Craig Donald is a visual artist living and working in Belfast, since graduating in Fine and Applied Art at the University of Ulster in 2010.
Whilst currently in the midst of a run of shows, including a group exhibition at QSS, the RUA and a solo show in the University of Ulster Gallery space, I decided to sit down to find out a bit more about the artist, talking process, successes and failures and what’s on the horizon.
To give some context, read through Craig’s statement below. This interview took place in Craig’s space at Queen’s Street Studios, Bedford Street.
DB: So, to begin, you have a lot going on at minute, how did your show opening go for your collaborative exhibition, Diagrams, at Queen’s Street? I wasn’t there unfortunately, I was reviewing a show for The MAC called Gulliver…but I will check it out when I can…
CD: Yeah, it went very well, I think we had a good showing. I mean, the show is pretty diverse. There’s a lot of different types of work going on. In terms of media first of all, but also in terms of how different artists have approached the work.
Niamh McDonnell, the curator, who had brought us all together, started off with the idea of diagrams. What a diagram could be, how it would work within drawing, especially for an artist. Something maybe we use all the time, for example an architect in planning a building, a biologist perhaps in transcribing the image of a dissection or someone might use it to build up a wardrobe from IKEA, right down to perhaps, how we artists would use it, maybe in the sense of preparatory work or as a basis for something else. Something that might evolve into a different type of artwork after a while.
Or perhaps, more like myself, my work would be a bit more fluid in the sense that it’s always evolving. There are pieces that can move to different shows through different times and there’s kind of a diagrammatic feel I think aesthetically to the work anyway. From what I hear, there has been a good reception. Each of the works demand different types of engagement as well. Some are more aesthetic in that you’re spending time looking and appreciating how they would fit in with the idea of “Diagrams”, some demand a bit more conceptual input on the part of the viewer to start to pick pieces apart. So, it’s different works functioning as diagrams in different ways.
DB: Cool, well I definitely need to see it. Sort of failing coming to the interview without checking it out. But yes, as a prelude to this interview, I’ll attach your statement which probably most succinctly explains your practice, so we’ll touch on a few things that arose from that to begin with.
I want to know a little about your studio practice, day to day, what it looks like when you come in here? Is it a transient process, perhaps like a memory that meanders along or do you have structure when you sit down to paint, draw, collage, whatever it may be?
CD: Well, the studio, usually, as you can see, it is a bit of a tip.(Laughing) Work in chaos. The work becomes very controlled usually in the little pieces that are produced and then certainly in the final installation of it. The way I work. For me, recently, I’ve had quite a steady run of shows, right now everything’s crammed together. But, for the past couple of years, I’ve had a space of maybe 6-9 months between stuff which sounds like a long time, but it’s not. I’ve usually been selected for them or brought in as well.
I suppose, just post art college, over the past few years, building up a way of working for myself. Coming towards a show, there’s usually a sort of thematic background, be it a film I’ve looked at, say for “Diagrams”, it was a Serbian film, sorry, a Yugoslavian film about a Serbian film (laughing) called “Innocence Unprotected”. Other times, it may be a particular historical event or something more general with different themes that are coming together and the work itself, the end product becomes quite controlled and there’s things pieced together in a very deliberate way.
At the start, I would work quite intuitively. Surround myself, usually with physical things, sometimes it might be a source from the internet. I think I’ve just played between narrative and almost randomly sourced imagery but it’s kind of the point of the work as well that you’ll keep coming across the same things, maybe. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’d start by surrounding myself with magazine supplements, newspapers and sort of find my way through stuff looking at visual, conceptual or thematic links, anything that might fit into the ideas that I’m looking at for a particular show. Then it starts to get filtered down and I start selecting things.
I do work in a lot of different ways in the studio, it’s not like I come in and sit thinking, right, I’ve got this painting on the go. Let’s do that. It’s moving between a painting to oh, I meant to collage that or I’ll move to a drawing, paint something on the wall, stick something on the wall, play about with a bit of paper. So it’s all happening at the same time which lends itself well to the nature of the work as it’s about collapsing time in a way, different time periods coming together, the sort of layering of history.
DB: So, do you place the same weight on the process as you would on the final show, the hanging of the work. Obviously being very multi disciplinary in nature, does that process enthuse you as much as seeing you’ve created this thing, this final product and now the public are going to look at it?
CD: I would say it would. That question feels like one of those questions where I’m trying to have my cake and eat it because there’s a little bit of process that comes into the work but usually, what’s there in the end is a finished product. If you could see the final display almost like a mind map as well, there are different functions perhaps just due to, perhaps the materials used that would indicate something else.
For example, for a lot people, a finished painting is always going to be the main aim. I think sometimes people will unconsciously look at that status. I don’t describe it that way, but within my work there is a mix of drawings, collage and painting and sometimes there will be a preparatory drawing in the final hang but it has to be able to function by itself.
Most of the time, to be honest, without trying to make it contrived, it’s about indicating different processes. I like the indications that some of these pieces might have different weightings based on different interpretations of Art History or an individuals attitude towards visual art in the first place, how they approach certain things. I think it’s in playing with those balances between, well, what means more? That comes into play with the mix of my attempt at photo realistic, or realist, at least, paintings and drawings with actual found images. It’s a question of what is more important there? Because they both have a level of interaction, but perhaps, different kinds of interaction.
DB: With that, do you feel there’s a battle with all these different elements and imploring all these different techniques in your work? So, okay, thinking, maybe, I’m better at painting or drawing than this sculptural element but I want to push that. Does that ever pop up?
CD: There is that fear. Personally, as an artist, whenever I’m working with different materials, I’m obviously at my most comfortable with painting and drawing. I think for any of us who have been used to that, taking a different direction in terms of making the work installational, in the first place was a step. It starts to happen a bit organically where once you get used to working in a certain way and it’s like no, say it is a found image or some sort of object, you can start to feel more comfortable and think, no that works on it’s own, I don’t need to do anything else with that.
And it can be a happy accident or it can be more deliberately thought out. Sometimes, the better one is the happy accident because if you do start to think about it too much, it’s almost to the detriment of trying to do something new.
DB: Yeah, for sure, any examples of that or maybe where it didn’t go as planned?
CD: I’m just thinking of my 2014 show at Platform. I was paired up with another artist, Jacqueline Holt. We had a lot of similar conceptual themes coming together but we work very differently as artists. There’s links in the sense that she would work with photographs and lens based media, but she would employ very, I want to say monumental, I don’t mean in terms of creating an object but her execution would tend to be something very, well of late, from what I’ve seen, very simple and singular with a lot of ideas distilled into that. Quite minimal, compared to mine which is almost Baroque in comparison!
So there was quite an interesting dynamic between the two of us. But we wanted to have the gallery in darkness, and Jackie was having slits cut into boards that were being placed over the windows so light would kind of stream in. So that posed an interesting challenge for my work. It wasn’t your typical space for viewing paintings or drawings. We had to spend a quite a bit of time playing about with the lights and no matter what way we did it, it just shouted out that this work didn’t fit together.
Someone helping us at Platform suggested putting the light on the floor and thought, that looks great that way. And looking at it, it did, it lent a completely different dimension to the work so I decided to keep it that way. In terms of how shadows were produced, people walking in front of the work, it posed an interesting question about vision and interaction, people suddenly becoming a part of the work in a way. I can’t claim credit for coming up with that in the first place but at the time I had to make that decision whereas if I had of been playing around with spotlights and stuff like that, it might have gotten a bit overworked.
When something like that naturally happens, well, I suppose what I’m trying to say is I try to embrace all sides of this. The nature of the work I do, you’re going between this sort of micro, macro level. There have been situations in the past, but it’s fairly easily dealt with, where you do something and it doesn’t fit in with the installation at all even though you felt it was crucial and you wanted it there, it just has to go because it’s not working visually.
DB: Well you mentioned before, your approach is quite intuitive and free form in the beginning, yet considered when it comes to placing work together, you’re quite controlled, curating on the fly somewhat, directly whether on the canvas or the wall, piecing things together. With that, is the goal, to guide the viewer through the work as you see it or create an emotion?
CD: Again there is this sort of dynamic, this oscillation between what the viewer takes from it versus what I put into it. This has actually been quite an interesting question before because I put it up, there is some sort of narrative or a reasoning behind pieces being put together. Sometimes there’s a visual element that has been decided which for me is equally valid. It’s a lot of fun for me. There is an element of play but usually little clusters have been formed and things have come together for the most part before I get into the exhibition space.
Again, this sort of sounds like I’m having my cake and eating it, but I want the situation where, intention can be viewed by looking at the work, you know, people can look and say there is a reason why that’s gone there, they can grasp that. But, it’s not fundamental to how they interpret it. They can also create their own stories in a way.
I suppose in a metaphorical sense, it’s about what we do all the time anyway. Everything we get is sort of structured in some way, it’s done by someone else, it’s put out there, be it the news, TV or the internet, there’s always some sort of form or structure behind that, and usually an agenda, no matter how sort of, repressed or taken back. But, at the end of the day, there is this sort of element of, OK, you only get whatever information is presented to you, but you do have the freedom to search beyond that as well. Even with all the information that comes at you, you still only actively select parts of it and create your own sort of form of reality out of that.
DB: Yeah, there’s a subjectiveness to that.
CD: Yeah, yeah, I suppose, sometimes there’s a mix in the work as well in terms of thematic content, perhaps, relatively famous historical imagery versus, at times, something possibly quite unrecognisable or something that’s been sectioned off, but it’s from a famous photograph or famous image that would encourage you to look at it in a new way.
It sort of depends upon people coming along with different experiences anyway, depending on age, depending on your interest in history, depending on your interest in current events and various different disciplines, people are going to recognise different things.
Now, there’s a bit of obscuring on my part, abstracting of images, as I said sectioning off things. But, perhaps, there’s almost this uncanny feel that you can take a little bit from something or you vaguely recognise something, you aren’t quite sure where from. I suppose I think of each of the pieces as a loaded signifier.
Two people could look at two or three images I’ve placed together and come up with completely different meanings, you know?
DB: Is there a piece you feel that has achieved that, a painting for example, perhaps that’s hard to say as there are so many elements to your work but maybe a sculpture or a painting that’s maybe nailed it?
CD: Well I rarely get to that, do you mean in the sense of what I was talking about or?
DB: Yeah, that you feel has been potentially most successful in relaying that concept…
CD: Well, people maybe wouldn’t get this but actually in the show downstairs, I’m reluctant, usually, to put out what my references are. I like to think people can come across it but there’s a piece down in the gallery right now of Violette Szabo, who was a, sort of, double agent during the war, working for the allies and stationed in France who ended up being killed. A famous image of her is extremely glamourous,. The first time I came across it, I thought it was one of those Hollywood starlets who had defected, you know, like Marlene Dietrich defected from Germany or something like that. Just an illustration of that and then I read she was a spy and that’s totally not what I was expecting from that photograph.
Whilst I was down at the show in Dublin with the work, a friend mine was asking me who it was and when I said, she said, oh I just thought it was Jackie O or something. Because I painted her with a sort of washy brown background but her face is kind of contoured out, flat, kind of matte green colour. So it has that kind of screen print, coloured look to it, very graphic. And so she elaborated that it was because of the kind of warholesque vibe to it that she thought that.
We were having a discussion with a group of theorists that had been invited to come along to the show. I didn’t get to address it as he was in full flow but one of the guys there had assumed and put out there, portrait of the Queen done in this sort of Warhol way. When I was installing the work in the gallery last week, someone else from the gallery came down and there first thought was, oh is that Ingrid Bergman? And she does kind of look a bit like her but it was the bunch of things that I’d put into the image itself. It wasn’t so obscure that I thought, of course, people are going to confuse this, no one would know, the original image is popular enough. So, that’s again an example of different people bringing along different interpretations and okay, I can just clarify it by telling them who it is but the artist is not always present and it’s not the responsibility of the artist to be there and do that.
That does call up an interesting question in that my work is loaded with references but as I’ve said before the interpretation of the viewer is valid. I’ve combatted that, I’ve overcome the fact that I don’t feel I need to elaborate on everything and sometimes I’ll provide more information through text or through repetition of images. But that’s at my discretion if i want to make something more apparent, otherwise it’s up to the viewer to put it all together. (Laughing)
DB: Where did the interest in History come into play with your work?
Was that more of a first love, maybe, always reading and enjoying that sort of discovery. Then the interest in art, painting or drawing?
How did that come about?
CD: I’ve always drawn. I’ve always been interested in art. I mean, it’s sort of a bigger question that we’ll not get into now about sort of, where people develop perhaps an interest and talent in art and decide to go ahead and pursue it full time. I always loved History as well, it’s just an interest of mine. In terms of Art thing first of all, I’ll just say I have been able to trace back little bits and pieces from how I work to, this will link on to what I’m going to say…
DB: What do you mean, to childhood or?
CD: Childhood. In terms of the way I would work now, with putting things together. I do have this memory of, because I had said before about this play element and I think a lot of people have said that there’s this thing about being an artist and being a child as well that you have this real freedom to experiment and play with things. Recently I’ve actually gone further into treating the wall as a space, cutting out figures and putting them on the wall, I mean I’m not the first artist to do that. But just with the way I work, I like the fact that I can move the individual pieces or paintings around and spatially, visually that’s what brings things together.
Messing around with these types of things, I realised that I used to do that when I was younger with the fairytale books or whatever, cutting out the figures to play with them, sort of like cheap toys (laughing) Not that I was a deprived child or anything (laughing) But there was that element of playing and putting things together and putting those figures into a different story once I cut them out of the scene that they were in.
With History, as I said, it’s always been an interest. I think why it works so well as a framework for what I do, is that it’s one of those funny disciplines that is still a discipline within itself but it’s still getting to know itself because it’s hard to find something objective and there’s so much interpretation in it. And as a discipline it can become the history of…other disciplines. There’s so many facets to it.
From developing my practice, what I’ve always been interested in, overall is control and order or disorder. That stretches right back to university when I was discovering these things out for myself and I mean that in the broadest sense, this sort of play between everything we construct versus disorder. When those ideas collide, when things start to fall apart. Also the dissemination of information and knowledge, how that is played out. How it’s technically available all the time but it’s influenced. It’s become even harder in the age where we have access to so much information through the internet. The idea of sort of truth in that way, it’s harder to even kid yourself…
DB: Yeah, it’s a google away. Well your work as well, just because we vaguely sort of touched on the internet thing a couple of times. An image of your work on the internet, probably in this article, it’s bizarre that someone looking at it won’t see the elements where you’ve manipulated a real object or painting something so finely that it looks real, like a piece of masking tape or a shadow. I don’t feel you can experience your work in the same way, or that filter of the internet does it justice with just that flat image. So basically, people should come and see it in real life (laughing)
We talked about success, probably getting a bit more candid, but how have you dealt with failure for example? That will create a memory. Has that indefinitely contributed to your work in terms of translating that type of memory and does that have an equal effect when it comes to success. So will that inform your palette for example. I think it’s important to highlight the affect it has as obviously, being an artist, everything you do doesn’t work so but it’ll inform your work moving forward…
CD: Well, I’m glad you asked that question as it’s not something that’s usually delved into within my work, the actual practice of it. At the end the day, I still have to deal with the nitty gritty, I still have to paint these paintings you know? (laughing) I’m sure as everyone knows who practices art in any way, one wrong move in a piece and it can ruin your whole day and it’s completely irrational then you come back and you see how you can fix it and suddenly it’s not so bad anymore.
I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t care, no one has to see these. You know, when you’re at art college and I’m sure if anyone who reads this that’s at art college, you’ll empathise with the fact that you’re under a radar with having tutorials every week. They tell you to experiment as much as possible but it’s quite a lot to ask especially when you think you know what’s good and you’re willing to work with it.
Since then, having more privacy, I think I’ve expanded it out quite a bit more from what I’d classify as my identity, not to force one upon myself but you get a feeling for the way you work. It can be embarrassing trying something new for the first time, almost like trying on an outfit you wouldn’t normally wear. It might work well but you might not want to wear it in front of others first (laughing). My whole first year after I graduated from university, I was playing around with these paintings and I had high hopes thinking they were going to be great and they were all crap in the end, everyone of them got de stretched, I didn’t have any shows or anything and at the time I thought, well this is miserable.
Afterwards I learned that it was a very valuable experience because it taught me a lot in terms of mistakes, colours that I now know work together, being able to build up skills, loosen up a lot but also tighten things up and improve things. Having that break period gave me that opportunity. Now I’m much more comfortable with failure.
One piece of advice that I’d have is that you’ve got to keep your hand going. I’ve noticed recently, maybe I’m sharing a bit too much information (laughing) but in recent shows where I’ve moved towards the installation sort of thing, where I got better at that selection process. Where things became more formulaic in terms of drawing or painting, things have gotten a bit rusty, certainly in terms of drawing. You never lose drawing but it certainly doesn’t flow as smoothly when you haven’t been doing it for a while.
So that’s the next step to just grab a sketchbook and go with it for a while. It’s a push and pull, I mean, I’ve built up different skills for myself in terms of collage for example, being faster with flicking through source material and saying, that’s going to work, that’ll work with that, I can collage with that that way, if I draw that in that way, it’ll be the best way for that piece and so on, but at the detriment of the more intuitive, sort of, just sitting doing loads of drawings and selecting from them. I always learn something from it though in terms of trying something new.
DB: So it’s always positive, in the end.
CD: Yeah, yeah.
DB: So moving forward, then you’ve obviously had quite a lot of successes recently with shows so what else is coming up? Showing at the RUA and…?
CD: Yep, plug that one. (Laughing) I have a piece in the RUA and that opens on the 16th October. On the 21st October is the opening of a solo show in the University Gallery.
DB: Just on the bottom floor of the art college?
DB: Is that all new work then or what can we expect?
CD: It’ll be work that hasn’t been shown before. The show is called “Fugue” and to give it a bit of a background, I’ve sort of taken this as an opportunity, because it’s going to be overlapping with the “Diagrams” show, to push certain ideas I’ve been working with. The show in “Diagrams”, a lot of the themes have been taken from conflict in terms of location and broader questions to do with space, both visually and conceptually in terms of territories. Because a lot of history is based on the conquest of certain things or Diaspora.
So there was a question of location to begin with but there’s also this dimension to my work in terms of what we talked about before, the weight of a certain element in the work and it’s execution, painted versus drawing versus cutting from a magazine. But maybe that magazine cutting is more valuable because of the time period it’s come from. The archival metaphor fits in with this work where it’s me bringing things together and putting them in a certain order. I liked this idea that I could have two locations that are quite close by and two shows that could link. It’s not that you necessarily have to go to both but you’ll get a broader experience if you do. I’ll be working up to the last minute but there will be definite links and things are coming together. Visual counterparts for images, sections of the same drawings perhaps in QSS and the other in the University…
DB: Yeah, that’s a nice idea.
CD: So there’s this idea that these images were created at the exact same time, on the same piece of paper, but have been separated and in a different way, there is that aspect where you automatically section things off when you look at my work. This idea that you can see the whole thing at once, but you can’t see the details, then when you go in and look at a cluster of details, you can’t see the whole thing at once. The idea that there will be some sort of conceptual resonance between the shows is interesting. The concept of the space that I have in Queen Street being smaller than the solo show space in the University, there has been this sort of expansion out from what has been done at the “Diagrams” show.
And then this question of what matters more, that there is more work or there’s more space but does it say the same thing? Perhaps it’s a more disavowed version in Queen’s Street but you can’t be sure whether for example, in Ulster, it was all work that siphoned through and came to QSS or vice versa.
So I’ve called it “Fugue”, which is a compositional technique in music which relies on two or more voices or instruments playing together and starts with a singular theme, then based upon imitation and playing with that theme afterwards. So there’s this layering, coming together and moving apart but they have to fit together in terms of their musicality, how they sound in harmony.
DB: Sounds like a perfect fit for it then.
CD: Yeah I thought it was a good metaphor and the further link being the way one might respond to music, in a different way to visual art. People take such an immediate, natural response to music but it can come from something very mathematical in beginnings, abstract in a way but like a diagram may come from that with an amazing musical score.
DB: Does the music you listen to very much inform or is it a case of this being a theme you want to explore then?
CD: Sometimes, I usually listen to a lot of classical music and film music when I’m in here but it depends. I suppose there’s always been a narrative based aspect and that was particularly true a few years ago, I did a show at Queen’s Street that had a lot of Operatic references. It’s these different types of artistic production.
I’d like to think if my work produces any sort of emotion, it’d be one of excitement with piecing things together but it’s not really the kind that’ll produce any sort of overt feeling of sadness or joy. Whereas, music is one of these things you don’t need to think about, even so called difficult music, after a few listens, things people might find “hard to get into”. It’s funny that music is so natural in terms of how we process it compared to what I’m doing with something that requires a lot of thought and effort on the part of the viewer. There has to be a visual harmony to the piece.
DB: Yeah I mean ultimately, there’s all this process but it has to look good at the end…Where do you see your work going, post this run of shows, is there anything else coming up or are you going to knuckling down again?
CD: I actually don’t have anything coming up for a while, which I’m kind of glad of, I feel like I need a bit of time but probably won’t be saying that when post exhibition depression hits at the end of October. In all seriousness, I’ve been hungering for a bit of a change recently and for me, just to push myself in a different direction. I say all this but it could change in the next few months, but to try and working on slightly larger canvases and try to collapse things into one plain.
Gearing towards something that might be quite a straight hang because to me, that’s so different to what I’m used to, a different logic involved. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of that, just stepping back. Or maybe further down the line, working lens based, maybe with film projections which could then link with the installation elements. But, I don’t know. (Laughing)
DB: Haha I don’t know. A good note to finish on. Thanks for doing that.
Make your way to QSS and check out the group show, “Diagrams” up until Saturday 14th November with further details here and a showing of “Innocence Protected” at The Beanbag Cinema as part of the Belfast film Festival, October 23rd. You can see Craig’s work in the RUA on the 16th October and his solo show opening on the 22nd. Thanks for reading.