Thursday, 8 July 2010
Michael Ajerman talks to
Alli Sharma at his East London studio
AS: Is the watercolour from life?
MA: Yeah, Iíve been doing these on and
off for a while. I had an instructor in New York but I only really did it
seriously in about 2002 at the Slade. Some people like the watercolours, others
like the oils, but over the years, theyíre beginning to become one.
AS: Is it that you can explore something
about materiality in the watercolours?
MA: Itís the fluidity of the material and
colour and not really having the ability to mess around. I donít really know
the history of watercolours very well. I mean I know thereís a huge history in
Britain and I know what a Turner or Constable watercolour looks like. I like
doing them. I find them incredibly special and I really have to focus because
thereís so much going on at one time.
AS: Is the history of painting important
MA: It is. I mean I know it. I had a
weird neighbour when I was growing up in New Jersey who showed me old art
documentaries. When I was 8, everyone else was doing Martin Luther King or
Thomas Jefferson reports for school. I was doing Michelangelo, talking about
him cutting up bodies to figure out how things work. I was a weird kid.
AS: Do you still make discoveries?
MA: I do, but Iíve also begun to notice
that certain aspects of work by artists that I like has changed. Things seem
different now and I donít know why. Albums that Iíve listened to for a really
long time also sound different. I still make discoveries in strange places.
Recently, Iíve been more interested in just going out there and seeing what
comes my way than a premeditated research on something, like itís a sign. There
was a really big Otto Dix show in New York where I saw these two great
paintings of a woman and a child. The first one looked like a brown Mary
Cassatt and the other like something painted by Charles Addams who did the
Addams Family stuff. It was the same year, the same model, but I was blown away
by the scope of the works.
AS: You mean the different styles?
MA: No, just completely different
sensations. One seemed to have the parental empathy of Cassatt, but with the
other one, you could almost hear the Addams Family theme tune. I had been
thinking about doing something with a good friend of mine, Ivan, whoís just
become a father. He lives in New York and now has a son, Jonah, so we met up I
did some sketches. Just cause I usually draw Ivan when I see him, and this was
an event, heís now a ĎDad.í Then on my next trip to New York I went to Zwirner
gallery and in the back office they had this Alice Neel painting of Neelís
husband and her first son. Itís a bizarre painting. The partnerís face was
really heavily done with this one long mark for the eyebrows, the nose and then
back up again. The childís face almost scrubbed out, which is kind of like
stuff you would see now. I thought, itís a sign! I should do the paintings of
Ivan and Jonah when I get back to London. So stuff like that.
AS: Making connections with things going
on in your head? I was wondering about your subject matter. You paint the
things that are going on around you in your life?
MA: I am aware of what I do here, but it
got to the point where I was really not in the mood to go to the dark for a
little while, I needed a break. I also want to keep it fresh. The heavy ones
are mentally exhausting. Iím not saying that the ones of the father and son are
not exhausting but itís just different.
AS: Why are the heavy ones exhausting,
because the subject matter is very close to you?
MA: Sometimes it is and sometimes not. I
can put too much in, of my feelings and stuff, itís been pointed out to me
pretty clearly but I think itís the same if someone is writing or doing an
intense scene in a film or something like that. A tension starts building up.
AS: Itís an emotional relationship?
MA: It is, but at the same time, if it
wasnít fun, I wouldnít do it. Well, like Upside
Down in the Transition gallery show. Thereís a woman dangling, you donít
see her legs and thereís a lot of ambiguity in that painting. People have said
to me ĎI donít like ití. I say ĎI donít think youíre supposed to like ití, then
other people do like it. Iím trying to make paintings with feeling and power,
with a presence to hold up to everything else, like billboards, magazines,
Piccadilly Circus and you know, everything else (makes hand gestures like
scrolling through an iPhone).
AS: The way you handle the paint looks
like a balancing act, it looks intense and concentrated. The paint could have
been slapped on, but you know it hasnít, you know it has been controlled and itís
slippery and difficult.
MA: I call it aggressive surface control.
The marks can sometimes be aggressive. At the same time, I like
what Corinna Spencer wrote on her
blog, that some of the marks are pulled slow, to get certain effects. I donít
like the word Ďdraggingí but youíre gliding through.
AS: So itís not necessarily a fast way of
MA: If itís working wonderfully, itís
fast, then there are times when it creeps really slow. The conclusion of a
piece is usually two or three marks interplaying, ricocheting onto each other,
creating some kind of sensation, usually. The most important thing is trying to
keep open to things, accepting things that donít happen in the normal way and
moving with that. Thereís this idea that the mistake is not the mistake. The
mistake is what comes after. So if something is done which is a little bit odd,
itís what is done to compliment or aggravate that afterwards to verify whether
it was a mistake.
AS: The response?
MA: Yeah, the response is more
important than the Ďoh godí moment.
AS: So do you know when to leave
MA: Well thatís hard. There are times
when Iíve run out of the studio. Because you get this moment when you really
have to accept what youíve done and it takes a while because you have this idea
in your head of what you want to do and sometimes you get really close to it
but sometimes the idea of accepting something is really hard.
AS: When you start a piece do you have a
strong idea of what itís going to look like?
MA: I have an idea, but even the drawings
are never close and also things that are planned out too much always look
really dead to me. I stopped doing that. That way of working is not interesting
to me any more.
AS: If youíve worked it out already,
thereís no working out left to do.
MA: There are people who want and demand
that control. For me, the most interesting ones I do are where everything is on
an equal level, meaning that any part of the picture can be pushed, pulled or
re-adjusted in a delicate or aggressive manner at any given time and not to be
precious about a specific part and realise that it is the whole thing that is
really important. I mean some of my marks are aggressive and some of my marks
are calmer, there are definitely certain types of approaches that Iíve been
working with for the past couple of years and that might expand or contract.
But the thing is I mostly just think about the colour. The marks.
AS: You use a particular shade of dirty
MA: I thought it was from watching Purple Rain too much. I found this
purple and I really like it. Itís in jars over there. I make some slight
adjustments to it. The colour range breathes in and out depending on the
imagery. For a while there were reds, yellows and deep sienna brown to depict a
late night electric light.
AS: They feel really close.
MA: I used to work night shift at bars
and restaurants. Those times are great because when going home at night
everything seems a lot easier to see. Itís tonal, not chromatic. I really
responded to the red colour range. For a while it was clunky then I became more
conscious of controlling it. I liked the red because it seemed easy to lose
control of it and I liked that idea.
AS: Do you limit your palette?
MA: I remember at University in New York,
youíre palette looked like a freight train. I think itís that student idea that
if you have five different reds and four different blues, it will make it
better. God, what a mistake that was. Limitations are good. Iíll shift
something or change the tone but it usually starts from a compressed amount,
and a decent amount of it. Even in the small paintings, if you mix a tiny
amount and you put it down then thatís it, the mileage of that colour is over.
If you mix more of that colour you can make that same mark or ten more like it
to do something else in the painting.
AS: It makes sense, so you can change
things. Youíre not fixed.
MA: Itís important for me to have the
ability to move from one part of the surface to another very quickly. That can
mean the colour range or making sure that there is an amount of pigment to physically
do that and thatís only done by preparing, preparing preparing.
AS: Some of the paintings are on
MA: Metal is pretty awesome.
AS: Because it slides?
MA: Itís like butter in a pan when itís
just going. It captures the marks much more differently than board, which is
probably the closest.
AS: The pumpkin strikes me as a
particularly American emblem, you donít feel that about it?
MA: I donít know if itís a love poem for
Americana but it is strange and comforting to see them around here in Oct/Nov.
The pumpkin goes back to that colour range I was using, but theyíre weird
things; theyíre meaty. I got a pumpkin and I grabbed my power drill and drilled
holes in it. The cool thing was when I was working on it I had the candles
inside the holes, so it has this vanitas feel to it. One of the candles went
AS: Yes, itís just gone out, you can
still smell it.
MA: It had gone out and I was really
chasing it, it was a lucky couple of seconds.
AS: The portrait hung next to the other
pumpkin. Is that an actual person.
MA: Yeah, thatís my friend Derek. We grew
up together in New Jersey. He was coming through London. For a while it has
been a nightmare working from direct observation in oils because I didnít have
the same type of control as working from non-direct observation. So I abandoned
that approach. When Derek was here I thought Iíd give it another shot. I
remember how weird his jaw was and I never noticed it before. It was really
AS: How long did it take?
MA: This was fast. The paintings take two
hours to two years. There are people who donít trust their working methods when
itís finished in a couple of hours. I want things to be as good as everybody
else does but there are times when the first thought is the best thought.
AS: There is something very fresh about
that way of working that seems to be undervalued.
MA: Itís weird because you get painters
who talk about Eastern philosophy and Chinese Dynasty landscapes and theyíre
done like that. Yes, thereís a great deal of training and planning that goes
into those types of things.
AS: I would imagine that when youíre
working that fast, something must take over in the way that you are looking and
MA: I donít think that kind of thing can
be described verbally very well. You become so at one with the materials in a
way that conventional human dialogue doesnít really work. I think that can go
for any type of creative impulse. Itís a weird thing because you are bombarded
by someone who is sitting in front of you, someone that you have known for a
long period of time so thereís a great deal going on cerebrally and optically,
and now youíre at two very different places in your life, those days are gone
but those parts of your brain are still flickering in a funny kind of way and I
like working with all of that.
AS: Itís not just anyoneís head youíre
MA: I know people who donít want to know
the model, they want the distance but itís never been like that for me. That
kind of dislocation from the subject matter really seems a waste of time. Iím
interested in the people I paint, but Iím also picky about the people that I
paint. I think itís trying to use a language to try to investigate something
that is close to you and seeing where it can go.
AS: Can you tell me about the painting 'Christelle'.
MA: Iím very happy with it as an image.
Itís a memorandum piece and Iíve never done anything like that but I think it
works well. It was something I really needed to do. We spoke before about how
do you make a painting, I had previous watercolours that I had done and old
photographic imagery and stuff and I really went for it. At Slade, Bruce McLean
used to say, Ďwhen you know youíre hitting it, youíre hitting it.í You have
this ten minute groove, and it doesnít happen all the time, but when youíre in
it youíre in it and you just go. It was weird finishing this thing because I
felt I was hitting it better than Iíd ever done before but at the same time I
really felt like I was losing my mojo with every hit. It was really bizarre
like I was really in it but after each volley, my strength kept going down and
then I donít know if it ended because there was nothing left to me or nothing
left to do in the painting, I just remember it stopped.
AS: So when you were talking about an
intense period of working, this was what you were dealing with?
MA: I consider it intense. I come in here
and I see where it all goes. Iím trying to stay open for things to shift and
change but I donít really know where it goes. I can try and will things and I
do, but thereís really only so much, Iím not interested in choking it. Thatís
Many thanks to Alli Sharma for allowing us to reproduce
this interview. First published on ĎArticulated Artistsí blog Thursday 8th July