Talk: “Freezer”, given at The John Moores Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool in November 2014

My painting is of an elderly woman in a supermarket. I called it Freezer not just because she’s looking into one but because she seems to be crystallising in the cold. Also her pose reminded me of the freeze-frame device that actors use when they suddenly stand still. And then the painting is done from a drawing, not just in any old supermarket, but in an Iceland in East London.

But before talking more about this particular painting, I want to say something about my work in general and how I came to visit Iceland with a sketchbook.

When I first became an artist I wanted to paint the human figure, probably because Francis Bacon, my art hero at the time, said it was the only subject worth doing. But I didn’t know how to find my own way of doing it. At art school in the 80s the life room technique of exact measurement was almost compulsory, with the influence of the precise life painter, Euan Uglow. But I found it was boring, mechanical, I thought of Matisse saying that “exactitude is not truth” and I tried to escape into expressionism and distortion. But that too felt fake, as if I were trying to import emotion. Instead of painting a neat, measured nude I was just doing a messy weeping one. I didn’t like that too much so I gave up attempting to do the figure altogether and did landscapes instead, not pretty ones but wastelands and desolate places. I also did petrol stations at night, dual carriageways and lorries. And gradually I found a way of putting people in my wildernesses. The wildernesses became inhabited with solitary, ramshackle, rather primitive figures like this one on a mountain and this orange neanderthal and this figure trudging through snow.

And then I took to painting gangs of outsiders. I did polar explorers, cowboys, spacemen and outlaws: figures who are up against it in places of extremes, bombarded with snow or galloping across deserts or floating in space. My type of figure, one that seemed to have integrity, emerged as a wandering, marginalised or defenceless one and I have done him/her ever since. These are recent paintings done in Morocco–a Berber carrying a heavy load, a man on the road or in a square in Fez. And it is not just that I put the figures in challenging places, in extremes of weather and so on. I paint them in a way that shows them under attack or disintegrating, like the scarred figure in the last picture. But more of that later.

I chose to do figures in wildernesses and, increasingly, in urban ones. Since 1999 I have painted people in the city wastelands of supermarkets, shopping malls, casinos and banqueting halls. I painted a series of infinite Dining Rooms with so many diners that you can’t see where they end. Then I did the same thing with endless crowds on Beach resorts, fused in a heaving mass and spread out as far as the eye can see. Then when Westfield Shopping Mall opened near my home, I went there to draw and paint in watercolour, and did its hectic walkways and escalators carrying people round and round. And then of course I did Shoppers like Freezer, rummaging through the shelves of a superstore.

These gaudy, glitzy places don’t look like wildernesses. They are obviously crammed with food and teeming with people.Their bright colours, pounding music and plentiful array of stuff try to get rid of threat or deprivation. But to many people there’s bleakness in them. They are what the anthropologist Marc Auge calls “non places”. This is not just because most of their architecture is without character, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, is “reduced to the beige and innocuous unction of butterscotch ice cream”, it is because there is no relationship between the crowds of people, and because there is no settling in them. People pass speedily through an airport, mall, casino, superstore, FAST food outlet. They are in fact streamed or processed as in these paintings of processions on Escalators. Unlike the explorers or wanderers in my paintings of natural wilderness, they are programmed to go in a certain direction, nudged and lured by cunning ads and lurid displays.

In all my paintings of these “non places” there is an obvious link with consumerism and consumption. I want to show a wilderness of consumption, tragic consumption, ludicrous consumption. These Escalator figures are like babies: embryonic, infant life holding onto the rail. The Diner figures are distorted like cartoons, gorging away or slumped against a grim black backdrop. Then the Malls depict figures who look like they are descending into hell. Actually this last group were influenced by lines of poetry in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets where commuters descend not just into the depths of the tube but into the mythical underworld. You might thing I’m being a bit morose about this but to me the figures are like lost souls looking for something—not just a new laptop or jacket. They are like my explorers and wayfarers, searching for something more fulfilling, some deeper good that the brands promise when they say “Open happiness”, “Because you’re worth it.” “Live the dream.” And the search goes on. Shopping becomes unending. I want this product, then this one because none gives me what I really need. It’s as if shopping is a metaphor for human desire as set out by Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst. Desire in the opinion of Lacan is basically endless and insatiable because it is a desire for perfect, ultimate love. Shopping, then, could be said to be a substitute for the search for love and because it never gives true fulfilment, it is also a metaphor for this endless search.

So back to Freezer. I didn’t paint women at all for a long time because I was doing outsider men in forests and cowboy country but in 2006 I switched to painting nudes, or semi-nudes, like these. I based them partly on big women I saw on the beach at Berck-plage in France and partly on images from a magazine of big women called Plumpers. It’s a porn magazine but my nudes aren’t meant to be porn. They aren’t there to excite, far from it, but to express pathos and abandonment. To me the women I painted are solitary, needy and discarded, marooned in hunks of flesh. They are also outsiders. And some of them, being old women, have an increased level of pathos and this led me onto my next series, of supermarket Shoppers. Continuing with the idea of rejected older women, I started noticing solitary pensioners in Aldi, Iceland, Lidl. They looked so desolate and impoverished. They reminded me of lines of Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick” or of Allen Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California where he writes “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator”. And I’m grateful to the musician who came here to the John Moores and tweeted @InAtoms that this painting reminded him of Maddy Rooney in Beckett’s All that Fall. I hope these literary references don’t in some way seem to diminish or belittle the people I draw. Because I have an identification with them, even if my life is different from theirs, I feel a bond, an empathy.

But it’s also true that I need images for my work and that can be seen as predatory in some way. It turned out in fact to involve a level of deception in my hunt for source material. I started drawing the shoppers from life, taking a sketchbook to Iceland, Nisa, Lidl etc and observing from the aisles. Then I began taking photos but this is strictly not allowed so I got told off in Tesco and Lidl. I then discovered a surveillance store called The Spy Shop and bought myself some spy glasses which recorded whole videos of shoppers. They look like ordinary glasses but they have a hidden camera between the frames and record video and sound. The only trouble is that you have to stand very still when recording so that makes you look a bit odd. Anyway I had so much footage from spying that I made a film called Shopper to go with a show I had at WW Gallery in London in 2012.

The title of the show was Vacant Lots—taken from Eliot’s poem, Preludes, in which he writes “the worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in Vacant Lots.” The idea of ancient women was obviously apt but so was Vacant Lots, of land not being used and being derelict. I painted some pictures on bits of old hardboard to make the whole painting seem rougher and throw away. Some of the board was even ripped and chipped away at the edges, like this picture. I painted some with trolleys going through the wasteland of puddles and refuse outside the superstore, I painted some where it looked like the shelves were going to fall of top of them. I painted some shopping in darkness like Night Shopper. But most were bathed in neon as in Aisle 2 or Aisle 5 or Freezer.

As in Freezer light is a big thing in my work and the sort of dazzling light seen here keeps reappearing–in the petrol station, in the casino or the mall. And you may think that’s no news, most painters paint light in some way. But I tend to use such bright light and use it to try to intensify my wilderness settings. I go for extremes of light and dark, as in Freezer, squeezing the figure between blackness and radiance. And then the light itself is not especially benign, but glaring and cold. My work could be called photophobic—a word I learnt from the title of a painting by Willem Sasnal. And I don’t just feel photophobia in the neon of a superstore but in sunlight in a hot country. It’s so bright that it’s oppressive as in this picture from my Morocco series of a man staggering along with light bearing down on him. Then of course the intense light in a place like Fez casts strong shadows which made me think of time: the figure held or trapped in time as it is also confined in space. It’s like the sunlit squares in the work of Giorgio de Chirico. While trains puff off into the distance, a melancholy figure is stuck in the sunny square with its shadow. It is limited, it cannot escape from here and now. Of course the train is in the here and now too but its movement gives it the illusion of freedom while the figure is pinned down by the shadow.

Finally light is a transforming, even destructive, energy in the sense that it smashes outlines and changes shapes, as when you see something against the light. I’ve brought along a book of my work called Riddled with Light. It’s a quote taken from a poem by Yeats and is also the title of one of my paintings, the painting of 2 riders. The left-hand one is chunky, the right-hand one is vaporised. And the same applies to many of my paintings in which light isn’t particularly soothing or peaceful but splintering and blinding. In the Marvell picture, light is blitzing the standing figure. In Mission it is eating up the spacemen. In Freezer it is eating into the side of the woman’s head. It transforms their shapes and by implication, them. And this motif of the morphing figure, vulnerable to change, not in control of its own borders and identity, is very inspiring to me.

This idea of mutation has been with me since I started painting figures, but it really developed through drawings done from life, especially the rapid drawings done from the back of a moving taxi for a project called Cab Gallery. This project was devised by my dealer Paul Stolper and London taxi driver and art collector, Jason Brown. The idea was to exhibit work in the back of Jason’s cab and the work had to be related to the cab in some way. My contribution was to make a book of drawings done while on a taxi ride. Obviously I had to work very quickly, the cab was moving and the people in the street were moving, and therefore my drawings condensed the figures. Hands and arms and legs became exaggerated into odd shapes. Arms became stick-like, hands were like claws. While I was doing them I didn’t have time to think about whether they were good or not but when I looked at them afterwards, they spoke to me of the body as unstable, monstrous or fragile. I wanted to stay with these possibilities and I used them in the paintings that followed. I called them Mutilates, a name I invented to mean both mutation and mutilation. In these Mutilate paintings I let paint stream downwards or sideways. I drew with a hair dryer, blowing the paint in a certain direction. I layered very thin veils of white paint on a black background to make figures seem see-through, like x-rays. Then I made cell-like shapes by dropping Fairy Liquid into the surface of watery acrylic. The idea was not just a body changing or degenerating but emotions becoming overwhelming and bursting out. And I used all this messy, metamorphic technique in future paintings. This streaming figure in a wood is called “Liquid sorrow”, a quote from a poem by Andrew Marvell. Then the liquid Bather, the diners and sun worshippers are given the same treatment, as is the dishevelled figure in Freezer.

In Freezer, as in the Supermarkets and Malls, I want to contrast the misshapen figure and the pristine environment.The malls and superstores are hard-edged, spotless, sleek but the figures that go through them have all the imperfections of humanity. The Freezer woman is a bit of a mess, made of drips and spillages. Unlike the inanimate shapes around her she is disintegrating and melting. Light is changing her shape with this frill around the head and her body is leaking onto the floor. As in The Mutilates, I like to include unseen processes at work in the body by dropping tiny drops of Fairy Liquid into a wash of acrylic. These bloom out to make cells or atoms. Instant microbiology. I don’t have to do anything except drip, and the cells are just hovering there. To me they are like undercover threats, they speak of disease or mortality. Or they are simply the building blocks of life that we can’t see without a microscope.

The other quality about this Freezer figure, and my figures in general, is that it is not quite human. This woman has a beak face, hands like tools or claws and stiff bird legs. The shopper in Aisle 2 or Night Shopper is like an insect bending down to the shelves. This man on a mountain is like a giant or a Bigfoot. I think that this style came out of my quick, street drawing and the abbreviation of the body. By compressing and exaggerating at speed, I made my figures grotesque. And the Grotesque is something I am instinctively drawn to because it’s so linked to metamorphosis. It’s the result of changing something from its usual appearance and making it into some sort of scary, ludicrous or poignant hybrid. A person becomes like a bird or a robot or a monster (as in Hieronymus Bosch or Surrealism). And it seems clear that the power of grotesques has something to do with the fear of change, of difference, of things that seem consistent and recognisable becoming contradictory, odd and unrecognisable.

So I make my human figures into mixtures and hybrids: changing a woman into a cyborg, a man standing in a street into a ghost. And above all, I like to change a figure into an abstract shape. In Riddled with Light or Explorers I paint one solid figure and then shift to something more abstract or indeterminate. The explorers on the left and the rider on the right become chaotic or flimsy. Here, in Swimmer, I changed the single figure from one state to another: I made the top half normal but the bottom half, the body underwater, I have melted into abstraction. At art school I was always told to choose between being an abstract and a figurative painter. But this seems nonsense as far as my own work goes because I want to paint a familiar figure in a representational way and then show it turning away towards abstraction. I like this technique because, as with the grotesque, it’s a way of showing the well-known changing into the strange, the named into something unnameable. It contrasts two ways of seeing the world: the world made manageable through names or made strange through nameless shapes. I like Francis Bacon’s remark about non-illustrational form when he says “an illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.”

This is why in the Dining Room pictures all seems clear and normal and then suddenly everything goes haywire, usually at the bottom. Lines intrude on faces, shapes are detached from referencing the world and refer only to themselves, figures veer off in puddles of paint. I love the work of RB Kitaj–former John Moores prize winner–and he does something like this, for example in The Ohio Gang, where objects go off into craziness and figures and spaces are suddenly inconsistent and irrational. A head is joined to flattened, falling shapes, a man sprouts from a baby’s pram and then the pram’s handle becomes a tangle of lines. Here, in my own dining room picture, I am not just painting a wilderness of a social occasion with its trivial chatter, I am in a wilderness of the incoherent where clarity and order give way to mess. I bring the spots and squiggles in the background into the foreground where I make them part of a turbulent pattern of lines and blobs. In Beach, similarly, I’ve made the figures in the foreground into an obscure tumble. And in Freezer I painted the reflections from the freezer cabinet as odd, flat shapes on the floor. They don’t quite make sense.

My flat shapes on the floor of Freezer also do something else. They make an upheaval into illusionistic or perspectival space. The same thing happens when the brown shape comes down at an angle to join the head. It makes the background part of the foreground and flattens the space (I got this shape incidentally from Picasso’s Three Dancers, in which the frame of a window pushes forwards to become part of the central dancer’s shoulder). It’s as if the Freezer figure is squeezed by flatness, as if pressed between two surfaces and then falling down the painting into the darkness at the bottom, with nothing to hold her up. The deep space that seemed to contain her becomes flat and uninhabitable and this increases a sense of vulnerability. The flattening and squeezing is also like an insult, an insult to her/our humanity. I’m not trying to be satirical, jeering, far from it, because I feel that we can all feel disposed of, insubstantial. It’s like the figures in my Beaches and Dining Rooms reduced to circles or blobs. Here, the rounded figure looks two-dimensional, grotesquely made into something paper-thin.

I did Freezer in 2012 and since then I’ve continued to do series of women. To end my talk I just want to say something about the 2 series that I’ve painted since Freezer and the Shoppers, ones that don’t, surprise surprise, express vulnerability, decay or sadness. When I went to Marrakech in 2013 and Fez earlier this year I did lots of figures of Muslim women. The figures are on blank white paper, as it were seen against emptiness and timelessness, while inscribed in time and space by the shadow. But while this can suggest limit and entrapment there’s something else. Their Islamic dress expresses a kind of faith, dignity and calm. I got to meet many women while I was doing my painting and they seemed united, cheerful, very friendly. Being in a group hidden away from the scrutiny of the male gaze may have its advantages. The veil is of course a very contested subject but I feel I have moved from portraying woman in desperate circumstances to doing something else. The Muslim women are different in feeling from those Freezer-type women, depicted in the nullity of the supermarket and sidelined in a secular, ageist and materialistic society.

And then this July, by way of contrast, I came here to the John Moores and saw the Hens and clubbers parading around Concert Square and Wood Street on a Saturday night. I have been up to Liverpool since to observe and do drawings of the nightlife. The light—its bursts of incandescence and lurid colour–appeals to me as it did with petrol stations and casinos. It is something that always draws me in. Then there’s the energy, the carnival, the frenzy, the comradeship that inspires me. So this is the fourth in my series of Women and contrasts with all of them, for while the single Plumpers and Shoppers seem discarded and the single Muslims meandering and reflective, these groups of hens and clubbers are swashbuckling, vital, united. My wilderness figures have shifted, these new ones are wild (rather than being victims of wilderness) and they have changed to something more joyful. I always felt I couldn’t paint joy except by painting animals and birds or by fusing the human with a Horse. The animal or bird is quick, airborne and free while the human seems burdened and trapped. The human is fixed in time and space by a shadow while the monkey is leaping upwards. But to me there is a kind of freedom and joy in the gangs of Concert Square Hens and I want to paint this.