I sat down with Paul Wallington over Zoom for a conversation as his exhibition Feedback Loop drew to a close at New Normal Projects. It's a new format for us as we used to be in a Cape Town collective, and I'd visit him regularly in his studio to discuss painting. Now we Zoom and talk about movie references and ironic self-portraits from our different cities. an artist and curator at work.
NV: Before painting, you studied cinematography and photography. How did you come to be a painter's-painter? And how, if at all, do these experiences with medium inform your practice today?
PW: The film industry wasn't a good fit for me. There was little to no room for mistakes. A mistake there was sometimes worth hundreds and thousands of rands or dollars. Everyone could do everything right, but if one person messed up and the whole project was jeopardised - it's like one bad costume or a sound guy that doesn't know what they are doing. Have you ever done group work? I moved over to painting because I wanted to be more independent. Film and painting are almost completely opposite processes, with painting you are all by yourself. If you fail, it's on you; nobody else. And that's even why I started making canvases, it was taking that further: it was all down to me. If I think about it, I'm more inspired by film and literature and the way they tell stories because I want to create an emotional experience sometimes, and a movie is the closest real emotional experience. But then I also like old works; some of those are very cinematic. Ruben, Rembrandt, and Goya are very dramatic.
NV: What's your Favourite movie then?
PW: There will be Blood or The Lighthouse.
NV: What are the emotional experiences or stories you want to convey?
PW: I've recently been looking at public spaces, their idiosyncrasies and how people interact there. For Feeback Loop, I looked at DeWaal Park back in Cape Town. Parks are supposed to be safe spaces that people associate with leisure and family. You don't associate them with unease. Parks are something else in South Africa. I mean they are complex places of contestation. You see the dichotomy or inequality in them. It's really obvious there. So, the paintings show a range of mundane situations or scenes that get more severe. The dog eating the duck is a different kind of violence to the screaming people and the nightmare of many versions of me. That is one part of the loop. The other side relates to me using and reusing images of old art works and recycling and reflecting on them. So, it's a recall of old paintings in modernity. It's the in-between - a lost in translation painting in some ways. Its circular repetition of times.
NV: Could you talk a bit about how you practically construct these layered narratives or "little horrors and absurdities" as you've previously called them? How do you approach an empty canvas?
PW: I used to work with collages and paint quite openly towards a show. With this body of work, I worked a little differently. We had spoken about parks, and I'd been thinking of ways to make Manet's Le Déjeuner Sur L'herbe funny. I spent time in the park and photographed weird things, but different paintings had different processes. Some had one reference, and others had many references. I tried printing out images and working from those, but I didn't have a printer. I haven't had one for years. So I paint from the picture [ pulls out phone and starts showing photos], there is the dog. Here is Làura. Then there is some trash. And I slowly amalgamate them. Do you know Justin Mortimer? He paints a bunch of stuff and then he will take a photo and put it straight into Photoshop and play around and then paint the next layer of things. It's pretty careful and, what's-the-word, systematic stuff. For me, I'm better at painting with a limited number of references because sometimes when I combine too many references, using places in my mind and space, everything looks a little strange. Also, what I liked about making this body of work was that I worked a bit differently with the size of the canvases. I like this large square format. I wish all my paintings were in that square format in some ways. I started there. The size of the canvas is important. If you have too many sizes you can lose continuity in the narrative, but with similar-sized canvases, even in your mind as you start painting, you start to link them as a coherent story.
NV: In Feedback Loop, you've painted a place, De-Waal-Park, and people you know. You've even included self-portraiture in Birthday on the Grass and Getting to Grips with Morality. What is the logic or feeling around this? Is the familiar important?
PW: I did a show at 99Loop Gallery in Cape Town and there was a painting, All Eyes on Me, and that was kind of a painter painting in a painting. I like to include myself because I think it's a good way to keep a sense of humour in the work. That's something I want to show and keep, but also to be self-aware: the painter in it all and the silliness of this selfish endeavour in a lot of ways. The joke is that you are not really changing the world with art and there is this strange thing when you have a show. Everything becomes about the humbleness of the artist and "it's all about the work", but we are also all there for the praise. It's ironic. Ironic art - I like that. Sometimes people can become too ironic and self-aware and that's not great either because then you are just making a product - the same thing over and over - not at least something beautiful for you. That's kind of what American Psycho and Fight Club bring up for me - this empty mode of living life and seeking fulfilment that isn't there. Also, the Adam Kurtis thing where we have lost, as an individualistic society, the ability to have stories that drive us forward. The simplest way I can put it is that I look forward to a Monday. Some people don't. I like working even if there is no point to the painting.
NV: And what does that work look like? What are your studio rituals and rules?
PW: First thing is coffee and then I put on a podcast. I go in every weekday. When I was in Cape Town, I acted like it was my job. I'd make canvases when I needed them. Painting can take as long as it takes. Like the one with the dog went quickly, the rugby players and the one with multiple-me's took longer. Sometimes it's hard to see in the studio because the studio is a mess. I always think of Bacon's studio. It was a pit. I like the pit. I can throw anything anywhere and all the things that are there are for the work - there is no space for the other kind of stuff you have to do. Cutting to the chase, you know?
NV: Can you talk a little bit about colour in this body of work? I'm interested in the relationship between the almost-neon back paintings and then the darker figures you include in paintings like Before Midnight?
PW: That's a weird thing of mine. I have the same old artists I always look at. The Old Masters for example. And then I relate those in real life and what I'm seeing. I'm also interested in how people use painting now - Adrian Ghenie and Justin Mortimer. But then also Katherine Bernhardt and Marlene Dumas are big ones for me. Katherine Bernhardt especially, those huge, spray-painted paintings of the Pink Panther, there is something about those colours underneath. I don't know if I can make work like that. It's crazy. That is a bold brave painting and I love that. And Marlene. I was obsessed with her. And I see how she uses colour. I'm erratic with my influences - even within this body of work. I focused mainly on a number of Goya references for one painting and Marlene Dumas references for another. Tal R has a good point. Painters like to talk about how they made the painting. We like to talk and think about paint. I like to think about how they did that. I want to look at a painting and think "how did they do this", "why is it so good", or "what's the method?". Then I think, "why do I like this painting so much"?
NV: You're now based in Hamburg, a context very different from South Africa. Does context matter to the work you want to make and what is the direction you're interested in exploring there?
PW: I'm just interested in how to make a good picture. How can I make a better picture and fulfil this desire to make a really good painting? To make a powerful work that is strong.
NV: Well, what is a very good painting then?
PW: You tell me, and I'll do it tomorrow! I'm trying to figure that out! Tal R says something like "the great misunderstanding is that artists are sitting around with lots of answers, and I have as many questions as you and all the ears out there". He also talks about how when people try hard you feel them and that's when We pull out the pocket, this word is "beautiful" because we feel it. It's a good way of understanding it - just trying sometimes is quite hard and when you see that. That's more honest. You can do something consecutively for weeks and weeks, then it doesn't feel that fun. There is a notion of responsibility. There is nothing else limiting me and I'm the only one who will see all the mistakes. Someone else will experience it but you will always have that "it could be better". But I've learnt it takes time. You forget all the emotions you attach to that thing. That's why I also paint so much, so I'm not too attached to one thing or one possible failure. That way I can cut away at the failures. I can make more. I can do more. That's maybe something I connect with moving. I don't know. Sometimes I just like to paint a painting without an answer.