Richard Magee: ‘Fear’, 2020

When I first met Richard he made it clear to me that painting for him was as much a conceptual endeavour as it was anything to do with the material of paint itself. Since those days Richard remains committed to toughness and stringency throughout his practice. In this interview we talk about his painting ‘Fear’, the methodological systems and conceptual strata that premise his image making as well as his ongoing use of Artex to complicate the surface he paints on.

JD   You’ve always considered yourself a painter?

RM   In terms of art, but my first stimulating experiences were with literature. How words are put together and they become a third thing. The clouds are grey so the person is sad. It’s subtext or metaphor, all those devices that combine to make meaning. I’d always drawn and painted, but I wasn’t interested in just making pictures to look at.

For me paintings are more like ideas.

JD   I’d consider poetry and painting similar in what they’re doing, they have a long history which stands before any new gesture. It seems like anyone who’s making a new painting or new poetry has to both speak to that history, but then also be dismissive of it in some way. And there’s a lot of poets who care a lot about the material conditions of their poetry. I feel like you’ve often done a similar thing.

I want to interface with time’s duration in a more extensive way, not just the fleeting contemporary like social media.

RM   I’ve always been really interested in the concept of concrete poetry… but when I see examples it’s never that interesting, I think there’s more potential in the term than in its actualisation.

I am very interested in far older art. The Artex surface on my paintings remind me of cave paintings, hieroglyphs or runes.

JD   The face in Fear reminds me of facial recognition in Facebook. I wondered if l there was some influence from the internet?

RM   I’m happy you think that. It wasn’t a direct influence on the painting, but I know what you mean. It’s the smile. I feel this painting is more about the mouth than the face. In the original photo, that person is presenting themselves and you can perform yourself on social media. One of my core interests is how things are spun or the rhetoric behind images. I too am a spin-doctor just taking individual elements of different things and then seeing how they go together to make the third meaning.

I’ve been thinking about two approximate quotes recently. One from a Sontag book saying no serious students of history take politics seriously and another anecdote a friend told me about the political class and how they taught history at Oxbridge decades ago, the motto was something like anything outside of living memory is politics. I think the slippage between those quotes is fruitful for me.

I want to interface with time’s duration in a more extensive way, not just the fleeting contemporary like social media.

I’ve been actively seeking depictions of time to use. This started when I saw a notice board at White Sands in New Mexico of what would’ve been there in the past. The image they use is this mammoth behind a strip with some text on it, someone with a spear, and a later farmer.

I kept thinking about it. Because the tusks go forward from the strip there’s a depth that pulls the eye in giving the image a strength you can couple with the concept that undergirds it. I’ve a few things like that. I think some of them work better as sculptures since not everything always has to be painting.

A notice board in White Sands, New Mexico.

JD   What made you feel like you were more interested in painting than in literature?

RM   I think it was just what I was introduced to and working with my hands. Painting is a lot of the time you’re on your own and I couldn’t make video work because I can’t deal with people.

I was very lucky to be around older artists while I was a teenager in Derry. And a lot of ways I think I learnt an attitude from that.

JD   So Derry has its own art scene then?

RM   I assumed until recently that’s just because it was a small place and everywhere would be like that. After university I was pushed out of London financially and found out the hard way that not all small places have as active an art scene. It’s Derry’s history that makes it remain relevant. Art seems to have to mean more to justify itself and there is a distinct leaning towards conceptual art. I think that kind of art making has been going on longer than a lot of people would think, but it’s just never really got very much light shone on it. 

The main thing that stops me from making work is thinking what’s the point? So meshing things together creates the structure that gives me licence then to make something I wouldn’t allow myself to make usually.

This painting, Fear, of a face is from a photo enlarged on a wall. What people put on their walls is always revealing and where I’m from in Ireland has a long history of partisan mural painting. Although I don’t know how I could use those directly without it seeming mercenary. I recently found one of a Celtic warrior with a sword, his shadow is the silhouette of a man with a rifle. That’s a depiction of time too so a combination of a few interests.

JD   That’s interesting, your paintings don’t lend themselves to just being put up in someone’s front room. They’re challenging.

RM   The main thing that stops me from making work is thinking what’s the point? So meshing things together creates the structure that gives me licence then to make something I wouldn’t allow myself to make usually.

I see painting being a boat and that boat contains cargo. That’s the interesting thing. Once I heard someone describe painting as being an aeroplane so when you’re trying to finish the painting you need to land the aeroplane. I thought a boat made more sense because it can loll and drift along the river unintentionally. I really think that a lot of things happen just in the course of time and by focusing. Looking back on the work you find different ways of going forward.

JD   Yeah, I suppose the limitations to how far the energy that you initially put into making an image can deliver you to a place in the painting by you leaving it. I see that as a theme in the source images you use for the paintings as well. There’s a roughness to the small sketches and torn bits of ephemera that gives a lot of the paintings an energy of partiality. 

RM   I use a box file as a plan chest because you can be messy but organised at the same time, things just go in there. I think one of the reasons for the partialness of the elements is I don’t want to fill up the box with useless content, I cut things out. So it’s a space concern. But then over time I go through the box and I get surprised. If you take a little thing from a tourist leaflet, removed from its context and forget about it a few months down the line, you might find that again, and it makes a mental connection with something else.

I want things to be different. The Artex I put on the surface acts as a thread connecting visually disparate paintings so it’s not a shotgun mentality. It obviously all comes from the same process even if it looks different.

JD   The Artex is very abject. It always reminds me of skin tags, especially in Fear.  It prevents the objects from ever being too beautiful.

RM   There’s this strange thing when you stretch the canvas, it’s tight like a skin. Recently someone sent me an old scan of a photo of my Ma. It’s a passport photo, it must have been physically stamped at some stage by some kind of insignia, and that’s left an indent on the photo. That functions the same way in how I think about the Artex surface sometimes. The external impressions of society, politics, poetry on a person..

The artist’s mother’s stamped passport photo.

But I’m doing that in the reverse with the painting, the Artex comes forward from the back disrupting the smoothness of the canvas, it’s an obstacle that you have to get past.

Paradoxically, things look like they’re in a stage of incompleteness when the surface isn’t smooth enough to get enough detail. In Fear the eye on the left hand side is less finished than the other purely because there’s a worse surface on the left hand side. The face is being made because of the surface but also stopping it from reaching a final point.

The surface is insubordinate.

JD   The thing with the passport photo as well is there’s a kind of logic of a border, a pass or something, or a certification, being impressed onto the portrait. I see the same with the Artex being in opposition to the image itself. It’s really hard to align the logic of the Artex with what the image is. It gets in the way.  It goes along with what you’re talking about, about not wanting the image just to be on a wall, a commoditised object. You’re hobbling each step. It makes digesting the image more difficult.

RM   The surface is insubordinate. With this painting the Artex wraps around the side of the canvas.  Extending further than the painted image – it’s dominating and makes it obvious that the painting is an object not a flat image. That gets lost in bigger paintings.

I think about the surface of the paintings as scarring. There is a violence to how I remove the Artex in places that expresses anxiety. It also allows me to have another aspect of the painting that I can modify to affect the final outcome. If you take someone like Sigmar Polke, a lot of his paintings are  linear layers upon layers, compounding the multiple images he uses into one surface. In my paintings one of my layers is three dimensional meaning I can have an image that depicts something in a straight forward realistic way but the layer beneath pushing of the surface creates a rhythm or movement that keeps your eye moving and upsets that image.

JD For me they are quite psychological, describing a mental state where you have this endless stream of information that is, like, hovering around.

RM One of the things I think painting can achieve is say you’re walking down the street going somewhere, you’re talking to your friend, but in your mind you’re not concentrating on either of those things. You could be thinking about the past and you’re wondering about something that could happen in the future, or anything else that drifts into your mind. You’re moving across all these planes, but physically just walking down the street talking to someone. I think painting can make visible that amalgamation of thought and presence.

JD   Yes, there is something very diagrammatic, though not functionally so, about the Artex drawings.

A lot of the blocks in Fear look like some kind of boring letter from the government.

RM   Or poetry or song lyrics.

JD   You are writing words in pencil, right, then you do the Artex on top?

RM   No it comes from AAROC zines that I used to make. I use tracing paper and go around the outline of words, not individual letters. I flip that around, put it on the canvas and then fill it in. It’s a really time consuming process and has altered the rest of my practice. I question every single decision that I make, and concentrate more on the individual tasks. AAROC stands for “approaching a rejection of conclusion”, which was this device, a logical system for how I made my work in very specific chapters. They were individually named and sporadically there’d be publications that would partially leak the sources, drawings and writing that I used to do, you could take those away, they weren’t designed to be read in the space. Instead the idea was that they would support the shifting perspective on the paintings that a viewer might have.

AAROC: Robot Peak Hour Ripple Effect zine.

Since I’ve left education everything’s not so compressed and I’ve gone off artist poetry. I realised that was to have more control over the way my work was seen. Doing a show you’d have that anyway. I got the title from a found sentence, I swapped some of the words, originally it was “approaching a conclusion of rejection”. Playfully it still means the same thing. Now it’s just a subtitle for a way to explain how I’m making.

JD   So where do these drawings in Artex come from?

RM   From a chapter called “(False) rumour”. I took a stack of paper on which I had a header risograph printed with me on a travel scholarship around the deserts in the South West US. I put 10,000 miles on the car in two months!  I’m a studio based artist and don’t like painting outside of my studio. I worried that was a flaw. I wanted to give myself permission to collect a lot of material and the paper gave me that licence. I saw a lot of land art, Spiral Jetty, Double Negative… Those artists seemed to have a significant relationship with writing and making which I also had. 

The artist in Utah, USA, spring 2018.

When I got back and had a lot of blank pages left I started using them as printer paper essentially and using the scanner and the printer as a collaging tool. Any that I didn’t think were good enough as drawings I could continue on them with that.  Since I was re-using tracing paper to make the surface for paintings I’d accidentally made overlapping drawings that I’d stick to the blank pages to continue the cycle. They contain echoes or murmurs of other pages, like a rumour. 

At the end, when I had all the pages done. I would essentially have a bank of work you could arrange in different ways to make different meanings. They’re prompts. The choice of pages is always different depending on who chooses them or their mood. Now I make them into publications that have a random selection of 14 pages as postcards. Everyone gets their own snapshot. It’s this blob that can be manipulated. I still have a lot of blank pages so I want to continue to use and publish them for as long as I can to see how they change.

AAROC: (False) Rumour

JD   So they’re a kind of a game?

RM   A bit like a game aye. Like when someone does tarot cards, and the order and whatever the cards mean and how they can be arranged completely change the final outcome.

Working in that way, seeing those as one piece eliminates the idea of bad or good for individual pages, it just needs to be passable. Because the page is enough in itself a lot of them are very sparse. Whereas when I’m making a painting I feel I have to get this whole feel for the surface and I’m always trying different ways of priming the canvas. One of the things I’m thinking about a lot in painting recently is just the background. I’ve been looking at these Goya paintings of solitary people on a dark background. Wow, imagine just letting yourself do that.

Because I make paintings over a long period of time I need that level of interest just to finish the thing otherwise I would forget about it. Painting is a habit so you need to keep your interest piqued. They’re soft rules though, I don’t mind breaking them. It’s allowed me a lot of freedom by just giving myself a broad structure.

I see the face in Fear as a husk.

JD   Why this face?

RM   I tried a few different ways of using faces for paintings. There was a poster they had in classrooms when I was growing up of all the quintessential Irish authors, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Wilde… I wondered if the most used words in their books pointed to their main concern. I found PDFs of the books, put it through a word processor and it lists the most commonly used nouns. In “Waiting for Godot” it’s “basket”. So Samuel Beckett’s head with a basket. They were a failure but going somewhere.

I read Brendan Behan’s autobiography he died while writing, and his were all things to do with pint glasses and jars since he was an alcoholic. The cover for that book was this acidic green photograph of him smiling. I filled up a glass and was taking initial photos through the glass of the cover. That led me to realise one of the things holding these paintings back was because so far it had to be recognisable who they were.

Brendan Behan’s autobiography distorted by a pint glass.

Really I see the face in Fear as a husk.

It’s a person on a stage from an encyclopaedia, holding a piece of paper giving a speech. The backdrop to the stage is a blow up of their own face. I tried different ways to paint a face. It’s an archetype. How can I bring something to that?

JD   You’ve been using cropping more recently in the paintings as well right?

RM   It allows me to edit out and adjust how big the paintings are going to be. Make the composition more exact and then the happy accident that the surface wraps around the side. But in a practical way, when I do the pencil drawing and the application of this surface the painting ends up getting kind of saggy if it’s stretched.  Often I’ll start a painting unstretched and then halfway through once I feel kind of like I know what it’s going to become, I’ll stretch it and finish it.

I make groups of paintings thinking about pace and rhythm. Your eye can’t get tired, it has to keep moving. One of the ways to do that is with scale. I think medium paintings are the hardest to make.

The point where intuition takes over is where the work really gets me excited. That can be so late on though and since I am a very self conscious maker that I just need a support structure. 

JD   You crop and then stretch? That’s quite different from the order I would usually imagine a painting to be made in.

RM   You think of it as you stretch the canvas and you paint?

JD   When I was in school, I was taught to stretch the canvas as tight as you can. Then you ground the canvas, then you paint the painting. But within your practice you atomise each of these elements and tune them to see how that can affect the final painting. You’ve exploded all the elements! Changing the order of one of aspect of the process or or making another into a game. Each part of your practice feels like a big mixing deck of loads of knobs on it and you’re tuning them to ensure the most control over image production as you can.

RM   It’s the difference between using Microsoft Paint and Photoshop. Once you have more tools, you can do more. There’s a lot of things I didn’t think mattered until I started taking them more seriously, for example, colour.

Your metaphor of the mixing desk makes it sound really systematic. I think there is a point when I’m making I have to get in and get carried away. Mistakes are important. A lot of the things I’m doing are disadvantaging myself so I have to figure it out and stay involved.

The point where intuition takes over is where the work really gets me excited. That can be so late on though and since I am a very self conscious maker that I just need a support structure. 

 JD   When did you decide Fear was finished?

RM   It was 90% finished but I drag my feet sometimes on finishing them. Really the title finished it. Growing up I’d never been offered the chance to study Irish. Fear written down is a noun for man in the Irish language. It fits with thinking about rhetoric. On one hand it’s a melodramatic title and on the other just matter of fact, a spade’s a spade. It undercuts the melodrama.

The artists studio, Newcastle, spring 2020.


RICHARD MAGEE is an artist that lives in Newcastle England, he is currently a member of the Newbridge Collective Studio Programme 2019/2020. He graduated with a BA from the Slade School of Art in 2017.

JOSEPH DAVIES is an artist that lives and works in London. Recent shows include Court Collection 2020 at SET, London and Innovative Zone Rooms 2019 at Gas Contemporary, Newcastle.