Nigel Buxton discusses Rembrandt and Giacometti.
An interview with Marian Maguire.
MM: We could start with how you came to NZ.
NB: It wasn’t a conscious decision to emigrate. I just found myself here.
MM: And that’s how long ago?
NB: 25 years
MM: So you’ve been here nearly half your life.
NB: Yes, and most of my working life. I arrived when I was about thirty and quite fresh out of art school.
MM: You went to the Byam Shaw Art School in London but there was also the background of major art galleries and institutions that you could take advantage of.
NB: Yes, I didn’t go to art school until I was 24 and before that I was employed in the art trade initially at Sothebys, the fine art auctioneers, and then at Christies, where I worked in the old master drawings, print and English watercolour department. So I saw an awful lot of art, a lot of art from an art historical point of view.
MM: Is that what inspired you to become an artist or were you already interested in that before getting those jobs?
NB. I was already interested. I did try to get into art school when I was about 18 but wasn’t accepted and so I did a lot of painting and drawing, in my own time, at home, unsupervised and I did that for the six years between leaving school and going to art school.
MM: What kind of subject areas did you look at at that time?
NB: I remember the first painting I attempted was based on a Rembrandt, a portrait in the National Gallery in London of a monk, in a brown monk’s habit. So you had a typical Rembrandt face glowing out of a gloomy surround; even more gloomy in this case because the monk’s cape created very dark shadows. I remember painting but I didn’t know anything about oil paint really, and I used as little paint as I possibly could. I can hear it now, you know, the scratching on the canvas of the brush as I rubbed colours in, bit by bit gently. So you had the brown colour of his cloak and then you’d have a darker brown of the shadow and you’d rub that in. It was very, very tentative.
MM: But you would have seen all the paint on the Rembrandts in the National Gallery…
NB: Well, I know. It just goes to show the way an impression, which isn’t necessarily accurate, can take root.
MM: So that shows an interest in actual light and dark; the drama of light and dark in a picture.
NB: Yes. I think, you start with someone like Rembrandt because everyone tells you he’s so good. Might as well start with the best. All I sort of remember are these faces coming out of the gloom. Which is what you see when you’re in the gallery and look across a room, through a doorway into another gallery; and there’s a Rembrandt on the far wall. All you see is this glowing head and it’s the thing that arrests you. Maybe hands, but mainly head.
MM: When you see them now are they mixed with the memories of having seen them when you were young or can you see them completely fresh?
NB: I see them fresh actually. I see them with eyes that are more intelligent than they were when I was 18 and with all the intervening knowledge that I’ve acquired.
MM: So when you looked at them before were they like a mystery? And as you’ve gained understanding have they lost mystery?
NB: I think they were less of mystery then because when you are younger, you’ve got so much more bravado, due to lack of knowledge and experience. This allows you to choose things, which, with knowledge and experience, you’re less inclined to do because you’re aware of all the massive difficulties involved. And now I look at them with more awe than I did then, because I know just how good they are.
MM: Yes, and the range of things he’s got in play.
NB: There’s no doubt about it the longer you’re around, the more you look, the more you learn, the more mysterious it gets.
The French painter Chardin said, ‘He who has not felt the difficulties of his art does nothing that counts; he who has felt them too soon does nothing at all’. Which makes sense as you should enter things with a degree of ignorance but a lot of desire. But then you learn an awful lot, and very quickly. And the longer you go on, the more you need to know and suddenly the whole game becomes much more confusing and much more precise. It never stops does it?
MM: Well that’s the problem isn’t it because if you’re going from simplicity, with that sense of bravado, to complexity, where you recognise all the different factors, but you’re also trying to be exact….it’s hard to be exact and complex at the same time.
NB: Very, and those are the sorts of thoughts that are in my head when I’m in my studio. You need to be exact, you need to be precise. At the same time you need to be able to say, ‘well if I do this let’s see what happens’. And the whole house of cards could tumble down. It’s having the courage to do that; and I think really good artists do have that courage and I don’t think I have enough of it.
MM: Another artist who has influenced you is Alberto Giacometti whose work has been on show at the Christchurch Art Gallery recently. I think it’s the paintings that have affected you the most and they aren’t included in the show, which is a shame. His drawings are quite immediate, they appear to be done pretty quickly, but in the paintings there’s a sense of constant working over and over. Although the marks are very direct there is this communication of time spent and I think this is where you have found yourself in your own work. Rembrandt’s also got that sense of persistent working on the surface. Would you think it’s fair to say it’s that similarity between those two artists that has been of interest to you?
NB: Well, they are similar in that respect, aren’t they, because there seems to be an accumulation of present tense moments in the paintings of both artists. It’s that time spent, of course , but also the time that is spent is spent re-evaluating everything that was seen, or looked at, the moments before. So it’s a constant present tense accumulation of present tense moments that appeals. So when you see the painting, finished many years ago, the painting is still in the present tense. You see the artist thinking.
NB: You can see a swathe of paint going around the eye socket and it’s just so…, there’s no concept…., there’s nothing preconceived about it. Like if I do x, y and z I’ll end up with… this. Or that.
MM: I think I know what you mean. You haven’t made a specific plan which you instruct your hand and eye to execute. Is it more that you’ve got consciousness in every mark? After you’ve done one mark then the present tense is slightly different from the previous moment, so every mark has got it’s own consciousness. That’s maybe how the work has a sense of freshness no matter how much it’s been laboured.
NB: That’s right. And it’s interesting to compare Rembrandt and Rubens, which I’ve done on recent trips, and also van Dyck. The latter two they are quite brilliant painters. The sheer virtuosity…but at the same time there’s a lack of gravitas about them. They’re in a performance and the performance is their own brilliance as a painter.
And we can sort of gasp at this virtuosity but when you compare say a Rubens to a Rembrandt, especially a portrait, there’s an edge in the Rembrandt that isn’t there in the Rubens.
MM: To me it feels like Rembrandt is more exposed, because of that honesty of each moment. He hasn’t thought to hide anything. I might be wrong, but it seems his own ego isn’t bigger than the painting he’s working on…
NB: Yes. That’s right. The activity is bigger than him. Isn’t that the same with any good artist?
There is one other thing about my interest in Giacometti. Either in my last year as a student or my first year as a non-student, I actually wanted to do figurative paintings, I wanted to draw things and people, and it was such a cynical time, he just seemed one of the artists who showed a way of doing that with a degree of authenticity.
MM: I know and I was just thinking…When did you go to art school?
NB: ‘75 through to ‘79
MM: I was thinking about the contrast between Giacometti’s portrait heads, whether sculpture or painting, and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe which would have been very common images in the seventies. The Warhol’s are notably empty, empty by design, while Giacometti’s portraits are quite grounded; very human. They almost all appear like someone looking in a mirror.
NB: Well, it’s the notion that authenticity was still possible that I got from the Giacomettis. At that time Pop Art had struck a chord as had artists like Schnabel and Salle. People wanted something new and everyone was trying to be cool and detached and surface, and say that there was nothing behind; everything is a fallacy. So Andy Warhol produced these images that become icons, but they’re empty icons, but mirroring the times.
MM: Maybe the other thing, if we looked at Andy Warhol, is the flatness of the surface. He only has three colours and the image is unmodelled. There is no illusory space. Have you ever done anything that is flat? Most of your work seems to deal with some degree of illusory space.
NB: I haven’t done any thing flat as such except for the star paintings and prints of a few years ago. I remember though, when I was a student I did my take on Frank Stella, his pinstripe paintings that is, but I actually made a three dimensional canvas structure so it wasn’t a flat painting. There were pinstripes but it had a physical shape. I built the surface up; the lines built up, and it became a very tactile thing. Very tactile. However it was flat in terms of the way it was conceived.
MM: So what’s missing there is subject, isn’t it?
MM: In most of your work you’re dealing with a subject that will bring something out of you. The music paintings, with the opera, they’ve got a very strong sense of internal subject matter. And then there’s the still lifes. No one would think that that subject could pull emotion out of an artist but they actually have become a vehicle for you to draw from yourself in a way that straightforward abstraction might not.
NB: Yes. The still lifes… it would probably be more accurate to call them interiors because they’re the interior of my studio with a table and the table just happens to have pots on it. And that’s the focal point in effect, but it’s the whole space; a spatial thing.
It’s just the same way Matisse might have done an interior. He would have used that as a start point and made a whole lot of statements or emotional journeys out of it. It’s interesting, You take a start point of fact and Matisse has the courage to make a leap out of it but at the same time he’s still got the reality in front of him to keep him in check. You can’t go completely into fantasy world although he really pushed it.
MM: I wanted to just go back to the music paintings.
NB: Well they’re flat aren’t they….
MM: They’re flat in that you’re working from a musical manuscript but you actually seem to develop them through the medium itself and they appear to have three dimensional space. Either the notes are coming forward; built up, a note on a note on a note; so they seem to have a two or three centimetre visual depth. Or else the background space falls away by two hundred metres – so the music seems to float in the air. And for me that’s got something to do with the music itself. The size of music. There’s a range of sound in music that is in no single note. It’s like a big round sound that takes up space.
NB: Yes. The music – it’s like drawing a concept, isn’t it? Music doesn’t exist visually except in hieroglyphic form on the composer’s manuscript. The sound exists in my head because I know it. And the sound is a notion, and is about emotion, so that determines the emphasis one chooses to put on any part of the score and how the score is rendered and the colours used. But it’s about making a picture in the end; and the picture is dumb, has no sound, so it has to work as a picture. The music paintings are flat in that they are field paintings and I suppose they’re emblematic in that the notes signify sound.
MM: They are have a slightly Rembrandty feel. I suppose it’s the varnished oil but there’s also the play of light and dark.
NB: Yes. Light and Dark equals drama. It’s like Rembrandt etchings. They’re just so dramatic. And the music’s drama. And I tend to go for fairly dramatic music – as you know…
MM: We seem to have spent much of this interview talking about other artists.
NB: I’d be quite happy if the whole interview had been discussing other artists. There are so many who are interesting and from whom one learns so much. All art is about art and all art comes from artists.