Anthony Lister interviewed at Elms Lesters, 28th Jan 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
First published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“Sometimes I feel like I have superhuman abilities, moving around canvases and taking my brain out of one channel and plugging it into another. A lot of what I do is ‘all mind/no mind’ – I’m unaware of what I’m doing. I couldn’t explain to you at any one moment in this painting what I was thinking or where I was.”
The painting in question is Spider Girl Flouro, a large diptych or “parallel painting” as Lister refers to this series. As it nears completion on the walls of the spacious scenic painting studio upstairs at the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, Lister feathers the finishing strokes of white paint with a wide decorator’s brush onto the dappled monochrome background, then he spins through 180 degrees and stabs some of the same white into the parallel painting he’s working on – yes, in parallel – on the opposite wall. Except in this painting, Ever Dance with a Brokeback in the Pale Moonlight?, it’s the figure that’s white and the background that’s black. It depicts the actor Heath Ledger in the role of Joker – twice – the mirror image of himself as a tired and laconic Pierrot taking a last look out of the opaquely blackening Silver Screen behind him on the equinoctial cusp of his death at the age of 28. Both his and Spider Girl’s eyes are hollowly blank.
“I work on as many pieces at the same time as I can. I don’t like to waste paint, I like to clean my brushes and I like to have canvases there to clean them on.”
The scumbling gives the works an immediacy, an experiential feel whereby you sense the artist exploring the canvas and almost sculpting his forms as the paint is allowed to smudge, spatter and drip in an allusion to the painterly tendencies of Abstract Expressionism, quite different in feel to his erstwhile work on the street, with its less porous edges and clearer graphic look.
“I don’t see the studio works as objects, they’re really just a process. Like working backwards through a maze, I’m saying to the viewer ‘now you’ll understand it’.”
Lister refers to his graffiti works as a secondary practice through which he communicates with other street artists, “like brushing your teeth or sitting down and having a chat, it just is”. Studio practice is a distinct discipline for any artist, but for Lister it remains connected to the street work in terms of “capturing space” – the emotional connection to that idea of space is for this artist a more important distinction than the surface on which it’s painted.
The “parallel paintings” arose partly out of a dissatisfaction with the spatial engagement of one-off pieces. They existed alone, Lister felt, and then would disappear. In that respect, as transient in their own way as work on the street.
“I felt like I needed to create companion pieces. I didn’t want to paint the same painting again like some sort of production line. You always strive for much more than you achieve as an artist. I always want more, I’m not sure whether it’s greed or selfishness. It’s never to do with money, it’s always to do with my process and my own growth. Every time I walk into a new show of my work I know straightaway how it needs to be different next time.”
It was when a friend asked to keep a particular work that Lister didn’t want to let go of that the mirror-image presentation of two-paintings-as-one revealed itself as a solution. “It enlightened me as to how to exhibit two-dimensional paintings with a substance, as objects of conceptual power”. Objects which, as “companion pieces”, communicated a more emotionally complex sense of process.
Lister starts a painting with a particular character in mind and, although there may be a formlessness to the way that figure comes into being conceptually, the linear execution has to be more precise. When he’s drawing out the figure in pencil on the canvas, the perspective has to be right. It has to work spatially first and then the painting builds a sense of direction whilst remaining subject to a kind of instinctive immediacy at any moment on that path.
“It’s automatic but it’s progressively automatic. I’m a problem-solver and I lay myself out equations to solve and I continually do this until I can step back far enough to say ‘that’s done’.”
When I ask whether there might be a sculptural approach to the way Lister handles space, he grabs his notebook and writes down: “It’s carving itself through a reflection of me”. He calls this his “one-line white trash prophecy” and always leaves the first couple of pages of every sketchbook blank for such poetic mnemonics, another example of the interplay between the consciously analytical and the instinctively creative.
Fellow Australian artist Heath Ledger died on 22nd January 2008. Without knowing it, on that same day in London, Lister had been browsing in a comic bookshop – “my happy place” – where a photo of Ledger playing Joker on the set of the new Batman film spoke to him alongside an image of Spider Girl. He felt that each would make a great painting.
As it turned out, both were exhibited as components of an installation where ephemera such as news clippings and comic books accompanied two smaller canvases, all subsidiary replays of the visual mythology in the main double painting.
“When I paint, I want to paint substantial things that I can relate to with my peers and I try to relate that back into some kind of spiritual awareness about social conditioning. With my mythology paintings I’m trying to tap into what I know as good and bad, hero and villain, right and wrong. In a sense I’m trying to create relationships between media and spirituality.”
French philosopher Roland Barthes’ seminal 1957 text Mythologies might help us decode Lister’s ambivalent metaphorical language. Barthes describes myth as “a type of speech, a system of communication, a message, by no means confined to oral speech”.
Barthes argues that anything in common currency can work as “speech”, a song, a film, a photograph, a painting. Anything that is universally recognised and spoken about in our culture – whether it be Jason’s battle with the Argonauts or Britney’s battle with drugs – continues to have its mythic status reinforced by being continually appropriated: “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication”.
Lister has his own clear view of how film has become the common language of our own visual culture: “The cinema is the contemporary church where people gather and enjoy stories and I see television as a contemporary mode of meditation. This derives from my upbringing, it’s my own religion in a sense since I wasn’t raised to believe in any god. When I was young I asked my Mum about God and she said ‘think of it as the force in Star Wars’. I’m an adventurer; these are adventure paintings”.
Lister is driven relentlessly to refine and redevelop his visual language of myth in what he calls a freestyle dimension where chance occurrences arise out of established modes of working to suggest new developments and experiences. “I never get any satisfaction from things that I know exactly how they’re going to go and executed in a fashion of complacency and sureness, it’s not a happy place for me.”
Edvard Munch used to have his paintings up all around him when he made new work and Lister feels in tune with that sense of existing work suggesting innovative developments. “Even if the work isn’t up it needs to be up in your brain. You need to create the bridges conceptually and aesthetically to evolve without leaving the viewer behind and you only learn that through trial and error.”
6,000 hits overnight on YouTube to watch the Elms Lesters opening that featured live superhero hostage-taking suggests a solid bridge to a large audience. But Lister maintains an equanimity in the face of all the hype. Positive responses fill him with a “complacent stillness, I don’t need it – I get more from a hard critique, a kick”.
Nearby, the aftermath of crumpled superhero costumes on the Elms Lesters floor partly works as a forlorn sculpture about dispossessed potency; it seems even Robin wears underpants underneath his crime-fighter tights. The cautionary reminder the installation carries to the hero – against hubris, every hero’s potential weakness – perhaps extends to the artist himself. In a post-modern visual world where the interlocking spiral of appropriation and self-reference is so often adopted by artists to perpetuate a style that is ultimately conceited and empty, Anthony Lister’s secret power is to decapitate such affectation with a distinctive double-cutting edge of abstract-figurative reasoned instinct, sharpened on an armoury of thought-forms, carved with a gestural weight and a light, self-deprecating touch.
“I’ve tried in the past few years to unlearn a lot of the things that I’ve learned and unsee a lot of the things that I’ve seen. I try to live in a pretty naive world of self-indulgent mark-making. The first Elvis impersonator was original. I’m just trying to be the first Elvis impersonator – without seeing any movies.”
Ben Jones, April 2008