An Interview with Russell Gain
Do you see yourself as working within a tradition?
I suppose I am following in the footsteps of other abstract artists. That tradition starts at the beginning of the 20th century, but with influences that go back even further, to Turner for example. It relates also to what the critic Robert Rosenblum has called the Northern Romantic tradition. Perhaps the highpoint of abstract painting was the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s – Rothko, Newman, Pollock, Still and so on. That was an extremely exciting period, and I think there is still a lot of painting to be done which can build on the foundations that were laid at that time. In that sense I suppose you could call my work old-fashioned, this being the age of installation art and video.
What is the subject of your paintings? What are they about?
Well, every painting has a starting point in a visual experience in the real world – it’s often a landscape motif, as with the Villa Carlotta series, which is about water and reflections. Other starting points could be something like the grain on a piece of wood or the texture on an old garage door, or even another work of art. Those things are the original subject matter, but once I get into the work, especially if I am working on a series, then I’m often not referring back to the original subject, I’m thinking of the previous paintings that I’ve done and how I can improve on them. So it becomes more about the act of painting itself and the formal problems of producing a good abstract painting.
Did you make a deliberate decision to be an abstract painter?
I’ve always been drawn to abstract art, ever since I first started going to museums and galleries as a teenager. I can understand that it doesn’t resonate for some people, but for me abstract art is the most direct way to experience the joy of colour, shape and texture, and trying to realistically represent a motif somehow gets in the way. Even when I was doing fairly realistic watercolours in my youth, I think I was always tending towards the abstract.
How would you like people to view your paintings?
I’d simply like them to look. And I mean look as an active process – let the eye wander around the painting taking in the detail of different areas, then step back and look at the whole. Even in art galleries, you see so many people who just wander past paintings without really looking actively. I was very struck by something I read in a Don DeLillo novel – “The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw”.
Do you work quickly?
I’ve become quicker over the years, and sometimes it can be important to keep that sense of spontaneity that comes from working quickly. But sometimes also you need to step back and think about where the painting is going. It’s easy to lose your way if you just push on. It’s not unknown for me to stop working on something and just put it aside, sometimes for months or years, before being able to see clearly which way to proceed. Thinking time is vital, and that is why most paintings take weeks or months to complete. Occasionally though, like someone writing a great pop song, you can see where to go immediately and dash a good painting off in a couple of sittings, but that doesn’t happen often.
And how do you know when a painting is finished?
It’s when you think that if you do any more you’ll make the painting worse rather than better! There is another good quotation which I think sums this up – the French poet Paul Valery said: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”.
Why do you work in series?
What makes painting, especially abstract painting, so fascinating is that, even starting from the same basic idea, you never end up in the same place. Once I hit on an idea or motif which really interests me, I like to explore it, with one painting leading to another. I’ve been working on the Mantra series, for example, for many years, and the technique used to produce those paintings has changed quite markedly in that time, but I still don’t feel I have reached the limit of what I can do with that format.
Which painters would you say have influenced you the most?
Strangely, it isn’t the ones that most people might think of in looking at my work. The painters of early-Renaissance altarpieces have been a big influence – Duccio, Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, for their sumptuous colour and the profound emotion that their work transmits. Seurat, for the structure and sense of calm in his work. Rothko for profound feeling and sublime colour, and for the bravery in producing so much with such an apparently simple format. What all those artists share is a sense of stillness, which is certainly something I’m striving for.
Which other painters do you admire?
There are some great abstract painters – Gerhard Richter, Howard Hodgkin, Albert Irvin, Richard Diebenkorn – I always find it inspiring to look at their work.
Do you regard your work as being decorative?
I’m trying to produce something beautiful. Something that you can live with long term and be calmed or stimulated by, something that you can look at repeatedly and discover new things in. For some contemporary critics “decorative” is a term of insult, but to be decorative has been one of the purposes of art throughout most of its history and it is something I would take pride in. Henri Matisse wrote that he wanted to produce “an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter … something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue”. That would be a most unlikely thing for any artist to say today, but if it was good enough for Matisse, it’s good enough for me.