Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Joe Graham: I was born in Chester, but grew up in the London suburbs. Art and English aside, I don’t recall any concrete ambitions beyond school, except for exiting the suburbs and finding a way to carry on making art. I remember seeing the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, and thinking that going to art school rather than University made sense in this regard. The Chapman Brothers aside, I didn’t much care for the work of the YBA’s, but I knew from this show that London was the place to be if you wanted to be involved in the conversation around contemporary art. I went to study Fine Art at Chelsea when it was spread across various sites: I did my Foundation at Bagley’s Lane, followed by a BA in Painting at Manresa Road. This was a hugely formative period for me: I recall great tutorials with the likes of Roger Ackling, Mali Morris, Chantal Joffe, Dexter Dalwood and others. After graduating I continued to live and work in London for a while, doing all sorts of jobs to make ends meet while I continued my painting practice. This included a two year stint as Co-Director of Century Gallery, an artist-run space in the old ACAVA studios in Shoreditch, followed by a period living aboard in Canada. This again was highly formative: I lived by holding down various outdoor jobs during the day, followed by trying not to imitate Peter Doig when I returned to the studio at night (I failed). However, it turned out that spending my working day sitting astride a small tractor mowing very large lawns for rich people was a good for allowing the mind to wander. Something about being focused at a point on the horizon of every property, trying not to cross over the previous tracks left by the mower: mowing lawns is a bit like drawing in a colouring book – you are strongly encouraged to stay inside the lines. I soon stopped painting and embarked on producing series of small drawings, working from my desk. I struggled to articulate where each series began and ended, but carried on anyway. After a while I returned to London to embark on my MFA at the Slade, partly in an effort to resolve this question (I didn’t).
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
JG: There have been a number of influences to my practice over the years, too many to list. Looking back I can see how they have changed over time. For example, during and after my time at Chelsea, I was influenced by a broad range of artists whose work I saw at my favourite London galleries: Maureen Paley and Sadie Coles HQ. Artists like Rebecca Warren, Tim Noble, Fiona Banner, Kaye Donachie, Mark Titchner, Charles Avery, Tomma Abts etc. But in terms of identifiable influences on my art practice, it was people like Peter Doig that really stood out. Although I was living in London, I was producing large format canvases, using washes of oil, produced with the aid of landscape photographs. Both Doig’s methods and his works were highly influential. I borrowed his technique of masking out much of the photo you were using with tape, in order to focus only on a certain area. I think Tim Noble did something similar with his large wall drawings. I found works like Doig’s Concrete Cabin series arresting, but I struggled to articulate why. I also found Doig very hard to place: he was touted as a ‘UK artist’, seemingly due to the fact he was born in Scotland, but he appeared to have spent most of his life elsewhere: Canada, then London for art school, and then off to Trinidad by the time I graduated. Doig’s landscapes never felt they were from anywhere I could find – there was something about the sense of space that suggested the scenes belonged elsewhere, and otherwise.
While living in Toronto I stumbled upon a joint exhibition of Doig with David Milne, a Canadian artist who was unknown to me. I found Milne to be a breath of fresh air – no acid colours, no shimmer, no layered surface. Just a sense of bareness: raw paper used as material, as a substance. They were mostly snow scenes, and evoked something of the wilderness you can find out there. I recall a story by Margaret Atwood, about how the Canadian landscape is all foreground: go behind any single tree on the treeline of a lake in Ontario and you disappear: it’s just trees for thousands of miles heading north. No foreground/middle ground/background division like you find in Europe. The idea of getting lost takes on a new hue there: that space is literally unseen by the majority of Canadians. But they live with the knowledge it is right there with them. From this point I moved away from painting towards drawing, and my influences changed – I discovered people like Henri Michaux, who was even harder to pin down, and who I still admire. Work by the 1960’s/1970’s minimalists started to emerge: artists like Dorothea Rockburne, Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Eva Hesse. I also began to read more. As with Michaux’s work, the silence of writing and drawing seemed to go well together. I used to paint to the sound of a stereo blaring.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
JG: The focus of my current practice is pretty straightforward, and works on a twofold basis: in the first instance, I seek new ways to produce serially developed drawings. Serially developed drawing, or ‘serial drawing’, emerged as a distinct understanding within the context of 1960’s/1970’s American Minimalism, and the lexicon of this period informs much of the visual vocabulary I currently employ. In the second instance, I treat serial drawing as a method for conducting research. Treating serial drawing as a method, and not just a style, I try and express certain propositions from disciplines like philosophy and psychology, which are normally described through writing. This is how I conduct research through drawing, rather than research about drawing in an art historical sense. Each new series I produce is coloured (altered) by the particular idea I am looking at. A purely theoretical construct, for example something like Henri Bergson’s notion that time acts as a force, is as logical as it is creative. I use drawing to try and understand it, but this requires I take the theory seriously to avoid simply illustrating what has already been said.
In terms of method, I use a tool which I learnt from the philosopher Edmund Husserl, and which he deployed to conduct his phenomenological investigations: this method is called variational theory, or the method of variations. Known as the calculus of variations to mathematicians and those working in the sciences, the version I use seeks to identify the maximal and minimal range of a problem in order to better understand it. In terms of drawing, running through variations means you produce a series of work. Failure is part and parcel of this way of working – although drawing is one of the oldest forms of expression, drawing research is a relatively new and rather underdeveloped field of research. This means my investigations are always bespoke, built one idea at a time, and often come adrift in ways I can’t anticipate. I try to mitigate this factor by informing myself as best I can in advance about the ideas I am examining. I want to see what drawing can say in a way that is different from writing, and I achieve this by conducting investigations that are evidence-based, and empirical, in the sense they proceed from observation. Of course, for most artists the need for an evidence-base to support one’s claims is seldom important – art isn’t science, and whenever drawing is used as a means to try and forge a link between the two what tends to appear is illustration renamed. But in terms of producing active research investigations that entail a level of falsifiability, or at least remain repeatable to some degree, then the question of how knowledge is expressed cannot be avoided. This is all the more important when something like ambiguity is an integral part of the vocabulary, as is the case with drawing.
RB: What lead you to embark on drawing research?
JG: By the time I graduated from the Slade in 2010, my art practice had become more or less entirely focused around the production of serially developed drawing. I had heard about drawing research while there, but only in a vague sense – in general the PhD route was not particularly encouraged at that time. Amongst my peers the notion of ‘artistic research’ seemed to be solely about academia, rather than anything to do with making art. But I was producing these very large series of works that were primarily investigative in nature, and wondering how to find a way to continue them once I graduated. I recall a couple of interesting steps that led me to look more closely at drawing research as a route for doing this. The first two were with gallerists: one was bothered by the fact that I had chosen to work on cheap stationary paper. From a commercial perspective I could see his point, but for me the drawings were investigations of a thinking process, and the materials I used were secondary to that aim. Another conversation with a different gallerist revolved around whether one individual drawing from a series could be sold, which would have resulted in the series being broken up. To my own surprise, I found my answer was no – I realised that the whole series was the work, and removing individual drawings was going to affect this understanding. Despite the fact I kicked myself for doing this at the time (money has its own way of speaking) this was a watershed moment for me. Up until that point there had been a question mark over ‘where’ the work was, given it appeared to constitute an ever expanding series: a process of thought, which often made it hard to find either the beginning or the end. About this time I stumbled across a journal article while working part time in a university library. This article, by Andrea Lavazza, discussed the idea of art as a metaphor of the mind, based on William James’ theory of the ‘stream of consciousness’. The library was a medical library, and the article was largely neurological in scope, but it got me thinking about whether my process of serially developed drawing might be capable of representing the ‘stream of consciousness’ that underpinned its production. From this small beginning I developed a research proposal, and applied to do a practice-led PhD at Loughborough University. This was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was fortunate in my allocation of supervisors, Dr Marion Arnold and Simon Downs. Via them I discovered there were many issues with my query, but also that unearthing such issues was part of the enjoyment of scholarly activity. I discovered the pleasure of research.
RB: How does your studio practice and drawing research inform one another?
JG: To be honest, these days there is not much difference between the two. My studio practice constitutes an extended body of research, one that asks how drawing can be used to test written ideas that emerge from other disciplines. At present, most of these ideas are philosophical – notions about time for example, and the possible ‘shape’ it takes on when looked at in various ways. I’m interested in how drawing can communicate the findings of such investigations, treating them as a form of data. The question is very much on whether drawing can function in this way – I try and remain suspicious of any such claims, given the speculative area in which I work. Again, in this sense my studio practice is heavily influenced by Husserl’s approach to research, with the idea of bracketing the hypothesis that frames an investigation, before seeking invariants that can either prove or disprove them. By treating my ideas as assumptions to be tested, I am actually looking to free up my studio practice to have fun and make mistakes. It’s not always evident from the rather restricted palette I use, but then looks can be deceiving.
RB: You use drawing as a form of investigation to explore philosophical ideas. Can you say more about this?
All images copyright and courtesy of Joe Graham
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