Jo McGonigal & Deb Covell: Real Painting

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Sara Jaspan 

How did the idea of a painting show first come about?  


Jo McGonigal

(Castlefield Gallery’s Director) Kwong Lee invited me to curate the exhibition about 18 months ago, possibly in response to an earlier comment I’d made about not having seen a good group painting show in Manchester for sometime. At least, not one that engaged with a broader discussion around painting as a contemporary practice. It also seemed like a good opportunity to tackle some of the ideas I was exploring within my own artistic practice, and to continue a series of conversations I’d been having with Deb since we first met at Manchester Contemporary in 2013.


Deb Covell

I’d been planning an exhibition called Border Crossing back when I worked at Platform A Gallery. This was intended to showcase a group of artists whose practice straddled the line between sculpture and painting, however it got put on-hold. Meeting Jo, I immediately liked her work, and we very soon began exchanging ideas and sharing influences; so Jo invited me to co-curate the show with her.


SJ 

How did the concepts behind the exhibition emerge?  


JMc

We were both really interested in Richard Tuttle’s Octagonal pieces from the late 1960s, and found ourselves asking lots of questions about their place within a wider narrative of painting. At a time when painting and sculpture seemed to polarize and occupy separate critical arenas, Tuttle’s work fell neatly into neither category. It wasn’t about its own conventions, but about states of being: thinking, seeing and feeling. It was also a radical departure from a lot of the Minimalist art of that period, reacting against the impersonal, industrial aspects, and instead focusing on the expressive capacity of the materials themselves.


DC 

Traditionally painting has always operated as a kind of self contained unit, dictated by the edges of the canvas or frame. But for me, Jo and many of the artists in the show, this is too limiting. Our focus is on freeing the work from the canvas and walls; allowing it to break into the gallery space. All the works display a sense of autonomous authenticity and move away from the illusionistic, referential or pseudo.


SJ

There’s been a lot of attention given to the absence of ‘pictures’ in the show. Can you explain more about the decision?  


JMc

It’s more a kind of ‘emptying painting of image’, foregrounding other concerns instead: the medium’s physical, material properties and behind the scenes elements; its ‘grammar’ and engagement with space over the pictorial; and finally, our perceptual relationship to the made and found.

 

DC

The blankness and open-endedness of the monochrome soon became an integral part of our thinking, as it allowed for an emphasis on colour, tone, form, weight and material concerns – all of painting’s basic components, but without image. We began to see how the works could relate to each other formally and within the gallery’s architecture. Whilst this particular kind of work is already well established in America and Europe, it’s less so here. The British painting scene is generally more rooted in a pictorial, referential, image-based culture.

 

SJ

A couple of the works even seem to empty painting of paint. I’m thinking, for example, of Adriano Costa’s carpet-based piece (Piece, 2014) or Jo’s own Yellow Yellow (2015). Can your explain their inclusion?  

 

DC 

Adriano and Jo’s contributions are perhaps the most difficult to fit neatly under the bracket of painting. Although Adriano hasn’t used paint in this particular piece, there have been references to its ‘gloopy’ shape, and descriptions of the carpet strands as being like individual brushstrokes (not to mention, it’s also wall-mounted). His work conflates painting and sculpture, residing in the gap between the two.

 

JMc

Yellow Yellow started off as a silk scarf and old M&S t-shirt – two flat, rectangular monochromes pinned to the studio wall. I was interested in how they related to the painted surface and transmitted and absorbed light. By tying the two together, they lost some of their connection to the everyday and became simply the colour yellow, which then became its form. Yellow is a physical colour. It has an inherent strength and complexity, its own presence and certainty. The examination of colour – its physicality, how it operates – is an entirely painterly concern. Yellow Yellow does not aim to represent something else, but simply declares its own presence.

 

SJ 

The Castlefield Gallery is quite an awkward space architecturally. What role does it play in the exhibition?  

 

JMc 

All the pieces were chosen with the space very much in mind. We wanted to make the viewer feel distinctly present through playing with closeness, distance and scope. For example, David Goerk’s Red Wand is hidden behind one of the pillars at certain vantages, but then springs out from others due to the way in which red operates. The work has great presence, despite being so tiny. Simon Callery’s Auricle (2012) is situated deliberately at the entrance to the gallery so that it functions in a physically confrontational way, where it can only be seen close-up. To taken in the whole, you need to step outside or down the stairs.

DC

We gave a lot of consideration to how the viewer might navigate the space and be aware of their own positioning in relation to the work.  For example, to see Jo’s corner piece, Untitled 2015, you need to lean right into the wall, so the body is literally pressed up against the architecture. We also thought about how the viewer retains a collection of images and experiences. Recalling these at a later stage, they can often start to merge or dissipate, moving away from the factual and real. Within my own work, I’ve begun exploring how to make a form disappear or dissolve, perhaps in reaction to the show and, more specifically, to my piece Nowt to Summat (2014), which deals with ideas about bringing a form into being.

 

SJ

Tell me more about the significance of the exhibition title: Real Painting. 

 

JMc 

Our heavily image-based, digitized world has become increasingly distanced from the experiential, tactile encounter of looking that actively engages the other senses. When discussing the show we drew upon some of the artist and writer, Lee Ufan’s, ideas around desiring to ‘escape or refute ‘Western’ ideas of signification’[1] and ‘present the world as it is’,[2] seeing things as they are and not as symbols.

 

DC 

Real Painting is all about slowness, presence and engaging in a very real way. A factual realness and emphasis on a material actuality pervades all of the work. We wanted a title that indicated a clear move away from referential painting or pictorial illusionism. The works stand up on their own as real things in the real world, and are accountable only to themselves.

 

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Sara Jaspan is a writer based in Manchester.

 

Real Painting, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.

 

12 June – 2 August 2015.

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[1] Joan Lee, Points, Lines, Encounters: The World according to Lee Ufan. p. 403. [The Oxford Art Journal 31.3.2008]

[2] Lee Ufan, ‘Sekai to kozo’ (World & Structure), Dezain Hihyo, vol.9 1969, p. 132