MARCH 24, 2021 BY: JC RODRIGUEZ
Edward Povey is not comfortable with the job title 'painter'. For him, oil paint is a satisfactory means to an end. He grew up in London as the only child of a sadistic father, agitated, appeasing and preoccupied with his own freedom. He found a sanctuary in writing and painting, and throughout his life his studios have had elaborate soundproof doors. He avoids television, radio, newspapers and telephones and finds indescribable peace in the keeping of close-written manifestos in which he plans and designs his paintings. He thinks of them as the painted stopper in a bottle of ideas and feelings.
Perhaps Povey's discomfort with traditional titles emerges from the fact that his process is so energetically internal. He describes it as an entire landscape of concepts, imagery, memories, emotions and observations, replete with influences and inspirations. His detailed study of the painting tradition and its genres and laws has stretched over several decades, and like a veteran chess player he foresees the complex problems inherent in various combinations of stylistic devices. In his manifesto he unknots these problems whilst laying the foundations for his paintings. He isn't devoid of spontaneity, but he enjoys to anticipate which spontaneous gambits will fail and which will succeed.
We had the opportunity to talk to Edward Povey about his work, process, influences, and the internal structure of his paintings. In return we got an honest look at the mind and the motivations this unique thinker.
© Edward Povey
Mr. Povey, where do you see yourself, stylistically, as fitting into the current art world?
I’m uncertain, given that my paintings are built from a conglomerate of styles. It may sound strange, but I actually try to avoid the temptation of making ‘art’ per se, because my paintings are sourced from internal ideas, and the expectations of ‘art’ might be a distracting. All the same, I do have clear influences of genre.
The stylistic construction of my paintings is complex both to describe and imagine, however each style is historically well-understood, and in my paintings several of them meld and resume a plausible visual simplicity, I think.
I use Cubist perspective from pre-Renaissance religious altarpieces in which tabletops and floors are brought flat to the surface of the canvas, as if the viewer were looking directly down upon them. This is a form of pictorial honesty, like a child’s painting, reminding us that the table is in fact round, and not elliptical, as optical perspective would have us believe. I pair this with the mixed perspectives of Paul Cezanne’s Modern Cubism, in which we are allowed to view both the side of a cup and into the cup simultaneously. This is another infant’s way of solving optical riddles.
I then go to great lengths to make my surfaces and figures appear plausible in an apparent Photorealistic lie, attempting to convince my viewer that an object is present when it is, in fact, fabricated in paint. My Realist surfaces are, however, a further deception because I show information and a deliberate translucency in human flesh that is not visible in a living human being. For this I depend upon my knowledge of the human body that I acquired by handling skinless human bodies in an anatomy laboratory in the West Indies. These intrusively observed surfaces appear on all the objects in my paintings.
For me, the tangible result of these fused genres is a metaphorically-viewed union of memories, stinking of intimacy, idiosyncratic, ritualistic, and only faintly identifiable as art.
© Edward Povey
If your source material is derived from your emotional memory, do you regard your paintings as essentially narrative?
I don’t see my art as being narrative or biographical at all, because none of my life events actually survive intact and understandable in their transition to canvas, and neither is that my purpose. Art does not serve as literature in my view.
As the only child of a sadistic London seaman I had a fearful childhood, but counterintuitively, those experiences have been enormously important to my art. Having been threatened with death since the age of two, I can only conceive of life as being bracketed by birth and death. The life in-between those poles I see as breathtakingly beautiful, but a temporary reprieve, shadowed at all times by certain extinction.
My early experiences caused me to value my imagination as the only place where I was free of restraint, and imagination became my closest friend and the pith of my career. Constant fear and an overdeveloped empathy for the feelings of others led me to avoid human company. Both my mother and I literally faint in the face of danger or drama, even if it occurs on a small black and white television.
Absurdly, at this point I wouldn’t change my childhood if I could, because my avoidance of people has provided me with the vast amount of time vital for my work. I couldn’t paint in the way that I do without my emotionally heightened library of memories, my sense of the imminence of death, and my exaggerated awareness of human feelings. My psychological peculiarities enable me to express the amalgam that is human life.
© Edward Povey
Is your process as complex as the construction of your paintings?
It is bound to be, inevitably.
All my life I’ve kept a running studio diary. It contains the complete ongoing discussions with myself about every aspect of my work. In that diary I carry painting designs from inception to conclusion, and wherever I live in the world, I take suitcases containing fifty years of chronological diary.
In this diary, I describe every painting design solely in the form of words at the beginning, as the quickest and most fluid way of making conceptual changes. It then moves to tiny drawings surrounded by notes, a scale at which I’m purposely confined to dealing with the largest elements and movements in the design. I evolve it to a working drawing over the period of months, coming back to it between other work, and only at times when I can emotionally understand the concept again. If however it loses its connection with its roots in memory, I abandon it, because without that lifeblood of experience, it would die from its own lack of authenticity.
The surviving designs must then be recreated in the workshop in the form of a physical stage set, correct in every detail and surface, and complete with living human figures.
All photographs, prints and letters that appear in the paintings must be real and intimate, found, printed, creased, aged, glazed and dusted until they have the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere that I felt originally from them in memory. Furniture is also found, adjusted, coloured and worn until it duplicates my mental picture.
It can take three or four different models and six photoshoots, to plausibly capture a woman in her role as a character in a painting design. I use female models in bathing caps to stand in as men in my paintings to preserve their androgynous and sensitive atmosphere. Once again this preference has its origins in my childhood. My father insisted that I was a woman, which he regarded as an insult, and which to this day I see as a compliment.
I dress, adjust, light and coach each of them, to the point of dictating what feelings and thought-processes I need them to assume, because I am convinced that their emotional state and thoughts will leak into the finished photographs and in turn, the paintings. I handle their heads, shape their fingers, reposition their hair and adjust bra straps, finding my way towards the person whom I always knew must inhabit the painting, and doing so before exhaustion inevitably appears in my model.
You see, although I can craft all the objects in paint satisfactorily, I have to physically see them reliably organized into a stage set rather than attempting to imagine them at this point, since their relationships and surfaces carry a vast amount of information which itself carries the emotional charge that I need.
Following my fabrication of the stage set though, it is necessary for the visual information to pass into the medium of manipulated and montaged black and white photographs. Now I must relinquish the physical stage set, because my use of mixed perspectives makes it impossible to depend upon any real world scene, which by definition is confined to a single perspective. Not only that, but a certain amount of form-warping occurs, as I reform the design into a shape that can create a visual melody along the lines of Pythagoras’s Armature of the Rectangle, without losing any of the guts of its mnemonic origins.
Finally I can transfer the photo-montaged design onto a brown-washed and gridded canvas, with vestiges of information in what will be the deconstructed and disintegrating areas of the painting.
This process has accumulated over several years, and given the demands of my long-evolved mental image of the design, I have not been able to think of another process that could achieve my goals.
© Edward Povey
Your viewers talk about your approach to color. Do you have a particularly unique philosophy regarding your palette?
I don’t consider myself to be a colourist by any means, even though I was lucky enough to study colour with the art connoisseur Jan de Maere in Brussels; briefly with the artist Malcolm T. Liepke in New York and with the Danish Architectural Abstractionist Paul Klose on the Caribbean island where our studios were at the time. My current foundation palette is based on Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna Altarpiece, (1505–1507), in which he used a Verdaccio grey-green undertone which determines all the neutral areas of my paintings, but I overlay several coloured transparent layers on top of that foundation.
I do control my tonal values, narrowing their gamut more than is obvious, to create ‘air’ and allow me some latitude with colour.
I hear you have worked in studios in several different countries, what led to that? Were you there to soak up particular influences?
Every location where I have worked, has been quite beautiful, always isolated and certainly enriching to my private life, but I have never been artistically inspired by external landscapes or locations. All my inspirations derive from my internal life.
My first studio was in an attic on the South coast of England in Brighton at the age of twenty-one, where I did an Art Foundation Year. I later moved to a larger studio in Wales, on the top floor of a former chapel in a slate mining village. It was within cycling distance of the locations of twenty-five multi-storey murals which served as my self-designed apprenticeship. It was my murals that taught me how to get out of bed and work, and also gave me the first nine years of my training in composition.
I moved from there to the Caribbean island of Grenada for seven years to deliberately escape from mural commissions, so that I could concentrate on canvas painting while I studied symbolism and new approaches to composition. Of course we stumbled into a war there, were held under a military curfew, and escaped being bombed by defying the curfew at night, driving to safety in a friend’s basement.
For fifteen years I had a marvellous old brick studio back in North Wales on a University campus, but I’ve had studios variously in the North of England, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and two years ago my wife and I finally returned to England.
How does the year 2021 look in your career?
Strangely, during this difficult time in human history, I have never been busier. I’m working through a series of commissions for collectors in Sweden, the USA, Uruguay, Portugal and Wales. Some of my paintings are appearing at Arcadia Contemporary Gallery in New York and at the LA Art Fair with them in July-August 2021. I’m also excited about a collection of larger paintings I’m building for exhibitions under discussion for London and Munich.
In the meantime, Gabriel Jagger’s (Mick Jagger‘s son) London film company Why Now interviewed me in January 2021; an Italian art critic is interviewing me for an online article; a Nepalese Television company is planning an interview soon; and an Italian film producer is working on a short documentary about my life and work which will be premiered at the European film festivals, with shorter versions to be published on social media.
In a much abbreviated form, can you define what your paintings are?
My paintings are a child’s diorama built from confessions and lies, giving society one small and fearful eyehole on the complex human life experience.
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