Craig Mcleod Scottish artist currently living in Portugal. Having gone to college with Craig way back in the bygone year of 2008, I’ve long found his approach to art to be so unique. It invites further assessment and I’m glad to have Painting in Text as an avenue to explore work like Craig’s. The past occupies an important position in Craig’s work, so it’s fitting that our interview takes in memories of our college years, his “blow-in” childhood, and the formative influences on his work.
Let’s start with your work from college, like Becoming Archive.
God, that was a long time ago! What was the thinking behind that one? At the time I remember being interested in archival processes, keeping archives. In the run-up to that I did a series of books, for a project about making interventions in a public space. I made mock-up Pelican books using 1800s geometry books – I blanked out a lot of the text and just left a few words per page, that strangely made this kind of story that tied in with the title of the book, and commented on the current state of society. Making the books got me interested in the idea of keeping an archival record, the act of collecting and keeping materials and recording observations of everyday life.
At the same time, after a talk with an external assessor I started to look at my own personal history. We talked about being a Scottish person living in Ireland and attending an Irish college – I mean, even though in distance and culture they’re not far apart, there was still this notion of the outsider, the “blow-in”. This conversation started me looking at my childhood, family photo albums and archived images of the places I lived when I was growing up. The real foundation of Becoming Archive was a photograph of me and my two brothers when I was around five or six, a standard shot with the three of us lined up dressed in kilts; very rigid, almost military. (Maybe it was before going to a family event.) That led into Becoming Archive. I altered the image of us standing there with our kilts, by obscuring our faces with a blue paint that I had been using a lot at the time, and incorporated text which came from my experience of making the books. And that was the foundation for kind of looking into my own childhood – not necessarily looking at the concrete, real pictures of where I grew up, but more like from memory. Like, looking at how your memory colours things. I was interested in not so much the reality of what happened as a child, but the way that you remember it. That nostalgic kind of memory of the street that you grew up on, and the toys you had as a kid, and all those sorts of things… there are also images of my two boys in there, which was kind of like tying the past to the present.
My next work was Transparency, and that was nearly all about the manual processing of producing images. For Transparency I didn’t take any photographs at all. I just concentrated on the photographic process the images were created from. I was interested in the iconography of other people’s images; my source material came exclusively from Sunday magazines, The Irish Times and The Observer. I liked the way I could alter and subvert the reading of them by the way I displayed them. And I really got into the whole alchemy of the thing. It was like some kind of magic, I would go into the dark room with a bunch of magical chemicals and play around with creating pictures I was using real old school manual darkroom mediums like using liquid silver gelatin, gum bichromate and gum arabic processes. To even get my head around the processes I was using to produce my images was mentally draining – there was no tutor that had any experience of these chemicals, so I had to teach myself everything from books and trial and error, but if had tried to do it other ways like with photoshop it wouldn’t have worked, it wouldn’t have been truthful, ultimately it wouldn’t have satisfied me. I could happily spend all my time in the dark room.
The process of working on Transparency was like putting in a shift, you know? You go to work, you put on your work gear, you clock in, get to the work of producing images and at the end of the day you clock out. Then you come back the next day and see what you did. It was enjoyable every single second of it. Process led everything that came out of it, dictated everything that happened. So I didn’t have to think, what’s my idea? I was very lucky to have the facilities, and the freedom to make this work and also to be supported by the college financially in buying all the materials I needed to realise this work.
When you moved to Portugal you and Marlene[Mar, partner] had an exhibition which you used photography again – what was that like? Especially since you didn’t have the access to the same facilities that you had at GMIT.
When we arrived here we wanted to do something in art, to get involved in the local art community. I had started taking my own photographs while we were traveling in a camper van around France and Spain and Portugal – I’d been using an old 35mm Olympus OM101, a manual film camera so I needed a place to develop. So I converted my bathroom into a darkroom and tried to do my work while the kids were at school or in bed.
How did you find setting up an exhibition in Portugal?
The major adjustment for us (aside from the language) was that we didn’t have any idea how slow the art scene is here, if you live outside the major cities like Lisbon (which we live about an hour outside of). Our plan was to do this exhibition in the little fishing town that we live in, so we contacted everyone we could that seemed in any way involved with the arts. Which was challenging! We talked with several people at the local and district council level – they don’t have an arts council – until we found someone who was like the arts officer of the district. They were enthusiastic about our proposal, but informed us that there was little interest and even less investment in culture and the arts in the area, and that funding was mainly put towards surfing and tourism. Despite this we continued, and eventually we managed to get an exhibition space. The show that we did for this town was very conceptual in nature, which wasn’t the norm here; when they have art exhibitions, they tend to be little more than decorative painting sales. There’s no theme or concept behind those shows, so when our show The Property of Dreams opened, the locals thought it was completely weird, there were no colourful paintings and no price lists. It wasn’t immediately obvious that it was art for sale. Reading material to explain some of the work was a new thing to many who turned up, some were like, “this was amazing and we have never seen this kind of thing” and other people just thought, “what is this?”
In the end, the actual setup was simple: we didn’t do anything too complicated and because we hadn’t that long come from college, we still had fresh memories of our degree show setup and all that was involved. I’m not saying we were trendsetters, but maybe we facilitated some change as after we did what we did. There have been a series of small exhibitions, with a couple being quite conceptual and a few that were borderline, still a few paint sales but there was a bit more cohesion to it. More of a concept or theme, at least! And an art gallery opened in the town the following year as well its great see small development like that happening.
Lets talk about the painting you started doing in Portugal.
It started off purely as an exercise to get back into painting because I hadn’t painted for… I don’t know, since second year [at GMIT], so maybe five or six years? I just felt that I
wanted to make some paintings from some pictures. So the very first paintings were just images, photographs from photographers that I like, that I found online and in books. Most of them by famous photographers like William Eaglston, Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Gregory Crewdson. I wanted to paint and I was looking at these photographers, and I started to paint their photographs, in a kind of Richter style. I used images from books or newspaper cuttings, I’d start painting them, and I eventually started to include my own photography as a subject matter.
After I did that I felt that I wanted to push my practice a bit further rather than just looking at these pictures I wanted to develop my own painting more. I felt there was a language in the painting that I needed to start to understand and explore. That was more of what I wanted to do, rather than just making pictures. That’s when I started making these recent larger paintings – they came out of a desire to go beyond photography, to try to make pictures that contain a fuller story. Not just a picture, not just replicas of the photographs I was looking at. I wanted to try and capture the wholeness of the image, not just the picture. Not just a static picture of one thing – it’s not a still life.
Could you elaborate more on your thought process with these paintings?
I don’t know how to describe it. it’s kind of like the way that you would describe something that happens in your day – you don’t just see the picture. I’m trying to get to a fuller story. There’s a whole bunch of things that went together to make that moment, past and present. I think that’s what I’m after… that’s where I’m trying to get with these paintings. I don’t want it clearly documented and described. I’m not trying to create an accurate documentation of the moment. But I’m trying to get a more complete essence of the moment. There’s still a long way to go, I am still struggling to find the necessary language required within the paintings.
As an example, this painting [Palavras da vida] came about after hearing the accounts of these friends of a friend. We were helping them clear their land and piece their lives back together after the big wildfires that happened here in November. Their house and everything they owned was burned down. In the night, they had to free their horses and flee from where they were living. The basis of the painting came from five or six different drawings based on the events described to me – each drawing was drawn over the last, then kind of different aspects of each of the drawings would come through to the foreground and be kept. All went together to make the story or narrative of the final painting, and it was all done at quite a speed. I am trying to not be overly consumed about the thought process… To be honest, it’s a bit of an anomaly in my recent practice, as more often than not my work usually starts without taking outside influence as a jumping off point.
I would usually start with a blank canvas – often I would sit there and stare, and nearly the whole day could pass and nothing would happen but sometimes it’ll come in a flurry. I’ll start to make marks and those marks remind me of something, and then that something makes me think of something else, and I just keep drawing. I start off with charcoal, and then move onto oil pastel and just keep drawing until it starts to take some sort of form that is interesting. Then I go in with thinned paints. Paint goes on, paint comes off, building it up… I think, for me, the most interesting part of it is the materials and the dialogue with the painting. The actual subject matter isn’t that important to me.
Looking at you most recent work the colour has changed to a much brighter palette – do you think living in a much warmer climate is the reason?
I think so, maybe? I have never thought about it consciously at all, but it does appear that the colours that I use have come drastically brighter.
Let’s finish by talking about your influences, especially since your work has taken so many turns.
Gerhard Richter comes to mind from our time in college. For me, the ones that were the most compelling were those little black and white paintings which came from newspaper cuttings and he reproduced them verbatim. I don’t care much for what he is doing now with his abstractions. I love watching videos of his process, but what comes out, not so much. I imagine they are great fun to make. I like a lot of photography, maybe I’m more influenced by photography and cinema than painting.
I’m really taken by cinema, it’s always played a big part in my life – I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I love a wide variety of cinematic styles and genres, a wide variety of directors, each one is a visionary. I love the work of Coppola and Kubrick, but also equally the work of, say, Wes Anderson or David Lynch… he has a unique vision to his work that’s quirky and engrossing.
Don’t get me wrong though, I love paintings and great painters. At the moment I’m interested in the works of artists like Wilhelm Sasnel , Peter Doig… I’ve just discovered the German painter Daniel Richter (who I found out isn’t related to Gerhard!). It was hugely inspirational for me getting to see Francis Bacon’s work when I visited the Tate, some time ago now, that had a big impact on me. The red triptych with the weird figures [Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion], when I saw that in person, I was blown away. I’d seen it in a book that I had and thought cool, but when I stood in front of the scale of the work… it changes the way you look at it. But for me, when it specifically comes to influence it’s not so much individual artists, more instances that happen in paintings, little things, like the translucency of colours in a painting.
thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing