London-based painter David Surman currently has a show on at no format Gallery entitled Paintings for the Cat Dimension, on through 15 April. We chat about his practice and influences, and make sure to check out more at the links below!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I’m from Devon, which is in the South West of England. I grew up in the country and moved around a lot, but always in rural communities. This had a big impact on my work I think, as I use animals, landscapes and biomorphic forms frequently. It also had the effect of making me focus a lot on imagination and invention — when you live in the middle of nowhere you have to entertain yourself, and that experience certainly prompted me to privilege imaginative processes. Though I began painting in oils when I was around 15 under the guidance of a painter neighbour named Rob Fairley, I didn’t actually study painting. As a kid I was totally obsessed with animation and videogames, and wanted to be an animator at Disney or in Japan. I studied Animation at Newport School of Art in the early 2000s, which gave me a great and deep appreciation of media, images and contemporary popular culture. Animation really gave me an appreciation of saturated colour, expressive line and characterful narrative imagery that continues today in my painting. After my degree I worked making animated projection art for theatre shows across Europe, and then eventually I pursued a postgrad in film studies at Warwick. Though my imagery is playful I’ve always been conceptual in my approach, and in the mid 2000s I went back to do my MA in film studies. The way that discipline critically engages with the image as material and as media really influenced me and forms the basis for my painting practice. Questions of reality/realism, style, movement and montage, seriality — these are very much film concerns that is transposed onto canvas.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
I don’t think there was ever a question of wanting to do art for me, I was encouraged from a very young age by my mother who is a great amateur artist. It became an integral part of my personality early on. I think that has to do with being a queer kid too, when you have something you can do that enchants people they’re less likely to pick on you. In that sense I used art early on as a bit of a shield. By the time I was a teenager I was aware that I had a pretty vivid imagination and visual art became the vehicle for that. I have a really good grounding in quite traditional observational drawing and in school and college I would produce that work, but for me the primary motivation to make art is freeform invention. It’s about putting something together out of nothing and seeing what psychological or perceptual impact you can have.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
From the time that I graduated I worked in a mixed media approach, creating films, animations, games, drawings, prints and paintings. As time has gone on I’ve moved more and more toward painting and now I would say that I am a painter first and foremost. The overarching idea that shapes my work today has to do with identity. I’ve always felt like multiple individuals in one body (and I don’t mean schizophrenic) as a queer man and as a child of the internet, I’m very comfortable with playing with identity and exploring multiple/secret lives. When I came to making art and especially painting, I encountered a world where a consistent, authentic, ‘truthful’ singular output was privileged. This didn’t resonate with me — you can never step into the same river twice — when you step into a studio it’s like stepping into a river. For me painting is like a costume box, I want to play with self-expression and create different paintings in different style on different days according to a conceptual principle. My works are expressionistic, but they aren’t necessarily cathartic. By playing with painting in this way I think I bring a wider range of people closer to the core questions of painting, and get them to see the paint as well as the objects it represents.
What is your process like?
In terms of painting routine I work 5-6 days a week, from around noon till 7pm. In that time I’m in the studio doing a whole range of different activities, but most recently I’ve been moving between making monotypes and developing the cat series of oil paintings. I tend to work on multiple canvases at once and each painting tends to emerge from 3 to 10 sessions. They’re generated quickly, and I’m more interested in momentum than perfection, that’s kind of a motto for me. I try to emphasise the experience of the series over the individual painting. It feels truer to how we experience images in other aspects of life (infinite scroll, google search etc.) There’s something totally fabulous about the same motif repeated over and over, hung on a wall side by side. It also has the feeling of before and after photos. Your imagination creates transitional time between the works. I develop a motif through drawing — in the case of the cat I found a picture of a small ceramic Japanese tigress with cubs in a 1970s auction house catalogue. It had amazing power and it was love at first sight. I drew it over and over until it became the basic compositional arrangement underlying the paintings. On that scaffolding I then improvise and let the paint dictate the sequence of choices that ultimately make up the final work. I’m also very dialectical, if I made a very orderly and harmonious picture one week I’ll want to create something aggressive and disruptive afterward. This has to do with wanting to exercise every part of myself creatively.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
I’ve had lots of mentors over the years, I think I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m engaged with someone who has something to teach me. Even younger painters I meet nowadays often have a lot to teach me. I’ve worked as a teacher in the past, and I learned how to be a student. The first big lesson I learned was to respect materials, which means learning how to make even the cheapest paint or paper look fabulous. The second was to respect ideas. Art is a world of ideas first and foremost, and if you’re not approaching your work conceptually at some level then you’re not getting all that you could out of the process. Even when you’re painting seemingly simple and straightforward imagery a rich conceptual lens can totally transform your perspective. And I don’t mean just a standard off the shelf theoretical model, I’m really interested in idiosyncratic conceptualisation, the weird logics we generate when we’re working that are nonetheless tested and qualified by the final output.
What is your studio like?
My studio is a medium-sized double height ex factory space in Deptford, South East London. I share with a fabulous sculptor called Sandra Lane. I am quite messy and I usually have around 10 paintings hanging on all the walls in various stages of development. I generate a lot of work on paper through printmaking and drawing, so I have two large plan chests below the window.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
The hardest thing is believing in art, which has to do with the next hardest thing, which is self confidence. Trusting that you are seeing something good in your work, and that others will see it too; that you’re making progress even when you think you’re going round in circles. It took me a really long time to trust that I had something to say that was credible. I had internalised a lot of the discourse about everything having been done already. But the more you believe in art the more comfortable you get with the idea of putting the work out there. Just because something is utterly familiar to you doesn’t mean it is for another person.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
playful, inventive, colourful
What are you working on right now?
I’m continuing to make cat paintings, and developing a new series of larger paintings that explore elements of figure/landscape.
Anything else you would like to add?
Keep up the great work Kate, your site and Instagram are such great projects and enable us to see so many new artists each week. Thanks for taking the time to consider my submission!