JF Payne | Grease, Glass and Light
(A portrait of a scanner bed)
JF Payne is an Australian artist living in London. His practice is rooted in the traditions of painting and experimental film making, and aims towards the formal development of painting incorporating technology. JF has a longstanding interest in the ambiance of the everyday, discarded and invisible objects. He works with painting, sculpture, casting, photography and digital animation.
JF Payne in conversation with Dominika Kieruzel
Edited by Daniel Corrick
We just came back from a walk in Erith Marshes, a spectacular place, especially in the evening, as it is unusually dark for London, it’s also unusually solitary, except for horses. Talking about time and art I was reminded of the first work I’ve ever seen by JF Payne – ‘Untitled Cast’. It consisted of a thick layer of paint that had been peeled off the canvas and hung on the bare stretchers.
What was your thinking behind ‘Cast’?
It came from an accident, it was a moment I realised something important about painting. I had a painting made from shellac, and shellac is a really interesting substance, because it reactivates when it gets too hot. I worked at this painting using enamels and resins and some house paints and all sorts of things. I spent quite a long time working on it. That was back in Australia, it was blistering hot, I left the painting for a day or two and the paint just slid right off the canvas and onto the floor. I had this big lump of paint built up on the floor. I think people sometimes think that everything about painting happens in an instant, when you’re with the painting. When the viewer encounters it, it’s just this instantaneous pop. I think it’s not always the case, a really great painting happens very slowly and it affects your eye very slowly. I think the key ingredient to painting is time. Dealing with time is what painting shares with sculptural form or even the cinematic form. This was where my thinking about ‘Untitled Cast’ started.
Are you talking about looking at it or making it?
I think both, and I think a lot of people reject a certain type of painting just because it doesn’t necessarily pop out at you, and you have to spend a bit of time looking at it before it can affect you. Back in Melbourne there was an abstract work of Gerhart Richter in NGV. For me it’s one of the best paintings I’ve seen of Richter’s. For years I have gone past this painting and totally ignored it. I thought it was ugly and unlovable… and messy. One day I was bored with my own taste and so I thought I’d go and look at it, try to see what the whole hype about Richter is about. I must have gone back to see this painting hundreds of times since then, every time I noticed something different about it, some new element, different mark that he’d make or some different consistency of the paint. It made me realise that if you can delay gratification and let your eye do what it does, you start to really see what is in front of you. It takes a long time to be able to see what’s great about a lot of paintings. Especially today, because nobody really knows what makes a good painting anymore, I think. A lot of painting culture, a lot formal development of painting got lost to modernism and then got further degraded in postmodernism. If you don’t pass those traditions on, they get lost. Granted there probably are a lot of painters, who are very skilled, probably as skilled as some of these Renaissance painters, or Romantic painters or Impressionist painters. There’d be lots of people who could reproduce one of those paintings. But in terms of formal and technical innovation it’s different. This is in particular the area that I am interested in. Not through rejecting photography and digital form, but through incorporating it. In this respect I think that Richter was one of the last painting masters, in a traditional sense – contemporary and innovative.
We are talking a lot about painting, but would you say it is at the core of your work?
I actually studied drawing, just because there was plenty more freedom in drawing department at my university. I am a painter though; I see most things through the lens of painting. That expands into what I’m doing with photography or what I’m doing with animation, or what I’m doing with scans. The visual language of painting is definitely the core of my work. It has a history that goes across cultures and civilisations. Photography is limited in that sense. I’m not trying to put the form down, but it certainly doesn’t have the expanded vocabulary that painting does.
As we entered a dirt path in the Marshes, hit by cool air, darkness and silence, we saw a dim reflection of the sky in the puddles on the ground. You said this could not be photographed, but it could be painted.
In the right hands, with the right lenses, someone could probably shoot a fantastic picture. But there’s something that painting does; it’s not just instant depiction. Someone like Turner, he’s giving you something of the atmosphere. When I’m looking at some of the Turner’s seascapes, his sunsets, I can feel the air, I can feel the warmth of the sun, I can feel all these things that are intangible. The painter tries to get something of that. They do it without the image moving. Film can do that sort of thing, but it needs sound.
Tell me about ‘Grease, glass and light’
It started because I was trying to make an animation of some footage that I had and I set the scanner on automatic to scan one part of the flatbed repeatedly. I had to try to slow down a minute’s worth of footage so that it was slow enough to be scanned frame by frame. I couldn’t get it to work because the footage needed to be slowed down to 25 hours and so the file was enormous. I wanted to mark the screen with cooking oil and detergent, and I wanted to capture the footage and all the things happening between the flatbed scanner and the monitor, all the fingerprints and smudges and hair and things like that. And I could never quite get it to work, but I left the scanner on, to just keep scanning and I turned off the monitor and I went out for a cigarette. I left it for a couple of hours, I came back and I had about 80 or 90 pictures. I put them away on a hard drive and I forgotten about them and one day you were going through your files and you found them. And you saw something in them that I didn’t see. And then because you could see them I could start to see them. I could see that there was something very interesting about these images.
I was moved when I saw them, I’d been reading a lot about quantum physics, time and gravity. For me those works touched that place, the question of how we come to terms with the fact that we are human and that the world around, on micro and macro scales may be just so different. On one hand you have the image that seems like pure matter, a kind of space landscape, a cold, certainly non-human environment. On the other hand you have the smudges, marks of movement and greasy fingerprints – something of an abject proximity. Those two scales are united. Here is also simplicity, grease, glass and light, you know what you are looking at exactly. You don’t really need to switch between seeing it as marked glass and seeing it as a landscape. A special thing about those scans is that their many dimensions can be seen at once, they have certain unity.
When I try to score the glass on the scanner, I always want it to look as if it’s completely random, as if it’s been dragged along in the dirt or dragged along a gravely road and these marks are just arbitrary. But then you can never make an arbitrary mark. It has to be a little bit of both, because chance intervenes.
What’s the role of chance in your work?
I think chance is a sign of freedom, I think it shows you the world isn’t deterministic, that you have free will. G.K. Chesterton apparently said that God needs a surprise, that’s why people have free will. I like this idea because it makes God an artist.
Tell me about animation.
I think it’s always a game between chance and continuity.
Title: 'Grease glass and light', that’s a reference to Turner?
Yes, ‘Rain, Wind and Steam’. When I first got to England Turner was the most exciting thing that I saw. The most exciting painting that I saw. Tate Britain is really wonderful because there is a whole section dedicated to Turner. You can go and look at Turner paintings and nobody bothers you. It’s this quiet, slow experience of looking.
My favourite paintings of Turner are about atmosphere, he’s trying to articulate everything that his eye can see and he’s trying to incorporate something of the experience of landscape.
He was also one of the first great painters of the Industrial Revolution and locomotion. Seeing how the machine mingles with the organic, how jointly they create atmosphere – this is where my work relates to that of Turners… Turner really was the painter of the modern world, the beginnings of the modern world. I’m not in league with him. I feel like at the moment we’re really at the dawn of a new digital art era and I think one of the problems I have with it, is that it’s become iconoclastic. People think that what’s happening now is all there is, all that we should pay attention to in contemporary art. I like the idea of trying to use digital technology in a way that looks back and doesn’t throw out things that are really great about art, like the sublime, which Turner was all about. I think it’s really important to find something of the sublime in the machinery. So I don’t like clean digital images, I like the idea of the equipment I’m using being marked by the atmosphere. I like the idea of this mechanism for capturing an image, being faulty, like a human eye, like a person is faulty.
Tell me about the importance of objects in your work. You tend to use whatever is readily accessible – like cooking oil, discarded objects found on the streets or on local walks, pieces of food…
Yeah, but all of those things have their own aesthetics: the cooking oil, the detergent, the soap, the honey, the pineapple, the scanner. They all produce an ambient effect. When you make an artwork you essentialise its form. I like the idea of things having an essence. Some ungraspable essence. Something that sort of sits out of you, that is withdrawn and you can maybe glimpse it, that thing in itself. I think that when you put these objects on the scanner bed, it may be childish, but you see them in a different way. You know when you’re just painfully excited about everything? If anyone was actually able to see what I was doing most of the time I think it would be endlessly funny for them. I’m sitting there with a lighter and a magnifying glass and a bit of an orange, or I’m covering the scanner bed in honey, and it’s just stupid fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good. There needs to be a place for stupid fun. Not all the time, but in art, there needs to be stupid fun. Cause it’s all so ridiculous, if someone was watching me doing this stuff I think they would either be baffled or pissing themselves laughing.