The Page interviews Andreas Leventis at ‘Slow Learner’, an exhibition he has curated at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London.
PAGE: How did the idea for this exhibition emerge? Was it a matter of responding to an opportunity or did it have a long gestation period?
LEVENTIS: I actually had the idea, and the title in fact, quite a few years ago, about 2008/09. It was when I was last freelancing, I wasn’t working in any fixed place, and I had this idea for a show but it never really got off the ground. I remember speaking to a couple of the artists who are in the show about it then, Alistair Frost and David Austen, and both of them seemed to like the idea or theme I was going for. The shows title ‘Slow Learner’came from a Thomas Pynchon collection of short stories, early short stories. With the title he was critiquing his early works, looking back at when he was a young writer, you know, the pain of reading over this stuff again, an immature writer in his view, in his eyes. I liked the phrase, how it reflected on the process of learning, I thought it had a comic feel to it. Alongside this I was thinking about the graphic aesthetic that Alistair and David’s work shared, the use of text, signs and symbols and their roll in the learning process. So rather than a painterly aesthetic which is what I’ve been looking at and curating or writing about in the past, I was thinking about the language of design. So anyway, it went nowhere, and then fast forward however many years and there was a space to do a summer show here at Timothy Taylor Gallery and I started thinking about it again. There are three gallery artists in the show, Jonathan Lasker, Susan Hiller, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins, but mostly they are non-gallery artists, but there are definite links. Marcel Broodthaers for example is a definite influence on and link with Susan Hiller, she’s made a whole series of work called Homage to Marcel Broodthaers.
PAGE: You are exploring possible connections between specific works whilst bringing all of the works together under this loose banner of the slow learner. It’s quite a loaded theme, because it could be regarded as a criticism, but it could also be virtuous – to take your time, to work through things, to resist jumping to conclusions..
LEVENTIS: Who is or what is the slow learner? I think the artist can definitely be the slow learner. Clive Hodgson told me a story relating to his memory of handwriting lessons at school. He’s left-handed and I’m left handed so I found it interesting, his recollection of accidentally smudging the ink with his hand. Teachers got frustrated, he got frustrated, and of course some students were forced to write right-handed. This relates to the fact that his paintings are basically about his signature, they’re about dates, they’re date and signature paintings, that’s his practice now, since about 2008. I like that idea of him being a slow learner, in terms of there being a supposedly correct way of doing something, and the paintings being a diary of that development. They’re this brutal documentation of his trying things out. These exercises.
PAGE: There’s an implied resistance there, willfully or genetically defying the path most travelled. Do you think most of the artists in the exhibition would be happy to be called slow learners? In a school context, if you say that someone is a slow learner, you’re talking about a lack of ability, to follow instructions, to grasp information and knowledge. But most artists would probably be happy with the concept of work that evolves slowly, with a reference to their practice. For example Lasker, it could refer to the way that he invests time and develops his work slowly, he learns slowly, his process is one of slowly absorbing, and reinvesting, learning from the act of learning.
LEVENTIS: With Lasker we might think that they are spontaneous paintings, but they’re actually made using studies that he scaled up, so they’re incredibly considered, planned, orchestrated, and worked out meticulously. There’s a back-story that we don’t necessarily know about. In the phrase ‘slow learner’ I was also thinking about ‘slow burner’. I was thinking about the viewer, the audience being the slow learner, being engaged by something cryptic or encrypted. The exhibition is primarily about about reading and comprehension, which takes us back to this idea of school. The overall aesthetic is very direct, clear and hard-edged, and you would typically expect that kind of aesthetic to convey a clear meaning, like a message, a restaurant menu or a road sign. None of the artists do that, they leave you hanging, they withhold meaning and narrative. The Baldessari suggests a kind of narrative, but again its completely cryptic. The Ed Ruscha piece is one of his date line paintings, which he has done for years. Its painterly qualities render its surface deeply confusing. If you read this as a jpeg on a screen it’s almost impossible to understand formally and technically.
PAGE: It holds you up, slows you down. Learning of revising a clear conclusion, a clearly defined endgame – are these all artists that are consciously working away from decisive conclusions, are they trying to diffuse that, and undermine the idea of learning as a recital, a preordained route?
LEVENTIS: I think so. David Austen’s groan paintings for example, I see as a moment along a line, or forgetting a line, they’re extracted from a moment. They are like a subtitle in a silent movie, it’s part of a narrative but we have no idea what that bigger picture is, it’s abstracted out from that. And we start to look at that word as an object or as form. It points to so many aspects of Austen’s multi-disciplinary practice, a series of processes, which in themselves resist expectations.
PAGE: We mustn’t confuse the idea that taking issue with learning means obscuring networks of information and processes of learning, that it completely resists any mode of communication. All of these artworks indicate a cultivated self-awareness, and a familiarity with historical reference points.
LEVENTIS: In a way what the show does, I hope, is set up a larger narrative, it’s almost like a story in itself, like a murder mystery. Charles Mayton works like this when he puts together and exhibition, it’s a whole, a total work. He sets up a narrative structure behind it so that the individual works are like characters or plot devices, or markers in a larger narrative. There’s this Cluedo thing going on, but again it’s left to your imagination to form links or not, to contribute to where it’s heading. Some of them seem like dead ends and others open up possibilities. The Susan Hiller piece is key in that way, she is actually critiquing the idea of interpretation and meaning. It’s an automatic writing experiment from the early 70s, and in the first panel she just started scribbling, with the words left vague and hardly apparent. In the second smaller panel she tries to interpret the scribbles, typing out these phrases that she apparently wrote in the larger panel. She’s deconstructing and trying to find meaning, but it’s a critique of that whole practice. She was a trained anthropologist, but dismissed a lot of that and became an artist. It’s the idea of faith, what you believe, and that’s her practice, faith, in this case faith in knowledge or learning. It shows how eager we are to always assign meaning and a final solution.
PAGE: Would this be the earliest work in the exhibition?
LEVENTIS: Yes everything’s pretty recent. The Joel Sternfeld photograph was shot in ‘78 but it’s a re-editioned resized print from 2004 that we have in the show. The Hiller would be the earliest. Everything else is pretty new, made in the last few years or for the show. The Alistair Frost was made for the show as was the David Austin. Even though there’s a lot of painting in the show it doesn’t really look like a painting show, there are painterly moments but the interest isn’t in the paint.
PAGE: You don’t think you were drawn to painting with this theme in mind? There is the discussion within painting about how it subverts the overt, how the materiality of paint is well suited to the ponderous, the inconclusive, and as a process in of itself it implies the artist being enveloped by an independent, subjective process of learning.
LEVENTIS: I wasn’t really thinking about it in that way. If I’d had the time, the means and the space I think I could have included 50 artists in the show, well, say 30, and covered more media and techniques in relation to the central ideas. It just worked as being painting heavy. An artist like Francis Stark would’ve really worked in the show. John Baldessari has always been a huge figure for me and I think a lot of other people. This is from 2013 from his storyboard series, which are all ink jet prints with paint over the top in areas. The two images at the top are ripped from newspapers, and each piece in the series has four sections. They’re painted and enlarged, then scanned and painted on, and the two other sections are a piece of writing, a quote, a statement. Then there’s colour, which supposedly deconstructs the found colour or selected colour.
PAGE: The collaged element actually seems to draw your attention to a sensibility throughout the exhibition, a sense of the artist drawing disparate fragments together and speculating, speculating on solutions, and whether the idea of creating meaning from disparate elements is worthwhile or not.
LEVENTIS: You start to bring these works together and when you physically start to move them around you find these relationship parallels. Sampling and collage within the work is echoed between the works.
PAGE: Does Baldessari himself speculate on the ambition of a work like this or does he just leave it open?
LEVENTIS: He very much just leaves it open. I’d imagine they are put together very quickly, in a large series, he probably finds the results of the spontaneity funny.
PAGE: The Susan Hiller piece reminds me of automatic drawing techniques from the 20/30s, when other artists were trying to tackle art history and the sense that artists were imprisoned in a language that was denying them opportunities to describe their thoughts, ideas or the world around them. But the sense was that language would then explain what their gestures were trying to do. This formal experimentation seems to be taken to words and ideas by Baldessari. So rather than words and ideas explaining gesture that are brought about to undermine and interrogate processes of bringing about meaning, the words – the usual form of explanation, are actually being speculative themselves.
LEVENTIS: Yes, they become formal elements. I think putting it next to the Austin underlines that in a way. Marcel Broodthaers is the real starting point for this. He was a poet for 20 years, had little or no success then in the 60s decided to become a visual artist, which was cynical, it was like a joke thing. Then he started making work and found that people could actually sell them and buy them, and he could actually make a living, he was like wow, this is great…
PAGE: Are the forms in his piece (Musee d’art moderne Department des Aigles – S.Litteraire Fig. 1 et 2) derived from speech bubbles or signs, what are they?
LEVENTIS: This is part of his series from his Museum of Modern Art Department of Eagles, which was this imaginary museum he created and then created works for. This was an editioned vacuum-packed plastic work, an edition of seven. Again it’s a very cryptic, strange, design influenced object, which seems to promise some kind of function, like it may convey some information, but it’s completely encrypted and encoded. In a way it’s removed from the author, because it has that functionality, that sense of purpose.
PAGE: Is he commenting on the idea that art and art history is a series of signposts that direct the viewer to this or that conclusion?
LEVENTIS: It’s funny you say speech bubbles as I didn’t really think of them like that. I saw more of a link with the Lasker in a way. In Lasker those elements could also be seen as speech bubbles, but for me they become personalities, these cyphers or avatars, and there’s this sort of conversation going on between formal elements. There’s this weird suggested narrative between these personalities in paint that look nothing like humans but they definitely have a personality. Going back to Broodthaers and Baldessari, there’s this idea of playing with text, with signs and symbols, a taking off point, an overlaying and recombining. The Ghada Amer piece, which is painting with embroidery, is one of her more refined, or restrained works. Usually they are a lot more optical and pornographic, but this one you have these sort of dancing figures and this motto saying ‘I don’t love you’ over the top. Your not really given much room there, you can imagine as much as you want, and the fact that the words are obscured with the embroidery, which becomes painterly, is interesting.
PAGE: What about the Lawrence Weiner piece? Here is an artist that has been making language cryptic for a long time.
LEVENTIS: This is a study or a preparatory work for a larger wall vinyl piece, which he’s well known for. He’s used that phrase a few times in different configurations, and that sort of distills it down to its essence, this idea of using text and letters as form. As you get closer there are these other little phrases, ‘pearls and pigs, secondary offering, tertiary response’, ..it gets even more confusing, sort of baffling. I love that idea, that it seems to offer something so specific and direct, but it does the complete opposite.
PAGE: He uses functional methods like arrows and underlining, which he twists around, with a poetic quality. Maybe that’s a quality he emphasizes amongst these works, a poetic or formal interpretation of signposts. The Lasker has a real doodling quality about it, I don’t mean doodling in anyway critically. Doodling as a manifestation of grappling with, rather than a seamless digesting. It has a formal connection to the Broodthaers piece. Here the ‘speech bubbles’ have their inner dialogues scribbled out..
LEVENTIS: ..like they’ve been censored.
PAGE: Yes, there’s a quality of scribbling out correcting, rearranging, erasing, transition.
LEVENTIS: That’s the working through idea.
PAGE: The marks don’t have a spontaneous quality, they have been raised to a statement in themselves. These artists definitely seem happier with the process of finding out rather than arriving. Where one work ends I imagine another work begins.
LEVENTIS: The Joel Sternfeld piece was the last piece to fall in place for the exhibition. Not quite a eureka moment, but I thought it was a great way to end things, a summation of the idea of what am I looking at when I’m reading and trying to understand it as a narrative? We have this training session, well, we find out later he drove across this scene where they were burning down an empty house, by chance, driving through Virginia in ‘78. There’s this house on fire, a ready-made colour-study; the fire, the pumpkins, the sign, the jacket of the fireman, a study in colour and tone. That’s the reason I paired it with Clive Hodgson, there is this very overt working out and through colour and form, with Hodgson using his signature and date as a device. He was a figurative painter for many years and started making these abstract works about ten years ago. He’s found it incredibly productive as a way of exploring different painterly techniques.
PAGE: There are two elements almost like a subplot within ‘Slow Learner’ there. Firstly, it seems one of the dominant themes or messages of abstraction at the moment is ‘process’. It almost seems to exist culturally to say to people, ‘remember, it’s process that you should be investing in, not conclusions’. Abstraction advocates these ambiguous qualities that speak of, like the Lasker, the process of working through, of responding, everything about them communicates the process of process! That seems to be one of contemporary abstractions key cultural signifiers. Generally that process is married, like Lasker, to a graphic sensibility. Is abstraction slightly ashamed of the subjective historical associations of working through something individually? Contemporary abstraction seems to be widely distilling this suspicion by using the language of design and functionality to share the experience, to say this is what we are going through. It is a sign or a signpost for working through unformed ideas and breaking up prepackaged ideas. Does Hodgson talk about starting points or is it purely immersive?
LEVENTIS: Sometimes it’s more obvious how the date and signature define the composition, sometimes the signature functions like a signature, other times its more central, a dominant colour-field. He works on several pieces at the same time, goes over things, throws things away..which is kind of annoying. He’s not afraid of the decorative, he’s using emblems, they look like templates for interior decoration in part, he’s not afraid of that. Then you have the painting with the blue circle, which is very painterly and looks like a old found sign, an old industrial thing that he’s just taken for himself and stamped his signature on. Even though they’re dated they feel as if they are from a different era. That airbrushed, design feel..
PAGE: An impersonal quality to counteract the singularity of his doodles and meanderings.
LEVENTIS: That process of trying something out, doing something, stamping it, concluding it with a signature and a date, there’s a lot in there to think about.
PAGE: The exhibition seems to chart that experiential movement between being a student and teacher. Pynchon’s introduction to Slow Learner talked about an aversion to ‘abstract unifying agents’ and forcing his characters to conform to them. ‘Slow Learner’ the exhibition is definitely a gathering of non-conformist gestures, who in Pynchonian style are out of the classroom and ‘out on the road’, ‘not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux.’
NB Andreas Leventis is now Associate Director at Lisson Gallery, London.
‘Slow Learner’ Timothy Taylor Gallery, London. 1/8 – 23/8/14 http://www.timothytaylorgallery.com/exhibitions/slow-learner/ https://www.facebook.com/ThePageArtReviews