Interview with Jo Volley by John Lee Matney
Tell me about the idea behind the New Works for the New World show at the Linda Matney Gallery. How did these works come about?
In terms of this installation, the exhibit really didn't come into being until I was in this space, because I made the works in response to the gallery space. But the idea behind it, of course, has been brewing for some time now. As an artist one goes back, there’s always the painting, there’s always what you’re already doing, so it is a part of a series that I have been working on for some time now. It is very layered in the sense that through the making and the ideas that I have bubbling—those ideas—you could link them to the integrity of the color and the pigments, and to the making—the exploration of the materials that I am interested in. I have for some time now had a concern with the painting as an object, the painting as an object that sits on the wall. I began to think very much about the space between the wall and the painting—the way the painting confronts the wall—the back of the painting and the correlation to the wall, and how I could possibly animate that and think about that space. Why is the back of the painting not as beautiful as the front of the painting? In many ways it has another kind of life in the world, in a way. I suppose I was inspired by a book I was given some years ago, which was made just after the Second World War from the National Gallery in London of the paintings there. But the book showed the backs of the paintings in the National Gallery. Some of them had little paintings on them or inscriptions. This is all part of the making and the integrity of the piece of work.
My strong sense of the making and my interest in the materials come together in the object. I asked myself, “how can I get it to sit like I want it to sit?” I was thinking very much of this sort of funny world (I don't really know what to call it), because it is a disembodied world. That's when I was beginning to make reflections. I worked a lot with gold and reflected surfaces in the hope of making color in a way that would project onto a wall, almost like a conceptual color. I then started to work on the backs of the paintings so that they would project onto the wall, almost like a halo. My love of Italian painting, thinking of Piero and the halo, which is often a circle that is tipped to create a spiraling spacial dimension, led me to the relationship between the circle and the ellipse.
I tried to go for more modern pigments, relatively more modern pigments, even though florescent pigments began in the 30’s (I think I am right in saying that) and to create a halo that would emanate out, which is quite hard to control in a gallery situation depending on the lighting, in my studio I can do it—how things sit in a space. The paintings cannot hover on the wall, they have to be somehow fixed, but there is something about the way the circle of color hovers and creates an eminence, or certain other kind of glow. It doesn't happen in all of them. It’s subtler in some of them. Gallena has florescent paint on the back. It does actually, very subtly, when you look to the side of the picture, have a shadow that is projected. It is not the same as if it were just the white of the gesso, or what have you.
The shadow bends the space, like Matisse talks about. Of course we all know that pictures appear different in different spaces. They behave differently in different places. It is very exciting to come somewhere new and see the painting somewhere else in a different light than in my studio and see how it behaves.
I had a show many years ago in Brighton and I painted a very, very big, blue painting and I had been thinking of the Arena Chapel and Giotto, and I was painting it in my Tottenham studio in London, but I was thinking of the extraordinary quality of blue and the light. When the painting got to Brighton it was brightened by the sea and the painting never looked so good. I was thrilled, suddenly it came to life; it had its magic moment in that light. One of things about the show here that is exciting is the change that takes place with the painting as an object in a new space. I made these paintings in London in my studio, and I am working with ideas and I am working with the imagination toward something, but I am working with stuff—matter and pigments. I talk about this kind of strange sense that when you’re working with stuff there is a sort of separateness from the emotion—the emotional-ness of working. Some people are quite emotional when they are working, I am not. I am actually quite cool because I am dealing with issues: I am dealing with stuff and matter. It’s a leap of faith on your part to invite me here and a leap on my part to make these pictures and to see: how’s it going to be in its new space? You walk into the space, are they going to light it up? What are they going to do? In that sense there’s the act of faith and making, but you’re never sure about the scales. I think the scale here worked really well. When I walked into the gallery that day, I was surprised; it felt bigger than I imagined it to be.
Comment on the ellipse and there interaction with the spheres in this space. Is there something about their interaction that has stayed with you since the installation?
It has, of course—the shadows, shadows and the projection of the back of the canvas. I love painting on walls and going places. What did Cennino say? “To work directly on the wall is one of the most agreeable and impressive ways of working.” I love that. I love responding to that kind of moment, the performance of working on the wall. I did think of the painted ellipses as a kind of projected color shadow of the paintings. But of course as I came here, I thought I couldn't do too many, it would be too repetitive. And so with Elizabeth Mead’s help settling the paintings, I did then feel that I could complete the installation and think about them in the space. I see the installation process in this way: the paintings come into the space, I place the paintings in the best dialogue with the space and then somehow these interventions, as I might call them, say something more about the space—they draw attention in a different kind of way to your gallery, particularly that piece in the corner. I was particularly pleased with that, because I made the ink in college and demonstrated it. That particular piece interacts with the floor, it seemed to lend itself to the quality of the floor and the material I was using to make something different, make something new.
Can you elaborate on the pigments you used?
I have a relationship with Winsor & Newton’s archival pigments. Things are not made in the same way anymore; they are valued in different ways. Maybe that was the New Works for the New World because some of these pigments are from the Old World and go back a very long time, such as the malachite, which was used in antiquity and all of the earths there. All of these pigments have a particular history: the carmine that the Aztecs invented (which was in the New World and went to the Old World). I have lots of pigments. I wasn't quite sure what I would actually use for the ellipses, but I thought they were an interesting range to make a “sampler,” as I call it, which refers to my other research with my pigment timeline. And the smalt, there, is a beautiful, beautiful blue, which was superseded by cobalt blue in the 1800’s. It was made with glass, and there is the indigo and the malachite blues, and the ultramarine ash, which is a very particular, beautiful pale blue, but was really difficult to make. They would manufacture ultramarine blue from lapis and it would be graded, but as they ground it further and further it would lose its blueness, I suppose. And that strange manganese blue, they still make it, but they make it differently now; it’s quite poisonous and it wasn't made for a very long time. It’s quite an ugly blue, in a way; it’s that blue-tape color—very synthetic. The vivianite that is around the corner, I love because it is an earth color, but it's blue; we always imagine earth colors to be yellows and reds, but it comes from the earth. And in the back, there is a fantastic indigo from Winsor & Newton from a packet from 1879 sent to be tested, I think from George Field who was a chemist, and it was never opened. I love that connection to the past. You look at some of these colors that aren’t used anymore and they take you to places—your journey and imagination—when you think of where they came from. And they are different; their difference and particularity is exciting to me.
What brought you to the ellipse?
Elizabeth and I had an interesting conversation the other day. She showed me a drawing she did as a young student at the Slade, she must have been 18 or something, and she was talking about just trying to draw with a simple line, with an HB pencil, a top of a tea cup, just a line, but she would also discover the ellipse, a sitting space. It sits on the surface but also tips back into space. I think the ellipse, for me, beyond its relevance as a halo that I was talking about before, is its potential as a flat form to travel in a space. You can make a real space with it. The circles are there but they are static, but as soon as you add the ellipse they are moving, moving through space. That’s what it is for me. The essence of it is that, its potential to be making space.
Who are the people that have influence you most in your career or the people you admire?
You think of the great artists. You start off and you love Van Gogh, El Greco, and of course, Cezanne. I love all the early Italian painters, like Piero and Botticelli, and there are a lot of American artists I have admired. But when you talk about influences, it is often the people sitting next to you. You have those great painters of the world that you go to see in the galleries, but very often the greatest influences are those right next to you. My father was a very good artist. My brother was an artist. I was taught at art school. I was very privileged to be taught by William Coldstream, who was the head of The Slade who had this great heritage of teachers, and Euan Uglow, of course, of whom I became a colleague and friend. I think I am constantly being influenced—my conversations with Elizabeth and my fantastic colleague artists at The Slade. But if had to make the choice, I think it would have to be early Italian painting. And if I had choose only one, it would have to be Piero della Francesca, because of the light and quality of it, the geometry, and beautiful spirituality of the work.
Special thanks to Kristen Peyton for transcribing this interview