At the Russian Federation Pavilion in Venice, the American writer and artist Alice Bucknell’s film Swamp City imagines the Florida Everglades as a luxury nature resort for high-tech eco-tourism in a near future reality of severe climate disruption.
‘Interior (Evening)’ by Christopher Page
at Blue Mountain School, London
Words by Dan Thawley
In a new site-specific work for the multi-hyphenate cultural space Blue Mountain School in London, the British artist Christopher Page brings the Ancient Roman art of trompe l’oeil fresco hurtling into the 21st century with his singular approach to contemporary painting practice. Below he speaks to A Magazine Curated By’s editor in chief Dan Thawley on the inspirations, process and context of his practice.
What you paint isn’t exactly what it seems. Trompe l’oeil is clearly an important part of your practice, and I wanted to ask how you developed that and what inspired you to take that route in painting?
Christopher Page: Yes, trompe l’oeil is important to me because it is overtly not what it appears to be. Trompe l’oeil is both absent and present. Rather than being a simple picture of something, it is a ghostly presence. It’s as though the thing is both there in the room with you, and also not. What inspired me to bring trompe l’oeil into my practice was Roman wall painting. I went to Naples and to Pompeii for the first time a few years ago and it really stunned me how contemporary Roman wall painting is. It’s so strange how the interiors of those houses were painted, frescoed to appear to have windows that look out onto exteriors which aren’t there. They have illusory paintings hanging on the walls that appear to cast shadows. I just couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why they would have an entirely painted interior that mimicked an interior space. Why not hang a picture on the wall rather than have a picture of a picture? It seemed like such a modern – or postmodern – thing to do. When I came back from this trip that my partner Clementine and I took years ago, I immediately started painting paintings of paintings, illusory frames that surround illusory paintings. And from there, I started thinking about other framing devices: windows, mirrors, screens. Roman wall painting also inspired me to paint directly on walls, and on ceilings. A part of my work is trying to bring out the strange modernity of those ancient paintings.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that period, and it makes perfect sense when you look at what you’re doing now and translating that in such a contemporary way. It makes so much sense when you think of the reproduction of marble as well, which was then translated into French and British stately homes too. That idea of where the real marble stops and the fake marble begins is quite interesting. And as you said, there are many theories about why that is the case, whether it was about cost, or the mastery of a certain talent to be able to mimic natural stone. Furthermore, how does your work respond to the historical narrative of the mural?
Christopher Page: As you said, it runs through history. And the thing that really fascinates me is that the illusion has not stopped today. I think we live in a very illusionistic environment. If you walk around any city today, it is plastered in trompe l’oeil: buildings with facades that mimic brick, interiors where the surfaces are all laminate or Formica that look like marble or granite. You go into hardware stores and find all sorts of simulated slate, stone, whatever. There are materials everywhere which are there to mimic much heavier, more structural materials. And yes, historical trompe l’oeil was about expense, and also about scarcity, as well as making things simple. It’s much simpler to build a light plaster wall and paint tromp l’oeil marble on it than it is to get huge sections of actual marble. And I think that’s still true today. You walk around the built environment and it’s heavily imagistic. So as you say, I think the history of frescoes runs deep through Western visual culture, and in my opinion it really hasn’t stopped. It’s perhaps more present now than it used to be. Our environment is more of a simulation than a baroque stately home!
Indeed, I think here in Paris is a good example. The Place Vendôme is constantly in transformation and the expense that they go to in order to cover the scaffolding with identical versions of the building behind them (or the building that will be behind them), I think is quite fascinating. As much as they will plaster luxury advertising on top, they’ll just go to this amazing level of care and expense to recreate the hôtel particulière behind it as they transform it. It’s quite amazing.
Christopher Page: Absolutely. Those trompe l’oeil building wraps are strange aren’t they? They problematize space in such a fascinating way. I think they bring out something that’s latent in the city already – this sort of entanglement between image and space, cities performing themselves.
What is your relationship with shadow and transparency? I think it’s very important not only in these works, but in your work in general and even more so in other paintings that explore those ideas to a greater extent with sunlight, beams, shadows of trees and things like that. Are you questioning what may be behind the viewer as much as what’s in front of them?
Christopher Page: Yes absolutely. What may be behind the viewer – that’s exactly it. A lot of my work focuses on light in one way or another. Shadows and reflections are the particular focus of my work at present. Something I find interesting in the history of painting is the competing narratives about where and how painting began. One origin myth is that painting emerges out of the mirror, out of a kind of Narcissus story: we see our image reflected and we are struck by it. We’re seduced by it, and endeavour to capture it. [Leon Battista] Alberti mentions this origin, painting emerging from the mirror, in his treatise on painting. Other people see painting as emerging not from the mirror, from reflection, but from shadow. Pliny [the Elder] recites the myth of the Corinthian Maid, wherein a maid from Corinth had a lover who was departing to go to war and to keep him with her she traced his shadow that was cast on a wall. The Corinthian Maid is itself a topos in painting – there’s a lovely painting of the scene by Joseph Wright of Derby, for example. So reflections and shadows are fundamental to the very idea of painting. I think the fact that painting could come from either mirrors or from shadows tells us that painting itself has a lot to do with absent presences – things that aren’t there. So when I paint shadows, I’m thinking about how it disturbs the image that we’re looking at, how it makes us think about things which aren’t there.
To the other part of your question, I am indeed interested in what’s going on behind the viewer. I want to bring the architectural context into the painting. One of my favourite paintings is The Ambassadors by Holbein, the one that hangs in the National Gallery. What’s amazing about that painting is the way the elongated – or anamorphic – skull that appears at the lower part of the painting appears as a weird stain – you don’t really know what it is until you move your body to a particular place. What’s amazing and so strange about that painting is that most paintings make sense if you look at them head on. That painting makes sense if you look at it head on, but the skull only makes sense if you look at it from the side, so it makes you move, and feel, your body in space. When you’re looking at it this way, you can’t see it that way; when you’re looking at it that way, you can’t see it this way. It opens up a void in vision itself. In my paintings with shadows – as though cast by an adjacent window – I want to give the sense of something going on behind you as you look at this image in front of you. It makes you feel embodied in space and perhaps also disembodied, because the thing casting a shadow isn’t actually there.
Absolutely. Just like looking at one of your ‘mirror’ paintings upon your own visage, that is also not in front of you. It’s very interesting. Continuing with the topic of architecture, what is the role that architecture plays in your work, and in particular in this installation at Blue Mountain School?
Christopher Page: Architecture is very present in all of my work, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. All of my paintings are things which would exist in an interior – mirrors, windows, frames, screens – and all painted at 1:1 scale. Because they’re 1:1 scale and are representations of elements that would hang in an interior, they talk to the architecture in which they hang. And, as you say, the shadows of windows emphasise that architectural context. My wall and ceiling paintings are even more direct interventions into the architectural space. For me, architecture is another kind of framing device. Architecture frames us. It places us and locates us, and it also directs our vision through its apertures – through windows, through screens, through mirrors. When we’re in a room, our vision is directed and framed. And rooms are themselves kind of frames.
In terms of Blue Mountain School in particular, it’s a beautiful building, a beautiful space. And everything in that building is very ‘material’. It announces its materiality, from the thick wooden balustrades and the heavy bolts to the metal windows and the raw wood floors. It has a certain density and the tones of the building are muted, they are brooding in a way that took my mind to certain places. The grey plaster walls interested me because they announce their materiality, but they’re also theatrical – they’re not actually the kind of material that the surfaces might imply, they’re just walls that have been thickly plastered, which, again, brings my mind back to Roman wall paintings, which were plastered brick, frescoed to look like marble and stone. Again, that simulated interior. So when I was walking around and thinking about what I might do in that space, I was thinking about that overt materiality and how it’s more theatrical than it might first appear. I started to think that the work I’d want to make would start to bring out those tensions, to make something that could be looked at as a stage set.
Your works play with the ceiling height as well- they draw the eye upwards in that double-height atrium.
Christopher Page: Absolutely, and again quite Roman, the ‘atrium’. So I painted these two window-like wall paintings, which themselves point upwards to two real windows. Depending on the time of day, it creates a peculiar conversation between two skies – the painted and the actual sky. The stormy, grayscale sky that you see through the illusory windows talks to the actual sky above that you see through the high windows in the atrium, and makes it seem quite virtual. The painted sky can end up looking more real than the actual sky above.
It’s very interesting what you say about how you actually did create sort of an intrinsic aesthetic alignment with your idea of Blue Mountain School. You have indeed rejected the neon paint and fluorescent colours of your other work. There’s a certain alignment there that speaks to their aesthetic and ideas of what the space represents.
You briefly touched on the unevenness of the plaster and the surface that you were confronted with, because I know you’ve created many other site specific works in the past, but at the same time much of your work is based on the smoothness and the flatness of a canvas. So I was wondering from a more technical point of view, how you approached that parameter?
Christopher Page: Yeah, I didn’t know that it would actually be possible because of how thick the plaster is on the walls. They were quite daunting. So I had to do a test and sand the hell out of them. I had to attack the walls to force them into something that would be paintable. It was a technical challenge. Because of that real impasto texture of those walls, there is a texture that remains underneath my wall painting. It’s not as smooth as my usual wall paintings, but I like that. I keep going back to Roman wall painting, but it almost looks like some of the wall paintings you see in Pompeii; having been covered in lava, the frescoed walls have this slight distortion, this movement and the surface, which I really like because it is in tension with the painted illusion. The ground of my painting has that kind of movement in it, and the cloud painted on top has a different movement, and the two movements speak to one another. Having different smoothness and roughness is something I’m interested in, and how that works with the eye, what feels more real and less real.
How do you approach the actual physicality of such a surface and create all those minute effects that are so important to the level of sophistication and subtlety of your painting. Could you explain the airbrushing and the preparation as well?
Christopher Page: Well, it’s a matter of sanding it back as much as I possibly could, and drawing out the frame that I’m going to paint within, taping it off and then filling and smoothing the surface, and painting an undercoat. Then I cover all the walls and make sure I don’t damage any of the surrounding areas or get paint on those beautiful clothes at Blue Mountain School – which was a real worry! Then I begin spraying; I use quite a large air gun, (which I think is mainly used for applying fake tan to people!) Then I just slowly, slowly build up a cloudy surface, and go from dark to light to dark to light, very slowly build up this movement. I stand back and try to take it in, work slowly to build up these layers and layers of cloud form, and make it smooth and dramatic. Then finally I add a painted drop shadow to each of the frames, so it looks like the clouds are slightly set back from the wall. This gives an illusory sense of depth to the painting, but it also creates a contradiction because window frames couldn’t cast shadows on the sky. Clouds are shorthand for deep or infinite space, but then a drop shadow would suggest shallow space. So having deep space and shallow space on top of each other like that creates a visual contradiction.
To that very effect, I was quite interested in the duality of the hanging work between the murals as well. Have you explored that idea in the past? Because of that drop shadow, as you said, there is the evocation of an exterior space and a penetration of the wall that’s not actually happening. And then you have the exact opposite, which is adding a forward-facing element through that octagonal work, which plays on its own level there, because that’s often a signification of a window yet here is a mirror. The octagon adds a church-like architectural element. I was curious whether you’ve played with that idea before and what sort of a statement that is to play with that multiplicity within the installation. To me, it adds the theatricality and that ‘exhibition’ element rather than it just being a simple wall painting or fresco.
Christopher Page: Yes I’ve never produced an exhibition before that has a wall painting and a canvas in such close dialogue. They’ve lived near each other before, but I’ve never created an environment with those elements so integrated. It’s a new thing for me. And I was interested to see how it would work out because a canvas next to a wall painting does all of a sudden take on a new materiality, or presence. It very much feels like a thing in the room. My wall paintings tend to recede and therefore to foreground the wall itself – the wall, which usually disappears behind an artwork, becomes a thing in the room. But then when you have something hanging on the wall, that thing is then foregrounded even more than the wall itself. So you get this layering of space. I think it’s worked well because they’re playing with space in different ways. The mirror which appears to reflect the room is in fact erasing the space, so to speak. The windows look beyond the space, but also bring you back to the space. So it’s done something interesting.
It’s a new, more immediate symbiosis of the different parts of your practice, conversing in close quarters.
Christopher Page: Yes, it really does feel like a stage set, and I suppose what interests me about stage sets is they are the purest entanglement of space and image. Stage sets really are as much images as they are spaces, or they’re images masquerading as space. And I suppose something about the canvas painting hanging on the wall with the wall paintings really starts to make the space feel theatrical in a way that I don’t think I’ve done before.
I wanted to ask about that diametrically-opposed precision and geometry in your work and colour that one may say is so far removed from what one might expect in Blue Mountain School, which is essentially a space dedicated to the borderline of art and craft. It’s very much about the human hand and the rejection of the machine and all that sort of thing, whereas your work at the same time perfectly embodies that. It’s very much your simulation of the machine, but it also includes some of your tools to do that. And so I’m quite interested in that opposition of the perfection that you are simulating and essentially the imperfection that is so entangled in their vision, whether it’s wabi sabi, Japanese artists, whether it’s the clothes hanging downstairs. There’s so many elements, as you said, even the materiality of the space it’s enclosed within has a performative aspect of brutality. So I wanted to see how you thought about being included in that environment and how there must be certain leaps to be made as an artist to see oneself there.
Christopher Page: You know, I hadn’t actually thought about that directly, but it’s bringing lots of thoughts to mind. They do very much focus on the handmade as a kind of rejection of the mass-produced and the machine-produced, alienated production. They’re focusing on handicraft that is less alienated. And that’s definitely something I think about. I am a painter that uses brushes. After all, my paintings are handmade things. Saying that, I try and erase my own hand, which talks to the alienated production of our time. But in erasing my own hand, it does nonetheless bring up the question of the hand. I’m not having my work factory produced, I’m not having things machine produced. They are very much produced by me. I don’t even have an assistant, I produce them entirely myself. And so you might argue that maybe there is a nostalgia for a world of artisanal production in my work. If there is, it would be very subdued and I’d blush to admit it. But perhaps there is. I definitely spend a lot of time worrying about how alienated our world is. So I suppose it would fit in that way. Blue Mountain School is an attempt at a less alienated mode of production that does talk to my work in interesting ways.
I almost find it as interesting as I did in the first interaction I ever had with historical artworks in their space, too. I found it very interesting last year to see a Sicilian terracotta plate or a della Robbia inside Ben Hunter’s terracotta show – it’s just another interesting layer of historical appropriation because you saw artists that are either mimicking, preserving or at least thinking about the techniques of those periods today. Those works are more than anecdotal in that they are speaking to these long traditions and keeping said traditions alive. And then to think about your work as having readings that are so far removed from that, it’s quite fun. I think it’s progressive for Blue Mountain School to be doing this and to be questioning their own space and the aesthetics that have become so attached to that space.
Christopher Page: If there is a nostalgia for some kind of artisanal production of my work, the countervailing thing in my work would be that I think that Roman painting, baroque painting, painting in general – artisanal spectacle, if you like – leads directly to our culture of technological spectacle. So if there is a latent nostalgia, that nostalgia is very much complicated by a feeling that the artisanal world was itself a world of rather alienated spectacle that leads directly to our world. I don’t see our world as wholly different from, let’s say, the Baroque or the Renaissance, which itself was very image-laden.
I imagine that showing your work in the last year or so has had its challenges. As an artist today, how do you approach the fact that quite often your work will be consumed through a screen? Is that problematic for you?
Christopher Page: I definitely dwell on it a lot. It’s a problem, but it’s also something very interesting for me to think about, because we do consume so many things through screens. But I almost see my work as a way of thinking through a society of screens. That’s really what my work is ultimately about; it’s about thinking about a world in which almost everything is mediated by screens. I think the world has been mediated by screens (in the general sense) for a long time – mediated by images, mediated by windows, mediated by mirrors. For whatever reason, humans mediate their experience through flat screens, flat images. But now more than ever. It’s funny because, ideally, people would see my work in the flesh and they would be able to experience the tension between the materiality of the paint and the image that they think they are seeing. That is the tension that’s at the heart of my work, that these are made of thick, viscous liquid on textile – paint on canvas – and yet what you think you’re seeing is a mirror. You think you’re seeing glass or you think you’re seeing a frame, you think you’re seeing a sky. But what you’re actually seeing is a viscous liquid applied to a textile, and that kind of perceptual dissonance is what I’m seeking. And obviously, when that then appears as pixels on a screen, the material encounter is no longer possible. But on the other hand I would hope that the sense of my paintings, of questioning mediation through images, would still translate on a screen and might even encourage people to think about the screen that they’re looking at. Because I suppose my work – rather than focussing on the image that one sees in the frame – focuses on the frame itself, the device that delivers the image, whether that’s the frame of the mirror, the frame of the window etc. Windows frame a view and turn a landscape, let’s say – which is obviously spatial – nto an image. A mirror frames the reflection of a room and turns it, and turns ourselves, into images. So my work focuses on the frame itself, the device that creates the image, that carries the image. That’s why my paintings look blank; I want a confrontation with the framing device rather than with the image itself. I turn the framing device into an image so that it can be seen. There’s definitely a strangeness of seeing my work in digital form. But hopefully, if they are at all successful in what they’re trying to do, perhaps they would highlight to people the framing device, the iPhone, the computer screen – the ‘Windows’ – they’re looking into, and make that just a little bit more visible, even if the material encounter with the painting isn’t possible.
Going back to the hanging work framed by the two windows – how did you come upon that particular piece?
Christopher Page: So the octagon painting wasn’t actually at first intended for the exhibition, but when it was finished I immediately knew that it would work really well. I suppose it’s that thing that people say, that a letter always arrives at the destination it was intended for. It really completes the show in a way that perhaps the oval painting didn’t quite. I hadn’t really thought about the octagon beforehand architecturally, but I suppose maybe you’re alluding to rose windows. As soon as I put it up there, all of a sudden there was a church-like quality – it felt like a temple or a church, which was interesting to me. There is nothing I would like more than to bring about a churchly atmosphere! I think church interiors are probably my greatest inspiration besides Roman wall painting. They’re buildings which are designed to direct the gaze towards the altar and the apse. All directed towards the end of the room, and even the rose window there to cast light in that direction – the light of God.
Christopher Page: Churches are buildings which are so visually charged and stage-managed. Clearly they’re spatial as well, but the way they use images and use apertures to direct our vision and create a certain ambience of reverence is fascinating.
And equally as theatrical.
Christopher Page: So theatrical. I’ve been reading recently about how we don’t even realise how theatrical they were. Cathedrals were spaces of high spectacle in the Baroque. A lot of the openings and architectural features that we just see as formal were actually spaces where angels were supposed to come out of clouds that were rigged up to machines etc. They were really crazy, almost like musical theatre. But now they’re much quieter, more contemplative spaces.
How long did it take you to finish this work?
Christopher Page: I had only a very short amount of time because of childcare demands. I have two kids and I couldn’t leave my partner for too long. So I went to Blue Mountain School to produce the small window painting. That was almost a test to see if it could be done. So that was a day. And then I came down for two full days to produce the two larger window paintings. So two or three full days, morning to night. And then the canvas painting took a period, my paintings take a couple of months or so to produce.
So it’s an assemblage of various time periods that have condensed upon each other then.
Christopher Page: Exactly. And made during a period in which time feels very strange for everyone – lockdown. One reason for this particular work was the period we’re coming out of, the period in which our homes might have started to feel like quite strange spaces, and a time in which the city might feel very ghostly. And so in making an empty, quite ghostly space that’s this entanglement of image and space, I was thinking also about how these cities that we build, which are so imagistic and such entanglements of image and space are also now sort of empty, and these images are all of a sudden speaking to no one. And now we’re coming back out into the city. Something about that ghostly ambiance was borne out of this time period.
I’m glad you added that, because the current context is adding so many new layers of meaning to work. And I’m sure different visitors will take their own levels of sad readings out of it if they want to (laughs).
Christopher Page: I hope that it brings some sort of peculiar joy as well.
Oh, absolutely. But, you know, it’s very easy to look at dark clouds and the ominous mirror with no one behind it – you could totally go there if you wanted to. It’s just a sign of the times.
‘Interior (Evening)’ by Christopher Page (2021) is on view indefinitely at Blue Mountain School by appointment at 9 Chance Street, Shoreditch, London.
Photography by Damian Griffiths
Courtesy of Blue Mountain School
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