Standing on the shoulders of giants: Megan Dunn interviews Andrew McLeod

‘People don’t always know how to respond to art, they don’t know if they have to read the text or not.’

Andrew McLeod lives in a Mount Eden flat with his partner, the painter Liz Maw. Their studio is cluttered with art and objects, books, paintbrushes, unusual talismans. During my visit I notice a postcard of Michael Illingworth’s creepy As Adam and Eve (1965), tucked behind a light switch. McLeod is not an artist known for holding back: his paintings and digital collages, like his studio and his flat, are packed full of stuff. Art historical references float in suspended animation. McLeod’s work is baroque, occasionally grotesque. We tend to expect eccentricity from artists, and McLeod delivers in spades. He plays in a band called Evil Ocean (a pun on the word ‘evolution’) and has produced his own wayward textile designs for fashion designer Jimmy D.

McLeod moves freely between representation and abstraction; he’s not an artist who can be cleanly categorised. He produces artist’s books also densely packed with images and texts. McLeod’s art embodies the abyss, offering glimpses into the infinite index of the world. He’s an artist enthralled by, but not obviously reverential to, the classical masters. Therefore it’s apt that he’s been asked to work directly with images from the collections of Te Papa. With McLeod you can guarantee what comes out of the canon will be a blast, and the results won’t be tidy.

Megan: In this recent Te Papa series, did you think about the history of the art works you chose or did your selection evolve more organically?

Andrew: I am a very visual type of artist. One of my strengths is constant research in visual culture, design, fashion, and the way everything fits in historically: the influences, not necessarily the art historical story, but the -

Megan: The look, the aesthetic?

Andrew: There’s what artists say and there’s what they do with their work. I am more focused on what everyone was doing with their work. Just think of what artists have said about their work throughout history. It’s usually very specific to the time, a spin - which is understandable - for their market or audience. Art manifestos are often quite hilarious.

Megan: Do you think of your artist’s books as manifestos?

Andrew: No.

Megan: I found in one of your artist’s books this phrase: ‘Quiet the mind, observe the content, notice the work and let it go.’ I thought it was quite a good instruction for looking at your work.

Andrew: Where the hell did that come from? That would have been a quote, a cut and paste from something.

Megan: Do you write the text?

Andrew: No, it’s usually just collaged, it’s mainly literature and relevant stuff that is unfashionable but I like and can relate to. My latest book is a monograph and it includes [John] Ruskin and George Orwell and stuff from Egyptology and Project Gutenberg. It’s meant to be helpful if you really want to read something.

Megan: Helpful for people looking at your work?

Andrew: Yeah, when you have any text in an art book, the text is helpful to understand the artist’s world or to provide an introduction.

It’s harder for me because people don’t necessarily write about my type of work. I’m essentially a painter. The curator won’t want me saying this, but this show is painting for people who don’t like painting. I am essentially a painter in the way I compose and think.

Megan: Your website is described as an index and I think that’s deeply apt; already our conversation is quite sprawling, and your work is quite sprawling, in a good way. So now you’ve been asked to work with this collection. It’s something you already do; you’re not working with collections all the time, but you’re always cataloguing and indexing visually.

Andrew: Yes visually, that’s the keyword; it’s image driven.

Megan: Navigating your website feels like unlocking a vault: the viewer scrolls through seemingly endless folders, diving down into vast collections of untitled works. The site is unusually cryptic, it’s all white and the type looks like Times New Roman, an unusual font to see on a modern website.

Andrew: That’s because it costs a lot of money and time to do that text.

Te Papa poster no. 1 [digital file], 2013, by Andrew McLeod. Commissioned 2013, with the assistance of the Molly Morpeth Canaday Fund. Te Papa (2014-0020-1/1)

Te Papa poster no. 3, 2013, by Andrew McLeod. Commissioned 2013, with the assistance of the Molly Morpeth Canaday Fund. Te Papa (2014-0020-2/3)

Te Papa poster no. 12, 2013, by Andrew McLeod. Commissioned 2013, with the assistance of the Molly Morpeth Canaday Fund. Te Papa (2014-0020-2/12)

Te Papa poster no. 20, 2013, by Andrew McLeod. Commissioned 2013, with the assistance of the Molly Morpeth Canaday Fund. Te Papa (2014-0020-2/20)

Megan: Can you talk about some of the titles and text in your new posters at Te Papa?

Andrew: Well, some of them have a text at the top like a header … They are like pseudo-posters by a contemporary artist; a lot of contemporary artists do pseudo-versions of things and I think that’s partly what I have done.

Megan: In the Te Papa posters the words in Gothic font are often hard to read. Sometimes that’s obviously intentional as the text is layered and over-layered, but sometimes I wasn’t sure if I’d simply misunderstood or misread the words.

Andrew: Maybe that’s a hangover from my artist’s book practice. How do I get across the idea that I’m a visual artist? In contemporary art there sometimes seems to be confusion as to whether the artist is being very visual or not. That’s understandable. People don’t always know how to respond to art, they don’t know if they have to read the text or not.

Megan: You mean, the audience doesn’t know if an art work can be understood by just looking at it any more: they wonder if they need to read the wall text or something else to decode the piece?

Andrew: That’s normal in contemporary art: most viewers who aren’t artists are insecure about knowing how to interpret work.

Megan: Let’s talk about your bold new imagining of the Te Papa logo.

Andrew: Yes, that’s just a huge fucken great gag, to want to redesign the brand identity of Te Papa … So what font shall we do the brand identity in? Gothic.

Megan: The words ‘Our Place’ sit very differently beneath this new logo of a winged naked woman.

Andrew: I wasn’t asked exactly to do that … This project had a brief so you had to adhere to the brief, which is normal for a designer, but artists don’t normally get briefs. Designers don’t generally get not having a brief …

Megan: It reminds me of the fabric patches and T-shirts you’ve created for bands.

Andrew: In the last year I’ve been getting into logos. I love research. The patches on my website are a side project, textiles for the fashion world. But they definitely influenced stuff.

Megan: On the Arts Foundation website there’s a quote from you: ‘I am an illustration connoisseur, I’m not ironic about it.’ What illustrations are you a connoisseur of?

Andrew: Well, Sturgeon’s Law generally applies: 90 percent of everything is naff. Whether everyone understands this idea or not, I am looking at the best of things. A lot of people will like bad examples of things, they’ll like really bad science fiction and use that in their work, which is all good, and I suppose I partly do that, but they don’t do the other thing, which is to really like and understand the good ones.

Megan: Can you pick some painters then who have had a real influence on you?

Andrew: If I just gave a couple of painters from my whole world of painting it would be very inaccurate. In painting there’s a big list - that’s the biggest list because that’s what I know best - then it expands out into drawing and printmaking, then into sculpture, photography, art photography, and then into architecture and design.

Megan: Let’s track back a bit. When you and I were at Elam together, a tutor in first year told me, ‘Less is more’, and I feel like that message didn’t get to you - or if it did, it fell on deaf ears.

Andrew: Absolutely. I never listened to anything anyone ever said, definitely not about painting or visual stuff. At the time I did the contemporary art papers and read the books about conceptual art, as you do. So I do know something about it; but actually that ‘less is more’ phrase often applies now to modernist design, and to minimalism and abstraction.

Megan: The ideology behind that statement has its place in history.

Andrew: Yes and sometimes the ideology has nothing to do with the actual work - which goes back to what I said before about the way you can look at and be into art for what the artist said, and that’s all good; but if you’re into it for what the artist or designer did you might get a completely different story.

Megan: I remember visiting your studio and Brendon Wilkinson’s, which was near yours at Elam. Both of you were undeniably productive. ‘Precocious’ is a word that comes to mind; even now when I think about your practice the word ‘inexhaustible’ still applies. I like the way you work boldly in abstraction, but I think your heart is more in representation.

Andrew: What’s the difference? The difference is just in traditions. Kazimir Malevich is part of the tradition of abstraction. I know that tradition deeply because I was taught it at high school. When you took art as a subject you got taught a certain theme. The New Zealand Western education system introduced me to art, it definitely wasn’t something I had to find by myself.

Megan: Not many artists will move freely between abstraction and representational work and not many will show both simultaneously. I do think you’re an artist who’s interested in genre. You will put a small abstraction with a baroque frame around it in an exhibition with figurative paintings; you are quite happy to genre bend.

Andrew: Yes, but that’s the thing: early Malevichs did have those frames. Abstract artists used frames, oil paint and easels.

Megan: Tell me about your experience at art school.

Andrew: My experience at art school was just the Elam library. It was really great, especially because this was in the time before the Internet, so I just went through the library from one end to the other looking at fucken every page. I didn’t read anything, I just looked at the books …

Megan: What kind of work did you make in high school and how did it evolve once you got to art school?

Andrew: I went to school in Mount Roskill. My background was fairly predictable working class, unsophisticated, compared with someone whose family might have a Patrick Hanly on the wall or something like that. … I was raised religious: suburban born-again religious. I had influences but they weren’t the same as the world of art school, so I had to learn more than a lot of other people …

Megan: In one of your earlier interviews you said making good culture is hard. I noticed that you used the word ‘culture’; you could have used ‘art’, you could have used ‘paintings’.

Andrew: If you want to make good work you have to try everything you can to make it good, right? It’s not easy and sometimes your work ends up being completely out of fashion, but that’s the best work you could do at the time. Do you know what I mean?

Megan: Fashion comes and goes; any artists that go for any length of time will have to work through fashion.

Andrew: I see young artists coming through and I think, They know nothing. But it’s a giant deal for the audience and there’s a truth to that newness as well. It’s the good side of not respecting your elders - and why should you respect your elders unless they have done something amazing that you think is great?

Megan: But you respect a lot of the artists whose work you incorporate into your own practice?

Andrew: Yeah, they are good people, the awesome ones. That’s what it’s all about.

Megan: How many hours a day do you paint?

Andrew: I don’t know. I paint every day unless I am doing a digital print. I have a studio right here in the bedroom with little paints and stuff; I watch movies and paint; sometimes I do digital stuff, so most of the prints will be done watching movies.

Megan: When I came in today you said you were going to be a slave to these paintings [new works in a corner of his studio] all winter, but you said that quite lovingly, I felt you were into it.

Andrew: They won’t be easy. It will be hellish, it will be brutally hellish. I want to do a certain type of paintwork and the fact is it takes longer - smaller brush stuff - so it will be a brutal amount of hours, grinding away for less immediate results.

Megan: Do you know what a painting is going to look like before you finish it?

Andrew: Yeah, but you can never be 100 percent sure. I think you can be about 70 percent.

Megan: Can you imagine being with someone who wasn’t an artist? You and Liz are both well-known New Zealand artists and I imagine you share a certain amount of absolute dedication to your art.

Andrew: We both say to each other, Well, my work comes first, dear [laughs]. That’s our nice joke we have with each other.

Megan: Let’s go back to some of the posters for a second. I really loved the Chinese scroll of the cats.

Andrew: It’s pretty much just a remix of the watercolor.

Megan: It’s like you imagined it vertically as tattered wallpaper instead of as a horizontal scroll.

Andrew: Cat wallpaper is a good idea. People would like it.

Megan: Sounds like an idea for the Internet. What poster surprised you?

Andrew: In the making? I think the one with the Charles Blomfield stuff in it. I have seen some Charles Blomfield stuff which is amazing, [but] there are a lot of really God-awful ones. I wanted to do something with them. It’s got a few other paintings in it and a bit of Photoshop stuff, quite a lot of Photoshop. … It’s quite dark, and in the bottom there’s a Victorian 19th-century painting of a figure in a pink dress, and there’s some bits of frame and there’s a Charles Blomfield Pink and White Terraces.

Megan: I know the one you mean, it has the ‘on the shoulders of giants’ text in Gothic font.

Andrew: Yeah, I didn’t want to overemphasise that title because that ‘shoulders of giants’ thing is a quote from Newton. The metaphor works better in science, I think.

Megan: Are you interested in science?

Andrew: Yeah, totally, that’s how I knew where that quote came from.

I mostly read science. From what I’ve read there is a lot of interesting stuff on cognitive dissonance, and on the functional MRI scanner. Stuff that happens to stroke victims …

When you make work, you are making work for human beings, which are a kind of conglomeration: layer upon layer of the previous species that we were, like the reptile brain is still in there and turned on. You have two visual systems: the original reptile visual system and the later evolved mammal visual system.

Megan: I loved your poster including the John Martin watercolour, The country of the iguanodon. It reminded me of J G Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, which is set in the future when the earth is overheating and swamps and alligators and iguanas are spreading throughout cities. The characters in the book experience a psychological meltdown to a reptile state: the novel ends on the image of a man staring at a sunset in this primordial world.

Andrew: I’m interested in the way narrative works in paintings and posters; obviously it’s not linear. One thing does not happen after another. The narrative in a painting is created from compositional stuff and paintwork … With the posters you also have the text at the top, so you’ve got this relationship between subject matter and visual stuff.

Megan: Sometimes the relationship between text and image is very humorous and sometimes it’s very tangential. I like the heavy weighting of the word ‘tax’ in the botanical poster: I began to think about the little plants as floating weeds. I interpreted the narrative in the poster with a particular spin. The word ‘tax’ looks as if it has morphed across from an IRD poster that was originally meant to be instructional and helpful.

Andrew: I’m interested in the way people see work in art galleries, whether it’s at a dealer gallery or Te Papa. The interesting thing is the interaction between the two worlds. The misunderstandings are fascinating. I’m not the same as a curator or collector. When I answer a question that I haven’t thought about before, the interviewer won’t always understand and I have to think about it again.

Megan: Do you filter much of your work? It seems to me you’re someone who shows a lot of your work, but do you actually have huge caverns of stuff that you don’t show?

Andrew: Nah, because I put the drawings in my publication, the BMCT journal.

Megan: What does that stand for?

Andrew: The Black Metal Cy Twombly.

Megan: So there’s not a lot of work that you reject and go, ‘Hey, they didn’t work’?

Andrew: It can’t be defined as work because it was unfinished.

Megan: Do you discard things?

Andrew: Yeah, I’ve got lots of half-finished ideas… I don’t show anything unfinished. I have lots of unfinished stuff, especially prints and a lot of small paintings.

Megan: This seems like a good place to finish the interview - or is the interview finished? I don’t know. We’ll leave it open-ended.

Andrew: Yeah, I’m not dead yet.

Megan Dunn is an art writer, reviewer, and the projects manager for Booksellers New Zealand. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Auckland University. From 1996-2000 she was co-director of the artist-run space Fiat Lux in Auckland. During this time her video art was exhibited throughout New Zealand. In 2006 she completed her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, graduating with distinction.­

This article originally appeared in issue one of Off The Wall, March 2013.