Focus Interview: Caragh Thuring

Experimental fiction, speculative portraits and shifting contexts

ALICE BUTLER Critics have been announcing the death of painting for decades now. How far are you looking to subvert this death wish?

CARAGH THURING I’m aware of that discourse, of course, but it doesn’t interest me: it just exists. I choose to make paintings because it’s the freest thing you can do, in that you’re dealing with nothing, and you have to construct something out of that nothing: there’s a complete freedom in what form the object takes. If you make sculpture, for instance, you immediately know what your material is, and there’s a lot of baggage that comes with making something that already exists on its own terms.

Rope, 2013, oil, gesso and graphite on linen, 47 × 38 cm. All images courtesy: Thomas Dane, London, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

Rope, 2013, oil, gesso and graphite on linen, 47 × 38 cm. All images courtesy: Thomas Dane, London, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

AB     Is this ‘freedom’ connected to painting’s formal limitations?

CT     That could be one element of it but I think it’s more the fact that there’s nothing to aid you. You’re completely free to construct a separate imaginary within it, to build narrative aspects, or it can actually be about nothing. Painting is a very slow thing, while everyday existence is so sped up: whether it’s the way we experience art or how we digest stuff – our friends, the environment, the economy. Painting demands investigation. If people want to say it’s irrelevant, then that’s a source of freedom, because you are then located outside of what people expect.

AB     I was wondering whether the bare linen in your paintings is intended to reveal the materiality of the object, or expose the artistic process …

CT     The linen is there because I hated having to obliterate these surfaces, to prime the canvas in order to get whiteness. The linen is a neutral, nondescript material; it gives a background to the work, functioning like a piece of paper, ready for drawing. Painting can be so laboured, but art doesn’t exist without embarrassment; you have to allow yourself to be laid bare, and to reveal what’s involved in that. The linen is functional: I’m not straining for any great narrative in what that material or that choice of material represents. I’m looking to get beyond those narratives, to go to the essence of something else.

AB     There are suggestions of narrative, however: signifiers such as clothing, or even titles. For example, your early painting Ford Plant (2008) offers up a setting in which to root ourselves, but these are only suggestions – fragmented images, like an experimental novel.

CT     I don’t contrive to construct a narrative through painting, but it’s interesting what you say about it being like an experimental novel. I did a performance recently in which I culled lots of written ephemera and constructed a text using these cut-ups, which was then read aloud by an actor. I had J.G. Ballard in mind. The idea was that the performance told a story around the work, but was not directly about the work. I’m not interested in constructing readable vignettes within painting, but rather in how little traces of things might trigger interpretation. Around the time of Ford Plant, I was looking at the industrial landscape and social geography of Detroit. Without making it into a directly legible narrative, I wanted to explore how that imagery can be magically present in the painting. It’s an edit of the ‘real’, a distraction.

Portrait, 2013, oil and gesso on canvas, 1.4 x 1 m. All images courtesy Thomas Dane, London, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

Portrait, 2013, oil and gesso on canvas, 1.4 x 1 m. All images courtesy Thomas Dane, London, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

AB     That reminds me of the way in which, for your exhibition ‘Assembly’ in 2009 at Simon Preston Gallery in New York, you installed the works against their chronology, suggesting the illusion of a jigsaw puzzle. Was this intended as a challenge to the viewer?

CT     It was partly about that and partly about challenging myself. When I made that exhibition I had this feeling that everything I was making was quite disparate: no continuity or self-reflexivity. To work with and against Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–3) felt like the easiest way to avoid making something from scratch. I was so embarrassed by what it was I couldn’t even tell the gallery that’s what was arriving, until the absolute last minute.

AB     You’re obviously interested in the loadedness of the image as an art-historical reference. Is this built on the urge to appropriate?

CT     I would hope my work isn’t looked at in that way, because I don’t think that means anything. I use it as a vehicle to do something else. I’m looking to get beyond what already exists, and having the imagery in place enables that freedom. I look at a lot of old art – smutty medieval art in particular – and sometimes the research can take over. I don’t believe that there’s an artist who doesn’t look at these things. Everything is culled from other sources, so the only option is to add bits, fill in the gaps, put things together in your own way.

AB     Your more recent work, such as Brick Lady (2013), suggests a turn to the figurative.

CT     I’ve been thinking a lot about portraiture, and how objects might suggest or replace this kind of representation. My work is always dotted with people and the markings of human presence, but they come in and out of focus, in direct and indirect ways – so that a closed window (Portrait) or a rope hand rail (Rope, both 2013) might dominate the space claustrophobically, a blown-up suggestion of a body or person. However singular the subject, I’m interested in how the painting itself might house it in a different context. I am looking to construct speculative environments that the viewer can be involved with or spend time with; painting interrupts the speed of absorption. 

Alice Butler is a writer and academic based in London, UK. She is currently Writer in Residence at the Freud Museum in London, where she is working on kleptomania and feminist art.

Caragh Thuring is an artist based in London, UK. Her solo show at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco, USA, runs until 18 October.

Issue 158

First published in Issue 158

October 2013

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