Monday, September 1, 2014

In Conversation: Sam Leach

Composing Common Worlds brings together a very exciting cohort of Australian artists - all of whom work quite prolifically. In the first of our In Conversation interviews we catch up with the inimitable Sam Leach - Archibald Prize winner, Wynne Prize winner and all round highly desired artist of international repute. With his first solo show in Melbourne for a number of years being staged at the Melbourne Art Fair, curatorial involvement with the alternate art fair that he co-founded in 2010 NotFair, work exhibited in the Melbourne Nite Art event, and a solo show at Tinning Street Gallery all showing around the time of his inclusion in Composing Common Worlds, Sam is in high demand on a number of fronts. 

Generously giving his time and his thoughts about his art, Sam answers some our probing questions about the ideas underpinning his beautiful and stimulating work. Get yourself a cup of tea and come with us on a journey into the heart of Sam Leach's art.

Sam Leach in front of some of his artwork in Composing Common Worlds

THG: There’s a lot of science going on in the artworks you have in Composing Common Worlds - 3D printed asteroids, telescopes, paleolithic tools. What draws you to this exploration of science in your work?

Sam Leach: At the beginning of the 21st century science has become a dominant cultural and social force in liberal western democracies and, arguably, the world. Nonetheless, science frequently comes under attack from political interest groups, for example in recent attempts to undermine the science of climate change or critiques of biogenetic engineering from environmental groups concerned with the potential of science to disrupt and corrupt “nature". Yet, as the impact of climate change grows increasingly severe, scientific research is more critically important than it has ever been.

There is an inherent tension between the practice of science and the communication of scientific discoveries to the broader public. While the scientific process requires scientists to conduct dispassionate and objective research, effective communication necessarily requires some emotional connection with the public. This tension is echoed within the laboratory as researchers balance intuition and enthusiasm with method and reason. I am very interested in how aesthetics might reveal these tensions and the paradoxical way that  the detached position adopted by researchers ultimately results in a deeper understanding of the subject with the consequent potential for stronger empathic connection. 

THG: That idea of effective communication of important information is very interesting. Sometimes extremely complex data needs to be translated and made easily digestible which results in a highly refined visual language of graphs and symbols. The abstract shapes, colours and compositions in your work hint at this while also appearing to reference  the language of ‘high modernism’. What’s the process for you in selecting and incorporating these visual elements?

Sam Leach: There are direct influences such as D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s ‘Growth and Form’ which informed much of Richard Hamilton’s early work  and Edward Tufte’s ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information” which has had a profound effect on graphical representation of data since the mid 1970s. But really the last decade has seen data visualisation expanding rapidly becoming increasingly sophisticated. Large amounts of data which  previously would have been difficult to access and even more difficult to handle is now readily available and relatively simple to work with. This has resulted in some amazing work being produced in the field. It is fairly early to suggest that this is having much of a broader cultural impact, but it seems like there is an increasing level of interest and statistical literacy in the public. Hopefully this will be bad news for vested interests who have historically sought to manipulate and misrepresent statistical information! 

Sam Leach, Hohle fel b (2013)
I think there is a strong relationship between the visual language of high modernism and techniques employed in data visualisation. Many of the painters I admire from the period: Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Sol leWitt were concerned with quite rigorous analysis of the formal properties of paintings, the relationships between colour and form, support and surface, figure and ground, the artwork and the gallery. The works combine methodology with intuition and the best works are really revelations. So I don’t think it is a coincidence that when very talented designers turn their attention to data analysis, an activity which also involves combining methodology, rigour and intuition, the results have share some visual traits with high-modernist or formalist art. 

In my work I combine shapes and forms from both data visualisation and modernist painting with images, often of animals or landscapes but also of human made artefacts. Usually I begin with a specific idea about data which relates to the image, or an abstract painting which seems to relate to an image. However once the painting is underway the internal logic of the work prevails and both the representative and abstract components are warped and changed.  It is fascinating to see how simple forms often match up to and reveal unforeseen aspects of a representative image: a link to an earlier understanding of formalism that did not exclude imagery or content. 

THG: There’s a strong sense of historical influence in your images - you mention the likes of Johns, Kelly, LeWitt, and your landscapes reflect seventeenth century Dutch painting techniques - and yet you’re investigating very contemporary ideas and research. What’s the relationship for you between the historical styles you utilise and the contemporary ideas you explore?

Sam Leach: I think the paintings of the 17th century have something quite significant to tell us and we still haven’t quite worked out what it is. If I abandon my reasoning stance for a moment, I have to admit that I experience a strong emotional reaction to the paintings that I cannot adequately explain. Thousands of books and PHD dissertations have been produced trying to figure it out.  I think there is a connection is between the emergence of modernism as we understand it in the 17th century and the zenith of modernism in the 20th century. The scientific revolution of the 17th century shaped the way the world was viewed at the time, just as changing world views at that time created the conditions for the scientific revolution. We see this world view emerging, especially in the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century.

Painted landscapes are no longer backdrops for religious or mythical parables, but rather bring the non-human world into focus. Still life paintings begin to emphasise a world made up of individual and unique objects, any of which might be available for study and contemplation.  The refutation of hybrids and the separation of the world into something that is nature and something that is social is essentially modern and this is the impulse found in minimalism and 20th century formalism. 

Sam Leach, Axes (2009), detail
THG: Tools/instruments appear throughout the works we have in Composing Common Worlds - Palaeolithic axes, vulture bone flute, telescope. I see this as a reflection of your own use of paintings as objects. You approach your paintings like tools or instruments, incorporating objects and sculptural parts with paintings, presenting paintings in grid formations like units and also allowing the thick surface of the resin on your paintings to build up a sense of object-ness. How do you navigate the tension between painting and sculpture or do you see this division as unnecessary?

Sam Leach: I think the division between painting, especially representational painting, and sculpture is critical. As a viewer, we move between the virtual space inside a painted image and the physical space of the gallery.  The resin surface does emphasise the quality of the paintings as physical objects occupying space in the gallery and also marks a physical barrier between the image and the gallery. So while it is possible to see the painting, it is impossible to directly touch the surface. With the sculptural works, by contrast, there is  certainly a physical object occupying space which can be touched and handled. Even when the sculpture is itself representational, as with a model of an asteroid, there is no equivalent to the mental projection that occurs when looking at a painted image. Abstract painting is slightly different since there is no illusion of space (at least in the works I have in this show), although they derive from data visualisation so still have a representational quality it is symbolic rather than iconic.  So with the works that combine abstract painting there are two types of symbolic representation at work but only one we can really touch or put in our hand.

As you point out, tools are a very central concept in these works. This stemmed largely from Heidegger, especially by way of Graham Harman’s reading of him, and the concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Most tools are, ready-to-hand, so we use them without theorising or aestheticising them. However when they are broken, or perhaps displayed as a sculpture, they are present-at-hand. Things cannot be both at the same time, so humans (and for Heidegger this is only for humans) can experience the world as a transitioning between the two. Harman expands the idea to non-humans and objects, which makes the universe seem a much richer place, with objects having agency and experiencing each other: bring on panpsychism!

Sam Leach, Vulture bone flute (2013)
THG: On the topic of non-human, animals commonly find their way into your art - in this show we have two mouse deer making love, a bird’s foot with a telescope, a vulture bone flute and a horn. Given that there’s a lot of cultural content in your work, with rich philosophical undertones, what’s behind the inclusion of animals?

Sam Leach: Non-human animals have been very important in my practice. In a sense our relationship with non-human animals goes to the heart of the strange paradox of science. Early scientific experiments were often shockingly cruel to non-humans (and indeed humans). The mechanistic view of the world as articulated by Descartes - the whimpering of a kicked dog is no more than the squeaking of cogs in an automaton - seems to give permission for indifferent treatment of non-humans. But over the course of several centuries of research and increasingly sophisticated examination of non-human animal behaviour we have come to recognise that there are very few differences between humans and non-humans and the level of empathy and respect has significantly increased. The recognition of the reality of animal’s experience and point of view opens the way for an ontological flatness that I think is both appealing and important. We should understand that the world is not contingent on human thought, technology does not just benefit or disadvantage humans but also has benefits and disadvantages for non-humans. One of my favourite devices in recent SF was Charles Stross’ lobster AI: scan a lobster brain, get a learning engine! Why not give the non-humans a singularity?

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