Philippe Richard interviewed by Karim Ghaddab

Aimless Paintings

KG : At first glance, one of the most conspicuous and remarkable features of your work is the coexistence of paintings that have a classical slant to their materiality together with devices that go far beyond. I have various sculptures in mind: the painted volumes, the atmospheric variables, the matrices, the cubes, the lineaments and several devices we’ll discuss later on so as to define them more precisely, but for starters, how does this occur? How do you make the transition from paintings to these so-called “beyond paintings”?

PR : I don’t see such a difference between the various “devices”, canvases included, because the question I’m interested in, and which surpasses painting, is how to occupy the world, how to find one’s place. When I paint, it is ultimately about occupying a select pictorial space, about coming up with a method, a possibility of making, of creating something in this space.

KG : Nevertheless, even if you say that there are few or no differences, there is a decision to go beyond an object that has traditionally belonged to the painterly realm for roughly five centuries, comprising how this object has taken shape, the painting grasped in its underlying materiality as a platform for paint, giving rise to principles, limitations and norms which artists have been playing with right from the start, ever since paintings have existed, and in any case quite explicitly since the dawn of modernism. I’m thinking of Greenberg’s categories of flatness, abstraction, the components of a painting. What occurs at a certain point in time so that this “to-be-occupied” space no longer suffices and thus prompts a decision matched with the possibility of envisioning a beyond-painting that cannot be enclosed or limited in a rectangle, but rather spills over onto other structures or walls, implying a link with architecture, whereas a painting seems to me to be a highly coherent unit that can be transported to just about any situation? 

PR : There is something practical about the painting that has been the key to its success.  It is a transportable object, negotiable personal property, but this is an obsolete issue since nowadays a video artist exhibiting in Japan can simply send a USB stick. He can exhibit the same work in twenty locations at the same time. The painting is an object connected to art history, as are “devices”. I recently made a three-dimensional series in the form of knots. When you want to make knots, it’s easiest to make them three-dimensional. I’m referring here to form and not to the original intention. What I call a knot or any sort of structure compels a certain modus operandi. I paint on the form I’ve already constructed. The form is preexistent. If I paint lineaments, I have to think about how to paint long wooden beams. The solutions are much less open-ended here than when I do a painting. The constraint of the object’s form takes precedence over the paint. There is thus a major difference between the various devices and the paintings, which are much more elaborate, thought out and highly wrought. That’s why I haven’t abandoned this practice. I keep reworking the paintings, covering up the pictorial surface in varying degrees. I’m constantly covering, redoing and erasing. These wanderings are inevitable, and they result from my initial aimlessness. I never know what I’m going to paint, at most there is a pathway, a question mark, and it always turns out to be pretty lame. This situation used to traumatize me 25 years ago. I felt uncool. Everyone around me had an artistic aim. I didn’t have any and I still don’t, but it no longer bothers me. What interests me is visual surprise, the form that appears, the enigma to solve. Which is why I haven’t stopped making paintings, and at the same time I know there is something to explore with regard to painted objects.  

KG : Does that mean the question of extending paint beyond the canvas stems more from the way you work in your studio than from in-situ considerations about the work? I find this surprising because your past exhibitions dealt with the in-situ space, such as at the Musée Matisse in Cateau-Cambrésis, at the Tanneries in Amilly and even in the experiment you carried out at the Musée des Beaux-arts in Dunkerque while curating the show Autre pareil. All of these projects gave rise to a very specific and in-depth inquiry into visibility conditions for what is available in terms of preexistent images or in terms of architecture, specific features of the structure being occupied. A priori, one might think that extending the paint beyond the canvas, its spatial expansion, is in line with these considerations, and is a way of trying to be in sync with the specific site at hand. However, from what you’re saying, I get the impression it actually happens beforehand, back in the studio.

PR : The exhibition space is important, but my in-situ pieces coexist with my studio work. One part is devised and made in the studio, the other depends on the site. With the matrices for instance, on one hand there’s the painting, and on the other there’s the paint applied directly on the wall that prolongs the pictorial space. I view it as ornamentation in baroque music or improvisation in jazz. The out-of-frame is painted right on the wall, and has another temporality. The venture is ephemeral, lasting only as long as the exhibition. It is different each time and is not obligatory, whereas the painting is autonomous. But I’d like to return to the studio. I’ve realized that questioning the studio would mean envisaging boredom. I don’t do much at the studio. I take things I’m working on and move them around, look at them. A few years ago I started doing studio photos. I photograph studio situations, as this lets me analyze how I unconsciously assemble the objects. This wall here is filled with gouaches, some of which are finished while others are underway. I’ve tacked them to the wall just to look at them of course, without planning their order or layout. For the sake of convenience, I’ve filled the space in front of me, in order to see them all together. Connections appear that I hadn’t foreseen, and this is what interests me most right now. Why don’t I let myself display them like this anywhere else? The objects “move around” in the studio space. A painting winds up next to another and then another. Their coexistence is more interesting than the two paintings on their own. The studio is brimming with them. I keep dreaming of an empty studio where there’d be just one work in progress. I’d be able to show up in the morning and say: I’m going to finish this piece tonight, clinch it. However, I go from failure to failure, nothing works out and so my studio inevitably fills up with paintings that are incomplete, aborted, possibly in progress. I walk into the studio and see the pile of things I have to finish, it’s depressing. There are people who make to-do lists. Me too, I methodically check things off, but there are just about as many things to do as things done. The next day it starts all over again. To make headway on a painting, I’ll embark on three others, and those three become three additional problems. There is thus an epidemic of unsolvable problems. It’s the way I work, my process. If I work on the same painting all day long, the result is disappointing. The painting is empty, decorative, lacking presence. It doesn’t have the pictorial thrust I’m after. When I work over a longer period on a painting, I naturally have different moods, and my touch changes too. When you come back to a painting day after day, it’s as if a multitude of events and people are working on it. My paintings are like emerging symptoms. I’m very interested in how thinking happens. You know I love mathematics. Poincaré inquired into how ideas arise. Constructing a work is of the same order. When I look at a painting in progress, I mentally run through all eventualities. They are connected to my psyche at that moment, my skills, my feelings, my experience as a painter. A long inner monologue begins: I could do this, do that, cover up, rework some section. I don’t block any decision and time passes, days pass, the paintings change place, wind up juxtaposed with other works in progress. But whether it’s a knot, wooden beams or canvases, the solution comes from the piece itself. At a certain point in time, an idea will arise, an idea I’d never had before. There’s something else: I like working with poor materials. I’m no tinkerer. I remember when I was a kid, how my brother who was eight years my senior was a true tinkerer. He was my hero. He’d make these incredible tree houses. He would leave them to us after he finished building them. I remember the fascination I had for handiwork. In my show last year at the Galerie Bernard Jordan, the paintings looked a little more refined than usual, not sophisticated but there was a sort of pictorial refinement due to the painted elements, an allusion to three-dimensional representation. Painters I’d known for years came up to me and said: wow you really know how to paint! As if my output was limited by my painting abilities. I was blown away, surprised that painters, artists who have their own artistic practice, could not imagine that I do what I want to do, not what I’m able to do. It really made me laugh, I figured it’s easy to impress people when I’m in fact seeking to do the very opposite.

KG : It’s true that overall, your work manifestly refuses sophistication. There is always just the bare minimum, nothing more. There is no seeking for an end product, for the luxurious, in the work’s materiality or production. Does simplicity, the modesty of gouache, its limitations also in terms of colors, its visual effects, resonate with what you were saying about wanting to stick to simple techniques and materials, a sort of rustic process?

PR : With gouaches, you’re dealing with a first draft, the embryo of a thought. It’s a very spontaneous form that gets jotted down on paper, much like a drawing. I’ll be working on a gouache, then a new idea gets me started on another which triggers yet another, the form rebounds. The gouaches ensue, sometimes resembling one another but not always. You can’t work too long on a gouache because it wears down, tires out, and it should stay fresh and light. I try to convey the same sense in the paintings. To make something that is offhand and a bit elusive. The distance between us and the objects is a crucial issue, as is the distance between the work and the viewer. I’m interested in this both regarding the three-dimensional structures and regarding the paintings. You see a painting. You draw closer, you’re seduced, you draw even closer, you discover the rather harsh, dry and awkward way it has been painted, it’s a little repulsive, clumsy, and roughly made. It repels, it alienates, you step back and again the object becomes attractive, you draw closer, it starts all over again, there is no neutral distance. This is what happens when I look at a painting in the Velázquez room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. I see the splendid satin, all those nuances and glimmers, I draw closer and see that it’s a mishmash of brushstrokes, to such an extent that you wonder how on earth he managed to paint it, since he must have been standing really close up while imagining the effect it would create further off. When you are in the midst of painting, you are so inside your subject that sometimes the solution turns up randomly, not by chance, but from the way you place your paintbrush, and ultimately the thing happens unwittingly. This thing, this motif, imposes itself. I don’t know why the motifs I paint often belong to everyone, recurrent motifs that spring from the backwaters of our unconscious. When I start examining them more seriously, I find links with numerous cultures or civilizations, such as Celtic, African, Aboriginal, Nordic, etc. It has to do with visual thought.

KG : I’d like to go back to the question of production. In the book Autre pareil, you write: “I systematically try not to learn, which isn’t easy if I have to build a structure. If I’m searching for a form, I try to forget whatever I might happen to know on the subject”, which confirms what you’ve just said. How do you see this refusal to learn, this refusal to even use a particular technical knowhow? Why do you deliberately hamper knowledge? I’m asking this because I’m thinking of an entire ideology that stems from a branch of historical avant-garde which emphasizes banality, rejecting the notion of masterpiece for the sake of the commonplace, advocated by so many artists nowadays re the humdrum thing that does not require any particular skill, which is accessible to all, and ultimately topples the traditional reproach made against contemporary art, i.e. that anyone can do it, it’s easy, my son does as much, and certain artists nowadays seem to be saying that yes it’s easy, everyone can do it. There is a sort of reveling in the ordinary, in the commonplace, and this often goes hand in hand with an ideological or political stance whereby the fact that it is easy to do and accessible to all, requiring no special training or expert skills, means that it is democratic. There’s that old way of grasping the democratization of art, both in terms of its reception and its production. I’d like to hear how you position yourself regarding this viewpoint.

PR : I don’t know how to tinker. And I happen to have no desire to learn. It’s always better to find a solution without prior knowledge, to find your solution. For painting, I have to fight with knowing too much. I love the art of painting, other people’s paintings, early paintings. I even collect works. You could say that I’m in constant contact with books or artworks. At the studio I try to be primitive by getting rid of all this knowledge in order to develop an un-erudite way of working. But it doesn’t work. My output is riddled with citations, with forms culled from other artists. There are some artists I totally love. I might see a whiff of Chardin showing through. Sometimes it’s even deliberate. Certain artists from the past live inside of me, such as Géricault, Bonnard, Manet. Edouard Manet is my best friend. He is someone who refused the well-made thing. I love his engravings. He made them against all common sense, everything seems clumsy. He genuinely wanted to do the opposite of what would have yielded an acceptable engraving or drawing. Why did this guy do that, and how did he go about constructing it? When Bonnard makes a drawing, it’s as if he caresses the paper. The artists I most love are those I can least talk about, I’m thinking of Bram Van Velde for instance. How can you talk about Bram Van Velde? How can you talk about such painting? How can you talk about Schwitters, about De Kooning, about Westerman, or about Bonnard other than by spinning stories: their women, their pasts, their compulsions. How do you talk about the work of people I’ve known such as Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Shirley Jaffe or Claude Viallat? I know lots of artists who have a hard time talking about their work. Writing, talking about painting is a slippery question because words are ineffective, unable to express anything other than descriptively. There are also artists who make work that is extremely learned, erudite, intelligent and intelligible, I won’t mention any names. Their work spawns a huge amount of literature precisely because they provide us with an opportunity to feel more intelligent. We’ll go see an exhibition of an intelligent artist. We understand everything, we even learn things, and we sometimes have fun, always walking away with the impression that we’re more intelligent than when we arrived. In front of other works, we’ll say: “what confusion, I used to like it but here it’s even worse than I imagined”. We leave stupider than ever, let down. To give you a concrete example, take Eugène Leroy, whom I love. I sometimes find his paintings horrible, coarse. What you’re looking at is a botch-up. There is also a fascination. His paint has presence. This guy paints naked models and you don’t even see them, everything is covered up, hidden by a mound of matter that obviously and inevitably looks like shit, like something filthy, and I love the relationship paint has with the body, filth, excrement, stuff that gets expelled, tossed onto the canvas. Almost all my clothes are stained. I’ll be wearing a new pair of pants, and three days later there will be paint on it because just walking through the studio I’ll snag some. But it isn’t just paint that resists language. I find it incredible that some people think you can understand and explain everything. I don’t know why I’m alive, I ask myself this question just about every day, I wonder: but what am I doing here? The question we started out with, “what space to occupy” thus becomes meaningful. I remember a conversation we had a long time ago where you said “There are too many objects, you have to stop making objects, the world is cluttered with them”, and I just love cluttering the world, it doesn’t bother me at all to be cumbersome. It’ll end the way it ends. I’m not talking about road congestion, but about my desire to occupy a little space, to fill it up with my thoughts, my dreams, my devices, my paintings. The artists I like don’t always produce images. They are in a process. Leroy’s artwork is the result of an experience, so its aesthetic value is obviously questionable since it’s not necessarily the intention. The act of painting also involves taking part in an experience. I’m a bit like a hunter on the lookout, I wait quietly in my shelter for the animal to show up. All of my work is about waiting and not missing what happens. I’ve read that Edouard Manet’s motto was “tout arrive”, everything happens. I feel somewhat like that, I tell myself: everything ends up happening, I just don’t know how, where, or when.

KG : You talk like a photographer. Being on the looking for reality, waiting for something to occur, being in the right state to grasp what happens. You know the anecdote where Kandinsky discovered a new painting in the twilight. There is something of the uncanny, Freud’s Das Unheimliche, it takes place in a familiar setting, in the studio, as night is falling or at twilight, a somewhat dimmed state of awareness, as the day is ending, the sense of fatigue, and suddenly what he knows best, his own painting, suddenly appears utterly strange, eerie, surprising. I get the impression you’re looking for something like that, and even your interest in psychoanalysis and neuroscience ties in with this pursuit of a moment, of a twilight state where something uncontrollable is on the verge of happening.

PR : Yes, it’s something like that, but the question isn’t about entering an altered state, but about being there by diminishing your own limits: knowledge, erudition, good taste, intelligence, efficiency, talent, etc.

KG : Does that mean that too much technical mastery, too much virtuosity, would lessen this experiential or procedural aspect and instead freeze the work into what might be a perfect construction that is nevertheless overly distanced? You were just talking about distance with regards to painting – would formal perfection maintain a distance from the artist’s experience in the studio, seeing as the studio seems to be such an important place?

PR : I don’t think it is a question of painting badly or obtaining a disappointing result. Technical mastery doesn’t bother me. An artist whose work I like, Bernard Piffaretti, demonstrates this by creating mirroring forms in both halves of his paintings. It is a matter of technical prowess, the notion of spontaneity is totally illusory. But nor is it a question of expression, of sentiment. It’s about catching that which is hard to catch, that which slips away. Whatever I know prevents the emergence of what could happen. It’s a tough battle. Painting, much like psychoanalysis, is not there to heal our scratches. It stops us from going round in circles, it helps us get beyond ourselves and our illusions.

KG : When Freud arrived in New York, he supposedly said: “They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague”.

PR : I think that’s terrific. The plague implies liberty. As soon as you try to be free, to strive toward more freedom, you obviously realize that it’s impossible to reach. When you read lots of books, you become aware of your lack of culture. At the studio, it’s only when I manage to put aside my will that things happen. It’s very hard to do. Few people understand it. Our era leaves less and less room for experimentation. There is increasingly less opportunity for losing yourself and for being in an uncertain space. There is a lot of pressure to get rid of the studio in order to face that famous indefinable reality and to interact with society, to remedy the shortcomings of politics. You have to create social ties, whereas for so long we’d been marginal, useless, counterproductive or antisocial. I was recently at the Guggenheim to see a Christopher Wool retrospective. I’d seen the one in Paris and thought it was pretty good. Americans hail him as a new genius. He actually uses well-worn recipes: monochrome (he mainly does black and white paintings) symbolizing a sense of belonging to the avant-garde, to a branch of radicalism, compositions in line with the abstract expressionists, their formats, huge gestural paintings. He uses photocopy and silkscreen like Andy Warhol, he uses words, he plays with psychiatry, language, the communication problem, as well as with the real world, those seedy looking photographs. There is a sort of patchwork of approved past experiences. He is heralded as an innovative artist, when really he’s a good painter who paints quite conventionally. He sees himself as a punk. I’d be delighted to have a Christopher Wool piece in my living room and it wouldn’t ruffle anyone. Nowadays we expect a work to be a product that fulfills our expectations. This is sheer historical regression. We are living through a return to order glossed with hypermodernity or hyper-novelty. We try to integrate artists into processes that have got to be positive and productive. We have to adopt procedures that are explicitly based on business models. I work with a computer in airplanes, in airports, in hotels. I’m a nomad in a global world. As such, the studio can be seen as a past remnant, some kind of lair that is ultimately rather mysterious, almost alchemical, where one can never really know what’s going on. Nowadays, to the contrary, we pursue an ideology of openness and transparency, in other words that impenetrable and mysterious hideaway is getting obliterated and the artist is expected to work transparently in collaboration with other artists, or else with outside partners, companies or local communities. The artist is no longer alone in producing work, but a sort of expert who gets summoned for joint projects. There is a quest for efficiency, that’s the key word. I want to be useless, to lose my time making aimless and inefficient painting.

KG : Your mentioning Christopher Wool is in fact an interesting example because he still fits into the continuity of avant-garde artists concerned with novelty, formal invention, that sort of thing, and when you talk about conservatism, or more precisely about a reactionary attitude, a return to order, I share your view regarding society in general, and the art world in particular. For anything at all, painting included, to endorse inefficiency in the context of today’s values is utterly inadmissible. You talk about the studio space, the way you might juxtapose works in progress, and this perhaps stems from a montage mindset. It comes across in many of your works that deliberately juxtapose two formats or on their own suggest montage and give rise to subtle fine-tuning. You’d mentioned knots, and this brought to mind the Borromean rings described by Lacan. The knot is also a montage of sorts, a way of coming into contact with things that are theoretically distant, something is woven and you’ve got a configuration of images that come into contact and go on to produce something else. Perhaps you’d like to say something about this, but there is also an approach to montage that is ostensibly far from you – I’m referring to surrealism, collage, the influence of psychoanalysis – do you see any contact points here?

PR : Like many young people who have no particular visual culture yet want to paint, the first paintings I had access to were surrealist. Max Ernst, Magritte and especially Dali were part of my imaginary landscape. It’s astonishing that we’re talking about this, because it’s something I’d suppressed for a long time. My first paintings had something post-surrealistic about them. They consisted of floating elements a bit like in Tanguy’s paintings.

KG : Were these abstract elements?

PR : Yes. It always seemed so to me. Everything we paint is abstract, the fruit of our imagination. This is true of all representation. I come from a milieu that had no visual culture – it’s one of the factors that pushed me to become a painter – I remember my mother saying about drawings I did as a child: “He’s draws like Picasso”. I started to devour books, to go to museums, to look at artwork, and to try to understand. There was art history, which is essentially a story. Later on, surrealism struck me as overly simple or worthless. I was ashamed of my first steps. Nowadays I make gouaches like spoiled “exquisite corpses”, as the heterogeneous elements on both sides of the paper are not necessarily interlinked.

KG : There is also a process aspect to your painting.

PR : As with all painters, I imagine. It is an aspect that interests me. I’d like to analyze it, understand it. It’s what spurs me to question the studio. There’s also real pleasure in painting, I can’t deny it, it’s exciting. There is a moment when you have to finish the painting even if this is secondary. A painting is completed (abandoned) when I no longer recognize it, when I’m facing an intriguing image that resists being named. This entails a relationship to surrealism. I don’t try to make abstract paintings. I try to make paintings on which it’s impossible to settle one’s gaze. This naturally leads to the issue of imagination and its nuts and bolts – images – whether abstract or not.

KG : You consider abstraction from the standpoint of figuration. This would turn abstraction into some kind of proliferating hyper-figuration that isn’t locked into a single image.  

PR : Yes. There are always several images vying under the surface. The freedom I’m advocating implies not becoming attached to one over another. It is the painting that ultimately decides. The only genuinely interesting abstract artists are those who rejected any notion of representation, such as Josef Albers. Abstraction compels radicalism. I don’t feel like an abstract artist from this viewpoint. Perhaps I play with certain codes of abstraction, and I use abstract images.

KG : There is no formula. So how would you define yourself?

PR : As a man who makes paintings. There is another problem. Human beings cannot grasp the world merely with their eyes. It is a huge impasse because we’ve left this visual world. Researchers have been delving into the world of the invisible for some time now. They work on things they don’t see, viruses, waves, energy, nanoparticles, stuff that no longer has anything to do with what vision can tell us. We already have a hard time accepting that the earth is round, we keep envisioning it as flat. We really have a hard time with abstract images. That’s why I continue to think that the ability to envision abstract images is what is most interesting nowadays, since it precisely offers new pathways toward understanding the world we don’t see. It’s not about envisioning it as a style or trend, just as a possibility.

Paris, spring 2014