Updated: Oct 24, 2020
AG: A few years ago I met a group of artists that changed everything. We were at the Jungle Camp in Calais and working on an exhibition together. Without easy access to the usual materials we started to make paintings and collages from whatever was to hand: newspapers, inks, woodchip boards and even the detritus beneath our feet. It reminded me of how I used to work as an art student and it resonated. After Calais I started to sketchbook more, making collages and quick drawings from materials I found wherever I was that day. It was liberating to work in a more intuitive way and healthy contrast to the tightly controlled paintings I have become known for making.
It was Vivienne Roberts at Aleph Contemporary who saw these looser sketchbook works and a small painting made in reference to Calais on a studio visit. She gave me the kick up the backside I needed to explore this more expressive way of painting – not just in the sketchbooks but in the final works as well. I’m glad I did. I’ve fallen in love with painting all over again. The paintings became about debris detritus again, protest and all the things we’ve been experiencing in recent weeks – yet they also touch on more universal concerns about that sense of feeling trapped and the suppression of human endeavour wherever we see it.
AG: Like many, lockdown has afforded me both time and limitation. I have been home-schooling my daughter which has been a real privilege but I’ve missed the long days in the studio. So, I’ve been painting at night, working through the evenings when all the emails have stopped and you can focus just on the painting. It’s been both exhausting and wonderful. The prayer matches began at the start of lockdown. I’ve been meeting with a group of friends on zoom to pray every morning. We light a candle and the match is the memory of that prayer.I’ve made a painting every day since the beginning of lockdown of the matches for that day. Like a memory or record of prayer.As the days went on my prayers became more agitated and restless. With all the protests, anger, death and struggle we’ve seen in recent months I couldn’t make painting that was ordered or tightly controlled. As I have felt myself unravel so the paintings have become more agitated and restless.
AG: Yes there has. These new works mark a new period in my painting. In a way they are a natural outworking of the questions I had about illusionism, painterly process and how images function. Quodlibet painting is a form of illusory collage so it was always an inevitability that I would move more into that direction. I felt that I had said everything I wanted to say about hard-edged illusionism and had a greater urgency to explore a more fluidic form of painting, born in the moment and more intuitive. I feel like I now have that academic control in my painting and can be freer to apply a more intuitive and gesturally approach.
Working outside the boundaries of the canvas has been a thrilling ride. As artists I believe we should always be experimenting, breaking new ground and taking risks. When you become known as ‘the guy who does the masking tape’ you know it’s time to break the mould and show them something new. I’ve done this and become a better painter for it. Not to say I’ll never make paintings of heightened illusionism again but I feel I’m making exactly the sort of painting I need to make right now and never been more productive in the studio.
AG: I’m immensely grateful to City & Guilds of London Art School (C&GLAS) for the opportunity to break new ground in my practice and try out new things. It was a wonderfully supportive and rigorous environment to deconstruct my painting. My final show quite literally took the painting off the wall and on to the floor. This triggered something in me to explore other ways of making painting in an expanded way. Several paintings in 'Without Borders' have broken the limitations of a rectangular format. The paint quite literally breaks beyond the borders. After my residency at C&GLAS I went to Lisbon for another (shorter) residency with Pada Studios. This was another opportunity to make floor and wall paintings that played with that idea of meticulous illusionism in tension with intuitive, even chaotic composition. I brought all that information back to the studio. A few years ago I built a studio on a bit of land round the back of my house. As such, I’ve been able to paint all the way through lock-down. Ideas born out of the collaborative feel of a residency community have been distilled through the isolation of a studio lock down. For me, this has been a perfect sequence of serendipity that has born fruit in the work.
AG: Thanks for asking about this one. In many ways this painting is a transition work, marking the turning point in my painting practice. Yes, an earlier version of the painting appeared in my residency exhibition with C&GLAS and it was a much tighter version, almost like an academic study of objects left behind by the students at the school.
There was always something about it that niggled me. I realise now it was too rigid. As I started to explore this more intuitive way of painting I decided to destroy this work in order to make it new. I incorporated elements of collage and mixed media, working in a frenzy to elevate it into a new painting that described as much my own mental state as it might a space of debris detritus, left behind by some human migration or endeavour. A push-and-pull of a painting. So the thorn in the flesh is my surrendering to the process of creative flow. The title relates to a personal struggle – something I can relate to from Paul the Apostle who saw a certain personal weakness in himself then identified it as a strength. A barb under the skin that reminded him of his own human fragility. If nothing else, these months have shown me just that. I have become more conscious of my darker side and the paintings have shown that – yet in the darkness there is so much colour.
Gordon's solo exhibition 'Without Borders' curated by New York curator John Silvis presents new paintings and a selection of collages never before exhibited. During lockdown, Gordon revisited drawings made in Calais a few years prior in Jungle Camp, re-experiencing the acute sense of human endeavour and hope in the midst of detritus from oppressive systems.
(*Full image caption for Q5: ‘The Ones We Lost’, 2019,
oil and acrylic on canvas, 98 x 120 cm)
A selection of Gordon's work is part of a group exhibition 'Perfectionism IV' curated by Becca Pelly-Fry, presented by Open Art Advisory.
Perfectionism IV: A Trick of the Eye From July 16 – September 16, 2020 Artists: Olly Fathers | Nicolas Feldmeyer | Alastair Gordon | Jonny Green | Selma Parlour | Charley Peters
Alastair Gordon (b. 1979) is a British contemporary painter. Gordon serves as a course leader for Professional Practice, Leith School of Art, Edinburgh. He holds his MA Fine Art, Wimbledon School of Art and his honours BA, Painting, Glasgow School of Art and undertook the Foundation Course at the Leith School of Art. Select residencies, awards and honours include the Artists Newsletter Travel Bursary 2019; City and Guilds of London Residency, 2019. Gordon’s work is found in numerous prominent private and public collections including Beth Rudin de Woody, New York; Simmons and Simmons, London; Ahmanson Collection, Los Angeles; Landmark PLC, London; Bow Arts Trust, London; The Royal Bank of Scotland Collection, and The Glasgow School of Art Alumni Collection. Gordon has been shortlisted for the Denton Art Prize, 2020.
For more information visit alastairjohngordon.com Thank you to Alastair Gordon for participating in issue 8 of The Art Five.
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