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Interview with Nick Goss

Nick Goss has emerged in recent years as one of the UK’s most feted young painters. Evoking indistinct places and liminal states of mind, his works are characterised by muted colours and washed layers of tone. Figures and architectural fragments flicker evanescently throughout his compositions, at once coaxing and resisting associative interpretations. In October 2013 he is exhibiting ten new paintings at Simon Preston Gallery in New York. These expansive works bear witness to a long-term fascination with space both as a physical and psychological phenomenon. Growing out of an eclectic array of literary and artistic inspirations, they dramatise the workings of time, memory and imagination upon our perception of everyday settings and situations.

Goss’s paintings attest the vitality and potency of their medium at a time when it continues to attract critical and curatorial opprobrium. They indeed articulate many of the same concerns as more voguish digital or found-object media, namely the interface of virtual and material realms, and the shifting dynamic between ‘real-life’ forms and their pictographic surrogates. Many of his paintings draw obliquely upon computerised processes (for example, rapid miniaturisation and enlargement of images) and upon the abundance of imagery available online. Goss graduated from the RA Schools in 2009. In addition to acclaimed solo exhibitions at Josh Lilley Gallery in London (most recently Tin Drum, 2012), he has appeared in group exhibitions including Newspeak: British Art Now at the Saatchi Gallery, 2010. I visited him in his Bermondsey studio, where he was completing his latest paintings.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your latest works centre on interior space, which was also a focus of your ‘Tin Drum’ series. Do you see these paintings as a development upon that earlier body of work in terms of their ambiguous sense of place?

A

Nick Goss

— They arose from the same line of thinking, which involves looking closely at spaces that I inhabit in my day to day existence. Studio spaces, rehearsal spaces, libraries – places where you go to think, where you mull over different ideas. Places where you’re perhaps seeking fresh ideas, but where meanings never seem to materialise fully: they’re just gestating in your mind and nothing forms. I like that idea of thoughts which haven’t fully formed. Even art historical references I’m interested in tend to be based around this idea of a shifting focal point. You feel like you know where you are, but then the picture just throws you off track. Images disintegrate and reappear. I make sketches of these places first, reducing the visual information. Then when I blow these back up to the scale of paintings, new kinds of spaces occur.

 

Q

The White Review

— The absence of figures, the focus on these few interior details, is a striking feature of several of the new paintings.

A

Nick Goss

— The two paintings ‘Hot House Plants’are much more of an attempt to paint interiors again without the figures, to nail the idea of space. I want it to appear a kind of backstage environment, a place where bands rehearse. Various pictures are based on rehearsal spaces I have used with the band I play with, My Sad Captains. In one space we went to, they had these wonderful 1980s posters pinned on the wall, images of Kiss and Wonder Woman as well as the obligatory ‘Bass Player Wanted’ messages. These also appeared in an earlier painting, ‘Don Van Vliet Lounge’(2012). The images seem both hopeful and melancholic, and hopefully you also sense this in ‘Hot House Plants’.

 

The space depicted in these two new pictures had all these cacti perched on radiators and upturned snare drums, and no light. I don’t know how they survived, the cacti. I painted those as a silhouette. It was through staring at a moth eaten cactus in the reception of Audio Underground, a rehearsal space in Stoke Newington, that I was transported to a house I visited years ago on Vienna Street in Mexico City. This house was where Leon Trotsky spent his last days and it had been turned into a museum. It was an exotic, hot place full of patterned tablecloths, painted cupboards, palms and cactuses – with an overriding sense of melancholy permeating the domestic scene. The contrast couldn’t have been more profound compared to the ashen interior of Audio Underground, but for that short space in time I was located in both places. When I came to paint that same cactus in ‘Hot House Plants’, I wanted to capture this sense of displacement.

 

Q

The White Review

— So the images take hold in specific spaces and end up as depictions of generic ones?

A

Nick Goss

— Yes. I like to give faint indications of certain things that point you in a particular direction. I guess at a basic level they’re psychological spaces, playing around with a sense of the uncanny.

 

Q

The White Review

— Given that these are spaces where the creative act is always in progress and unfinished – studios, rehearsal rooms – it seems appropriate that the paintings have an unfinished quality.

A

Nick Goss

— I really like an absence of resolution in the paintings. You have to approach the work with your own memories and ideas and these thoughts gain traction in the spaces in the work. It’s interesting to leave lacunae or sinkholes in the images that the viewers have to negotiate. Most of my favourite artworks have that capability.

 

Q

The White Review

— It seems from the washed tones of many of the works that you have removed a lot of pigment from them. Is erasure an important aspect of your method of working?

A

Nick Goss

— Yes. ‘Dress Parade’, for example,was originally quite a built-up painting with lots of blue and white tones. I wasn’t sure about how I was approaching the body of the left-hand figure. So I reached for some turpentine and soaked it all the way through, right through to the raw linen. I worked out that the whole thing was beginning to drop away except for a set of hieroglyphic marks. I accidentally revealed previous images that had lain dormant underneath the layers of paint, embedded in the linen. The costumed, carnivalesque figures that you now see felt like they had been constructed in the studio of an unknown artist, waiting to be shown off at a later date.

 

The language of painting is something I deal with continually. I like the idea of having a flowing series of washes, and then breaking up that language with punctuation marks which are the hard lines, the graphic edges.

 

Q

The White Review

— So the calligraphic marks which occur throughout the canvases come about through one take?

A

Nick Goss

— Everything is always one take. There are multiple ‘one takes’. But the final image is done in a flurry of energy. You can’t really change it, except by obliterating it.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you decide upon the paintings’ titles?

A

Nick Goss

— Titles float in and out of my thoughts while I’m painting. In some cases, they’re inspired by characters from fiction who may have found their way obliquely into the paintings. Other titles come directly from the locations I am painting. Several of the titles for the new works have arrived from reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. In my work, there’s always been a strong sense idea of theatre and theatricality – an ambiguity between what’s real and what’s been imagined. So it made sense, in a way, to base some of the figures you see in the paintings on these otherworldly creatures running amok in their theatre. I had drawn them first in a series of studies, but then began to integrate them into my everyday existence.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do the drawings – the studies – develop directly from what you’re reading?

A

Nick Goss

— Some of the figures have developed out of the book, but some drawings are from earlier, when I was using tiny cut-out paper figures as models. To make these, I take photos and screenshots and different things from my laptop, print them out, flatten them, and then draw directly from them. Last year, I took lots of screenshots of figures from the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. They were the starting point for the series of paintings in the exhibition Tin Drum. I made little backdrops of various sorts, arranged the cut-outs within these, and then made very fast drawings.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your allusions to small models and characters from films remind of Watteau’s references in his paintings to the commedia dell’arte and musical troupes; are those carnivalesque traditions a conscious point of reference?

A

Nick Goss

— I think that that European tradition is definitely there. While I try and steer it towards my everyday experience, there’s always that background influence – the idea of the carnivalesque and the absurd. That definitely comes out more when I’m painting from these miniature figures. Some of the figures in my newest works actually derive from an old photo I found in New Orleans. But then I began to reimagine it as a seedy variety performance like the one in Bulgakov’s novel.

 

Q

The White Review

— The prominence of pattern in these new works, for example the fine striations you’ve included in a couple of them, makes me think of Matisse.

A

Nick Goss

— That particular pattern is just a wallpaper, this stripy, fake bamboo wallpaper. I’m also trying to bring out bits of colour, to include more shades – none of the Tin Drum paintings had these shades of pink, yellow and blue in them. But it’s still important that the raw hessian is prominent. I like the idea of the paintings almost being objects. I don’t necessarily want them to be illusions, painted illusions of space. The more I paint, the more I’d like to get to the stage where they’re like wall hangings, carpets. I want to push that further and further. All good painting does that, but I want to achieve it in a specific way – as if you’re looking at an old shroud.

 

Q

The White Review

— In a lot of your works, despite the ethereality of the forms, the picture glimpses at something essentially real, such as a band performing. But ‘Through Which the Past Shines’depicts a figure whose head suggests some kind of animal – you seem to be crossing into the territory of the imaginary.

A

Nick Goss

— It’s a hybrid: a man dressed up – or a woman dressed up – as a sort of wolf. I find it interesting to mix the two, reality and the imaginary. The geometric shapes behind that figure in ‘Through Which the Past Shines’  – the posters on the back wall, pictures, or whatever they are – come directly come from the same rehearsal space in Stoke Newington. But other shapes just appear. The figures, for example, are again connected to ideas of performance, of theatricality. Looking at that hybrid form, you’re not quite sure if it is a man dressed up, or if it is a wolf walking around with a tutu. I like it when readings get muddled.

 

Q

The White Review

— ‘Dress Parade’ suggests an intersection of music, literature and film. The figure in a bow tie and jacket, surrounded by indistinct furniture and other paraphernalia, makes me think of the sequence in Visconti’s film of Death in Venice where the camera pans very slowly, almost listlessly, around a sumptuous hotel interior.

A

Nick Goss

— Well, I was watching The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci not long ago, which is very similar in the sense that it constructs a sumptuous, decadent setting. It’s set in Fascist Italy, but you have the same quality of opulence, and then a simultaneous sense of something degrading and fake.

 

Q

The White Review

— And are you looking at other artists, either contemporary or historical?

A

Nick Goss

— James Ensor’s a huge influence. He combines spaces that you feel you comfortably know with an air of theatricality. And you know that he’s using props, and that there’s some element of model-making. But then, because of the way they paint, I find it utterly believable. You take it as fact that these things do exist there, these kinds of creatures. It’s the same with Paul Klee. For some reason, I also think a lot about Diego Rivera. That’s a more formal affinity – related to colour, scale, the idea of the mural. In terms of contemporaries, I love Norbert Schwontkowski, the German painter who died very recently: his works situate themselves in this muddy no man’s land between humour, absurdity and melancholy.

 

Q

The White Review

— But it’s interesting that literature seems to be an equally, if not more important point of reference.

A

Nick Goss

— A lot of the time I am inspired to make my own paintings through reading or listening to music. Literature really activates my thinking about painting, whether it’s fiction or fragments of philosophy or passages of critical theory. I also keep coming back to W. G. Sebald. He’s got this singular ability to talk about timelessness. In The Rings of Saturnhe’s ranging in his imagination through European history while going on these little walks through Suffolk. He manages to plot these lines, geographical and imaginative – the grand context of European history is mapped out as he walks through the grounds of the stately house Somerleyton Hall. At points, you’re not quite sure if it’s a stately house in Suffolk or a kind of psychological no-man’s land.

 

Q

The White Review

— That seems a perfect analogy for the dualism of the specific and the universal that’s at work throughout your paintings.
A

Nick Goss

— I think that’s where the really interesting stuff occurs. I’m looking to paint an image that is not concerned with any type of certainty, but situates itself in the elusive interim zone between what is actually there in front of you and what is remembered.