See No Evil: Ian Woo interviews Jeremy Sharma

In conjunction with Apropos: Jeremy Sharma, an exhibition of paintings and mixed media works at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.


Ian Woo: The word ‘exercises’ comes to mind when I look at your new paintings and mixed media surfaces made within the last two years. I use the word ‘exercises’ based on the serial nature of your works, where an exploration of perception and surface is repeated and varied in a spontaneous manner, making several attempts at engaging with similarities and differences from painting to painting. I will start with three questions: How do you start, and what variations do you work towards when making a series of works? What leads you to end a series and start another?

Jeremy Sharma: I always start off with an idea, an ideal in my head, but the idea always shifts with the reality of making a painting. One process informs the other. The spectrum paintings started off from a colour swatch on my computer which I attempted to recreate, not represent, but re-create in paint, with the analogy of paint: pixels are pixels, paint is paint. I could never quite get what I really wanted, you never get what you want, but then something interesting happens, and that chance or accident informs much more.

Similarly that led to the greys, because the colours were getting too messed up and muddy, so I pushed it the other way, similar processes pushed to different extremes. A lot happens out of what I couldn’t get originally. The wax-cast magazines came out of my fascination with the nude or figure. I just cannot paint one anymore; not that I can’t, I can do it quite easily but I’m not interested in that, I’m not interested in say, seeing an apple, and then painting an apple. I’m not interested in a blank canvas. I want to work off something that already exists in the world. I think a lot about the dialogue in creating a painting. The postcards were done with the remainder of the paint from making Gaussians, hence the title Parergon because they exist outside what I set out to achieve, but ironically that became just as important. The Gaussians were really about extracting colour and data to create some sort of atmosphere through this mechanical striations, sort of like a 21st century Turner, but more mathematical. It didn’t matter where they came from, the paintings became their own, but their titles are sort of entry points, traces if you will.

I am opposed to the idea of the masterpiece, the heroic. I don’t think of style when creating a work, I prefer concepts and philosophical ideas that deal with perception. You know the filmmaker Robert Bresson, who made his actors repeat multiple takes of what they were doing until their performance is stripped to a purer language of cinema – that’s how I see my paintings going, in terms of serialism. The first painting starts off very enthusiastic and such, but repeating that in the 8th or 14th painting, something happens beyond me, and I only select what is best. It’s frustrating, not to mention very expensive, but I am obsessive like that. It may look easy but it never was. I think in terms of variations and not improvisations, so it’s more classical in that sense; like in music where there are variations of a theme, or chord but the structure remains the same.


IW: You use the words ‘purer language’ as well as ‘mechanical’ in relation to painting. Bresson pushed the actors to an extreme in rehearsals to make them lose their sense of control, so as to unlearn habits and discover another sphere of consciousness, the indeterminate. It reminds me of John Cage’s idea of indeterminacy where he is obsessed with ways to remove any form of the lyrical or beauty associated with bodily expression so as to reach another paradigm. It is interesting to note that many of your new paintings have little or no trace of the brush as a traditional hand-rendering device. The brush marks, if apparent, always assume the form of a single sweep appearing from one edge of the surface to another. There are of course the brushless grey paintings, which remind me of windows and blocked light filters. Would you say ‘pure’ painting is to highlight the phenomena of the physical world?

JS: I would tread carefully when saying ‘pure’ (only in relation to Bresson) because paradoxes and contradictions loom over the paintings like a dark cloud. It was never about purity, if you know what I mean. The ‘indeterminate’ and ‘a different sphere of consciousness’ seem like apt descriptions. People will talk about surface, materiality and process; however, for me, those are not ends in themselves. The indeterminacy is controlled and not given to entropy. I am not interested in losing control or the paint cracking up or spilling, or sagging over or out of the frame, or the painting becoming more than a painting. I like how the four sides govern the painting because I still see painting in terms of pictures, images. Only the postcards have a strong trace of the hand, or rather a knife. Someone mentioned ‘attack’ and that’s it; I attacked the postcards there and then. The grey paintings, and the Gaussians, because of the disappearance of the hand – you could even look at them through a photographic code and hence their references to (and these are comments I’ve gotten): X-rays, celluloid, film, the point just before a polaroid assumes an image (my favourite!), windows, mirrors and now, blocked light filters. With the greys, it’s even harder; you don’t quite know what you are looking at. There are numerous phenomena here, especially in terms of light, matter and gravity.


IW: Let’s move on to the postcards, which to me, assumes double readings of identities.  One notices the historic image or in some instances, a found image. The way it is treated with paint on top makes the content of the image unimportant, subjected as a background, a backdrop to a colour-matched secretion of the image, viewed like a suspended action of morphing captured in time. I also feel as if the identity of the image on the postcard has been merged with the substance of paint. It is perhaps a mutation of elements, a game of parody, to cover up, yet the paint seems to pull the contents into itself (the paint). It confounds one’s recognition of space, content and matter. I have used the word ‘negation’ before, but now I am thinking more of a ‘possession’ of image. Is the matching of paint to the colour of the image on the card an instinctive process? How is the relationship formed?

JS: Double readings, failure of representation… I have to find something in the image to respond to in the history of images – a vocabulary of portraits and landscapes – like a history of representations that I work on. I like the idea of working on reproductions. When I was applying paint or swiping it off, I wasn’t really thinking of negation or iconoclasm or revealing or concealing. It’s not a game of peek-a-boo. Charles [Merewether] used a word ‘dis/close’ which comes close to my intention. But ‘dis/closure’ applies more to a reading of the work when it is finished. It is closer to something more primal, an impulse to smear, why and how we mark surfaces or images. Colour and sensuality could heighten the desired effect. They weren’t meant to be serious at first; it was something done in jest. They are, in a way, photo-based paintings and again, they concern the image. I remember first seeing Richter’s overpainted photographs and thinking they were so wrong, painting on top of a photograph; it’s almost taboo or even cheating! I look at this whole uneasy relationship between painting and photography; painting imitating photography, photography imitating painting. I think we have had enough of that already. I am now very comfortable with them being themselves and working together, they don’t even have to integrate and merge as one. They are both indexical in how they achieve a final identity. Painting is always seen as a laboured process whereas the photograph is instantaneous; can I say I am reaching a median point here?


IW: You brought up an interesting perspective about how one can understand an artist’s intentions before and after the completion of a work. In relation to the casualness in your application of paint on the photograph, there is almost desperation to block the image with the act of painting, like an impulse to remove / shift its identity, to disengage it from its function. I guess I would see that as a personal engagement, which is perhaps not necessarily related to the final outcome. I also find that your work does not deal with notions of representation as such, but rather, a return to formal ideas about absolutism in art-making. I would say that you are making images that go through several stages of filters. Complex filters that you hope can restore purity. Donald Judd would be proud!

But really, it is about painting in order to restore the essence of a picture object, subjugating content to a point of flatness, in order that we return to the beginnings of the frame and surface image. You physically flatten all reference to representation to its purest form – that of surface, materiality and distortion, like in the Variations Suites. In those works, you give the essence of landscape and atmosphere by completely removing all content and imagery to the point of a blur, same with the Gaussian (nudes) and Gaussian (seascapes). The blurring creates new content. If I were to use a reference to music it is akin to the use of distortion in transforming the sound production of a clean signal of a guitar to that of a completely different presence. In reference to Richter’s use of blurring, how would you differentiate your use of this act? This is especially interesting when we relook at the ideals of early minimalism and even abstract expressionism. Are you wiping our everyday consumption of images so as to enable us to return to or revisit ideas of utopian endgames?

JS: I understand what you are saying and what you are getting at. How do I put this? It is not so much abstraction, but what one is unable to represent by blocking, blurring and erasing. It is as much about form as is about the content. It is sort of ideological that way. As I have said, it’s not about purity or absolutism, though I may have thought of that or given the impression of that before, or maybe you and I see them differently. And it’s not as cold, perfect and industrial as in Judd’s brand of minimalism. I like the human endeavour and indeterminacy in creating the paintings; they are certainly imperfect and relative to time and environment and medium, so it’s not quite absolute, almost. I like ‘almost’. So we return to Cage again… I don’t listen to a lot of Cage, but he is a good example, and the analogy of the guitar signal is interesting and you are right, if anything it’s more of sound than music, more signal than noise. The blurring is a strategy to achieve a desired state of flatness, you could call it a utopian endgame if you wish. I know Richter works on a canvas until he cannot go on, and of course I cannot compare myself with someone who has painted for almost 50 years, but the fundamental difference is I do not stay as long in the painting. I end the game a lot quicker, it cannot be overdone or too worked upon and it’s a lot more mechanical than you think. People think there are many layers in the Gaussians but in fact there is only one. The repetition of the gesture is key to the work. Signals, filters, transformation and repetition all point to contemporary experience. The works acknowledge the existence of computers and digitisation, multiplicity, fragmentation and technology because I cannot see how they would exist without these experiences.


IW: I was thinking about Judd and Twombly – how both are from opposite poles of aesthetic concerns and cannot agree. Yet, your work somehow reminds me of the characteristics that these two artists possess, the weight bearing more on Twombly’s romance towards innocence. You mentioned ‘almost’, which brings to mind the example of an axis, where ideas between two opposites shifts and adjust themselves. Do you think that contemporary panting needs to find new experiences by reconnecting the network of genres within the history of painting? To reconnect would be to unplug some links or reestablish new connections. Your concerns for digital and technological aesthetics seems to also point to the way in which aspects of contemporary design have found their way into the composite of new painting. However, is the composite a mutant? Or is the engineered whole seamless? I guess this is an open question, which attempts to address our constant search for new imagery as painters involved in contemporary art practice.

JS: That’s a good way to put it. Especially with Twombly, his work exists beyond technology, right from the beginnings, from antiquity or even earlier, out of cave paintings. Innocence! Like a child learning to speak, write or draw again. Opposites and shifts, ambivalence… I link this to a certain kind of doubt when you paint, that unknown that you dive into. ‘Almost’ connotes an in-between, like a precipice, or a kind of be-coming or other-ness. I am thinking how painting could be more relevant in contemporary practice, or at least how it is relevant for me to continue to paint. Aren’t we all already some form of mutant, cyborg or really slow computers? Yet I think what I am doing is related to something more primal. If you knew, you wouldn’t paint. You can only try.


IW: Speaking of cyborgs, you mentioned at your talk that you often imagine that you are making these works for a science fiction movie set (or something to that extent). Could you talk about the relationship between imagination and the production of artworks? Again we are referring back to the ideas about the artist’s personal processes and that of the viewers. What I am interested in is the way we artists often need to psyche ourselves up to shift into another realm so as to fully zone out from the realities of life, in some kind of serious daydreaming or play-acting.

JS: Paintings for spaceships! That’s what I mentioned. You know the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, where the apes gather around and in the future at the end of the film, it appears again. It sums up modernity in a perfect symbol; it’s a mystery, a spectre. It’s a kind of an unknown; it doesn’t exist in any time but you have seen it happening in the past, present and [you will see it happening in the] future. It knows no culture or history, everything is blanked out and erased and the spaceship is a vessel that is a liminal space between past and future, known and unknown, so it has got to be devoid of culture or history and has to continuously be in the present, but sometimes you have traces of humanity. Like that fantastic plant life in Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ at the beginning and in the spacecraft – in fact you get that sense in all of his films, well the ones that I have watched, if memory serves me well. That is exciting for me! But back to this science fiction idea, I think it also has something to do with my recent predilection for synthetic paints and composite surfaces.


A year later, Ian Woo continues the interview following Exposition, a solo exhibition of space paintings and mixed media works held at Grey Projects.


IW: Previously you mentioned that your work has neither history nor culture. I was just looking at your new exhibition at Grey Projects and as I was in the brighter room, it struck me that the black resin paintings seem to work very well with the frames of the doors and the windows. The paintings seem to function like an in-between fixture of those two specific items (doors and windows) of space and time. It occurred to me that the idea of non-history and non-culture is because your paintings are reflective, always absorbing everything around them and they therefore have no constant, which pertains to their characteristics of having no sense of baggage. This is especially true with the ones that have no imagery or markings on them. Is that a fair observation?

JS: You’ve really opened a can of worms there! I think I said that in reference to the monolith in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The reflection is a perceptual phenomenon that perhaps suggests what you have mentioned. Grey, for me, has all the colours of the spectrum. Light waves, when combined, will translate into pure white light, but that’s not what you get with paint or physical material. They turn grey, an ambiguous colour that evokes no emotional response that you would normally get from pure intense colours. So it’s not black, and it’s not resin as you mentioned. It’s pure enamel paint. The grey is dark like asphalt, the way I want it, or a sort of urban concrete and iron grey. They absorb light as much as they reflect and thus have a kind of effect of being continuously in the present. Don’t you think they work like echoes? There is an interesting anecdote of how Theodor Adorno had the auditorium where he taught at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt painted grey to aid concentration.

The white walls in some parts of the exhibition space are a nice contrast against the dark theatrical drama in the grey room where the paintings have more incidental details and textures. The blankest paintings are in the white room. I actually love daylight on my work; it’s my favourite kind of light. It is natural, ever-changing, ambient light that the paintings react to. I had the windows, doorway and space in mind in regards to space, frames and structure of verticals and horizontals. In reference to what you have just said about a work that has no history and culture, I was trying to think of statements I read that somewhat relates to what I’m interested in. There are certainly many tangents to go off on, and when your neurons are fired up, there are a billion thoughts in your head but you end up saying nothing. But these are the ones I can remember:

1)    “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.” – Ad Reinhardt

2)    “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” – Susan Sontag.

3)    “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny – very tiny, content.” – Willem de Kooning

4)    “I believe that the quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate on the essential.” – Gerhard Richter

5)    “The fondest, least plausible dream of Modernist art and literature was of a world without memory: a cultural tabula rasa from which all trace of the styles of the past had been erased. The arts of evacuation imagined by the like a Samuel Beckett, Yves Klein and John Cage aspired to a deliberate vacuity: a vacant stage, an empty gallery, a silent orchestra.” – Brian Dillon

6)    “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates

All the statements above are true and at the same time, paradoxical. I want to create art of the highest order that operates on many levels of consciousness. I want itto exist for itself. I think art functions as a belief system that takes the place in the absence of science, religion or ritual; or a dependency on chemicals or activities that take you to a different consciousness. However, everything else is not quite everything else and they are not quite separate, they creep into the consciousness of your making, and I also want to make work that is closer to life or life’s narrative or the everyday or the present but yet I want to exalt it to a level that makes it art.

There was always a political and social dimension to what constructivism, post-war art, abstraction, minimalism, the avant-garde and conceptual art was responding to and I guess I am responding to an environment and generation I live in. In the short ten years or so that I’ve been painting, I have gone through the movements and understanding modernism through my own practice; not just where painting comes from, but where I come from, and trying to exhaust every possibility of what painting means to me. It was very important for me to discover that through exploration in the studio. I really don’t know of anyone else who has worked in a more ‘schizophrenic’ manner as I have in such a short time, on top of my performance and sound works with KYTV [Kill Your Television] and my music and video works. I think it’s symptomatic of the generation I come from, considering the rate and speed the nation was becoming modernized. We were the first to really utilise and understand the power of the Internet as a globalised entity and an information-gathering tool.

In reference to Walter Benjamin, the Internet, post-mechanical and industrial age, has completely revolutionised how we look at, think about, and make art. I really believe you can transform an intangible reality from search engines and convert this information into tangible objects and artworks. The speed at which images and information proliferates is just crazy. Painting requires you to slow down, making it the hardest thing to do today despite its popularity. If you ask me, I don’t necessarily need sketchbooks anymore when I have computers to help me remember, jot down notes, even construct and make drawings. The Internet knows no boundaries and is lawless and more democratic than the most democratic nations. We live in such a controlled environment in Singapore, where everything is rigorously planned, predetermined and projected to you in minute detail. Everything has a formula; it is modular, systemised and strategised. I think it’s the very thing that kills and at the same time, spurs creativity. We almost don’t have individual voices and yet it alarms me how vocal and uncensored we are on online forums. My point is that these visible and invisible systems, structures, and images go into my subconscious.

People have mentioned the radical shifts in my practice; galleries don’t know where to place me. But if you look at what I was dealing with before in my earlier paintings, they have always come from an existential point of view, not of doom and gloom – I have always been interested in the idea of death, catastrophe, destruction, apocalypse and end/beginning, something more primeval and now, with my renewed interests in form and material, and ideas of time, space, repetition and return. I really want to strip it down and concentrate on the basest level, and the encounter with the artwork is very important for me. I am not a fan of de Kooning but I understand what he was saying, and he was very sporting in letting Rauschenberg, whom I’m fond of, erase his drawings almost to the point of disappearing completely (and for that matter, it was ironic, based on what de Kooning had said). For me, Rauschenberg one-upped de Kooning with due respect. I was also thinking of Malevich’s black square, which was so symbolic and reminded me of some dark matter; it’s almost as symbolic as the cross. Buddhist philosophy comes to mind – it explores the void as an in-between of what is there to us; what we know as ‘us’ is an accumulation of memories, knowledge, culture and history. These are only assumptions made by the mind when the foundation of consciousness lies without any pre-determined baggage; simply put, to know nothing at all.

Then there was the whole idea of the dematerialisation of the art object in 60s: minimalism and the faceless impersonality yet fetishistic of industrially made objects à la Donald Judd that reflects capitalism and consumer culture. I wanted to make something like that but with the human hand and see what kind of dialogue that arises, something between process and product. My work is not industrial other than its support, which was custom built and because they are not industrially painted, they cannot withstand any sort of force or violence exerted on the surface. They are extremely fragile and vulnerable and a fingernail could put a scratch on the smooth slick of paint because they are not sprayed in layers but poured. They are not protected by any lacquer, coating or resin. I had to create special boxes for them just to protect their surface after the hard lessons learnt. I could possibly improve the boxes in the future and perhaps, the protective cover that sits just above the surface during packing and only exposing them for the first time during exhibition. The title ‘Exposition‘ was a play on that.

It is also a hidden reference to what Dan Flavin said about his fluorescent light works being an exposition instead of an installation and you’d think of that as an exhibition of manufactured products. This is the pure language I am after. Putting the paintings in a space is like putting them on stage as actors and seeing what they do; it is the audience that interprets them. I did not set out to make works like these; they came out after a lot of thought and refinement and many paintings that did not see the light of day. Painting is a practice steeped in mimesis, which is basically trying to represent what you see. It could be based on a still life, photograph, or another painting, hence the influence of past painters in your work. I guess process painting and abstraction could be seen as a way out of that, and I thought that it was important that a blank state involves the viewer and the environment much more. I don’t think anyone starts out painting blank panels or monochromes. One arrives at that. And I have finally arrived at a point where I could throw out the baggage and head for somewhere new.


IW: Your idea of Singapore as a controlled environment makes me think that it is a psychological war zone. This war zone makes Singapore an apt location for interesting art to happen. I like the idea of no-memory because it is impossible but yet contradictory. The reason for this is that we live in times where virtual memories are compressed and at the same speed which cancellation occurs. What you mentioned about the Internet as a possible utopia, a kind of fictional democracy, is the exact thing which could collapse in relation to the inability of our body to cope, to match the speed of a machine’s perfect memory. So your paintings and objects seem to signal a seemingly perfect end, an endgame with the trace of humankind. I have been interested in the relation between the machine and the body in my own work. I see the history of the perfect machine and humans as an endless relation, in search for systems, knowledge, the unknown, the map of which we made, destroyed and remade: our endgames. Do you see your work as one of our endgames?

JS: Maybe not. Recently I read an article on provisional painting being a response to the lofty ideals of modernism and end paintings like Reinhardt’s and others’. Provisional painters were not interested in completing their paintings and their gestures are contingent on the moment of making and they weren’t so much concerned with the whole baggage of history, and as such were freer to do whatever they wanted. End painters like Rodchenko and the Constructivists were serious and saw painting as a kind of death and worked towards reduction and the monochrome, towards a logical conclusion. I am not too comfortable with the idea of provisional painting, neither do I consider myself an end painter. I think painting has so much more to offer if we possibly just stop seeing them as paintings but seeing them as art. I like what the future holds and I like the object, production and matter of painting. I see myself more as a conceptual painter who responds to the current milieu. I see my works as extensions of machines, culture and memory. They are tied to a vision of a personal utopia, one that starts as a desire for that space, but it becomes less individualistic, which is opposed to what most painters build their identity on. The purity and perfection strive for the ideal form in painting but yet at times you want to disturb them. I always liken it to a slow computer. Take for example Glenn Gould’s rendition of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’. He played them to a mechanical perfection as a child prodigy, and when he played them again as an old man, they became slower and more thoughtful. He summarised it well when he said, “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”  At the end of the day when the viewer steps into the gallery to look at a painting of mine, they could be moved or fascinated by it or regard it as a blank, dull object and pass by it in two seconds. I am beginning to care less about these things.


IW: I was told that you have been asked to do a work for the upcoming Singapore Biennale. Congratulations! What are you planning to make? What kind of space are you being asked to consider? Since it’s difficult or perhaps challenging to foresee conditions at this early stage of planning, I would like you to consider this question as an imaginary press release.

JS: Without divulging too much, I am making something at the intersection of print, drawing, sculpture and painting. In a nutshell, it’s basically turning the transmissions of dead stars into large slabs, like slices of eternity. They will be pairing me with a little-known Indonesian artist, whose work I’m also excited about. We will be exhibition in the same gallery at the Singapore Art Museum. It’s very different but yet is tied to the same interests and concerns that have occupied me for years. It is tied to my belief of making works that make themselves, and to my practice as a reflection of the age of mechanical, industrial and digital reproduction and interconnectivity.