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Transcript of 'Scene from a Contemporary Novel' podcast

When I was asked to do this talk for the Walker I thought perhaps the best way to get in to talking about my painting would be the title.

It's one of the first things that most people do when they look at a painting in an art gallery is to look at the caption on the wall - to find out the artist's name and look at the title. A title is often an opportunity for an artist to add something extra for the work and a good title can lead you into a way of understanding a piece.

If a title is purely descriptive of course it can be a warning against over-interpretation. However, my title isn't purely descriptive, the title is 'Scene from a contemporary novel'. The picture is a contrived tableau, it is a scene which has been staged rather than witnessed and shows a woman with a camera at the mouth of an alley crossed by a railway bridge, with a burnt out car.

The title itself is disingenuous because there isn't an actual contemporary novel that the title refers to. So, why then did I give it this title? My statement in the John Moores exhibition catalogue reads 'I once had ambitions to be a writer, however, I soon realised that I was a better painter than I was a novelist'. It is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title that doesn't give much away, so I've given this talk as a way of apologising for that statement. One of my main influences for this painting is the work of Jeff Wall, who is a Canadian artist who produces large-scale photographic lightboxes. His works, like my painting here, are generally figurative tableau.

He has made two pictures that are explicitly related to literary works. There's one picture he's done which is based on a Franz Kafka short story and another which he's been inspired by Ralph Ellison's novel 'Invisible Man'. It's a kind of unusual thing for a contemporary artist to do - it almost leads into illustration rather than fine art.

I wanted talk about the word narrative in a more general way, as regards to visual arts. By narrative, I mean that there's a contrived depiction of a scene with characters playing roles, without necessarily referring to a work of fiction that exists outside of the work of art.

This might be a clearer distinction if we were talking about photography because on the one hand you've got narrative photography which is defined in opposition to documentary or reportage photography.

In documentary photography it's understood that the photograph is a witness of a scene that has happened in front of the photographer's camera and the photographer hasn't actually done anything to influence what he's photographed. Whereas in a narrative way the artist directs the action, he sets the scene, he dresses the set and usually has someone in the role of a character as in my painting.

In using the word 'scene' in my title I wanted to imply that this point in time shown is merely one in many such scenes which are possible from the supposed novel that the painting is taken from. I wanted to point out that the character in the picture has a past and a future. I chose the word novel in the title to explicitly make an association with written fiction. To emphasise the fictional nature of my picture without wanting to make it specific.

In aligning my painting with a literary fictional mode of representation I suppose you could draw a parallel with Victorian painting which often draws on literary sources for its subject matter. The Walker Art Gallery's got some great examples, one of my favourites being John Everett Millais's 'Isabella and Lorenzo' which is based on a Keats poem, 'Isabella (or the pot of basil)'. In that painting you've got a group of people sitting around a table eating a meal.

If you didn't know the original poem that it's based on you still know that there is a story behind it because of the actions and the expressions of the figures. So, there's one man who is kicking a dog and in the background there is a servant looking rather shifty.

Without knowing what the painting is about you still know there is a story there.

Going back to Victorian narrative painting generally I think within the art world, or perhaps more succintly within the world of art theorists, Victorian narrative painting has been deeply unpopular for many years. Often it is seen as being trite and sentimental. It can be, but I don't think this is a problem with narrative art itself, it's more to do with the morals of the Victorian age which were actually hypocritical and sentimental themselves.

From the Victorians, the development of photography helped to free painting from the necessity of representing the world in an illusory descriptive way. A linear art history would show this as a path leading away from representation towards abstraction. By the middle of the 20th century the drive to abstraction has led to a disavowal of anything extraneous to the essence of an art form. IE a modern painting should be about the physicality of paint on a flat surface and shouldn't refer to anything outside of itself.

As an example of this I'd probably cite Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. They don't represent anything so it's hard to attach a story to it other than the process of the painting being made itself. Since then, of course, through movements such as pop art and photorealism, figuration and representation have come back and so has the possibility of a narrative into art.

This has also been the case with photography, obviously another one of my main influeces, over the past decades. But that has drawn more on the great narrative form of the 20th century - the cinema.

Why 'contemporary novel'? The word contemporary has got many associations and ones that I hoped people would draw. Primarily for me it's the fact that the scene is set in an urban street. There's an aspect of the contemporary which is always located within the urban and in opposition to that the rural is often associated with timelessness.

The urban context of course is familiar to virtually all of us as the vast majority of the population of this country lives in urban areas. At the same time as being contemporary though, city centres are often seen as dysfunctional and in need of regeneration. The scene here shows crumbling walls, barbed wire, graffiti, a burnt-out car, flytipping and I think also the use of black and white adds to the urban feel of it, if not necessarily the contemporary.

However, there could be seen to be a tension between it being contemporary and what we actually see because the railway arch and the cobbled street and the brick walls are probably all Victorian. If I'd wanted to emphasise the contemporary in my painting it might have been easier perhaps to do it with glass and steel modern architecture. But, if we think amongst all the new buildings frantically going up around Liverpool, most of the city is still dominated by Victorian architecture.

It's kind of interesting to consider how much of our daily lives are surrounded by 100 year old buildings. In the last Liverpool Biennial, the filmmaker Patrick Keiller showed material from his project 'The City of the Future' at the FACT centre. This consisted of a number of short films shot in cities mostly around the first decade of the moving image. From around 1895 to 1905. Eight of those were actually were from Liverpool from 1897.

His idea was that the cities shown in these films from a hundred years ago, were the cities of the future in a very literal way, because the roads and the buildings and the streets are all still easily recognisable to us today. I was flattered last week to find that my painting was included in the Keyframes 3 and 4 Landscapes old and new leaflet for schools. I think a couple of points in the leaflet are quite apt. There is a healthy strain of landscape painting in the John Moores this time, some of them more conventional than others. I think mine's probably more unconventional.

I don't know if you've had a good chance to have a look around the exhibition, but Martin Greenland's painting over there adheres to a more traditional view of landscape, even though itself is a fictional landscape, because the viewer's eye can move through the painting as if it is a real landscape and you can imagine yourself walking through the space from the foreground to the background.

In my painting, the scene is rather closely hemmed in by walls on both sides. You've got bricked up windows, barbed wire and the only little glimpse of sky is behind a locked gate in the corner. So, the painting's perspective leads us back to the railway arch but rather than having a view to the distant horizon, all we have is another wall and a staircase. At the time of making the photograph for this painting, I didn't realise how familiar the location would become. Since then I've seen it used in a trainer advert for example, and it's also turned up in the new film 'Children of Men'.

It's interesting what I was saying about Patrick Keiller's project, 'Children of Men' is set in 2027 and the Britain of the future looks almost identical to the Britain of today except a little more decrepit. In the film what we have is the two characters start on the other side of the railway bridge and as I was watching it I wasn't interested in seeing the camera looking from behind them on the other side and as they walk through the space you eventually get a shot where the camera turns to face them and then almost exactly the scene from my painting turned up.

This is a line of association that was completely unintentional and maybe if I was starting this painting again I would probably choose somewhere less obvious, but there you go.

The last question in this leaflet says, 'The young woman is using a camera, do you think that the artist painted this picture from a photograph?'. For this painting rather than a photograph, numerous photographs, probably about 12 or 13 were actually used and I combined them into one image which I then painted from. I evolved this way of working from an earlier series of purely photographic works which were never intended to become paintings.

This series began as a couple of transcription pieces and by transcription I mean creating compositions based on existing works of art. I was looking at paintings by Vermeer and Edward Hopper and trying to translate them into a modern idium, to have contemporary figures in contemporary settings but related to the paintings of Vermeer and Hopper. In these earlier photographic pieces I used the same technique I've used here, using photoshop to seamlessly construct a single image from many photographs.

The reason that I work this way is so I can work as a photographer more like a painter and have much greater control over the finished image rather than just using a single shot and having to get all the elements exactly right. By scanning in different photographs I can then create more how I want the finished picture to look and be less dependent on the actual circumstances of the day.

The most notable advantage of doing this for this painting was the fact that the burnt-out car was actually photographed miles away on a completely different day and then I can drop it in and manipulate it to get it to look and appear seamless.

There are also subtle uses of this technique. I've exagerrated the perspective of the background by using different photographs of different perspectives and putting them together. Also, I've changed the relationship of the figure to the background so I kind of brought her further forward. I spent hours doing this on a computer and a lot of that stuff would have been quite instinctual if I'd actually been sitting there with the canvas in the alleyway.

However it would have been impractical to do that for several weeks with the model. Translating the whole image [unclear] sort of unify the picture and make it look a bit more convincing perhaps, giving it an even, uninterrupted surface and helping to convince the viewer of its seamlessness.

Two painters whose influence I mentioned earlier, Vermeer and Edward Hopper, are both known for paintings in which solitary figures, often women, are caught in their absorbative moment, observed as if unaware, and often in a momentary pause in activity.

I think rather than also including the enjoyment of voyeurism, the viewer is supposed to identify with the figure in the painting, which is how I want my picture to be looked at and you're supposed to empaphise with the character. To empaphise with how they feel to be in this particular moment in this particular space, which echoes back to the use of the word contemporary in the title. There may be a tension between the confidence of the female figure and the fact of her solitary presence in the somewhat abject surroundings.

Perhaps this affects part of her character. What though is she doing that actually commands her attention. She is sticking down a self-adhesive tab on a roll of medium format film, having taken this out of the camera slung over her shoulder. This action implies that she's just taken some photographs, of what we cannot be sure, but this implies that the figure has a past, in the depiction of this moment she already has a past.

In conclusion I'd like to go back to keystages 3 and 4. Some of the questions might seem a bit simplistic but often important questions are. The second question about my painting in the leaflet says 'There is a saying that every picture tells a story but what sort of story might this tell?'. The title of my picture is an invitation to the viewer to ask themselves something like this, to speculate, to imagine what the story is behind this picture.

If anybody has got any questions.

- Could you tell us a little bit about the painting technique, do you use spray?

No, it's all done with oil paint, I don't project the image or anything, I just grid up the image that I've created on the computer and paint it by hand.

- Do you always work in monotone?

I do work in colour but I prefer black and white, quite often purely because a lot of the work I do is taken from black and white photographs.

- When I saw it I thought, you know George Shaw's paintings, in very dodgy areas, behind garages and run-down places, it crossed my mind

Yes, I do like George Shaw.

- Where actually is that scene?

It's just off Brick Lane, it's kind of the alleyway leads through to Cheshire Street which is one of the big Sunday markets in London.

- So you'd always been familiar with it?

Yes.

- Do you do work with the size of some of Jeff Walls' work?

No. Often it's just impractical to make pictures 3 or 4 metres wide. That is probably an aspiration that this kind of work is leading up to.

- What sort of basic ground do you for primers?

Usually acrylic, gesso primer.

- How long might it take you to do this?

I can give you quite an exact figure for that because I had the deadline for entering the John Moores which was 1 March to get the slides in and I started on 28 January and I worked every single day of the month of February, apart from 3, and some of those were 12/13 hour days. So essentially it took me about 4 weeks, but that's a very solid four weeks.

- Getting the figure of the lady to stand out from the background has added a 3 dimensional effect?

Yes, that's one of the things I did use in the computer to make the background behind her more blurred so that she comes into more focus and stands forward.

- Is it a post-modern twist on film noir? Something like that?

It wasn't my intention but that's a good association to make. I do really like film noir so maybe that's in the back of my mind.

I don't think it's my intention, as I say, but it might have been a subconscious intention.

- Who is the lady? (Since that is always asked of Vermeer!)

Well, she's two people essentially. She's the character in the picture who is intrinsic to the picture and doesn't exist outside of it but the actual model is a woman called Leruska who has actually been on telly in a reality tv thing called The Regency House Party, which I don't know if anybody saw. She's a friend of a friend. I prefer to use non-professional models because I feel you get a less mannered way of posing. If you asked people who aren't used to posing to pose, you often get much more interesting results.

- Were you at all influenced by the sixties, it has a very sixties feel to it, the hair, the trousers?

I asked her to wear the clothes that she was comfortable with. The camera was one of my cameras. It's quite an old camera which actually got stolen so I don't have it anymore.

- Do you set all the litter up or was it like the car.

No, the litter was there, it was just the car that was added later, it was just what happened to be there on the day.

[applause]