Charles Tyrrell, Ten Years
An Interview by Patrick T. Murphy
Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, 2001
Murphy: A lot of today’s artists are expected to provide a reasoned statement as to their work and their intentions for that work.
Tyrrell: Yes, but I don’t have packages of ideas or packaged ideas in that sense. I can pull out many statements that might put the work into context but not a crisp mission statement that has a direct line to the core of what I am doing. That is not how I work. I believe in the old ideas of journeys into the unknown. I need ambiguity, I need room to manouver. I don’t need my “thing”, my brand.
Murphy: Well I think that branding, signature, is very evident today in some American art and also more vulgarly obvious in most of contemporary British art.
Tyrrell: You can get an artist with a good idea but the extent to which it is exploited is a problem. What might warrant exploration through a handful of pieces actually turns into a career.
Murphy: You have just returned from Chicago. Did you enjoy the Art Institute?
Tyrrell: It’s always good to get away and encounter great collections. Piecing the history of painting together through nose to nose contact with great work is an ongoing passion of mine. Chicago has a fascinating collection built, as it mostly was, on patronage. It was pointed out to me there that many American collectors around the time of the Impressionists went to Paris and sought the advice of Mary Cassatt and in a way you can see her eye operating across different private collections. I also have the impression that on the days she was not available they must have gone to Renoir’s studio on their own. But while I was in the U.S., in Boston and New York, as well as Chicago one of my objectives was to seek out American painting that we don’t see much of this side of the world. The unsung work that lead to American painting getting onto the world stage around 1950. For example, I got to see a lot of work from the likes of Thomas Eakins and John Singer Seargant and their lesser known contemporaries.
Murphy: I always found Eakins a very cold analytical painter
Tyrrell: I have no problem with cold analytical painting and maybe Eakins can be like that but I did find his work to have a robustness and density that was appealing. On the other hand Singer Seargant was a bit too swashbucklingly showy. I also enjoyed seeing a lot of work by Winslow Homer who seems to me to have been a particularly American painter.
Murphy: Yes, there is American painting other than American international painting.
Tyrrell: A strong American voice was developing in the early decades of the last century, the 20th Century. It was a voice that while fully embracing European painting became less and less reliant on it. I’d be thinking of such painters as Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper and Milton Avery. So statements that there was no art in America until the 1950s are simplistic. The big boys did arrive but on the backs of these great individualists.
Murphy: Yes, we have to be aware that great stylistic movements of any era didn’t happen in isolation but were surrounded by all sorts of other approaches. Seeing Abstract Expressionism as an evolution of modernist painting is a conceit of historians not the messy fact of history. Did you revisit much of the Abstract Expressionist work that so influenced you in your early painting days?
Tyrrell: I did see a fair bit including De Kooning’s absolutely powerful “Excavation” in Chicago. It’s from my favorite De Kooning period. Yes, I do fully acknowledge that I originally got the impetus or kick start from the American Abstract Expressionists but I don’t think that that is what feeds me now. As time goes on and I get more and more engrossed in my particular abstract stance, conversely, I also seem to be getting more and more from earlier mainly figurative painting. Take Chardin, whom I saw at the Met, it is about being in the presence of painting that is utterly revealing and truthful. I’ve always known that painting was in some way about truth but didn’t know how to define it, but I am getting closer.
Murphy: Well let’s push that concept a little further. Are we talking about Truth or truth in painting?
Tyrrell: Well I think that there are many different levels. I am talking about painting that, number one, is able to exist within itself, within its own particular parameters and logic, with its own reasons and aspirations, and to do so truthfully, and in doing so be able to unfold some sort of truth.
Murphy: So it returns us to the concept of some sort of objective truth.
Tyrrell: For example, a truth that I look for can be found in close reading of good painting, in its making, in the stuff of paint. Good painting should give the viewer a clear insight into itself, into the heart of the matter, into the performance of its making, the honesty of the thought process, the rigour of its determined journey, arriving at an image that can be loaded and revealing. Revealing in a fundamental way, a way that might throw light on our humanity.
Murphy: So this revelatory function is the objective of art?
Tyrrell: I don’t know if I could say it was the objective but, certainly for me, it is a measure of its greatness. But I don’t think that the artist sets out with such ideals, I certainly don’t. The artist takes on a particular formal or conceptual agenda and pursues it to its utmost and the measure of its success could be said to be the degree to which it pushes beyond its own agenda, poses questions, makes one nervous, makes one think.
Murphy: So art can revive our insecurity and anxiety, toppling the reign of the rational. How is that conveyed through abstract painting?
Tyrrell: With abstract painting or with non-abstract the same applies, when we are dealing with this kind of thinking. So if one is looking at a Brice Marden or a Chardin, ultimately one is brought to a place beyond the particular, to a place of simply good painting where doors start opening. The same with Bonnard whom I greatly admire. A painting of his wife in the bath is not a painting about his wife in the bath, in some way it is an re-enactment of the intensity of life’s experience, condensed into a singular complex image pushed through paint.
Murphy: Yes I think that I first liked Bonnard for all of the wrong but popular reasons, his domesticity, his intimacy. But on seeing the recent retrospective I was taken by the robust structure which reinforced his paintings. He used the geometry of domestic architecture to build his canvases but added to that the warmth of colour. In a way much of modernism has been about a reductivism and Bonnard aspired to imbuing his paintings with more rather than less.
Tyrrell: Well I don’t know if it quite true to say but it seems to me that Cezanne’s painting had a much more analytical and less emotional approach and he would be hailed as being higher on the scale than Bonnard. Bonnard is seen as a sort of romantic and I think that that misses the point. I see him as a very sophisticated builder. The rhythms within the paintings and the changes of pace are startling. They can be very complex affairs.
Murphy: With Cezanne I think we get two things, not only the analysis of how to construct a landscape but within that subject the subject of the analytical itself. It’s cerebral painting and there is a formal language of academic research in which to discuss the analytical. Whereas to fully analyse Bonnard we must move beyond critical language and enter into what would be termed creative writing.
Tyrrell: Yes I would agree. He cannot be easily or neatly packaged.
Murphy: If I could steer us back to your own work. The paintings of the early eighties that were very mathematical and minimalist never quite went for the rigourous deadpan of Minimalism itself. You always, though subtly, admitted colour and stroke.
Tyrrell: Minimalism is my base line. Looking at Sol Lewitt I appreciate its mathematical reductivism but I always come forward from that. Speaking before about the Shadowlines paintings I have said that I start from a point of pure abstraction, of cold logic and then bring the paintings forward to a point that falls short of reality. And that’s where I want the paintings to stop, in the shadow of reality. Shadows can be very clear but also very ambiguous. I am not an ‘abstracting from’ abstract painter. I start with the abstract and work towards a sense of reality. a sense of real experience.
Murphy: So the intention is not to arrive at an objective reality but an existentialist position?
Tyrrell: If the painting does get close to becoming too particular in its seeming reference I pull right back. I rework the painting back to the point of abstraction and come up again.
Murphy: One quality I associate with your work is its great generosity to the viewer. It invites interaction on so many levels. There is the understructure and under painting, the wonderful, oft times, playful encodings of pattern and motif, and the broader affective appeal. These are paintings made to be engaged with the eye, the intellect and the emotions.
Tyrrell: I think that all artists are communicators. You have to be aware that you are creating your work for an audience. You are creating a language and it can’t be gobbledegook, people have to find their waytheir way in and out.
Murphy: When we first worked together on the Surface and Structure exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in 1987 you had been resident here in West Cork for about three years. The work of that time was markedly different. Your geometry was subsumed within the painting.
Tyrrell: Yes the geometry was reduced down to simple diagonals and the paint embraced the landscape and the light of this place. I have since pulled back again. I have this ambivalent awkward relationship with the landscape which intrigues me. It arises from my insistence on working from pure abstraction. I want to be in self made worlds of paint without external reference. However, I am at a point now were I do enjoy dabbling in reference, controlling its appearance and disappearance. I can let it occur. I am not a rigorously conceptual abstractionist. However, I do insist on keeping within the boundaries I have established for myself. Within each painting I make I know where “out of bounds” is.
Murphy: Those paintings of the mid-eighties had quite an expressionistic hand in them. They were probably one of the loosest group you have produced. They were very fluffed up.
Tyrrell: I think there is always some need in me to be very physical with paint, working within a precise abstraction because it is such an intellectually demanding practice. However I do think that paint naturally does lend itself to ‘fluffing up’ to use your phrase. The seduction of the brushstroke is always there and its acceptance or denial must be very conscious. In a recent show of Sol Lewitt, even that great systems man was laying down veils of colour to play against the structure of the work. Maybe its a function of his age.
Murphy: Do you think that, that artists lighten up as they get older?
Tyrrell: I do wonder about it. I think I am loosening up and letting myself enjoy the making more. I am allowing myself do things on instinct more. That’s to do with the ease of age. I have been around the shop so much I am getting more confident with the territory.
Murphy: I responded very positively to the late De Koonings. The sundering of his great tangled masses, the work becoming airy, light, the force of the canvas moving from his earlier knots to a sort of floating dissipation, everything moving outwards almost beyond the canvas.
Tyrrell: That’s an interesting read. I dismissed them to be honest. I admired his more robust production with its complexity, its stratchings. You sort of dug out a De Kooning. I have always been interested with a painting having its own archeology. Constructing a painting in a way that it carries the story of its own process. But, having said that, what I am doing now in these new works on metal is allowing that narrative just to be in me and trust that my years of intense thinking and making and looking in an undeliberate way transfers into the works.
Murphy: Well surely with nearly thirty years in the studio you have earned that fluency that is so evident in these new pieces.
Tyrrell: I hit fifty this year. And if you use that as a marker to where I was twenty years ago I feel richer in so many ways. I am not so uptight, things are not so frightening, because, well, you have covered the ground, done the work. I have looked and looked and looked and really had time to discover what painting and the history of painting is about so I hope I have an earned confidence and flow in my own work.
Murphy: These new paintings on metal have a very different feel than your previous work.
Tyrrell: Well of course for starters aluminium is extremely different from canvas. It comes with little tradition and I find that liberating. I have adopted a somewhat different stance or approach. It’s a fast surface and I am running with it, painting fast. When I started on the metal two years ago I worked tighter slower paintings. What the critic Aidan Dunne very aptly described as being “closely argued”. The pieces I have been working on since then, I don’t think that they display this close argument. They are not so much turned inwards or engaged in an internal dialogue as much as those ten pieces I showed in Taylor Galleries in 1999. I find that I am taking on a broader range of ideas. Roaming casually into different terrorities, sometimes revisiting old concerns, unfinished business, like meeting old friends and picking up on the dialogue but in a new light, maybe with a better understanding.
Murphy: Some of the motifs deployed in this work we have seen before in the Dreamfield series from 1993. But whereas in these paintings the motifs were held within the dynamic of the rest of the painted canvas in a self referential state, here, on the metal they become much more active on relation to each other, in series and in implicating the very space of the room they occupy.
Tyrrell: I am very pleased to find myself back in the terrority of the Dreamfield paintings of 1993, as I only painted three at the time and could not go further. They were mysterious paintings for me and very compelling. You’re right in noticing that the metal has allowed me back into the general arena. As regards their relationship to each other, its not intentional that they work in a series or sequence. I regard them as complete individuals, but you’re right they do possess a strong group dynamic which can be exciting. Material and scale must have a lot to do with that also.
Murphy: Yes, there’s a certain sculptural dynamic to them very different to the work of last year. I am thinking of that impressive substantial painting Salzburg Salsa that was in the Taylor Galleries. It was a truly grand painting, dense in content with that wonderful play between its interlocking grids and dancing line.
Tyrrell: Well you are looking at two very different animals. Salzburg Salsa is a seven foot square canvas as distinct from a thirteen inch square aluminium panel, but I take your point. One obvious and very sculptural aspect of the metal plates is their reflectiveness which I sometimes actively use – so in a way they can take onto themselves aspects of their environment.
Murphy: And another simple fact is that the plates stand proud of the wall so that they do have a dimensional presence, each will cast a slightly different shadow, reflect different light. They actively occupy real space.
Tyrrell: Standing proud of the wall was mainly a presentation solution – I wasn’t consciously taking on a three dimensional thing. But having said that I do find that bringing together the physicality and presence of the metal with the more elusive painting concerns has presented an exciting challenge.
Murphy: And we look forward to accompanying you into that challenge. Thank you.