Catalogue interview with Robert Enright
kind of a slippery term, but we know what we mean when we say it.
I gave a lecture at a New York art school and I was accused of being
a conceptual artist who used painting. It was wild. It seemed absolutely
correct from that perspective. At the same time, because I have
such a deep love of Western painting, to say that wouldnt
be the whole story. But theres no question that I have found
my own use for the canon.
RE: A painting like Robespierres
Dream is like a cross between A Midsummer Nights Dream
and 19th century symbolist painting. It looks like John the Baptists
head could be somewhere in the midst of that incredible brightness.
Im just interested in how you decide how far to push the beauty
and the lustre of the work. Is that determined by the subject or
is there something else that convinces you to really up the ante?
TS:Torque it! Its funny but
beauty is never a word I use for myself.
RE: Is it like Yahweh, the word
that never escapes your lips?
TS: Not at all. Its just not one
I use for myself. I talk to myself in terms of whether it works.
Is it functioning the way it needs to in order to operate as a sign.
I guess you could say there is a metaphysical formalism, or a metaphysics
of formalism? Nobody is talking about that much because metaphysics
is such a frightening prospect for post-structuralist thought. The
idea that there might not only be parallel worlds operating simultaneously
but that the effects of those worlds on the chemistry of my body
might actually change my thoughts. You know Prozac is a big problem
for post-structuralist thinking. It really is, because it suggests
that form in this case, chemistry can change meaning.
That is formalism. Thats the metaphysics of formalism: when
were in the space of beauty, our organisms are acted upon
by form which changes the chemistry and thereby changes the thought.
RE: Now you also do some quite
literal symbolic things. Chez Himmler looks like Fantin Latour,
but then theres a red fallen flower which looks like a symbol
TS: I rarely use symbolism consciously.
Would I use a white dove in a painting to symbolize peace? No, I
wouldnt. What interests me more is the idea that the painting
signifies its opposite and thats why its hard
to look at sometimes.
RE: This subject matter is so fraught
that it would be inconceivable to present Himmlers household
as a place of origin for a beautiful still life. It would be too
nervy to present it without any indication of your awareness of
the irony of that presentation.
TS: Actually, thats very
interesting because Ive often seen that happen in homes, especially
with peonies. Theyre very heavy and so they suddenly squash
like some cartoon character. When I painted the painting I wasnt
really thinking about it symbolically. In fact, this is the first
time Ive ever thought about it. I think that happens with
RE: The fact that Mamma Robespierre
looks like the beautiful young Claire Bloom.
TS: Absolutely. He lost his mother
when he was very young, and it affected him in a big way. This is
my big question about history and life in general. Wed all
like to think were in an A movie and when we feel bad about
ourselves were in a B movie. In my movie, Mamma Robespierre
steps out of a late 60s French film. Theres always a libidinous
current through my work.
RE: Is there anything of the libido
operating in the way that you handle the surface?
TS: Not intentionally. I was just
looking at this painting Im working on and its really thick
and has holes in it. Its succulent to everyone other than
myself. I look at it and its an aggregate of mistakes that somehow
adds up to a stab at the real. Occasionally I do a thin painting,
one that somehow I had the guts to leave alone. At a particular
moment I saw something that was more valuable than what I might
get if I go down a road I know so well, which is the one of toil
and accident. I actually think Im trying to paint a painting
of a painting thats already there. And the only painting that
would be worth repainting would be one that was wonderfully executed.
Otherwise what would be the point. So when I paint a still life
or a portrait, Im not painting the thing itself, Im
painting a painting of a painting thats already been painted
by someone else. Which is why theyre getting thicker and more
difficult as I get older.
RE: So the surfaces quite literally
are a repository for memory, both as an active state and also as
a psychological state?
TS: God, thats an interesting
question. No, to me the surface is an intentional byproduct. I say
intentional because I choose to work with wax so its an inevitable
byproduct of the process. What is inevitable about that process
is that Im too compulsive, Im too neurotic to leave
the thing alone. Do you see what I mean? I have such a low opinion
of myself that I cant think Im good enough. So I have
to keep on until I can at least live with it. Im serious.
I have to keep picking and picking until I get an aggregate that
I can at least live with.
RE: Youre willing to go as
far as a painting like Waiting for Marat, in which you use blue
to occlude and almost erase the face underneath?
TS: That was my last ditch stand
with that fucking painting.
RE: But from my point of view theyre
such fine paintings. Your sense of your work strikes me as almost
TS: Its totally critical.
You have no idea. Im off to Paris to launch this book and
Ive got to get some paintings down to New York and Ive
a truck coming in two days but Id like keep on looking at
them. Some moments I think Great, youve done it.
RE: And then you make the mistake
of turning your back on them.
TS: I turn around again and I dont
fucking believe it. That bit Im obsessing about is the first
bit that everybodys going to see. But the anxiety doesnt
come from what I think other people are going to say, because Im
well aware that people dont really see very well any more.
I want to take on the big guys, Im not ambitious but I really
want to go for it. And I believe you can get better and better until
you die. It probably sounds weird but what actually drives the entire
painting is my conviction that it just doesnt look good. Let
me tell you a story. I applied to art school when I was 18 years
old and I didnt get in because my portfolio was so bad. I
remember going to the interview and the Head of the school said,
I suggest you take a year and go to night classes and learn
how to draw and then reapply next year and well have another
look. Thats how bad my drawings were. I remember I threw
a shit fit at the interview and I said, youll read about
me one day. I said, I came to you to learn something
and youre telling me to have already learned it before I get
here. Fuck you. I walked out and a week later I get an acceptance
letter. Because there was one guy there who thought I should be
let in just because my rhetoric was so good. And I really was the
worst by far. I mean I had no skills at all but I watched myself
overtake a whole pile of people through really hard work. Its
a thought that I hold on to every day: that it is possible for me
to paint better paintings. And people say, is that just technique?
and the answer is yes, but technique is not what you think it is.
RE: Ezra Pound said technique was
the test of a mans sincerity. By that definition, youre
a very sincere painter.
TS: Absolutely, theres no
irony in the way I paint. I cant afford it.