David Griggs | Horror Business
ARTIST PROFILE spoke to Philippines-based David Griggs about his new series of paintings titled Horror Business, where David has turned his attention away from his previous focus on the locals’ struggle to survive on Manila’s mean streets to his own turbulent inner battles with depression. As he says, putting his feelings and moods onto canvas is a new direction in his work.
You’re currently working on new paintings titled Horror Business, where you are now the total subject of the paintings. The primary subjects in your past paintings engaged with prison gangs or fraternities and skateboarders etc in the Philippines. How does it feel being the only subject in your paintings?
It’s confronting for me as Horror Business is about my struggle with depression. I have been dealing with this struggle on and off for 10 years. Even though it’s difficult to discuss it’s something that should be talked about, as depression is an international epidemic. Because I’m a sort of obsessive-compulsive, it can help me in making paintings and in being creative.
Depression is both a gift and a curse for me. When I’m not doing well, my brain wanders into some dark places. So, I sort of started these Horror Business paintings as a way to say, “OK! I have to be strong, I have to learn to cope with this ailment that a lot of people go through.” And I thought, “OK! Some of my irrational thoughts are like this or are like that, so I should keep a journal to write them down, as a way to exile the thoughts,” so I would stop thinking about them. Then I thought, “What I should do is paint this.” Making that decision to paint from irrationality is a really powerful thing to do because you’re living it daily and turning it into a vision. It’s a little scary for me, but I just thought, “No! What I’m going through I should use as a form of therapy, paint it, and if the paintings are morbid or dark then so be it.”
Thank you David for sharing this story. I recall you saying there was approximately a 12-month period where you were unable to paint because of your depression. When did that rational moment to paint your depressive visions happen?
I remember saying to my doctor here in Manila, “Do you think I should paint?” He thought on it and said, “Not yet, you’ll know when it’s the right time.” And then all of a sudden I’m painting, and it wasn’t like, “OK! I’m going to do this,” it just happened. I don’t know, it’s a strange thing; in my studio there’s a balcony next to where I paint, and in the night with the lights on in the studio, if I go on the balcony to have a cigarette it’s like viewing the paintings through a window. Viewing the works from a dark spot and looking into the light of the studio somehow gives me hope. Through the darkness looking into the studio I sometimes think “like wow man!” It’s sort of melancholic seeing these deep feelings that I have only just painted. Putting my feelings and my moods onto canvas, it’s a new direction in my work.
Are you finding new things about yourself through this process? Other than the confronting nature of the works, are there new, positive and exciting observations? They can’t all be scary.
People close to me know that sometimes I go through these hard times, and always ask, “How you doing?” And I always say, “Well, I’m painting.” The fact that I’m functioning and making work is a good sign, whatever the subject is, just being able to paint is a very positive thing in my life. Some people might find the Horror Business paintings morbid, dangerous, strange, or whatever. The fact that I’m physically painting nearly every day is a gift.
Are you learning something new about painting?
Yeah, that’s the thing about painting that keeps me painting. Every time I paint I learn something new and even if I paint something that I have done before it’s never ever going to be the same. Sometimes I do small sketches, sort of like kids’ drawings, but it’s more of a way of trying to mock up the composition in my head before I attack the canvas, I like to work straight from my thoughts to the canvas, and once I have drawn things up in my mind, I go for it. The only way to paint is to have no fear of failure.
In the going for it, how do you prepare yourself?
I think about the paintings all the time. It’s a weird process; I mean sometimes I paint in the day because I feel like I want to paint. But there’s something about painting in the night, and it’s not about being cooler in Manila during that time. There’s a certain quietness that I like, a lot less noise and distraction on one’s mind. Painting late in the night is also sort of a romantic notion. The process is mostly just right at night, it’s a feeling I get as to when I should start painting. It’s a primal sensation.
All of the Horror Business paintings images you have sent me bear no relationship to Australia. I don’t see anything symbolic of Australia; it appears you have totally immersed yourself in the space and time of Manila.
You mean there’s nothing that seems Australian in the work? Yeah! Well, every time I’m in Australia, I feel that a lot of artists are making work that has a sense of Australia, it has a sense of the Australian culture, whatever that means. I don’t want to talk about any other artists in a bad way, however I just find it silly that artists use this Australiana in their work, however they’re doing it. That use of experience as an Australian appears to me to be more patriotic than investigative. For me I like painting that could come out of any country. I’m not interested in exploring my Australian heritage and that sort of crap. I’m interested in painting full stop.
Is this one of the reasons you have chosen to live in Manila?
I don’t know, except when I came to Manila in 2006 from an Asialink Residency, I didn’t expect much. When I got to Manila and saw what was happening, particularly with painting, it was really progressive and certainly exciting. I came back many times to Manila, as a way to escape Australia a bit, and then I realised that I was spending more time in the Philippines than Australia, so I decided I should live here in 2009, as it seemed to make a lot of sense for me and my practice. It wasn’t necessarily the genre of my practice; it was the freedom in Manila. Anything I wanted to do, particularly with, say, my photography projects or my films, you can just sort of do it. No one bothers you. No one questions you. Some of the stuff I’ve done and am still doing here, if I were to do it in Australia, I would need a permit or possibly get arrested. In one of my video works it involved hitch-hiking on Quezon Avenue in Manila with an AK-47 rifle. I did it as a joke to see what would happen, but taxis were stopping and wanting to pick me up, “Where do you want to go?” No taxi driver mentioned the fact that I had an AK-47 with me. But if I were to do that in Sydney, I’d be arrested. This is an example of the freedom I’m referring to, which is good and can be very bad also.
It’s a long way from where you grew up. Looking back at that place and where you are now, how does that feel; has that place been revealed in your work at all?
You’re referring to Western Sydney. Yeah! Like on Facebook, I have some friends who I grew up with. They are constantly posting photos of all of us when we were teenagers. They’re forever reminiscing. They’re only my age, it’s not like they’re 100 years old already. They’re always looking back. It’s not that I don’t appreciate where I came from, or who I knew in the past. It’s just that I have to look forward. It’s fine to reminisce, I just feel a lot of people when they reach a certain age it’s all they can do. Maybe that scares me having just turned 40, I don’t know. When I see these photographs of myself when I was 17 they’re memories that I don’t want to deal with. I’ve always been the sort to travel and to look forward. As an artist you always have to look forward. Maybe that has something to do with it. How can you be creative without the gravity pull of the future slamming your head?
In Horror Business this memory process is overlaid by other symbols, and quite provocative symbols like the owl, the octopus, horned creature, the crucifix, or five-pointed star.
There are two reasons for that iconography. One, It’s sort of passé in the realm of contemporary art, modern skeletons, grotesque, from Francisco Goya to Adam Cullen, to the Chapman Brothers. I enjoy the idea of reinventing the passé. The other is, I enter my irrational and morbid thoughts into my diary or journal. So, on the flip side it’s passé and then on the other hand, it’s reality for me. Like the painting of the dancing skeletons in a bubble, in this thought I don’t have skin, it’s like I am a walking skeleton. Whereas in the octopus painting, the irrational thought of an octopus appeared while I was getting a Thai massage, and for some reason I just imagined the hands of the masseur to be an octopus. It was a thought, a game in my mind, but what was I thinking. When I got home I made a note of the octopus. I thought “OK! Paint an octopus” because it’s a thought about my irrational being, and that’s how that symbol came about, just happened. With the owl painting, it was different, I was thinking about my upbringing a little bit. I remembered my grandfather was obsessed with owls. He’d collected all these ceramics and paintings of owls. From this thought of “Oh I should just paint an owl,” it’s following a very simple approach of whatever thought passes through my mind for whatever reason. I am curious about the way the brain works. It’s real to me and yet they can become corny and passé like genre paintings. But I like the fact that I can paint whatever thought I want, and whatever people think about it I don’t give a shit.
Are you conscious of the empathic verve in Horror Business that is seeking questions of the viewer?
A few people have mentioned that about my work, like it’s there at you. And I guess it is subconscious, because even though I’m the person producing the paintings. I’m also the viewer, I’m viewing my paintings. I don’t know, I guess it’s just intuitive for me to paint in that sort of frontal approach, actually I don’t know why. It’s a question that I can’t answer, except to say it’s my human nature, simple.
There’s so much to unpick with the spatial elements between the various objects in Horror Business. How do these compositional elements take form?
It’s always a very different approach every time I paint, but there are some rules. When I want something to come forward in the painting there’s two ways of doing it. One is to render it, sort of in the traditional sense of painting, with lights at the front and darks at the back, as in the classic process of painting. As a kid I would draw straight or angular lines, something that’s so embedded in us. In a complex manner, I like playing with this idea that a simple perspective line can give depth straight away. I would add three or four elements that don’t have anything in common to become united in the composition, and for each element to have perspective or depth in the painting. I also like tweaking that depth, lying about it, for example when painting a circle in the background, I’d make it a bit darker because I want it to fall back in the space, but sometimes I’ll say let’s bring it forward, and that’ll change ones perspective on how one views depth. I like these little challenges.
Your palette of black and white seems to move in a consistent tonal grade that has a very calming effect. I don’t find the contrasting tones threatening.
Last year I was doing a lot of black and white photography, and once the image is scanned or put into a smartphone or whatever, I try to distinguish contrasts, I don’t want everything to feel grey, or too white, or too black. When I start a painting I try to find that contrast as in a photograph, by changing the contrast or the focus. With painting it’s sort of the same approach, I’m looking for high contrasts. Actually, one thing in the paintings you can only see when in a natural or gallery light is the silver paint in some elements of the work. That’s when you get a flickering shimmer coming through from the silver paint. They’re definitely paintings to be seen in the flesh for something else to happen. But in terms of calming, I agree, as I need to calm myself down.
So painting has a calming effect on you?
It works both ways because painting can actually be stressful. As I pursue a certain outcome I sometimes work myself into a fury, to a point where I have to take a break or come back the next day. I can sense that I have twisted my creative mind too far on a certain day. Then there are other times when I might not be feeling so great, and within an hour or so of painting I feel relaxed. I understand that with painting, no senses make sense. I remember Francoise Gilot saying that when Pablo Picasso was 65 years old, she was amazed at how much work he was doing in a day. He was constantly standing up painting for hours and hours, and Gilot would say: “Don’t you ever get tired?” and Picasso would say: “No, because when you paint you leave your body at the door.” And I can completely understand that, and to me that’s where it becomes therapeutic. So it works both ways.
The brushwork in Horror Business is varied in movement and texture, is there a new repertoire in these paintings?
No, I don’t think it’s new; I stopped using oil paints for many years because I was trying to not have too many toxins around. Then I found after using acrylic paints for a long time that I was always thinking that I wanted to use oils again. I felt as though it was messing with my head a bit. Then I discovered a way of using oils without thinners or mediums, I didn’t even need to clean the brushes, just needed a rag and stuff like that. I think the movement that you’re talking about has always been there, it’s just with acrylic you don’t see it. Now that I’m working with oils again, there’s more life to my work.
The notion of time on the painting of your larger and smaller works: do you apply the same amount of time in their development?
Usually the smaller works happen faster. Though I have always been very comfortable with large-scale paintings. It’s easier for me as I experience a more natural sense of scale. I don’t know why, they just feel right. I had to teach myself to paint various scales. I usually do the small ones in one sit, or maybe I’ll go back to them the next day. Maybe one or two days maximum. I apply the same processes with the big ones, like I’ll think, “OK! That’s pretty much done” and work on another piece. Then through time, what I thought was complete becomes, “Oh! Actually, it needs this, or it needs more highlight.” So it’s a sort of an ongoing process in the studio, an intuitive feeling of knowing when to stop that I guess all painters have.
Do you think in Horror Business you’d be introducing any colour?
Oh! Actually, I made a note in my phone a few days ago. While having coffee on the street I saw some gold squiggles on a faded black wall. The gold was so vibrant it was almost a fluoro yellow and I just wrote, “gold on black”. There are things that I want to push within Horror Business. Maybe even add yellow or gold, but to keep the paintings still by not using too many colours. I want every painting to hold its own at wherever Horror Business ends up, and for people to still experience a very coherent body of work. But each work would be different, I like that subtle challenge of using black, white, grey, silver, gold or whatever and it’s all going to look the same tonally and completely unique at the same time, because each work has a unique subject matter, unique only unto itself.
You have mentioned that the Horror Business work was therapeutic, confronting depression to the point where it took over your life. It seems these paintings are taking you to a new space.
It’s still complex for me. Sometimes I feel like a crazy artist, but suffering anxiety and depression doesn’t mean I’m crazy, it’s an ailment. Like any ailment I have to manage it. What I’ve learnt from getting help, a common factor for me is an accumulation of stress. The stress slowly builds up and I don’t know I’m stressed. Like one of my doctors would say: “It’s like a glass of water, you need to keep that glass of water half full, if you overfill that glass that’s when – bang, it hits you.” I’d like to become strong enough to deal with that in my work, whereas before it just saddened me. But I’m a survivor, a narcissist and a bleeding heart. These three traits are what keeps me strong.
David Griggs | Horror Business
Greenaway Art Gallery
Until 12 June
Courtesy the artist