Making Mystery: An Interview with Andrew Antoniou
Andrew Antoniou’s haunting, oneiric works grace collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Australian National Gallery, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, to name a few. A figurative and symbolist artist, born in England but living in Australia, Antoniou has made his mark on the contemporary artworld despite a stubborn resistance to the didacticism and conceptualism that have dominated it now for decades. Reminiscent of the work William Blake, Max Beckmann, and Hieronymus Bosch—to say nothing of the latter’s medieval predecessors—Antoniou’s images find their singularity in the exploration of the imaginal encounter, the sacred drama. Each was wrested from an engagement with those interior forces which only art—art conceived as a spiritual ordeal—can coax onto the stage of consciousness.
What’s going on in your studio right now?
I’m working on a pen and ink drawing. It’s a medium I struggle with, but there’s something intrinsically beautiful about it that I’m trying to get a handle on. The drawing is part of my ongoing series of drawings about familiars, the things that surround us and influence us, both things below the surface and things in our lives like a pet, or a garden, or an idea we believe in. Things that bring us inspiration, threat, solace, and so on. I’ve made several versions of this one using different mediums. I’ve completed a graphite version, I’ve made a large charcoal version, and now I’m doing a medium-size pen and ink version. I just want to see what the magic of each medium can bring to the subject matter.
You speak of different mediums as though they themselves were familiars.
I think that as soon as that relationship starts with the implement in your hand, with the canvas or the page, something happens. There’s a partnership, and it allows this voice to express itself. I’ve always believed to some extent that we are channeling these entities, these forces. We have to give them different tools by which to be channeled. I don’t like the idea of “preferred” medium. I think each medium has its own magic and we need to couple with it. This is what Picasso did. He worked in so many different mediums, from ceramic to oil paint to metal welding to whatever else allowed his incredible language to be spoken.
At what point in your life did you realize that you were going to be an artist?
I was in the science stream at school, trying to live my father’s dream. Like a lot of Greek immigrants to the UK after the war, he wanted his kids to be successful. He wanted me to be a doctor, and I bought into that idea in my childhood. But in the sixties, when I was a teenager, the sort of things that were being talked about were creating images in my mind. I remember at 14 years old hearing “Gates of Eden” by Bob Dylan. I absolutely just fell into that dream. I saw four-legged forest clouds with cowboy angels on them. Already, in a very primitive or germinal way, I was forming images in my mind. Gradually, by the time I was 17, my interest in the sciences fell away and I started to read more. I remember reading Howl by Ginsberg; its cavalcade of images just took me over.
But the seminal moment was when I went to see Marat/Sade at the Aldwych Theatre. I’d seen pantomime and so on, but I’d never been to the theatre proper before. I remember sitting in this very plush theatre with my Communist League cohorts and looking at these big red velvet curtains. Then the curtains opened on a darkened stage, a green-filtered light came up, and there were characters standing on the stage, dressed in mental asylum gear and frozen in position as if they had stopped mid-action. That one image was the rubber stamp of my imagery. That one moment when those characters were frozen in a prayer or a curse or a ritual or a thought, stayed with me. When I walked out of the theatre, I didn’t really understand the play, but I understood the nature of its appearance. It framed my language. I had this sense that I was able to form images and live within them.
You place a lot of emphasis on internal imagery, on how events in the outside world affect you inwardly. How important is it for artists to nurture a rich inner life?
Oh, really important, absolutely. I feel I have to embrace and reflect on everything. For instance, my dreams have become much more familiar to me these last few years. I have welcomed my dream world. Regardless of how horrific, confronting, or beautiful the dreams are, I see them as part of my makeup, not something alien, but something that I own in some way, but it is greater than my ownership as well. The language of dreams is something whose vocabulary I’m beginning to understand.
Do you think that each of our each of us has a private dream language or do you think there’s some kind of universal lingua franca of dreaming?
I think it’s sort of both. Your own personal private universe and the great collective universe meet on this one stage. I also think the people and situations in our lives can wear the costumes of the collective unconscious. We do have figures in our lives that we see as more angelic or demonic or mischievous or tricksterish or whatever. Those personal symbols can wear the universal garb, if you know what I mean.
Do you write down your dreams?
Sometimes, though not very often. I just had a dream this morning which was really vivid. I can remember it quite clearly and I think there’s a drawing in there somewhere.
Do you try to interpret your dreams? Their symbols?
When I was 32, I started studying astrology. And long before that, in my first year in art school, I got the book [C.G. Jung’s] Man and his Symbols out of the library because I was interested in what was happening in my imagery. The symbolic world became very important. And I connected that to the Greek myths, some of which my dad used to tell me. So there’s this weaving together of all these strands into a tapestry. All of that is informing what’s going on with me. And I think it’s really important not to just fall into a particular code, such that my work would be about restating that code over and over again. I’ve got to be prepared to go into dark corners, or more absurdist corners. I think most artists have to watch themselves if they’re honest. We’re not in the business of repetition. We need to banish all particular languages from our minds to make space for the next chapter.
Listening to what you’re saying and seeing your works, I feel that multiplicity plays a key role in your process. Your images come out of solitary inner work, but they are not images of solitude. They’re very crowded. When you look within, do you see a single person or several?
I see many. We are this hybrid beast, you know. I can’t really separate one part of it from the rest. When I do solitary figures in my work, I am just isolating one element on the canvas, kind of like a soliloquy. But mainly what I see when I look inside is a collection of things, aspects, masks, and personalities. When I remember my teenage years before I went to art school, for instance, I think back on the crowd I hung out with and what we were listening to, and the person who inhabited that body feels like a different person. I was somebody else. The way I perceived things hasn’t gone away, of course. I haven’t discarded it. That person is still in there, seeing the world as he did in 1968, or twenty years ago, or ten years ago. All of these characters are crowded into this one space within me. And they are all talking to one another. They are all engaged in the activities they see as important, whether they are holding a guitar, a pair of scissors, or a flower. They are still singing in the choir, as it were.
The philosopher Galen Strawson once said in an interview that he never had an abiding sense of self. Is this something you relate to?
I just get this great mercurial feeling about the self. It wears so many different costumes, so many different hats, and so many different masks that I don’t feel that centered self. There is just this space of activity of the selves. Not that it causes me any kind of instability. Like an orchestra conductor, I’m still in control of it in some way. It hasn’t gotten to the point where I lose all sense of self. But I can’t honestly say that I have any idea of an intrinsic, solo, individual self.
When you’re working on an image, do you feel more or less present to the moment than when you’re otherwise going about your life? How does the process feel?
Working feels like I’m in a conversation with something that’s very familiar. I think making art is a conversation. You make a mark, and the mark speaks back to you. And when it speaks back to you, you re-start that continuum. You make another mark to elaborate a form, a movement, or whatever. And it speaks back to you again. I don’t see art as an emptying out. My whole focus is on that conversation. And I feel more present, I think, than I do in my everyday life. Because what it’s all about in that moment is that conversation.
So it’s exploratory. You don’t start off with a clear, distinct idea of what you want to do?
Picasso said, “If you’re going to have an idea make sure it’s a vague one.” I think that’s really what it is at first—just a vague idea. And because it’s a conversation and there is something speaking from the other side, I have to have my ears open. If I go into the studio with a preconceived notion or a fixed idea about what’s going to happen, the conversation isn’t going to flow. And so I make very cursory, quick marks around the idea and I allow it to unfold. I go into a different sense of time when I’m making work. I’ve got to wait for that emanation, and then the conversation starts within that sphere.
Is it difficult?
I do sometimes see it as a chore. People say to me, “Oh it must be so much fun being an artist, so relaxing.” It isn’t. You feel compelled, and that compulsion can be wearing sometimes. It’s something that sits on your shoulder and prods you. On the other hand, I think it’s a bit of a myth that people have about artists being “inspired.” It’s mostly work, but it’s very private and compelling work. I think I got rid of a lot of preconceived notions about making art quite early because I had good teachers. I learned to work through problems.
Let’s go back to the theatre, because I know that that’s a central interest of yours. What is it about drama that you find so compelling?
Well, everything in art is about framing. Whether you’re looking through the lens of a camera or at the full size of a canvas, it’s all about framing. It’s about how we take this massive universe and put a border around it so that we can see a fragment, if you like—a section. Sitting in the Aldwych Theatre that time, I remember becoming aware of the proscenium. And suddenly that framed the world. It gave me all I needed to see. The weather outside, other people, other noises, none of that mattered; the stage was where the world was. And that’s the magic of theatre. Suddenly I had a world, a whole drama that I could contain in my vision. Theatre has always given us an ability to see how we are, because it’s happening now, and it’s happening right in front of us. The suspension of disbelief is what I find most compelling about theatre. I can feel my consciousness switching, and suddenly I’m the god looking down on the mortals, seeing how they deal with their infidelities, their assassinations, their absurdities, their humour. It puts us in a godlike state, in a way. We can actually see how humans behave without judgement and without changing the story. I try to capture that in my own work.
You’ve decided to take a different direction from most of the artists of your generation, who moved toward theory and concept. How did that happen? How did you realize that you’re weren’t going to follow the pack, so to speak?
It would be harder to do now. If you were a young artist now and you wanted to go down the path of meaning, you’d find that hard. I had it easier because I worked with other artists who were also interested in symbolism. We were in the minority because when I was in art school, it was all Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, David Hockney. I had a respect for their work, but it didn’t push a button. William Blake’s work did push a button, and so did Hieronymus Bosch’s. When I went to the Tate Gallery in my first year at art school, I remember walking through the area where the artists of the sixties were displayed quite openly and readily. But I’d always end up going downstairs to the painters of the nineteenth century and earlier. I found my interest in William Blake, Samuel Palmer, the group of late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century English artists they called the Ancients, and who were mystics. I had a feeling even at that age that art had a purpose to talk about life and not just about art. I was a storyteller. Throughout my years in art school, I kept going back to the storytelling and what it said about us as human beings, our psyche, our unconscious. Another group that I really gravitated towards were the German Expressionists. The thing for me was that their work has meaning. But this meaning isn’t about thought. It’s about movement, it’s about motion within. There are no words to describe the meaning of meaning.
When we hear the word, we often think of signification. The meaning of a word, we say, is its definition. The meaning of a painting is what I’m supposed to think in order to be “right” about the painting. But that’s now what you’re talking about, is it?
No. The only way I can describe it is as a movement. When you stand in front of a painting, read a line from a book, or hear a piece of music, there is a sort of stilling of the process of definition and explanation. And I think that’s the magic of it. It’s the stilling of that impulse to “work it out,” as it were. That’s what I look for in my own work. There’s a moment when the work is—it’s not complete, but it’s moving me. There’s a point where it’s changing where I’m standing. As a painter, you stand in front of a canvas or a page, and you are in that position of guiding the elements and forming them and so on. But then there’s a moment when you stand back and feel like the tools have dropped from your hands. The image moves you to a different part of the drawing, and you’re looking at it completely differently. It’s like going from being inside the room looking out to being outside the room looking in. It’s hard to really articulate it, but that’s the feeling I get from it. That’s what meaning is, for me. You feel like your space has been moved in some way.
When looking at a painting, do you ever get the feeling it knows something you don’t?
It’s as if it had a secret? Yes.
Isn’t it hard to account for that feeling?
Yes, it certainly is.
You’ve described your work as problem solving. This technical way of describing it feels right to me. There is a series of problems that you are trying to solve. But given what you’ve just said, it doesn’t seem like these problems have anything to do with some propositional answer to be found in the work. And yet when I look at your work, I get the sense that there is some answer, that there is a puzzle to solve. That feeling that there is some hidden meaning seems central to the aesthetic experience. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, I think that sums it up perfectly. I really don’t want to provide an answer, or even a context. What I want to do is provide a mystery. In a sense, that’s what forms the ongoing relationship between the work and the viewer, because when that painting is hanging in your home or in a gallery and you revisit it, the mystery will portray itself in a new way each time you see it. There is no definitive point in the work—only ongoing questions, really. And that’s a beautiful thing in itself because when we have an answer, we tend to leave the room. We tend to check out.
Can you talk about the painting that’s behind you right now?
For this one, I was thinking about science and magic. About the things that can be measured and the things that can’t. This piece is about things that can be measured. What struck me was that, in some ways we need measurement, definition, certainty. But by the same token, we can make this definition or that certainty into something magical. The whole business of mathematics and measuring, the understanding of time and space, all this is what allows us to situate ourselves, because we’ve been given these clear parameters. So what I wanted to do with this painting was create a sense of magic around all those things that are measurable, and make them into something that doesn’t have gravity, that doesn’t have the restriction that these things usually talk about. Something more playful.
We can measure lots of things, but we can’t measure the measuring itself, and that makes measuring a very strange thing. It’s funny how we often complain about people who quantify everything, saying that they kill all the magic, whereas the fact that they can do that at all is pretty magical.
Right. When you look at someone like Pythagoras and try to think how he came up with this idea of a triangle where the square of the hypotenuse and so on, that was like finding a secret of the universe, a basic rule of Creation. That is magic. Everything is magic.