Introduction to the Paintings of Paul Bartholomew

This is an interview about Paul’s work with Marianne May [MM] –a Researcher in Art History at Sussex University.

MM: Can you give me some idea of what kind of background you are coming from; what kind of artist you see yourself as?

PB: Although I originally had formal art training, I found it more comfortable being in an environment where real things were made for a purpose. I therefore spent some time in Engineering – then became involved in Education. I’ve always been interested in all forms of artistic endeavour; but I love non-representational painting. For me it communicates in a very powerful way.

MM: In what way?

PB: It seems to me there is continuity there. People have been using pattern and geometric design for hundreds, if not thousands of years – often anonymously. I think it’s a very powerful tradition that perhaps people have lost sight of.

MM: Is it very important to you to keep this tradition alive?

PB: Absolutely. A link with the past and to continue to try to make work in that way in the present and future.

MM: Who have been the influences on your working practice?

PB: I have been very influenced by the work of ancient artisans and craftspeople. They used geometry to decorate the insides of large buildings, such as churches and cathedrals. There is certainly a power there, stuff that moves me.

MM: Are these artists always anonymous?

PB: No, not always. People like Uccello also used geometry and designed floor pieces. He could move from the figurative to the non-representational. He had no problem with this.

MM: And people working today?

PB: Well, Sol Lewitt is a great influence in my work. And people like Donald Judd. Going back to the earlier 20th Century, Mondrian, Malevitch. These people I continue to look at today. I still find them very illuminating.

MM: What is it about Sol Lewitt’s work that makes him a source of ideas for you?

PB: It is his sense of play nowadays. He seems not to be so preoccupied with systems. There now seems to be a sense of humour, of fun. I enjoy his use of colour and his reliance upon very basic geometry, its power and weight, without losing sight of humour. I find it refreshing and very moving.

MM: So humour and play are important in your work?

PB: Play is certainly important to me. I often “doodle” using the basic tools – a pair of compasses, a rule, a setsquare, pencil and some paper – and follow some very simple geometrical constraints. That’s the way the work develops – from the play and trying things out.

MM: In the work you are doing now, are you continuing with these ideas?

PB: Yes. Over the past few years I have been returning to Italy, to Venice and Florence, visiting the cathedrals and palaces. I have been struck by the non-figurative decorations. The floor tiling, the way the architectural vaulting and cornicing have been painted with chevrons, circles and repeating patterns which interlink. I’ve been looking at these geometrical images and have been building a series of graphic pieces. It’s an occasional series – but it’s growing. I will probably continue to produce these black and white graphic works for a while to come, and think they are helping to inform larger work that I’m making, geometric pieces introducing flat blocks of colour.

MM: The title you have given this work in progress, Procession for Our Ancient Forefathers, the black and white series based on your travels in Italy, has a real sense of movement that is transformed into an optical rhythm.

PB: Yes, you can’t help but set up a rhythm if you are repeating a basic pattern. The complexity is arrived at through repetition. You can’t help but set up a resonance that can be read optically. Certainly, if you’re cutting everything back to just black and white then it’s sort of positive/negative, positive/negative – that’s what you’re going to get.

MM: It’s the simplicity that you’re trying to get?

PB: Absolutely.

MM: And humour?

PB: I think so, yes. Some of them, especially when you start closing the points of a chevron with a little circle, they almost have a carnival feel to them. A procession. To actually physically repeat those patterns and block them in, it feels like a procession when I’m working on them. And it’s a way of celebrating, of honouring continuity. Nothing has changed. A 13th Century artisan had the same skills and access to basic materials that are available to us today.

MM: So much of your work is as much about history, about perceptions, as about line?

PB: Some of my favourite paintings are narrative paintings. They represent things that have happened, or they tell an allegorical story. But that’s not what I do. I don’t want to create things that hold a mirror up to the world, or represent something else. I want the images I make to be what they are; to be experienced as part of what we do, the way we live.

MM: Thinking about perceptions, can you tell me about your series Flat Spin? Is there continuity with the Procession?

PB: There is some commonality. They are a series of spirals blocked in black and white with a framed square and they step through six different spirals arrived at through a geometric system. They are called Flat Spin because they are a dedication to Major Charles Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound back in 1947. He had some very uncomfortable experiences when he’d lose control of the aeroplane and it would go into a flat spin. He would lose all aerodynamic control and the plane would literally spiral through its own central axis, all the way down. Flight is something that has always fascinated me. I wanted to produce non-figurative images that would not necessarily portray the effect of lost control but just through their creation, acknowledge the courage and technical virtuosity of people like Yeager.

MM: They work both as allusion and as pattern.

PB: Yes. They stand alone. Take the title away and they would stand as a series of spirals that are geometrically arrived at.

MM: As well as the black and white series, you are working on larger pieces, canvases, using colour.

PB: There are similarities in that they are built up. Again, in a processional way. They are long horizontal pieces divided by interconnected, truncated triangles that set up a rhythm. Their scale is important and there is the possibility of their being intertwined.

MM: As a series you mean?

PB: Yes. There’s no reason why the images shouldn’t become a sort of module whereby we can endlessly lengthen them. Colour introduces something else completely. For me, it’s a logical progression that will continue.

MM: The idea of the modules gives a very sculptural feel to these paintings.

PB: To a degree, yes. Obviously they are pigment on canvas but I don’t try to hide that. I use colour in a very flat hard-edged way so there’s no confusion there, as to their being paintings. As two-dimensional blocks that could be arranged in different sequences, perhaps site-specific, then yes, very much so. Hopefully, through the use of flat colour in such a hard-edged way, the physicality of paint is not being denied. Paint is a luscious and exciting medium and I wouldn’t ever want to hide that.