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Interview with Julia Farrer by Andy Parkinson

January 2015

AP    Looking back on your career, can you give me a brief summary of what’s been interesting to you?

JF    I went to the Slade straight from school and knew absolutely nothing about art. I started printmaking in my second term. The Slade has a four-year undergraduate course and I spent the first three years making prints. During that time Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd were showing in London - I had never heard of them. I was then most interested in Surrealism, so it was a fast transition from the Surrealists to the Minimalists! Of course there were many interesting artists teaching at the Slade who were very important to me: Bernard Cohen, Noel Forster, to name but two. I have always been an abstract artist, except perhaps for that first term, and it has never occurred to me to worry about whether something is abstract or figurative; it’s not an issue, my work is abstract and that is definitely where it is situated.

AP   I’d be interested to hear from you about the extent to which you think of abstraction as having changed. Some people say that artists doing abstraction today are doing something very different to what abstract artists were doing a hundred or even fifty years ago, and I hear others say that abstraction hasn’t really changed at all. What do you think?

JF   I think it has changed as much as any other art, I don’t know where you start, certainly not Cubism, I don’t call that abstract, even Synthetic Cubism, I suppose Malevich and Lissitzky, and perhaps further east, Tantric art. Of course it has gone through many permutations. Barnett Newman, for example, is a long way from Malevich, as is Blinky Palermo or François Morellet. Abstraction has changed, as has the world we live in.

AP   Since Barnett Newman, one of the things that has changed in the world is the rise of digital media, access to digital imagery, and to digital means; to what extent is that important to you?

JF   With a computer you have access to an enormous infinite library. And I think  that one of the problems is that often people look at the digital image rather than the original. Barnett Newman talks about the first reaction that we have to a painting being visceral, and I think that is very important; the way something is made is fundamental, its scale and material. Your physical relationship to a painting is very different if a painting is three metres long or thirty centimetres square; it is the difference between looking at a landscape or a flower.  A computer is a tool, a hammer, and over the past few years I have made much use of this beautiful digital tool, but it is just that, a tool, and it is important not to be seduced by it.

AP   And coming into the present, when you are actually making something, I was going to say a painting - but it’s not always painting - what’s important to you now?

JF   Each specific image and idea suggests a particular process, so if I make something as an etching it is the specific process and quality of etching that I want in the work.  The process I choose is particular and precise and not interchangeable. A watercolour, for example, is something else, it is very direct and immediate, the opposite to an etching; the process informs the image and reveals the image.

AP   I am hearing that it is not interchangeable, yet today I have been seeing images that were drawings, then etchings, then paintings or constructions….

JF   Well, one process can lead to another, can inform another, and the paintings always come out of works on paper, but they are separate and different expressions of the same idea. Usually they are drawings or watercolours, and more recently collages, which the ideas are built from.

I started working with collage when Ian Tyson and we started making books together. We had a research grant to make books, and I said: “how are we going to do this?” He said “send me a drawing”, I sent him a drawing, and he telephoned me asking what he should do with it. I said “I don’t know, cut it up, paint it black”, which he did with great irreverence, which was very funny as well as successful. In the end we were making a lot of things with collage, and it became part of my work process. Later I started working with a computer, to surprise myself, working with a 3D programme, making drawings and images that were impossible to do in any other way.

AP   Two strands that I would be interested to explore with you are, first of all, whether certain architectural means may be important to you, and then the artist books you make. Am I right to make an architectural connection?

JF   Years ago I was working with folded drawings on tracing paper. Surprise geometries came out of that, and co-incidentally, about that time, I discovered the architects Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind and the de-constructivists. They were working with folding programmes making folded fractured structures and I became very interested in what they were doing and the devices and conventions that are used within architectural drawing; I now have a large collection of books on contemporary architecture.

I have been making books for a long time, from the early simple leporellos (concertina books) to the more complex folded, cut, constructed architectural books such as Lo with a poem by Judith Thurman. They were a parallel route in realising ideas, and I am now beginning to think of sculpture, which has its origins in these books, which I consider are kinetic sculptures in the way that you turn the pages to reveal the form. Then of course, you also have the wonderful added complication of text, which makes you respond in a different way to the visual image, it’s a parallel thought, and working with writers is a very interesting collaborative process.

AP   And yet the books don’t look like illustrations of text, which I think is what we are used to seeing when images and words are combined in books…

JF   These artist books are parallel expressions, if you like, of an idea. In the most recent book with Robert Vas Dias, I asked him to write a poem about bridges. Some years ago I made little book, with a poem by Rimbaud: Les Ponts, and Robert came back like lightning with this poem: Syntax of Bridges, and then it’s my problem - how to make it into a book? In this case the text works like a river flowing through the bridges, the images run, a reflection not an illustration. A bridge is wonderful metaphor, for spanning ideas … it’s an architectural idea…

AP   So what is it, looking back, that has been important to you as an abstract artist?

JF    Nobody has a problem with abstraction in music, and I don’t understand why there should be a problem with abstraction in painting. If you make something that is not figurative then it doesn’t carry the potential baggage of associations that a figurative image has; what you see is what you get, and I suppose that is why I make non-figurative paintings. There are, of course, references to things seen outside the paintings, and my most recent work has elements of illusion because it is to do with structure, and in that sense I suppose you could argue that there is a figurative element.

Many years ago I met Al Held who always swore that his work was absolutely non-figurative, but he used perspective, had perspective grids, boxes and structures, so I never really understood that statement. Al Held’s white paintings were very important to me, with their thin black lines punctuated by small black squares. They are very graphic spatial paintings.

Lo, 2001 etching and letterpress, with text by Judith Thurman , 60 x 13.5 cm

Syntax of Bridges 2014 etching and letterpress , with text by Robert Vas Dias, 27 x 31 cm, fully open 27 x 182 cm

A Knot of Time I 2013 acrylic on birch plywood 80 x 82 cm

Twin Towers 2013 acrylic on birch plywood 119 x 97 cm

Lacuna II 2010 acrylic on birch plywood 54 x 128 cm

AP   I think I am hearing you say that they find their way into the work in some ways that you only recognise after the event…

JF   Yes, absolutely, you can’t risk not seeing things because you never know what is going to be a catalyst for the work. We have ideas knocking around in the head, and it is often a surprising little catalyst that will bring things together.

AP   I wonder whether you would say something about your relationship to colour in these paintings…

JF   My colour is absolutely not systematic, it is intuitive and emotional, and the colour in the two paintings Knot of Time was actually developed on a computer, going through many variations and permutations, and having done that, once I start making a painting, the colour evolves.  The paintings are constructed in many layers and it is an intuitive development, not a fixed idea. However, in Blue Lacuna I knew exactly what the colour should be, although the tonality changed. It is perhaps a bit like jazz: something that is developed through improvisation, and of course experience of the medium. At the outset I have a clear idea of the spatial structure and form but it has to be played, performed, if you like. Actually that is a very good description of the paintings, the form is fixed from the beginning and does not change, in a way it’s like a score. I have the score, and then I have to play it.

AP   My last question: why do you do this crazy thing of making art every day?

JF   Well, it is what I can do. I agree that being an artist is a lunatic profession. I have taught for many years and we talk passionately about art, and give lectures, argue at length; if a Martian were to land in the room he would think we were completely crazy, you can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, you can’t breathe it, yet it is one of the essential things that human beings do. I have a passionate interest in non-European art, particularly African masks and sculpture, and the indigenous arts of the Pacific Islands. What is extraordinary is that whether it comes from the Bismarck Archipelago or the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, there are forms that are truly universal. Whilst it may be too grand, and a pompous, arrogant idea to say that you are making something that is universal, you hope in the end that there is something there that people can connect with, and if they don’t connect, it has really failed.

AP    Thank you, Julia

AP   Looking at your work in the studio today I appreciate how different an experience it is. looking at one of your books to, say, looking at one of these paintings on the wall here. When people see your work what do you hope that they experience?

JF   I think that changes with each piece; the two works here are called Knot of Time (I and II), and they are bundles of energy, disparate elements frozen in a moment. There is a Lorca poem, Cada Canción, where there is the line   “a knot of time”, and I hope that when people look at these paintings they are catching something of a specific instant, frozen simultaneities. Of course, they took much longer than an instant to paint but I like the impossible notion with these paintings that if you looked again they would have changed, as though the painting is in motion, but there are other paintings that are totally static and still. These two are not peaceful paintings.

AP   These are not, but I think that this one is…

JF   Yes, a painting called Lacuna, which means a hole, a gap in a text, an absence, funnily enough, inspired, I realised much later, by the garden of a marvellous Cistercian abbey in France called Fontenay. There’s an oval pond there and the oval of this painting came from that pond. Often I don’t know where the origins of things are, but I know specifically where this painting came from, that shape. It’s interesting after travelling, to know what rests and stays in the mind. I came back from Central America this year (2014), looking at Mayan temples, and there are one or two images that persist from that experience. The complex grid like ‘combs’ that are at the top of some the temples, for example, at Palenque, Uxmal and Esne, and the painting on Mayan ceramics that were in a museum in Antigua were astonishing and a revelation.

Helical Variation II 2010 acrylic on birch plywood 82 cm diameter

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