Where did you grow up?
Nottinghamshire. Right in the middle of nowhere.
And after that, did you come straight to London?
No, I kind of moved around a bit. I went to study in Cheltenham, thinking I’d come to London straight after that. Before that there was a stint in Newcastle studying photography, then I lived in Brighton for a bit. And then I moved to London in 2005. And I’ve always had a studio here in the East.
What has it been like working in Hackney Wick?
There’s something about East London, and Hackney Wick in particular. It’s got a certain energy that I don’t think you find anywhere else. Hackney Wick was always the dream studio, from when I had my first proper studio in Bethnal Green under a railway arch. There’s still a community here, even though loads of things have been knocked down.
So, can you tell us a bit about the paintings you’re working on now, and what their genesis is?
It started off when I went to study at Turps. Before that, I’d been painting urban landscapes – fairly wrong. And then what started it all off was painting a fly tip at the end of my road, with these bags that were all piled up. There was something about the energy going downwards. I started painting things like that. And then they became slightly humanoid, but always with this sort of energy coming downwards. I often think of the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters, which I am going to paint one day. Someone gets splatted while they’re just stood there.
I started making slightly more figurative paintings, again with this sort of oozy flow to them. And then we had an open studios once, and this guy came in and started talking to me for like, two hours, and he said, “Why not just make it more obvious?” When lockdown happened, I thought, no one’s gonna see any of this stuff anyway, so I just made it really quite obvious. And then I ended up having a show [at Castor Gallery] with that work.
So the spark for the idea came from some random guy who just happened in?
Well it turned out it was Martin Maloney, the painter. But I didn’t know at the time!
How much time do you spend talking with other painters, is that an important part of how you work?
I do bits and pieces, but we tend not to talk about specific paintings. Sometimes you’ll show someone a painting on the phone. And that’s about it, as far as conversation goes. It’s like, I want to hang out with artists the whole time, but not necessarily to talk about painting.
Has your daily experience of living and working in this particular part of the city found its way into paintings?
It would be hard for it not to, but not in any specific way. There was a danger a while ago of my paintings looking a bit like graffiti. Which is partly why I’ve now really limited the palette. Because otherwise, you’d look out the window, and there’s like, turquoise…
One of the really interesting things about your work is your limited approach to the palette. Can you talk more about this?
It’s effectively painting with just four colors, which are cadmium red, ivory black, yellow ochre, and titanium white. It was developed by Zorn, for painting portraits. But it feels interesting using it in the way I paint, which is quite fragmented, like stained-glass windows. They’ve got an outline, and then these chunks of color. But I find the limited palette takes one more thing out of the equation, that I don’t have to think about.
Did you look at stained glass specifically, as an inspiration?
I do find myself staring at it quite a lot. In my hometown there’s an enormous cathedral. Even though it’s a tiny town of about 5000 people, there’s this Minster, and it’s got an enormous stained glass window on one end. I’d pass by all the time.
Did you grow up going to church? Have certain Christian stories, or images, influenced you?
In many ways, it’s a subject that you’re just not allowed to do. So that’s what interests me. I wouldn’t say I’m religious. But I do go to church. And that’s my access to the “other,” whatever that is. But it’s fascinating that religion, in some ways, is the only taboo… Which I suppose is why I kind of hide it a bit. So it’s like, it’s not hiding it so you just completely can’t tell what it is. But it’s just so it’s not in your face, because it’s yeah, it’s hard to kind of ignore what I’m saying. It’s a tough thing to try and do.
But there’s an enduring and quite universal aspect to these stories, these myths, no?
There’s just sort of something eternal in having that sort of subject matter. And I think like I read this pretty clichéd book called The Hero with 1000 faces by Joseph Campbell, which talks about how these stories are throughout every culture on the planet, even ones that weren’t connected to each other at all. There’s a lot there that you can play with…
There seems to be a marked interest, especially among painters, in mythology. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think as we go further into this digital, synthesized reality, people are looking for some escape from that. And because painting is such a physical, old-fashioned thing, there’s always going to be a connection that goes back to the caves at Lascaux.
Have you been reading anything interesting recently?
I’ve been reading Finding the Mother Tree, which is about how plants talk to each other underground. It’s quite weird to have plants that need these other plants to grow. I’m also partway through the Book of Enoch. Which is the book that isn’t in the Bible, but it’s about Noah’s grandfather. And it’s like, sci-fi Bible. It’s really nuts.
You’ve been a dad for seven years now. What has that meant for your life as a painter?
It kind of changes everything, from just having a different routine. It’s very much nine-to-five in the studio, rather than my preferred hours of midday to midnight. But you also start having a different way of looking at things. And you kind of do relive your childhood again. There’s the naivety of looking at things, which is fascinating, like thinking the moon is following you. Rather than just looking at it and thinking “that’s quite far away…”
Has that found its way into your paintings?
Well, maybe… they all seem to have moons at the moment.
This one here definitely follows me around the studio.
Well yeah, it’s working out things that are interesting to you that you can pass on as well, but very much from a visual point of view. I had this book a while ago called How to Use your Eyes. And it tells you how to look at pavement, and how, just by looking, to know what’s happened to the pavement, what kind of traffic goes over it, what plants could grow up through it. I’m always interested in notions of perception changing when you have knowledge about something: for instance, a duck pond becomes something completely different when you can say “Oh, there’s a tufted duck, there’s a cormorant… that’s an Egyptian goose, and that’s Canadian goose.” It changes how you view something.