Paul Boston | Recent Works

Paul Boston is a painter who responds to experience and moments of light. ARTIST PROFILE spoke to him before his new solo exhibition at Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. He talked about the early influences on his work and events that have shaped him, and discusses the balance of process and intuition, the use of light and shapes to achieve the purpose of this show to make his paintings go beyond logical thought.

When did you begin making art?
I’d been in Guatemala and picked up hepatitis from food, by the time I’d reached London I ended up in an isolation room, in Coppetts Wood Hospital. As I got better, I started drawing a series of heads, and then I became fascinated with the marks, how the most minimal mark could mean so much to the mind, and how one could read so much meaning into something so slight. I became really fascinated with that, and it led to a whole lot of work I’m still playing with, like the head images. After my recovery I went to New York and saw a massive Picasso retrospective, it was 1981 by that stage. Then I ended up in San Francisco where I saw the Guston retrospective. I was struck by Picasso’s and Guston’s freedom, invention, the play of the imagination, and the power of the imagination. Those things gave me a new spirit to operate from. I felt then that I could attempt making art.

Was Sean Scully ever an influential artist on your work?
Scully was never enormously influential, not like Guston. The spirit of Guston’s painting really resonated with me. He was such a wonderful mark-maker. Guston’s work was both beautiful and ugly. It lacked a preciousness about creating a pristine aesthetic and yet he could create something really beautiful.

Is conceptualism still important?
Yes, it is. It underpins my interests in the nature of meaning in art. At Preston Technical School, Dale Hickey was my main art teacher. He was mostly presenting ideas influenced by the perspectives of American Clement Greenberg, Conceptual Art, and Bruce Pollard at Pinacotheca. I became very conscious of the object being removed and the idea remaining. I didn’t feel that I had to make art, the proposal itself was enough. It was almost like architectural drawings.

You also had these other art experiences at the time.
I worked as a gardener in Heide, and I had the privilege of having lunch with John Reed, two or three times a week, for three years. John indulged me in my arrogance, and I would ask all sorts of dumb questions and interrogate him about the works on his walls. Occasionally, I’d get invited to meet special guests such as the curator of drawings from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or when Mike Brown came by. So I had these two different viewpoints. John was presenting the very European, poetic vision of art, and giving me books on Jean Genet and so forth. I would often bring an argument to both Dale and John to see what views they had and how they differed.

Where did your interest in Zen develop?
At Preston and partly through exposure to John Cage, in particular his book Silence, rather than his music. Also André Sollier was a very strong teacher figure. With him I was practising Zen and learning Sumi-e painting. There was a lot of reflection on what art could do, what I could do as an artist, and what I could be engaged by.

Why are your paintings fascinated with the expanded frame?
I don’t see it in those terms. I’m looking for something that locks in, in a particular way. I want to have a sense of space being animated, and to open up space, feeling like you can enter into the subject smoothly, and without any sense of imbalance. I’ve always had the idea of actuality in work, as well as illusionistic space. So my intention with a work is to give the space as much importance as the components within it.

The flat surface of your paintings is often interrupted by spherical forms, convex shapes, or recesses …
It comes from wanting to put yes and no together. To invert something and to then project it forward. That yes and no is once again opposing the thinking mind, it is an opening experience for me. I want to breathe in the world without barriers. That’s fundamentally my methodology, seems to underpin everything I do.

Can you expand on the decisions you make regarding the surface of your work?
I don’t have a very strong formal strategy. I’ll work on one painting a hundred times if I have to, until it sits right. Sometimes I’ll use different levels of texture to make the tensions seem right, to make the objects have a vivid quality, have a presence. Other times they’ll need more of an ephemeral treatment, as they’re drifting into space more.

Your brushwork seems to be intuitive?
Just different intentions. With the more monastic work, the intention is for them to read very spatially. I can’t get away with just any kind of mark-making with that work. The gist of a painting dictates to me what’s appropriate. In some cases, it has to be completely bleached of any mark.

You leave the bristles of your brush in the paint?
That’s because I’d be painting them for however long it takes and the brushes can sometimes get destroyed in that process. I don’t mind it. I’ve always had a slight resistance to getting too pristine. It’s natural evidence of process. But it’s whether it sacrifices other concerns. If hairs from a brush are stopping me from going in, that’s a problem.

When I compare the earlier paintings to more recent ones there is a process towards the circular as opposed to the linear.
I’ve always had this sense that I’ve got something to say to myself, in a dialogue between my intuition and my conscious mind. I’m painting things that early on I couldn’t absorb and I’m in the process of bringing them into my conscious to see them, objectively. It doesn’t mean that I’m totally self-focused, but there is a sense – like most people, I have more intelligence than I can readily access. The very first step I made is not so different from the steps I’m making now. The intuitive step becoming the conscious step.

This suggests a Zen periphery?
No. I’m very careful about my working relationship with Zen. I’d hate for my work to be prescriptive. Zen is a very important part of my life, but the work, naturally, is going to be bigger. It’s everything from my genetic heritage, cultural heritage, to my environment, my personal relationships, they’re all coming into a work. If somebody said that’s a Zen work, it would be a limited classification of what’s going on. There’s also lots of stuff in my work that’s probably the opposite of Zen, my own insecurities, anger and vulnerabilities, they could be the opposite of Zen. I don’t want to keep anything out of art, it should all be there. I don’t want to be somebody who strategises about what can appear in the work in a very self-conscious way. I think that would be robbing the work of whatever riches it may have.

Do you measure experiences in terms of high or low priorities?
Gee, that would be very anti-Zen, everyday experiences, the sand, climbing Mt Everest, making a cup of tea, they’re exactly the same. The disengaged mind is the most creative mind, and that’s the principle of Zen practice. The judging, thinking and the conceptual naming self, drop off, and there’s only this moment. This sensory data, the birds, the breathing, the bodily sensation. There’s not this level that’s judging, or wanting things to be anything other then what they are. So the open mind is the receptive mind. Pivotal in my process.

So in a sense, all experiences are pathways to an infinite world?
Everything that we can fully experience and have a fusion with in this moment, is an opening to that world. It’s already open, we just don’t know it. In reality we’re always living in infinite time and space. As Max Beckmann said, “we’re always cluttering the foreground with junk”.

Do you care about what critics write about your art?
I can be really oversensitive about criticism. I used to think that you could make work that everybody would appreciate. After 30 years, you should know that it’s not the case. Though I do work better with criticism now than I did in the past. I’ve had a few really damning reviews over the years, but in some cases, they were right. It depends on whether you respect the writer as to how deeply you’re wounded.

Symbols in your paintings metamorphose into shapes …
I noticed when I returned to China, in the walls of the gardens there were these negative shapes like gourds and flower shapes or a vase. I realised that I’d picked up a lot of that unconsciously and brought it back into my work. But the intention there was exactly the intention that I had in my work, where objects that were positive, real things in the world became spaces that interplay between absence and presence.

Many of your paintings have a lovely pulsating energy to them, that unison with colour and light.
My work is very light dependent. I paint in a certain light, and tune it to that light, and then the light changes and it’s lost something. It’s so important for my work to get the exhibition lighting right.

Your latest works have a greater immediacy to them.
The previous works were still about something and I wanted to bleach that out, that was about something entirely different. The current work is not about anything. There was an intention to do paintings that were somehow meditative that were dealing with the push and pull of things existing and not existing, and the multiplicity and simplicity of things. I wanted to take one more step with this new body of work, to rid them of any intention. I want to play freely with concepts, beyond logical thought, beyond any intention towards meaning.

Paul Boston | Recent Paintings
30 August – 1 October
Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
Courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

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