Michael Greaves: “Painting My Current Historical Situation”

Artist Profile:


Untitled (Man with occluded mouth 2)

Untitled (Man with occluded mouth 2) 22.5cm x 26cm © Michael Greaves

Heather: How long have you been painting, drawing, creating, working as an artist?

Michael: I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, from primary school, where the Teacher would ask us to draw either straight objects like her shoe, or imaginary things like things of the future. I decided that I wanted to spend my time making paintings seriously since I was 15, and I began showing my work when I was 16 or 17.

Heather: Your work straddles the line between raw and polished, can you talk about that?

Michael: There is something about painting that interests me deeply, and this is the way that it presents itself. It is always raw, you can trace the hand of the maker, regardless of the finish that she/he attempts to give the work. This is important to me. Painting and photography always surfaces here in this argument. I feel that you are able recall an image that is photographed almost instantly because you read the graphic quality of photography, but with a painting, a good painting, this is harder to do so. I feel that this is because there is less of an interest in this graphic quality that associated with a photograph, and more with the detail and nuance, the rawness associated with the painting.

Living in New Zealand you don’t often get the chance to regularly visit the great collections or see new contemporary painted works. You learn painting by looking and experiencing actual paintings not by looking at magazine reproductions. In New Zealand you can only experience these works in print or screen format, where the surface is as flat and pristine as the medium that it is presented by, and more than this it is often vastly out of scale. This has effected the way that have viewed work and for a long time and also affected the way that I made work.

My painting straddles the polished and the raw due to this restriction.

Para © Michael Greaves

Para 36cm x 35cm © Michael Greaves

Heather: In one of our conversations, you mentioned how you would spend time with the work, looking at it, thinking about it – working on it without really laying down paint. Do you find your work changes direction a lot on it’s way to completion?

Michael: This an interesting question. I work through a painting via experience. Experience of the subject/object that I am dealing with and of the memory of making other paintings, I remember methodologies and mistakes, compositional devices and how paintings came about in the past. In saying this painting for me operates as a conversation and then a struggle for power, ultimately one that I often lose, not in a bad way. In the beginning you demand a lot from the painting, you impose yourself and your ideas on the work. You often have a possible end point in mind and you work towards this, either in your head or on the support. Often I think through my paintings too much because I want to address questions that I don’t yet have the answers to, or am unable to adequately find the words to express myself. But…there comes a point in this process where the painting begins to demand things of you, the power dynamic shifts and then you really have to start working, more intuitively, hoping that the ground work that you have spent time laying has given you a solid enough foundation for the painting to ‘stand up’. Philip Guston once said something like this. “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.’” I think that has a lot of pull with me when I am making paintings.

© Michael Greaves

Untitled 35cm x 36cm © Michael Greaves

Heather: How do you know when a piece is finished?

Michael: Hopefully a work is never finished, meaning that there is always an entry point to look at in a wonder. I often don’t consciously decide that a work is nearing completion. It comes as either the end of a kind of endurance with the work or the work arrives at a point that I need time to reflect on it as it is. If I get to these points when painting I will set the painting aside and revisit it each day, just to look. If something needs, or demands to be done in the work I will address that. Sometimes I have painted out the painting and begun again to address this.

Heather: Where do you find your inspiration – where do your ideas come from?

Michael: I am feeling less and less comfortable with the idea of inspiration. I feel more that it is that I am painting my current historical situation. In saying this, a lot of my ideas come from fleeting moments of thought that manifest themselves in my daily life. I will often begin by trying to realize the idea in another medium to test it and begin to translate it into paint. There is a vast difference between projecting something in your minds eye and rendering this in paint. Painting is hard and very unforgiving.

Heather: Are your pieces more autobiographical or do they tend to reflect your environment?

Michael: I feel that all painting is in essence autobiographical. Frank Stella once addressed a group of students describing the two things that painters do, or aim to understand in their work. One was what a painting is, and the other is how you make a painting. While Stella was describing the methodology of putting paint on a surface, the brush size, the viscosity of the paint etc…addressing his second question, ‘how does one make a painting’, I feel that now it is more likened to how the painter operates within his/her time, the things that surround them when they make, the things that impact on them, the things that reveal themselves to themselves that this statement means. So in answer to your question, I think my paintings reflect both.


Interrogation 42cm x 36cm © Michael Greaves

Heather: You work in watercolors and oils, on paper and canvas and linen. What other mediums, materials do you use? You also work in a range sizes from very large to really small. Do you have a preference or does the piece dictate that?

Michael: Recently I have been making small maquettes out of cardboard boxes, boxes I have used to relocate my life over many years, and then painting these. I have begun this through a frustration that I have been experiencing in making lately. Other than this I am a pretty straight painter. I can see the seduction of wanting to work in other materials, but really they come with too much ‘stuff’ for me to be able to resolve.

The sizes that I choose for my work usually relate to other paintings that I like, stuff other people have done before me. I am really interested in the similarity in scale that other painters use, often scales/dimensions that continue to resurface again and again throughout the history of painting.

Heather: Why painting?

Michael: Because it is, in actuality, an intangible. Painting can re-present life and lived space without having to be a servant to it, and really there is no truth in a painting, this interests me as it has many a painter before me.

Heather: I love painting, to me it’s relevant and timeless. However, painting can get a bad rap as being dead – it’s alternatively in or out of fashion depending on who you speak to. How would you address those who feel that painting is dead or passée?

Michael: Painting can’t be dead, because too many people are doing it, and really the cycle of being dead and being alive is healthy for painting, as it is for any other approach to art making. That is why it is relevant. I am glad that painting is out of fashion; it is too hard having to change your trousers every five minutes!

© Michael Greaves

Raft 35cm x 36cm © Michael Greaves

Heather: Would you like to speak about your current body of work?

Michael: The painting that I am doing at the moment is an investigation into failure, or something that is bound to never be reailsed. Loosely these paintings exist around the rendering of a collection of cardboard maquettes that I make in my studio from boxes that I have used to move house over the last 4 yrs. The constructions I am making are virtually impotent and present the material once useful as ‘other’ objects or containers of things that now negate reasonable translation.

Heather: What upcoming shows, projects do you have?

Michael: Currently I am preparing to publish two books, and exhibiting in a number of group shows. The books are exploring the idea of the novelisation of painting and relate to two different collections of work; The work that I developed in Berlin in 2012 titled ‘I am Brave Yet I Fear My Own Breath’ and a body of work I am currently engaged in titled ‘Nowhere’.


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