetry. Poetry and painting, they’re very closely aligned in that way; because there’s an immediacy to them. It’s about as reduced as you can possibly get, to a haiku. There’s a lot of languages and layering of languages in these paintings, painterly languages, mathematical, emotional, textual. That’s the life I enjoy, this great collision of languages and the patterns of interference between them all. The Studio Wall Drawings were always a cross between a poem and a drawing, I liked that form. For the last couple of years it’s all been a process of reducing for me, I’ve tried to condense things down into a surface to get that poetic language to resonate. To begin I made lots of matrix paintings, and they were mainly terrible. I don’t know how you judge that, but I thought they were anyway… I wanted to build a language with the allusions that you would have in poetry. The great thing about language is that it’s so open to interpretation and in that slippage something can occur which is magical.

BR: Is there a poetry in the exhibition as a whole? We talked about re-organising, the syntax or opening up the rules of grammar in the decision of which works go together in this show. Can you read a poem there, actually?

KT: I think there is. And it’s a poem about movement. There you go. It’s about movement. Movement of paint; movement of history; movement of intention; movement of lives; movement of all that and when I look at them all, these particular paintings, that’s how they’ve been selected, they all have the same complexity of surface. That it holds, it’s like a sponge absorbing the liquid that it exists in. So, with the maps, it’s political histories, abstractions and you can see hints of other painters, global stuff, Photoshop, digital manipulations, and colour and that’s all going on to make that painting be the way it is. And you go to the next work, and it’s got a whole different set of histories. Yet, there’s still something self-similar about them all. And it is this they share, their absorbent nature; that they’ve absorbed things. The flowers might have absorbed totally different influences to the bin bags; but they’re both absorbent and therefore part of the same group… Does that make any sense? I’m trying to explain something that was never really intended to be explained if I’m perfectly honest.

BR: Who’s your favourite poet?

KT: Favourite poet? That’s like saying, “Who’s your favourite artist?”

BR: That was the second question… [Laughter]

KT: [Laughter] Oh I see! Well there are many. I like poetry. I like music. I like art. I guess I’m just an omnivore.

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