The breakdown of the boundaries between painting, sculpture, installation, drawing and animation, are at the essence of Andrew Bracey’s artistic practice, as he blurs the distinctions between what is expected and what is shown, through his work. As a visual artist and Fine Art lecturer at The University of Lincoln, Bracey’s work is intellectually provocative: dealing with Holy figures, the disregarded, and the overlooked, whilst it is at the same time visually fascinating: captivating through colours; shapes, and image saturation. As winner of The Nottingham Castle Open award for a solo show at Nottingham Castle in 2013, Bracey has been developing his ideas for the production of the exhibition (yet to be titled) which will open in autumn/winter 2014 at the ducal mansion on the hill.
The following interview took place over a number of weeks, which ultimately provides a unique insight into Bracey’s opinions and approaches, particularly in relation to viewing Velázquez’ Las Meninas.
HW: In 2013 you won The Nottingham Castle Open award for a solo show, which will be taking place at Nottingham Castle in autumn 2014. The entry responsible for your success, taken from your ReconFigure Paintings was a gouache on a lithograph reproduction of Paul Delarouche’s Execution of Lady Grey (fig.1) and a painting on top of a book illustration of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, blown-up to the size of the original and printed on vinyl (fig.2). Do you consider the work you entered to the Open to be appropriations of the work of Delarouche and Ingres, or are you signalling a type of homage to the artists and the traditions associated with their work? There seems to be a careful balance between testing the boundaries of the expected, and making viewers rethink their relationship to the subject matter on show (particularly the background of famous paintings, for example).
AB: I am interested in questioning the dominance of the focus on the person in figurative painting. Almost all interpretation of these paintings is about the figure, but when I look at paintings my eye wanders off and looks to other things; the hills in the background hold more interest to me than Mona Lisa’s smile. For the ReconFigure Paintings the question of who the painting is by is (almost) irrelevant and I am more concerned with what is left when the figure is replaced with the triangular pattern I paint on it; this could be to do with the background or the shape the figure occupies in the composition. I do not see my work as appropriating the artists/paintings I use, but I definitely use them as material and I am very conscious of what I am doing. Until recently I only painted on reproductions, as opposed to actual works, which created a distance between the original canvases and my own actions in the studio, something that gave me permission to paint on top of them. I guess it is a little bit like Magritte’s The Treachery of Images; this is not a Delarouche or an Ingres, but a page from a book or a print.
That all said the work was born from me re-evaluating my practice as a whole and recognising that the thing I am really interested in is painting, so this body of work is an attempt to make (the history of) painting the subject or focus for my own work, so in many ways the work I do is a homage to past painters, but I also go beyond my taste. Quite often I paint on top of pictures I do not like or on to the work of artists unfamiliar to me. I think perhaps I am trying to learn more about my discipline and the time it takes to paint my ‘parasite’ abstract element. It also gives me the time to look and to learn.
HW: I noticed that in the description of the ReconFigure Paintings on your website, it states: “Despite a consistency of rules that Bracey keeps to when painting, each work takes on its own unique character”. What rules do you employ, and why are they important to your practice?
AB: The rules are as follows:
- The chosen painting must have a significant focus on the figure in it.
- The original painting should not be too gestural/of pre 20th century.
- I will only paint over the figure, specifically flesh, jewellery and clothes and not anything being carried, such as swords, baskets or flowers.
- I will paint over the figure with triangles. Only the figure should be paint over and should be completely covered.
- The triangles should remain roughly the same size, irrespective of the size of the surface of the reproduced painting.
- The paintings should be painted on a reproduction of the original painting that is widely available, be it a postcard, museum print, catalogue page, poster etc.
- Each ReconFigure painting must be different from every previous one, in order to be an individual.
The rules aspect of it is a curious one; rules are something I often employ to give me a structure whilst painting, which is something I guess I need. I was a great ‘best of’ list compiler when I was a teenager so maybe it is caught up in this. I have talked at length with people in the studio about why I have rules when painting and I can be both rational and irrational about it. The truth is that the rules are more like recipes; I am not a great recipe follower when it comes to cooking, so add or take away ingredients and change quantities if I do follow them. Likewise with the painting, I have not strictly kept to the rules, I guess rule number one is the equivalent of the meat or essence of the dish and is always kept to, after that I have broken each rule except number 2 and (I hope) 7. So for example the Ingres painting you saw in Nottingham Open had areas of the original figure showing through where I did not put in triangles, thus breaking rule number 4.
HW: Are the rules ever displayed anywhere when you show your work?
AB: No, they are very much about helping me to set parameters in the studio for a body of work, not really for the interpretation of the work, I guess as I suggest above that they are very loose and not adhered to, I prefer the recipe analogy really, which I picked up from the painter, Bernard Frize.
HW: It is appealing to know they’re in the background, silently structuring your work. In a way your approach seems to mimic your interest in engaging viewers with new modes of interpretation and looking at both the painting process, and parts of paintings which may have been previously overlooked – a fact which may be enhanced through painting onto an original canvas, rather than a reproduction.
AB: I recently got the chance to work with The Madsen Bequest, a collection donated to York Art Gallery. I was able to paint over actual paintings (breaking rule number 6!), which has opened up all sorts of possibilities for the ReconFigure Paintings.
HW: I’m sure painting directly onto original canvas – part of a £2million bequest to York Museums Trust – would have thrown up a number of challenges and opened your work up to a new type of criticism or engagement. It seems striking that this commission was provocatively titled ‘Finding the Value’.
AB: It was a really fascinating project and threw up all sorts of ethical and moral issues for myself as an artist and for the gallery, such as: how the values of works are decided; the parameters of such a bequest, and what it means to paint over something by another artist. York Art Gallery was given the whole collection of Peter Madsen, which was vast and indiscriminate in many ways; old masters, alongside Japanese prints, and watercolours of orchids, alongside amateur paintings. The gallery then selected the pieces they wanted for their permanent collection, and then invited experts and Bonhams auctioneers to pick out items of artistic and financial worth. The bequest had no restrictions placed on what was to be done with it, so the gallery decided to offer what the remaining parts of the collection to artists, to use as material for their work.
This was both daunting and exhilarating as an artist and definitely made me think in a very different way to how I operated within a studio, despite the fact that my role of applying the triangles of painting to a given surface had not changed in any way. It made me far more conscious of ‘getting it right’ as I only had one chance to create a successful piece. In contrast, when I use reproductions I can always start again. I was very conscious of not letting the original works – and by extension the artists – ‘down’, and I was always mindful of validating the faith the gallery had placed in my capabilities. York Art Gallery was very supportive and worked hard on the educational and informational aspects of the resulting exhibition of the works. As a result, so far, there has not been any criticism that I am aware of. A friend of the reclusive Peter Madsen visited the show when I was in attendance, and he believed that Peter would have been appreciative and amused by what had been done.
HW: Building on the issues of originality and reproduction, I have interpreted your Transitory Painting (Christ Discovered in the Temple), 2011, (fig.2), as conveying the contrast between the supposed authority of the individual (highlighted through a Holy figure), and their eventual anonymity as they are mediated by multiple media sources and sensory experiences which destroy their true identity (in this case, multiple triangular component parts stripped of colour). The shapes cut through and destroy the reproduction print of the original artwork, whilst they simultaneously reconstruct a new image.
AB: I like your interpretation very much, as I had not really thought of the authority and eventual anonymity of the individual, more the authority of the figure in the reading of figurative painting. I do not believe I am doing this from my perspective as an artist, of course the viewer brings his or her own reading to an image, and that is the great thing about art. The idea of constructing something by taking away is very much caught up in these two bodies of work, whilst also being able to access (given our media age) or recall the part that is absent. I am interested in the prospect of looking harder at something, and using the idea of an agitation or prompt to do this through my own mark making aspect. I will have to think about the specifies of the individual more I think, I am genuinely not sure how interested I am in that side of painting, yet my Mother revels in biographical significance of the person.
HW: I suppose the removal – or rather replacement – of the identity of such an important Biblical figure such as the Holy Mother, implies that the supposed authority of the individual, or at least the iconography of the image, is constructed in the first place. As you say, this requires people to look, and think harder about what is being seen.
AB: Yes the power of really looking is perhaps my biggest drive as an artist. But I am still not so caught on the authority of the individual, mainly because in one painting I might be obliterating Jesus Christ or the Holy Mother, in another painting it might be a crowd of people that history no longer remembers. Who the figure is or who painted it less important to me than what it would be or mean to get rid of and replace the figure in terms of an image. Once I have done this, then I might (or might not) consider what the painting and the figures in it stood for in the original image.
HW: That may be so, but is it not true that painting over a picture of Jesus or the Holy Mother makes quite a bold statement about iconography and societal values...
AB: Yes, undoubtedly, but for me this is more about what the viewer brings to the work, than my role as an artist. I want to use a range of historical, figurative paintings including narrative painting, devotional, straight portraiture and so on for the works. If I was to discount religious paintings based on their iconography and societal values then, in my opinion, I would be being overtly discriminatory towards them. Or maybe it is because I was brought up as an atheist that I see the religious paintings as paintings first and subject second...
HW: As your work is tied into visual saturation, and the interpretation of how everyday life is mediated by the way in which we look at things, do you find there is a balance to strike between academic or creative approaches to producing artworks – or, rather – are there alternative inspirations to be drawn from working as a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at The University of Lincoln, compared to say your studio life at Suite Studio Group in Manchester?
AB: I try and merge the two worlds, I am blessed with teaching fine art, which is a course that bridges practice and theory, or the academic and creative as you put it. I believe in the marriage of the two and hope that my painting practice merges the two. For me though perhaps the best way of explaining my attitude to visual saturation and how we look is through walking. Despite being a culprit to occasionally walking hooked into the smartphone, I am more a believer in the drift attitude of the Situationists. I think that a way of experiencing the visual saturation is to take all that in, and then look the other way, or up, or crouching down, or through a camera, or lying on my back; all of which I do. I recently left Suite as I have moved to Lincolnshire, but most times I would do the same 20 minute walk from the bus stop to the studio and each time I saw new things. I respond well to this idea of seeing something more in something you think you know.
HW: That makes sense given that you choose to paint onto reproductions of paintings which are often familiar or famous works. Yet the idea of meandering and chance encounters does seem to stand in slight opposition to the idea of employing a set of rules, or having a system in place which acts as a starting point for your painting, as described above. Do you ever choose to paint based on something you have stumbled upon?
AB: Remember that the rules are loose – a bit like having the same walk that is different every time! With the ReconFigure Paintings the choice is pretty particular as to which paintings to use as source imagery. However the Transitory Paintings were far more random. Each of these started with a page from an auction catalogue, as I wanted to pick up on the fact that at auction paintings appear in the public for a short period of time before usually returning to private ownership, likely to be hidden from public view. The act of cutting out the triangles, leaving only a small skeleton-like structure in place, was trying to hint at the momentary nature of this process, and provide a glimpse of something otherwise concealed. The point I was getting to is that my choice of works here was only based on what would make an interesting shape by cutting out the figure. I had not heard of many of the artists that I used in this series and so in some ways this was using paintings I stumbled across in the catalogues.
HW: You’ve picked up on a fascinating point here – how seeing an artwork in the flesh reveals an unprecedented amount of information which is otherwise hidden through the reproduction (or event storage) of the work. I’m thinking particularly of colour and size distortion, here.
I know that you had planned a trip to Madrid to see Velázquez’ Las Meninas for exactly this reason; to reveal things about the painting which are otherwise invisible in reproductions. It seemed amusing to me at the time that you had a hierarchy of artists whose work you would paint over, for example Ingres’ or Delarouche’s works were fine, but you would never paint on top of a Velázquez! Did Madrid and Velázquez alter this opinion?
AB: Standing in front of Las Meninas made me decide to paint it. I was thinking what an absurd thing it was that I, on the one hand, say that it does not matter that I am painting over the past masters artworks as they are not the paintings, but reproductions; and then say I am not going to paint over Velázquez because he is too good! I had said that it was a bit flippant to say that I would not paint over him and so I have decided to do just that, with no less than his best painting. I hope it might make me see what is around the people in it a bit more...
HW: As mentioned previously, your aim is to reveal new images and meanings through the alteration of the surface of the work – something that still remains problematic in the reproduction of images in the first place. For example, searching for an image of Las Meninas on Google Image reveals numerous different shapes, sizes, colours, interpretations and reproductions of the work, and looking through various books would almost certainly reveal the same problem.
AB: That is so funny, I have just written about that very thing in an essay I am writing about Las Meninas. But yes I am intrigued about the difference of reproductions of paintings; I would love to do a show of thousands of Las Meninas! Every one would be different and yet be the same.
HW: I suppose we could be treading on Warhol territory here...
AB: Maybe yes, in the same but different aspect, though he created his own versions rather than using the readymade. There is a great piece by Francis Alÿs where he collected different devotional paintings of Fabiola and displayed them en-masse. I think it is this piece that stops me doing the Las Meninas idea, as apart from the reproduction part of the work, what would I be doing differently?
HW: Moving away from painting momentarily, there is a definite sense of capturing what may be missed, or easily passed by/overlooked within your work, and particularly a sense of the spaces between what are often deemed more important aspects of life/activities, i.e. the main character appearing on screen in a film, as opposed to a shot of an empty doorway. This is something you dealt with within Frames, 2007-09, (fig.4), where you selected ‘non-moments’ from films deemed culturally significant, and painted over the still on leader from 35mm film strips. Do the spaces between, or the ‘non-moments’ still hold significance within your current work?
AB: I guess I have started to answer this in the last question, but yes I am definitely interested in this idea of the non-moment or Marc Auge’s idea of the non-place [see Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (2009)], but also in what is passed over. For me, this is the background or the detail of the paintings, which is rarely focused on in interpretation by art historians, theorists or artists. Writers such as James Elkins and Daniel Arasse really appeal to me as they do focus on these in their analysis of paintings. I guess I get rid of the ‘star’ of paintings, just as I focused on the non-moments in films in ‘frames’.
HW: Or, you remove the authority of the individual (or narrative).
AB: I am interested in the wisdom of a crowd, how the collective of diverse people makes a better decision, than an individual expert about most things in life. Yes and the same with narrative, though I am far more interested in this, so in many ways I am doing the same thing with the current work related to historical figurative painting as I was with the work related to cinema.
HW: What are you trying to achieve by manipulating a narrative?
AB: I guess it is quite simple really. I am not trying to replace a narrative with another one. It is more about taking away the focus from the main narrative and attempting to bring in other aspects of concern, for both myself and an audience. My time as a projectionist has had a big impact on my approach to looking at, making, and curating art. It is a profession that can be easily romanticised; perhaps too many people have seen Cinema Paradiso. The projectionist has a unique and rather strange way of viewing films; peering through a scratched, dirty window, the big screen appears miniature from the booth. The clattering roar of the projectors drowns out any semblance of a soundtrack and the narrative becomes deeply fractured as you dart from projector to projector to change reels.
As the end of the reel approaches the projectionist forensically examines the film, keeping a watchful eye out for the cue-dots. These tiny, round scratches or holes appear in the right hand corner and tell the projectionist that they must start the motor of the machine and get ready for the ‘changeover’. As they only appear for one-sixth of a second, there is an enormous amount of attention focused on this point. Time slows down and the sense of heightened awareness overcomes the projectionist. When the next four frames of cue-dots appears, four seconds later, the projectionist switches over the projectors, creating a seamless continuation of the film.
When films were in celluloid form the projectionist would know (often forgettable) parts of a film in intimate detail because of the reel change and I was struck by how insignificant moments can become potent when they are removed from the narrative of a film. The more time that I spent in the cinema, the more its influence crept into my studio practice. So this process directly informed the work but also more widely my approach to other works and my interest in looking.
HW: There is clearly such a rich diversity to your work which showcases your willingness to explore multiple practices, tools and media. Without revealing all, what are you producing for your upcoming solo show at Nottingham Castle? Are you still dealing with making people re-think what they know through what they can see – or for highlighting overlooked moments?
AB: I see myself as a painter that does not always use a brush or paint, and rarely uses canvas, or an artist that paints and does other things too! For the show at Nottingham Castle I am working with the collection, both by making new ReconFigure Paintings and by curating my work alongside the collection. I hope that something might be revealed through the comparison between the original and my original (reworking). I am hoping that I might be able to work with paintings that are familiar to regular visitors to the castle and some that might not have been seen in a while, if ever. By this, I hope that new things will be seen in familiar paintings and unfamiliar paintings will be seen in the gallery. I am also filming myself painting in front of the paintings, I am not quite sure what this means yet, but it is defiantly caught up in this interest in looking. I hope to do something exciting with the presentation of my work and the selection from Nottingham Castle’s collection, though I am not sure quite what yet. I am ridiculously excited that Nottingham Castle owns a Dosso Dossi, who is an artist who deserves to be far more known as he is just consistently brilliant and a bit odd in his compositions.
HW: The re-contextualisation of familiar works owned by Nottingham Castle is undoubtedly important for offering alternative or continued engagement. In a similar manner, the film recordings will produce a greater degree of interrogation for the act of looking, but they will also highlight the painting and mark making process of your work. The film will reveal the differences between what could be seen (at the beginning) and what can be seen (at the end) – displaying image transformation in process.
AB: All of this will be true. It is also likely to be very boring! One thing I found fascinating when I was a gallery invigilator was that with moving image work visitors would either give this work a great deal more time to view than if it was in other medias or would dismiss it very quickly. What is it that has made it so rare to spend a half hour in front of a painting, whilst spending this time in front of a video is relatively common? The video will show the “interrogation for the act of looking” as you say, as both a record of me when I am making the work and then as a viewer watching the film.
HW: And this approach is all tied into the practices of looking embedded in society...
AB: Perhaps, maybe, I am not sure! I guess I am trying to work out a way of doing that.
Exhibition runs from 6 December 2014 - 18 January 2015 at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery.
Helen Wainwright is a PhD candidate in The Department of Art History at the University of Nottingham. The primary focus of her research is the intersection of photography, film, place and space, in 1970s New York City through the work of Stephen Shore, Anthony McCall and Gordon Matta Clark. At the time of this interview, Helen was employed as a freelance Publications Research Assistant for Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, during which time she also worked on publications by Dan Perfect, Fiona Rae and Christina Mackie.