Diana Copperwhite: What’s your day-to-day process in the studio? Do you have routine?
Marcus Cope: I like to get into the studio as early as I can, I take lunch with me so that the day isn’t interrupted. I concentrate better when I listen to music through headphones. There is something insular about that which I need, it helps me to shut off the outside world and enter into the painting zone quickly, and get involved in the work I’m making.
The studio floor is chaotic, and I tend to sit on the floor amid the chaos, with everything I need in arms reach in a circle around me. Over the past 18 months I’ve had 20 or so small paintings (45 x 70 cm) on the go at one time, in various forms of completeness. I only work on a few at a time though, so the mood and ideas can change during their making. I also have drawings that I make using fine-liner pens and oil paint. I started this process about three years ago having first made one for the Drawing Biennial at the Drawing Room, priming A4 paper and spraying or flicking (mostly) black, red and white paint onto them at random, with the drawings overlapping each other masking off areas, creating gradient triangles of colour, suggesting space. I like them being this small because – even though I have a tendency towards the gestural – if one of these drawings is not working out it is easy to erase it. I also find the size is good for both my need to be gestural as well as tight at times. Sometimes I’m drawing images of imagined rooms packed with things in fine detail, and other times I might be drawing something from life in the studio – a paint tube, a chair, an old jam jar used for turps, brushes, the plant in the corner of my studio or translating information from photographs. These drawings are what inform or become the smaller paintings. I usually find myself working on a new or a few new drawings every time I’m in the studio even if I have a deadline to finish something. I like this about the studio, it makes up the rules for me and doesn’t concern itself with deadlines.
These are the first paintings that you have exhibited since 2011?. Why did you have this break?
For the show at studio1.1 I have made large-scale paintings for the first time in almost 4 years. It’s a great feeling to make these and they have had a long period of gestation, although they didn’t all make it into the show. I’m not in the hurry that I used to be to produce work. I think as I mature as an artist I find that there is much less of a need to please other people – or to make those paintings that have that immediate impact on others, liked or disliked – and I am much more settled into what is important to me to put in the pictures. I’m developing my compositions to include a much greater array of the stuff of my life and the things that interest me.
My last painting show ‘Carrion’, was also at studio1.1. The show centred around paintings of Vultures. I made the paintings for that show in a relatively short amount of time, around 4 weeks if I recall correctly. I really like those paintings, but I realised quickly that they were pictures I would not have made if I hadn’t had the show. After that I was in a studio that was really hard to heat during the particularly long cold winter of 2012, making another series of bigger vulture paintings, this time the images were of dead and dying birds. I put all I had into those pictures and really entered the darkness that winter. I was also very busy with the last Marmite Prize at the time and I think the experience of all of those things led me to take a break from painting, unintentionally for about 18 months. For that period and up until now I have only really been interested in showing the drawings, as I didn’t want to rush the paintings into completeness before they were really ready.
Over the past couple of years the content of your work has focused on the studio. Where did this come from?
The focus on the studio developed from drawings that I was doing whilst working on that series of dead and dying vultures. Even though I had worked hard on the paintings over a six month period the thing that really resonated was these dozen or so drawings that I had made almost automatically or thoughtlessly on the side – drawings which depicted artists in the action of painting big paintings of dead vultures, sometimes upside down, their heads sticking out of bags – very scruffy stuff using marker pens and the leftover paint on the brush or pallete.
Soon after I finished those paintings I moved to a smaller studio on the sixth floor of a building (and moved house and moved from my storage) and I made a vow to myself that I wasn’t going to carry any big paintings up or downstairs in that (lift-less) building. I just worked on paper there for 12 months and it was an incredibly productive time for me, where I really developed those drawings of the artist at work in the studio, images of the gallery, artist in conversation etc., as well as some images of singular stuff. I had good fun imagining large studios filled with big abstract paintings…
I later spent a lot of time looking at how artists throughout history had depicted the studio. There are some, particularly George Braque and Philip Guston, who are and always have been a constant inspiration, but as we know great examples exist throughout history: Courbet, Monet, Delecroix, Cezanne, Immendorf etc.
The introduction to your show focuses on the painters tools and creating a space that celebrates that moment where there is potential. Could you talk a little more about that?
Yes, the works are a celebration of being in the studio. What a privilege. When I finished my BA and first went to Cyprus to do a residency at the Cyprus College of Art I recall the feeling of freedom, gone was the need to contextualise or justify this stuff I was making. But what should I paint? Well that’s about life I think – what is around us, what we respond to, and of course a lot of the time this is the studio. It’s also the news, politics, relationships, the light on the walk to work or the studio, something past or some hopes future. I like comedy, and I think that humour and play are absolutely essential aspects to include within my practice. I think of the studio as a creative place, where in theory anything can happen, as you say potential. All artists are different, but the tools that we choose to have there, angle grinder or tube of paint, tend to determine our approach to how we will go about expressing our ideas, they are our potential.
You and a friend set up the Marmite Prize after you’d been at Chelsea College of Art, validating the pursuit of painting away from a direct market environment and creating a real space for painting. Has that influenced the content in your own work?
Ha! I like that question. I don’t think the pursuit of painting needs any more validation than it already has. I suppose I think of it the other way round – it’s the painters who matter. Someone who buys a painting is just the same as someone who ‘likes’ a painting on social media or whatever, only they’ve got more money. I guess you are alluding to the problem we have with the commercial side of things and it having too much of a perceived stranglehold over the art world. I don’t care about that of course, but at the same time it’s not my world. I work. I earn money for the rent and I paint when I can. I’m happy like this. Of course I’d like to be in the studio more, but I’m aware of the value of being part of society and how that informs my work. Although my pictures are of the studio, I do hope that the references are not all art world. I like to think of it as an insight into the painters’ world. I don’t think that running the prize has had an influence on the content of my work, but it certainly has an influence on how I see the art world and on the decisions that I make about how I choose to promote my own work.
What are your influences?
The things I see around me. Life experiences. Memories. Dreams. Cyprus. I guess in a way, structure- building/carpentry. I love painting of course.
Can you expand on what you mean by ‘life experience’. How much or what influence does your life have on your work.
I guess it’s all of it. Life is about looking and seeing form, travel and experience, people and relationships. Within the paintingGetting Beyond the Blue Hands, there is a drawing of my daughter, one of Percy my cat, that battered old table, bits of Cyprus – the studios and the accommodation, the sculpture of those hands that has been the topic of so many conversations, as well as acting as a land mark – past paintings, elements of space thought through from my carpentry work building studios and gallery spaces. It’s very diaristic. Things resonate, sometime I’m not sure why but they can become an obsession and continue to feature in the paintings for years.
The paintings and drawings over the past two years have a very limited palette. Is there a reason for this?
Again, during my break from painting I was able to take stock of what I really liked, with coIour as with all aspects of painting. People always find it funny when I say this but I’ve never been a fan of blue, and I don’t get on that well with yellow either. This is really why the red, white and black started to dominate. Also as a combination those colours really do it for me, so I consciously put the other colours back in the paint box and used these. It’s also interesting focussing on this, and really getting to know the properties and differences between the different colours hues. The yellowness of Vine black by contrast to the cool black of Ivory, and then how these two colours react differently again as thin washes sitting on top of zinc white for example. This is painters’ stuff. I mentioned Guston (in relation to his studio painting) who also used this palette. There is really a challenge there to make the paintings with the same palette and similar subject but avoid direct comparison. Pieter De Hooch also used a lot of red and grey tones and painted many interiors. I love those paintings. When I came to do the larger paintings the red also seemed to drop away, and the results are black and white. This was the inspiration for painting the gallery floor black for the show. Using the same colours on the walls and floor as is in the paintings brought out all the highlights and darkest depth of the paintings beautifully.
What role does drawing play?
Drawing is really the cornerstone of what I do. Without drawing the paintings couldn’t exist. Drawing is all aspects, and can be quick or in depth. I have dozens of drawings of an old table that I have been looking at for a few years, some drawn from life, some from photos, others from other drawings. In some the table is in an imaginary scene, some in a remembered one, some floating on an abstract ground. The table sometimes has objects on it, or the drawing of it exists for colour relationships. Several versions are mirrored, with the colours inverted, a shadow becoming a highlight etc. Going back slightly to the earlier question about having a break from painting, I think that when you have produced X amount of paintings – and seen a whole lot more than that – you set personal standards higher. It’s no longer an interest just to paint singular objects for example, because they can exist much more interestingly within a setting, or scene, and a lot of this can be worked out beforehand in the drawings. When I paint I still tend to put thin layer upon layer, changing tones and colours as I go, but the graphic details and placing of things within the picture are (usually, but not always) pretty set. So if I’m happy with the image in the drawing I can scale it up and then have fun with the handling of the painting.
You mention the recurring motif of an old table. Where does this image come from and why does it occur so often in your work?
The table is at the Cyprus College of Art in Lemba. It sits outside in the courtyard and has been there for many years, since before I started going there in 2003. I guess that Stass Paraskos would have made it, or perhaps his assistant. It has seen better days and is pretty battered but you can see that it never was a pristine table. A functional work bench perhaps or made as a pedestal from whatever wood happened to be lying around. The table itself is of interest in its form and history, but it also represents my Cyprus experience, and the draw of that college in that country. Over there things are often made quite ramshackle and knocked together with a temporary permanence, with much more of the hand made in day to day life – from carved road signs welcoming you to the villages, to painted signs for bars and restaurants. I like the charm of that, and the effort (or lack of) that goes into producing that stuff. I would say for me it represents a great connection between art and life.
Marcus Cope is an artist based in London and one of the founders of the Marmite Prize.
Diana Copperwhite is an artist based in Dublin and New York, and a part-time lecturer at NCAD.