Sunday, 8 November 2009
Greg Kapka, artist and long-time friend
Interview background: I’ve known Greg since we were twelve years old. We went to secondary school, college and university together, until Greg decided to drop out of his biochemistry degree in his second year to pursue a path less soul destroying. The boldness of that act — deliberately leaping from the education conveyor belt at a time when I was pretty much terrified of becoming somehow unbalanced from it and toppling off into what would surely (wouldn’t it?) have been an inescapable pit of shame and despair — impresses me to this day. Four years on from that decision, I wanted to catch up with Greg and find out what he was doing and how he felt about it.
How long have you been painting?
I’ve been painting with an eye to making it my profession for four years now — not quite full time, but as close as I could come without starving! For those four years I’ve scraped by on the earnings of a strictly part-time job in order to devote myself to painting as much as I could. Thinking back though, and asking myself how long have I harboured a secret desire to earn a living through some sort of creative endeavour, it would be since about the time I moved up from primary to secondary school. The new, longer hours meant I missed all the good cartoons, and I distinctly remember never wanting to be forced into such awful working habits again once compulsory education was over. That youthful desire took a while to take hold, however, as it wasn’t until after botched university attempt number one that I decided to take charge of as many of my waking hours as possible, instead of leaving them to the whims of some unhappy middle manager in a dead-end job.
Botched attempt number two being the Fine Art degree, which you called time on after how long? And, briefly, why?
It was less than four months before I literally couldn’t stomach another second of that farce. Short and sour sums up my experience. I will stress though that I did try, but I found the endeavour completely hopeless, given the quality of the teaching. As for why, brevity is a good idea, as I can think of many reasons why it was awful, and could go to the extreme lengths of prolixity in my explanation. In short, art tuition in university is in a dire and very sorry situation indeed if what I experienced was a typical example. What I can’t answer, however, is why on earth I thought for a moment it would be a good idea.
In what capacity do you paint (in your spare time, for pleasure, for a living, etc)?
With painting becoming far more than simply a past-time, spare time for me is when I’m away from the easel. At the easel, however, I suppose I paint for pleasure. That said, it certainly isn’t a constantly enjoyable experience — more a dull ache of effort punctuated by piquant highs, whose caprice is what keeps me painting.
Could you elaborate on that – why it is that you paint?
Imagine being able to communicate in the most alluring, visceral voice you could imagine — a silkier Morgan Freeman, a more choral Matt Bellamy — then imagine being able to do that in colour.
Has that always been your motivation, or has the appeal changed for you over time?
As technical plateaus became fewer and further between, and my satisfaction at their termination shorter and more hollow, I found that pleasure’s motivational carrot and stick routine actually gained in power, though the carrots’ guise began changing. It’s this evolution that I find so fascinating, and it’s that which makes what work I will be doing in a year’s time, and why I will be doing it, such a mystery to me.
Initially my motivation was egoism: I wanted to show off how well I could paint. But what praise that elicited soon wore thin when I realised how many others stood on the same plateau. A competitive instinct kicked in, but that then wore similarly thin, leaving me again unable to answer the question “Why do I paint?”
So you were asking yourself that question?
Yes. Convoluted thinking followed, myriad reasons occurred to me, but slowly and surely the realisation dawned that I probably won’t ever know. I have no obvious agenda, no flag to fly, bone to pick, bees in my bonnet, axes to grind, or more clichés in this vein. But what does that matter? Why must there be a reason to paint? And yet still I question it. Perhaps it’s something that will run through my mind forever, and in some ways I hope it does. It will keep me searching — after all, just because I don’t yet know a reason doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
Because something must keep you painting despite those “dull aches of effort”?
Of course! The irony of developing a beautiful visual language whilst having nothing of importance to say is not lost on me.
What kinds of subjects do you paint, and how do you choose them?
I paint whatever strikes me, and I figure out what strikes me in the same way as, when in a group of people, I find the girl I most want to take home with me... I glance around, and something else works out the rest. What part of my endocrine system that evening sun dressing a cathedral in yellow tickles, though, I do not know.
What are your goals for each individual painting?
Secretly, my goals are often esoterically technical, to the point where an explanation would hideously bore you. I hate to leave anything that I don’t like on the canvas, to an almost obsessive degree. At the moment, the physical handling of the paint is important to me: I want my pictures to actually look as though they’ve been painted. I despise detail, and aim to tell as much as possible with as little of it as I can, aiming for a sort of a visual synecdoche, where an obvious, unmolested brush stroke becomes part of something larger — a coherent whole when viewed from afar.
My goals aren’t high-brow: I’m not a very arty artist. Imagery steeped in metaphor and symbolism has its place, but not in my oeuvre.
And on a longer timeline?
To find something to say, a purpose to it all.
If your goals are often technical, how do you try to improve your technique?
Mimicking the many painters far better than me is a good start, but the most effective way I have found is to force myself to lose any biases and look at anything and everything. As much as I disagree with Duchamp for saying that anything can be art — and as much as I can’t abide the deluge of deluded rot that has followed it — to ignore anything because of my own subjectivity would be perilous. I dislike most abstract painting, but I try not to prejudice my viewing of it just in case I find something compelling and new.
Do you like to experiment with new and different techniques?
Absolutely...experimenting when painting is something I do constantly, and is incredibly refreshing. I change mediums, play with different lighting, go outside to paint in driving rain or facing blinding sunshine, paint things I can’t paint, paint things I don’t want to paint, paint things I haven’t dared to paint before, try to paint things that aren’t even paintable &c &c. Hardly anyone sees these rather humbling studies, but successful endeavours constantly trickle down into finished work, which is how I progress. What sells would be the ultimate litmus test of what works well, but I get uncomfortable when it starts becoming commercially driven.
What do you enjoy most about doing what you do?
The terrifyingly incredible thought of where it all might one day take me.
What do you enjoy least?
The constant arguments for and against modern/installational/abstract art. It’s such a divisive issue, and arguing with iconoclasts is tiresome. I’m a contemporary artist in so far as what I am creating is done here and now, but what I am producing is far from wherever art’s fickle cutting edge may lie. This doesn’t bother me at all. I have very little understanding of what is generally thought of as modern art, where shock and other crude tactics are relied on in an ever decreasingly original — and shocking — way. We still don’t know whether or not, in the larger scale of things, the modern–neo-abstract–whatever artists are not some pitiable aberration, whose dominance will gutter out as fast as it took hold. (The pointillists demonstrate this historically: their natural progression from impressionism proved an evolutionary dead end, and hideous painting was the result.)
Unfortunately, my views are as myopic and tiresome as everyone else’s. To rise above it — both the arguing about and the succumbing to current artistic doctrinarism — and to find my own raison d’être in the face of such folly is a difficulty I personally feel.
I could be terse here and adopt the cliché that you should never have any regrets. Luckily I am neither indolent in this respect nor saccharine – I have both done, and most certainly regretted, many things. Taking on my studio was, in the first place, more than I could chew, and my credit is still hurting over that one. Withdrawing somewhat is another. Art, I now know, is quite a lonely occupation. Even similarly capable artists have no understanding of what I’m trying to achieve – how can they when I don’t know?
I have fallen irrevocably out of touch with plenty of people, and I admit that in many cases it is through my own volition. This sort of purposeful isolation I’ve chosen for the same reasons as when I forced myself to work only part time, but in this case my wallet isn’t the casualty.
My biggest regret, though, is stopping drawing as a direct result of an atrocious art teacher in secondary school. That I let her influence me in such a strong way is regrettable, and whilst the blame may not all be hers, I am certainly stingy in apportioning my part of it.
Oh, and I mustn’t forget that pesky Fine Art Degree debacle...
You can follow Greg’s personal struggles and triumphs at: http://gregkapka.blogspot.com/
Find out more about his work at: http://www.lincolnartstudio.com/index.asp