We Spoke To David Batchelor Ahead Of His Matt’s Gallery Opening
I arrive at the newly relocated Matt’s Gallery in Bermondsey to find David Batchelor sitting outside on the curb, mid way through lunch. There isn’t even the mildest hint of anxiety as he explains, between bites of a sandwich, that he has just decided to abandon what he’d originally planned for the installation, and instead take a radically different direction, all with less than three days until the show opens. Inside, the space is undergoing a frantic transformation. We stand over a palette piled with discarded drawings, which were originally going to be the main focus of the show, but not any more, “I just didn’t feel comfortable with how they looked”.
Batchelor’s an artist for whom colour is of central importance. A brief look at his bibliography confirms as much; “Found Monochromes”, “Electric Colour Picture” and “Chromophobia” all, as their names suggest, explore our perception of colour. So too his imposing ‘Magic Hour’ neon installation at the Hayward’s 2014 Light Show, which echoed the light spectrum of a city at night. So what does it all mean? We spoke to him to find out.
Finn Blythe: So none of these drawings are being hung anymore?
David Batchelor: I mean they’ll all find a use somewhere down the line but just not here. At one stage they were going to be the main part of the show – in fact until yesterday afternoon.
FB: What didn’t feel right?
DB: Well, until you get the work to the gallery you never know what it’s going to look like. That’s a sort of given of any show, you have to respond to what happens in the space. I had this image of what it was all going to all look like, with these 120 drawings all pinned to the wall like a school project. I’ve done that before and been very happy with it, but I did it this time and it just didn’t seem to do anything that I hadn’t seen before.
FB: So how do you see the connection between the drawings, the sculptures and the wall drawing?
DB: What they all have in common is a black silhouette form in the middle with spray paint behind it, so it’s like a kind of silhouette with a toxic colour spilling out from behind. The wall drawings are the same principle but on a much larger scale, and the free standing sculptures were meant to have colour behind them, somehow, I’m not sure how…So they’ve all got this central black motif, with colour behind them. That derives from a work I made about ten years ago, shown at the Hayward Gallery.
FB: Magic Hour?
DB: Exactly, and what seemed to me to be interesting about Magic Hour was that it was the first time I’d really combined colour with darkness. That’s what you get in the city, that strange relationship between vivid colour and night time, whereas in nature obviously, all the best colours are in daylight.
FB: So what is it about your relationship with London? Or is it just something about an urban space?
DB: I mean I guess it’s both because I know London and I know bits of London that mean a lot to me, particularly around where I live, near Brick Lane. But I also find that if I go to Brazil to Sao Paolo, it’s different, obviously, in many ways, but there’s something about very large cities, they are more alike each other than they are like small towns in their own country. Big cities always have something in common with each other, even though they always also have their own unique elements, but I always feel comfortable when I’m in a big city
FB: Does the same apply to somewhere like Tehran, which is somewhere I know you had recent show?
DB: Same thing, I absolutely loved it. And whereas I have Brick Lane and the area around East London where all the old salvage places are where I can get materials from, in Tehran you’ve got the Grand Bazaar, which is different in many ways, but it’s also the same. It throws up stuff that I just love, significantly different stuff from London but never the less, it generates materials and ideas all the time.
FB: Interesting that you mention this idea of salvaging material, which I know is a prominent part of your works, I’m thinking particularly about ‘i love kings cross and king’s cross loves me’. What is it about re-animating used materials, what does it give your work?
DB: Well the ‘i love kings cross’ is my love letter to where I used to live in London when I first moved here in the 80s. I think what those found materials do, is they give you a starting point and they also save you from your good taste as well. The thing about found materials, like those old dollies and the lightboxes, is they precede you and your judgements, they give you something you then have to adapt to.
FB: So was there anything specific about those dollies that you felt connected to Kings Cross and that area?
DB: It was actually more accidental than that, I found an old dolly at Kings Cross and I was making these other rather bad sculptures at the time and I thought I need a big dolly to move my muscular sculptures around, and in the end I ended up throwing out the sculptures and keeping the dolly. At some point I was looking for a horizontal plane on which to put vivid colour, and I had no idea what to do, and I painted a piece of plastic bright red and I put it down on this dolly simply to dry and it sort of…fitted the dolly. So it was a studio accident. They’re also so ubiquitous, these old flatbed dollies, they’re everywhere, if you’re not looking for them you don’t notice them, but if you are looking for them then the back of every McDonalds is a treasure trove.
FB: Well that’s a bit like your work found monochromes, in a sense.
DB: It’s very much like found monochromes.
FB: I couldn’t help seeing my own monochromes everywhere in London after seeing your work. You’ve talked about black and it’s relationship with the city, but what about white?
DB: For me what’s intriguing about them is the city is sort of completely saturated with imagery of one kind or another, and these white panels are like errors in the visual field. They’re like voids that shouldn’t really be there, and they look out of place because there’s nothing there. We’re so used to the city being an environment so aggressively full of information and imagery, so I rather like these little heroic moments of resistance to the flow of the city
FB: As fas as these paintings are concerned, what can you tell me about the process that goes into each one? What determines the shape of these black silhouettes and what is your interest in graph paper?
DB: Ahh, my first love. Well first of all graph paper is something a lot of artists used in the 1960s as a way of avoiding fine art paper.
FB: So was it a rebellious thing in the 1960s?
DB: I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t the most rebellious part of the 1960’s, but I think it was a way of using paper that wasn’t associated with fine art. It’s everyday stuff, and I still like that about graph paper. Most of the forms I use are very simple, they’re rectangular or triangles or circles, or combinations thereof. One of the reasons for that, I released, is if the subject of the work is colour and you want people to look at the colour and reflect on it, the more complicated the form the more it distracts from the colour. So in a way colour based work, my colour based work, needs pretty simple forms.
FB: Am I right in believing you originally trained to be a painter?
DB: Yeah, I refrain from using that term though because if you went to art school you didn’t train for fucking anything, you hung around and did a few paintings but there was no training. Before you went to art school, you assume that art was painting so you’d be a painter, and then you get there and you suddenly realises that this world is more complex, more varied, more strange and confusing than you thought, and in a way everything sort of unravels and turns to dust in your hands.
FB: Is it true you never use a paintbrush?
DB: I gave up making paintings when I was art school and then I tried again when I left art school and I gave up again, and I just felt that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make a painting that had an interesting enough relationship with the world, having said that everything I make refers to colour and if you’re working with colour in art you’re sort of working with the history of painting. So I was never far away from painting but I never made a painting for thirty years…until 2011 when I’d been making a lot of smaller pieces on card, I poured some liquid paint onto the card and juggled it around a bit and drew a base at the bottom and it looked kind of like a sculpture
FB: Of course, that was ‘Flatlands’ right?
DB: Yeah, that’s right.
FB: Interesting that in ‘Flatlands’ you use black as a kind of pedestal, it’s a support
DB: It is in some of the drawings too but not in others. So in the drawings sometimes the black is the pedestal, sometimes it’s a void and sometimes it’s the form itself.
FB: But always shown in contrast and surrounded by colour?
DB: And white, there’s more black and white in my work than anything else, but it’s always seen as about colour. You don’t have to have much colour in a work to make it about colour, I’ve noticed. In fact some of the works are about using as little colour as possible and it still being the subject of the work.
FB: I have to talk about these wall drawings because I think I’m right in saying you’re never done a drawing on that scale?
DB: No, never. It’s hard man, it’s fucking hard…up the ladder, down the ladder, fuuck, it’s a young man’s game.
FB: Sounds intense, do you feel the works have changed at all at that scale?
DB: I honestly don’t know, I’m sort of still working it out. It can take you years before you fully work out what it is that you’ve done, and why it does and doesn’t work, that’s an old person’s game. Something like Magic Hour, which I made in 2004 originally, it was only several years later that I understood why I kept going back to it, and that takes a while to figure out and that sometimes means your work is smarter than you are. Placing the sculptures in front of the drawings, that only happened yesterday, but it was trying to make the sculptures and drawings work together as one thing, and they mutually interrupt each other I think. Again, the experience of the city, a place where everything is always competing, and you never see the whole thing somehow, you always see an aspect or a façade, or a side, or a flash of something, and I like that quality where you can’t quite work out what it is you’re looking at.
Psychogeomtry is on at Matt’s Gallery from 26th April to 11th June 2017