This interview with Charles Cross was made in 2010.
Charles Cross: You began life as an artist then took a 35 year detour as a psychotherapist, academic and writer. Why did you return to art?
Phil McLoughlin: Yes, it did begin as a detour, quite accidentally. I always thought I would go back to art but it took a lot longer than I expected. It certainly wasn’t planned. I just grew more and more interested in people and their stories. Then a colleague suggested that I take a higher degree. Then I was invited to write a book which led to another and so on. The rest just flowed serendipitously. Thirty years later I had published 20-odd books, been a professor in several different countries and enjoyed a successful therapy consultancy with my wife and colleague, Poppy Buchanan-Barker. So, I moved over to make room for someone else.
Around 2007 I had done a couple of paintings just for myself and then I thought, ‘what would others make of this?’ I entered some open shows, got exhibited and here I am.
C: In the 70s, where you left off, you were doing conceptual work. Indeed, some would say that you were one of the few conceptual artists in Scotland at that time. But now you are painting, in a very ‘realistic’ mode. Did you tire of the conceptual work? What drew you back to painting?
P: I am not sure that I really ‘left’ the conceptual angle. Yes, I did give up producing work for more than 30 years and the new work does seem different, but it is still ‘conceptual’. I didn’t look at a lot of art during my academic detour, as you call it, but the conceptual stuff I did see just seemed like footnotes to Beuys. What was new?
Beuys had signalled the death of painting so I thought, contrariwise, that painting – and drawing, although Beuys did draw – might be a way to say something new. So old and traditional it might be new and radically different. There’s a paradox in there.
C: Paradox is a big thing for you. Yes?
P: I guess. The sun always casts a shadow. For illumination there must be darkness. One can’t exist without the other. I suppose I discovered that in therapy. Things are so complicated they must, at heart, be quite simple – and vice versa. The harder you try to get rid of something the more it sticks. In weakness people can find strength and so on; all pretty obvious. Yes, I would say that my work is about such paradoxes.
C: Tell me more. Give me an example of paradox in your recent work.
P: I don’t know that I can give you an example. All my work is about paradox. People say I paint in a ‘realistic’ way but I am not seeking to imitate consensual reality. I paint verisimilitude – it is just the surface appearance of the truth, but that is what makes it so interesting. This begs the question – ‘what is the truth?’ It’s not about the ‘thing’ or even what the thing might commonly be seen to signify. But it also is about the thing. Paradox.
C: But why painting – or drawing? Why did you not to pursue these ideas in some other form, like the performances or constructions you did 30-odd years ago?
P: Well, I had done that. The world had moved on, well I had anyway. People seem to be thrilled or shocked by today’s conceptual work simply because they weren’t there in the 60’s and 70s to see it for the first time. If, like me, you had been at Strategy Get Arts in Edinburgh in 1970 – with Beuys, Gunther Uecker, Daniel Spoerri and the rest – you might appreciate how derivative today’s conceptual and performance work is.
The main reason I went back to painting is that I wanted to make something that was relatively small, that people could stick on their wall and live with. Something they might relate to, worry over or just look at it from time to time. Oldenburg said he wanted to make art that did more than sit on its ass in a museum. I always liked that idea. The kind of performance and installation work I did in the 70s was for people who liked going to the theatre. They just sat on their asses and had a one-off experience and then went home. Maybe they took something with them, but I think attending the event was the main thing. I think a lot of art today is theatre, which is not a bad thing. A lot more is just decoration - interior design, which also is not necessarily a bad thing. I am just not interested in either any lonnger.
I suppose my work in therapy helped change my direction. I discovered that everyone was a philosopher – irrespective of their education. Given the chance to dig in, people could come up with insights into their own lives if not life in general. The secret was, not to lead them, but to follow them. But they had to work at it. So, I cultivated my interest in stillness, contemplation, just being with something, letting something new emerge. People get this in cathedrals, open fields or standing in the waves but maybe art can also be a kind of touchstone for such experiences in a private place – like a home or even an office. A lot of the people who have bought my work seem interested in the painting as a meditative object – something they can do something with, that will ultimately be very personal; maybe far away from what I first intended.
In that sense my works are just questions. What is going on here? What do you make of this? Maybe all art begs such questions but a lot of art seduces the viewer – with colour, form, brushwork, all the stuff that critics drool over. Maybe the viewer risks getting lost in the sheer marvel of the art. And so the question gets lost.
C: So your work is not about anything in particular, it’s an empty vessel into which people pour their own meanings?
P: To some extent, but maybe no more than any other piece of art. Obviously art means different things to different people. We still argue about what Mona Lisa is saying. My work might be saying something but I have nothing to ‘say’ through my work. If I had wanted to say something I would have written another book. I always understood this, but I thought it was just a personal truth. Then, in therapy, I discovered that almost everyone I met had much the same experience: they wanted express something for which there were no words: the ineffable. Thats why metaphor is such a big deal in our communications and a lot of art is metaphor writ large. Maybe it is important to know that our experience goes beyond words. Words and language are greatly over-rated.
I hope that my work will help at least some people take a sidelong look at themselves, catching a glimpse of the bits that are beyond words.
C: Your work seems to be ‘post-realist’ to coin a phrase. It is not really about the ‘reality’ of things or experience but what is left after the experience has gone, flitted as you say.
P: Yes. That’s it. That’s very neat. Post-realist - I’ll use that if you don’t mind.