Talking plastics, artifice and the challenge of the new with Britain’s most controversial pop artist.
Interview Bruno Bayley
Allen Jones is Britain’s most provocative pop artist, whose work – even more recognisable now, after his 2014 retrospective at the Royal Academy – has often caused indignation and debate. In 1969, he created the hyper-real, fetishistic sculptures, Chair, Table and Hatstand, and figures cast in fibreglass, that provoked anger among second-wave feminists – so much so that in 1986 on International Women’s Day, Chair was defaced with paint stripper during an exhibition at the Tate. The controversy surrounding his work is still ongoing, and in the furore that often swirls around it, the most interesting aspects of his working methods, using modern materials unassociated with fine art, can be overlooked. Here the artist talks to Beauty Papers about plastics, fabrication, concealing of artifice, and the freedom of working with materials that lack any art-historical connotation.
Beauty Papers: I wanted to start with something you said about “the amount of artifice and labour and construction that goes into creating something that
essentially looks normal”.
Allen Jones: That’s right, it’s a personal preference. I am not drawn to painting where the struggle to make it is visible. I’m drawn to the smooth surfaces of an Ingres where the brushwork caresses the form.
That’s evident in a lot of your work, your paintings, especially the more finessed colour and shade shifts over forms.
Yes, I’m irritated by pundits reviewing my work who talk about it being airbrushed, which it isn’t. On that subject, a long time ago, Bryan Robertson, who used to run the Whitechapel Art Gallery, said to me, “Of course it isn’t airbrushed dear boy, because that would be too difficult.” It was a typical Bryan riposte. The fact is that painting a highly rendered surface when depicting a volume means that the eye can get pretty close to the canvas before the illusion breaks down, rather like the depth of field in photography. If you can arouse a tactile response in the viewer, it makes the image more immediate, more real. I want to let the viewer know that I am not painting a person, so I fracture the figure, allowing the descriptive parts to dissolve into gestures of pure paint.
Plastics carried no cultural baggage; it seemed exotic at the time. I see it now as a normal part of the spectrum of materials that an artist has available. Clear acrylic enables me to paint on three dimensions in a way I couldn’t on an opaque form.
Say, for example, you’re working with plastic rather than paint: how does that influence your approach?
With my sculpture, in the early stages, I cut the image out of paper. The scissors check a natural inclination to illustrate. If you have a facility for drawing then it is quite good, at times, to hold it in check, to force the invention. My sculptures are fabricated by others and when a full-scale sculpture is first tacked together I have the opportunity to draw directly onto the metal where, because of scale, the contours might need changing. As a student I learned how to model in clay, but my sculptures are not about my ability, or otherwise, to model the figure. My sculptures are not about the expressionist involvements of my hand, whereas my paintings are. Again it is not about making the difficulty of production part of the subject matter.
I first went to California in the mid-60s: the custom car business was at its height, as was surfing, where the surf boards were coming to be seen as an art form. The light and intense colours of California were as new to me as the artists working there – Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Kenneth Price, Craig Kauffman, Larry Bell and Bob Irwin, who incidentally is showing at White Cube. It made me realise how big the world was. All these artists were as well known there as Peter Blake was back home. They embraced technology and industrial fabrication techniques and it seemed that hardly anybody seemed to paint on canvas.
To people my age plastic is run of the mill, associated almost with cheapness, tackiness, mass production. Plastic now seems almost a byword for low quality, but I suppose when you went to California back then it was actually a new product you could work with, one which offered new approaches and results.
The great thing about plastic was that it did not have a history in art. The only figurative use of the material at that time was for shop window mannequins. There was an artist called John McCracken, who we’d call a minimalist, whose characteristic sculptures were in the shape of a large plank, about as thick as a surf board, that just leaned against the wall, painted in one colour. The surface was so smooth and the colour so intense that the board appeared to be weightless. As if a bar of pure cadmium red had been propped up against the wall. When you put colour onto a material, even steel, it removes the sense of weight.
I am drawn to artists whose work, stylistically, is on the other side of the planet from me. Because I am speaking a different language pictorially to them I do not feel competitive, and I can get on with the pleasure of absorbing what they are doing, and can feed off it with a clear conscience.
Plastic was almost a sort of “space age” material at that time; does it still hold that feeling for you? Do you still see it as exotic and exciting?
Yes, plastics carried no cultural baggage, it seemed exotic at the time. I see it now as a normal part of the spectrum of materials that an artist has available. For me, clear acrylic enables me to paint on three dimensions in a way I couldn’t on an opaque form. Of course, when you see a clear plastic object, you see its shape, but if marks are made on it, which are stronger, then the mark overrides the contour and you can see the colour floating independent of the plastic’s outline. The outline in a way becomes a secondary thing. If the sculptures are in steel or wood, then the fact of the object comes over at the same speed as the colour on it, a problem that Matisse noticed in the competition between colour and line, one always dominates the other – unless you’re Matisse.
Your work is famously erotic; do you think of plastic as having any sort of erotic quality, comparable to the way that people see leather? Or is it just that it’s the best way to render the work you want to make?
It’s not the material, it’s what you do with it – the eroticism comes later! For me, clear plastic means that you can draw a line that appears to hover. A little film I saw a long time ago showed Picasso with a penlight in his hand, just drawing in a darkened room. The film recorded the line of light suspended in the air and coming from his finger, it became solidified on film. Picasso had a spatial awareness of what he was doing like that which exists between a choreographer and dancer.
Plastic is often associated with industrial design and mass production – a new approach to solving old problems with new materials and technology. You’ve previously said that “designers solve problems, whereas artists make them”. I suppose that, to an extent, in much of your work you are both posing a problem, but also solving one through the use of appropriate materials, designers and industrial processes.
The great thing about an artwork is that it does not have a specific application to anything else; it is, in a way, pure research. Using traditional means, the artist will produce a broadly predictable object; when the artist steps outside his or her usual working method and embraces new materials and technology their ideas can have unexpected and original results. The viewer on the other hand, presented with the unfamiliar, will usually find it difficult to take at first. The history of modern art since Duchamp has been the extension of the vocabulary of what art can be. The Rite of Spring now packs them in at the Proms and Pollock is a god.
You just mentioned the changing of materials and new materials you can work with that change the potential of what you can do, but has your actual approach to what you consider beautiful changed over the years of making work? Has the potential to do new things changed your views? Or is it more that you have a new set of tools with which to represent the same thing?
New materials allow the artist to say something new about his or her world. For me the nature of beauty remains the same. It is the formal challenge of the new that is exciting – having curiosity about a new language.
As someone whose work is largely figurative, how do you feel about the continuing move away from what might be called traditional mediums, or the growth of non-figurative work in contemporary art?
The explosion of possibilities in the communications industry for the artist in recent years has been tremendous. The advantage of using technology – even in printmaking – means that the artist today does not have to rely on, or develop, his or her own manual dexterity in drawing and painting to produce an image. It must appear much more exciting for the young student today where technological means can give a veneer of professionalism, against which the act of producing an image with your own hand must seem too much like hard work. Drawing really lays you bare.