On 15 September, artist Euan Macleod and his friend, curator Gregory O’Brien, discussed the exhibition Painter with a large audience in the Art Gallery. This is a transcript of that talk.
Gregory O’Brien: It’s great to be back here at Te Manawa. It’s fantastic to have Euan’s show here. Obviously I love this show, but I do think this gallery honours the show. It’s beautifully installed; the people who put it in really cared about it. It’s never looked better anywhere else.
I got in 2010 a great opportunity to write this book about Euan, “The Painter in the Painting”. I guess the title of the book raises the question of “who is this figure that we see in so many of these paintings?” Is it a self-portrait? Is it a ghost from the past? Euan, is this the story of your life? Is this an autobiographical show?
Euan Macleod: Of all the questions I ever get asked, the main one is “who’s the figure?”. For some of them it’s specifically somebody, but for most of them, I try to make them as loose as possible. The figure doesn’t even have a gender, let alone anything else. I had to put clothes on them when they were up on a mountain otherwise they’d get a bit cold.
A lot of the questions people will ask, you don’t know [the answers] yourself. There’s not always answers to these questions. The other question you get is “why do you paint” and “describe your painting really quickly”, and they’re the hardest ones to answer, really. I haven’t answered it, have I.
Gregory O’Brien: The interesting thing about these paintings, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the years, is they are such manifestations of emotion. They’re not a full of overt life story – they’re not trying to tell us what you were doing on a certain day at a certain place – they’re very much impressions of being, I think, of existing in the natural environment. Rarely in Euan’s work does he find himself in an urban environment, even though since 1982 he’s lived in Sydney. Where you’ve spent your life is civilised – well, civilised as far as we can say Australia is as civilised as New Zealand – living in a human-created world, but then you do these works that are often about this figure being pushed out, and their emotions. I think the paintings are great because people come here and feed off them. Some people have found the landscapes uplifting, or they’ve found it terrifying, or they’ve found it melancholy, hopeful, spiritual or physical. You put all those things in there; the act of painting is the putting in of all these energies, all these emotions.
Euan Macleod: You don’t do it on purpose, and funnily enough I think some of them are a specific place at a specific time for me, but that doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know that time. For example, there’s one [painting], “Dinner Time”. I don’t know what we were getting fed, and my mother would be very upset to hear that. In a funny kind of way, that’s what women from that generation fed you: they fed you love, and by eating you were accepting their love. For me that’s a very personal painting about family dynamics, but when you guys come and look at it, what are you supposed to make of it? So some of them do have a basis in a specific place. This seven-panel work, I did it with Greg, and the figure is kind of Greg. But of course it’s not Greg. It’s Greg but it’s not Greg. Sometimes I’ll look at them and I’ll think maybe I know who that is; maybe that’s Geoff, or that’s Susan or that’s my father. I think you’ve got to be careful when you’re exhibiting the work, because “who the hell is Geoff?”. And of course a huge part of the painting is you guys, what you make of it. I can put something in there, but for the completion of it, you have to take something from it. Your response to it is what’s important. I guess I’m of the belief that whatever you come up with’s fine. I’m happy for you to come up with whatever. The story’s there for you to make up.
Gregory O’Brien: I guess that’s always been a cornerstone of the Romantic tradition. Whether you’re thinking of a painter like Turner or a writer like Wordsworth, art is about rendering sensation, rather than facts. Euan’s not trying to show what he looked like or what the hill looked like, he’s trying to give the sensation rather than the facts of the matter.
You grew up in Christchurch, Euan. When did you become interested in the human figure?
Euan Macleod: I was thinking before about what’s the most difficult to answer; that’s the other one. Figures just seem primary to me. I always saw myself as a painter of the figure, so all the early paintings are of figures in interiors. The landscape crept in around the figure. Some of them are just figures in a room, but they almost felt trapped in the room, like I’ve painted myself literally into a corner, and the landscape crept in as a way out of that room.
Gregory O’Brien: There’s a nice conversation – actually in this exhibition – to do with memory and place.
Euan Macleod: I think that sense of walking in and being in the landscape is an important one for me.
Gregory O’Brien: You moved to Sydney in the early ‘80s; did you intend to stay there, or did you go there to become a painter? What was the plan at that point?
Euan Macleod: I didn’t want to live in Christchurch, and [my wife] didn’t want to live in Wellington, and at that time Sydney was as easy as anywhere. We were going to stay for a year, and after a year, of course, we’d put down a few roots. There’s something about Sydney I love, and I think it’s that you are given space to create. You could still go into a gallery that showed paintings, and you could sell paintings. You didn’t have to worry. All that time in New Zealand, painters either gave it up or tried to make their work fashionable. It was incredibly difficult, whereas in Sydney it wasn’t so hard. In Christchurch, if you had an exhibition, everyone would go. Even if they hated your work, they’d go. But in Sydney they’d say, “oh, great show! I didn’t get along but I heard it was good!” You can do some paintings that are in retrospect terrible, but it doesn’t ruin your whole life.
Gregory O’Brien: To me there are two breakthroughs in your work, and the first was in the late ‘80s when suddenly this figure returned to nature, and you did a lot of paintings of your daughter Bridget, so often a child was in the landscape. Was that a conscious thing or an intuitive way forward for you?
Euan Macleod: I think, having kids, there’s a couple of sides to it. I was working full time, and had limited time, so when we went out for picnics with the kids I’d draw. They’re so open and encompassing. There’s a painting in the book that I think kind of sums it up. That was what my life was about; that was what was interesting.
A lot of stuff, for me, is influenced by personal stuff. I’ll start looking at the landscape in more of an Australian way. It just happens, and I don’t quite know why.
Gregory O’Brien: But you didn’t feel like you had to put the figure in it, to animate it or make it relevant?
Euan Macleod: That’s that question: “why do you put a figure in the painting?” I don’t know. There are a lot of artists who will say don’t put a figure in the painting. I was reading something Neil Fraser had written, and he’s quite adamant about not putting in anything human-made at all – no roads, no nothing. Whereas those are the things I love. Often if I’m painting, and someone walks through it, I’ve just got to paint them in, because that’s really exciting. It seems to articulate the whole thing, it really interests me. It’s that dialogue between the figure and the landscape that seems to be what’s important: the vulnerability of that figure, how it relates to all the tree trunks and the rocks. There certainly is a lot of psychological drama in then, I think. I don’t know if I intended that, and often the figure takes a while to find its place. It’s like the figure wanders around a little bit in the landscape before it feels settled. And sometimes the head gets pushed down – it never seems to go up and start smiling!
Gregory O’Brien: That was a breakthrough though, there’s the sense that [with] the figure in the landscape, there’s this dialogue that’s going on – to this minute, really – in Euan Macleod’s life, initiated by his discovery of the Australian landscape.
In ’93 or ’94 you came back to Christchurch on a fellowship, and suddenly the New Zealand landscape entered as a counterpart or a foil, or a conversation, almost, with the Australian landscape. To me that is the great dynamic of this exhibition – this trans-Tasman conversation. You see works which are obviously New Zealand works, that are obviously Australian. You see works that mix those two realities together while asserting their separateness. Do you want to tell us about that time in the early ‘90s – and of course your father was unwell, so emotionally you were probably pretty raw.
Euan Macleod: Painting was so stuffed up at that time in Christchurch. Everybody did Xeroxes which just seems ridiculously hilarious now, but at that time that’s what you did. No-one had even been taught how to paint. I still look back on that time – quite angry, actually – at how I was treated because they didn’t know what to do with me. I was a painter, it was sort of like “euww” – a bit embarrassing. But the work that came out of it I was really pleased with. What I had to do [was] I’ll paint New Zealand. At the time it felt a bit audacious to do that. The idea at the time was to put the human figure in the landscape. Some of them I cut figures out and stuck them in, and painted over them
It was a time when I was thinking about my father. He’d just died; he’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a long time. There was a thought of “where would he have gone?” It felt like that’s where he’d be: in the land. There’s a psychological thing going on but also a formal thing. You’re thinking in terms of negative space. From then on I felt comfortable painting New Zealand as well.
Gregory O’Brien: Light and dark, that’s another great engine of the exhibition. To me it almost seems like a lesson from McCahon. Some would call this expressionism – it’s the kind of painting that’s about the physicality of painting, about mark-making, not being literal about pushing some kind of subconscious energy into the painting. What artist were you following at that point?
Euan Macleod: There’s all sorts of references. Expressionism doesn’t fit super well with me, I think I need the things to look real, so you experience them as matter, as physicality. So rather than seeing it as a painting of a guy, you see it as a guy. There’s Freud’s beautiful quote about oil paint being invented for flesh, and there is a sense when you look at these paintings that you’re looking at flesh, rather than paint.
I guess that’s why I love McCahon and a lot of the Australian painters: [paint] is a means to an end, not an end in itself. There’s a lot of painters in Australia making these incredibly thick paintings; they’re very lush and very beautiful, but they just seem like decoration to me. It seems it’s more about style, and I don’t really want [my paintings] to be like that.
Gregory O’Brien: Euan’s one of those painters where to get the full story, you have to encounter the object, in a gallery or in a space. And when people go anywhere near these things, they realise that they’re full of raw bits of pigment, strange bits of brushing, mark-making, scratching and scrabbling. They’re quite three-dimensional, quite visceral. In the book they reproduce smoothly but in real life they’re quite sculptural.
There’s a series of works Euan did relating to White Island, basically a figure invoked as an effusive volcanic moment in the atmosphere. In the studio you were doing them on the floor, using ponds of turps; they took months and months to do. So as pieces of painting they weren’t so much “maestro at his easel”, they were full of quite messy, mongrel process. But they also leave a lot to chance. There’s always been a bit of that brinksmanship or play.
Euan Macleod: Also the other idea of those was to be actually washing the figure away, to dissolve the figure. You’re looking at how that figure relates to the background. Anybody who’s painted a figure will know: if they paint a figure too tightly and put it in a landscape, it looks stuck on. It doesn’t feel part of it. That’s what I’m trying to do: make them feel part of it. So it’s the edges dissolving into each other, which is what I really like. I’ve always wanted to break the figure down more.
Gregory O’Brien: Let’s talk about Returning Memories, another Lyttelton Harbour work. It’s about returning to a certain place – because there are places that affect you, aren’t there. Certain bits of the Blue Mountains. Lyttelton Harbour. The Southern Alps.
Euan Macleod: There are places that I really respond to, visually. We talk about landscape and specific places, but I think they’re places that connect with you; they become a kind of internal landscape and that’s a nicer way for me to look at them. It might be based on White Island, but the whole idea of the volcanic stuff, happening under the ground, bubbling away under the surface, it really interests me.
That particular one: I’d just got back from New Zealand; my studio was about a twenty minute drive from home, with the traffic – so a five minute walk, twenty minute drive – and I had an hour, so I just went for it. I was really frustrated, I’d been cooped up in Christchurch for a while, and that’s the result, bam. I did touch it up a tiny bit, but that is the result of one hour of frustration. I’ve always been a bit reticent about selling it for that reason – I always think, “it only took me an hour, you can’t buy it if you knew” – but I really like the energy in it. No thinking, just doing.
Euan Macleod: I think you doubt yourself all the time, but doubt is important. I remember a woman giving a lecture to a whole bunch of students, and one asked “do you ever have doubts”, and she said no. And it shocked me. Doubt is such an important thing. You’ve got to doubt your work. I think she was lying, and I think that’s a mean thing to say to students, who are just starting and full of doubt, and are thinking “doubt is wrong”. It’s not wrong.
Audience member: So how do you deal with it?
Euan Macleod: One thing that I do that has positive ramifications is I work through. I just do it. I do and I do and I do.
Audience member: So you enjoy the work?
Euan Macleod: Yeah, a lot. And that’s changed at various times. It’s how you engage with the world around you, questions that happen outside the studio sometimes. Anything goes [in the studio]. The last thing you think about when you’re painting is “is it going to be archivally sound?” I don’t care. If I can solve this problem, I don’t care if it entails tipping a whole bag of coal on it – whatever!
Frank Wattis’ partner said “you’ve got to be careful what you talk about, because you start believing it yourself” and I thought that was really quite clever. You come up with a little patter, “yes I do the figure for this reason” and then you’re in the studio and think “yes this is what I do the figure for”. You’ve got to be really careful.
I think this is where having space, you can do whatever you like.
Gregory O’Brien: Just thinking about water, thinking about these paintings in an ecological way, in terms of the environment, these paintings have, to me, been about the water cycle. The human body is 63% water, so there’s no contradiction between water and the human figure; our planet is 71% water; water exists as volcanic steam, as snow, as ice. When you go through the show thinking in terms of ecology and water as the energy of life, and you realise there’s this thing that goes through the whole show: how do we locate ourselves in relation to water.
The pictures engage themselves acutely with things that matter. Mourning the dead, celebrating that we are alive in a body, temporarily. The works are a channel for so many of those core, human things.
Euan Macleod: The other reason I love water is because the paint is fluid. There’s something about painting water (although acrylic’s not so good for painting water – oil paint’s beautiful for water).
I think what Greg said is totally right, it is unconscious. At the moment with painting, a lot of work – maybe we’re coming out of it now – it’s all been about irony, and I find that joke has worn so thin. But yeah, it means something to me. It’s important. And yeah, I look at them sometimes and think they’re being a bit try-hard, a bit earnest. I think that’s being a bit embarrassed about it – but someone will say something [positive] to you and you think “really? You think that? I wish you’d told me earlier, I’d feel a lot more comfortable about myself.”