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Ian Davenport in conversation

with Clem Crosby

Magazine article

Published by Turps Banana

July 2016


IAN DAVENPORT: Before we discuss your current work, I wondered if you could talk a bit about how you started painting the early monochromes – how did you come to make those?


CLEM CROSBY: It’s very vivid in my mind. At that time I was in my flat in Elephant and Castle painting over work that I didn’t like, over and over. I’d put a colour on, and nothing was working, so I would repeat the process until eventually you could see the accrued layers of paint from the side of the support, a strata of different colours. So the early monochromes evolved through a kind of censoring, or obfuscation and covering up and dealing with a notion of failure. Eventually I realised that although they were fairly straightforward, they had some kind of built-in history and pulse or psychological charge, so I had them photographed by Ed Woodman and took the transparencies into the Lisson Gallery and that was the beginning.

ID: Do you think that with everything that happened in the art world during the 80s you had to wipe the slate clean and start at the beginning?

CC: I’m not sure about the art world in general but personally it was desperation on my part; I didn’t know what to paint. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I did know that I was less interested in dealing with representation or issues around hierarchy, composition, or the narrative; so I began dealing with the monochrome. You can’t really argue against it. In retrospect I realise now that in making the monochromes I was dismantling my previous efforts whilst also buying time for myself. This authoritarian paradigm eventually manifests as an endgame and I became less interested the more I found out that others were making similar work.

ID: It’s both simple and complex.


Clem Crosby


Oil on formica mounted on aluminium, 2015

121.9 x 121.9 cm

Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

11.My my shivers.jpg

Clem Crosby

My, my shivers

Oil on aluminium, 2015

78.7 x 104.1 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

CC: I was painting on primed MDF – there were no tricks and I kept the idea of craft or expertise to a minimum and simply focused on the process in an almost perfunctory way. These monochromes were not particularly seductive optically, most were sludgy greens or almost black and they didn’t have an all-over shiny surface – at best I would say they were muted. I pressed newspaper on them to absorb the oil because I wanted the paint to dry quickly so I could repaint. They would then have these registration lines from the edges of the newspaper appearing. I realise now that I was engaged with paintings that were about being made and unmade in real time, in the sense that I was not interested in the speed and gloss of other work being made at that period, so I kind of went against that. I noticed a lot of painters, like yourself for example, were using house paint which had quite a fast, sophisticated, industrial finish but I wanted something more handmade and deliberately analogue.


ID: Yes my paintings appeared to have a veneer of sophistication but in fact I was more like a caveman who had just discovered gloss paint! (laughter)

CC: Well, it could be argued that, like a caveman, you were starting with something untried and something new, which was relevant to me at the time considering the prevalence of figurative painting. It was refreshing to see your first show at Waddington’s which seemed to be about the paint as much as anything. I remember later on, during our show together at Southampton City Art Gallery (1995), we were installing and they wanted to talk to us about our work in the museum. I told them in great detail about mine and then you just added, “Yeah, I go to the builders’ merchants and get some gloss paints...”

ID: (laughter)

CC: And they waited with their pens and thought you were going to say loads more! And that was it! People did want more, but that was not my concern. For example, I was writing on the side of the paintings, so I would know which ones I’d worked on last and what I was thinking at the time, a kind of aide-memoire. Of course people then began writing about the text and the text became the central purchase, a way into the painting, and the sides became more interesting than the front!  


ID: I notice that your current titles could be from a book or something that you were particularly fond of?

CC: My titles come from what you might call high and low culture. The last work I finished in this show (Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 2015) is called The Big Bounce which is a title from Elmore Leonard’s first novel that wasn’t a Western. He was writing Westerns right up until the 60s, and then he started with the LA crime scene. Although his Westerns were great, The Big Bounce was the first book that defined him as a writer of the underworld and the gangster genre. I thought how fantastic that he did his day job and wrote in his basement all those years, doing Pulp Fiction Westerns, and then turning a corner. Leonard’s story presents itself as a kind of positive trajectory and it was a good fit for the painting which although is modest in size, feels rather expansive. I also like the throwaway alliteration of pulp titles; it seems a suitable counterpoint to the inherent reverence attached to painting.  

ID: Then after your monochromes the looping line and drawing start to open up. Barry Schwabsky in his ArtForum interview in 2011 has a lovely way of describing it – he talks about the single tightly woven mesh of colours resolving into a single all-over colour complex being untied.


CC: Prior to that was a decisive moment in wanting to break through the monochrome. I decided to achieve that through drawing – drawing with paint. Perhaps what Barry is referring to is the line (and colour) unravelling.  

ID: That looseness is maybe best illustrated in the permanent commission of paintings you made for the exterior of the Young Vic theatre in London.

CC: Those paintings signalled a plateau for me. I found the concentrated time frame of the commission incredibly tense. It forced me to take everything back to the bare bones, like drawing itself and the volition of drawing, but the incidentals of drawing with paint dictate that everything is amplified and fleshed-out, so to speak.

ID: It is evident that you touch on Modernism. How is Modernism interpreted in your work?


CC: One of the things I recognised was that artists have created this great lexicon of painterly language and I want to dip in and out and use that language. Although personally I think it’s important that, at the end of my research or exploration, I recognise the finished piece as my own. I may be liberated by certain artists rather than influenced directly. So, yes, without doubt I’m working in the shadow of Modernism although perhaps it’s what you might call meta-Modernism. What I am suggesting is perhaps a kind of theoretical Modernist grid superimposed over one’s work. 

CC: I’m aware a large part of my work relies on drawing and the use of black and white. I needed an element of disruption against this linear aspect and colour seemed an obvious choice. In fact, one becomes more aware of the colour because of the predominance of black and white and conversely, the appearance of black and white is also heightened because of the punctuation of colour, for example in Arcadian, and In Triple Speed. The decisions I make relating to the colours are largely a result of ineptitude or frustration because I’ve never been able to blend or mix colour on the surface so I slap it on or behind the line, and in a sense the colour becomes less of an adornment and more of a physical presence. 


ID: Is there any significance in your choice of colour?


CC: My choice of colours is not symbolic. In fact, for this show, I remember using leftover pigment that I had stored in jars and although it involved a process of expediency and decision-making, I chose the muted or dirty colours, even the dusky pink in My, my shivers for their physicality and ability to work with the weight and contrast of the line.


ID: Is painting today about trying to find one’s own voice?


CC: I’ve never thought of that as a priority because the notion of originality is redundant. I think it can put you in a state of paralysis if you become preoccupied with trying to find a ‘voice’. All we can hope for is that something appears, and mostly I have experience and my intuition to rely on for that.


ID: Can we go back to the placing of colours? Recently I was looking at the Van Gogh painting in the Metropolitan in New York where Van Gogh has literally filled in the negative spaces between the leaves of the flowers with colour.


CC: Yes, his painting of roses. It’s remarkable how sculptural his paintings are, the flowers are almost modelled. If you look closely, Van Gogh has fleshed out the forms on and around his drawing, and despite the generosity of paint, he’s managed an incredible economy of style which spares the viewer from having to wade through the narrative. His use of a dark outline only adds an artificial aspect to much of his work, which to my mind makes it more believable and I suppose that is what I’m after; a sense of conviction.​

10.180 Monochromes.jpg

ID: I can see a number of artists with overlapping concerns that you share an affinity with such as Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly, and late Dubuffet.


CC: Last year I looked at some of the late acrylic paintings Dubuffet made on paper and they’re fantastic. I can’t understand why nobody has made bigger versions because they would make a killing. There’s an opening there!


ID: Don’t tell anyone! Can I ask you about the use of colour in your new paintings?

Clem Crosby

Studio shot: Work in progress for 180 Monochromes


Photos: Prudence Cuming Associates

8.In triple speed.jpg

Clem Crosby

In triple speed

Oil on formica mounted on aluminium, 2015

76 x 61 cm

Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

9 Installation view My my shivers.jpg

Clem Crosby

Installation view: My, my shivers


Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

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