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The House of O'Dwyer interview with Marco Livingstone
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This Year's Model
The House of O'Dwyer interviewed by Marco Livingstone

 


We're conducting this interview in a very curious way, Gary, before I have seen any of the work in question except in reproductions on the gallery website. So what I would like to know to begin with is what physical form they take, and what size they are. They would appear to be collages of found photographic and printed images onto wooden panels, but I could also imagine that at least parts of the surface are painted.

This year the series are all the same size, 55 cm x 77 cm. It is mostly collage of found images on plywood support with very little painting. Last year there was a lot of painting.

You refer to yourself as 'the House of O'Dwyer', as if you were a workshop or centre of production rather than an individual. What is the significance of this?

Yes, I like the idea of being a centre of production rather than one of creativity. Production, instead of creativity, allows me to suggest the work is work, and a joyless chore.

But also I like the idea of quality implied by The House of…For instance the House of Fabergé. I like the implication of Grandeur also (The House of Grimaldi) and the sinister/horror quality also conjured up in my mind (think the House of Usher).

Also on top of that the House of O'Dwyer could suggest a fashion house and therefore superficiality, trends and the ephemeral. I regard fashion very highly myself…

I want to create a distance between the artist and the production, a feint really, so I can deal with themes and issues and autobiographical elements that would be too exposed if dealt with face on.

You say that since the year 2000 you have produced a single series of paintings each year. Do you mean it that literally, that you stake out a plan at the beginning of the year - almost like a New Year's Resolution - and then see it through over the next twelve months, without deviating from it or producing any other art during that period that is not conceived strictly within the terms of the series? Some artists would find it constraining to work in that day. I assume that you, on the contrary, find that it helps you to focus.

Each year since 2000, I have been producing one collection or series of paintings. The whole year I am producing one series I can contemplate what I will do the next year. It does help me to focus. It also helps me to explore as many possibilities in the new constraints formally.

Importantly it allows me to avoid the appearance of having an artist's trademark style as much as I possibly can. Something people have told me is a mistake.

Making work that was not, first and foremost, to sell but was an intellectual and aesthetic inquiry can lead to a lot of work being produced. Studio space can be pricey so rather than lunge from one piece of work to the next as my researches dictate, I thought if it's worth doing it has to be worth doing for a year. The time to think also allows ideas to rest with me as paintings have to for more traditional artists, giving me a year to ruminate on potential and possibilities.

I do make other work; photography, video and drawing etc. But only one
series of paintings a year if you see what I mean.

House of O'Dwyer self fellation

Self fellating painting n°5 1999 series

Can you bring me up to speed on your previous series? The first paintings I remember seeing by you were the 'self fellating paintings' in your degree show. How have you got from there to what you are doing now?

Previous series include Salon 2000, a variety of landscape, portraits, and conversation pieces. Abundance. (The Self fellating series was 1999 but became a part of Salon series)

Pokemon 2001 were small works of different pokemon superimposed on a background of hints of other painting styles. The pokemon cards are collectable and you swap them till you get a set…They were a game. Is art a game, albeit a more sophisticated one?

Pokemon by House of O'Dwyer

Pichachu 2001 Pokemon series 2001

Idealism 2002 was a questioning of idealism and philosophical Idealism as well as of myself and previous strongly held beliefs. The product of a suspicion of the idealism of idealism…

Storymoodboard 2003 aimed to combine the storyboard of film production and the mood board of fashion. This allowed me to explore painting vocabulary and revelation of a fragmented narrative, scenes from a life…

Microphones and Masks 2004 deals with the mask as a metaphor and a tool for others and me.

In a sense each series is one work but inevitably they will be broken up.

Images are collected from newspapers, fashion magazines, art books, TV listing magazines, anywhere really and is an ongoing part of my work and my day (like Polke). Most of the time they are photocopied and enlarged to be pasted on to the support.

Danone by House of O'Dwyer

Idealism (blue on yellow) 2002 series

Where do the images in the Masks and Microphones series come from? Did you collect them over a period of time in preparation for making these works, so that you would have a whole body of material from which to choose?

The source of inspiration is various but includes:
The Greek Mask as a tool
Hiding, Veiling, disguising
Ideas of Performance and Personae
Ideas of projection of an image
Social (viewed) Conduct and Private Desire
Fly posting
Grain
Picture plane
The least you can do to constitute a work
The Marshalling of found elements to create another

Many people paint from such images, which seemed uninteresting to me. I thought it better to cut out one stage and try to re-edit the image or fill it with an alternative significance, rather than merely raising it to the level of art by painting it.

Ideas in the work include fashion; commodity; high and low; what is the function of art? Also the idea of a narrative struggling to get out through formal constraints or commercial imperatives. To hide something quite serious in a seeming superficial mode…or is there really nothing there…

For me your biography, your life, can be viewed as a letter to the future… it feels like a duty to make this letter enlightening, entertaining, and of some succour to future beings…

The questions I keep asking myself are: Why is this done this way? What are the alternatives? Is this received wisdom? Is it bogus? Is it the truth? Does the truth matter? Can I handle the truth?

Eminem by House of O'Dwyer

Conversation n°1 storymoodboard series 2003

I understand that you began work on this series under another title, and that it was only later, when you realized that masks and microphones were recurring images, that you renamed the series. What do you see as the link between these two types of objects, and to what extent do they relate to your presentation in these pictures of such celebrities and public figures as the young Arnold Schwarzenegger, Camille Paglia (looking like a prim 1950s American housewife) and Michael Jackson's son?

I was initially looking for mask pictures to create scenarios and I remembered from somewhere that the mask used in Greek theatre was constructed not merely as a persona-conveying device but also as a means to amplify the actor's voice so it could reach all the members of the amphitheatre. This led me to start to collect microphone pictures. The microphone appeals because of its references to karaoke, broadcasting, communication and information dissemination.

Do these famous people appear in these pictures because you have a particular interest in them as people, or simply because they are part of popular culture?

Masks and microphones

Microphone n°1 masks and microphones series 2004

The figures I use in these works are on the whole public figures, who are keen to be in public life. But again I am treating them as a director might, casting them in roles.

You speak about not wishing the themes, issues and autobiographical elements in your work to be too exposed. Why not? In the past you have dealt with some of the most intimate aspects of your life and identity, and in particular your sexuality, not only openly but confrontationally, as in the very 'in-your-face' Self fellating paintings you made five years ago. In these new works the male body is once again unavoidably the object of erotic desire, so why fight it?

In the Self fellating paintings I was more interested in talking about painting and art in general as a source of self pleasure, artist and viewer pleasuring themselves in and with art. I also wanted to see things in art that I hadn't seen before and I wanted it to be expressive. I wanted the work to provoke the Puritanism and the delusions that abounds in art and held by makers and consumers. I try to use the figure as a surrogate, a metaphor and also as if they are members of a cast and I am the director. Autobiography is another strand within a bundle of competing strands. What I mean is I wasn't sucking my own cock 5 years ago!

Camille Pglia by House of o'dwyer

Mask n°2 masks and microphones series 2004

It used to be the case that artists developed a signature style and a range of subjects and images, and that they stuck with these for as long as possible, evolving gradually but deliberately maintaining consistency. This helped to position them within the art of their time, within art history and within the market. Those who fought against this and claimed a greater freedom of movement for themselves, like David Hockney, were often accused of eclecticism, but Hockney himself rightly pointed out that consistency was the easiest attribute to achieve; after all, it simply requires endless repetition. Over the past twenty years, it has become much more commonplace, even fashionable, for an artist to make such drastic moves from one group of works to the next that his or her identity is barely recognisable, as in the case of Martin Kippenberger. Is this becoming a new fashion? In consciously fighting against consistency, might you be becoming a victim of the very pressures you are trying to avoid?

I agree consistency is easy. And I want freedom to pursue a variety of approaches. Just the idea of getting stuck pursuing a single trope, like a dog worrying the corner of an arm chair, is distasteful for me in my own as well as in others' work. But it can be pursued for a year. In resisting consistency I hope to reveal something else to myself. For instance perhaps an unforeseen or unacknowledged consistency will be revealed. I am trying in all my endeavours to avoid delusion. And hopeful this approach aids this. And if I fail then my work will be about the power of delusion even over those who try to combat it. (There must be a Greek myth about this.)

Do you think, too, that on a subconscious level at least you might be fighting against the commercial exploitation of your work by making a new series every year in a different medium, using different techniques and images from those you have relied on previously?

I don't know how much I mind commercial exploitation. I don't know what it would be like. Also I don't know if there is such a thing as subconscious. The yearly series is at once a parodic strategy and a strategy of resistance. The desire for the new and innovative in marketing terms is often presentation rhetoric. But I also want to avoid the overearnestness of the artist. It is also a tool by which I may organise myself, my work, my contribution.

Dermot O'Brien by House of O'Dwyer

Microphone n°4 masks and microphones series 2004

Is there a sense in which you are adopting deliberate strategies to maintain an outsider status, and to avoid being sucked into the mainstream or being welcomed into the establishment?

I feel that would be too reactive and somehow letting the 'establishment' to continue to dictate the agenda. I am aiming for an agenda that appeals to me but I am not against negotiations with the enemy.

Does each series run strictly from January through December?

Yes. Now they do.

When you reach the end of the allotted twelve-month period, do you simply stop and go on to the next series?

Throughout the year I am taking notes and recording ideas and have experimented with a few things and have made a prototype piece in the lead up to the new year of production. In this series Mask 1 is the prototype, and slightly different from all the others pieces. By the end of 12 months I am impatient to get on to the next series and fresh materials and different constraints and ideas that have been kept on hold for months.

Flowers and Green Tape

Green tape masks and microphones series 2004

What happens if you are in the middle of executing new works, using images and exploring ideas that excite you, when the time runs out? Are you strict about stopping?

I am very strict about stopping. The ideas can be recorded and I can come back to them if they are still interesting to me a year later. Or they can be forced in to the new work somehow if appropriate.

How do you feel about being seen as a gay artist?

Fabulous darling… It would be ok if others were known as straight artists. But, no, I don't like it. It bugs me for some reason. I am an artist who sleeps with guys more than he sleeps with girls.

Some of the imagery you have used in these new works is unavoidably homo-erotic, to use that now rather clichéd term. And how does that famous homophobe Eminem, who appears in one of the pictures in his overalls and hockey mask, fit in - as an object of disgust or an object of desire? As a great fan of his music myself, I have to admit I am of both minds at different times.

When a man is presented in an erotic way women must be absent for it to be defined as primarily Homo-erotic. Men are attractive, no? It is unavoidable. Eminem himself is a pussy cat. You should hang around school playgrounds (not that I do!), you would hear a lot worse. I bet some elected representatives hold more abhorrent views than him. What interests me about Eminem is that he sets himself up as a demon, even using horror film imagery of mask and chainsaw. He represents something adolescent, some resentment of family, authority etc. It is a confined rebellious attitude. Adolescent is his defining character; it's fun swearing, mooning, slagging people off, saying taboo things. It's provocative and it's entertaining. At least his adolescent attitudes aren't touted as maturity, like other more delusional individuals. People have the right to respond angrily but I think there may be bigger fish to fry.

'To hide something quite serious in a seeming superficial mode' - as you said earlier - could almost be a definition of 'camp', just as the notion of appearing to do as little as possible in making a work of art conveys a provocative 'can't be bothered' attitude that suggests a refusal to play by society's rules: the notion of hard work, skill and so forth. Is this again a question of maintaining a deliberate marginality, or of defiantly responding to, and even flaunting, the stereotypes foisted onto gay men: the idea that we are simply fun-loving, club-going, drug-taking, designer clothes-wearing, flippant and sexually obsessed men out for a good time?

On one level I want to invite the viewer in with an almost fun, sexy, light-hearted appeal. I want spontaneity, hunger and desire but I also want, however schizophrenic the result of such an ambition, to be able to deal with profound philosophical and aesthetic questions that have been carefully considered by many other artists and thinkers. I may be flaunting something; I'm not sure what though. I don't think I'm deliberately marginal. I am happy for hedonistic attitudes to be manifest in art and life. In this particular series the idea of a Garden or a paradise that is there for the taking but we are unable to do so is a humanistic concern. Or am I deluding myself about the work?

How carefully do you choose each sheet of plywood? Are you concerned with the particularities of grain and colour as elements of the composition, and can these factors even suggest what kind of imagery might be appropriate?

For this series I get the guys from the hardware store to cut the plywood to a uniform size (77 x 55 cm) from what they have in store. Sometimes the grain can be really rich in colour and in flow and there are all kinds of faults and knots. Other times it can be really pale and not very interesting. The grain of the wood can be part of the composition like in Cherry. I also like the effect of the images suspended in space with the plywood standing in as a background.

Cherry

Cherry masks and microphones series 2004

We spoke in your studio about the context, whether contemporary or art historical, in which you view these works, and you suggested that you saw them as part of the collage tradition. You specifically pointed out that your portrait of Schwarzenegger as a body builder was conceived as a kind of homage to Richard Hamilton's 1962 painting and 1963 screenprint Adonis in Y Fronts. But Hamilton, like Warhol and others, chose to translate the found printed image into screenprinting rather than using it in its original state. His current work remains collage-based, but there is much digital manipulation of the given image before it is again printed out in a more polished and sophisticated form. Your pictures are very much rawer. Is this your way, perhaps, of reasserting the handmade nature of your work even when you are relying exclusively on machinemade supports and mechanically printed images? Is it your solution, in other words, for preserving your identity as a painter even when making works that have hardly any paint on them?

The rawness of this series hints at a provisional, a still searching quality, as opposed to slick, confident, work which seams closed and pompous. Everything to do with painting is an influence on me, composition, form, colour, history, philosophy. All of this is fascinating to me! I would like the definition of painting to change so it would include collage. I'm ambivalent about the handmade. What I like is the construction of a visual vocabulary that expresses something of the individual maker.

Since we began this interview I have had the chance to see the works themselves, and to appreciate their material qualities. On first glance, they seemed to me as raw as I imagined in their use of photocopied motifs glued onto fairly crude pieces of plywood. It was only after spending an hour or so with them that I began to appreciate their richness, the relationship of the grain of the support to the dot patterns of the imagery, the occasionally touches of paint, the use of coloured masking tape as abstract devices and so on. You speak of hating the drudgery of making art, yet perversely in these works you are content to give the impression that you have done little work yourself - simply selecting and photocopying found images, cutting them out and gluing them on to cheap and mundane readymade supports - while actually putting yourself through a surprisingly long process. First there is the sifting through of mountains of possible images and the intuitive selection of motifs that could work together. Then there is the precise cutting of these photocopied enlargements, which in itself is a form of drawing, and their arrangement against the plywood panels. All this to convey the impression that you have hardly intervened in the making of the pictures. Maybe you actually enjoy the drudgery more than you care to admit!

I often want things to look spontaneous and as if no work went into them. I like things to look quite random even. I also like that you spend time with the work and it changes or forces you to appreciate that which you initially overlooked. I like that frisson of affront when you experience the 'Avant Garde' but I feel compelled to provide some form of payback, you have stolen someone's time and energy after all. Rather than berate and sermonize the viewer with an idealistic didacticism, I want them to get something out of it. I want you to make a sense, even if this sense is something your mind forces on the work. Even if you are just 'copping a perv' at the nudes at least it's something and I haven't totally wasted your time. But with this as an aim it becomes much harder work than I ever wanted it to be. I dream of hiring an assistant.


London, June 2004