Lives of the artist; Interview with Areté Magazine

An Interview with Mark Alexander published in Areté Magazine 17 Spring/Summer 2005.

Lives of the Artist: An Interview with Mark Alexander

Schoolboy

Areté: When were you born?
Mark Alexander: 1966
Areté: Where?
Mark: Horsham.
Areté: Where’s that?
Mark: East Sussex. My mum has two sisters and both their first sons were born on April 8, six years apart. And I’m the third one.
Areté: So you were born in 1963?
Mark: 6.
Areté: 66.
Mark: This is very good – you’ve got some kind of technique going now. I like that.
Areté: What did your father do?
Mark: I don’t know.
Areté: So what’s the history of your father?
Mark: I don’t know.
Areté: So when did you get interested in painting?
Mark: We’ve taken a massive leap.
Areté: Well obviously you don’t want to talk about your father.
Mark: Well I didn’t really know much about him.
Areté: Are you an only child? No you’re not.
Mark: I have a half-brother.
Areté: Where did you go to school?
Mark: In the local school in Stratton, which is outside Cirencester. A little village. And then I went to a sort of special-type school for difficult young ones, difficult people.
Areté: Why was that?
Mark: Because I was difficult.
Areté: Why were you difficult?
Mark: I don’t know. I just was. A natural tendency.
Areté: What about your physical handicap?
Mark: Well, I was born with a clubfoot. And I had epilepsy. But it developed. I didn’t get it until I was about eleven.
Areté: And how did you control that?
Mark: With tablets. Epilim. Big purple ones.
Areté: And do you still take them?
Mark: No. I stopped. Quite a while ago now.
Areté: So when did you last have a fit?
Mark: When I was eighteen.
Areté: So it just went.
Areté: What triggered your fits?
Mark: I don’t know. But I think it was stress. I did enter the boxing ring once. At the age of about eleven and a half. Someone was bullying me – a sportsman type – and so I challenged him to a boxing match. I trained up for two weeks with these massive big leather boxing gloves on. And I got hit around quite a lot. On the head. And that may have caused it because it just started immediately after that. Well, on that basis you’d think that it did cause it, but that boxing match came out of stress as well.
Areté: So you’re this rather delicate, difficult kid who’s at a special school. When did you leave the special school, and were your reformed?
Mark: I don’t think I was ever delicate. I mean, I guess you mean in an artistic sense.
Areté: What adjective would you apply if not delicate?
Mark: We lived on a farm and I spent quite a lot of the time outside, wandering around.
Areté: Why did you live on a farm?
Mark: Because my stepfather was a farmer. Well he was a cowman. He’d farmed in Africa. And he’d fought the Mau Mau and then come back.
Areté: What was your first job? You didn’t go to university at first, did you?

Silversmith

Mark: I left and I became a silversmith.
Areté: What did that involve?
Mark: Pulling down the blinds of the shop in the morning. Polishing the door handle. And then making things.
Areté: What kind of things?
Mark: Well it was a jobbing silversmith – so I did anything from sizing rings to repairing silverware to making missing silverware, making little ivories for the handles of teapots. But it was a very old-fashioned place. The guy that I worked with had worked there for fifty-five years. And he
went mad.
Areté: Why?
Mark: Because we used to clean the silver with cyanide crystals. We used to dissolve them in water, this cyanide really cleans silver really well, but there was no ventilation at all. We just cooked them on a camping stove. He lost all the feeling in his fingers and toes. And then he actually lost his mind after that.
Areté: And how did it affect you?
Mark: Well nothing – because I was on very low wages.
Areté: That’s got no connection at all with the cyanide that was in the air.
Mark: Oh the cyanide. I don’t think that did affect me.
Areté: But basically you began as a dogsbody, and then became accredited and you were making things.
Mark: It was very old-fashioned – you could have still been in the Second World War. As you entered the workshops you entered down the back of the big parish church: you used to clean the Anne Boleyn cup in the church once a year, go and wind the clock up. It was a slight time warp really.
Areté: And this was all in Cirencester?
Mark: Yeah. Because the last year at special school I went to study at Cirencester. But at that point there wasn’t any hope of doing any exams. Because for one I wasn’t really capable of doing any exams, and two it was totally mistimed.
Areté: Why weren’t you capable of doing any exams?
Mark: Because we didn’t really learn anything at the boarding school.
Areté: The special school was a boarding school?
Mark: Yeah. It was a very funny place. I mean – you were known by number at this school.
Areté: What was your number?
Mark: P28.
Areté: So you left the silversmith business, he went mad, and the business presumably folded?
Mark: Well he was just the jeweller guy – there was also a front of house type operation. But it was rather sad really. He went mad. I saw him ten years later, a beggar, a man wandering the streets.
Areté: Then you got a job in aerodynamics, no?

Motor Factory Charge-hand

Mark: No. In a motor factory, winding wire round bobbins.
Areté: And how old were you then?
Mark: What’s three and five?
Areté: Eight.
Mark: About eighteen.
Areté: And how long did you do that for?
Mark: Maybe three or four months. Then I wanted to be the charge-hand, because I could see that would be the next stage up. He was the guy who brought the wire to the machines and loaded it, and just kept making sure the machines didn’t break down. I wanted to be that. And you also got to wear a white coat which was very important, because technically, mentally you could have been a doctor.
Areté: But that didn’t work out either?
Mark: Yeah no it worked out. It was in a company called Myclex, which was massive – they employed about 400 people. They had different departments, and they had an engineering department. And then of course when I was a charge-hand I wanted to be the supervisor. That was slightly
more difficult to do, and on the section I was on, it wasn’t going to happen. It was a power dominated by women. The women were supervisors and also shop stewards as well, so that was never going to happen. But one day I was headhunted by a rather clever guy who worked
in the engineering department, who just used it as a front to run his own businesses. So he was quite a businessman himself. And he brought me in to be a sort of charge-hand in the engineering department, and he taught me how to grind the tools for the machines – and they were big lathes, these hard inch lathes, they were proper engineering stuff. So you had to go on courses, and stuff like that. I didn’t really know engineering, but he started to teach me a bit about it.
Areté: The craft of it?

Motor Factory Supervisor

Mark: Well, just how the machines worked. They’re very dangerous machines, and you have to know how to load it, set up the jigs, set everything up. So I learned that for a bit and then he made me the supervisor of the whole area. Which included not only my machines, which were about fifteen lathes in a row, but I was also technically in charge of the actual toolmakers – who were on the other side of the gangway. There were these hardcore toolmakers. I just used to hand out their work cards to them. But I was, I was a personality, so although I didn’t ever tell them
what to do, I still made sure they got their work cards and got paid on time, or if they did overtime – stuff like that. So, you know, making sure people get their overtime pay, you’re quite powerful at that point. Well relatively. And then there was another bit where there were these big Cincinnati grinders, which had wheels maybe two metres in diameter that ground the spindles, and I eventually took over that area as well. So then I was supervising the whole area. I was the main man, and I used to do this funny thing where… They used to do a night shift normally, but the machines would always break down because they were very old, and no one really cared, so it was very poor productivity. But I lived very close by so I would come in at night- time, and not tell anyone. I would get paid over-time, but the management didn’t really know what was going on. I doubled the production figures, but I would never tell anyone how I did it. I didn’t tell them that I came in at night-time and kept those machines
running, I just didn’t tell them, so the figures went up just like that. I had my white coat at that point with ‘supervisor’ written on it, and Zeus tables in my top pocket.
Areté: What’s a Zeus table?
Mark: It’s this kind of yellow book, that gives you every single sort of calculation you might need as an engineer. My main calculation might be how to grind a drill, resharpen a drill – that had everything you need. But it looked good at the top. Only serious engineers had Zeus tables in their top pocket. That was it. So it was quite a good job really. At that point I was technically an engineer, I mean not really, but technically I had a Zeus table and I knew what the machines were like. And then I left there and I went to become a… Well, I mean it wasn’t like proper engineering and also the ups and downs of these companies are quite, you know, perverse. So I just wanted to be in a proper job, it wasn’t really a proper job, and I was married at that time.
Areté: You were married? When did you get married? How old were you?
Mark: Well I bought my first house when I was nineteen. And we lived together for three years. And then we got married. And then as soon as I got married I realised. It’s quite funny I walked out from the reception office on this baking hot day…
Areté: Registry office.
Mark: Yeah and the sun was streaming in my… Well because her Dad said well you’ve been living together you don’t need to… Because he was paying, of course. He was from Manchester. So he said, ‘You don’t need to get, you don’t need a reg… You don’t need a wedding.’ And I remember walking out into the baking hot sun and they were all stood there photographing me, and I was looking with my eyes squinted thinking, ‘How the fuck am I going to get out of this?’ It was a bit sad really. It took another year and a half to get out of it but I did get out. It wasn’t because I was unhappy. She was fantastic. I mean we had a house, we had everything, paid for the washing machine.
Areté: Well if you were happy and she was fantastic…
Mark: But I had something inside me, but I didn’t know what it was. I just, you know, I just thought, ‘this can’t be it.’
Areté: And what you had inside you was ambition, or art.
Mark: I didn’t have much art inside me.

Quality Inspector

Mark: So at that point I left Myclex and went to another place just nearby, as a quality inspector. Because I couldn’t really join a proper engineering company, as an engineer, that would be ridiculous. So I joined up the quality inspection – where you worked with Verniers and callipers and check nuts and bolts.
Areté: With what and callipers?
Mark: Micrometers and things like that. You just check the size of nuts and bolts. And they may only have been nuts and bolts but the most important thing was that they were nuts and bolts for aeroplanes – special nuts and bolts. And there were also more complicated things you had to
do. But basically it was very simple aerospace engineering. And it was a very small company. But one day they bought a measuring machine – a MICHITORI measuring machine – which is like a block of granite, where you have an air-bearing measuring machine, that feeds information into a computer. And it’s quite complicated and you have to go to this Japanese
company to learn how to use it – they run training courses in Warwick or somewhere like that. So I went there. And it was just a very basic cheap one – you can get massive ones for the proper aerospace industry – but the principle of using it is the same, whatever scale you go up to. And me and a friend, we went up to learn how to use it and you realised it was a real skill. To use this machine. Although you were checking very basic things. So I did that for a couple of years, and it was a good engineering company – but you wouldn’t call it aerospace.

Deburrer

Mark: But then I was in the bath one day and I thought I’d start my own business as a deburrer. I almost became the French nobility for a while, because I had headed notepaper and it said Alexander Deburring. I always thought, ‘this is a great name.’ So I left there and I couldn’t drive or anything, but I bought a van and I got an old guy to drive for me. Because I realised that these small companies had a big problem: they just about make everything every month, and there’s deadlines for it to get off certain machines. But their biggest thing is they’ve finished it all and they need it all deburring – carefully, skilfully deburring – so I thought there was a gap
in the market for deburring. So I sent out lots of letters, with headed notepaper, Alexander Deburring, and I got loads of replies. But the most interesting reply was from Richard Arnold Aerospace. I went down to see them, it was proper Aerospace stuff: there were massive engines of Tornadoes, helicopter parts and stuff like that. And I said that I’d been in
engineering – I didn’t tell them what type – and they showed me what they wanted deburring, which was quite simple stuff. Like whenever you get on an airbus and you shut the locker door there’s these strips of aluminium – I used to get loads of these in, and they were quite easy to do. So I used to get 250 of these, and carry them up the stairs in my house, and stay there in the top floor deburring them. And then they gave me more complex things, and in the end, when they trusted me, I got very complex things. In my little van I’d be driving with about 15 million quids’ worth of stuff, totally uninsured. Up the Stroud hill.
Areté: What kind of complex things?
Mark: One of the most complex things was called an X-Y body. When an oil company needed to know where an oil probe was in the earth, they would drop this little machine down there that knew how fast it was falling, and it knew what angle it was falling; and they had these little mercury bobbins in them, with sensors. It didn’t have any wires on it but it would transmit all the information back up through the liquid. They made the drilling liquid sensitive to information, where you could beam the information back up through the water. I don’t know how they did it, but it kind of worked out.
Areté: What were you doing to it?
Mark: There were different kinds of very very honed surfaces. The bores where the mercury bobbins
sat shouldn’t have any scratches on them, the edges where they entered the main body had to be deburred very carefully, everything else had to be deburred carefully. So they were very expensive. And they used to do those in batches of 250. And they were seriously expensive. One day I remember the back door fell open, on the van as we were driving it up a hill – one of the batches didn’t actually fall out but it got stuck on something else on the way out. I asked how much they were and he said, ‘Yeah they’re a lot of money, at that day you took home 15 million.’
Areté: So then what did you do after the deburring?
Mark: Well I used to drop in this stuff every day, and one day I went in and said, ‘I’m tired of this,’ so I went to look at buying a premises to be a proper deburrer. But I just thought, ‘this is too much hard work, and it’s not really the way I want to go’. So I went into the offices one day – every Saturday morning I used to deliver back. The company was started by two guys and one of the guys still worked there, managing, and I often used to have a coffee with him. And I said, ‘well I’m fucked off with this,’ and he said, ‘well you’re an engineer, why don’t you work here?’ I said, ‘OK’, and he asked me what I did, and so he gave me an informal interview, and
he said, ‘Yeah just come in Monday.’

Engineer

Mark: So then I had one of these little MICHITORI machines. I had one that was a room, with a granite bed that was about 20 feet by 20 feet, probably even bigger, and you had to sit in a special little control tower, with a computer screen, and it was totally much bigger than I’d been doing before – like the front engine of a Tornado. There may have been eighteen drawings all together, and you’d pin them up to make sure that everything referenced whatever was important. Because often British Aerospace would send a big Tornado, a big engine, and it would have been all over the country, and in France and Germany adding different bits to it. And we’d just be putting one hole in it, but that hole had to be exactly in the right place. You imagine how much they cost, after being all over Europe. So the guys would come up, and there’d be a queue and there’d be four or five of you – and if you were rubbish, you wouldn’t have a queue, no one would want to work with you if you were rubbish, and then you’d have to
leave – that happened quite often. So the guys had to be able to trust you to do it. So you’d be stood there, and they’d come along and they’d be nervous as well because they wouldn’t want to put a hole in the wrong place – so they’d be sat on your shoulder looking and seeing if it was alright. And you’d have to reference everything. They’d have an understanding of the job and so would the guy who’d programmed it, but they might have been totally wrong – so you had to even double check the programmer because he might have misunderstood what the job
was about. You had to be totally right what you were doing. I was one of the best ones, I just somehow picked it up, and then I had to learn about trigonometry and stuff like that, which of course I didn’t know at all, it took a few months, maybe three months, but after that I ran my own shift in the night-time, from 2 till 10.
Areté: So do you think this was to do with your gift for spatial awareness?
Mark: I think it’s much dodgier. My gift for, not bullshit – but I think I’m good with the imagination.
Areté: It doesn’t sound like either bullshit or imagination, it sounds as though it’s incredibly painstaking.
Mark: Well it’s painstaking, but it’s something to do with the actual goal – and the dream is done at the point of sale, somehow. When I said I could do it, that was the magic moment – after that it was just cobbling it together to prove it. But the magic moment was when I got the guy in
the engineering factory to say, ‘yeah you can do it’. I think somehow I made him believe I could do it. The facts shouldn’t add up. I made him bypass normal standard routines of checking how good someone is. And somehow it assumed the character that I was presenting.
Areté: So it was an act of psychic imposition?
Mark: I know that’s a bit mad but I often sell the dream first. And then I catch up later.
Areté: Do you sell it to yourself first?
Mark: Yeah. Yeah I’m the first one to buy in. I’m selling it as I’m speaking. Keith Tyson – an artist who’s the 2002 Turner Prize winner, and who I first met at the Anthony Reynolds – always says that I’m good at reading people. I’m speaking it as I’m watching them. And I’m adjusting my words as I speak to them. I don’t know if that’s true but I can imagine it’s a bit true. But I do believe there’s this sort of thing about reading people microsecond by microsecond and telling them what you want to hear, but not in a false way, but just sort of reading, you know… Because as you unfold a story to them, you’re able to realise how much more of the story you can give, as you’re speaking. I’m not saying it’s going to work in this particular context…
Areté: So: there you are in the factory, doing very well, and then you decide to be a painter.
Mark: No, no. What happens is that the marriage breaks up, at this point. Which was very painful because I didn’t really know why it had broken up, I didn’t really know anything. Apart from that I was starting to feel this sense of power that I could actually do most things that I wanted to do, in some senses. Or I thought I could.
Areté: So what takes you from aerospace to the Ruskin? Or is there a stage in between?
Mark: There’s a stage in between. It broke up and it was very painful and I didn’t know what to do really. But I’d always wanted to live abroad and never managed it. When I was about sixteen I ran away to go grape-picking, and I went to France, and I looked and I couldn’t find any grapes to pick. I couldn’t see where grapes were. And then another time I went to Belgium, and I couldn’t find anything there either, so I had to come back. But both times I gave up everything, and it lasted about two weeks. So I didn’t have a good track record of being an international explorer. Although I would like to have been an explorer, really. That would have
been my number 1 job. An adventurer, a swashbuckler. I just didn’t know how to do it. And somehow I realised I was doing it wrong. I realised that’s not the way to be an explorer, somehow. But I can’t overemphasise the amount of time I spent on my own, while I was on the farm. I mean every night I’d be out wandering up and down the fields, singing. And the field
at the back of the house had a big dip in it and when you were in the lower dip you couldn’t see the top. So I’d pretend I was in the Scottish pipers, and sing and march back and forwards across the fields. And as I’d come down into the hollow, there was the great moment as the house was re-revealed to itself. I was probably on an up note at that point. I did that for hours and hours and hours. Singing to myself.
Areté: And you connect this with exploring?
Mark: I was about nine or something.
Areté: OK. So you wanted to live abroad…
Mark: No but I mean also you have to see that I was very interested in history. So to me, in a ploughed field you were in a primitive land. I used to love the soil. I had a big romantic feeling about the landscape. So for me that was exploring. I was going back thousands of years, to primitive man, the Romans. It was all linked in. Cirencester is a very Roman town. I never found anything in the back field. But that didn’t stop me. So it was just the idea that I was marching through the jungles. It was actually something more to do with the landscape I was actually in.
Areté: This is very interesting, but completely incoherent.
Mark: But I was nine.
Areté: Yes but we’ve got you in two stages now: at nine, marching in the back field, and we’ve got you at 27, wanting to be an explorer and going to Belgium.
Mark: This is going to be priceless. That march in the back field is going to be one of the high points.
Areté: We know it’s going to be one of the high points. We still need to know what the nine-year-old has to do with the 27-year-old.
Mark: There is something there, I just would like another minute. I think I’m extremely optimistic. Extremely able to, not play outside the box but think outside the box. So I think it’s more about being able to imagine yourself somewhere and then going there.
Areté: Let’s take this back a bit. You were explaining there was a stage in between leaving aerospace and becoming a painter.

English Teacher

Mark: The stage in between is that I always wanted to be an explorer. And go away. And I just told you that I tried a couple of times. But at this point I was slightly older, and one of my first girlfriends at Stratton School was called Emily Lawler – and her parents now apparently ran a language school in the same village that my parents lived in, which was Kemble. And I always heard that there were foreign people there. So I always thought those foreign people must come from somewhere. So I thought I would go there, and see if I could teach English abroad. I didn’t realise you needed to have a grasp of English to teach English. But in the abstract it seemed like a very good plan. So I went there and met a guy who lived in Italy who was teaching there – an English guy, but he mainly lived in Milan – and he was a professional English teacher, and very serious. I presented myself and told him and he said, ‘Well it may be difficult without any qualifications, but you may be able to bullshit your way in.’ So then I leave everything and sell everything and go and meet him in Milan. And he gives me the address of Berlitz language school, in Milan, and I go there. And somehow, as I’m entering the building, someone’s walking out. And the guy that was walking out was in charge of the whole of Italy – teaching in Italian police stations, and running his own course. I came in and they said, ‘What did you do?” And I said, ‘I studied engineering at university,’
thinking, ‘If you ask me any questions I might be able to answer them.’ And he said, ‘Where?’ and I said, ‘Reading’, because I thought that that was… But then I didn’t know how to spell Reading. I couldn’t believe that Reading was spelt the same as reading, it was just a real panic moment. But it is spelt the same as reading, isn’t it?
Areté: Yeah.
Mark: And so, he interviewed me and said, ‘Well we’ve got this special job we’d like someone to do, would you be interested?’ And I asked what it was, and he said, ‘Well you work for three and a half months in a different police station initially and you teach eight students, they’re not working as police people at that moment, they’ve got three and a half months off, and you teach them everyday English and you go out with them in the police cars, and you do different stuff like that.’ And so it sounded fantastic really. I did a three month training course in the Berlitz language school, which was a bit nerve-wracking. You get to a point where you say, ‘A
Englishman’, and they say ‘Yeah but you can’t say “a Englishman”.’ I’d say, ‘Well, why not?’ and they’d say, ‘Well you have to use a…’
Areté: An.
Mark: Yeah but what’s an ‘an’? A vowel?
Areté: You have to use a consonant before a vowel.
Mark: Yeah but I didn’t know what a consonant was! So it was all a bit confusing and a bit stressful. I got through, somehow, but it was a bit unnerving. But it wasn’t nearly as unnerving as when I arrived at the police station. My first posting was in La Spezia, which is like a cowboy town,
it’s a big naval base, and it’s totally empty until three o clock and then the young ratings come off and there’s fireworks and everything till 6, when it’s deserted again. And it rained every day when I was there. But the good thing was that you got paid your wages. Which was quite good. And then they would put you up in a four star hotel, and you’d get a food allowance. I was so lonely that I used to wake up in the morning and always tread on a little cap from a bottle. And I’d emptied the minibar. Not the alcohol, but just all the juices. So they had to take the key for the minibar away from me because I was spending too much money on the minibar. And it was horrible. And the trouble was that there was all this corruption in Italy and the police, and most of the group could speak English. In fact I was the weakest. With all their Italian grammar, it was absolutely horrendous. And then of course there were two or three sergeants who couldn’t speak any English, and so I had one guy saying, ‘Yeah but as Shakespeare said,’ on the one hand, and on the other hand this guy who couldn’t say anything. And they rumbled me pretty quickly. They always used to say, ‘How do we spell this?’ And I always had to pretend to get angry and throw them the dictionary and say, ‘You know what we do when we can’t spell something! We look it up!’ It was absolutely horrible. It was absolutely like a nightmare. And so I never did a second posting. It’s not because I got the sack, it’s purely because I was meant to be going to Venice next, but at that point I was thinking, ‘I don’t care where it is, I don’t give a fuck, I can’t do it.’ The company hadn’t really rumbled me, it was really bizarre. The police had, but they didn’t care because they just wanted to have the rest of the afternoon off, so we used to drive round in the police cars. And
they all carry their gun in Italy because there’s so much corruption, they couldn’t even leave their gun in the police station, they had to carry it with them in their bags – so you’ve got these really beautiful girls with these Berettas in their bag. You’d go out for dinner and someone would start messing about and she’d just be like, ‘Get on the floor now’- like that –
so it was amazing. In the lunch place, in the mess or whatever it’s called, you had a big old table with maybe 30 Berettas, by their side. And then there was the chief constable, of Lombardia. He’d moved house, and he didn’t have a house really, so he used to eat in the restaurant every night. And I’d started to eat in the same restaurant, a really normal Italian
place. He’d always wait for me. So I would dine with the chief constable of Lombardia every night, watching Italian football, not being able to speak with anybody. But it was grand. He’d wait for me to come and then we would go in the kitchens and pick out what we might like, like royalty. And go down and then watch the football. It was totally bizarre. And then the
second in command he looked like Napoleon, he actually had a uniform with loads of medals and stuff like that, leather gloves – he always used to bow to me and call me ‘il professore’. And I dressed up. When I was in Milan I bought these really expensive clothes: Boggi. They can
dress really well, these Italians – cut away collars, silk ties, slicked back hair. A police badge clipped on to my thing. So I went around like Don Johnson. And then I used to swan around in the police cars all day, and sit and drink coffee. So it was a very unnerving time and obviously I was very unhappy because I was living on the edge of the capability of what I could do. And I’m not a natural teacher really. But then I went back to Milan, and I just filled in when people were ill. And one day I was teaching a guy who was from Argentina. He spoke quite good English, he just wanted
conversational English. And I said I was really pissed off with it, and I told him about my job and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to live in Argentina?’ And he said, ‘I have a large family and you could come to live in the house and teach English with them,’ and that sounded absolutely ideal. So I gave up my job and everything and then went to Argentina. But it didn’t work out actually.

Argentina

Areté: How long did you go there for?
Mark: Well I was there for two months, but not with him. I’d written down his address but when I got to Argentina I’d lost the bit of paper with it on, and I only remembered his name was Silvio or something – so I’d flown all that way. I was at the airport and I went to phone him and I got all my luggage out and the piece of paper wasn’t there. I’d left it behind. I didn’t have any money. Couldn’t even change a five-pound note. I had English money because I went from Heathrow because I’d seen my parents first – and I thought well I’m being met, and I didn’t realise that you couldn’t change English money in Argentina – it’s all dollars. They’d never
seen a five pounds note. So it all started off really badly. On the way at Heathrow I’d bought this book Fat Man in Argentina, which is this guy who just rode a bike and stopped off at all these really interesting places. So I thought, ‘well that’s what I’ll do.’ I just followed his route, introduced myself as the man who was now reading Fat Man in Argentina – not related, but I was just as interesting. And it worked really well, I mean the places he went to were fascinating. I went to this one place called San Antonio de Greco or something which was like a Gaucho town – where they all ride off to work on horses in the morning. There’s actually a little traffic jam in the main street, just loads of horses’ backsides, going off. I mean it’s amazing. The first day I got there, I was in the main square and there was a flagpole, and I sat on a little park bench, thinking, ‘this is it.’ And it’s all really green and lush and looks like Bolivia – all the buildings are in a colonial style, but really run down, and it looks so fantastic. And this really old guy approached me, wearing a really big belt and stuff like that, big
blooming pantaloons, because that’s what they were, all the gauchos, and this guy who must have been about 90 came over to me and sat on the park bench, with really sunk back eyes, he looked like he’d seen a lot, and I could feel that he was about to speak to me, and I thought, ‘this is fantastic, by tonight I’ll be in some ranch, with all his grandchildren and all
his beautiful daughters, all around me.’ And then he did actually begin to speak to me. He tapped me on the shoulder and he went like this [ ]. That was that little dream shattered in that way. But then I went to Bolivia and it was all rubbish. I don’t think travel broadens the mind when you’re in that state. I don’t like looking at how other people live. I wanted to get my own life, so I came back. Pretty rapidly. And then I ended up in Cirencester.
Areté: And then you decided that you wanted to be a painter.
Mark: No. We’ll get there. We’ll get there. We’ll get up to the day before yesterday, and you’ll still be saying, ‘When did you decide to be a painter?’ I always loved art. But my mum had this way of talking about things as if it’s always someone else. Art was done by the greats. So I didn’t think that you could do art, I didn’t think art that people did locally was art.
Areté: It probably wasn’t. So what art did you like?
Mark: I don’t know, I’d never actually seen any, I just liked the idea of it. I thought Michelangelo was great. But actually the one thing I liked about art, that really fired my imagination, was the start of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, when you could see his feet walking down. In fact this is why I’m an artist. We can stop the interview after this. It’s seeing Kenneth Clark’s feet walking down the aisle of the Queen’s Gallery, with the music of Zadok the Priest and there must have been a picture at the end that it revealed. But juts that – that building, and his feet walking down. And it’s just this thing, that you could suddenly see Civilisation. It goes back to the
ploughed field. I had a great contact with what I thought civilisation was. When I was marching in the ploughed field, I thought, ‘that’s it, I am in the footsteps of the primitives, of the Romans.’
Areté: The footsteps of the Romans lead into the footsteps of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and this leads to your artistic ambition… – new shoes.
Mark: It’s something I remember very early on, I can’t even remember what was at the end of it.
Areté: What’s at the end of it is you. With a palette in your hand and a beret. What must have been at the end of this was David’s picture of Napoleon on a horse. Isn’t this in fact the first picture you painted?
Mark: Yeah.

Toolmaker

Mark: Well so we get back to Cirencester from this little journey and my step-dad is obviously livid, and my mum says, ‘You can’t stay in the house, you’ll have to get a flat.’ And I’d already owned my own house. So the thought of living in some bedsit somewhere didn’t really strike me as very good. So I looked in the local paper and I saw there was this little house in Bibury, little cottage for rent. So I drove down to see it. I didn’t have a job or anything, I’d just come back. But the guy seemed to like me somehow – and he’d just restored it. He was a local builder and he owned a few houses in the village. And it had an inglenook fireplace, beams on
the ceiling, a kind of panelled kitchen, and it was really beautiful, I don’t know how old it was. And so I was just in there passing the time of day really, and he said, ‘I really like you, why don’t you live here? I bet you don’t have much money, don’t worry about the deposit,’ and just threw the keys and left me the house. I was only going to have a look. I phoned my mum and said, ‘I’ve found somewhere.’ She said, ‘Where have you found?’ I said, ‘A two bedroom period cottage in Bibury.’ And she was absolutely livid. She said, ‘How are you going to pay for it, you don’t have a job, you’re stupid.’ And I slammed the phone down. Because I thought, ‘what do they want? I’ve done my best, got myself a cottage.’ So I went back in and thought about it and I went and rented a TV, which is of course essential, and that was it for the weekend. But on the Monday there was a knock at the door and it was my friend Dave from Cirencester. He’d met my mum in Waitrose, who’d said I was back. And there was this opening for a job at his place as a toolmaker, and he thought I was an engineer, so he thought I might have been up to being a toolmaker. So I went to see them and it was at a company that made car-park machines. They had a massive big tool making workshop, but because it had been taken over and everything they just wanted a token toolmaker, probably for their budget somehow. They needed to say that they still had research and development, and a toolmaker, and of course I’d never – I can switch a lathe on but can’t make tools. But anyway, so I was a toolmaker. And it was really well paid, like £25,000 a year. No one in the factory from the managers or anything knew about tool making, so I used to just set up a
massive bit of aluminium in the lathe, with a big cutter on it, and set it all day long, with fucking things flying off it, reading the newspaper. And it’s got a big sign, ‘DO NOT ENTER’ – because it’s a restricted area. It was a fantastic job. It paid for my house in Bibury. And one day I was out in the fields looking for flint arrowheads, and then I met this guy Gareth, who I’d become friends with, and he was quite yobbish in his younger days. He was also part of the gang that I was in, and he played rugby, but he also liked it on the streets – you know, that type of violence. Because small-town violence in those days was quite good. There was quite a scene going on – there was an army base – so it was quite a nice little thing going on in Cirencester, and he was part of that. But when he finished his A-Levels he went off to Cambridge and studied history, and then he’d worked for Cadbury Schweppes as a management trainee, but it was rubbish, and he didn’t want to do it, so he’d come back to his parents, and taken a year off. And his parents lived just at the back of the house I’d rented. So then we both became like two First World War soldiers back from the front. We got to know the local vicar, got on the fete committee – we could have taken over the village if we’d stayed there longer. We became big guys, enthusiastic, went to church every day, became sidesmen, collected the money and then we got confirmed. Which was a moment. But the vicar was the grandson of Lord Elgin. And he had a number of Carraccis, in his little
house, and he was very wonderful, very spiritual. Annibale Carracci. He had a little art collection – and he also had lots of art books.

Art Student

Mark: So I was kind of looking at them, with Gareth – and Gareth loves history and knows a bit about art – so I’d look at them and we’d talk about them, and he’d say, ‘You were really good at school, weren’t you, at drawing and stuff?’ And I sort of was. I was quite good. And even actually when I was working I went to a night class to do drawing, but I was thrown out of it because I never listened. Anyway, so the Lord Elgin marbles man.
I just thought, I don’t know, it was just another world and it was quite nice, somehow. But then Gareth said he was going to go to St Antony’s, in Oxford, to study Russian, and then I got all a bit jittery, thinking, ‘well what will I do if you leave?’ And he said, ‘Well why don’t you go to art college, or something, or study art?’ So I went the local sixth form college, and they were very friendly. They said, ‘Well you need to get a portfolio, and you need to do A-Levels.’ And I thought, ‘that will take forever.’ So Gareth and I thought, ‘what can we do?’ So I went and bought a big box of paints, and thought I’d start copying David’s Napoleon, so that’s what I
did. I thought I’d just have a go.
Areté: On a smaller scale.
Mark: About 4 foot by 4 and a half foot. I just looked at it, and started painting it. It took a little bit of time. But Gareth used to come round and say, ‘It’s fantastic’. It took me probably two or three months, maybe a bit more, but Gareth was very enthusiastic. He said, ‘This is fantastic.’ And then one day I went into the school library to look at the prospectuses and stuff, and they all looked rubbish – foundation courses at Falmouth, stuff like that – I just didn’t like it, the idea of it. Then one day I wanted to see where Gareth was going, so I looked in the Oxford prospectus, and then I suddenly saw you could do fine art. So I went back and told Gareth, and he said, ‘Yeah well, Oxford and Cambridge are very clever, they don’t need the support of the Universities, they can do what they like.’ So he said,
‘Why don’t you just phone them up?’ So I phoned up Stephen Farthing, the Master of the Ruskin, and said, ‘I’m a mature student, can I come? I just want to talk about if I want to come here or not.’ I took my Napoleon along. And he said, ‘Well, it’s very good, but you don’t really have a chance. Why don’t you go to Falmouth?’ I was a bit disappointed. But I did actually realise that he was a bit of an idiot, which was a clue, a clue to the system, somehow. Because he said to me that he had trouble getting students into colleges, because really the colleges are not that interested in having the art students. The art students have to be almost as academic as the other students. He was a bit surprised, really. He was expecting a proper person, with a portfolio, so that’s why he gave me the interview. And I turn up with a Napoleon picture, and totally no qualifications. And so he just said the way it was. But I was struck by what he said about his powerlessness. He said, ‘I have trouble getting people in.’ And I told Gareth that and he said, ‘Of course, he’s an art professor, he’s probably the lowest on the rung of the ladder of the university.’ He said, ‘He’s probably not going to have any power at all.’ So that led us to think, ‘Well who does have the power?’ And then you realise the power’s with the colleges. Because I didn’t quite know how it worked, but then I thought,
‘Well, he’s going on about getting into a college, that seems an important part of this process.’ So then I wrote to the colleges, and said, ‘Look I’ve had a great interview at the Ruskin, I’m a mature student and the college I would pick would have to take me full time, I wouldn’t want to keep moving out in the summer holidays, I’d want a full time house, could you do this?’ And so all these admissions secretaries wrote back saying, ‘Well Mr So and So’s in next week, could you come in and see him?’ So I went to see these people with the Napoleon picture, saying this is what I want. And
normally they’re used to seeing little girls sticking papier mâché down, so they got all quite into it. And they said, ‘Well if you get in, we’d be more than happy to take you’. And the last one was at Hertford, with Christopher Zeeman, the Principal – because he liked art, and always liked to see the art students. I went to see him and told him all about myself, and talked about the engineering. And we did some trigonometry together, and he showed me his little art collection, and then totally out of the blue he said, ‘I need to make a phone call.’ And he just phoned up and said, ‘Can I speak to Farthing at the Ruskin?’ And he said, ‘Look I’ve got Mark Alexander here, I believe you like him, I think he should start next week, he’s old enough anyway, why waste a year?’ And then Farthing must have said something not very good because Zeeman then said, ‘Look if you
want anyone else at the Ruskin to be at Hertford, I suggest you take him,’ and slammed the phone down. And I was just sat there thinking, ‘Fucking hell, I’ve just come for a day out in Oxford.’ And he said, ‘You’ll definitely be in, don’t worry about it.’ He said, ‘Have a nice day.’
Areté: So you were in?
Mark: But then there was a big battle at the Ruskin, who were really annoyed. Zeeman was known as being a bit of a maverick. And this caused a bit of a problem between the way things should be done and the Fellows of Hertford and Zeeman. So it was decided that I would have to wait a
whole year, I couldn’t just start in a week’s time. I’d have to wait and go through the proper process. That sort of unnerved me, but Zeeman wrote me a letter saying, ‘It will be alright, don’t worry, just do this.’ But at that time I had to try and build a portfolio, and also study a bit of art history, and then I came down for the three day exam – you do your little drawings, and they interview you. And they gave me a really hard time at the interview, because they knew what I’d done. But at the end of the interview they said, ‘Could Mark Alexander stay?’ And I thought, ‘Oh no this is it, they’re going to say, “Your little game hasn’t worked, sonny,”’ but they said, ‘Obviously you know you’re in,’ and that’s it. Stephen Farthing wasn’t very happy. It was like I’d won a chess game with him. And that was sad because that was the beginning of it. He wasn’t pleased. He said, ‘Congratulations,’ but with a fake smile. And then I started at the appropriate time after that.
Areté: The Ruskin is full of people doing conceptual art, and you’re this guy who wants to be a Renaissance painter. How did that go down?
Mark: I wanted to be a Renaissance man, I don’t know if I ever wanted to be a Renaissance painter. My first mistake is that I decided that I was going to make the biggest greatest altarpiece of all time, for my college, to give thanks for my deliverance. And I did have to promise at the interview that I would play their game once I went there, that I would have to learn about
contemporary art. So then the first day I managed to wedge in this massive altarpiece thing of Christ on his side, with all the preparatory drawings.
But the finished picture got smashed up eventually. Because it was too much. I smashed it up. So instead of playing the game, I suddenly was painting this really ambitious altarpiece in my studio. And they thought, ‘Fucking hell, what have we done?’ And everyone else was throwing paint everywhere, and writing their essay every week. And I was trying to paint the greatest painting of all time, as well as learn about contemporary art. And that really started to grind me down a bit. That wasn’t funny. Because we started with Giotto and at the end of the first year you end up with modernism. And then after that you sort of specialise more. So it was a lot to learn, really. And it was almost a disaster. But a first year’s so short anyway, I can’t believe it wasn’t a disaster right from the beginning. But the fact I was painting an altarpiece obviously led me to believe it was.
Areté: How did you manage with the written work, since you’re dyslexic?
Mark: I didn’t know what to write. I was reading books, not really understanding them, thinking, ‘That’s OK, but I’ve got something much more interesting to say.’ So I wrote an essay about myself. My first one was about Vasari. I thought Vasari had a very good rhythm – and the guy who
did the Amadeus film had managed to put a very good rhythm into the film, so that film was almost onomatopoeic to the subject – and I thought Vasari was very good at doing all that. So I wrote this complicated piece, which I thought was quite ambitious for me, but what I was meant to have done was just read the books and do a normal essay. That was my first
mistake. And then I wrote one on Lucien Freud comparing the mushroom and cod Boil-in-the-Bag menu that you can get at Tesco’s, with his colour palette. And also how Boil-in-the-Bag could also be a metaphor for a careless readymade style. Which I thought was also rather clever. So I was writing all these essays and I was reading them out and they were, ‘I’ll see you after the lesson, maybe.’ But the trouble is I had Malcolm Bull, who is a very funny guy, and he’s also extremely mischievous. So in some ways he thought they were quite good. So he’d say that it was quite good, but not what they wanted. And I didn’t know what was required. So it went slightly more downhill and Zeeman was panicking a bit because I was going to be
thrown out at the end of the first year. Because the fellows said that that was a stipulation – this guy has to go if he doesn’t pass his prelims. And I would have failed them spectacularly so I was definitely having to go. Then Zeeman organised for a graduate student to do some lessons with me, but very soon he wrote back and said, ‘Mark couldn’t pass an O-Level at the
moment.’ He didn’t even get to a stage where he thought he could teach me. He just realised that he couldn’t teach me anything. And at some point I went to see a woman at Oxford called Lynette Bradley, who was a world famous dyslexia expert. And she actually cheered me up a bit. She said I probably wasn’t dyslexic. She thought I hadn’t learned the lessons properly, the laws of writing, spelling. But what interested me was she said I was in the top one percent of the world population for intelligence, in some things, which really surprised me. But had a really low score in another area. She would read out a series of numbers and I would repeat them back. I was very bad at doing stuff like that. She had cards with complicated pictures on them, and you had to put them together to form a story. And there were several ways you could do it which formed more complicated stories, and I was putting them in the most complicated way. But I had no idea. I was just putting them in the order that seemed the most clever, and every time I got the top score. That led me to start thinking, ‘Wow, maybe you’re not stupid at all, maybe you’re something else.’ And that immediately coincided with me telling my girlfriend, Yuko, that Lynette Bradley thing, and she saying, ‘No you’re not stupid, you’re really clever.’ But I went to the Principal and he said, ‘Look I’ve got this letter from the graduate student, so I suggest you spend the next few weeks looking for a job, back home.’ Because there was no way – what way was there? – you can’t pass an exam in siz weeks or something. And I thought, ‘Fucking hell, I’ve been on TV, local TV. How can I go back?’ All the women in Waitrose were saying goodbye to me. How can I suddenly return to Waitrose? So I went back to Yuko, and I was very very upset, because then I realised: I thought Zeeman could make everything happen. I thought that somehow it could be got round. And my altarpiece was still unfinished. And Yuko said, ‘No no you can do it, you’re really intelligent. But you don’t know how to do it.’ And I said, ‘Whatever,’ and she said, ‘No no, bring me the reading list, of all the books you’re meant to have read this year.’ So I read them, well she read them. She looked at the reading list, and she said, ‘Well go and order the first five, and I’ll meet you in Hertford College Library.’ And she read them, and she made notes on everything. And I read them, she passed the book to me, and said, ‘Look this is what notes are, look at these. You look at the introduction, what the title of the book is, you get all the stuff out.’ I said, ‘OK.’ She said,
‘You make some notes on this book like I’ve done. And see if you come up with the same thing.’ So I started making notes from the first five books, and then she’d go in every night to a lab and type them up. So in the morning she’d come in with five pamphlets, and we went through all 30 books in the same way. And she’d be very strict, like Japanese learning.
And we’d talk about the book as well, so I’d have a feel, of what it was about. And then she’d pass it to me and I’d make my notes. So within three weeks I had a big folder of notes. And the ones on Clement Greenberg, I showed them to Malcolm Bull and he said, ‘These are
amazing. These are the best notes I’ve read on Greenberg.’ She was a top scientist, Yuko – she’d got the top scholarship from Japan, she was being paid about 40 grand a year, she was doing AIDS research in the Kingsman lab. She’d worked in one of the best AIDS labs in America. So she was the real high flyer. And Malcolm was saying he’d never read such good notes on Clement Greenberg. So I had all these notes and then she gave me the swipe card for the library at the Science block. So I was up on the top floor, with my Snickers bar, folder – and I got in contact with Malcolm and said, ‘Look, I want to do eight one-hour essays, every single day, so give me
eight questions a day.’ So he gave me all of them. And that went on.
I did the exam, and got a first. I mean you would do, wouldn’t you? And they gave me the lowest grade on my course work. I got a first at the end. But they’d cunningly failed me on the coursework, because there wasn’t any of it – there was my bent altarpiece, a few Jesus studies. And then it all went wrong with Yuko. So I spent the second year doing nothing, I was out
wandering the streets at four in the morning. We split up and it was really painful.
Areté: Let’s put the second and third year at the Ruskin together, and get a general picture of this. So here you are, you’ve scraped your first year exams, they’re kind of amazed, you’re doing the pictures eventually, but they are absolutely against the spirit of the Ruskin, against its ethos.
Mark: What happened was… I remember saying to my friend, ‘What I need is a really rich girl at Christ Church, whose Dad has an art collection.’ It didn’t quite work out. But one day I went to a James Fenton lecture, and I was looking for a seat, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this big hair, and there was a chair next to it, and I thought, ‘I have to sit there,’ so pushed past someone else. And she was writing in German, and I thought, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And I thought, ‘Wow’. And at that time I was copying Millet’s Return of the Dove to the Ark in the Ashmolean. And I came out one lunchtime and I saw her, and I said, ‘It’s me,’ and she said,
‘Sorry?’ And I said, ‘We sat with each other in the lecture.’ And she said, ‘What lecture?’ I said, ‘The James Fenton lecture’. I said, ‘You were writing in German.’ And she said, ‘Oh it’s you.’ And said, ‘Well I’m a bit busy now.’ And she started walking up the road, and I started walking after her saying, ‘What are you doing?’ and stuff like that. Then I said, ‘I’m an artist.’ Because I thought, ‘I have to come in with the heavyweight guns now, otherwise she’s going to leave me.’ I said, ‘I’m an artist, I’m really good, why don’t you come and have a look?’ And she did stop at that point. I said, ‘I’m in the Ashmolean, painting.’ I said, ‘Come now.’ She said, ‘I
can’t’. A few days passed and she didn’t come, so I forgot about it, and then one day there was a note there saying, ‘Every time I come you’re never here.’ So then I hung around, waiting, and then she never came again. And then there was another note, and she said, ‘You’re never
ever here.’ And she left a bar of chocolate with her telephone number. So then I phoned her, and we started going out. And then it turned out that she knew about art. She’d lived in New York, studied art at Columbia, and then she was doing German Literature at Christ Church. An MA or something. Her name was Yasmin. So then we started to go up to London to lots of art exhibitions. I went to D’Offay, Kiki Smith – all these things that she was into that I didn’t know anything about. They started to look a lot more interesting with Yasmin. And she said, ‘What you need to do is start taking a notebook and writing down what you think about all these things.’ So we’d go to these shows and I’d write down what I thought. And I started to know what the galleries were, what they stood for, where they were in the hierarchy, and stuff like that. There was still the problem of my work and stuff, so we used to talk about it. But I got interested. She gave me a view of the art world and what it was about – it wasn’t about copying flowers, it was about people looking for an identity, the artist and the
viewers. Looking for meaning. So I started getting into this thing. And then she introduced me to Anselm Kiefer’s work, as someone who was continuing to paint, and also put the thing in meaning. I guess why I hadn’t done this before was because I couldn’t see the justification for
doing it. Even before, I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t particularly like Richter’s photorealism. He was as far as I’d got to in painting as far as art history was concerned – and he was going on about the seductive nature of the surface, the image, and yet it’s not what it pretends to be, and he was almost taking meaning out. He might have had meaning in his Baader-Meinhof series.
Areté: So what she did was she gave you some sense of the contemporary art world. And you painted her.
Mark: Right at the end, after we’d split up.
Areté: What made you choose black and white?
Mark: I thought there was a problem painting in colour.
Areté: But you’d painted very distinguished things in colour.
Mark: But they were just test pieces, really. With black and white, it was much easier to get away from the idea of painting in itself, as itself. Once you go into black and white you could be also dealing with a type of
documentation, like Boltanski. Or Kiefer – his images are quite often black and white. And so you’re much more forced to look at them for content, rather than the form. I wanted people to read them much less as paintings.
And I wanted to paint them really well, as a kind of, a slight joke, just because I could. Because I realised that painting well wasn’t required or even needed, at the time. But I wanted to do it because I knew I could do it. I thought you could actually give more power to something, if you painted it. The black and white was to allow people to read them as historic, as having some sort of meaning.
Areté: At the Ruskin, at some point, somebody said to you, ‘Art is not about technique.’ In the black and white series, you’re saying, you were trying to get away from the idea of painting, into documentary. But at the same time, technically, they’re brilliant. There’s a contradiction there.
Mark: There is a contradiction but I think the technique is a little avenue where you can add power to it. In the plastic arts I think it’s a big problem. A lot of people think that as long as you get the idea down vaguely on paper, and you do enough of them, you’ve got a body of work, and they want the body of work to be seen outside the technique.
Areté: They want it to have an explanation. The black and white paintings, the portrait of Yasmin, for instance, which is in the Haunch of Venison exhibition, it isn’t black and white. It’s actually in colour. Can you say a little bit about that?
Mark: Once I went to the Louvre, and I saw this strange painting by Balthasar Denner, a German artist who no one else knows, and since then he was known as the Painter of the Paws, because he painted that close up to people. And as an artist I guess he’s not particularly interesting. But he painted a couple of pictures of old women which are absolutely incredible. I asked for a transparency and they didn’t have one, they sent a black and white photograph, and I thought this was amazing. Because it didn’t look like a photograph. But it didn’t look like a painting. It looked like something else. So you had all this which he’d been putting in, and it had been transformed into something else. And then I realised that that could happen anyway. There’s a gap between photorealism and painting. It was all meant to be done and dusted with photorealism, that was the high point or low point depending how you see the trajectory of art. But this postcard, I thought, ‘this has got such power. Why has it got such power?’ And it’s because it mixed up these things.
Areté: The original was in colour?
Mark: The original was in colour.
Areté: But the question is slightly different. When you’re painting in black and white, what most people would look at and see is a black and white picture. If you go and look at those pictures, they’ve got colour in them, haven’t they?
Mark: That’s because it doesn’t actually work, to paint them in black and white. Black and white turns into very different colours. The best person who paints in black and white is Holbein. If you see him paint a black cape, it’s all weird. All these different blues and browns, and you realise to actually paint in black and white you have to paint in colour.
Areté: So the black painting you’ve done of Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet, obviously they give the impression of black, but when you look at them, what you see is quite a lot of grey. Is there more than grey there?
Mark: No. That was just a type of black that was very kind when you mix it with white. Some blacks turn blue, not grey. You get more of a bluish tinge.
Areté: The large black sun, at the Haunch of Venison, that has lots of blue in it.
Mark: It doesn’t matter if you have blue in it, but once you get past a certain stage of greyness, that blue becomes a horrible muddy feeling. So if you keep it in the ranges of the top end, where it’s quite nice with the blue, especially where it’s meant to be a sky – that blue was OK in that
context. But it’s when you get to lower greys, it makes it a little too blue, unless you get some red in there or something. So you can never really paint in black and white.
Areté: If you think about your paintings of the sun… You have a large black sun, a small black sun, two golden suns – we’ve been talking about them technically – but obviously you’re equally interested in them as subjects. Why did you choose them?
Mark: It’s always been an image that’s been in my mind. I always remember very early on, when I was about nine, my mother had a book of Louis XIV and there was an engraving of this sun, this face looking out of the sun pattern. There’s something rather desperate about it, somehow, to have wanted to be the sun. It just seemed a rather sad thing to do. And yet that’s what we’d all want, somehow. To be the sun.
Areté: There is in your art a tremendous vein of autobiography. As you choose to exhibit it. It’s not actually true, of your oeuvre taken as a whole, but in the selected sliver that you put on the walls – that exhibition at the Haunch of Venison is very autobiographical. You are at the centre of it. You have six pictures of you as a baby. Can you talk about those? Are you self-obsessed or not?
Mark: No, no. I think luckily when you have a face of a baby, there’s a universality, which somehow luckily cancels that out. A lot of people don’t know it’s me. So in some ways they’re missing the point because it would be nice if they did know it was me, but it’s not about me necessarily. I think those pictures have a universality. When you’re starting an art career, like any career, you’re so aware of other people’s careers. And you realise if you’re going to get started, you’re going to do it seriously, you’re going to end up with a career. And I just thought, ‘these pictures are great – you’re starting with photorealism, you’re starting with you as a baby. And they’ve got an intensity, so you might as well do them. And in 80 years’ time, when they look back, they’ll say, “Look, he knew where he was going.”’ Not that they weren’t so serious: I was just staking my place, where I was going to start from. Photorealism and me. But what’s interesting about those pictures is that someone else had put the light in the eyes. It wasn’t really me. They were obviously taken by a chap who’d come round with his camera, and taken them back to his studio, and he obviously thought, ‘this baby looks as dead as fuck, we’re going to have to introduce a bit of spice in these if the mother’s going to want to buy them.’ All of them have got these triangles of light in their eyes. The only power in the picture was something that someone else gave me. For a long time I didn’t know that, until two years’ ago. Someone else had pointed it out to me, which now I think is a great thing.
Areté: The pictures, though, do two things. One of them is that they’re black and white, but are so clearly coloured. The texture of the plastic covering over the high chair is brilliantly done, you can see how red the baby’s cheek is. The other thing is – here are six photographs. As photographs, they would be identical. What is interesting is that if you blow them up and then paint them, you alter the scale – they become six different people. Is that right or not?
Mark: I did see them as elements of the human condition. I don’t know if that sounds slightly grandiose but they represented different feelings.
Areté: Different feelings is different from the human condition. How is it possible to paint the human condition? How relevant is an idea like that when you’re actually painting?
Mark: It’s something that comes together. I was looking for something that would do that. And I was drawn by the look in their eyes – so that was why it came as a shock that it wasn’t me. It really was. I thought, ‘When they look back and look at these, they’ll think, “there was no messing with him.”’ I’ve probably based my life on the look in those eyes. I’ve probably thought, ‘Yeah, you’ll go places.’ There was this nature or nurture element. I thought it was nature. But having the light put in your eyes it was probably nurture. So now I don’t know. But it was something when I started. I was thinking – ‘Does this guy know something about himself, or is he being told?’ And at the time I thought it’s inbred, it’s in the genes. And I think we all are. Whenever you see babies, they look extraordinary, they look like they can take on the world.
Areté: It’s interesting, this phrase – ‘Does this guy know something about himself, or is he being told?’ It’s what you said once about artists, also – that they talk about what they do using terms they’ve been given by people who write about them.
Mark: Well, say, Luc Tuymans with his series about the Belgian Congo. A lot of people add stuff, and you get a very little bit about the paintings, or even Luc Tuymans, but you’ve got a whole essay about where he’s come from. And I think a lot of artists take on that mantle, it’s nice to be told that. It’s quite a comfortable feeling for them.
Areté: Comfortable for the artist and comfortable for the commentators. Everybody likes to put somebody into art history. What’s interesting about your work is it’s so against the current. Very briefly, let’s talk about your series based on statues in the New College cloister – Ozymandias, etc. These are huge, ambitious canvases. Nearly nine foot high. Done from
photographs of weather-worn sculptures of bishops and so on in New College cloisters. What made you choose that?

Mark: One of them I found extremely powerful – the Ozymandias one. It just seemed so painful. The photograph works much better than the sculpture. The sculpture, you can move around it. And it was the way I’d lit it, by the flash, which had given it a shadow under the original mouth.
Areté: There’s a visual ambiguity to the picture. You can’t tell – it looks like it’s got two mouths.
Mark: The darker shadow one reads from the further distance. It’s incredibly painful.
Areté: You have a slight mystical side. There’s a black and white painting you did between two bookshelves in the Taylorian library, looking out the window, with a blind. That for you was going to be an immensely mystical picture.
Mark: It still is. It’s an extremely small room with a little desk, a little bit of paper on the wall probably saying, ‘After twelve o’ clock draw the blinds, don’t let the sun in,’ and yet there’s this intense light coming in. It’s very simply symbolic. I made that image within two weeks of being in Oxford, it’s the first room I ever wrote an essay in. People’s knees aren’t going to buckle…
Areté: It seems that when you’re painting, partly what takes you so long, is that you have some idea, in this case this little nondescript thing with a bit of light in it, which you see something enormous in, something mystical, which you then have to realise on the canvas. And you go at it and at it, painting over and over and repaint, until you think you’ve got there. Is that true?
Mark: It is true. You know that now they’re trying to map the brain and see where belief lies? They say that people who have epilepsy, their brain is wired up in a different way, and they have this intense reality about things. I doubt know if it’s connected, but it sounds it. I want almost more than I can get from something. These suns as well.
Areté: The suns are interesting. One of the series from the New College cloisters was a picture where you attempted to paint something which absolutely gave the illusion of gold. There are two golden suns in the Haunch of Venison exhibition. One of which has more white in it, one of
which has more yellow. The yellow, as you look at it, becomes more defined, clearer, crisper; the one with more white actually turns into a throb, into a sun. It’s an astonishing experience for the retina. Three golden pictures. Talk about them.

Mark: The first one that was taken from New College – I hung an exhibition at Anthony Reynolds and that stood alone. And I was rushing through the National Gallery thinking it all looked rubbish, not in the National Gallery but in Anthony Reynolds, and there was this golden piece of cloth. And I thought, you could paint gold. And the image I painted was a king who’d been broken, with his hand filled with money, and he looks tragically sad. There’s always something about having something and not knowing you’ve got it, somehow. I thought if I can make it look like it’s the most amazing gold, and yet have this broken man. It was a very simplistic idea really.
Areté: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because you’re facing yourself with a kind of technical problem – how do I paint gold so it looks like gold? – and at the same time there is a perfectly candid and interesting subject you’re interested in. It has a theme.
Mark: I always have a desire to crush myself through each painting.
Areté: What does that mean?
Mark: It was going to be a huge, immense task to paint this as a gold thing. Probably not going to work, and may not have been interesting at the end. And yet I followed it to see where it would go. I was already in the Delfina studios at that stage, I was in a very competitive environment. I was stood on a beer box painting it, and a lot of famous artists would come into the studio – I’d become a bit of a character, and the question every day was, ‘Is it finished yet?’ And I’d go, ‘Fuck off’. And they’d just be looking at this vaguely yellow thing. And I’d say, ‘Look, look it’s gold, look at the top piece.’ So it became almost a little battle. And I think having battles is something I don’t enjoy, but it happens. I think I had battles at the Ruskin. I think I have to set up these little things.
Areté: So it’s really painting as a test.
Mark: Of me and the viewer.
Areté: In other words, you’re not interested in conceptual art, which is lifting up two balsawood bar bells, and it’s easy. Yours have huge gravity in the ends of them.
Mark: They test the viewer in my immediate circle. They test my friends, they test the people around me, about what they can see.
Areté: Isn’t it also to do with the bullshitting? In that what you’re trying to do is you’re constantly upping the ante. So that actually what’s going on is you’re seeing if you’re going to fail, you’re trying to set yourself more and more difficult tasks, and it’s very similar to what you were talking about with bullshitting. Once you’ve bullshitted one person and convinced them
you’re an engineer, then you move on.

Mark: You’re probably right. I wish you hadn’t come to that. It was all going really well before then. Can’t we find another word for it?

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