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Interview in ARTWORLD issue 9 - Interview: Paul carey-Kent  









Colin Crumplin makes two-part painting which reverse the usual process of abstracting from reality by taking a chance-driven abstract starting point and then finding something figurative in reality to match it. This builds the world’s unpredictability into the process and provides a dynamic and innovative way of staging modern painting’s typical contest between form and content. Crumplin has developed this format over many years, his colours becoming more mixed, and the subjects in the figurative part of the paintings increasingly being developed from more public sources, and touching on political issues.

You use chance in a very interesting way. Could you describe how you begin?
I start with cotton duck canvas and acrylic paint, which I see as the means of a certain kind of high modernism and as a way of making an image quickly, as the paint can be handled easily. I staple cotton duck to the floor in a double square shape, wet it, and pour acrylic paint on to it from a bucket with all the colours I’ll be using in it together – violet, green and orange for example. The paint is quite thick, so the mixing occurs on the cotton duck. I spread the paint quickly using my hand to cover the surface of one half of the double square and fold the other half of the canvas over and blind print it by wiping a piece of cardboard across the back. I then open the canvas and leave it to dry.

Do you attempt to direct the paint with your hand?
No, because the point is to make something which will surprise me. But the process does often lead to an element of symmetry at first. The pouring is essential: I’ve tried other means of starting, preferably to make it more accidental, perhaps by moving away from the folding across, but so far I haven’t found them rich enough.

How many of these starts do you make?
I make quite big sets all at the same time. It can take years to make use of a start, and at the moment I have around 60 ready to use.

You then copy a photographic image which matches the start in some way. How does that come about?
I work from photographs of the starts. I also collect images – mostly, at the moment, photographs from newspapers or photographs which I have taken. I make maquettes for my two-part works from photocopied and resized photographs of each part. The imagery can be arbitrary. For example an assistant suggested I use an orange start, for which I grew a lily, and photographed and collaged it as the basis for a painting. And I started painting injuries when a friend gave me some images of a shark bites he thought would interest me.

There are literary parallels with your use of chance with the work of Raymond Roussel and the Oulipo group of French writers. Is that relevant to you?
My interest in the French literature of chance goes back a long way. I see that approach as rooted in the 60s. Stemming from the music of Cage – I liked distancing strategies like the way the structure in Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910) is the frame for the content. In 1977, I published Hommage a Queneau, which takes as its starting point his Exercises in Style (1947 – the same anecdote told in 99 different ways) and applied it to drawings of a cup.

Have you ever shown one side of a painting without the other?
I liked the Abstract Expressionist kind of painting which I grew up with, but it seemed based on judgements I didn't understand - I didn't trust that Greenbergian 'fine judgement'. The left-hand sides of my work could look like a homage to that, but although it’s been suggested I try separating the two sides, for me it only work with the pictorial element – they’re a bit like a long sentence with a colon in the middle: I like the disjunction. I did a long time ago make paintings which copied across an abstract element, but that seemed a discussion very internal to painting.

How did the picture of your wife’s eye come about?
I saw an eyebrow in the start, and made a photograph of her to match it. The more recent eye painting – Eye (Subconjunctival Haemorrhage) – is of a condition I had, which looked much more dramatic than it was.

What about the painting of caribou?
I was looking for the right antlers for a long time after the start for Oil (Caribou Migrating:Alaska) – I called it that because oil pipes were threatening their migration paths at the  time.

Have you ever come across an image you like and tried to make a start to match it?
I suppose it could be done but then it wouldn’t surprise me. Similarly, an obvious reading is that it relates to psychological approaches like say the Rorschach test, but it isn’t interesting to me that it’s mine. If someone says what a cloud looks like, we don’t use that to explain their personality. It’s true that you can see more than one shape in a start – and some starts have had various possible subjects – but I guess I don’t know nor much care why one subject gets chosen.

Would you agree that there is quite a lot of violence in your work?
Yes, and it’s impossible not to think of those things as being interpreted and metaphoric. The shark bite painting puts me in mind of late medieval paintings of flayings, which are simultaneously horrendous and gorgeous in how they are painted. But in the end I am seeking a pretext for a painting. It isn’t about illustrating a particular war or something.