To create something so visually striking and satisfying with simple shapes on a surface is nothing short of extraordinary, and is in fact anything but simple. London-based artist Scott McCracken forms an intricate system of shapes and symbols within his work, with each painting talking to the next. Each of his remarkable paintings personifies an undeniable connection to one another. There is not only a clear tie between each of his works, but within each composition there is a chatter. A movement and vibration can be felt amongst the contents on the canvas; each mark, line and shape. The artist rightfully refers to this as a “community of images.”
After attending the Edinburgh College of Art, McCracken participated in the Turps Art School in London. He conveys the value of his time spent there and the influence it had on his artistic practice. Join us as McCracken shares with us his thoughts on “activating” a painting, the narrative present within the essence of each piece, and what music he enjoys listening to in the studio.
AMM: Can you tell us a bit about your journey finding your aesthetic as an artist? Did you always paint in a non-representational style?
SMC: In my final year at Edinburgh College of Art I was making quite large scale paintings of film set interiors – I think the largest one was 180 cm by 300 cm. They were imagined spaces so there was a level of inventiveness, which I think I’ve carried forward into the work I’m making now. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve found my aesthetic, I would say I’ve found out what sort of work I want to make. I realised I didn’t want to paint people, interiors, landscapes, observed still lives – anything that seemed too tied into narrative painting. That pushed me onto a certain trajectory. Using geometric shapes and forms as a means of invention made sense to me.
AMM: In 2016 you participated in the Turps Art School studio programme in London. Can you tell us about this experience? How did working in an environment that encourages artistic discourse affect your practice?
SMC: Turps Art School is an independent artist-led painting school. Each participant on the Studio Programme is given a dedicated studio space and an assigned mentor who visits every 2-3 weeks to give critical feedback on the work. Around that there are visiting artists’ talks, group critiques and peer-led discussions. Being there was the most formative experience I’ve had. Prior to Turps, I was unsure of what I was doing and the work started to feel lifeless and inert. Over the two years I spent at Turps I realised what sort of work I wanted to make—something that was authentic and that I could have ownership over. Being in an environment with other painters who are all incredibly engaged with their practice has so much value. I was encouraged to take the work in new directions and to think about it in a critical manner, to continually question what I was doing and why.
AMM: Many of your paintings appear textural. Are there many layers in your paintings? How do you know when a painting is finished?
SMC: Some of the paintings do have a thicker, worked surface. Others play with flatness and have a more graphic idiom. For me, it’s about finding a way to activate the painting, of locating its identity. They need to be activated in different ways. I may put down one layer in a painting and not work on it for weeks or months before revisiting it again. It’s important that I have a lot of paintings that I can work on at any one time; it’s almost rotational. A painting such as Sharpshooter has three to four layers, or ‘moves’, whereas Big Crunch has dozens – I couldn’t tell you how it was arrived at.
I avoid talking about my paintings as being ‘finished’. ‘Finished’ suggests a completeness, of something that has started and then ended. I find it difficult to think of painting in those terms.
I can’t think how any one mark or action could complete a painting. I stop working on something once it looks unknown to me, when there is a lack of recognition. At this point I think the painting has found its identity and now exists independently of me. Philip Guston talks at length about ‘finishing’ paintings. Again, he doesn’t think of it as finishing, but rather being through with it, of having lived through the experience and the painting becoming an evidence of that experience.
AMM: The shapes present in your compositions appear to be interacting with each other, perhaps having a conversation. Do you see these geometric elements as individual and multifaceted subjects in their own right?
SMC: It’s important for the conversation between the shapes and forms to be alluded to. I’m interested in recycling imagery throughout the work so the role a motif plays within each painting shifts. A circle is an elemental, primary shape that could be read in numerous ways; a sun, a wheel, a ball, an eye, a stone, a planet if one wishes to read it in such a way. The circle could also refer to time or wholeness. It has no determined or expected scale so you can play with that within the logic of the painting. Degas said a painting needs a little mystery, some vagueness and some fantasy—otherwise you end up boring people if the meaning is obvious. The images in my work need to remain as open as possible, so the geometric forms provide a framework for that to happen.
That’s one way to think about the shapes communicating with each other, but they also operate together on an entirely visual level. Painting is a set of visual relationships, where one mark or surface or colour encounters another and becomes a point of difference. And so another register of interaction exists. The painting should reach a point of unsteady equilibrium, where all the constituent elements need each other to hold the image together. I am opposing the concrete and the pragmatic with the ambiguous and elusive.
AMM: Your paintings having such dynamic compositions, do you have a background in design? Are there elements of design that influence your work?
SMC: I don’t have a background in design. The compositions of the paintings are arrived at through painting, through drawing, through looking. There is a consideration of certain visual principles, specifically movement and rhythm. This happens by working across the paintings simultaneously and through the repetition of the geometric. Design is a convention of painting, so, as a painter, it’s something that I’m working within. It’s important to be conscious of the conventions and traditions of the medium and to work with them and hopefully take them somewhere new. The dynamism comes from persistently asking myself ‘is the image animated?’, ‘is the surface active?’, ‘does it have a presence?’. But I don’t want things to become contrived; I want to avoid a ‘slickness’ in my painting.
AMM: Do you see your paintings as individual compositions or pieces in a larger narrative?
SMC: They are both. I work almost exclusively on the same size and format of support. This uniformity gives the work a common attribute; it’s become part of their inherent DNA. They exist as singular and independent images but they also belong to a larger network or to an extended community of paintings. Each painting has its own autonomy while also being co-dependent on the other paintings. It creates a seriality across the work and establishes this community of images. The paintings form a quasi-society. It’s important for them to convey difference and for me to not simply repeat myself. One painting informs you about another through similarity but also through difference. For that to happen you need to have the community.
AMM: Is there a moment that you consider a turning point in your career as an artist?
SMC: In terms of there being a moment where I felt the work was gaining traction, it would probably be a year to 18 months ago. That was when I started to work on the 60x45cm canvas stretchers. I discovered how important it was to paint on the appropriate size of support. The edges of the canvas are really the first four lines of the work and all subsequent marks, splodges, stains are contained within those initial four lines. I recently read a series of interviews with the painter Steven Aalders and he talks about the first mark a painter makes on the canvas as being the fifth line. There hasn’t been a turning point, or a great epiphany; it has been incremental. Once you feel that traction the difficult part is continuing to question what you do, of not retreating to a place of familiarity.
AMM: There is an energy present within the forms in your paintings, forming a palpable dialogue that for me brings to mind the work of Wassily Kandinsky, which was heavily influenced by music. Do you listen to music when you are painting or do you perhaps find inspiration from a specific genre?
SMC: What I listen to in the studio can vary. I may want to listen to a specific band, lately I’ve had Siouxsie & the Banshees playing over. If I know I’m spending most of the day painting I tend to listen to a lot of 80s inspired synthwave and electro pop. If it’s a slower day where I’m pottering about the studio I may listen to a lecture or panel discussion playing in the background.
AMM: Are there any specific artists that are working right now that you find particularly inspiring?
SMC: There are a lot of current practitioners I look at; Thomas Nozkowski, Rene Daniels, Patricia Treib, Charlene von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Ansel Krut, Merlin James, Walter Swennen, Matt Burrows, Clive Hodgson, Amy Feldman, Peter Shear to name a few. I’ve recently been introduced to John Walker who is an older British artist based in the USA so I’ve been reading a lot about his painting. If I think about the work that I’ve physically seen in exhibitions lately, the stuff that sticks with me isn’t contemporary. It’s Picasso, Kitaj, Prunella Clough, Milton Avery, Alan Davie, Lee Lozano, and Ernst Wilhem Nay. A few weeks ago, I visited the Musee d’Orsay and spent a long time looking at the Vuillard and Bonnard paintings.They were the highlight of the trip.
AMM: How long have you lived in London? Do you find the art scene encouraging and supportive or difficult to navigate?
SMC: I’ve lived in London for two and half years. The art scene is what it is. When I first moved to London it was overwhelming, particularly coming from Edinburgh. It’s part and parcel of being a painter but I try not to spend too much time thinking about it. If I’m in a show or if I sell a painting it only offers a temporary validation. And if I’m not selected for shows and nothing sells, then it offers a temporary rebuttal. It doesn’t reflect or impact on what happens in the studio, which, for me, is the priority. The work needs to sustain you when times are easy and when they’re hard.
AMM: What is your favourite place to go if you are by yourself and have some downtime?
SMC: I may go to the National Gallery to looking at works in their permanent collection. There’s no pressure to rush through or look at everything, so I may only look at a couple of paintings. Occasionally I’ll take a trip out of London. I’ve been to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester a few times as they have a strong collection of post war British painting. I habitually visit a selection of bookshops around Shaftesbury Avenue in London to hopefully find an obscure exhibition catalogue or monograph.
Find out more about the artist: www.scottmccrackenartist.net
Text and interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.