John Virtue, in this short video that was shown on the BBC’s Culture Show, gives us an insight into what it’s like to make an extended body of work centred on a location and in relation to works of art. He moves easily from talking about the iconography with which he’s working, the surface quality of the paintings, and how he sees those paintings fitting into a larger tradition.
Virtue triangulates a position for his work by deliberately relating his practice to Constable and other landscape painters. Now you might think ‘he’s a professional artist and it doesn’t seem conceited or arrogant, whereas if I, a student, claimed something similar it would be silly and arrogant.’ But there’s real value in working out a position by looking at art that already exists. Virtue singles out some gestures and marks and likens them to his own. They aren’t the same, but he sees a link.
He also works to understand how paintings are put together, seeing compositions as structural and abstract, despite being ‘of’ buildings. He edits and shifts picture elements, using bits of his own drawings collaged to create starting points for large work. He deliberately leaves out things saying, ‘I’ve never felt any need to put in cranes and buses and cars and aeroplanes’. Working out what you want to show in a view is important. Drawing every single thing is relatively easy as there’s no choice, no intervention, just a technical demand to replicate. Here we see an artist shoving bits of visual research together to make something new. He isn’t providing a large detailed image that people can use to point at and say ‘that’s where we had lunch’, or ‘that’s not quite right, St Paul’s is bigger than that. He’s making a NEW THING from material gathered when looking at other things. I wrote about this in my post about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
His painting technique is a strange combination of rigour and promiscuity. He uses -and says that he has used for 26 years – black ink mixed with shellac, and titanium acrylic on unprimed canvas. That’s the rigour. The promiscuity (his word), is in the tools he uses to make marks. Cloths, brushes, rags and sprays are all evident and it looks like he’s scraping stuff off, too. All of this creates a complex and vibrant monochrome surface. The scale of the works is obviously a huge factor when the works are encountered and it foregrounds a picture’s surface qualities.
Throughout the film, there’s a palpable sense of an artist simply working stuff out. That isn’t complicated. It’s the consequences that are complicated. He wrestles with art history, materials, London and so on. All of the thinking is played out for us. Richard Sennett, in his excellent book The Craftsman, writes that ‘making is thinking’, and we see evidence of that here. I doubt that Virtue thinks about art as a grand thing, but as a way of getting at something that can’t be found in any other way.
The final section of the film gives us an insight in to installing a show of work. It’s instructive to see that he takes ownership of all sorts of decisions and that an artist’s role doesn’t end with the making of the work. When it’s displayed and encountered by others, there’s potential for the maker to wield some agency. That’s not always possible, especially in group shows, but it’s something worth thinking about.
What can we take from this?
So, as students (and I include myself in this description), what might we take from the film?
- Find works or art whose material qualities you admire, test your own work against it, and write about how you get on. Remember that you needn’t ‘like’ or ‘admire’ the artist (though Virtue clearly does), just recognize that there’s something you can draw on. Be hard on yourself and keep trying.
- Use drawing as a tool to figure out how things in the world interlock. Then interlock those drawings to make something new. Scale that up (remember the grid exercise?) and work on that. Remember that a detailed little drawing scaled up spreads the information over a larger field. This is where gesture and material play a part in creating interest.
- Be simultaneously rigorous and promiscuous. Restricting a part of your technique will give you the chance to test other areas without getting confused. If everything’s changing all the time, then there’s no yardstick.
- Working large isn’t easy for lots of reasons (many simply spatial), but the gestures it allows an artist to make are physically different. Try it and you’ll start using your shoulder and trunk. It’s suddenly a very physical and tiring activity. Not being able to see the whole thing on one go is strange at first, too.
- When you get the chance to show work, think about how it might, or might not, be framed or mounted. How might it be attached to the wall? What colour should that wall be? How high up? Even if you just fantasize about these elements (and drawing sketches of galleries with your work in is fun, too), you will start to see your work differently. Try it.
As an afterword, the relation of the photography in the film is interesting, too. It tries to mimic the look of the paintings in a way, but only partially succeeds. Perhaps some photographers would like to comment on this as it raises some points about representation and so on. Perhaps I’m simply surprised they didn’t make it a black and white film, but that might have been a bit too obvious.