You often can’t plan the artistic process, and Guy Denning‘s work is a testament to that. Both his work and career have been shaped largely by chance. He is continually surprised by what develops in his own paintings, with the final product often quite different from the original intention. Moreover, his career has been guided by circumstance; repeatedly rejected from universities, Denning was forced to seek out his own artistic education. This untraditional path led his to develop his own fiercely unique style–one that has garnered him long-due recognition in recent years. And while it may not be the path he planned, it’s the one he’s found himself on. And he’s making the most of it.
Hi-Fructose correspondent Lauren Quinn interviews Denning below.
You’ve been painting for over twenty years, but have only recently come into prominence. Can you speak a little about where you are now in your career, and why you think you’ve begun to receive more attention in the last few years?
I’m happier now that I can devote more time to my work and I think the work is improving because of the time I can now put into it. I do feel though that I must be much more self-critical about it. I’ll only be here once – I need to make sure that I’ve shown that I’ve tried to do the best job I can.
Rejection from mainstream institutions—galleries, universities, etc—has been a large part of your story. You’ve been quoted as saying that you were once bitter about being excluded, but now realize that it has made you who you are. How has rejection shaped your work, and you?
It’s difficult to know isn’t it! If I’d gone though the art college mill who knows where I’d be. Would I be bolting together accretions of domestic refuse and assigning great tomes of art-bollocks discourse to it? Or would I be working on a building site somewhere always wondering ‘What if…’Probably the latter… Rejection definitely drove me to some part. I wouldn’t have actually studied art history through the Open University if I didn’t feel I needed to validate my knowledge in some regards. I wouldn’t consider myself bitter about that exclusion now. After all it’s all part of what got me where I am now. Perhaps it drove me in some part so I’m grateful in that; also I avoided the art-school dogmas of the 80s – something else to be happy about.
In lieu of formal training, you forged friendships with artists you admired and learned through them. Which of these artists were most influential to you, and how have they helped to shape your work?
The most helpful, in terms of practical knowledge of some aspects of paint technique, was the late Terry Plackitt who lived about 20 miles from me in Somerset. He was also pretty keyed in to the nonsense that is the ‘art market’ and that was a very useful education. He was lovely bloke and though I only new him briefly (a few years) I do miss his input on whatever I was doing. There aren’t many people’s judgement of my own work that I value like that – he was a painter and that’s more important to me than getting criticism outside of my chosen field. Most of my education though was through looking at other people’s work (artists dead and alive). I’ll look at a painting carefully if it ‘grabs’ me visually I’ll try and analyse why. It’s rarely because of the subject; it’s usually the techniques of execution. If I see something done with paint that interests me I want to understand how it was made and perhaps attempt my own go at it. It’s just about attempting to master the medium a little more. Different artists have influenced me for various reasons but the few that have always inspired me are Franz Kline, RB Kitaj and Kathe Kollwitz. I would say that Kollwitz’s work is the closest to my heart. That blend of raw honesty and social comment from a personal perspective is something I always would aspire to. Her work never fails to move me at the deepest levels and is the nearest I have found in visual art to the ‘goosebumps in music’ sensation. Christ – if I could do that to people with my work…
You’ve spoken about the “aspect of chance” in your work, the “fortunate accident.” How does this process play out? To what extent do you “plan” a piece, per se, versus discover it as you work?
I don’t think I’ve ever set out to make a painting as it eventually turns out. I know it sounds strange but each piece is like an adventure. I’ll start with a base idea of subject but as things go wrong with the work (and they always do) I’ll modify the original plan to either accommodate those ‘happy accidents’ or totally obliterate the mistakes. The way I work involves a great degree of patience and the acceptance that what makes a painting work is more or less out of my own hands. Paintings will sit on the studio walls for ages while I’m waiting for the moment of realising what’s pissing me off to suddenly turn up. I can remember once painting a highlight with some white paint, that, because of its original consistency, and the nature of the oil I thinned it with, and the sort of brush I used, accidentally left a finish that I’d only seen before in a Rembrandt painting. You find these things and you log them in your head – another tool you can use in the future. That’s the joy of painting.
5How has your recent success changed the way you work? How has it changed you?
I’m slowing down the output. If people are paying good money (and in these financial times too) they deserve the best I can give. On the personal front I’m frequently kicking myself up the arse for not getting enough done. I’m not taking my good fortune for granted or taking as a given… It’s still difficult getting used to the fact that I don’t have to support my art work with some other crappy job. I feel a bit guilty sometimes – like I’ve copped out of the real world. I do miss all the political and trade-union activities that used to keep my blood-pressure up in the UK.
What’s up next for you in 2011?
There are odd pieces turning up in mixed shows here and there but the main projects for 2011 and 2012 are the three solo exhibitions based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve been working on these for ages. The first (Inferno) will be in Bologna in May and the second (Purgatory) in New York with Brooklynite in September.
Guy Denning is now showing with Boogie, Aakash Nihalani and Pascual Sisto at Carmichael Gallery in Culver City.