Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.
All paintings have their own speed — in execution and in what it takes to read them. Tom Chamberlain makes work that is durational in both its formation (or erasure) and in the time required to witness its self-disclosure. It’s easy for artists to become impatient with their work and wonder if all they put into it will ever come back out; it requires a kind of trust. Chamberlain appears to have this trust, building his work through endless layers of paint, in highly formalized patterns of drawing, in processes so regimented that what they produce might not even take hold at the cognitive level. Instead, the works contain an elusive sensuality that restrains itself and pushes back against its own presence. This might be the “doubt” the artist refers to here.
Chamberlain, British born and working in Mexico City, was selected to be interviewed by artist Serban Savu: “His paintings can be understood and enjoyed only live, and they do not reveal themselves immediately. You need to spend some time with them, but the reward is great.”
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Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?
Tom Chamberlain: I don’t think I ever made an especially conscious decision, but at the time, before it was too late, naïveté, curiosity, pleasure, belief … what keeps me trying to be one now is probably something more like doubt. I like the possibility that work can contain a lot of things at once but also that the whole endeavor has a closeness to futility that seems to make it matter more.
RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?
TC: Slow. I used to worry that the work could be repetitive, but I think that is just something like impatience. Something about ‘practice’ comes with its own impetus. I’ve always needed to set out fairly well-defined limits in order to proceed, in the hope that eventually I end up with something that isn’t limited — that can be both itself and something beyond itself.
There are certain things I make if I don’t know what else to do or have to wait to begin a painting, but I think there’s a lot to be said for doing nothing, and for what boredom can give rise to.
Recently I’ve been making quite distinct groups of works, partly because I’ve never really made work in series before and want to see how they might work repetitively, and partly to try and be more productive. The paintings I’m making at the moment are built up and concentrated to the point where they might become an erasure as much as a revelation. They feel like a very slow crossing out. And the drawings are made out of increasingly complicated grids — I’ve only just worked out how I can use polygons — that are sometimes affirmative, sometimes entropic.
RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
TC: There are things I read in college that I still cling to, sometimes very tightly, like Michel De Certeau’s essay “Walking in The City.” In it, he looks down on a legible New York that he can read like a book, only to describe how the real city lies down there, below the threshold of visibility, where people follow the “thicks and thins of an urban text they write without being able to read it.” This difference between image and experience is really important in regard to what I want from painting, and I’ve been thinking about it even more since moving to a studio in the formlessness of Mexico City. And friendships, and too many artists to mention, but I’ve been carrying Robert Irwin around in particular lately.
RC: What challenges are unique to your process?
TC: I have a lot of very boring technical challenges with materials, because I’m often trying to make something that disappears. So I sometimes feel I’m on a hiding to nothing.
RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?
TC: I’d like it a lot if I could see a Vija Celmins night sky every day. Some things I love I can’t imagine seeing outside of a museum and wouldn’t want to, but I can really imagine living with a Vija Celmins. You would always have a choice about being able to have it as something just present, or something to fall into. Even if you owned one you could never really have it, in the sense that there’s something so peculiar about its presence. They are made entirely of touch, but that touch is intractable. I wouldn’t want to live with something I could have.
RC: So what is art anyway?
TC: I don’t want to know.
RC: Who should be interviewed next?
TC: Des Lawrence. His paintings are made from images taken from something or someone now dead, sometimes engaged with very specific historical moments yet never spectacular; rather, they have a peculiar stillness or presence that seemingly occurs regardless. They are really meticulously made and take a lot of time to look at, both experientially and in terms of the historical complications they point towards, which I like very much.