Interview with Marc Valli, 17 January 2007
Marc Valli (MV): What came first? Painting? Illustration? Photoshop? Catwalk performances? How did you get mixed up into all this?
Phil Ashcroft (PA): I studied illustration at Harrow College and St Martins between 1989-94…the course at Harrow in particular gave me the freedom to study abstract painters…my thesis focused on 1950s American Abstract Expressionism and their subsequent influence on British painters such as Patrick Heron and Bert Irvin. Thanks to Patricia Bickers, visiting lecturer at Harrow College, I visited Bert at his East London studio in 1991, and that had a big impact on me. After St Martins I sought illustration work whilst continuing to paint. I did some interesting commissions for Amnesty and The Wire. However overall I became frustrated with the whole illustration process and stopped in 1997 to concentrate on painting.
MV: What’s your work routine like? Do you work every day? Do you work from a studio? Where is that? Do you listen to music while you work? What kind of music?
PA: Currently I compose the work on the mac at home and once complete I translate that onto canvas at the studio. The painting process can be very time-consuming which is why it is important for me to have decided on the composition from the beginning. I normally try to paint in 4-5 hour sessions with breaks in between. Its good to paint in daylight hours but I also like to paint at night until early morning. When I need to loosen up, or get bored painting in this way, I enjoy working freestyle, layering washes and building up the composition not always knowing what I intend to finish with. My studio is in a big old building in New Cross and can be a bit spooky when you’re there alone, which I often am, especially late at night. So I need music to divert me from that fact! Current music I’ve been playing – Hot Chip, Scritti Politti, Level 42, Lupe Fiasco, Jay Z, Prince, Apollonia 6, Sheila E, DJ Shadow, The Cinematic Orchestra, New Order…but sometimes its good to paint in silence too.
MV: What formats/mediums/materials do you work with?
PA: I paint in acrylic on canvas with brushes. I also use stencil film and tape. In 2006 I began to create lightbox works. I did silkscreen printing at Harrow College.
MV: How did your association with the Scrawl Collective come about?
PA: I first met Ric (Blackshaw, founder of the Scrawl Collective) in 2000 whilst working at Booth-Clibborn Editions. My work was included in Scrawl Too: More Dirt (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2001). Ric then asked if I’d like to join Scrawl and participate in the first Graffiti Meets Windows project at Hank-Yu department store, Osaka in July 2002. I painted with Will (Barras), Duncan (Mr Jago), Steff (Plaetz), Lucy Mclauchlan and Matt Sewell.
MV: I always felt your work existed somehow in-between two worlds: that of art and that of street-art. How would you define yourself?
PA: I am a painter and graphic artist.
MV: What is your view on graffiti, as in real spray can and wall graffiti?
PA: The original New York graffiti did inspire me in the early 80s. My sketchbooks were full of felt-tip sketches in that style but I never felt inclined to actually do it on the street myself. I remembergoing to Amsterdam on a school trip in 1987 and seeing amazing graffiti there. I enjoy it but I have never felt the desire to go out there and do it myself…I was later inspired by Basquiat and Haring like everyone else.
MV: I know this is an awkward question, but I sometimes felt that the directness of street art and its graphic themes (and for example, in the case of your work, the yeti figure) seemed to limit your freedom as a painter. Can one really be a painter and work in that environment? I am also thinking of the case of, for instance, David Ellis.
PA: I definitely think you can be a painter and work in that direct street art environment, but there can be a tendency to create a character and repeat it to gain recognition, and this can in turn limit yourself if that is all you do and you don’t develop in other ways. The yeti character is something I have continued to develop on and off ever since a 1998 painting I did with reference to the Wampa (from Empire Strikes Back). I painted this lightly, quickly and loosely and was influenced (at that time) by Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi (1963) and De Kooning’s Woman V (1952-3). From 1999 when I started to experiment on the mac, it became something else, more graphic and less painterly, developing alongside and separate to my landscapes, and with theYeti Over Mount Fuji series they became incorporated into the landscape. They will continue to develop over time, but I will always continue to work on other things. It’s an interesting challenge to try and develop. I saw David Ellis’s exhibition at Tidal (a store in Osaka) in 2002 with Will Barras, that was great to come across at that time.
MV: I feel that in the last few years you seem to have developed a deeper relationship with landscapes. Is that correct? How do you work on those? Do you actually stand with an easel or sit down with a sketchbook in a place? Or do you work from memory or photographs?
PA: I have always worked on landscapes. I used to sketch or paint on location in a sketchbook or paint directly onto board, taking all the paints, brushes, palette, water with me. I used acrylic so it dried quickly. Now I go to the location, take photos and perhaps do some rough compositional sketches, and work on these upon my return. I usually have a compositional idea and colour palette I want to play with. That’s how I begin. I reference elements from the photos and build or abstract the piece from there. I do have an old gallery easel but its not in use. Its packed away in the corner of my studio. Presently I paint canvases flat on the studio worktable or prop it against the wall.
MV: What are your feelings with regards to the art world? Do you fit in?
PA: I had a solo exhibition Toxicity at the Margaret Harvey Gallery, St Albans in 2006, and my work was included in ARTfutures at Bloomberg SPACE in 2005. These are both established ‘fine art’ galleries, and I am receiving interest from other galleries, so yes I do feel I fit in. I am a regular gallery-goer and enjoy checking out all the London shows, particularly the smaller East End spaces. I like to feel that I can fit into both spaces of fine and graphic art.
MV: You have exhibited in Japan, I think. How was that?
PA: Yes it was a great experience but not a traditional exhibition. I took part in Graffiti Meets Windows, Osaka in July 2002, which was organised by Stoique, a Tokyo-based design company. We were painting in the main shop front windows. It was a week’s hard work but we were treated so well and received a great amount of press coverage. I am keen to return to Japan as I didn’t have time to take it all in at the time…
In November 2005 I also had a solo exhibition at I.T’s flagship store EXIT in Granville Road, Hong Kong, organised by Scrawl’s Far East agent Rae. That involved two days in-store live painting and again received a lot of press coverage. I have been to Hong Kong five times now and I feel as if it’s my second home…click to play GMW (Japanese TV, 2002)
MV: Who are your favourite artists? What were the key & most inspiring things you came across?
PA: I have so many favourite artists, not all are necessarily direct influences to my work but they are inspiring and I always look out for their latest work. Phillip Allen, Basil Beattie, Dexter Dalwood, Luke Gottelier, Leo Fitzmaurice, Lothar Goetz, Damien Hirst, Kami and Sasu, James ‘Dalek’ Marshall, Paul Noble, Takeshi Murakami, the rest of the Scrawl Collective…Historically there are American Abstract Expressionists such as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell. Then there’s Richard Diebenkorn, Jack Kirby, Patrick Heron, Martin Kippenberger, Pierre Soulages, Matisse and Picasso…My partner Mayling is my key source of inspiration. She is a fine artist and lends a critical eye!
Other key source’s of inspiration are Bladerunner (1982), the original Dr Who TV-series (Tom Baker-era, 1974-81), the original Star Wars Trilogy (1977-83), and Tony Hancock’s The Rebel (1960).
MV: What is the last book you read? Are you taking any books with you to Manchester?
PA: The last book I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). A visitor to my Toxicity show gave it to me after seeing my show as they thought I might like it. I did!
I managed to finally read it whilst on jury service. I don’t read that much novel-wise, I mainly read artist’s catalogues and books, and I read The Guardian. I won’t be taking any books to Manchester – only my sketchbook…
© Marc Valli & Phil Ashcroft, 17 January 2007