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Clive McCartney

Poetry has a profound influence over the way I paint.”

Clive McCartney

you can weaken the expressive power if it’s too ‘perfect’”

Clive McCartney

From expedition to exhibition

Clive McCartney’s restless curiosity about the world has sent him travelling to its four corners. It’s a passion that fuels his art – along with music, poetry and a technical obsession with light. We asked Clive about his approach, ahead of a major exhibition at the Catto Gallery in London.

This wanderlust, this passion for the world in all its variety, is a hallmark of so many artists – from painters like Van Gogh to writers like Laurie Lee. Where does it come from for you?

I suspect that, like a great majority of artists, I’m influenced by early childhood experiences. I was born in India and travelled a lot as a child. My parents liked to go to Europe for the holidays and we would often visit famous cities that happened to be close to our resort. I remember these visits vividly: walking around Barcelona aged seven, for example. People were dressed in suits and policemen had guns. There were so many elements that were fascinating, and utterly foreign to me.

Clive McCartney Light and Shade Barcelona

As an artist-to-be at this time, you must have been struck by the light in these foreign locations, and how different it was to home in England.

Well, my earliest memory was of a beach: stark white sand, deepest ink blue sea and a cloudless sky. The emptiness of it was slightly terrifying. Also on the beach was a whitewashed stone building. Its door had developed cracks through which one could peer and, as my eye adjusted, I began to make out odd-looking objects covered in dust and debris. This recollection contains so many of the qualities in my painting now: the harsh contrast between light and shade, and the obfuscation that takes place in those few seconds as the eye adjusts to tonal extremes.  

Although travel has enabled me to overcome cultural stereotypes, it has also meant that I can locate strong contrasts of light and also explore different types of spatial perception. 

This is very explicit in a painting like ‘Grand Central Station’, with its colossal windows and cathedral-like internal space…

This building is my favourite interior of all – in fact, the windows are so large and the light so reflective on the ground that it is practically an exterior. For me, ‘Grand Central Station’ is a homage to the romance of travel and an opportunity to work on the large-scale theme of spatial relationships. The whole scene was musical, almost operatic and put me in mind of various ideas to do with probability and chance, chaos and order.

Clive McCartney Crowds, Grand Central Station

I can see this ‘dance’ of space, light and form in some of your other architecturally-inspired works.

True. There are similar preoccupations in paintings such as the ‘Woolman Ice Rink, NY’, the ‘Reichstage, Berlin’ and the ‘Louvre Spiral’.  In all of them, I am rejoicing in the architecture and the way in which it can manipulate light. But I’m also commenting on the human condition.  What are we as a group?  In the ‘Louvre Spiral’ I was reminded of the great Van Gogh painting in which prisoners are walking around in circles.

The anonymity of the human figures in your work always suggests a certain melancholy. What’s the inspiration for this?

Poetry has a profound influence over the way I paint. There is a Haiku, which begins something like: “A pebble thrown into the still black pond….” These words have triggered a whole way of painting, setting up a series of darknesses into which I can drop tiny accents of colour into the picture.

I used this approach in ‘Nocturne, Bruges’ and numerous others.  Another influence is music.  There are certain notes in Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies that are so poignant and solitary that I’ve often tried to capture some of that atmosphere in such pictures as ‘Solitary Figure, QVB’ and ‘The Renoir House’ – a reflective quality of time passing.

‘Nocturne, Bruges’ is a little different from the rest of your new collection. Did you approach it differently?

Interestingly, I had drawn the scene during the day and had no intention of painting it at night.  But because the town is so beautiful in the evening, I found myself wandering the same spot later. It was too dark to see properly so I drew a diagram using Gwen John’s  numbering system in which zero is equal to white and the tones get darker until they reach ten for black.  I constructed these paintings using only numbers and memory. 

I used the same technique, but inverted it in ‘The British Museum’ painting.  I set up a series of incredibly high-pitched tones into which I dropped a few dark accents – in the form of people and those three dark rectangles.

Interesting to hear you talk about rectangles, because there are clearly some works here that have an almost mathematical rigour. I’m thinking of something like ‘Reflections, Claridges, London’, for example, with its monumental arches and receding tiled floor.

Clive McCartney, Claridges, London

Often I have painted on ‘golden section’ rectangles that have themselves been subdivided again into further ‘golden sections’ along which I try to place the salient features of a picture.  I don’t always employ this method – you can weaken the expressive power if it’s too ‘perfect’. But in a work like ‘Café Central, Madrid’, the formal power of the original Art Deco interior struck me immediately: black, red and cream all butting up to each other, almost like the pattern for a flag.  I liked the composition.

For all the undoubted formal power of a painting like this, there’s still something very affecting about those two ‘dislocated’ people in it.

The atmosphere of solipsism is the psychological key to the painting.  Everything becomes a reflection of the self, until you lose sight of where the self stops and the world begins. I quite liked the use of opposites too – darkness and light, black and white, male and female.

There is something deeply riveting about drawing a person in a ‘real’ situation as opposed to the academic artificial arrangement.  There they are – that is all there is.  You are capturing a fleeting moment, one of millions being repeated all over the globe, but not allowing it to disappear.

Really, you’re shining a light on them, which is appropriate given your painter’s commitment to illumination.

Ultimately the process of painting is what interests me, and what fuels this is light.  I like to use light used as a metaphor, so I’m drawn to places where emotional light is strong – to where it can act symbolically. Indeed, I see a picture as a sort of microcosm of the universe containing its hidden laws: creation and destruction; chaos and order; darkness and light.