A Tale of Two Lives | Q&A
Anna McNay in conversation with Nick Malone.
Anna McNay: You started out as a writer and have published a couple of books. At what point did you decide to start making visual art?
Nick Malone: I went to art college as a mature student. From a very early age I’d really wanted to be an artist, but I took my A-Levels too early at 16 and gave in to pressure to go to university rather than art college as I had an interest in writing as well at the time.
So initially I was a writer and supported myself with an academic career, although I did illustrate my own books. I had some success with the writing, winning prizes and some great reviews, and I got the opportunity to travel. I’d always wanted to live abroad on my own for a time, and went as Visiting Professor to Thessaloniki University in Greece, and then Wisconsin University in the States, but that was in Contemporary Literature, not art. However the drive to be an artist was so compelling that I just decided I had to go to art college. so I gave up everything and went, which at the time felt a rather scary thing to do, but I seem to have got away with it. Initially, I got a couple of businesses going to help fund things, which I supplemented with some activity that was very much on the edge. I do sometimes wonder whether putting myself on the line like that in a rather dangerous way was a kind of atonement for not having stood up for myself at sixteen, given I always knew that art was what I really wanted.
So I went as an undergraduate to St Albans School of Art, which was then a new degree. This course was great - they tried really hard. Their spiritual home was New York in the 1960s – Jackson Pollock and so on, but they were honest about this, and to be fair they did invite in visiting lecturers from a very wide range of approach. And they were ambitious in approach, which is a good attitude in art practice. The only drawback in retrospect was that their involvement with high modernism prohibited anything that had narrative or could be described as illustrative in any way. So I developed a pronounced sense of depth and possibility in the materials, but a whole side of me that dealt with story and speculation was repressed. It was only later that I learnt to combine the two. I had intended to do an MA at the end of the course, but I was approached by galleries before I graduated, and I was tired of getting certificates, so I decided just to get stuck straight into painting.
Has your work always been mixed media and incorporated words as well as imagery?
No. Initially, alongside my involvement with the materiality of the paint that I mentioned, my first serious work emerged out of the cruciform . A lot of my training was very classical - my father was a portrait painter, and I spent years working from the model. For a time, I had a studio in the West Country, and the elemental shapes of surrounding trilithons somehow merged in my mind with the shape of the model with extended arms. I was very involved in work with the landscape at that time, so the T-shape became a way of organising the picture plane, with the top line of the T becoming the horizon line. It provided a very elemental structure within which to work, but even then I was dealing with ambiguity. A lot of those works are called Marches or Margins. The ‘marches’ in medieval times were a kind of no-man’s land, where you weren’t quite sure where Wales started and England ended. The works were elusive. Is it marine or is it terrestrial? Is it decay or is it resurgence? Everything is shifting. That sense of change was present.
This approach formed the basis for the exhibition Balkan Earth that I put on for the British Council to celebrate their fifty years in Greece. It led to a very creative vein and a lot of corporate sales. Then I suddenly became aware of the danger of my work becoming formulaic. I couldn’t see a canvas without painting black lines. I grabbed a manuscript that I’d thrown into the back of a drawer when I went to art college and wrote the text on the canvas round and round in a big circle, so I was forced to change how I worked. And I decided to do that MA after all because I realised that I’d been out of all critical debate for the last 10 years. This time I studied at Central St Martins, which was then highly theoretical, so I decided to reinvent myself. I brought in the writing and ideas I'd previously suppressed, and moved towards paintings that were non-hierarchic and non-structured, where chance could play a huge role.
Was that when you started to pour the paint on to the canvas?
Yes. I began doing things that were uncontrollable, putting down bits of wood underneath the canvas, and pouring liquid acrylics from a height to create a 3D landscape – mountains with valleys of paint, and I then intervened with marks and writing. I started to see figures and elements I'd been thinking about for a long time - they were there by chance, but I began to perceive them and pull them out.
Around this time I also received a grant from Arts Council England to complete a book I'd been working on some years previously that engaged in different ways through adventure and poetry with issues that had run through all my art practice - an inner mythology operating within a wider context of visual dynamics, dissolution and change.
A few years later I extended this approach, effectively drawing three-dimensionally in wood. There are different planes, dissolving, and giving an armature for all these myths that go around in my head, allowing me to engage with issues of metamorphosis and ambiguity in a new way.
Where does your interest in ambiguity stem from?
I started corresponding with the writer and critic William Empson. In fact, he wrote the introduction to my first book. When I met him, he was a grand international man of letters. He changed the course of 20th-century literature with his book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which he wrote as an undergraduate. It must be the most brilliant bit of critical writing by an undergraduate since Milton.
What interests me a lot is that reading anything, you can always see it another way. I think this anticipates deconstruction. You can deconstruct something this way, but you could also do it another way, and so forth. The experience of being influenced by somebody in literature doubtlessly shows heavily in my general ideas of ambiguity – and, from that, change and metamorphosis. I mean, here we are, these sensate blobs of jelly in this inchoate cosmos – how do you make sense of it? I don’t know why it’s important to me, but it is. Everything is changing all the time, a life force pushing its way into different forms. Each form has its own identity and is trying to protect that but then it dissolves into these other forms. It’s all just one massive cycle. Bacteria decomposing the tiger corpse, and so on. Both of my published books deal with that idea of everything metamorphosising and changing. Everything is moving and I think it comes out in the idea of ambiguity: you can see it like this; you can see it like that.
How did the idea of creating a graphic novel come about?
Graham Crowley, a very significant artist who had been Professor of Painting at the Royal College, suggested it: ‘Why don’t you write a graphic novel about your life?’ At first, I didn’t take him seriously, but, as I thought it about, I realised the genre had changed and was no longer just like Batman and so on. Graham referred me to a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, called Here, which uses the device of windows, to show exactly the same place at different points in time. You can cross timelines and even go back to prehistory. Apparently he got the idea from Microsoft developing Windows. I was attracted to what he was doing. I produced a timeline of my life, but the way that I constructed it, was to make it a thriller, or detective story, centred on the disappearance of my childhood friend, Makepeace.
It is a compelling read, and part of me wants to ask you all about it and try to elicit which parts are true and which are invented, but part of me feels that would be too disingenuous, and would also spoil the lasting enjoyment of the story.
Well, there is a sense in which it is all true. Even the bits that are manifestly not true are true in a metaphorical sense by providing a way of apprehending that sense of everything being part of a great cycle. In a way, that is therefore just a trope to engage. As long as one is prepared to look at some of this within a metaphorical context. At times, there is a sense in which the excitement of the narrative takes over. It’s all true in my imagination.
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