Andrew Grassie – Looper
When I first met Andrew Grassie, he was showing some holiday slides at a conference on art and the uncanny. In image after image, we would see striking Continental locations – mountain vistas, coastal roads, vast forests – yet instead of the smiling individual or family we would expect to see in the foreground there was something else: not a human face but a parked car, the same cobalt-blue Mini right in the centre of every shot. The placing of the vehicle was bizarre: taking photographs on vacation one might have imagined that the effort would be, precisely, to exclude the car from the shot. Yet here it was, framed in exactly the place where we would anticipate seeing the happy holidaymakers.
Grassie had found the slides in a market stall, and the ubiquity of the Mini intrigued him. The choice of locations and camera angles was so conventional, as if each of them replicated a typical postcard. As the conference audience pondered the images, the discussion turned to the identity of the photographer. Most people spoke of the ‘couple’ who must have taken the pictures, despite the fact that there was no evidence whatsoever that two people were together on this vacation. Questioning this, the couple became a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, yet once again with no supporting evidence. The extraordinary focus on the car itself, as if it were itself the key character on this Continental tour, even suggested to one participant that maybe it had been the Mini itself taking the pictures, using a time delay camera.
As the debate continued, authorship of the photos moved from a ‘couple’, to a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, to a vehicle and then, ultimately, to the possibility that in fact no one had taken the photos. Amusing as this was at the time, it highlighted a central aspect of Grassie’s work: the place of the artist and, no less, the place of the viewer in the space opened up by painting. Like Grassie’s paintings, there were no people in these images, and, like Grassie’s paintings, they posed an immediate question of authorship and agency.
Originality in art is a relatively recent idea. Well into the eighteenth century it was considered a virtue to copy and even to try to improve classical works. No one was surprised to find editions of Milton with subtle changes that ‘corrected’ grammatical and lexical infelicities, just as no one would have balked at seeing paintings turned out knowingly in the style of past masters. As the idea of individual, inimical authorship and originality became consolidated during the next century, it was one of the tasks of later modernism to both question and debunk it. The spectrum of this challenge to the cult of the artist was a wide one, ranging from the vaunting of reproductions, to machine and assistant-made art, found objects and other forms of the apparent abdication of agency.
Even after modernism, authorship is nonetheless a question that every artist must grapple with, and in Grassie’s case the concern with what he calls “lineage” was there right from the start. His father was a painter and art teacher, specialising in harbour scenes, and so his own earliest work was already situated in a space occupied by another artist. A drawing he made at age four of a man with two tummies was discussed by his father in a TV programme about art education, and so Grassie grew up with both audience, instructor and critic under the same roof. Given this proximity, how could he make painting his own? How could he create his own territory, one that would not be a trespass?
In his student work, Grassie would often create miniature harbour scenes, moving from the two dimensional space of his father’s paintings to the three dimensional space of carefully constructed boxes, containing clay shapes and photographs, which he would then use as models for his painting. They were like stage sets, he observes, generating their own internal spaces like vacuums, “airless spaces” with life subtracted from them. If the motifs were linked, the move from canvas to sculpture and then back to canvas offered a difference, but clearly one that was not marked enough for Grassie. The territory was still not his.
He soon began a series of pop art works, followed, at the Royal College of Art, by large abstracts and collages, yet their compass seemed to be missing. “They were just paint on paint, directionless”, Grassie says, and he turned instead to simple, modest monotype prints of doors, windows, flowers and buildings, like a child’s illustrations of what things ought to look like. Juxtaposing these works with the pop works was startling: it seemed as if they were the works of many different artists, so diverse was the range of styles. They would change indeed every two or three weeks, “as if to prove that I could do it”, yet this constant metamorphosis brought Grassie little satisfaction. Although there are no doubt themes here that would return in his later work – the interest in the artificiality of representation, the use of rules etc – it felt to Grassie as if he was running though a repertoire of styles without finding his own.
Next came soft-edged colour field abstracts, often with windows, doorways and frames, so that “you couldn’t tell what was on top of what”. He loved the blur between things, not the hard-edged painting of those who used tape to emphasise spatial separation. The evaporation of distinct features that this work explored meant that, for Grassie, “it was art that wasn’t about anything” and also an “art that wasn’t saying anything”. This effort not to be about and not to say was a first step, perhaps, in finding his orientation, and now Grassie began painting from photographs, to distance the idea of choice, to clear a space in which his own direction as a painter could be considered.
But things weren’t so simple. He still felt that these new works were somehow derivative, and he remembered how, as a child, he would draw on holiday in the South of France a la Bonnard or using the signature style of another artist: even at that tender age, he can say, “As an artist I didn’t exist”. This problem with identity was reflected in the one part of an artist’s work that carries the greatest premium of uniqueness, the signature. He realised that he literally didn’t have one: “I just wrote my name as I would any other word”. And then came the Eureka moment.
One day in the studio Grassie was wondering what to do next, which style to practice or to appropriate, when suddenly he had an idea. His work had always been made in someone else’s shadow, and if he had tried to avoid imitating his father, he had ended up just imitating everyone else. Wasn’t the only way to extricate himself from this limbo to stop imitating others and start imitating the only person left: himself. It was a brilliant solution: “I’ll copy my own work!” Suddenly all those trial-and-error pieces that had seemed like such “a burden” to him became “a supply”. Rather than contest someone else’s space, he would mine his own space, setting up his own internal conflict, yet a conflict, ingeniously, without a conflict.
So now Grassie turned back to his own earlier work and started to make “fakes”. “I was stealing from myself”, he says, copying his own work “stroke for stroke”, and, of course, “I could do it better than anyone else”. He would even return to the same shops he had used as an art student, buying the exact same products that he had used on the earlier works. Copying relived Grassie’s angst as he at last knew where his art was going. The destination was finally settled. It was clear, he says, “where it started and where it stopped”. Turning “my weakness into my strength”, and generating a subject matter in exactly the place where it had been so problematic before, this was a true discovery: “It was like finding me”.
In this new economy, all his old work could be salvaged, nothing would be lost, as each work could become the subject of a new project: “It was marvellous, nothing was wasted”. The theme of painting was settled, and so was the question of style, as he just had to reproduce as precisely as possible and in the greatest possible detail. In the first of these works to find success, Grassie made four copies of an earlier painting of a still life, displaying the five together in a strange and beautiful series. Soon, the work settled into a rhythm of single copies, yet this pattern would be inflected from the mid-90s onwards, when Grassie turned to paint not just his old paintings but the surrounding space of art galleries and institutions.
The logic of this way of working was powerful and coherent. Grassie had found a way to sidestep – or resolve – the question of what a painting should be about: “I just painted the space, without having to worry about the content. I try to eradicate questions”. Bold in his response, Grassie answers with more candour than those artists who insist sometimes unconvincingly that their works are about pursuing questions. For Grassie, on the contrary, his work is about not asking questions, but about sheltering him from the anxiety that ‘aboutness’ involves. He doesn’t have to make a choice, as it is always made for him. His method provides a “set of rules” to follow, eliminating “random choice”. Agency here emerges from what seems to be a search for a lack of agency.
The gallery pictures are based on photographs, the range of images dictated by “the limit of choice” represented by the gallery archive. Grassie would paint from installation shots of previous shows, allowing a “complete submission to copying”, even duplicating the lens distortions or colour defects generated by the photographs. The use of tempera accentuates this “submission”, as it dries so swiftly that modulating colour and tone by blending is much more difficult than it would be with oils. Grassie’s rules seem to deprive him progressively of agency, as if he is being painted into a corner, yet these rules question the ideal of the artist as the focus of decision and action. “As an artist”, Grassie observes, “you have too much omnipotence. It is important to lose some of this and become contingent upon a set of rules or operations, habits even”.
We noted earlier how the idea of collapsing the image of the artist and putting an autonomous or apparently random process in their place is a well-known feature of modernism, with the gradual vanishing of the ‘author’ from the work. Yet Grassie’s tactic here is singular: he doesn’t remove his hand by employing others to make work for him, or presenting found objects as his own work. He paints in a traditional and painstaking way, sometimes staying awake all night with tempera and brushes: in fact, everything that would please those most hostile to modern or contemporary art. Yet at the same time, by copying his own work, subversion occupies the very heart of the traditional practice.
The fact that Grassie presents a series of paintings which detail his tempera method at the start of his new show is a sly way to present this irony. He has all the tools of the trade, arranged and documented like a child’s activity set or cookery class. The programmatic way these are displayed suggests a rule-bound method, perhaps out of place in a contemporary art gallery, and certainly at odds with the formal complexities of his work and the subversion of artistic identity. They also give the viewer a false sense of security: this is what painting is, with no preparation for the questioning of the viewer’s place that Grassie will orchestrate in his other works in the show. If his identity as an artist was found through a kind of cancellation of self, what of the one looking? What effects will this have on the place of the viewer?
In some of Grassie’s works the exhibition he portrays would not be a past but a present one, with his own painting commenced and completed during the space of a single night. Encouraging the curator to get the hang done early, he would photograph the show, including the vacant wall space where his own work would hang, and then sequester himself in a hotel room overnight with a ‘Do not disturb’ notice. Visitors to the show the next day would be amazed to see a painting of the very exhibition they were looking at, including a representation of itself, creating a “hall of mirrors”. As Grassie observes, “when looking at the work, the viewer is standing in the scene of the painting, yet their image is absent”. The painting would be located in the very space it described, generating“ a self-referential loop”. The viewer is looking at the very point where they are looking from, creating a subtle sense of vertigo, together with awe at the artist’s virtuosity.
This procedure evokes the image of the artist himself. Just as Grassie makes himself absent from the process of painting, through what seems to be an abdication from choice and subject matter, merely obeying a set of rules, so the viewer finds him or herself in a comparable position. They are both structurally excluded from a space, and the sense of awe only serves to reinforce this: how on earth could the artist have sneaked in here, made this painting and now hung it, as if he were using stolen time. The show, after all, contains its own representation. Artist and viewer here slide into each other’s positions, as if a faultline has opened up in both time and space.
Curiously, this reintroduces the very subjective dimension that Grassie was at first so eager to exorcise, and we find it also in other aspects of his practice. First of all, there is the doubling of the space, so that the viewer’s space is reflected inside the painting, yet without the viewer, rather like the slides of the Mini. Then there is Grassie’s decision to select photos of work that contained some defect, such as a reflection or blur. The reflection of the photographer in the James Welling painting, the shadow of the lighting rig in the Ian Wallace or the amateur look of the Dan Graham model all evoke an imperfection, a subjective presence. The artist had chosen archive images that were somehow flawed, “as if these images had caught the work off guard”, and thus bringing back the subjective dimension, the presence of human agency that the overt rules of Grassie’s practice would exclude.
These flaws are echoed in the odd presence in Grassie’s highly realist paintings of objects that he admits to not identifying. He might paint some part of a photograph without having any idea what it actually was, in one case only learning several years later that he had ‘painted’ a sculpture of elastic bands. Labelling the work ‘hyper-realist’ is misleading here, as Grassie is interested in what he sees as the ‘non-realist’ dimension at the heart of illusory space. He conceives details as mini-abstract paintings within the apparently hyper-realist ones, and indeed, painting, says Grassie, involves “creating tiny abstractions”. Hence his admiration of Vermeer and the illusionistic space he created through the use of abstract building blocks.
If flaws and defects incarnate subjectivity, we also see the motif of choice receive greater and greater prominence. Grassie’s gallery spaces became filled with works made by other artists, yet in arrangements and juxtapositions that he has created himself. In the Tate Britain show, works by Belmer, Moore and Picasso share a space with Stubbs, Turner and Blake to create what he called “unforeseen relationships and chance encounters”. Grassie installed the works in groups, photographed them, and then, using the same camera angles, created composite images of the show which he then painted. Each work depicts the space from the vantage point of another painting. Just as he had painted paintings of paintings, now he not only painted works but curated them too. He had become both artist and curator, and yet, as Grassie emphasises, the aim of curation here was “solely to fulfil its own documentation as painting”.
The current show develops this logic. He not only paints installation views of previous shows in the gallery, but positions and constructs them so that the viewer finds and loses their bearings at the same time. Entering into the main space, the first work that the viewer confronts is small, a minute record of a vast room with sizeable pieces, situated in the same vast room. If they then turn and walk towards the other small painting at the far end of the space, they will no doubt have some awareness of the cavernous, empty room and their own passage within it. Grassie manufactures an emptiness here, a kind of void that the viewer will temporarily inhabit moving from the one painting to the next.
But this void becomes vertiginous when, arriving at the second painting, the viewer recognises it as an image of the space they have just walked through. If they then turn around again they will see the first painting as a dot on the far wall, creating a reflexive loop. Gazing into the painted space, his own work “will fade away”, usurped by the looping effect. The points of perspective mean that even though the viewer recognises the space they are in, this is a space without the ‘original’ works of Bessone, Hausego and Hatoum. The only evidence of their having been there is Grassie’s own painting: “the ghost of another artwork”.
Yet this is another artwork that disappears. Just as the ‘original’ works of the gallery’s recent artists are absent, so, in a sense, are Grassie’s paintings. He has made his own work vanish, or, perhaps more precisely, rendered it ghostly, as the viewer is compelled to “see through it” into the very space they are occupying. Isn’t this a way of elaborating the initial project of copying his own work? In both processes, he is making an absent work present in some form, creating or framing a ghost. The only sign of the earlier work is the later one, and it is perhaps no accident here that Grassie has been so drawn to depicting gallery storage spaces, archives and offices. These are the spaces in which works lie dormant or have their existence recorded, spaces which house and document works that may no longer be present or even exist at all.
Just as copying his own works aimed to make his presence as an artist minimal or abridged, so in these later paintings even though he is not copying he is trying to make his work disappear as painting. Where the copy pieces gave him an answer to the torturous question of how to be a painter in a world of painters, so the new works elaborate a similar way out. He makes himself an onlooker, yet tries at the same time to cancel out his presence in the privileged space of other artists. Unfortunately, his dazzling, complex and intriguing paintings won’t ultimately allow him to do this. We can’t ignore them. The solution is only partial.
What now? Grassie’s Eureka moment gave him an elegant solution to the question of artistic identity and of subject matter. He gave up the search to find his own language, yet it was this very act which allowed him to find it. Although it relied on banishing the subjective dimension of agency and choice, we have seen how this would return in a variety of ways. We might wager that it will become more and more present in Grassie’s next projects: as he says, “I’m loosening up my rules”.