Nb : I must warn the reader that I am the sole responsible for any miswriting in this all-piece, since the dialogue has been proofread by Liam Everett, and all the rest, which is obviously mine, has not be proofread by anybody. So help me G!
On january 22nd, Liam Everett introduced a happy few to his third exhibition at the gallery Kamel Mennour, Paris. I had the opportunity to talk with him, and to discover another aspect of who an artist is, or can be. (Let me have here the opportunity to thank Jeanne Barral, from the gallery Mennour, without whom this encounter would have not been possible). Artists, and this is trivial enough, are special people. If not, they wouldn’t be what they actually are. Yet, Everett is part of the‘ special’ category of the sort special ones, if I may say so. Nothing is expected in his words, nothing conventional. Everett owns a proper pragmatic philosophy which is, at least, sensational; and the word ‘sensational’ is aimed at striking both senses and thinking. And if I talk about ‘philosophy’, this is because the artist puts into practice a real dialectic, a veridical struggle between him and his medium, the canvas; a true bodily and mental contest, which tires him out in the end. In this sense, maybe the practice of Everett could be linked to something like the somaesthesis theory promoted by the philosopher Richard Shusterman (a bit more on this in the upcoming critical part).
The ground floor of the gallery has been modified, higher than usual since Everett has obtained a wood floor above the concrete one, which in its turn has been transformed into a huge painting. So, literally, we’re standing and walking on a work of art. We’re becoming, for a moment, some kind of Everett’s replicas, who himself, walks on this work in progress. From this particular place, we’re listening to the artist, who is standing opposite to us. Behind him, another artwork, consisting of steel bars against the wall, on which some painted fabric, of which title is a homage to the “Enterrement à Ornans”, by Gustave Courbet.
Liam Everett : ‘Maybe the best way is to start with what we’re standing on. And this is totally improvisation, I don’t have a script. If I were to make a long story short, I would simply say that my practice is concerned with one or two questions : How can I define, or get close to presence ? One is to say that I’m here [Everett points to the ground]; and if I’m a religious person I could say that I’m here because God put me here. If I’m a scientist I can say I’m here because there was a Big Bang. But I’m not going to discuss the ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘when’, but rather the way in which presence begins to appear. And so, my practice is trying to incite presence. What are its characteristics? How is that which is present reacts to light, to weight, to speed, to temperature? All this is maybe closer to what you refer as Phenomenology. How do I sense presence? Can I taste it?
In order to do this [i.e., the painting on the floor] I have to start very simply. It’s the third time I’ve made this kind of floor. Most of the objects that I put on this floor when I first started on day one, were discarded tools, such as nails, cord, cardboard, plastic, tape, bucket. I have to take the object, in my hand, put it in front of me, and start to create a relationship with it. And that relationship begins first by taking it out of its pile, putting it down on the floor, having to look at it, and then, making a trace of it. Each interaction I have with an object can become its own cosmos. And that’s what you see : with multiple layers of ink, the objects leave their trace, they leave their residue. And then perhaps I move them, so I can see them, and interact with different angles. That practice allows the characteristics of these objects, previously hidden (within the quotidian) to come to light and that is, in my experience, when the presence of these objects become tangible. The other thing is this kind of contingency that we all share as human beings : we all have a place to be. And so for me the floor is a way to practice the awareness of where I am literally. And this is also true for painting : a painting can’t be without its physical place.
— Every object interacted with another one. Sometimes there’s some kind of residue in the bucket, some paint, or enamel, and I put it directly on the painting. And so the objects are kind of implicating each other, whether they’re like it or not. For me that’s the way to strip a work of its individuality. We can’t be individuals, it’s a kind of illusion. We are here because of each other. So, there are two contingencies that painting needs, a viewer, and a painting needs space, a place. [Everett points to the paintings against the wall]
— Here we have a kind of ‘Support-Surfaces’ concern. The painting is falling, on the floor; the painting begins to rise, but is not tidy. So this is another way to bring in didactics, perhaps : a research, or ‘re-research’, about the conditions of paintings. Because it’s very often that when we think of painting, we think of something fresh up against the wall. And I don’t mean that theoretically, I mean just the physicality of the painting. But for me, if I think of painting, I actually see something always collapsing. I would say that’s what a painting is as its essence : An object that’s always falling. What we do, as artists, collectors, or critics, is to fight against this collapse. We try to make it come up, against gravity, we give attention, even if it’s a little bit pitiful and absurd.”
Since Liam Everett has mentioned the philosophical school of Phenomenology, I did start by asking him about this notion, and here is his first answer → Liam Everett : I was a failed philosopher from the beginning. It’s like the Greeks, it was the beginning of the end, in my view of philosophy. I had too much of an emotional connection with the ideas, a little bit like Emmanuel Levinas.
Léon Mychkine : You were then first interested in Phenomenology?
LE : Sure, Merleau-Ponty touched me very much, when I was younger. But I haven’t got necessarily an academic approach to Phenomenology. When I think of Phenomenology, I think of a good choreographer, a dancer, because they have this very high level of understanding how things look pictorially, but also physically. And they have an incredible relationship to their body, which is the phenomenological apparatus. So many of my heroes and teachers are now choreographers. I’m constantly inspired by them
LM : You told that you started by studying philosophy, and that you gave up?
LE : I gave up; I was totally intimidated by putting forward a thesis that everyone would laugh at. But then I chose this other profession where it’s the same thing. You put something out in the world and people can destroy it
LM : Yes
LE : Literally, or theoretically
LM : So, tell me about your painting. Can you tell me something?
LE : Yes
LM : How do you paint ?
LE : How do I paint? Primarily, I’m painting on the floor, then I move the painting onto the wall, and then back to the floor. I never stretch the painting, until it’s out of the studio. I never put it on support
LM : You don’t like stretching the painting?
LE : I don’t like it because then I can’t physically engage in it, because some of the paintings I’m hitting with stones, I’m dragging them, I’m pressing very hard, I’m hitting them repetitively very fast, and if they were stretched, I could easily tear the surface
LM : Yes
LE : So, the painting is coming out of a very physical, sculptural place. I’m not looking for a visual composition, until the end
LM : Earlier, you were saying, and it quite astonished me, that when you put the painting on the wall, you feel like it’s going to collapse on the floor?
LM : So, how do you explain this feeling?
LE : Well, it’s a feeling that doesn’t originate in an idea; that’s a feeling that comes from practice. If I just lift these paintings off the walls now, they’re going to fall. I have this relationship because I put the paintings on the floor, I’m on top of them. Sometimes I roll them, sometimes I fold them, I stuff them in buckets. That’s why you have these creases. And I take these sticks that are now sculptures, and I push the paintings into buckets. So I have this incredibly tactile, physical relationship with them
LM : Quite violent, also?
LE : It can be seen as violent, and aggressive. But because I want to see the painting, not only with my eyes, but with my body, you know ? Descartes was really wrong : It is not because you think that you are [What Everett means here, is that that the famous Cartesian motto ‘I think, therefore I am’, is erroneous: our ‘being’ overflows largely our thinking; which is yet only a part of our being. And this is exactly what Locke will assume: we’re experiencing far more than we think.]
LM : [Laughs]
LE : It’s impossible
LM : Of course. John Locke is far better
LE : I agree. But I prefer the Germans, actually
LM : Oh yeah?
LE : It’s embarrassing now
LM : Not, it’s not!
LE : I’m afraid to tell you
LM : Come on! (laughs)
LE : It starts with an ‘H’
LM : Uh… Martin Heidegger
LE : Somebody like that
LM : You enjoy metaphorical philosophers
LE : What I’m attracted to, really poignantly, and which was developed by his teachers, from Husserl, and Hegel was that everyday connection with your physical reality. And of course, this analysis of ‘Being’. I think they didn’t get close to time, or to space, really, but they got very close to ‘being’. Because I think, essentially, they didn’t try to figure out the ‘how’ or the ‘why’, but they were able to talk about the ways in which ‘being’ presents itself
LM : Yeah, maybe. But let’s go back to your painting if you will. [We laugh] So, if I understand correctly, when you see your painting on the wall, is it quite unsatisfying for you?
LE : For me this idea is to have no artificial light. I love to see a painting with the lights out, it has a different presence. I can’t look at a painting, whether it’s of mine or someone else’s, in one shot. A painting is something for me which has to have its own life. It has to have some kind of autonomy. So if I have a criteria, about my own paintings, they have to react to light in different ways. I want to make paintings that have multiple facets, both litteral and physical ones, that will have a dynamic relationship with the light in the room. So, I’m satisfied only in the sense that I know that a painting can continue painting. I am not satisfied in the painted painting. A painting that is finished, for me, it’s the end
LM : You have to keep moving to another one
LE : I have to keep moving. And so, because of that, I never start a painting fresh. I start a painting from where I’ve finished the last painting. And you see the same marks in some of the paintings. I literally use one painting to press against another painting. So that there is a literal continuation. It’s not me, it’s not a concept, it’s not a new idea that is beginning; it’s the work itself that finds its own beginning, regardless of me.
LM : OK
LE : That’s why I say I don’t like the colors in this painting. I didn’t choose them, you know? It was chosen, established, directed by the paintings next to it. [Everett points at the painting on the right side, below].
LM : So, it’s quite paradoxical, because, maybe naïvely, we would suppose that the painter, before hanging a painting on the wall, would be satisfied with the painting, especially the colors, but you just said the opposite : You don’t like the colors. Still, it’s done. It’s a done work
LE : I don’t consider it done
LM : Oh ! So why is it there?
LE : But why are we here? Are you finished?
LM : No (laugh), I’m not
LE : So why are you here?
LM : I’m not a painter, and neither a painting
LE : For me, this is the essence of life
LM : Excuse me, you just said that you consider that none of your paintings are finished?
LE : No, absolutely not. If you tell my dealers, they’ll get quite upset about this [laugh]. But now it’s been many years I’ve been saying this. I cannot put a painting out that’s finished
LM : I can hear that, OK, but if you consider the painting is not finished, at which point do you say “OK, that’s enough, I stop”?
LE : When it contradicts me. For me, it’s utterly clear : when my autobiographical, imprint has been expelled from the painting. When I no longer see a mirror, of my mark
LM : So, for you, painting is a struggle
LE : Of course it’s a struggle. It’s like making a baby. You know, they don’t come out easy
LM : [Laugh] I’ve noticed
LE : For me it has to be a struggle. If it’s not a struggle to make a painting, then, I think it’s like, you know, heroin : I don’t want to be subdued, I don’t want my painting to make me dream. I want to stay here
LM : I’m very fascinated by the process which painters and artists use to create
LE : Sure
LM : What you’re saying is very interesting for me. So, if I understand correctly, when you start afresh a new painting, you struggle at once, immediately, or later, comes the struggle?
LE : The first moment I touch the painting it’s a struggle
LM : The first moment…
LE : The first moment, and I’m never standing, I’m constantly moving, and I use materials that also are difficult to manipulate, because I want to be pushed by the painting at all times. It’s not like I want to abuse myself. I try to find a threshold. I’m in a constant struggle with the painting, but I’m not being destroyed by it, and vice-versa; and that happens often. I become ill, I become over-exhausted, or I destroy the painting, from its ending, or from the way I manipulate it alchemically; many of them have fallen apart, they were two other paintings that were supposed to be in this exhibition, that were destroyed
LM : Whoa!
LE : Because I push the material too hard, or too fast. The material was too wet or too dry. But it’s important for me to always stay close to this threshold : At what point is the painting going to collapse? I don’t want it to fully collapse. But I want to make it exist just before the collapse. You know, It’s like the word ‘tremor’; which is before an earthquake
LM : Yes
LE : This is where I want to live. I don’t want the earthquake
LM : That’s beautiful
LE : but I take the tremors
LM : So, if I follow your thought, when the painting tremors, it starts to contradict yourself, no?
LE : No, I would say that my relationship with each painting, individually, should always exist in that place of instability, of tremor. It should not become settled. I can see when a painting starts to settle, and then I destroy it, or completely change it, or I take it and turn it upside down, or on its side. Now, after 25 years, I know when a painting start to fall asleep. So I want to keep the painting in this place where they’re constantly tremoring. When I talk about ‘stopping’, at what point to release the painting, that contradiction happens on a number of levels. It happens compositionally, it happens with colors, it happens with the speed of the painting; it has to be something that is foreign to me. If I was to live with a painting I would prefer to live with maybe a Robert Ryman, you know? I love Minimalism, or maybe just one Sol LeWitt in my house
LM : Yes, I would do with that
LE : But these paintings, my paintings, I can’t live with, because I have this relationship that they are pushing me. They’re asking me to stand up, and to engage with the world. And you know, when you go home, it’s the last thing you want to do. You want to lay down, etc. And painting is the opposite. It drags me out of my chair. It says ‘wake up !’; you know. The painting is questioning my truth. For me, this is what good painting does.
LM : Every gesture, after that, is an anwser
LE : It’s an attempt
LM : Great! Tank you very much
LE : Nice talking with you.