Alastair Gordon was shortlisted in Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work, Letters from a Friend. What at first appears to be 5 handwritten postcards, casually masking taped to a wooden substrate, is in fact an oil and acrylic painting on wood. We caught up with Alastair ahead of his upcoming online exhibition at Aleph Contemporary, to talk about trompe l’oeil, hope in isolation, and the unexpected way his painting has changed during lockdown.
Above image: All the Tape Left Over From My Last Painting, 2019, Alastair Gordon, Oil on wood, 50 x 40 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Alastair: I have always had a passion for art. Even as a boy I would carry sketchbooks around with me, finding greater interest in doodling than more career worthy pursuits like maths and the sciences. A foundation year at Leith School of Art sealed it for me and I went on to study painting at Glasgow School of Art (BA) then Wimbledon School of Art (MA) more recently. A few years ago my former tutor called me up and asked if I wanted to apply for a teaching job at Leith. It sounded like a perfect accompaniment to my studio practice so I jumped at the chance. Under normal circumstances I would be teaching there now, commuting once a month from my home in London to run the graduate residency programme.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Alastair: My childhood love of drawing has never left me and I still carry a sketchbook with me most days. This is where ideas begin. Drawings are made from observation on location, then developed through studies and collage drawings in the larger sketchbooks. When I think an idea has weight I take it to the studio and it becomes a larger painting.
I tend to work best when painting from observation so if the painting involves elements of still life I bring those objects into the studio. More recently I’ve been making painting born out of derelict industrial spaces so this involves several trips back and forth to make more studies on site.
Clare: How do you employ the tradition of trompe l’oeil illusionism to explore the function of images in contemporary society?
Alastair: There’s a secret corner of trompe l’oeil illusionism called quodlibet painting. It emerged in Northern Europe shortly after the major advances in print technology allowed images to become readily available and affordable to the masses. Quodlibet painters like Edward Colliers and Cornelis Gysbrecht made highly realistic paintings of everyday objects like newspapers, quills, combs and printed images. There was an interplay between the printed and the ‘original’, reality, fakery and the veracity of images. I see a similar positioning in our own age of digital replications and the mass dissemination of images through social media. To me, quodlibet is a good vehicle to discuss how images function today in the context of other questions in contemporary paintings towards replication, illusion and how the artist utilises source materials.
Clare: Can you tell us about your approach to colour and how you choose your palette?
Alastair: My colour decisions are quite intuitive but they are born out of observation. At first, I look to the colour of whichever object I am painting but this becomes adapted as I move to paint and try to find an overall cohesion of colour, tone and form across the painting.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Alastair: The sketchbook is my most important tool. I also have a fetish for brushes. If you come to my studio you’ll see pots crammed full of different type of brushes in varying degrees of usefulness. To my knowledge I’ve never thrown a brush away. Even the most dogged brush can be used to make a particular kind of mark.
My studio has all kinds of tools though. Some you might expect like an easel, palettes, oil and acrylic paint, inks, papers and glues. Yet there are also tools that find a more natural home in a decorators belt or DIY shop. The tools I use for wood graining are ancient and weathered, of knotted wood, scratched copper and wire. Like something left over from Middle Earth or stumbled upon down Diagon Alley.
Clare: So, when you paint on wood, is the grain we see real or painted?
Alastair: It can all get a bit confusing, especially if you’re looking at the paintings through social media or a screen. For the works I entered in the Jackson’s Painting Prize, these are painted on to wood panels. So where you see wood grain you are looking at actual wood. In other places, I also paint a wood grain effect on paper or canvas. It keeps people on their toes.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Alastair: Like many artists I have been juggling studio and teaching commitments with homeschooling my daughter and trying to make a living. I also run a charity with friends that mentors early career artists. We’ve been busier than ever. My studio time has moved to evening sessions and painting late into the night. Lockdown has afforded me valuable time to reflect on my practice and deconstruct a few things. The work has changed a lot. I’ve incorporated more collage into my paintings. The marks have become more intuitive and spontaneous. As I’ve wrestled with what’s happening in our world the paintings have reflected that and become more restless, responsive to the moment, with all the fervour, frenzy and solitude it brings. Those who know me for my tightly controlled brush marks and heightened realism might be surprised by the new paintings but they are, to me, a natural extension of my interest in painting everyday and overlooked objects, collage and responding to the moment. I believe it’s important for artists to keep experimenting, break new ground and be mindful of the times they live. These are the paintings I need to make right now and I am excited to present them in my forthcoming show with Aleph Contemporary.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Alastair: Believing something good has been achieved.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Alastair: I have a broad and sometimes surprising pool of influences. The poems of T.S. Eliot and ancient book of Ecclesiastes have been a rich source of inspiration through the years. Likewise the Studio Ghibli films and early David Lynch movies. I have already mentioned the quodlibet painters but other historical references would include Robert Rauchenberg, Morandi, Courbet and a certain school of Japanese artists from the 12th century. On my studio wall are postcards with works by more contemporary artists such as Lucy Mackenzie, Lisa Milroy, Kees Goudswaard, Joan Eardley, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Roland Hicks, Hugh Mendes and Gerhard Richter to name a few.
Clare: Can you tell us about your online exhibition opening next week at Aleph Contemporary?
Alastair: These are new works completed during lockdown with a few older and previously unseen paintings included. The paintings mark a new period in my practice, a development that has been emerging for the last year but explored with greater confidence while in isolation. I have been reminding myself of what I really love about painting, going back to old works and finding a new language for them. Making new collages and paintings that respond more to the moment and born from a renewed love of intuitive painting with all the possibilities it brings.
Like many, I have found this enforced time of isolation a hardship but not without blessing. It has been a helpful time of reflection. I have been deeply troubled by everything we have seen happening in the world these last weeks and that sense of agitation, anxiety and unrest is reflected in the painting. They are a form of lament yet there are grace notes in the paint. We have so much to hope for and I wanted that sense of optimism to be reflected in the paintings, like a glimmer of reflected light in the long grass.