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Neil Clements was interviewed by Hannah Hughes on 6 September 2016

September 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In the exhibition ‘Out of Nowhere: A presentation of Jeremy Moon's work by Neil Clements’, currently on view at PEER and Large Glass, artist Neil Clements has selected a number of original paintings and drawings by Moon, which are presented alongside his own ‘didactic’ sculpture. Here, Neil Clements talks to Hannah Hughes about tackling the role of one artist advocating another, and the dynamics of this engagement within the present exhibition.

HH   I thought that we could start by talking about the background to the exhibition. I understand that Out of Nowhere relates to your present PhD research, which focuses on the analysis of 1960s British Abstract Art.  I'm interested to know what led you to the work of Jeremy Moon?

NC   The research project as a whole grew from a longstanding interest I’ve had as a practitioner in abstract art made in Britain during the 1960s. This is something that dates back to when I was still an undergraduate painting student. It was only a little later that I started to formulate more concrete ideas about what I found so compelling about it, and specifically to go about differentiating it from the American abstraction that is commonly regarded as the canonical work of the period.

My first awareness of Jeremy Moon’s practice was the result of coming across a catalogue for his 1976 Serpentine retrospective, by chance, in the library of the Glasgow School of Art. I ended up borrowing it quite a lot, largely because I couldn’t entirely establish why I thought the paintings illustrated in it were so good. It’s a very slender little publication and it became a private point of reference for me. Again, it was only later that I began to meet other people who had also formed the same kind of relationship with the work, and I realised Moon was a cult painter of sorts.

Installation View: ‘Out of Nowhere’ at PEER. Photo: FXP Photography

HH   In the gallery communications for Out of Nowhere, your role has been defined as the ‘presenter’ of Moon’s work. The term ‘curator’ here has been very consciously avoided. Through the insertion of your own didactic sculptural installation in the space at PEER gallery, which projects paintings by Moon that you have digitally re-created, you appear to problematise the role of the ‘artist curator’. Can you talk a little bit about how you would define your role – and the initial discussions that led to this particular interest in the dynamics of one artist advocating another?

NC   The exhibition at PEER originated as a two-person exhibition of my work and Moon’s. Faced with the question of how to present myself in such circumstances I decided it was most appropriate to act as a kind of subjective bracketing for his work, rather than making a discrete display of my own that attempted to vie with it. But I still wanted to be absent in as palpable or obtrusive a manner as possible, so that’s how I arrived at the solution of filling a room more or less entirely with a metal sculpture projecting images of someone else’s artwork. In my mind at least the show is about the problematic nature of one artist wanting to speak for another rather than themselves, and whether this is something that comes across or not, the display at PEER is effectively an attempt to articulate that.

The selection of archival material at Large Glass conforms much more to what I would consider to be curatorial activity, although this too requires us to distinguish between two separate conceptions of what that means. Curatorial practice is nowadays an extremely broad field, with, as you say, no shortage of artists fashioning themselves in that mode. As an experimental platform it has given rise to a new category of professional, whose position is somewhere between what were traditionally understood to be the institutional and artistic spheres. For me though, the term will never fully relinquish its managerial connotations, which in turn presumes a kind of immaterial engagement with its subject. In even the most innovative examples provided by this new industry, the overall display remains the curator’s product, not any specific artwork that appears within it. As such it’s not that I have any particular antipathy to being regarded as a curator in the expanded sense that it is now understood, more that I felt this indicated my role was positioned ‘outside’ as opposed to ‘inside’ the exhibition itself. The distinction is a relatively subtle one, given how closely curatorial activities have come to resemble artistic ones, and I’m not sure how intelligible the term ‘presenter’ was as a result, but it was settled on as a way to signal my joint role as a physical participant and general advocate of Moon.

HH   The sculpture we have just been discussing (Didactic Sculpture: Middle Class Anglo Saxon, 2013/2016) overtly references the open form of Early One Morning by Anthony Caro (Moon’s contemporary and friend) from 1962. By looking at Moon’s work ‘through the lens’ of Caro’s work, you seem to be underlining the importance of biography in the understanding of Moon’s work. Does this come close to your original intentions?

NC   This is true to some extent, but the background to how the sculpture came to be included is worth explaining. It was originally built for an exhibition that was held in CCA Derry-Londonderry in 2013. Developing the work for this show I had been interested in a collection of artworks, including examples by both Caro and Moon, which had been purchased by the Ulster Museum from the Kasmin and Rowan galleries in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  I found it fascinating that this took place at a time of increasing unrest in Northern Ireland, and how in these circumstances formalist abstraction functioned as a kind of secular imagery or political salve. Having grown up in Belfast, and presumably having absorbed some of that message by osmosis on school trips to the museum, what I was trying to make sense of was whether my own taste was itself a product of this curatorial remit.

So the decision to re-purpose this sculpture to house a presentation of Jeremy Moon’s paintings has less to do with the biographical connection Caro and Moon had teaching together on the Sculpture Course at St. Martin’s. It’s more to do with how it functions metaphorically as a piece of educational apparatus. After exhibiting it for the first time with a different slide projection, I became aware that I wanted it to operate more as a piece of equipment than as a sculpture, and the best way to indicate this was to keep changing what it displayed. Didactic Sculpture refers to specifically to the sculpture itself, the suffix Middle Class Anglo-Saxon to its projected display. Given the opportunity I would gladly think up another purpose for it. Although I’m happy for the St. Martin’s connection to be made, it wasn’t my primary intention. I’ve always regarded my practice as a particularly irresponsible form of art history, one where my own meandering thoughts too often intrude. As such the biographical lens is probably more my own than Caro’s.

HH   Your approach to examining Moon's archive could be described as forensic - uncovering his vast catalogue of sketches of all of his paintings, which you have then used to re-create the works as digital images. Can you tell me about your decision to generate digital simulations of the originals?

NC   Like the sculpture, I consider these slides to be reverse-engineered versions of their originals. Working out the logistics necessary to replicate a Caro was a form of learning, or committing to memory. Early One Morning is a kind of elementary vocabulary in the sense that it’s made from more or less every type of metal profile you can buy from a stockist: rolled steel joist, channel, square section, tube, sheet etc. This was something that only fully dawned on me when I was making a list of what I needed to get hold of to fabricate my own version.

Similarly, remaking five years’ worth of Moon’s paintings as vector files was a means by which to better understand the process by which his practice evolved. This was mainly to examine the points at which the logic informing a work appears to be extrapolated from the previous one, and the points at which a dramatic and difficult-to-account-for change in direction seems to occur (in addition to giving them text-based titles, Moon numbered all of his works from 1964 onwards, so we have a fairly good idea about their order of completion).  I wanted to make something that focused on these transitions rather than on individual artworks.

HH   Moon's paintings are often acknowledged as containing an element of humour, through their joyful use of colour and precariously-balanced shaped supports. The idea of ‘serious play’ appears to be central to your interest in Moon's work – is this something that you are pursuing in your own practice?

NC   It’s not that they’re funny per se, but it’s never been clear to me whether we’re supposed to take a painting by Jeremy Moon entirely seriously. It’s this equivocal quality I find so attractive. Similarly, I would like my own activities to be interpretable in more than one way.

Jeremy Moon, English Rose, 1967. Acrylic on shaped canvas.

Jeremy Moon, Shadows, 1965. Acrylic on shaped canvas.

HH   You have identified a playful contradiction between ideas of labour and leisure in Moon’s work. Can you explain this a little more?

NC   These categories could be just as easily be rephrased as the intellectual aspects of the work and their more sensual properties. However, a dialectical opposition of labour and leisure was something I began to use as a means of trying to access a series of qualities I felt to be present in the artworks themselves, but which are actively suppressed by formal methods of analysis: the social and economic conditions that underpinned the production of large scale, hard-edge abstract paintings at this time. What I see Moon’s practice exemplifying is a tension that exists between the serious investment he considered necessary on his own part as an artist, and the disinterested engagement the same paintings subsequently prompt in a viewer who encounters them in his or her free time. In this sense it is not that Moon’s formal approach to making abstract paintings is contaminated by other cultural activities, more that the very notion of a purely abstract artwork was itself predicated on ideological conditions structuring the modern environment as a whole. Understanding how a painting was simultaneously a product of labour and a vehicle for leisure formed a central part in my thinking on the subject.

HH   The ‘value’ of painting, and perhaps its recent return to prominence, can be attributed to the ideas of labour embedded in the process of making, with importance placed on the direct indexical relationship between the artist and the painting. I’m always touched by the ‘handmade’ quality of reductive or hard-edge abstraction of this period – the acceptance of slight imperfections, with paint bleeding through the tape and evidence of touch. In a way, this points towards ‘authorship’ – and I’m very curious about how this is subverted in your re-creation of Moon’s paintings. Is authorship transferred, or shared at this point?

NC   It is always a surprise for me to see the real thing, especially given how typically we now engage with reproductions of artworks. Our tendency to equate masking tape bleed with human expression probably begins with Barnett Newman, an artist held in especially high esteem by Moon and other British painters of the period. And there was certainly a more pragmatic approach to paint handling then, something that has become more mannered as time has gone on. However, I think it would be wrong to interpret the authorial claims this kind of work makes as lying wholly in an indexical relation between a painter and their surfaces. By making abstraction that was so graphically reductive, these artists were also laying claim to an intellectual terrain that extended to their circulation in print.

The process of remaking Moon’s paintings refers in particular to the uncredited labour of those printers who made lithographic facsimiles for magazines and catalogues. For example, the colour reproduction of Moon’s painting Mandarin that appears in the publication for the 1965 exhibition London: The New Scene is actually an artificially-tinted black and white photograph. Elsewhere it is not uncommon to see images of hard-edged abstraction being completely remade from scratch, largely due to the limitations of photographic technology at the time. These, I would argue, were simulations of a kind, but ones that are rarely discussed in relation to the concept of authorship.

I am obviously aware there’s something perverse about my preoccupation with abstract painters from another milieu, and that this in turn relates to broader questions of appropriation and artistic agency. It’s worth mentioning too that I would have encountered Moon’s work at around the same time as I first read seminal texts on the topic, like Thomas Crow’s ‘the Return of Hank Herron.’ But whereas artworks of the kind Crow described act to usurp the auratic quality of the original work, I wanted to produce a more ambiguous relationship. This is all the more important in a critical climate, where terms like ‘zombie abstraction’ are being freely used to describe paintings that have too complacent a relationship with existing ones. I would much prefer my position to appear problematised than cynical.

Neil Clements, Didactic Structure: Middle Class Anglo Saxon, 2013/2016. Steel, aluminium, slide projector. Photo: FXP Photography

Jeremy Moon, Portfolio of 27 sheets. Inventory drawings of all the paintings made by Jeremy Moon, 1962 -1973 Pastel, ink and pencil on paper. Photo: Alex Delfanne

HH    Movement and sound play a large role in ‘Didactic Sculpture’, with the whirring and rotating of the carousel punctuating the silence of the gallery space. Was this important? Can you tell me more about your decision to use a slide carousel rather than a digital device, for example?

NC   Thankfully, when I’m asked to deliver a lecture I don’t have to use a slide projector, but in my mind it still remains the symbolic apparatus of the art history department, and this is a kind of affiliation I’ve cultivated in a number of related works. Transferring the imagery to 35mm slide film also has the effect of softening up what on a digital projector would have looked very harsh, something that makes the images appear more like the kind of tipped-in catalogue plate they allude to.

Jeremy Moon, Working drawing (Time Magazine, April 16, 1965). Pencil on paper.

HH    Matthew Collings has written that Moon’s art “is better appreciated detached from its time of origin”.  Do you agree with this sentiment – and if so, what concerns could it be said to share with contemporary abstract painting?

NC    I am inclined to agree; an unfortunate by-product of historically ghettoizing 1960s British abstraction is the extent to which this approach undermines the kind of futurity I personally see it containing. It’s a delicate business; while it would be unfair to detach the work entirely from the conditions in which it was made, so many interesting comparisons might be produced by placing it on the same walls as more recent painting. It’s there, after all, that the degree to which these works provoke the debates we are still having today would be most visible. A mixture of both approaches is probably necessary. To answer your question more directly, I see something profoundly illogical resting just behind the cool rationality of Moon’s surfaces, and that’s what I feel makes them so strangely contemporary. It’s how they always seem to ask more questions than they answer.

Installation View: ‘Out of Nowhere’ at Large Glass, London, 14 July – 17 September 2016. Photo: Alex Delfanne

HH    As we can tell from his own writings during the 1970s, Moon appears to have felt that there was little support for British abstract painting in the period following the Situation show a decade earlier, and he was also particularly wary of the opinions of what he saw as a new order of 'non-visual' art critics.  What is your view on the way that his work was received at the time – and in what terms should it be re-assessed today?

NC   Moon’s frustration arose in part from the shortness of the period of time during which painting of the type he was making was seen as critically relevant. If we take his first exhibition at Rowan Gallery, and the publication of his 1971 polemic ‘Enemies of Painting’, as the beginning and end points, the equivalent would be having begun a career in 2007, and by 2016 feeling as though you were being sidelined. It’s not very long at all, especially when you consider the critical currency that the subsequent generation of (more conceptually-oriented) British artists managed to maintain. Many of his feelings on the subject I gather centered around Charles Harrison, who had been supportive of his work but later become increasingly interested in art that both challenged disciplinary boundaries and looked to incorporate written text directly. They remained in correspondence, but in Moon’s words, he felt Harrison had ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ in that respect.

There is something very idealistic about Moon wanting his paintings to be understood in such an exclusively visual sense. While I can’t quite reconcile myself to such a purist outlook, it’s still something I very much admire. Perhaps we should be trying to appreciate how radical a stance this was at the time, and the considerable leap of faith that it entailed.

All images courtesy of the estate of Jeremy Moon, PEER and Large Glass, London.

Out of Nowhere: A presentation of Jeremy Moon's work by Neil Clements continues until 17 September 2016 at PEER and Large Glass, both London N1.

Neil Clements will be in conversation with David Batchelor at PEER on Tuesday, 13 September, 6.30 to 8.00pm (booking recommended).

Jeremy Moon, Drawing [28/12/72] 1972, Pencil on paper, Photo: Anna Arca.