With both Australian-based artists Jeremy Geddes and Ashley Wood debuting in the United States this weekend, October 20, at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in NYC, we look back on the cover story we ran in February 2012 with Geddes. For the occasion, we asked Ashley Wood to interview Geddes, to discuss the artist's preparation for his US debut, as well as his penchant for detail and painting 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Originally published in Feburary, 2012:
Melbourne is known as the more sombre of Australia’s large cities. Its rain swept streets often feel a little bleak, but not usually as desolate as Jeremy Geddes imagines them. Using his hometown as a backdrop, its streets and architecture recur throughout the paintings, but it’s a city stripped of life and noise.
When his figures aren’t suspended in an empty netherworld, they haunt this quiet ghost town, a world that in recent works has begun to crumble and break apart under a perverse distortion of the usual Newtonian Laws.
Jeremy’s paintings are painstakingly detailed, capturing subtle shifts in light and shadow and builds complex forms from deft brush strokes and subtle glazing. He has an eye that is careful, precise and true so that each careful nuance makes the unreal feel real. His vision is not an approximation, but simply a reassembly of the world with different rules.
Jeremy Geddes sat down with friend and fellow Australian painter Ashley Wood to talk about the process of work and painting, as well as their upcoming show at Jonathan Levine Gallery. —Juxtapoz
Ashley Wood: Less than a year out from our joint show, what’s your feeling on it?
Jeremy Geddes: Yeah, I think a mix of anticipation and stress. I’ll have a good chunk of work finished for it, but I always feel like I could use another year or two.
The Beijing gig was what, a bit over a year ago, and I’ve been working solidly on paintings for this coming show since before then. The earliest painting that will be there is ‘The Street’ and from memory I’d initially planned to have that in Hong Kong in 2009. I ditched that idea when progress began to really slow down. It was the asphalt that did it! It wasn’t something I’d ever tried to paint before - always a danger with deadlines. I think I must have repainted it 2 or 3 times by the end. It had a randomised quality that was anathema to my painting style, which made it quite a trick.
My paintings take a long time, but on the positive side it means that there should be a nice evolution in my brush marks on display. I think I’ve come along a bit in how I lay down paint in the last few years. I’ve really been pushing myself in that direction, so it ought to be nice to step back and see the progression.
Last time we talked, it seemed like you were well into your work for the show. How’s it holding up at your end?
You know it’s hard to tell, I have a bunch of paintings on the go, and for some I have a really succinct idea of where they are heading, and then there are the paintings that have a mind of their own. I guess I’m ok, just need to keep at it. Painting isn’t a simple or easy process for me, takes so much time to get it right.
I love the way you work like that. In the flesh you can really see the history in your paintings, each idea leaving its mark on the later layers of paint, a build-up of multiple palimpsests that all inform the final painting.
My work is totally different in that way. If I change my mind on a section of the painting I will have to fight the underlying texture. It’s one of the reasons that I paint primarily on board, so I can get a palette knife in there and scrape away the failed idea. It’s also why I’ve developed a technique to try and minimise that kind of rework.
Like you, it can take me a long while to find that right path through a painting. It’s not always obvious what elements are needed and what are not, but more like intellectual sculpture, just chipping away at those ideas and elements that aren’t necessary and finding the underlying form. It can take a long time to get there, and I’d rather do that work (and rework) on small preliminary paintings than stick myself with weeks or months of rework on the large painting. If I try to rush that initial stage too quickly I usually end up paying for it in the final painting. In ‘A Perfect Vacuum’ I ended up repainting the figure three times because I launched into it too quickly. But with your work, that build up almost feels like an integral part of the final painting.
I do become quite attached to the ghost images that flutter just beneath the final image; I like the viewer to be able to see said journey and process. You’re right about doing the prelims though, even though I mostly sidestep it, it really does help distil the idea... I guess I’m a sucker for the struggle, and many times I hamper my own progress or mess with my system to see what happens.
What’s great is that although we approach painting so differently, our work still hangs really well together. We have a similar aesthetic sensibility and we approach our work from similar places and I think we both love the nature of paint itself. Our work is in some way cohesive, but the end result is different enough that you’d never confuse them when they’re staring at you from a wall.
Yep, our work does sit well together, which on the surface would seem odd, as our swagger and technique are very different. But as you say, we come from similar aesthetic places; just the birthing aspect subverts us into what we are.
I’d say that in some ways, the preliminary paintings I do can have similarities in style to your work, although they’re obviously not as proficient. I’m in a very different headspace when I’m working on them, perhaps a little less self-conscious. I look at problems and trying to fix them rather than produce a finished painting.
Yeah, as we have chattered about before regarding prelims, I enjoy yours as much as the final painting. The prelim for Heat Death, it has a feeling it that just really makes me lose myself in it, the details, although scant, make me involve myself in it more on an emotional level. It’s hard to quantify...
Yeah, it’s the beats of tone and colour in the image that I really strive to nail when I’m doing those loose studies, so it’s great to hear that they’re present and singing together.
I find that when I’m focused on the detail of the final painting and working to get the form of a particular element feeling correct, it can become disconnected from the painting as a whole. Very often, when I finish the detail pass across the whole painting; the elements, while working individually, will feel atomised and distinct from each other. For me, this is when having the study sitting next to the large painting can be really useful, like the solution to the other piece of the puzzle. I can look at the painting and go, “Right, that bit isn’t gelling, why?” And then I can look at the study and go, “Ah right, that has a warm glow,” or it might be pushed further into the background with haze or whatever it is, and get to glazing in the subtle shifts and nuances of tone that have gotten lost in the myopic process of detail painting. Even when the final painting changes significantly, like in Cluster where I’ve significantly added and changed elements from the preliminary study, I still have that emotional key in the loose painting that I can refer to.
I am a detail junky though, I really want the painting to work at any distance, from 10 meters to 10 cm, and to reward the viewer with different things. My goal is always to fuse those two elements into a whole that is greater than the sum of either of its parts. It’s always a tension, and something I think I’m becoming better at the longer I work at it.
You know it’s funny, I can’t normally stand detail or realism in painting, which are mostly very redundant in my world, but you make it work. It comes down to what you were just saying, the detail doesn’t dictate the image, it allows the primary experience of the image to shine through, the idea, and if you so desire you can get up close and check the manic detail. Beyond a deft technique to create your work, I’m more into the ideas and imagery I see. Yeah, your paint skills are cool, but the ideas are better, the silent mystery of the astronaut exploring tattered ruins of modern culture to twisted human forms, they’re a much bigger lure for me. If it was just you doing chrome parts of cars and funky reflections, well shit, I would punch you in the nuts, regardless of how well and detailed you did it.
Ha! I know where you’re coming from, although for me, I have to respect the work and achievement. Painting well is always hard, hats off to anyone who can manage it. But it’s just not the kind of work that would get me up in the mornings.
Here’s a question; consider a painting that looks naive, kind of crap but has a great idea behind it, yet if one was to see the image without said idea being told via words or audio to coincide with the viewing, is it just a naive, kind of crap painting?
I think that without the right tools, the idea can’t be expressed adequately. You might see a glimmer of what might have made a great painting, but without the painter putting in the effort to resolve the problems inherent in an image, I think you can really only say, “well that could have been a fantastic painting.” I’m not saying that I do a great job at this, it really is fucking hard; but yeah, for me there’s a minimum level of competency that has to be there before I can engage.
Also, as a survivor of the world of bullshit art school wank, I’m very suspicious of ideas expressed in an impoverished fashion. I tend to think that if the technique is off, probably everything behind the painting is of a similar quality. I find that thinking through the technicalities of image making also helps me refine the ideas behind the painting. The ideas inform the technique and the technique informs the ideas.
I do think that technique always and only exists to service the idea though. My goal in improving and expanding my actual craft of painting has always been to give myself the tools I need to paint anything I want. I hate the idea of having images in my head that can’t be adequately translated onto the board. If I didn’t have a huge backlog of images waiting for me to get good enough to paint them I’m not sure the whole thing would be worth the effort.
What do you think? I seem to remember a few times you’ve been pretty harsh about work in the past!
Well yeah I’m harsher, I think visual art primarily based on theory and conceit is shit, I have no time for it, but that’s me. I believe the intellectual theory idea over image is a backdoor for basically untalented bullshitters to play at being an artist. But their shit is needed to keep the art machine going; many galleries have to fill their walls with something I guess.
Yeah, I really try to keep my head out of most of that. I see myself as being in the business of picture making, trying to construct very particular images that can get stuck in people’s heads and bounce around.
Beyond that, I’m not sure I see myself as connected to the “art world.” I don’t go to galleries much, don’t go and have coffee with fellow “artists.” I’m just in my studio, trying to get better at this very specific craft.
“Conceptual artists” might as well be plumbers for all the connection they have to what I’m trying to do. For me it’s all about trying to make that great image, that perfect painting ...
A well executed painting will always resonate, a well executed painting with a great idea that spills fourth will pummel your head with happy hormones. A shit painting is just that, shit.
Yeah, I pretty much agree with that. The tendency to accompany the work with an essay outlining the themes and meaning is, to me, just announcing to the world that the paintings have failed. I really think the image should be self contained; all that you want to say about a painting should be within the painting. You may want to say a lot, or be ambiguous, but if you can’t pull that off within the four walls of the image, you need to try harder.
It’s an interesting question though. Hw much information or how much of an idea can be reliably conveyed within a particular painting? It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot as my paintings have evolved. It’s been my experience that if you load up a painting with a very specific narrative and meaning, it’s very unlikely that the viewer will unpack that information in the way you expected. They will usually focus on a few small elements and create a narrative that resonates with them, and then selectively focus on those elements which fit with their already conceived idea.
It was a frustrating realisation at the time; that there is a finite amount you can communicate with an image. You can do it to greater effect in illustration, or in - for example – religious painting, but only because you are referencing imagery or narratives from elsewhere. But when it’s just a pure single image, there are real limitations to accurate and specific communication.
The more I thought about it however, the more I realised that this is a strength of painting as well. It may be an obvious point but it took me a while to work out. You can set up questions and then never supply any concrete resolution, which I think means you’re free to ask really interesting questions. It’s not a frame of a film, there’s no next moment, all you get is that one image. I love that about painting. You’re not let down by a shitty ending because everyone makes their own ending, one that resonates for them.
I like that “not let down by a shitty ending”… hopefully...
All you can do is your best. Failure is always hanging there but it’s a good motivator. I find, I’m constantly stressing that one part or another of a painting is going to fail. And if I feel like a section has, that part leaps out at me from the final painting, haunting my perception of it. It really drives you to get your paintings right; or at least as good you can make them.
So I guess with under a year for what is easily our biggest showing, I think we should start working on the essays to accompany the artwork then!
Seems like yesterday we started chatting via email, though it’s been many years, I never thought our paths would lead to a show in NYC together, but I’m damn happy it did, and shit, we did it without an Australian art grant.. Good Lord!
Forward to the show!
Jeremy Geddes & Ashley Wood
October 20—November 17, 2012
Jonathan LeVine Gallery
New York, New York