Clem Crosby in conversation with Polly Gould


01 December 2006

Clem Crosby and Polly Gould discuss ‘New Modernism’ and how its tenets inform Crosby’s new paintings.

Clem Crosby: recently completed a permanent commission for the Young Vic Theatre, London, titled 180 Monochrome Paintings

Polly Gould: is a London-based artist and writer and has recently shown at Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art

What is it that has prompted your thoughts on what you call ‘New Modernism’’ or ‘Neo Modernism’?

I began to ask myself about some artworks that were formally and materially engaged with modernist ambitions. Artists were now engaging with these concerns with a sincerity or seriousness. This does not mean that they were ‘old fashioned.’ They were revisiting these aims with a renewed earnestness or an urgency to continue with modernist questions, with an awareness of everything that postmodernism had made problematic.

So, New Modernism could not evolve without passing through and touching on some postmodern concerns?

In a way it is not about an evolution. New Modernism is not a reactionary attitude to postmodernism. It doesn’t refuse everything that has been understood through that deconstructive, multi-faceted thing that could be described as postmodernism. It is not about being reactionary and wanting to go back to ‘before.’ It is neither nostalgic nor trying to pretend that none of that happened.

You mentioned New Modernism being concerned with a seriousness. That suggests to me that postmodern flippancy and irony is somewhat played out and has become a posture.

We have to be really careful here. Maybe there is a seriousness in what we are trying to define as New Modernism but there is a real seriousness in postmodernism, too. The distinction is that we are not talking about strategies of parody and irony. We are not talking here about New Modernism making a parody of or aping modernism. It is revisiting values and lessons recognizable in modernism in order to pursue them sincerely.

Some of the artists I am thinking of who may illustrate some of the ideas of New Modernism are Moira Dryer, Louise Fishman, Jacqueline Humphries, Richmond Burton and myself. There are others including sculptors such as Phyllida Barlow and Liz Larner. Whilst the majority of postmodern painters appear to concern themselves with appropriation, two dimensional reprographic, photography, animation or television and Photoshop, the artists I have mentioned use paint in a very visceral way; their work is physical and non-illustrative. There is a spontaneous gesture, which is underpinned by knowingness and a wealth of formal experience.

New Modernism is a return to the mark of the hand of the artist. Another example of this is the resurgence of drawing, a hunger for the ‘actual’ rather than the catalogue reproduction or text version. Perhaps this is also a reaction to the broader cultural phenomenon of feeling increasingly alienated in the new digital technologies. I recognize a physicality in your work somewhere between sculpture and painting, and a strong connection to drawing. There are references to other popular cultural practices, like film and literature, which puts it firmly on the side of a postmodern activity. It means that the work is not regressive and merely behaving as if all that never happened. It has absorbed those things. Can you say some more about the material and formal aspects of your work?

I use all paint on Formica laminate. Formica lacks the weighty historical context of canvas. Canvas not only carries with it the whole history of painting, it suggests a warmth or an ease. Formica upheld some of the authoritarian ideals of the Minimalists as a machine-made surface. Perhaps I could challenge some of the things—a laminate surface that is full and empty at the same time. I enjoy the sense of detachment that laminate adds. This is a counterpart to the organic quality of the oil paint. Maybe we are characterizing this Neo Modernism or New Modernism as an art practice that is engaged with a material sensibility, which in turn has its traditions or genealogy in modernist practices, in truth to materials?

The truth to materials ideology was quite rightfully debunked by a counter-criticism coming through postmodernist debates, feminist and post-colonial discourse. So New Modernism can be talked about in terms of materiality and these wider cultural issues, and also in a philosophical position, describing this phenomenon in the social and political realm. In an interview, she said that she didn’t think much of contemporary art because there was no ‘grandeur.’ There were good works from time to time, but ‘no grandeur.’ If I were to curate a show of the work that we are describing, I would call it, as a response to Heller, ‘Something Grand.’

Heller may be speaking of a confidence and ambition that could be recognized as ‘universal.’ All of the artists we have mentioned use paint in a way that is unapologetic, generous, deliberate and confrontational. Our paintings physically resemble many things. Perhaps these characteristics could describe Heller’s definition of grandeur.

What do you mean by ‘resemblance’? Is this art-historical inheritance or contemporary influence?

Both. For example, a recent painting of mine is titled Cartoon. This could be interpreted as a Renaissance or a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I have also just finished a painting called Trophy, which is not a literal representation of someone’s idea of a trophy, but the resemblance here is in the form; the paint handling has precedence in de Kooning and Guston. Another artist whose earlier work I found liberating David Salle, the epitome of postmodernist appropriation. His references are at the forefront of the work, whereas mine are implicit. Interestingly, Jacqueline Humphries cites him as an influence.

How could we characterize the Neo Modern in these works?

It has humour and humanity, manifest through a sheer love of painting and making. It is not native, but knowing. There is an optimism.

Yes, it has familiarity with the failures of modernity, and a slight quality of the absurd. It is like we have to believe in progress, even if our belief in progress has been utterly undone.

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