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The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Conversation at the Mercus Barn Gallery


15 May 2017


Michael Parsons and David Saunders


©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

MP

We’re here in The Mercus Barn in Ariège (Pyrenées) and we’re going to discuss how this project came about within the context of this current show of the Mercus Barn permanent collection (May 2017). The project has been developing over a number of years and I’d like to start by asking about your current concerns, and in particular how this project relates to British art of a constructive and post-constructive tendency? Perhaps you could say something about the origins of this project?


Jean Spencer, Untitled, 17x34cm, oil on board, 1989

DS

I’ve always wanted to live in these mountains, away from the city, although I have worked in a metropolitan environment for most of my life, but I didn’t want to be completely cut off from the world of art. I thought that I could, in a sense, give something back, in return for what artists, writers, and musicians have given me. I would have liked to have started a Foundation, but I was told that you must have at least a million euros, so it wasn’t possible. But when I bought this house it had a very old barn with it, almost a ruin, but the actual stone structure was sound, as were the beams, so I used part of my savings to renovate it and turn into a building which could serve as both studio and gallery space. This was done with the help of an Englishman who lives here, Andy Ridehalgh, partly to my specification, but he had many ideas that really helped to make it into a beautiful little gallery. I am interested in showing the very best visual work I can get hold of - it doesn’t have to be constructive or abstract and I would certainly be interested in showing new photographic work. That said, my main interest is in abstract painting, and in our first three years, the gallery has so far done six shows of painters, both mid-career and mature.  


David Saunders, Peter Joseph, Sharon Hall, installation, 2017

MP

It’s a beautiful space and it’s clear that the work that has gone into it is extremely dedicated and impressive. The quality of the artwork you have been showing, and the thinking associated with it, should be evident to anyone who comes here to experience it directly, but it’s also part of the project to communicate this experience to a wider audience through the medium of print and technology.


DS

Yes, we have to use the internet because we’re quite a long way from any metropolis.  But we do also have a growing local audience who come to the exhibitions, and some people visit from London and Paris. But for the moment it’s mainly an internet project; that’s how we get ourselves known.  We would like to have more people come here, it’s a very interesting place with a wealth of Romanesque architecture and cave art, all of which is accessible.


MP

It’s a wonderful place to visit, the landscape, mountains, the continual changes of weather and everything are always inspiring.


DS

As time goes on we would like to have more and more people wanting to come here both to exhibit and to see work, but it’s quite hard work and we could do with some help - at present everything is done by me and the English painter and photographer Justin Jones who lives nearby. We could also do with some financial help. But it’s going very well - we’ve had a number of one-person shows, mostly mid-career artists, but also older painters like Peter Joseph, and we have received quite a bit of attention. We are also working with Association La Galerie, part of a network of art workers in the region.

MP

The Association La Galerie is also connected with the Lycée Gabriel Fauré in Foix, so there is an educational component.


DS

Yes, the head of art at the Lycée, Michèle Ginhouliac, has given me an enormous amount of help since I arrived here in Ariège. There’s a gallery on the Lycée campus that is an educational annex of Les Abattoirs, the gallery of modern art in Toulouse. We combine forces from time to time, so we are building a strong network.


MP

Let’s talk specifically about some of the exhibitions you’ve shown so far. You mentioned Peter Joseph; we should also mention Richard Bell, G R Thomson and Sharon Hall.


DS

The first show was of two figurative painters, James Rielly and Justin Jones, to which a couple of my works were added.  The current exhibition - in which we are sitting - is my personal collection, built up over my professional lifetime. Some works I bought, some were gifts from artists, this one was a gift from Peter Joseph, this one I bought from Sharon Hall.  


Sharon Hall, Untitled, oil on linen, 40x40cm, 2015.


MP

It would be interesting to pursue the diversity of your tastes and interests. You are probably best known as an original member of the Systems group, but your work has

evolved in a different direction. You still consider it to be in the constructivist tradition in a wider sense. At the same time, your interest in landscape and photography, and in forms of representational painting, are also important to you - not to mention literature and music of course.


DS

I’ve always been interested in indeterminacy, how work happens, how does it start, what is a work of art? I think a work of art must always come from experience; not a direct account of experience, but of how experience is processed in the psyche - you need some kind of formula - a way of getting something done - of causing something to happen. Although for many years I was making very determinate constructive work with the Systems group, I was always interested in indeterminacy, especially since I met you in 1969.


MP

We could mention our first encounters at Portsmouth College of Art, in relation to the Scratch Orchestra, which was flourishing at that time.  Like you I have this interest in a determinate, constructive type of work as well as in indeterminacy - I’m interested in both extremes, which are sometimes considered to be mutually exclusive - to me they seem integrally related. Following a systematic procedure often leads to unforeseen results, and there needs to be consistency in the choice of material for chance to be effective.


Ian Whittlesea, Caroline de Lannoy, Jean Spencer, Installation, 2017

G R Thomson, 'Anachromisms' two panels, oil on linen, each 40.5x30cm, Installation 2016

MP

This raises the question of how your ideas and experiences are affected by the external circumstances you encounter, and the materials you work with, in ways that cannot be fully predicted or controlled.


DS

The Barn itself is a piece of chance; I needed a live/work space. I found myself temporarily homeless, and there just happened to be a semi-ruined barn included with the ancient farmhouse I was buying.  I thought I should do something with this barn, so the obvious thing was for it to become part studio, part exhibiting space - sometimes I clear it all out and I can use it as a gallery.


So really the whole of this living here in Ariège is chance anyway, and the landscape itself is constantly shifting and changing - we have Atlantic weather and we have Mediterranean weather, cold winters and hot summers, and there’s an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna. This was once a very industriald area - mining, textile mills, and foundries - even high in the mountains there was intensive agriculture as well.  Nearly all of this has now returned to the wild, so the landscape is a palimpsest in which one constantly senses half-erased forms. All this is bound to feed into one’s work in some way, but nothing is ever represented.

Richard Bell, Untitled, oil on panel, 30x30 cm #1, Installation, 2016.


MP

It doesn’t represent the surface appearance of things…


DS

Never.


MP

…but the processes of change, the co-incidences and correspondences,

the encounters…


DS

Although we would be very glad to do photographic shows - photography is pretty much indeterminate.  



MP

Yes, there’s always the change of light, the background, the unpredictability of capturing a specific moment in the flow of unfolding events - you cannot tell in advance exactly what’s going to happen next. So that’s how your work responds to the indeterminacies of the environment.


DS

And there’s also the garden, of course. We’re looking out of the upper window of the barn into the garden, which is actually just part of the mountainside which I have cultivated in a very informal way - which is also totally indeterminate - I don’t know what’s going to grow up this spring.


MP

Of course a garden includes intentional planting and also things that blow in on the wind, just as flowers can grow up in cracks in the pavement, totally unintended, in cities, where least expected. This is an example of how nature can intervene to create fortuitous occurrences, which cannot be anticipated.


Speaking as a musician I’ve become more and more interested in using open forms of notation, which allow performers a degree of freedom in the way they interpret it. I’m increasingly interested in the way their responses can be included in a performance, rather than having them simply follow my prescriptions. Writing flexible instructions can be a way of initiating a process in which performers can become co-creators, which goes well beyond my intentions and expectations to produce different results on different occasions.


DS

Co-creators, yes - because musicians need co-creators. Painting is a solitary business, but The Mercus Barn brings together co-creators in this environment.  So it’s a like a tiny bit of the metropolis; when the artists come here they can discuss (as they might in Paris, London, New York or any metropolis.)  


MP

Yes, we always have inspiring conversations. Whenever I’m here musical ideas are

developed through listening and discussion, in relation to the artworks and the environment.


DS

Of course, I’m not the first artist to want to get away from the metropolis - I have great admiration for the work of Agnes Martin who went to live near Taos, New Mexico. She remained, in a sense, a metropolitan artist although she needed the desert environment. It gave her something she just couldn’t get in New York.


MP

We can trace this right back to Gauguin, for example…or Cézanne, working in Aix-en- Provence but still in touch with events in Paris.


DS

They didn’t have the internet like us. We can be in contact all the time - through the website, blogs, email, YouTube etc.


MP

It’s interesting how this rural retreat and the internet can form this conjunction -  together they create an interface between your life here and the wider art world, which enables you to be both isolated and in communication at the same time.


DS

So there’s an element of indeterminacy here too, you don’t know what’s going to arise from these encounters.


MP

This morning we came across a quotation from Balzac, from his introduction to La Comédie Humaine  (1842) I’ll read it in French and you can translate it:

‘Le hasard est le plus grand romancier du monde.  Pour être fécond il n’y a que l’étudier’.


DS

Chance is the greatest novelist in the world. To be productive you only have to study it’.


MP

And then you said something very interesting - I wrote it down – “Anything can happen and only this can happen”. It corresponds with the classical Greek concepts of Chance (Τυχη) and Fate (Μοιρα).


DS

I’m now thinking that, in the making of the work, anything can happen: but in the seeing of the work only this can happen: both apply to the same work and to the critique of it.  And so ultimately, the form we perceive must seem inevitable.


MP

The way the work is made and the way it is understood. While it’s being made we can’t see the future outcome, but when it’s finished, in retrospect it’s fully determinate.


DS

The feeling that only this could happen came out of … almost out of chaos!

Dom Sylvester Houédard, 'Typestract' typewriter ink on paper, 16.5X15.3 cm 1967

MP

What of your plans for the immediate future?


DS

The next exhibition, to be shown jointly at The Mercus Barn and The Association La Galerie in September 2017, will be called ‘Transforming Surfaces’.


This is a cross-generational show of eight artists associated with the project, which will also be shown at Galerie Lycée Gabriel Fauré, Foix; Abstract Project, Paris; and Arthouse1, London. 


Richard Bell, who showed here last summer, and who was also in conversation with you (1), proposed this exhibition concept, with Patrick Morrissey of Saturation Point Projects, as a means of connecting this remote project in the French Pyrenees with London and Paris, and to “extend the concern with the materiality of non-representational surface: involving change, coloration, duration and memory”.






(1) Richard Bell interview