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

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with David Oates by Laurence Noga

June 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

“The ‘Kiss’ and ‘History’ paintings are based on the principle of the visual phenomenon of the eclipse. These interactions are taking place constantly in the universe, and suggest to me a pulse in the vacuum of space, seen or unseen” (David Oates)

LN    The titles of your work often add a narrative association to the reductive / minimalist concerns in your approach (perhaps this is a filmic reference). Can you tell me about how this opens up questions in the work for you and the viewer, for example in the Kiss series?

DO   ‘Kiss’ is a generic title, which evolved along with the work itself. It seemed to me very descriptive of what is actually going on in these paintings, using the motif of an eclipse as one body passes in front of another; it humanizes something that might not otherwise be so personal.

Kiss 19 Oil on canvas, 72 x 60”

LN    I like that idea. What you are describing seems like an in-between state. Can you say something more about the humanising presence?

DO    When I first came up with the idea of using the eclipse sequences, I made them horizontal. They looked a bit like hieroglyphics or musical notation. I remember turning one upright and it immediately brought to mind this more human connection, which alluded more to spines and trails. ‘Spoor’ is another generic title I used a few years ago when I was making drawings. I used the title ‘spoor’ in my approach to drawing, meaning animal tracks. The drawings were indistinct, about trails and traces left, but also my own track and trail, I wanted that kind of duality. The drawings morphed into the paintings; as they became more formalized and less directly physical, they moved into an arena where painting was better suited. Having started on it, it led me to bring in this spinal idea, it’s all very circular.

LN    I get that. Foucault once said: “Structure is that designation of the visible”. How does the composition and structure develop in your work; is there a system that you rely on a quest for equilibrium?

DO    A quest for stillness, for that which cannot be expressed any other way: silence, stillness and poise, and that’s an abstract concept, they are obviously not about eclipses or tracks.  

LN    The work has a feeling of industrial rigour. Are the works work built up through a mathematical system?

DO   Of a very rudimentary kind. They are made with stencils, it’s all about the plan and the angle, the other form which passes across, deciding on a certain disc size and the space between them. I recently started doing them on a curve, which is a little bit more true to actual observed phenomena, which I noticed in photographs of eclipses, but it’s more about the concept and their diagrammatic immediacy.

Kiss 6 /10 Charcoal on paper, 25 x 25”

LN    The colour has an opticality and a purity. How do you orchestrate the viscosity - the thinness or thickness of the medium, and its application, the surface facture?

DO   They are made up of layers, anything from three layers to six or seven layers. There is a point at which it ceases to be paint on a surface and becomes something illusionistic, which takes you beyond the actual reality of what you are looking at. If I don’t go far enough with the layering, it looks like painted canvas, and if I go too far, it again looks like painted canvas. There is a point somewhere in between, which happens at different times with different paintings, when the painting starts to live.

LN    And that’s a delicate balance?

DO   Yes, and there are lots of failures.

LN     And the failures - do you use them or discard them?

DO    No, they have to be got rid of, the surface is no good after a certain point.

LN    The actual eclipses themselves - what sort of density are they built up to?

DO   They are just one thick layer, otherwise they would bleed too much, but I quite like them to bleed a little bit, I want to make it obvious that they are artificially made, therefore not a representation of something.

LN    Are they are always made in oil?

DO   Not necessarily, but I Iike the variation of one oil paint to another.

Vampire 5 Oil on canvas, 48 x 48”

LN     I sense that diversity in the choice of specific oil colour in your works. Do you add other kind of substances to get that kind of viscosity in the surface?

DO   Glaze medium.

LN    Is that a consistent approach in your work?

DO   Yes, for the layers certainly. In paintings I made ten years ago, I made a series of paintings where I painted a flat blue circular disc, building layer upon layer of red on top, until the blue disc became almost indiscernible. To do that I needed the glaze medium, you can alternate. You get to a certain point where the disc has almost disappeared, and if I put another layer with a higher proportion of glaze medium on top, it starts to bring out the original colour from underneath the surface again; it’s kind of an archeological dig.

LN    That’s a great analogy.  Referring to the ‘Vampire’ series, which contain punctured circular spaces and allow the possibility of looking behind or inside the painting, could you say something about how that archaeology informs your approach here, which on one level seems philosophical, planetary. Are there any other external references, or is it all an intuitive decision?

DO    I would have to say they were intuitive, although I tend to work on things that have preoccupied me for a long time without necessarily doing anything about them. Some time ago I made 1st World War images of people in gas masks; I had been preoccupied with that kind of imagery for a long time, but it had never been in my work before. It just came out in one period of about two years.

LN    So a kind of distillation from practice?

DO   Yes.

Irises Oil on canvas 48 x 46”

LN    Are there key influences now, and earlier in your career, people who stay with you every day, moments of attribution? Bridget Riley, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, maybe Tomma Abts?   I was also interested to read about your top ten favourite works, that you contributed to ‘100 London Paintings’, edited by Martin Coomer in Time Out, which have a darkness - e.g. the tragedy of Rothko, or Goya’s mythical understanding.

DO    Yes, that top ten included some paintings I have been looking at since I was very young. Tomma Abts is a good one to bring up – her works are meditative, they are about slight changes of nuance. Barnett Newman is influential to some extent, but these are not zips, they are untitled paintings with free-floating lines, hovering. Bernard Cohen’s early spot paintings, that he made in the seventies in New Mexico, such as Painting with Three Spots One Blue and Two Yellow, were important, as they were made by layers covering a small differently-coloured disc.

LN    And Bridget Riley? How does she connect with you in terms of optical experience?

DO    I like the early work a lot. I have used it, but not directly, to make things that are optically disturbing. I am interested in her approach to writing and its content. Ellsworth Kelly’s insistence on the hand-made has made an impact, to do with painting things with a brush. The act of doing it, that’s something that was affirmed by contact with Roger Ackling, who was a visiting tutor on my MA at Norwich.

LN    You also mentioned Rothko’s The Seagram Murals in that painting list. How do you feel about the formal relationships, the gassiness – intervals of colour and shape, and their arrangement within the painting?

DO    I remember when I first saw his paintings, probably in my pre-foundation year, and I remember thinking that these are paintings which are like going to visit an ancient monument. You get the same sort of feeling from them.

LN    The idea of a monument, its internal vibrations. Is there an interest in natural phenomena or sound?

DO    My friend Lola Perrin, a minimalist composer, came into the studio to look at the Kiss series. She liked the way the work connected the formal with the humanistic. Her composition Her Sister’s Notebook used the dubbing of bass clarinets played simultaneously (there have been a couple of performances) where the area of disc that was visible determined the number of bass clarinets being played.

Red in Grey Oil on canvas 30 x 24”

LN    That would seem to indicate a visual /melodic equivalent. In some way the paintings are difficult to decipher; retinal ambiguity is key. Do you want a metaphysical interpretation?

DO    I would hope they would be metaphysical. I am interested in repetitive language, repetition of a word over and over again until it becomes more abstract.

LN    So relating to linguistic structure in the making of the painting?

DO    That kind of simplicity, you get it in the work of Philip Glass or Ravi Shankar, you feel the strangeness. I do like Indian ragas, once they have started it’s as if they are never going to end, or didn’t ever start.

LN    And is that how you want the paintings to work, to have that same kind of philosophy?

DO   Yes, I would say so.

LN    So is there a never-ending machine aesthetic operating here, a shift in the relationship between human / machine-based interactions?

DO   There is something seductive about mass-production, I quite like the idea of them all starting out exactly the same, like the Beatles’ White album. The actual covers themselves are mass-produced, all pristine with different numbers, but slowly gain their own individuality after a while.

LN   Can you say something about how you would bring that individuality together in your work? How would you choose works to hang in juxtaposition to each other? Are there different possible permutations in an installation?

DO   I have shown the Kiss and Vampire series together, placed in a way where some would be displayed at eye level and some at body level (alluding to blood contained in the body of living things) then some above which are cooler, more head height.

LN    And if you were to widen that installation out in a white cube space or another site specific space?

DO   Depends on the space. Upper and lower, as straightforward as that. I don’t think ‘drawings with paintings’. I have had long phases of drawing, then long phases of painting. It’s not one going towards the other, I would not make that kind of distinction.

Installation shots

LN    Do they have equal weight, the drawings with the paintings?

DO   Yes. And at different times as well.

LN    Is there an interest in creating an illusion in the hang within a space?

DO   Yes, some could work well at a distance. All the red ones down one side perhaps, and a black one down one end. It’s imitating the process of the drawing; the drawings naturally look like that because of their production, it’s imitating a drawing actually! (This refers to the series of History paintings)

LN   Thanks David, that seems a good place to end.

History Painting 12 Oil on canvas 59 x 52”