Liz Arnold Interview

Joe Coleman

LA:.. There's an assumption that if you work with paint you have to be ironic or cool, or in some way apologetic about it, but I don't feel like that. Painting is quite time-consuming and if there's no pleasure in the making it would be difficult to continue. I had a lot of trouble when I first started my MA at Goldsmiths because, you know: 'painting is in crisis', all this stuff about the 'White, bourgeois male', so I went around for a term thinking: 'Oh my God, painting's in crisis, it's bourgeois.' It took me ages before I realised that it was a bit dodgy for someone to tell me what I can and can't do, or I can only do it if it's ironic, or if it's a parody or a pastiche. The fact of the matter is I get real enjoyment out of making pictures.You can go into a painting space in the same sense that you can go into a video space, or a real space. The arguments about 'painting in crisis' or even 'the resurgence of painting' are just a fashion thing.
It's obviously very healthy that there is such a diversity of ways of making art and, of course, it was wrong to have the old hierarchy when painting was supreme but it's equally wrong to trash it and imply that video is in some way a better way of making art. On the course at Goldsmiths many of the men that were painting were very consciously taking on art history, not necessarily in a reverential way, but they were examining it and critiquing it, this is a horrible generalisation, but often men that paint do that.

e: Like it's their duty to 'sort it out'?

LA: Or to accept that it's their inheritance. Maybe it's easier for women who paint to say: 'This is what I do and I'm not going to apologise for it' and that might be where women are generally now, but many younger men who paint haven't quite sorted out their relationship to these goals.

e: But maybe women have been able to duck and dive... and I don't mean anything by that - oh, you know what I mean?

LA: Women were so excluded from art history and, of course, it was appropriate for women to make feminist art in the 70s and into the 80s. It's easy now to ridicule what they did because women have dealt with those issues over the last twenty years and the pain which resulted from that exclusion is no longer so much of an issue. Whereas the boys who are still painting might be thinking: 'Oh God, I'm white, I'm a man and I'm painting..' maybe they feel they have to deal with the painting and then the painting about painting. The paintings that interest me the most, on the whole, aren't about any of the painting games.

e: But there are also things you aren't doing, that you can't do because of paintings that have been produced in the past; like the way you use images which look like cartoons, particularly contemporary cartoons, a bit like Ren and Stimpy.

LA: Yes. Film, cartoons and computer games; where the world has a very shallow depth. Particularly in the earlier pictures where the gremlins, tomatoes and little characters operate in a very shallow space and appeared to be jumping around. This is all very acceptable in the world of the cartoon or on a computer screen but when you do it in a painting people say: 'Oh my God'. It's bizarre really, people are quite conservative about what they can and can't accept in a painting. People say 'Why make a painting? Why not make an animation ?'. Some of the paintings have the same character in them, there are little themes but no narrative with a beginning and conclusion, they are open-ended narratives.

e: Like those stills you get in books about films, where you donŐt have to see the film to imagine the story.

LA: Yes, I've got a slide somewhere here from a film. It's a still of a man dead on the floor with another man in a gorilla suit and a woman with a gun. You think: 'What is going on ?, How did that situation come about ?!' In some of my pictures it's not completely spelled out what might be happening and there's room for invention. e: But people can read your things ironically. Do you get people refusing to take them at face value ?

LA: I understand that because they look to some people like cartoons, or fake naive. It would be naive of me not to expect that but I do want them to operate on a lot of different levels. Some people look at them and think they look throw-away, trashy and about nothing, other people might find them scary and frightening. If we look at the paintings with the polluted lakes, the Disney Nuclear Power Station and the mutant bugs. On one level they are about the environment and the arrogance of humans who have created this world [and] part of me would like to make incredibly dry, serious work about those issues, but on the other hand I want there to be some pleasure and humour in the story telling. It's that funny/horror thing; horror films were so frightening because there was no humour in them, the humour arose out of a ridiculousness which undermined the scariness. I like that ambiguity but you have to be careful operating in that kind of area because, if you're not careful, you can end up not being about anything.
I was in the National Gallery recently and I was fascinated by The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. That painting has all the elements of real horror. It's almost porny; this blindfolded young girl with red hair and a white dress is being guided gently to the block by her executioners. The element of horror within it is your imagination about whatŐs going to happen. The idea of a section of a narrative onto which you can project the next scene is quite cinematic. Stuff like that really has an effect on me...

© Interview Steve Rushton 1998

Image: Catkin 1997, courtesy Lotta Hammer