All posts by maxinbalham

Circumlocation: Waves, Wheels, Worlds

by Steven Connor to accompany the exhibition In the Shadows of Heaven at Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2004, following Max Mosscrop’s residency at the Theatre Royal Margate.

Puff Pastry

There is something bizarre about the architecture of theatres. Theatres are solid structures, visibly and continuously present – in the case of the Theatre Royal Margate, which has the oldest stage in Britain, for more than two hundred years. And yet the theatre builds itself anew, weekly, nightly, as sets are struck and rebuilt, new rigging flown, new props and furniture wheeled in. Even in their present sedentary conditions, theatres never quite put off the vagrancy which is at their beginnings. In medieval theatre, the scene may originally have been a wagon, or moveable scaffold. In the Corpus Christi pageant of the Flood, the stage took the form of a ship that was at the same time the world. The circus tent allows and requires the literal demolition and rebuilding of its scene as it moves from place to place. Where the medieval stage-wagon and the circus tent provided temporary settings for familiar and recurring stories, theatres provide permanent frames for changeable spectacles.

The physical fabric of theatre, the stuff its dreams are made on, seems to reproduce this contrast between the seeming solidity of a theatre, and the volatility of what transpires in it. On the one hand, theatres like to display a sort of extravagant gravitas, with columns, facades and friezes that suggest banks, temples or ministries. And yet theatre’s fittings, fixtures and ornaments seem to give their fragile, flaky game away: in the brittle glitter of their curlicues and the melt-in the mouth meringue of swags and sweeps and flourishes, the traditional style of theatrical ornamentation is a kind of architectural spun sugar, at once edible and aerated.

This duality makes theatres hard-soft, heavy-light, solemn-silly places, made more of sound and fury, putty and air, than substance. One of the many haunting stories associated with Margate’s Theatre Royal puts the question of weight into the scale. A dismissed actor is said to have taken a box and precipitated himself to his death in the orchestra pit. One witness of its ghostly reenactment reports hearing a thud and seeing dust rise from the putative place of the impact. (Measuring the doll’s-house height of the highest box, one wonders how it would be possible to do more than sprain an ankle from such a leap.)

Max Mosscrop has met before with this seeming substance, substance of seeming, in Travesty, a project in which he modelled architectural ornaments out of paper and paperclips. And there, hanging from the middle of the glorious polychrome plaster wheel on the ceiling of the Theatre Royal Margate is an inverted lampshade that might have come straight out of that sequence. Now, in his new work, he seems to have shipped the whole building into a kind of weightless outer space.

Time and Tide

The theatre is a place of continuous mutation, one show giving way to another, as wave swallows wave. But this periodicity is not chaotic, it is seasonal, even tidal. When it was originally given its Royal Charter, the theatre in Margate, in common with other theatres of the time, was permitted to stage performances only from 1st May to October 31st. (It temporarily lost its royal name and the monopoly it conferred in 1843, as a result of an illicit Christmas show.) This cyclicity seems to be taken up and repeated in the conspicuous circularity of the architecture and ornament of the Theatre Royal. No theatre could be more in, or of, the round as this. From the highest seats in the circle, your gaze funnels irresistibly down towards the stage. Rolling your head back in the stalls, you see a great, spoked zodiacal wheel in the ceiling. In In the Shadow of Heaven, a series of video works made during his period as artist-in-residence at the Theatre Royal, Max Mosscrop has found and made other circles and orbitings. His new work turns the theatre into a spectral engine, setting it slowly spinning around its own axis, or its many axes. If one attempts to circumnavigate the theatre, clambering behind, beside and beneath the stage, one easily loses one’s bearings, a feature that is preserved in Max Mosscrop’s gyroramas, which disclose everything to the revolving eye apart from where one oneself is supposed to be. It is as though the theatre were being given a gaze with which to observe itself. Early theatrical posters used to promise  that acrobats and gymnasts would display their ‘evolutions’ for public benefit: presented here are the theatre’s revolutions, the playhouse in playback. We might remember that the theatre has frequently been visited after hours by psychic researchers, whose remote-controlled equipment is recalled by the home-made apparatus Max Mosscrop used to allow his camera to conduct its indoor tours d’horizon.


A theatre is a ‘play-house’: not just a space that houses plays and players, but a place that likes to play house. Everything about the backstage areas of the Theatre Royal suggests an abandoned house or series of sets representing abandoned houses. There are boxrooms crammed with aged props, sofas spilling stuffing, wardrobes of different vintages, mirrors, of every size and style. Nothing is shipshape, nothing quite meets your eye, nothing is quite in place, quite of the present.

But there is something else to notice about the Theatre Royal, something it has in common with certain other structures, especially pubs. Where original photographs show the theatre facing squarely on to the street, its main entrance has slowly shifted about, so that it now comes to a point, suggesting perhaps the nudging prow of a ship.

The analogies between theatres and ships have often been noted. The great arborescence of English theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seems to have been in part a seafaring phenomenon, taking place in theatres like Shakespeare’s Globe made of the same wood as the ships of the merchants and explorers who were roaming the world and bringing back the tales that would make plays like The Tempest. Maritime motifs recur with particular insistence through the history of the Theatre Royal. The earliest theatre in Margate was a stable at the back of an inn called The Fountain which was rented to a retired sea captain called Charles Mate. After a Royal Charter was obtained for a theatre in Margate, Mate began building a theatre on the present site in September 1786, using second-hand timbers from a decommissioned ship to build the fly-tower. There is nowhere in any theatre that is more ship-like than the flies, with their thickly-coiled ropes, cleats, winches and reefed canvases.

A briny air breathed through much of the very early repertory of the theatre. Alongside established comic favorites like he Rivals, The Beggar’s Opera, She Stoops to Conquer and The Beaux’ Stratagem, there were shows like The Waterman, which opened on 2 August 1794, and was still being revived two seasons’ later, along with The Doldrum, which had a short run in August 1796, and The Poor Sailor: Or, Little Bob and Little Ben with parts for Captain Battledore, Compass, Bumbo, Freakish and O’Daub. Even what one would think of as a thoroughly landlocked play like the popular Mountaineers featured an interlude during the 1796 season called Naval Gratitude: Or the Tars of Old England (the cast list includes ‘Tom Grog’, ‘Ben Hatchway’ and ‘Sam Stern’).  A comic opera called The Shipwreck featured in a double bill with Wives As They Were and Wives As They Are in the following year and featured parts for characters called Henry Hawser, Shark and Plunderer. Shipwreck was a popular theme in the Margate theatre, with two shows, or possibly the same show under two different titles, featuring during August in the inaugural season: Mariners or the Kentish Shipwreck and The Brothers, or the Fortunate Shipwreck. This maritime self-identification surfaces in an address made to the audience by the Victorian actor-manageress Sarah Thorne, after the refit of the theatre in 1861, in which she styled herself ‘the captain of a ship that has just left the harbour and was spreading her sail in the breeze’.

Seaside theatres can acquire a particularly stranded, washed-up air, none more so than the Theatre Royal, which has spent many years, like a resting actor, or a sailor between voyages, moonlighting as a chapel, warehouse, barracks, bingo-hall and wrestling stadium. Perhaps, as the close proximity of the Globe to the Golden Hinde in dry-dock on London’s Bankside suggests, there is something amphibious about all theatres.

In their effort to create alternative worlds, theatres insulate themselves, keeping the outside at bay, as ships do, with careful sealing and caulking. But theatres, like ships, leak. Seaside theatres seem particularly prone to the penetrative effects of damp and saline air. It seems appropriate that another of Max Mosscrop’s recent projects, Holm, undertook the imaginary reconstruction of a house on the shore which had been abandoned after flooding. For the reconstruction, Mosscrop chose bog-oak, wood that has been saturated over centuries with water. Most theatres are at risk from their extreme combustibility. The Theatre Royal has largely avoided damage by fire, the great dread of all theatre managers and sea captains, but fire hoses caused serious flooding in 1987. Your nose informs you of the damp still hoarded in the curling wallpaper, the nibbling encroachments of water. The backstage areas are all plumbing and ducts, with sinks everywhere, suggesting secret communication with the water (the stage trapdoor was once said to lead to a smuggler’s cave). Their swirling outflows are a concentric microcosm of the larger circumvolutions of the theatre’s space.

The orbs and orbits of Mosscrop’s In the Shadow of Heaven make an elaborate orrery of the Theatre Royal. But nowhere is one more exposed to and dependent upon the stars than at sea, and there are many rhymes between the marine and the celestial. So perhaps it is also as a kind of floating observatory that the theatre is here being remade, sea being let into it along with sky. Theatres can sometimes literally take to the water. Charles Mate had a theatrical rival in Margate, a Mrs Sarah Baker. In the face of the broadside from the new Theatre Royal, her wooden theatre was dismantled, taken by sea to Faversham, and there reassembled. Perhaps Max Mosscrop has done something similar, curling the theatre up like a ship in a bottle, transporting it overland to Droit House, the old harbour-master’s residence, there to let it round itself out, within sound and smell of the churning North Sea, the wide sky wheeling above it.

| Steven Connor | London Consortium | School of English and Humanities | Birkbeck |

Chromatagoria: Max Mosscrop’s Adventures with Colour

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by Roy Exley for the exhibition Platform X(A) at Permanent Gallery Brighton 2010.

The world of colour has a permutational infinity so where do you tap into its diverse riches? One way of exploring its infinity, its rich diversity, is through an engagement with serendipity. All these ‘ity’s’ bring to mind ‘lickety split’ – and indeed delving into randomness can involve an element of speed – surfing the moment can be scary, but Max Mosscrop makes it look routine. His agenda in looking at the interrelationships between colour and form is firmly, but paradoxically, randomly, rooted in the world of the aleatory – a wobbly region, ‘par excellence’ – to gain access to the unpredictability of serendipity. There is, however, a strange contradiction in all this in that an armature is required to support all this wobbly and wayward spontaneity, a fixed field upon which the colours and forms can play and morph – a playing field upon which the goalposts are allowed to continually shift.

Cross medieval techniques with neo-modernist aleatory wanderings, and you might begin to spot Mosscrop dinking about, elevated – but only just – above a distant horizon. A gesso ground gives his particular playing field a firm-footing – everything needs at least a modicum of constancy and for Mosscrop this is it – everything else over and above this rectangular field – sometimes two sided, sometimes six – is in free-form mode, refusing to conform to any sort of norm. The swathes, wedges and splinters of watercolour are illusory, they have no permanence, their ontology is on a dodgy, water-soluble footing. Permanence is, of course, relative, but most of all, it’s boring. Mosscrop is having none of this, mutation is something that, by its very nature, refuses to be grabbed and fixed, so be it, and lets experience this fact as we immerse ourselves in the rich diversity of Mosscrop’s painted objects – slim boxes coated with crisply matt layers of gesso, adorned (not decorated), by delinquent wedges, lozenges, splinters and trapezii of colour. The striking contradictions between the methodical and exacting technique of achieving a uniform gesso surface on a plain ground and the trespass on that hallowed ground of the aleatorical meanderings of dots haphazardly directing the flow of their coloured interstices does a similar service to spontaneity as did William Burroughs’ cut-up technique to the printed word. This is launching into an adventure ducking and diving beneath any influence of agenda or itinerary.

Indeterminacy and chance are blood brothers, and furthermore they’re rebels, they have no place in the negotiations of capitalist commerce, they’re not in hock to the world of finance, enterprise, greed or gain. They’re not in hock to anything allied to materialism; in fact they’re driving in the opposite direction, a blur on the radar of reason. They are the engine of the unorthodox and unpredictable vehicle that Mosscrop drives, if you can call it driving – does a rodeo cowboy really ride?   Aiming a streamlined, aerodynamic wedge, between the forces of commerce and reason. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Andreas Feininger, Giorgio de Chirico, Frank Stella, Elsworth Kelly, the potential references here are many but they count for nothing, Mosscrop is freewheeling between and around any conventions, viewers can apply their own spin, weave their own associations around these works, but ultimately their singular presence is in accord with Reception Theory, they mean something different and unique to each individual viewer. Their objecthood is key, his paintings with six sides can stand free, like sculptures and indeed they test the boundaries of what we might call sculpture and what we might call paintings, once again the viewer becomes arbiter. Mosscrop adroitly navigates his way around those determinist pigeon-holes that lurk, waiting to swallow whole, and ingest, the unwary artist. What matters the analytical morphology of a wave as we career down its face on our surfboard?

The two-dimensionality of a coloured surface can, with a few deft tweaks offer the illusion of a three-dimensional image – but mosscrop offers both optical outcomes at the same time – bright and flat little coloured lozenges or wedges cluster together to form crystals or protozoic viral forms that float in some sort of aqueous humour, like the ‘floaters’ in the eye that perceives them, sustaining the impression of some miniature nanomorphic world that science hasn’t yet discovered. With the Gestalt blink of an eye we’re back to a constellation of flat jostling colours – the expressions of some esoteric colour exercise.

Aleatorical, serendipitous, aoristic, indeterminate, are descriptions that could easily lead, if used as paradigms for the creative act, to accusations of courting vagueness or of being deliberately elusive, but this would be missing the point as it’s the process, not the product that calls the tune here – experimentation and exploration by their very nature have an open-ended agenda, otherwise there would be no progress, we would just create circles within circles. To break out from the formulaic, the prescriptive, is like continually being reborn, with all the awe and revelation that such an experience brings, creating the dynamic that keeps creativity fresh and vital. Contingency, like determinacy, is a heavy cloak that engulfs and smothers creativity, denying it the life-giving air, light and space that its sustenance demands. The luxury of casting off that cloak is permitted to few in the mad fervour that is the hegemony of capitalism. Maybe as a homage to Max’s own use of a dice in his serendipitous process of creation, we should in turn use a dice to decide in what order to view these works.

Pleasure, Affect, Deleuze & Spinoza

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by Max Mosscrop for the Pleasure Centre Symposium at De Montfort University, 25th June 2012.

Over the course of this afternoon we will be thinking about pleasure at the intersection of philosophy, science and art. In “What is Philosophy”, the last book that Gilles Deleuze wrote with his collaborator Felix Guattari, these three disciplines are defined as forms of creative thought: philosophy as the creation of concepts, science as the creation of functions, and art as the creation of affects. Insisting equally that all three disciplines are forms of invention, the scientist, the philosopher and the artist are thus characterised equally as makers. Each of these definitions is, in its own way, deeply controversial. To insist on the essentially inventive operation of philosophy and science is to deny them a privileged access to the truth. We may be more accustomed to the creative dimension in art, but Deleuze is insistent that art is only truly creative in its production of affects, a claim which would seem at odds with many contemporary debates which foreground the conceptual content of artworks and practices.

It is this idea of art as an affective experience that I would like to pursue today. A theory of affects can provide a conceptual framework that might help to illuminate the nature of this thing called pleasure. Furthermore, such a theory provides a conceptual model which promises a different way of thinking about the experience and practice of art.

In 2003 & 4, with my colleague Adam Gillam, I organised two exhibitions, the first called With Pleasure, the second called Doubtful Pleasures. I hesitate to claim they were about pleasure, resisting the idea that exhibitions, as collections of objects or experiences, are ever representational in such a simple way as being ‘about’ something. Considering pleasure and the notion of affectivity prompts us instead to think about the experience of art in non-representational terms, in terms of what it does, how it affects and transforms us, rather than what it might signify or refer to. Organising theses exhibitions lead me to search for some kind of conceptual or philosophical framework for pleasure, which became an amateur’s foray into the philosophical world of Gilles Deleuze, and via Deleuze into the philosophical wonder which is Spinoza’s Ethics. The key role of affect in Deleuze derives from his reading of Spinoza.

Spinoza’s ethics, published after his death in 1677, is surely one of the greatest and most formidable inventions in the history of philosophy. Henri Bergson described it as like a battleship of the dreadnought class. It’s been described elsewhere as like a great wind, the experience of reading it like a ride on a witch’s broom, while its central concept of a single nature unifying all of existence has been referred to as the white sun of substance. The Ethics is a difficult work, explicated via the “geometric method” through an elaborate series of definitions, axioms, propositions, demonstrations, corollaries, and appendices, and using terminology that can appear archaic and obscure. Although written some 350 years ago, the Ethics still feels like a radical challenge to think and to live differently, much of it running counter to conventional habits of thought, or what we might call common sense. The Ethics has, as Deleuze has emphasised, a practical aim: to help us to live well, to live in such a way to maximise life by maximising joy and minimising sadness. Spinoza was writing in Latin, and used the term Laetitia, sometimes translated as joy, sometimes as pleasure. Joy or pleasure, sadness or pain – these are the fundamental affects, and Spinoza defines all other emotions as derivatives of these.

The Ethics is an account of existence in which all the parts, all the terms, form a unified system of elaborate relationships. In order to begin to understand the nature of pleasure and affect in Spinoza, it is necessary to have some understanding of his entire ontology. I’m far from being an expert in this, and I know that my fascination with the Ethics is largely a measure of how much of it eludes my grasp, but I’m going to attempt to provide a brief account of Spinoza as refracted through Deleuze.

Spinoza’s philosophy is univocal: being speaks with one voice. All existence is a modification of a single underlying substance which Spinoza calls God or Nature, and which Deleuze refers to as the plane of immanence. Thought – the world of ideas and minds – and extension – the world of bodies extended in time and space – are not substantially different, but are conceived as different attributes of the same substance, analogous to a sheet of paper seen now from one side, as thought, now from the other, as extension. Spinoza gives us the intriguing definition of the mind as the idea of the body. This is Spinoza’s theory of parallelism, according to which an event in thought is simultaneously an event in extension, every reality in extension has an equivalent reality in thought. There is no primacy of thought over extension, mind over matter, or vice versa. Nor is there any causality between thought and extension. The mind can’t cause the body to act, and neither can the body cause ideas in the mind, but idea and action arise as two parallel and equivalent simultaneous events. Consciousness appears as the site of an illusion: I take in what happens to my body, what happens to my mind, and I generate the illusion that my ideas are determining my actions – the illusion of free will.

There exists a common plane of immanence on which all bodies and all minds are situated. All individuals, whether as minds or as bodies, are collections, aggregates, composed of an infinite number of particles. All individuals are composed of other individuals, and are in turn parts of still other individuals. It’s all a matter of perspective. A ‘body’ can mean the human body, what we might call the whole body, but this in turn is made up of other bodies, organs and systems – eye, liver, blood – but the term might also refer to a collection of bodies – a crowd at a football match. A body, an individual, can be anything: an animal, a herd, a body of sounds, a film, a painting, an ocean. According to Spinoza a body is defined not by form or function, but by the relations of motion and rest, speed and slowness, between its particles.

Now these bodies and minds, these individuals, as sets of living parts, continuously have encounters with other bodies, other minds. In these encounters, these living parts either enter into composition with one another, or decompose one another. One body encounters another whose relations are in agreement with its own, and the two bodies combine to form a new composition, and in doing so they increase their level of reality and move to a state of greater perfection, with a correspondingly greater capacity to act, a correspondingly greater power of existence. The same body encounters another whose relations are in disagreement with its own, and the second body threatens the coherence of the first and decomposes it – a diminution of reality and power of existence. Bodies and minds are in Spinoza the same things from different perspectives, under different attributes. Just as bodies undergo a continual series of encounters, so do minds. Ideas happen to us, continually. And just as bodies have different degrees of perfection, different degrees of reality (reality and perfection are the same thing in Spinoza), so do ideas.

The effects of these encounters are experienced as affects. Here we have a definition of affect: the affect is the experience of the transition between one state and another as the result of an encounter between bodies. Joy or pleasure is the experience, in mind and body alike, of a body encountering another in such a way that they enter into a relation and move to a state of greater perfection, greater power of existence: a spider eats a fly and composes a fatter stronger spider. Sadness or pain is the experience of a body encountering another in such a way that its own coherence is threatened and decomposed, and moves to a state of lesser perfection: the fly gets eaten by the spider. Notice how the same event could be simultaneously joyful (for the spider) and painful (for the fly), simultaneously good and bad; again, it’s all a question of perspective. In Spinoza, ethics is never morality: the good and the bad are always relative; it’s never a question of Good and Evil.

“The passage to a greater perfection, or the increase of the power of acting, is called an affect, or feeling, of joy; the passage to lesser perfection or the diminution of the power of acting is called sadness”

Bodies and minds are in Spinoza the same things from different perspectives, under different attributes. Just as bodies undergo a continual series of encounters, so do minds. Ideas happen to us, continually. And just as bodies have different degrees of perfection, different degrees of reality (reality and perfection are the same thing in Spinoza), so do ideas. Life is a continual series of encounters, experienced as a succession of ideas and affects. We exist as spiritual automata, our ideas succeed each other constantly; one idea chases another, one idea replaces another, and this succession of ideas is accompanied by a continual transition between states, between degrees of reality or perfection, experienced as a melodic line of continuous variation, a continuous modulation of existence. So we have a conception of life as a series of encounters in which bodies and ideas mix to form ever new compositions and decompositions, experienced as a continuous modulation of affect, a continuous variation on the pleasure / pain spectrum.

In Spinoza there is the important concept of the conatus. Conatus is something like life-force, an individual’s endeavour to persist in being, to continue or to increase in its existence, its degree of reality and perfection. Pleasure or joy is the experience of the successful activity of this force or desire, and as such is the experience of life itself. Pleasure is thus not a thing amongst others, but the very stuff of life itself.

So, what happens when we apply this model to the encounter with art, an encounter in the world like any other? There isn’t time today to explore this in any detail, but there are some things we can say fairly briefly:

The triangular matrix: artist / art object / spectator is reconfigured, the individuality of each term called in to question. Encounters in art are always mixtures.

One is never a remote spectator. The term spectator implies too much distance, too much separation. One is neither a disinterested contemplative and remote spectator as conceived by traditional aesthetics, nor a critical reader of art as textuality as conceived post-structuralism. The encounter is always a contact, a mixture of bodies, a mixture of ideas, through which art and spectator merge to form an assemblage in which both are recomposed. In the encounter with the artwork, which like me is simultaneously a body and a mind, I mix myself with it and remake it and myself, as an entirely new re-composition. Through the artwork I become something else.

The artist similarly mixes with materials, equipment, or collaborators, forming new compositions, new machinic aggregates which extend the artist’s powers and capacities. He or she does not simply do something or use something, but becomes other through these encounters with others and with matter. An art practice might become, along with the Spinozist practice of life, a question of finding and organising joyful encounters, encounters which strengthen ones capacity for feeling, for thinking and for doing. Art is an expansive operation, a search for connectivity with the world.

It’s not that the artist makes and the audience receives: both are involved in active encounters with the world. The joy or pleasure that might accompany this is not essentially different for the one than for the other, it’s always the accompaniment to an increase in the power of acting, thinking, feeling. The more active the participation in this the greater the pleasure. It’s no longer just a question of interpretations, readings, decodings. The encounter is experienced also as an affect, and affects are non-representational, intensive qualities, operating on an a-signifying register, always present beneath or alongside representation. In considering affect, one considers how the encounter feels, the non-depictive, non-signifying aspects of an experience. We are concerned here with intensities, movements and dynamics, speeds and slowness, vibration and rhythm, openings and closings, risings and fallings. One must ask not what a work means, but what kind of forces and velocities it forms with us, and how we are transformed through this.

As a transition between one unique state and another, an affect is always unique, singular, ephemeral and immaterial. As transitions or passages they are durational, taking place as changes in time. They occupy time and cannot be considered outside the temporal dimension. To think affect is to think in time: how is my time taken up, distributed, what kind of velocity and rhythm is imparted to it?

Such affective accounts of the role of pleasure in art might seem to fit most easily with the more interactive or immersive end of the range of contemporary practices. Deleuze wrote two books called Cinema 1 and cinema 2. We can easily recognise a loss of separation and self-identity through immersion in the fluid, dynamic, visual and sonic encounter of cinema. I wonder, though, how such a conception of art and encounters and the joy that accompanies them might allow us to think differently about all manner of practices.

I began today by referring to the notion of science, philosophy and art as creative disciplines. Perhaps one implication of this is that all understanding is in fact a creative act. In Spinoza there is a kind of hierarchy of ideas, from those that are confused and inadequate, right up to the infinite idea of God or Nature in which the whole of existence is fully comprehended as a kind of divine intuition. The more understanding one has, the more one’s ideas become acts of the mind. Such acts of mind are accompanied by affects which are actions rather than passions, and as such represent a higher form of joy. Perhaps this is a kind of common ground between the disciplines, as acts of joyful creativity.

Letter To The Curator (Notes on Colour)

from Max Mosscrop to the curator of the exhibition Touching Colour at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, 2013.

Hi Rob,

You ask about my approach to colour, how and why colours are selected, how decisions are made, what effects might be intended, etc.

I am interested in the issues of human agency, intentionality, and determinism – the extent to which we can be, or know, the true causes of our actions – and my practice has been a way of exploring some aspects of this, for example by doing things very quickly, or by using certain ‘chance’ procedures.

In thinking about your questions, I find myself looking back to the time when I was making these works, and speculating about how and why I might have done them. So I’m looking at them, and analysing them visually, and it’s tempting to say that such and such a painting achieves such and such an effect, and to conclude that that was what I was trying to do – which would, I think, be misleading.

Painting is a physical process executed in real time. It involves conscious deliberation, but also intuition, habit, accident, mistakes, improvisation, chance and luck. When I start a painting, I both know and don’t know what I’m doing, and the process of making the painting is a process of working out some of the uncertainty. As I write this sentence, I have an idea of what I’m trying to write, but it’s only in the act of writing, of making the sentence, selecting the words and organising them, going back and changing and correcting, that my meaning becomes clear to me. I think it is similar with making a painting (except that ‘meaning’ takes a very different form). The chosen materials and means of making have a determining effect on what can be made and meant.

A painting begins with the question of how to cover a surface: how will it look if I do it like this, with this procedure, this geometry, these colours, etc? Some of this has to do with what’s possible, what I think I can achieve, what means are to hand. And a lot do with what I’ve done before, each painting being to some extent a response to the last one. But there is also a huge uncertainty behind the question which drives the process: I don’t know, and don’t want to know, precisely what the painting will look like. Making the painting is then a process of realisation in which something previously unknown unfolds and becomes clear. I’m feeling my way through an experience hoping to end up with something I couldn’t entirely have anticipated. Colour can play an important role in this uncertainty because it’s infinitely variable and unpredictable.

For me, colour is tied to the properties and behaviour of paint. Choosing colour in a painting isn’t like choosing colour on a computer, where all the colours are made in the same way and are equally available. In a painting colour has to be made from paint. I have to go out and buy the paint, store it, mix it. The colour that comes to hand in the studio is dependent on what the manufacturers produce, what the shop stocked, what I could afford, what I mixed last week, what I haven’t spilt or left in an out-of-reach corner, etc. All these factors help to detemine which colours I use, but they aren’t part of my consciousness when I’m painting.

The painting you have selected are made with watercolour on gesso. Gesso is a traditional material, used historically on panels as a ground for oil and tempera painting, but it is more absorbent than most modern painting surfaces and can be stained so that colour can appear to sit under as well as on top of the surface. The behaviour of watercolour is very dependent on the particular pigments it is made from. For example, chromium green is made from a metallic oxide which feels granular, heavy, dense and opaque, and can be used to form a flat, matt film. Cadmium red shares the heavy granular quality, but it’s also incredibly vibrant, giving it a completely different energy in a painting. Prussian blue is another intense colour, but it is deep, inky and transparent. These non-chromatic properties of the paint can be as important as the ‘colour’ itself.  I almost never use white, so varying tones of a given colour are a result of varying degrees of transparency, allowing the white of the gesso to shine through to varying extents.  Watercolour has the advantage of remaining soluble, so I can mix dozens of colours in pots which can be revitalised after days or weeks just by adding water, allowing me to get to work quickly without spending hours re-mixing. This fast and easy access to a really big range of colours has been hugely important to my way of working. I don’t like to deliberate about colour, preferring to select colours haphazardly in the hope of creating an interesting visual predicament which I hadn’t consciously intended. In order to help this I built a big turntable to hold the pots of paint. There’s some serendipity involved, and a good deal of failure too, but the process has to be enjoyable and playful.

The works you have selected for this show are more systematic than most, made using some rules to help the decision process. I often avoid using any given colour more than once in a painting, but these works use the repetition of colour quite strategically. In the sculptural works I used dice to select colours from a limited palette.  The painting called “What I Think of When I Think of You” tends toward green, but in much of the work from this period I used as much colour as I could muster rather than pre-select a particular palette.

In the works selected, as in much of my recent painting, I’ve used an idea of ‘patches’: discrete areas of paint which acquire identity through shape and colour. Here, colour does something very obvious and very specific by differentiating one bit of a painting from another, and thereby giving the painting its structure. One can think of colour purely as a system of infinite differences, and in this sense colour is incredibly productive and fertile.

But colour always does something in excess of this articulation, something to do with energy and intensity which is difficult to describe and to predict. How a colour feels is so dependent on how much of it there is, what’s underneath it, what’s next to it, how it’s applied, etc. The only way of really knowing what a particular colour will do in a particular spot is to put it there and see. If I do this, to see how it will look, and leave it, does that mean I meant it?

The panels that these paintings are made on are fairly heavy, solid objects – their three-dimensionality is important – but I feel a painting works when it achieves a kind of vitality that makes it appear light and immaterial, and the vibration and dynamism of colour plays a big role in this .

There is a line in Peter Handke’s “The Weight of the World” which has acquired some significance for me (“To keep from crying, a child stares at the satchels hanging in the cloakroom”) because of the way it gently raise the question of what it means to look at something, and the possibilty that being wholly engaged in sensing the world might momentarily take us out of ourselves.

I hope this helps,


Cortez Arrives

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Cortez Arrives

Group Exhibition at Herbert Read Gallery, University of the Creative Arts, Canterbury, 2009.
Artists: Jo Addison, Adam Gillam, Mike Marshall, Max Mosscrop, Alice Walton, Simon Wells.

Snow Falls Upwards

by Kate Fowle

Staring out of a window on the 29th floor I’m watching snow fall upwards. A few blocks away cranes are lifting an airplane out of the Hudson River. Struck by birds, the 500,000 pounds of US Airways flight 1549 fell out of the sky shortly after take off, but everyone was saved and the pilot is a hero. Now, cradled in mid air, the bulk looks strangely animate, giving off the nobility of a stranded whale. Meanwhile the radio is announcing that tomorrow a new era dawns as Barack Obama becomes President of the United States.

It’s not only Cortez who is in strange territory…

Cortez arrives at an unknown shore
he is absolutely lost
and he is enraptured

There should be four blank pages left after those lines to give them the space that they need. They are one of twenty-six fragments written by the poet and activist George Oppen (1908-1984) that were found scrawled on envelopes and scraps of paper in his study after his death. It is uncertain if it is complete but it doesn’t really matter. They arouse the promise of wonder as they are.

Last Saturday I went to a talk by two neurologists. Towards the end they were asked if there is a difference between the mind and the brain. The answer got complicated, but in short they said that when something is “right”, the body gives off a physical response—goose bumps, palpitations, sweaty palms, dilated pupils—before the mind “knows” as much. The gap between the responses of the body and the mind is a matter of milliseconds. That’s nothing. But then again it’s everything because if knowing can be physically manifested, even just in the form of a momentary disorientation, then it follows that art could be understood as the response to discerning the difference between the mind and the brain in relation to stimuli.

This is different to the ensuing academic debate about the production of art as a form of knowledge, which prioritizes the cognitive value of art. It’s also not about art practice as research that produces knowledge, or artifacts as embodiments of knowledge. While all such incarnations of course exist, and the discussion provides some kind of credible and logical accountability for art practice, it removes space for the type of art that resists meaning as knowledge, or which is produced as a visceral response to “knowing” something.

All the artists in Cortez arrives deal with this conundrum. They eschew the notion that art needs to “represent” or to “signify,” instead producing works that end up being “of themselves.” They share an instinct to synthesize material processes and imaginative expression, developing visual languages that personify the subtleties and contradictions of experience. They accumulate, filter, speculate on, and play with ideas, embracing the absurdities that may spring forth from daily life. Relishing the intrinsic foolishness of experimental creation, they want to find forms that make sense of phenomena. Working across drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, video, sound, and film, what unites the artists’ divergent styles and techniques is the resonance of process. You can sense their engagement with materials is directly related to their obsession with digesting what they encounter, read, watch, hear, and think.

Interaction with their artworks stirs a response akin to the sensation of watching a good dance performance, wherein you become aware of what it feels like to have a body. This way of knowing something isn’t just contained in the head, where trains of thought are sparked and memories evoked, but reverberates through one’s whole being. The kind of recognition that is triggered cannot easily be identified because it is mental and physical at the same time. In a similar way the works in Cortez arrives are less explicitly communicative than experiential, embodying the open-endedness of potential.

Kate Fowle is a curator and writer based in New York.

Interrupted Correspondence

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FIVE YEARS/ JTG Project 09*

14.10.09 > 01.11.09


Deadline for submitting information for the programme: Friday 9 October 2009.
NAME: Max Mosscrop
TITLE: House

My proposal for your project is to use my sculpture ‘House’ to accommodate a number of works by other artists. ‘House’ is a 1/3 scale model of an abandoned farmhouse. It is 3m long x 2m wide x 3m high with its chimney (perhaps 2.4m without). The interior is stained black and could be used for projecting film / video. It has a window opening that could be used to view an internal projection. It would also be possible to attach drawings etc to the external faces. In particular I propose accommodating a video projection piece by Simon Wells entitled “Bin” to run continuously on a loop and to be interrupted from time to time by other works including a performance by Majena Mafe entitled “Pinker Talk”.

‘House’ should remain for the duration of the exhibition. Simon Wells projection to be shown Friday 16th 7-8pm. Majena Mafe’s performance duration 10 minutes to take place Friday 16th between 8 and 9pm

Hotel Europa (2012)

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Hotel Europa (no. 1)
Hotel Europa (no. 2)
Hotel Europa (no. 3)
Hotel Europa (no. 4)
Hotel Europa (no. 5)
Hotel Europa (no. 6)
Hotel Europa (no. 7)
Hotel Europa (no. 8)
Hotel Europa (no. 4) (detail)
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A series of works made by embedding pieces of ebony in gesso panels, exploring visual clarity, placement and a relation to typography.

“the deserted platform glitters for a moment; on a high-rise tower the sign appears: HOTEL EUROPA.”
from Absence, Peter Handke.