025. Jock McFadyen

Jock McFadyen, Pink Flats, 2006. Oil on canvas. 

Sophie Hill of postcardwall visits Jock McFadyen RA in his studio in London Fields to talk painting and parallel disciplines, inherited ‘painterly integrity’ from Chelsea, and gritty realism with Sickert.

We see a lot of hidden London from your work. Having painted East London since the early 1980s, do you see the urban corners you paint as disappearing?

You know when you go on holiday to the Costa de Sol and you come back and they’ve put a mini roundabout on the end of your street and pulled down a house on the corner. When you paint the built environment you realise that it’s all like water, how fluid everything is, that nothing’s fixed in the landscape. It’s like one of those freeze framed animations – cars are moving, buildings are going up and down, leaves on the trees are going like that [gestures, clicks his fingers]. Every single building I’ve done has been made over, changed, demolished, made into something else or at least been painted a different colour. One was going towards Stratford – unrecognisable 10 years ago – a derelict cinema called Rex, then it was made into ‘The Mean Fiddler’, an old Rock venue, and now it’s made into flats. And it will be made into something else again, the same footprint. 

You have worked and collaborated with a lot of writers, Iain Sinclair particularly. What comes first, the pictures or the text?  

The thing that’s interesting about Iain Sinclair is because of his historical knowledge about London – he’s called a psycho–geographer of course – all these changes that I’m describing, he sees through them. It’s as if he sees the way it was in the 12th century or something, because he seems to know what all the ley lines are. He’s thrilled by the fact that Whitechapel is where the White Chapel was, and that you can still see the foundation of it. That sort of footprint is the ley line; he somehow seems to edit everything else out, it’s as if everything else is made out of glass. I think he sees through it, though also sees the present… Somewhere like Brick Lane, which of course was Huguenot – you know French protestants escaping, pogroms – then it was Jews, all those houses on Princelet Street would have had Synagogues in the back garden, and now it’s Muslims. You have the same feng shui – the lie of the land – so the thing of what comes first, the text or the image, there’s no coming first really.

The reason I’ve worked with a lot of writers is because I was interested in, when I was an art student, films – very much. I remember the first Fassbinder movie I saw in 1974, which was imported by The Gate cinema in Notting Hill, where I lived at the time. It was Fear Eats the Soul and I was completely seduced by that grainy harsh realism as with all the other Fassbinder movies, which are about urban harshness. Then there’s the English gritty realism, you know Saturday Night Sunday Morning, post-war novels, and it’s always been more exciting to me than contemporary art. And I wanted to paint like that… I wanted to make pictures that were like road movies, because I love the cinema – I like the form of film very much, and it’s the same as painting. It’s the 2 by 3 rectangle – the same as photographs, or a camera phone, or a cinema projector, or a painting. There’s a closeness that people don’t understand because people think cinema’s different from painting – and cinema’s different to photography and painting is different to photography – but I don’t think that’s true. I see them as being completely connected, which is easy for me because my work is subject led. So I might paint something that someone likes – that Sinclair might write about. It’s like when we did, 10 years ago now, a show at Wapping project, The A13. It was about the road, so I could paint pictures about the road, Sinclair might write about it, Helena Ben-Zenou was also involved and made pictures about it, Chris Petit made a film about it, so everyone made their interpretation. It wasn’t anything to do with text, or anything coming first, it was to do with the subject and people in different parallel disciplines…so that excites me, more than whether somebody’s painting is like somebody else’s painting. 

Jock McFadyen, Sirte, 2012. Oil on canvas. 

Your city and landscapes appear to have an almost collage-like approach to paint, with each part being cut from a different fabric or texture. Do these depths depend on how details come to you as you observe?

I think that if a painting has got any life there has to be chaos.

What I’m obsessed with in painting is surface and making the paint bloom. What I like in painting is the counterpoint between accident and design, so I like the fact that paint is fluid, oil. I think that if a painting has got any life there has to be chaos. You know when you see a tightrope walker and they pretend to fall, just to remind you that it’s actually dangerous; the painting has to have that possibility of it being chaotic.

For me, the best paintings, that I enjoy making, are controlled accidents, where the paint falls around in a way that is better than you could have placed it. I can’t stand paintings where the painter has just done it in a controlled way. I like it to be a mixture of being highly graphic and abstract expressionism, which sound like opposites but I like them to be somehow the same. The reason for that is, because every painter has been to art school – one or two haven’t – and my generation of artists who went to art school in the ‘70s were taught largely – this might be something that people will argue with – by abstract painters. And I never wanted to be an abstract painter.

To me, all paintings are abstract anyway, you’ve only got to go close to it. I think that in those days there was an assumption that figurative painters sold their work but abstract painters were still regarded as being experimental – academic even. Anyway, I remember there being abstract painters on the teaching staff at Chelsea and we were taught to have painterly integrity, to look at the painting as a field, to worry about the relationship of the grid – all these sort-of abstract painting terms that stuck. And artists I can think of – Humphrey Ocean, same age as me, Christopher Le Brun – people who were either on the cusp of figuration or between representation and abstraction, have something you can’t shake off. Some kind of painterly integrity. I don’t see it with subsequent generations of painters and I don’t think it was there before either. Obviously, English painters in the ‘50s were all looking over their shoulder at Picasso and Modernity and Cubism and wanted to be European, I mean it’s almost embarrassing to look back on. But then there was proper home-grown English Abstraction, from Patrick Heron and his relationships with American artists, Mondrian and all sorts of people: Rothko, Ben Nicholson – Britain’s first Modern artist – and John Hoyland. And then I went to art school and wanted to make very graphic figurative pictures that were underpinned by this sort of painterly integrity.

I paint my pictures when they’re upside-down, on their side, or on the floor, only thinking about the paint and hoping it will accidentally form into an image that represents something I’ve seen. Does that sound mad? It’s peculiar, that’s the queer position I’m in. I hope I can square that circle. I want each bit of paint to have its own bit of autonomy.

The other thing is music, rather than movies, because I like the fact that painting – big paintings that are 2 by 3 metres – parts are done by a number one sable, your pinky raised like that [raises his little finger], and parts are done by a sweeping brush, like in an orchestra. There’s the little tinkling piano and the huge machine of the orchestra behind it, like a big monster being led. I like the fact that you have the string section, then you also have a man with a triangle. That’s how I think of painting. I want that from painting. I want it to have that whole range of noises through the paint.

Some of your titles have a flicker of humour in them – ‘Turner’s Road’, ‘Tate Moss’, ‘Kill Matthew Barney’, yet others are more basically descriptive. What are these about?

From when I was in art school all my pictures were witty. They were all about art, self-referential, a bit like a sort of Goldsmith’s art from the 1990s. Funnily enough, if I’d been born 20 years later, I might have been more successful; it was art about art. I’d been in Pseuds Corner for one of my titles – ‘Can one get over the convulsive jerking of avant-gardism?’, you know, ridiculous…[they were] figures drawn in a very schematic way. Then when I left art school I had exhibitions because I’d made this arrestingly humorous work. I remember another artist said to me, pissed off because I’d got in the John Moore’s or something, “they always have one of your paintings because you’re fun” and I thought, that’s a bit of a put-down, but it was partly true.

Jock McFadyen, Tate Moss, 2008. Oil on canvas. 

I was Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in 1981 and that was my moment of doubt. I had an epiphany or something when I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life making jokes. I was only 31, but I’d already had a few exhibitions and even made some money out of painting. I thought I was on the way but I couldn’t sustain it. When I was doing the witty stuff, I had a recipe for my painting. I could even sell them quite easily, well my dealer could, and then I started wanting to paint differently because the Fassbinder thing caught up with me. I thought, try and paint things you’ve seen, that will be more exciting, because it got a bit boring doing these very graphic things. It changed everything. I had a show that was half observed and half formulaic, the paintings were awkward and rubbish and nobody bought them because they weren’t one thing or the other.

And then I started saying, right – I was dead lonely, I’d split up with my girlfriend, I was in my shithole Hackney house – I’m just going to paint things I’ve seen now. This is about 1983. I’d bought a flat and I couldn’t pay the mortgage because I’d had an unsuccessful show [laughs]. So I went out with a pencil and drew a Hawksmoor church, like an art student, like a proper art student, not one that had been to Chelsea. I’d sold my first ever painting to Allen Jones, you know, in 1974. I’d been written about in Time Out, all these things had happened to me, and then I’d lost faith in my own work. So I drew this church, like learning to draw something from observation, and it was crap. Then I saw an old black man walking up Burdett Road, with a hat, and I thought I’m going to paint him. I looked at him and followed him, then ran back to the studio really quickly and painted him while the image of him was in my mind. And it was shit. It was really shit, a naïve painting. And my dealer was going “how am I going to sell this crap?”. Anyway, then I started taking photographs because I needed to have detail, cigarette packets and things like this [picks up the chocolate digestive packet]. I thought to myself if you want litter [and ‘gritty realism’], you’ll have to get some. If you want someone in Mile End Park, this windswept wasteland of demolition – before they built all the penthouses and shit – if you want rubbish, well you’d better get some. So I had my studio, I had fag packets, biscuit wrappers, and painted it from life like a student at the Slade in the 1950s.

So I started to try and paint things from observation, and I learnt a lot. It was John Constable who said, “An artist who is self-taught is taught by a very ignorant person indeed”. I thought of those words and all those wasted years of art school where I could have got advice and here I am trying to teach myself painting… I discovered you’ve got to photograph these things because then you remember. In a car, how does the tail-light go? Pathetic details that one shouldn’t be interested in. But you know, if you’re a novelist and you’re writing, even if you’re Raymond Chandler, you’d be describing that stuff all the time. I’m jealous of that sort of detail, the kind of detail that is so un-painterly, but you want that detail in painting. But with all that painterly integrity you were taught at art school, how can you? It’s difficult.

So basically the humour is a residue from my earlier pictures; it’s not quite gone. I quite like your expression of ‘flicker of humour’ because that’s right. I love Damien Hirst’s titles; I’ve been in Pseuds Corner twice because of my titles and his titles are great, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Eyes of Someone Living’. That’s one of the great titles in art.

Your most recent solo exhibition ‘After Walter’ saw the return of the prominence of the figure in your work; what drew you to figures, and in such a seductive way? 

The After Walter pictures came about because I saw that fantastic show of Sickert at Somerset house. Sickert is one of my favorites. I went back several times to that show. I love Sickert because of his timing – 1860 to 1940 – 80 years; he goes from post-impressionism all the way up to the second world war, so that’s the whole of Modernism. And what happens in the middle, bang in the middle of his career is the invention of photography, that huge spurt of modernity and painterly self-consciousness. And what does Sickert do, he paints from photographs and I think I know why. I think because of the biscuit wrapper – getting them in my studio. He realized that the age of media was beginning to gather pace and it was the only way to keep abreast of it. He wanted his paintings to capture the public’s imagination, so there he is trying to shock the public. He did it in order to show something that could be sexually arousing, you could be ‘turned on’ by these – they’re erotic paintings even though the women are quite ugly. Now you can see anything on the television, you can see everything. So Sickert now, it’s tame, it’s gone into the world of taste. They’re beautiful paintings, they’re fabulous, but they’re not erotic anymore. He’s going to have to go a lot further if he wants to shock us – what’s shocking about a naked woman with a clothed man? But it was to the Edwardian audience. So I thought I’m going to try and paint a Sickert for today’s audience.

Jock McFadyen, After Walter, 2012. Oil on canvas. 

I’ve got friend called Chris Dyson who’s got two Georgian houses on Princelet Street and I asked if I could show them [the paintings] in the house. So it was more like installation, the house was part of the show. I started with what to me is the most mysterious Sickert – La Hollandaise – because the head looks like something from Disney. I don’t get it. So I made up my head, of what I could see it could be. I made it the same size [as the original painting] and then I tried to paint the light the way I saw Sickert paint it…and they [the paintings] got more and more erotic. I moved into my house, rather than my studio. I didn’t paint them here. I thought I can’t come to this breezeblock thing and paint these pictures. I got that [points] Victorian architect’s drawing board, from Chris Dyson actually, and painted them on that. My wife Susie would be cooking and would say “Where’s your Dad?” and they’d [Jock’s children] say “Oh he’s doing his porno paintings. Are you going to do some more filth?”. I was going to show them in the Fine Art Society, which is a historic building, but they bottled out. They didn’t like the frames apparently… 

You’re currently part of a joint exhibition with sculptor Robert Marsden – a great conversation between urban lines. How did the idea come about?

Robert Marsden is a minimalist sculptor and the Marsden Woo is a gallery of applied artists. They wanted him to show with a painter and they know my work and thought it would work. The funny thing about showing with Robert Marsden is that in all of my paintings in the show there’s some colour or shape [of his]. All of his sculptures are basically the same colour and it’s very interesting that you see them in each painting, so it does work I think.

What are you painting now?

More bleak urban landscapes…oh and aerial landscapes, that’s what I’m doing now. I’ll show you [we walk across the studio] I haven’t exhibited them yet. This is them. This is all new. [The works are three-dimensional aerial landscapes, not square but following the wiggling line of the land. Land and sea are built up in different textures, the paint is not flat; even an aeroplane has been stuck with a pin into the land to give further scale].

And how have you done them? From photographs?

No, no I haven’t. This one I’ve done from this map [shows me a work and a paper map]. That’s Arran and that’s Mull, [picks the work up and places it on a lightbox, which makes the sea light up as a luminous blue, though the thickly built-up land blocks it].

It’s early days, I’ve not exhibited them yet. 


Jock McFadyen RA is currently at the Marsden Woo Gallery with Robert Marsden, until 29 March 2014.

Jock is on postcardwall twice, with an After Walter painting (317) and an urban landscape (326).