Slavka Sverakova : Having experienced a postgraduate study in Fine Art and later taken a PhD in a theoretical field, equipped you, I guess, particularly well for comparing the two from the point of view of your art practice. Often, I see young artists curtailing their art practice so severely while doing research and writing up a PhD thesis, that there is almost none left. What would be your advice to them? And what is the attraction of the dual pathway?
Craig Staff : I am not sure whether I have understood your question correctly, but I think the question, to a certain extent, hinges on the contiguity (or not) between practice and theory. Although in the context of the MA there wasn’t the requirement quantitatively in terms of ‘supporting’ work such as essays, critical written reflections etc, I would say that I still felt a certain expectation, even if it was, to a certain extent self-imposed, that the dimension of the MA which one might call ‘theory’, (although I shall come to this problematic shortly) was still a requirement in a qualitative sense – certainly at Belfast the student-led seminars provided scope whereby theory, your theory, could be tested out. Whereas when I did my practice-based PhD, one requirement was the submission of a 40,000-word dissertation. What is interesting for me, certainly when I did my PhD, was that I didn’t feel that my ‘practice’ was being compromised due to this fairly substantial requirement. In fact, what I gradually realised was that what was occurring in the context of the studio was a theoretical form of practice, which at times entailed working with a certain set of materials, such as paint, and at other times a different set of ‘materials’, such as a text by Levinas or Krauss. To this end, I suppose if I were to sit down with this hypothetical student, my first piece of advice would be, in fact, the basic admission that I personally struggle to see any distinction between theory and practice. And this still holds true today. I think it is a question of how one positions and posits those two terms and certainly my experience within an institutional framework has been that often this positioning simply becomes disingenuous and doesn’t work to mobilise the student, the thinker, the artist in any credible or personally relevant way. So perhaps the pathway is not dual. I don’t know exactly how I would describe or locate an alternative model, but certainly it would have to be necessarily porous.
SS : I remember that you mentioned once to me the need to solve a theoretical problem by and inside an art-making process. Could you give an example, please?
CS : I suppose what I meant to say probably stemmed from the notion, echoed in my previous response, that the practice was understood as a means of engendering theory. If this is so, then the theory, as it evolves ‘inside’ the practice, is potentially given in a more robust and I think appropriate way. Rather than attempting to ‘graft’ theory, in a very artificial and arbitrary way onto the object, the question is rather one of ‘drawing out’ what is already there. I think it partly comes down to the integrity of the object, of any object. For example, in the drawings that I am currently working on, and which have actually evolved over a number of years, I am interested in asking how time is written into the work. (I think this has been a preoccupation certainly since my Masters, but I think within a more recent context I am more willing to let this particular question / thematic foreground the work to an unprecedented degree). Working within a non-figurative or non-representational idiom (although I recognise the limitations and historically bound nature of these sub-categories of painting) automatically brackets out the possibility for me to explore this question by way of discernable, representational motifs or signifiers. Instead, I think the question is asked perhaps in a more oblique way, although those associations with time that the work have and that might potentially be considered more ‘lyrical’ or potentially even involving a sense of pathos, remain. In fact, I think that is part of the fascination as well – that one can, if not reinvent the cliché then at least acknowledge its vestigial significance. But not merely in terms of playing out a certain post-modern endgame scenario. To try to return to the demands of your question, I think it is only through this process of working within rather than without that one is in a (theoretical) position to reconsider potentialities that for some theorists / thinkers etc., would rub against the very grain of theory itself – perhaps that is what the visual partly does anyway, or at least theory in a received, dogmatic sense. I think the point I was trying to make was that by working within the process, one is in a position to recast the basic relationship the visual has with the theoretical, so that they become mutually inclusive categories or terms and, as a corollary, work to challenge ‘theory’ in its received, dogmatic or prescriptive sense.
SS : You touched upon your PhD thesis; I believe that its subject became more foregrounded by Modernism, although I find eloquent cases in the earlier paintings. At the risk of misrepresenting your own careful research, please, sum up its results for the readers who have no access to the full text. By the way, which library keeps it? And what is its title?
CS : I think the research as a whole during my PhD entailed unpacking one central claim that underwrote late modernist criticism and, moreover, was an attempt to re-evaluate that claim, in light of recent models of painting – I think I was trying to redirect what loosely became known as ‘formalist’ criticism into an ontological framework so that the project of painting, in the very act of its interpretation, entailed an opening up, rather than a closing off or bracketing out of its potentiality as such. The received notion is that formalism, as a methodology is essentially centripetal, i.e., inward looking, whereas I suppose the findings that were educed worked very much against that understanding, so the theoretical object, if it had a critical trajectory, could equally be understood as being centrifugal. The results as such encompassed the realisation of the centrality of ‘touch’, both as something which mobilised the work and which lent the work interpretive force. The research findings also considered the law of identity, which in this context entailed examining and subsequently accounting for instances whereby artists would claim, “it is what it is.” The PhD was as a whole very much geared towards a consideration of the artwork’s reception, and for this reason another chapter was keyed into the dramaturgy of the viewer – a fascinating area which in relation to the framework of research I was operating within, required me to examine the theoretical inception of perspective. Although this was, in effect a critical point of departure, the notion of to what extent the experiential basis of the artwork is regimented or adheres to certain protocols became an overarching question. It still is. My understanding is that a hardbound copy is held at the library at Nottingham Trent University, although I think one can order a copy of it through the British Library. Its title is ‘The Construction, role and interpretation of reflexivity within non-representational painting’.
SS : Your art reminds me of many ideas, amongst them a conviction Alain Badiou expressed so well: “…only a pure commitment, one detached from any psychological, social or objective mediation can qualify as the adequate vehicle of truth, and reciprocally, only a properly universal truth qualifies as worthy of such a commitment.” I am aware of two modes in which this happens in your work: the first is – in my memory – a crit we gave on that extremely cold winter day in an extremely cold studio…you wore fingerless gloves to allow the painstaking addition of layer upon layer of dust; the second I know only from the catalogue of your exhibition Marking movements in Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (January – March 2006). Carried by a fidelity to consequences, both modes are rooted in time. Even some of your titles, e g ‘As long as it takes’, appear to me both like a benevolent and playful psychological mediation and a detached commitment. How does this work for you?
CS : I hadn’t encountered the quotation by Badiou before, but I am immediately drawn to the idea of commitment – as you know all of the series of both paintings and drawings I have been involved in since Belfast have evolved over a significant period of time. To this end, the work evolves, in fact can only evolve out of a protracted process that spans several months. So, the work that I began when I was based in Belfast entailed the accretion of literally hundreds of layers of dust and house paint until an autonomous ‘body’ had formed and which could then be worked on further. The subsequent series, a series which is currently on-going, and the drawings which are being produced alongside these paintings I think still very much adopt the same logic or rationale, although perhaps the sense of time, or what Barthes described, in relation to Cy Twombly, as “the tremor of time,” is less readily apparent. I think the question of truth is a very important one, but one that has been coloured by certain doctrines found within both postmodernist and poststructuralist thought to the extent that the notion of truth is considered merely as problematic that inheres within the Modernist, and by extension the Enlightenment project as a whole. Perhaps this is how one might account for what you describe as a “detached commitment.” However, those utterances that today appear so symptomatic of the sort of rhetoric adopted by certain endgame strategists appear only partially valid. I think the aim of the work, and it is a very serious ambition I have for what I do in the context of the studio, if you pardon the tautology, is to problematise, or at least to begin to problematise the problematic in the hope that an interstitial space, a space within which one can legitimately operate, opens up. To this end, this strategy in part entails a sort of hands-on approach that is concerned with the notion of practice as an activity in a very fundamental sense – an activity that encompasses periods of sustained concentration informed by the question of to what extent such an undertaking is capable of transcending the quotidian, the banal. Moreover, it hopefully raises the question of to what extent this is actually necessary.
Craig Staff is an artist and writer based in Northamptonshire. He is currently Course Leader for the History of Art and Design degree programme at the University of Northampton.
Slavka Sverakova is a writer on art.