“It’s grueling. I don’t want it to be like that, but it’s grueling. Sometimes I work until five in the morning. I can’t do that anymore because I’m too old and I don’t have the physical stamina to be up that late at night anymore.”
– Richard Patterson
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST. BY RACHEL L. BERGMAN
Richard Patterson has lived and worked in London and New York, finally settling down in Dallas with his wife of 10 years, writer and art critic Christina Rees. If you’ve seen his work, you probably assumed that he has a fascination with or at least an interest in American culture and americana. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. He has little interest in americana and even less in the preconception that Dallas is somehow kitsch. His mind, he tells us, is in Europe.
While visiting New York, the artist sat down with Imagista to look back on his career to date and its evolution against the backdrop of the post-punk era in London. While editor-in-chief Michael Williams entertained Christina in the living room, improvising boiled eggs with pesto and capers, Patterson and I munched on welcome helpings of gluten-free marshmallows in 8-year-old Max Williams’ bedroom, where the atmosphere lightened such daunting tasks as tackling misconceptions about Patterson’s work and defining authentic existence.
Rachel Bergman: What do you call yourself? A painter? An artist?
Richard Patterson: A painter. When I left art school I had a few years when I wasn’t making art. When I started again, in the early ‘90s, it felt like everything in painting had been done, everything had been blown wide open. I felt like I had to make certain decisions to shut things down a bit. When you make a painting, you’re starting from scratch in a weird way. So my first decision was I’m a painter. I’m just going to make paintings. I’m not going to do other things. And actually, weirdly, I found myself doing other things that seemed initially more interesting to me, like collages and funny assemblages and things that I was just putting together because that often seemed to come about when I was tidying up the studio.
I read that you spent a year collaging and getting your inspiration together.
I knew I was going to paint but it just seemed like the obvious thing to do was to just draw first. It seems so obvious and yet a lot of people actually don’t do that. Really it’s the drawing process that links most closely to the thinking process. But you don’t want to overthink things. You always want to be trying not to have ideas, as much as possible.
When was this?
After art school. When I left school I was just learning to be in the world. The world felt like such an overwhelming kind of thing. The scene back then in London hadn’t quite exploded the way that it had a few years later, and I had a couple of friends at school that were very successful almost immediately. That was very atypical. Everyone was going to a lot of openings and stuff. The London gallery scene was much, much, much smaller than it is now and there weren’t that many places you could just turn up as an ex-art student and not feel out of place. There were mostly wealthy, suited collector types, you know. So I just decided I was going to say that I wasn’t an artist. If I wasn’t actually doing it then I’m not going to say I am. Every other person I met seemed to be saying “I’m an artist” but were they actually doing anything? I just wasn’t capable of living in the world as an artist yet. There’s an idea that you go through puberty and then are meant to be an adult at the age of 18, and can get a driver’s license and drink at a pub. So you feel like you’re meant to be kind of rocking at the age of 22. And you’re still worrying about whether you’re getting zits, you know, and your sex life, and whether or not you actually can and how you’re going to make money and live in the city, you know. As you get older, most people you talk to say they didn’t really start to feel grown up until they were 30-something. For me, being 23, I felt like an adolescent. It was only when I was 27 or 28 that I felt like I was beginning to get myself together.
Was it an ambition to be an artist as a child?
At the age of five I went to a very catholic infant school run by nuns. It was somewhat strict. I hated going. I was really resistant to the idea of going to school. And I was very attached to my mother. I was a very shy child, really intensely shy and probably quite anxious. So I just followed my mother around, watching her cook. I used to love to watch her cook. She was a good cook.
We moved to another county where my parents found this very cool mixed infant and junior school. It was very progressive, sort of almost hippyish, a bit influenced by the Steiner schools where the idea was to take some of the discipline and authority out of school, emphasize diversity and creativity—you called your teachers by their first names, and if you didn’t want to work you didn’t have to work. It was diametrically opposite to the Victorian idea of discipline. My school wasn’t quite as extreme as this, but it was somewhat influenced by these ideas It was very art-based and so we did a lot of art. So I suppose I was good. By the time I went to grammar school at age 11 art was a subject that you had to select over music or Latin. By the age of 12 or 13, I opted to do art, but I was also good at music. By the time I was 14 or 15 the music department was trying to get me to do music and the art department, the art so I felt dragged back and forth.
When I was 16, a new art teacher turned up in school who was a very cool guy, Richard Buxton. He was telling me about artists like Joseph Beuys, Paul Klee and Bridget Riley. Before the internet, I’d guess most 17-year-olds wouldn’t know about Joseph Beuys. They just wouldn’t have. I was getting access to stuff. My parents bought me a book on Picasso that I was absolutely fascinated by, and that became the go-to book for modern art for me. It still kind of is. Picasso is the towering figure. Buxton’s art room had a small selection of books on Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Klee, Vermeer… obvious sounding stuff, but art books felt precious back then. There were detail shots of Monet where you could see the looseness of the brush strokes.
There were only six of us taking art by this point. I’m not sure anyone from my school had ever gone on from that level, that kind of academic training, to art school. It was unusual enough that the headmaster took me to one side because he was concerned, not that I was throwing away this education but that I wasn’t choosing the right foundation course, which is an art course you take before university. As it turned out, at the one I went to, the teacher was an old German post-surrealist sculptor called Michael Werner who always wanted to send his best student to Goldsmiths’, which is where I ended up going. Had I not gone to that school, I would never have gone to Goldsmiths’ and fallen into that particular group and I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now.
Does it feel like destiny?
That’s what it feels like. It feels like the kind of destiny that is very fragile. I guess I’d say I’m of the view that critical things happen to you in your life, and that there are certain meetings that take place and certain influences and certain things that might happen to you for which you have to be prepared. Timing is everything.
Do you believe in callings?
I think I have a kind of calling. I felt like I was part of a long tradition of art, kind of a linear thing that goes back as far as you can reach into it or want to see into it. That was a kind of calling as it were, like this place at the table is already set for you if you want it. That sounds pompous but there’s a sort of responsibility, like you’re handed the baton in a relay race. And someone gives it to you and you can run with it or you can drop it or fall over. Some people don’t want to accept it because it’s too much responsibility or something. And it is scary, once you go public and you get that exposure you’ve been looking for all that time and it’s what you always wanted and needed but it’s frightening as well.
Tell me how it felt to come of age as a YBA.
There was a feeling in New York that only things that were in America were relevant and nothing else really counted. So in London a bunch of us were certainly like fuck New York I’m not going to go to New York to prove myself. Let’s just do it here. And suddenly it felt like the swinging ‘60s. Everyone was likening it to that. There was this huge groundswell of cultural output in the music scene, the Brit pop music scene as well, all of which was kind of reacting to that Thatcher-Reagan period. I think it was also slightly a reaction to the sort of political correctness and identity politics that were coming through in art and stuff. The ’80s had been that era of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger where a lot of art had become a kind of social politics and that became the predominant narrative in art. Basically it was such that if you were a white male you weren’t an oppressed minority in any way so you could kind of fuck off and die, really. You didn’t have anything to say and there was a feeling of resentment that wasn’t spoken about, where you felt you didn’t have a voice and no one was listening. In some ways that was kind of liberating because you could do anything you wanted to. You did have an expectation, but it had a sense of that punk-rock nihilism, that not caring. It was in the same way that punk rockers didn’t need to learn to play their instruments very well. You didn’t need to spend 12 years studying jazz riffs to become good enough.
There was no manifesto or clear-cut movement but there was kind of a mood and a spirit and a kinship amongst a bunch of us that knew one another, either somewhat or quite well, and it was quite incestuous as well. People were going out with each other and sleeping with each other and switching with each other in a relatively small group. It became quite powerful because it was competitive and supportive and kind of loving and bitchy and all those things all at once but you need that. Now we have this global phenomenon where everybody’s got their own website. Everybody’s equal and everybody’s got instant access to everything and nothing all at the same time. That’s a very difficult place to be in for younger people.
But there was this desire to reclaim something authentic and be authentic and I guess that’s what I felt like as an artist, was that to somehow have an authentic existence was synonymous with being creative. And you know that Joseph Beuys said that everyone should be an artist and everyone is an artist—although I’m not sure I agree with him one bit. Stupid old tosser.
What is an authentic existence?
I suppose it meant a kind of real commitment to a what you were trying to do. The circumstances in London were more enabling of that than they may have been in New York. You didn’t have that sense you had in New York all the time where you were either a complete success or a complete failure. So in New York everyone acts like they’re a complete success because otherwise you’re a complete loser and you know everyones bluffing and it’s this kind of charade that no one ever lets up on. London was never like that. The British sensibility by default is one of understatement and self-deprecation.
Especially somewhere like Dallas, there’s the whole “have a nice day” thing. If somebody asks me “Whats going on?” when I walk into my coffee shop in Dallas, I want to start to talk about Obama or Medicare and I always forget what they mean by “what’s going on.” It’s like I want to tell them theres a tornado belt coming and Obama’s bill’s just been blocked again and they just mean “how are you?” and generally I’m not so great, I’m stressed and I’ll go “I’m ok” and they’ll say, “Oh God, what’s happened? Someone died or something?” And I say, “No, I’m just in a fucking shitty mood or fucking tired” and then you realize if you say that people get overly concerned.
Is Christina a muse to you?
Indirectly, yeah. I mean, I’ve painted her about five or six times now. Twice just in the last two months and early on when we first met.
I think the relationship is so central to my life; my immediate primary love life is so core that I’m not sure if I’d exist if something happened to Christina. I don’t know what I would do, really. So she’s kind of a muse in that sense.
She’s sick of hearing all my shit. We’re sick of each others shit like any couple. Generally she only comes to the studio when I’ve finished something and she only sees it for a few minutes.
She’s got a very strong instinct and critical eye so I run virtually everything by her and hope that she likes it—or doesn’t like it. Something definite. It’s never like should I do this or should I do that. But there have been times when I’ve done things and she’s been indifferent and it’s just the next thing. One of the newest paintings—she’s come in and said “It’s surprising how much more interesting it is than it than i thought it was going to be.” So sometimes she’s surprised. But she’s a very good critical yardstick, and great to bounce ideas off of. She reads more—I actually spend so much time painting sometimes I can go for months without reading a newspaper. Or there are times. like during the financial crisis, when I became upset, or doing the Iraq war when I just was addicted to the news and I’d watch it every day and I found it would actually make me quite depressed. So I would stop looking at it. Christina is much more even like that and far more well-read. She’s more than a muse. She’s not really a muse. I would say I use her brain as an annex of my own. Her’s is more functional than mine.
Do you work in solitude?
Yeah, very much, completely. I don’t like people in my studio at all. I never really have, except for people I really want there. I’ve always been quite protective because I’m working so slowly and especially with the internet now you could have done something and someone could have ripped you off before you’ve even got it out there into the gallery. In fact, fewer people seem to go to gallery shows. It just tends to exist on the internet whether you like it or not. I’m always trying to nurture ideas because with every painting I’m always wanting to get toward something, and this one is never quite it.
What’s your schedule like when you’re painting?
It’s grueling. I don’t want it to be like that, but it’s grueling. Sometimes I work until five in the morning. I can’t do that anymore because I’m too old and I don’t have the physical stamina to be up that late at night anymore. But the way I made the paintings, it had to be a continuous process and they had to stay wet and stuff. It was a very flawed system but that’s how I was making my living and that’s what I was known for. For the last eight years I’ve been trying to find a new way of making paintings, to be honest. For me, the challenge is to find the ideal way of painting that’s better than this. These take too long and theres something wrong with that. I don’t want them to look labored. I don’t want people to think God, he must have done a lot of work on that. To go through all that and then have it flashed across the internet, and if it sells—usually the day its done it’s on a truck—and it’s on its way to London and it sometimes pre-sells or it’s already on reserve or whatever. Except for living with it when I was making it, I never got time to just be with it.
Do you feel a sense of attachment?
When I’m finished with it I’m so sick of it I can’t wait for it to go, but then I feel slightly sick afterward because you spend all this time doing it—and it’s just gone—and then you get the money and it doesn’t seem to matter how much money you get for it. It’s never enough because the exchange feels a bit filthy to me. And in a sense I’ve always felt like a total tart making art.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your work?
That I’m a photorealist, because I don’t think I am. And that I like the things that I paint. Sometimes people talk about my interest in americana or kitsch but I actually don’t have any interest in americana. I felt very dislocated when i came to the US and I was just trying to paint what was around me. In fact, I was always painting things ahead of where I was. In London I was starting to paint fragments of one or two adverts that were actually British adverts shot in America so they had a kind of American look but I was in London. And when I was in New York I started to paint some of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders but I’d only been to Dallas once. And people continually get this wrong. They think I moved to Dallas and then started to paint Dallas and in fact I was painting this kind of slightly monstrous dreamscape of what I thought Dallas was going to be like. And then when I get there the reality is so hideous that my mind goes elsewhere. So when I moved to Dallas my mind is really back in Europe. Theres also maybe a spontaneity to what I do, which people might not realize because the paintings take so long to make. The genesis is in a quick spontaneous thing often. One, two or a series of short decisions that are very quick and come out very quickly, but are sometimes executed over a long period of time.
You say you’re not a photorealist. Do you choose not to identify as anything?
I don’t identify with anything. It seems to me photorealists like to stand in the street and make what look like photos, which represent a kind of sense of existence, a kind of concreteness of existence that we’re used to through film, as if the way that we exist is completely corroborated by photographic imagery.
It became fetishized by people who didn’t really like a lot of other art. Those people always seem to react to it. It has the wow factor. Like, wow, is that really a painting?There’s always that wow factor and it’s often probably what sells my paintings. But I hate that. Because I’m looking at a small painting of Christina in a hat and I’m thinking about Vermeer. I’m not sure if it’s come out looking like just a terrible piece of generic academic painting or if it’s good, but one of the scariest things to do is sometimes the most ordinary thing.
You’re often trying to steer yourself away. You don’t want people to get the wrong idea but there’s no right idea. So you’re trying to say, no it’s not that, it’s not that. There’s a Jasper Johns painting from the 60s and at the bottom it says “no.” He painted the word no. and you look at the painting and you always come back to this word no and it’s like, no, it’s not that. Whatever you’re thinking, no.
What is the actual desire to create? What does it feel like to you?
Increasingly, I’m getting back to this thing that Michael Craig-Martin said to me when I was a student at Goldsmiths’. He said, “you do something just because you want to see something, you want to see what it’s going to look like” —and it’s basically as simple as that. And it is that but it’s obviously more than that. I think everybody surely wants to feel like they’re relevant, that what they’re doing connects and resonates with the culture of the moment somehow or another.
Artist: Richard Patterson