Interview: David Paul Gleeson Talks About His Prize-Winning Drawing, Triple Self
I am sat in one of my favourite little cafes in Stafford deep in conversation about artistic practice. ‘You should struggle, if you are not struggling why bother? It’s the struggle that makes it worth it.’ David Paul Gleeson is telling me as we veer into discussing wider artworks, as well as his own style and approach to work.
Modern art and drawing invites people to be included, he tells me. It creates a sense of empathy that aligns the onlooker with the artist/artistic, with a prime example being the multitude of installations at many art galleries you might visit. This conflicts with the approach that Gleeson takes in his work. The struggle that we have been talking about, he states ‘has to be obvious’ in many current works for people to feel connected to it, ‘the process is so “there” that the onlooker feels close to the artist and doesn’t feel excluded.’ In contrast, Gleeson states that in his work ‘I don’t want the struggle to be obvious’ and this is certainly true of the piece that we are discussing today.
With a focus on drawing on the blog this month, when I saw that Gleeson’s drawing, Triple Self, had recently won the ‘Best Drawing’ award at the Society of Graphic Fine Art’s Open exhibition, part of the 95th Annual Open exhibition ‘DRAW 16‘ which ran from 3 – 15 October 2016 at the Menier Gallery in London, I had to get in touch and see if he would be willing to talk to me and be featured.
The drawing itself is compelling, and reflects many of the ideas that we deliberated. The process that we were discussing, so obvious in many current drawings being produced by artists, is not obvious with this piece. It invites a closer look and even then the method of drawing is not immediately apparent. I ask about the approach he took to the piece and how he created the work. Over three weeks, using a multitude of different medias was the answer.
This is something that comes through in our discussion, for Gleeson drawing is not limited to a pencil/pen and paper. That would be boring, he states. Triple Self was a combination of charcoal, chalk and pastels, of varying brands. He used a multitude of tools: cotton, bandages on the fingers, even a scalpel to take marks off and scrape back to a lower level of the paper to ‘erase’ areas that were not working. ‘You can fix anything halfway through’, details were drawn in and then taken out as needed and the surface of the image was constantly changing.
It was a fascinating revelation, that this exquisite exercise in figurative realism was the result of such experimentation and evolution and not a piece planned with careful precision. Spontaneity is a key element in all his work, it emerges: ‘when I start a work I don’t know what it is going to look like. I don’t impose my will upon the drawing.’ He describes the process like a Jazz player working through a solo in front of a live audience – all the notes may be familiar and have been played before, but every night they will try new ways to arrange them differently in response to their surroundings and audience.
Art as Exploration
Imposing your will, he tells me, or not responding to what’s in front of you and having a finished image in mind before you have started is the antithesis to learning and progressing your artistic practice. ‘If it had been carefully planned out, I would be bored’, Gleeson states, ‘If you know where it’s going, how interesting is that?’ For this artist, drawing and painting is an exploration not a pre-planned journey with a definite destination.
This was surprising, as one of the things I had always admired in Gleeson’s work was his eye for composition. Having recently been working with a seasoned studio photographer who emphasises the importance of carefully planning every aspect of the image – composition, lighting, etc. – before even getting close to pressing the camera shutter button, it was unexpected to hear that in his work Gleeson is not so structured in his approach.
‘I don’t plan things out.’ The challenge of the drawing/painting is the evolution of the composition which involves a lot of crossing out and painting over – just as with Triple Self, where the heavy weight of the paper allowed for the scraping back and redoing of many elements. It certainly seems as though an x-ray of any of his works would be a fascinating exercise to reveal the artist’s process.
Having said this, there was a clear influence upon the overall direction of Triple Self rooted in art history. The piece is also known as ‘Three Graces’ in reference to the classical sculptural piece that it is based upon. ‘I like to combine the playful and the serious’ he states, in contrast to much figurative art which takes its subject matter very seriously, ‘people assume highly detailed must be serious.’ Triple Self is a subversion of this, playfully challenging the neo-classical idea of beautifully sculpted naked women and replacing them ‘with an old man in a jacket.’
He goes on to tell me that he has another self-portrait planned in this style, taking a classical painting and subverting the imagery, however, he is reluctant to start this at the moment at the risk of repeating himself and not finding a creative and new way to express his ideas. It was one of the things that has stuck with me since our meeting, this notion that you should be constantly challenging yourself with you art, and if you aren’t then why are you bothering?
While Triple Self may on the surface be a classical accurate figurative representation of self-portraiture the journey to that finished piece was less than conventional. Gleeson is very clear that ‘staying in a nice comfy Jacuzzi of your own making’ will not foster growth within your own artistic process and expression. Constantly challenging yourself is an absolute must, as habits will never lead to interesting results. Echoing Albert Einstein: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ Gleeson emphasises the importance of not being comfortable within your practice, constantly trying something new, and if what you are doing isn’t working trying something completely different to shock you out of your creative rut. Wise words which apply to all areas of creativity.