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Interview with Ged Quinn: “I don’t have this notion of extreme skill”

On the benefits of a free education, the influence of Caspar David Friedrich and working in pyjamas and wellies

Six years ago British painter Ged Quinn had just had his first significant solo show, “Utopia Dystopia”, at Tate St Ives, and his large oil paintings were on the verge of selling for £5,000—a sum he considered enormous. Now he has a loyal following of collectors queuing up for his surreal paintings of Arcadian landscapes, darkly layered with historical and contemporary narratives, and his international profile had a major boost last month when two of his paintings were offered for the first time at Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sales in London, on 14 and 15 October respectively. Quinn’s works were the opening lots at both sales and the results justified the auctioneers’ confidence: Christie’s sold The Saints Go Marching to All the Popular Tunes, 2007, for £109,250 (est £20,000 to £30,000), followed the next day by Sotheby’s sale of Jonestown Radio, 2004-05, for £187,250 (est £20,000 to £30,000). These prices are double the £50,000 to £60,000 price tag at his dealer (Wilkinson Gallery, London). Quinn’s work had been offered at auction only once previously, when Phillips de Pury included Being There, 2005, in its London contemporary art day sale in June 2010, selling it for £37,250 (est £7,000 to £9,000).

The Art Newspaper: How does it feel to see your paintings opening such major international auctions?

Ged Quinn: It’s weird—I don’t yet know what the implications are. You have this sense that there are forces at work that you’re not even part of, and don’t know about. I’m pleased on a personal level. It’s fantastic, but does it mean that I’ve arrived? I became an artist because I believe you should follow your interests and do something that absorbs you, and I wanted to be part of the discourse of contemporary art. If this all turns out to be real, I’m thinking that I’d like to do something to help poor kids get into art—they’re put off art college because there’s no tangible job at the end of it. I was able to choose because I had the benefit of free education.

TAN: Although there has been a huge shift for you in the last five years, you’ve been working unremittingly for 20 years.

GQ: Yes. When I was at Düsseldorf one of the tutors, the late Korean video artist Nam June Paik, said to us: “Art is a marathon and if you’re still running at the end, you’ll get there.”

TAN: What changed to make it all happen?

GQ: Susan [Daniel-McElroy] at Tate St Ives really championed me. I’d done the solo show there, and then in 2005 took part in a project under the umbrella of “The Great Unsigned”, which was curated by Irene Bradbury and Soraya Rodriguez [who now runs the Zoo Art Fair]. Although they worked for White Cube, this was a separate project. Charles Saatchi bought the painting I showed, True Peace Will Prevail Under the Rule—that was in “Newspeak Part I” [Charles Saatchi’s survey of British contemporary art which closed on 17 October]. It was a great experience and it attracted some attention from galleries. I’d never had representation before but I joined Anthony [Wilkinson] and had a solo show straight away, which coincided with Frieze. It’s been steady progress since then.

TAN: You are known for your use of earlier painters’ works as the basis of your conceptual narratives. How did you develop this idea?

GQ: After I came back from Germany in the early 1990s I started to think about the concept of making works that would take a year to paint. I looked around for source material and became interested in two things: the first was Hudson River School paintings, because the scale and the amount of detailed visual information included gave them narratives that would take a year to unravel and place linearly. The second was English topographical landscapes, which are almost aerial, so a lot of the picture is imagined. I conflated the two and started making topographical views of landscapes. I immediately abandoned the notion of making them last a year, and large paintings now usually take four to six weeks.

TAN: What are you trying to say by using historical material?

GQ: I’m interested in the ambiguous narratives within older works, particularly the fallacies or conceptual constructs. Take Claude Lorrain: he worked on the Roman Campagna, which was a mosquito-ridden swamp, but he turned it into Arcadia. He instilled in his landscapes that dream of something better, so I think he’s critiquing 17th-century society. There’s already a strange time-shift going on in these works because within them there are already traces of ruined civilisations, so there are several layers of chronological cultural activity. There’s him and the imagined future, but it’s a future that has traces of history, which hasn’t happened yet. I’m fascinated by how ideas travel through time. I introduce this concept through a landscape staging—it’s just the way I’ve chosen to solve the problem I’ve set myself.

TAN: What is the problem you’ve set yourself?

GQ: I’m questioning the validity of belief, which is something that James George Frazer examined in The Golden Bough [which focused on similarities among magical and religious beliefs in civilisations worldwide]. I’m interested in beliefs as abstracts, as interesting cultural phenomena, that have significance for other cultural phenomena, so that’s why there’s this layering, these strands and chronological signifiers in my work.

TAN: By referencing historical paintings you are producing work of technical proficiency. Is this important to you?

GQ: Some people think that, in making paintings like this, there’s some implied criticism of other sorts of art, such as extreme conceptualism, which are less laborious. There isn’t—it’s just the medium through which I try to solve the problems I’ve set myself. I don’t have this notion of extreme skill: it’s only a means, not an end. It’s not a drive to improve or refine skills. The reason I use old paintings is because of that feeling you get when you walk into a museum—there is a sense of acceptance, that all issues about the works have been resolved, so they seem quite intellectually static. I find that a fertile place in which to start up the narrative.

TAN: Jonestown Radio, which just sold at Sotheby’s, refers to the mass suicide orchestrated by cult leader Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978. Your subject matter often references events of the 1960s and 1970s—where does the present day come in?

GQ: I think as a contemporary visual artist responding to the broader cultural scene, a re-examination of this recent period is a large part of cultural practice at the moment—we’re still coming to terms with the orthodoxy of modernism in the broader, post-colonial, cultural sense. The 1960s and 1970s interest me because they were revolutionary in spirit. There was friction between that wave of post-war optimism and the war that shaped the western view, which is also fascinating because it’s incredibly fixed. We have a Eurocentric and Atlantic vision, but the rapid changes in the east have implications for our view. I hope sensibilities and awareness of a wider cultural ground are present in my work.

TAN: Tell us about your most recent work, In Heaven Everything Is Fine, which you have just shown at the Frieze and Fiac art fairs?

GQ: It’s about the artificiality of constructs. It has a guillotine at the centre, with which I’m quoting from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work. It symbolises the French Revolution, a drive that came out of humanism and [Thomas Paine’s] The Rights of Man, but turned into the terror. The crucial figure is from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Hutten’s Tomb [around 1823], where a German soldier is contemplating [Lutheran reformer Ulrich von] Hutten’s grave. Again, it’s fallacious because Hutten didn’t have a tomb—Friedrich is looking back at a failed revolution against the church in Germany. The nostalgic patriotism of Hutten himself was amazing: he saw himself re-living the struggles of Germania against the Roman Empire, so there are layers of revolutionary feeling mixed with an idealistic vision of past and identity. I’m saying: isn’t this curious? Here’s somebody contemplating a monument that didn’t exist because an artist thought they should have one, because he had a humanist drive about freedom, liberty, rights, which chimes with lots of thing we say today.

TAN: When is your next solo show?

GQ: I don’t have a date yet but it should be next year because I’ve started on my next body of work. It’s called “Holzweg”, which means a path through a wood. I’m looking at Friedrich, Ruisdael and some American school painters. The notion of a clearing through the forest comes from Heidegger. He had an intense connection to the forest where he wrote his work, so there’s a supreme connection between creative output and place, which interests me. He developed a philosophical metaphor for art, a notion that it exists in an intellectual space of its own creation.

TAN: Do you think life will change now?

GQ: My reality is getting up, going to the studio and working. I live in pyjamas and wellingtons—my studio is across the fields [in Cornwall] and I go to work. By not living in London I’m in a void, because all I know is that I go to the cashpoint and there’s money in it, but I had 20 years when that wasn’t the case. I don’t really have a sense of any difference, it’s just that I can buy books and don’t have to think about it. There’s an ease that makes production simpler.