The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Trevor Sutton by Hanz Hancock

January 2015

Black Lightning 2014 oil and pencil on board, 63.5 x 127 (diptych)

Christow 2013 oil and paper on board, 94 x 63.5cm

Year Zero 2007 oil on board, 74 x 56cm

Displaced 2012 oil and paper on board, 94 x 63.5cm

Leaving 2014 oil on board, 38 x 38cm

Windmill Lane 2013 oil on board, 38 x 38cm

Ice Moves 2010 oil and paper on board, 38 x 38cm

Modern Music 2011 oil and paper on board, 94 x 63.5cm

Time Off 2014 oil and pencil on board, 20 x 30.5cm (diptych)

Golden Morning 2014 oil and pencil on board, 94 x 127cm (diptych)

HH    Firstly, Trevor, what are your influences - the work, or artists, that you were looking at in the early days of your practice?  Have they significantly altered over the course of your career?

TS     I went to art school in 1967. At this time I was looking at artists like Richard Smith and Bridget Riley. Then American art took over - Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella etc. Towards the end of my art school career in 1972 I was very interested in the work of Ad Reinhardt and Brice Marden. This five-year period was also sprinkled liberally with Jeremy Moon, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Ben Nicholson, Eva Hesse, Sol Le Witt.

Presently, I see my most influential peers as being British artists Alan Charlton, John Carter, Edwina Leapman, James Hugonin, Jane Bustin, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, and the late Roger Ackling. Also, Austrian artist Ferdinand Penker with whom I collaborated for thirteen years until his untimely death in 2014.

I’ve always been attracted to abstract images. Current influences include listening to music, especially jazz, and looking at interior architectural spaces, particularly features such as doors, windows, screens, panels and the quality of light. The screened and beautifully lit spaces one finds in traditional Japanese architecture have a close bearing upon my current paintings.

In his wonderful book Light in Japanese Architecture Henry Plummer sums this up perfectly:

“The beautifully plain and simple light which belongs to old Japan, and creates such a lonely mood in traditional architecture, reflects the visual and emotional experience of the soft luminosity outside. While tremendously varied from day to day, and season to season, the prevailing skies over every country help determine the unifying spirit of that place by the way they filter sunshine and cast an overall ambience over the earth.”

HH     When I first visited your studio, I was struck by the tangible sense of order. This sensibility seems to be reflected in the ‘look’ of your paintings. How important is order in your working environment?

TS     Order is important. It’s a safety net, enabling me to relax, think, construct and play. My parents were tidy, logical people and they’ve certainly passed this on to me. I follow repetitive, almost ritualistic working practices that enhance the sense of order in my studio.

HH    Although ostensibly, the viewer’s reaction to your work might be to compare it with systems work, you have said that you do not employ this approach. Nevertheless, it is apparent that there is a rhythm, a repeated cycle, both in the geometry of your work, and in the subdivisions of pigment within individual pieces. Do you agree, or is the structure of the work arrived at in a purely intuitive manner? What physically takes precedence in your work - composition, surface, structure?

TS    I’m not a systems artist. I make paintings with drawn grids. These are simple divisions, structures that intrigue, excite and surprise me. They are partly or wholly ‘filled in’, either with pre-painted collaged sections, or by painting directly on to the panel. This ‘construction-site’ employs both logic and intuition. I usually work in series, so repeated rhythms and cycles are frequent. The deliberate introduction of music as an ambient modifier allows me to underscore and enhance rhythmic cadences in the work. A work is complete when I sense its presence, its personality. When it seems no longer mine, it has its own life.

Composition, surface and structure all have equal weight.  At the moment my work is very quiet; I want my work to whisper, not shout; to seduce, not bully.

HH     I asked earlier about the physical sense of order in your working environment.  I understand that you have a great interest in music, as I do, and you said recently:

“Minimalist music plays in fading light. Drifting white smoke, pink, silver grey horizons. The sound of air. Times like these are embedded in my paintings; the sound of seeing, the colour of mind, painting as frozen time”  

Can you expand on that statement?

TS    This statement was made in one of my Irish journals some years ago. It is a mixture of thinking aloud, observation and the influence of Flann O’Brien’s writing. Poetic metaphors lend themselves to abstract thinking. I think of painting as frozen time. To make sense of a painting requires time, as does its facture. A painting is proof of time spent making and memory, (past), and its completed reality or self, (present).

HH   About colour…you have stated that your work is constructed of: “Layer upon layer of semi-transparent oil-based glazes that build up in a visible history of colour and brush marks”.

In your work, pigment and glazes are often muted, and display traces of gesture contained within the strict rectilinear format of the grid.  Can you comment on your use of colour and how you arrive at decisions in this respect?

TS    It’s true to say that I no longer use glazes in the way I used to. That statement applies more accurately to paintings I made a decade ago.  Now there is less history, less over-painting but still evidence of the free brush mark, and as you say, each mark is contained within carefully delineated sections, or it underpins the grid as an all-over ground.

Colour refers to light, place, season, emotion. New paintings have a muted colour in order to achieve an insular absorbed world: quietly insistent colour patterns create a shifting atmospheric hum. To give you specific examples of sources, every morning at home I see early morning light through the lattice of my venetian blinds: a flickering modulated grey light that I find quite hypnotic. At my studio, the windows have no blinds but external wire mesh barriers that cast shadows on the glass and split light into refracted blues and greys and whites that become warmer as the day progresses.

HH    You have referred to Alayrac in France as a place where you and Carol Robertson have worked on several occasions, and both of you have said that these visits influence the nature and output of your work, as shown in your recent book: Carol Robertson & Trevor Sutton  - French Paintings. The book’s press release describes the collection as “applying the concept of relating location and environment with the formal language of abstraction”.

Given that our environment inevitably influences all our actions, would you describe your work as a non-referential distillation of thoughts and ideas regarding this common human experience?

TS    Carol and I have developed different relationships with Alayrac. The book is a visual record of both the place and the work we’ve made as a result of our four residencies there. Although we share the need to escape London at times for a quiet and rural environment, it is the actual studio space we work in that influences me most: the liberation of working in a huge ancient hall with its vaulted wood-beamed ceilings, its stone walls and tiled floors, its gridded windows, its ten-metre-long table. Of course I am not immune to the landscape that surrounds me but if there are direct references in my work they are subtle, and always tempered by the logic of the grid. I would say that colour is the most easily identified and obvious link with my surroundings. For the most part it is as you suggest, a non-referential distillation of thoughts and ideas.

HH    A very general question next, if I may…as a painter, what are your thoughts on the contemporary art scene in the UK? Do you have anything good (or otherwise) to say about what you are seeing these days? Who or what interests you now?

TS    The contemporary art ‘scene’ is not a preoccupation of mine. I tire of the same names appearing over and over again in curated exhibitions, in news items and reviews, their work a ‘must have’ for every museum. Their value linked to over-inflated investments that are too large to be doubted.

I think art should always be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are wonderful artists out there, both young and old. I try and keep an open mind and look at as much art as I can: art never stands still and I need to feel connected with the culture to which I contribute.

I am passionate about painting and the hand-made artwork because that’s what I do. So I’m always on the lookout for new and unfamiliar work that speaks to me. I’m encouraged by seeing young artists not just making paintings, but abstract paintings, which of course is where my personal interest lies. The advent of online forums like this one make it easier to locate like-minded artists or seek out new ideologies.

HH   The grid is a recurring principle of abstraction and is a device that you are currently using, although I know you have not always done so.  Are you intending to continue to develop this aspect of your work, or are you considering new ideas that move away from this format?

TS  Yes, right now I’m utterly absorbed by developing further paintings based on the grid, particularly as diptychs. I’m offsetting one panel against another, setting a monochrome panel or simple pencil-drawn grid against a more complex coloured grid. Endless possibilities.

HH    Thank you, Trevor

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.