Michael Craik is a fantastic artist who lives in Scotland. His work is reductive and rich in color. His paintings http://michaelcraik.com/ are deceptively simple. They’re actually complex and multi-layered. I chatted with Michael about his work, his process and why Scotland is actually among the world’s innovative art nations. Since we're both named Michael and even have the same initials, I'm using ABG instead of my usual "Michael."
“… Through a process of retrospection, you gradually realise what’s of importance to you ... With each new work or series, I continued to reduce and condense and distill my focus until I ended up where I am today. Down to something elemental - colour and process …”
“… When I’m painting, I sometimes feel like I’m creating something that maybe only exists to document the time I spent making it. Is that’s spiritual? I’m not sure, maybe …”
ABG: Hey Michael, I love your work. It seems that you like to reduce things down to solid colors perhaps with a few shapes, outlines and accents. I'm tempted to label it, but I won't. How do you describe your work?
MICHAEL: Hi Michael, thank you for the invitation to chat about my work. So how do I describe my work? Well, at the moment, I’m working with a couple of mediums. I make acrylic paintings on aluminum and have more recently been developing a series of watercolours on paper.
I think for now I’ll focus on the acrylic work, which is kind of as you describe it, minimal in appearance, with simple blocks of saturated colour accentuated at the edges by subtle outlines of alternating hues. They’re mostly square, some have drips of paint hanging off the edges, but not all.
The appearance is more or less determined by the process I use to create them and I suppose that’s what they all have in common. I make each work by slowly building up layers of colour by brushing, spreading or pouring paint - sometimes as many as 50 to 60 layers - and then I repeatedly sand back the surface over time and this reveals glimpses of previously painted layers at the edges.
So in some works, you get strata of paint hanging off the edge of the panel, whereas in others, you have fields of colour surrounded by softer bands. For me, the process of making them is very important. It’s a very repetitive act. So, yes I do reduce things in terms of content, but also quite literally, as I’m constantly removing paint to get to the end point.
ABG: So many people might look at your work and say, “That's it? I could do that!” However, as you've just stated, your work is quite involved. What do you say to people who just see some of your work as a mass of one color on canvas?
MICHAEL: I suppose I have occasionally encountered that view. Although, perhaps not as often as one might think, but I guess that might simply be because the visitor to an exhibition who holds that opinion often keeps it to themselves. I live and work in Scotland where concrete, non-representational or monochrome painting can be found, but is not particularly prevalent.
The tradition here, at least in painting, is a strongly figurative one. So that point of view, if it comes up, has to be understood within this context.
And I do understand it, but I’m often surprised when people hold an objection to the celebration and enjoyment of colour. It’s a contextual thing. I also work as a gardener a couple of days a week and often have positive exchanges about the colour of a particular flower or even the sky, without, for example, the need to reason why we take enjoyment from it or why we should form a preference for one colour over another.
ABG: I totally understand.
MICHAEL: I think the type of person you allude to can become frustrated if they sense some sort of self-indulgence or laziness in an artist’s work, and I can see how the presentation of a field of colour could appear to be that. So I suppose, if I have an opportunity, I try to contextualise the paintings.
As it can be a leap for a viewer, unless they've been familiar with your work for some time, to understand where the blue painting they’re looking at might have come from - how did I arrive at it?
ABG: I love that question. How did you arrive at it?
MICHAEL: My work evolves, each painting is a response to the last and the evolution of my practice has been a gradual one that stretches back to the paintings I produced twenty years ago. Back then I painted architecture - details of contemporary buildings. Through a process of retrospection, you gradually realise what’s of importance to you.
For me, the subject was the first thing to go as I think it was probably just a device to make paintings. With each new work or series, I continued to reduce and condense and distill my focus until I ended up where I am today. Down to something elemental - colour and process. If you explain that journey and the choices you make and what you invest in your work then, with luck that leads to, if not an appreciation, then at least a better understanding.
ABG: Very nice. The fact that you've narrowed your work down to color and process suggests to me that your work is intellectually driven. Is it ever emotional or spiritual for you ... the actual process of painting?
MICHAEL: That’s funny, I’m smiling, as when I told my partner you suggested my work was intellectually-driven she left the room laughing.
ABG: Ha! Ha!
MICHAEL: In all honesty, I don’t know if it is. I tend to think it’s something a bit more base level that drives it. Something instinctive or necessary, if that makes sense. I mean, my relationship with colour is, more or less, an intuitive one and, yes, in all likelihood there’s an emotional response too, but somehow, I never feel very comfortable with that term. Perhaps because “emotional” is a loaded word or perhaps because I’m Scottish, and emotion is normally only reserved for national sporting failures.
ABG: Ha! Ha!
MICHAEL: I probably wouldn’t describe the process of painting emotional as I often feel like I’m making a series of practical decisions when painting - problem solving. Spiritual is also a word I would normally try to circumnavigate, but I’m not sure if I can tell you why because the process is certainly very important to me.
I think that once you develop a method of working that, in my case, becomes physically repetitive, quiet and solitary process then it becomes a counterpoint to many other things that fill your life. So in that sense, it’s certainly a contemplative process. When I’m painting, I sometimes feel like I’m creating something that maybe only exists to document the time I spent making it. Is that’s spiritual? I’m not sure, maybe.
ABG: Given what you've just said, do you think people have a tendency to over-intellectualize contemporary art and artists? Would it be more advisable for us all to just look at art and either love it or dislike it and move on? Are we expecting art to contain secret code to unlock the mysteries of life? Do we often expect too much from art ... and artists?
MICHAEL: Boy, those are big questions. You know, I hope I didn't appear glib at the start of my last answer, but I guess it highlights something problematic - that it can often be difficult to pinpoint all your reasons for making an artwork.
ABG: I understand.
MICHAEL: I certainly don’t have a problem with the intellectualization of art because to discuss art intellectually is really just an attempt to understand it. And, after all, artists choose to make work because they’re either trying to understand something, however small or profound that may be, or they are asking questions. So, art is the pursuit of understanding, on one level. But of course, it’s also a very personal expression and so there’s always going to be an inseparable emotional element, which even if it’s not on display, is invested in the making of the artwork.
Personally, I’m aware that my process of repeatedly applying paint and stripping it back again reflects something I need to express. It’s like a self-imposed tussle. But I’m not sure I can convey to you what it means.
When over-intellectualisation goes too far, it may be because the intellectual process, by definition, is a process of reasoning without recourse to emotion. It can ignore that fact that some things may be inexplicable. I think it’s often more of a problem with the language that surrounds art, which can be elitist, and often opaque. Which is why your blog is so valuable as it attempts to cut through that language and, in your words, demystify.
Ultimately, the viewing of artwork is as personal an experience as the making of it. Some people probably do expect too much, whereas others walk on by without consideration. Both are valid positions as we all have different questions. I once gave a talk at an exhibition, which was attended by a lady who had come because she was really frustrated with my work. However, even though she was a little angry, she admitted that she didn’t need to get it, she just wanted to know where to begin with it. That was a relief as I don’t think I would ever be able to explain to somebody how to get it.
ABG: What do you think about the art world and the art market and how they function? Do they make sense to you? Do you feel part of them?
MICHAEL: I do feel part of the art world, but I have a much weaker sense that I’m part of an art market. Or rather, it feels like I’ve hovered on the fringes of the art market throughout my career, a place you drop in and out of but never remain. But that has a lot to do with both my geographic location and the type of work I make - there simply aren’t enough outlets for the type of work I do in Scotland, which goes back to what I said earlier about the tradition in Scottish painting.
In recent years, I’ve focused my efforts on Germany, where I’ve discovered many more artists with whom I have an affinity. I have an exhibition in Oberhausen, which I’m particularly excited about because it’s an opportunity to exhibit alongside two incredible German artists in a gallery, which has a reputation for presenting exactly the type of work I admire.
MICHAEL: Of course, the art world is far too large and multifaceted to fully comprehend or make sense of, so to navigate it, you need to try to align yourself with like-minded artists, because if you can achieve that then, with luck, you find a receptive audience. But it can be incredibly time-consuming, particularly if you need to travel far to do so. Social media and the internet of course make the research simpler, but the likelihood you’ll be presented with an opportunity to show work in a commercial gallery solely based on your online presence is extremely slim.
ABG: What’s the art world in Scotland like? Scotland strikes me as being more traditional and not really a country that produces edgy art or artists.
MICHAEL: You know, there’s a hugely rich variety of contemporary art being made in Scotland, across all art forms and mediums. At the more experimental end of the spectrum, there has been a focus in recent years on Glasgow School of Art. Have you’ve heard of the Turner Prize?
ABG: Of course.
MICHAEL: It’s organised by the Tate Gallery in London and is considered by many to be the most prestigious prize for contemporary art in the UK. Well, over the years, Glasgow has produced a disproportionately high number of nominees and winners for the prize - artists such as Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce, to name a couple. And there are some interesting artists' collectives working in Scotland, who are developing new initiatives and producing exciting projects.
At the other end of the spectrum, yes, you get traditional work, but you also find artists exploring everything in-between. I suspect the reason you may not associate Scotland with daring or exciting work is not because this type of work isn’t being produced here, but because there doesn’t exist a market in Scotland that resembles anything like the kind of market you would find in cities such as Berlin, London or New York.
There are no major art fairs in Scotland and a limited choice of commercial galleries representing contemporary Scottish art. So that’s why I mainly look abroad for opportunities to show my work.
ABG: You know Michael, a lot of artists all over the world complain about their local galleries and institutions not supporting them in favor of artists from other parts of the world. Would the art world be better off if institutions and cities everywhere primarily supported local artists?
MICHAEL: Oh, I wasn’t complaining. Our cultural experience would be a poorer one if our galleries and institutions followed that path. If we went down that route, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy the work of James Turell, Robert Ryman, Fred Sandback, Gerhard Richter or John McCracken, to name a few memorable shows.
Perhaps I need to expand on what I meant when I said ‘limited choice.’ It’s probably helpful to make a distinction between commercial galleries and public ones. In Scotland, the majority of commercial galleries actually do focus on Scottish artists. However, because we are a small country (just over 5 million) private galleries simply don’t exist in the same sort of numbers you might find in other European countries. So it follows that the choice, or the representation of variety, is not huge when you consider the diversity of art being produced. Although, I’m certain there are artists in Germany and the States thinking exactly the same. Larger public galleries and institutions in Scotland obviously have an international outlook and rightly so, however you do also find local artists represented, but normally only if the local artist in question already has an international standing.
ABG: That makes perfect sense.
MICHAEL: From a personal perspective, I’ve been working in Scotland for 20 years and have shown my work in a variety of galleries here, both public and private. I would like to, and will continue to do so, but as my work develops and changes, I recognise that the audience for what I produce right now might not be on my doorstep. So, at present, I need to look abroad if I want to build my career. Tastes obviously differ from country to country, even city to city. So one of the hardest jobs for an artist is, first and foremost, to remain true to your work (bit of a cliché, but true) and then once you’ve done so, try and find the people who are most likely to appreciate what you’ve made. This is obviously a bummer if it’s not where you live, but hey, you get to travel.
MICHAEL: One other thing I would add is that there are actually decent levels of support for artists in Scotland, in the form of grants. I’ve fortunately received several regional and national awards over the years to support the development of new work, publications or exhibitions. Without them, I probably would’ve faltered by now, which is why it’s increasingly sad that cultural budgets continue to be cut everywhere you look.
ABG: I understand. Do you come from an artistic family? How did this all begin for you?
MICHAEL: I wish I could pinpoint a beginning for you, an event, a desire or a calling that lead me to this career. But there’s nothing specific I can recollect that made me choose to be an artist.
We weren’t an artistic family. My father began life in the merchant navy and went on to become a teacher, whereas my mother taught biochemistry and botany at university. I may have some distant relatives with artistic bones, but when it comes to the nature/nurture debate, I lean toward the nurture argument.
I guess I've never really felt like I fit in. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I’m detached or wacky. I’m actually quite sociable and open. I mean it more in the sense that I’ve always preferred to have a sense of autonomy or independence. So perhaps that’s why I was attracted to the visual arts - it’s a world created by individuals who spend their days making up their own rules and stepping aside from convention.
ABG: As we're speaking, you've been preparing for two exhibitions. What's involved in preparing for shows? How's it different from just painting during any other time?
MICHAEL: Yes, there's always plenty of preparation for an exhibition once the brushes are put away and I often find it a tricky change of gear - you have to start wearing a lot of new hats.
To begin with, I photograph all my new work and then spend hours processing the images. Then, of course, you have to update your website, send out email campaigns and start posting news on social media. There’s also a lot of other practical jobs, such as building bespoke wooden crates and packaging the artworks.
You must also book transport for the work and yourself and write artist statements for the galleries and post listings on websites. In the past, I’ve had to design catalogues and invitations, but not for these shows - although I am considering producing a general booklet that I may send out to a few select galleries, as I often feel that all the electronic noise can get lost and something physical grabs the attention better. There’s generally also a lot of communication back and forth between all the other artists and individuals involved in the project, planning installations, that sort of thing.
So yes, it’s all very different from the actual painting and can be frustrating as the studio time completely evaporates, but it’s all essential. The period after an exhibition is sometimes difficult as it can be a challenge regaining the momentum and adjusting the mindset once you get the time back into the studio.
ABG: I've always said that artists are small business people … they’re artrepreneurs. Finally Michael, all of this work and for what? Most people on earth would rather go to a soccer game than an art gallery. So what's the point?
MICHAEL: There we have the million dollar question. I won’t be alone in asking it during periods where it’s difficult to see what all the effort has actually achieved.
You know, when I started out at art college, I didn’t choose to become an artist because I believed there was a point to it. In actual fact, I chose to study painting because I was told by a tutor that I couldn’t - I’m not so stubborn these days. But once you start leaving a little of yourself on a wall or in a room for people to examine, it kind of feels like it would be a betrayal if you abandoned it. You create and present this stuff that was really only made for you and eventually, it becomes impossible to disentangle it from who you are.
Because ultimately art is an expression of the human condition, it’s a limitless landscape that offers both the artist and the viewer a tool for exploring some fragment of that. You’ll be disappointed if you think the point of art is to provide satisfactory answers, but you’ll gain enjoyment from it if, at some point, you recognise a small part of yourself in it.
ABG: Fantastic. Thanks Michael. I love your work. I hope you keep in touch.
MICHAEL: Thank you Michael. It’s been great talking with you.
Check out Michael Craik at http://michaelcraik.com/.