David Swales // Painter?

David Swales is an artist living and working in York. His work variously concerns the cognitive and emotional reaction of the viewer in response to film, television and other audio-visual and print-based media. The work often has an awkward relationship with its original source material as static, physical materials including pen, paint, photography and collage are pressed into action in response to inherently intangible, often time-based subject matter. Swales is also a teacher. He leads a team of five practicing artists in the Art Department at Bootham School, York.

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[C] As an artist, the assumption is that you have a visualisation process. How does your work develop from the first mark to a completed piece?


[D] What I’ll do is talk you through the process of the work I’m creating right now.  I like to start with some kind of confiding structure. In the not too distant past I was creating paintings which were scaled up versions of newspaper front pages in a highly abstracted form, however with the proportions directly extrapolated from those of the newspaper. There’s always a set of measurements or something that act as the initial starting point. What I’m doing at the moment is using old photographic paper which has been in a dark room for 20 years so the chemicals in it have degraded and the emulsion had gone past the point of which it was usable for normal photographic processes. So, I took the paper and thought I can’t really use this conventionally but I could do something else with it. What I find particularly interesting about it is that it was this set format, 8 by 10 (inches), but there’s also something at work on the paper. Before I even start the paper is already evolving, it’s got the feeling of something living. You’ve got a surface which is always changing and is out of your control. So, what I’m doing is to mix. I thought it would be quite interesting to paint onto these pieces of paper, but what I’ve done is thinned the paint using developer. So, when you put the paint on you are simultaneously creating a painted mark but also the chemical now within the paint is activating the surface of the paper as well. It’s causing the paper to start developing whilst also producing a mark on the surface. 

To go back to the original question, that’s a classic example of me where I’ll be putting a mark onto a surface, a kind of improvised mark really. Historically I’ve done a lot of work with improvised sound performance and improvisation both within visual and auditory terms. It’s an important kind of idea for me. The improvised mark goes on but once that mark has happened there’s then something to react against. It’s then a question of what next? What do I add? What do I take away? How do I respond to that? I guess you just gradually work through that process of both adding and taking away until you get to the point where it both feels resolved, both visually but perhaps more importantly conceptually. 

[C] Within your practice there’s an interesting dynamic created between the teaching of art and also the production of your own work. When it comes to teaching how do you approach this and can art actually be taught?


[D] That’s a really interesting question because at the centre of that is what art actually is.  What art is, that’s an enormous question. In terms of how you go about teaching art as a subject, as an area of learning, that’s different. I was thinking about it on my walk over here, I was thinking I bet he’s going to ask me that. It’s a crucial question but not an easy one to answer. I think that my philosophy on that has changed over my duration as a teacher. I guess when I first started teaching, I was heavily influenced by my own experience of art education at school. Then it was all about skill and techniques and the development of these, almost in a craft like sense. You would work on acquiring a set of tools or skills to express something. That’s how I approached things in my early days as a teacher but also in my own experience when I was studying for my A levels. What was the most exciting and probably of most importance to me later was the ability to express and articulate a personal vision in a creative way.  That’s partly about a skill, that’s partly about a craft but it’s not only about that. I think you can end up with a form of art education if you’re not careful which prioritises craft so highly that you actually forgot to

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unlock that seed of ownership and inspiration within a young person. That’s what drives the art and the experience.  So, how do you teach? Well it’s about getting that balance right between the procedural knowledge of how to manipulate things in a skilful and effective way but also to keep reflecting on the fact that actually everybody has something important to say about the world from their perspective. You have to enable opportunities and ask questions to allow that side of their creativity to grow. ​

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[C] Developing on from that, would you say there’s a sense of synergy between your practice and the way you teach or do you approach them differently?


[D] Yeah, I think there is a definite overlap between the approach in the sense that when I’m making work, which I’ve alluded to already, a large part of it is about improvisation, play and posing questions.I ask myself a question and then try to respond to it. That then leads on to a further question and a fresh set of answers. There’s a constant dialogue between the marks that are being made or the forms that are being created and then me as the artist then responding to that. I think that’s a central thing within good art education, the ability to support the asking of questions by your students but then also to be receptive to unexpected answers or unexpected responses. 


[C] You’ve talked about a sense of play within your own work, so would you say this leads to a relationship which is driven by process over outcome?


[D] I don’t think you could say that the process is more important than the outcome because ultimately the process is what generates the outcome. I think that the word play is a really key word, if you’re not kind of engaged, I mean the whole idea of play is that it’s an activity you opt into because it’s enjoyable and exciting to you on some sort of deep level. So I think play is a very interesting way of describing that process. It’s important to some extent for art education to feel like play because that’s when you become absorbed in the activity, it’s when you’re at your most alert and enthusiastic.​

[C] Many of your works are not strictly what one might consider a painting or a sculpture but rather are a combination. Is this something which is integral to your way of working? How did this development into this style of working come about?


[D] Working in an inter-disciplinary way is something I’ve done ever since art school. Some of the artists which were incredibly influential for me in my early days of practice could be said to work across disciplines or different areas of art.  Someone like Tony Houlesly is a great example. He’s a guy who’s worked in video. There are sculptural elements to his work and there’s a performance element to what he does, but all of his work is still very much about visual objects. Even some of the writers I was interested in going way, way back. I mean if you take someone like William Burrows for example, here’s a guy, I mean he’s a writer, but his practice is very much collage, you could almost see it as just sculpture, you know, almost as much as it was writing. They’re both individuals who have influenced me going way, way back.

[C] Do you think this interest in writing from an early point within your practice is now reflected in your work? If not consciously but sub-consciously?


[D] Yeah it could be. I mean my subject matter is often pre-existing media in some form or another, whether it be video, television, music, print media, that’s often where I’ll start from an inspiration point of view. I guess I would put it down to the variety of those subject matters across moving image and all of that, it’s deeply embedded in the way I like to work.


[C] With this idea of being a multidisciplinary practitioner in mind, how do you see yourself?


[D] That’s a really interesting question. Recently, I’ve been calling myself a painter but it’s right to kind of point out the sculptural elements to what I’ve been making. I’m interested in these things as objects and the potential for these paintings to extend their territories and reach. I quite like this idea, in my painting that was in the Manchester Contemporary Art Exhibition, the intention there was that it’s this object which can be mounted flat against the wall but also equally can be sculptural positioned in a hinged form which references the opening of a book or magazine. That concept is definitely a current avenue of interest for me right now. So yeah, I probably would still call myself a painter, but a painting can be sculptural, it can be film-making, it can be all these things. I’m interested in what is the reach of painting, where can it go, what can it be, what ought it be trying to do in the world today.

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[C] There’s this underlying idea within your work of human interaction, often expressed through the use of found media, be that magazines, newspapers, books or television. Where does this interest originate?


[D] I really like tactile objects and experiences. In some ways you could make a case for the things I make being part of almost like a counter cultural idea almost against the prevailing digitisation of media. There’s something quite extraordinary about actual objects. They have a tactile quality, or rather sensory quality, which is really, really important to me.  


I like the idea that you can stand right next to something and you can scrutinise it. You can touch it, feel the surface, there’s a physical element in the way in which you read the surface, defined in terms of where you stand in relation to it, how you operate around it. That for me, is really important.​


[C] There’s an abstract quality to the work you make, both visually and in terms of concept. Do you think it’s important that there’s a link between the two?


[D] Yeah, the notion of abstraction is really interesting. It’s really something I’ve fallen into as a way of relating to my work. Hang on, the idea of fallen is not the right word, that implies it’s accidental. It’s a kind of language I’ve chosen and opted to use, it feels like the only real way to express things, which as you said it’s something that’s inherent in my works. Inherently abstract, it’s kind of a woolly way of describing it. It’s an interesting one, I mean there have been times, for example, I made a piece about the original Twin Peaks TV series. What I did was I sat down and watched every episode of that show with a notepad and wrote down everything that was said, everything I felt whilst I was watching, everything I noticed, and occasionally everything I experienced. So, somebody would ask me a question, I’d get distracted and then come back to it but I’d write down my thought process as it happened. When you read the texts back they were incredibly objective in one sense as they were recording very directly a set of experiences but then there was this juxtaposition as you took the narrative of everything in that TV show and sliced it and jumbled it up with lots of other things, some internal, some external. That’s a good example of something which on the one hand is very objective but on the other is somewhat random and as a result leading to a very abstract and undeterminable result. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I just work abstractly. 


I think there was a point where I’d been making work using sound, text and sculptural objects and I rediscovered the immediacy of painting, I kind of became reconnected with the history of abstract painting.​

[C] Would you say this immediacy is important within your work? Do you meticulously plan each mark or is it more of a spontaneous process?


[D] Definitely not. It’s absolutely, one hundred percent a spontaneous process. Yeah, the things aren’t worked out in a calculated way, at least not until the end where one mark is going to complete the piece. 


[C] So what is the decision process for putting a mark on the page?


I watched a video of Fiona Ray talking about this as part of a documentary about abstraction made by Mark Collins. She is filmed in front of this painting and she’s thinking should I do that, should I do this. At one point she talks about seeing a possible mark she could make down here which could offset the balance of something up here and somewhere else. It’s kind of like that, it’s really hard to say. The nearest analogue for it I guess is Jazz musicians just improvising. There’ll be someone who plays something on a particular instrument and then another instrument will respond in a different way. That can be to whatever effect, it can be harmonious, it can be discordant, it can be whatever but out of that interplay of different sounds something comes together.


[C] You work across a whole range of disciplines. As a result, would you say the composition and scale of the piece comes second to medium?


[D] Composition and scale. Scale is an interesting thing. The hinged painting is a good example, I liked the idea of that, the proportions are based on those of a newspaper but scaled up. So, there’s this idea that it becomes this more monumental object which is more of an equivalent scale to the person observing it, I think that’s interesting. That’s a reason for playing around with scale, how do you want that person to engage with it? Do you want it to dominate them? Do you want them to dominate it? Do you want that relationship to be equal in terms of scale and size? Do you want the viewer to be actually able to physically take control of viewing that thing?  Do you want it to be beyond their control in that way? I work on a whole range of different scales.


[C] What’s next?


[D] The idea of painting in an expanded form which isn’t just about something which sits on a wall, that’s the most interesting current avenue for me, I want to continue pushing that and extending that further, but you never know what’s next, you can’t.