Nick Miller: I’m starting with a simple question: what does the title of the recent show ‘UNSEEN’ mean for you?
Philip Moss: I suppose it has meaning on a number of levels: firstly that I feel that people don’t really know my work and that I’ve remained hidden from the art world because of 30 years living and working in Donegal; and secondly that it refers to experiences, particularly childhood experiences, that I have never publicly addressed before, that are referenced in some of the works.
NM: You have described yourself definitively as a conceptual artist who paints, and that the idea that comes to you is the most vital moment of the creative process, envisioning a work in intensely awake periods of night-time thinking.
PM: I think that used to be more of the case, and that like Francis Bacon described, an image would drop into your brain like a slide into a projector. These days however, the idea forms the seed of the painting rather than the finished image, otherwise the process of painting would become somewhat tedious, as I’d be leaving nothing to chance. I have always been a planner and tended to work in series. I can tell you now that the next two subjects that are fixating me are Kate Bush’s album, Aerial, and views from behind, of characters from literature. I already have my next show planned out.
NM: I’m trying to tease out some contradictions I find between you as a conceptual artist/painter but also as somebody who energises paint and material with some deeply visceral responses to the world – and that for me is definitely not an ‘idea’.
PM: I think that there has always been an element of the political in my work and, in order for that to happen, there has to be an idea – so whether it’s an atrocity or injustice that I feel the need to record or address, that is the beginning. But I find the actual physical nature of putting paint on canvas incredibly exciting and I can guarantee that if you see me in a gallery, I’m going to be close to the painted surface looking at the individual strokes an artist makes. In my case, I had to use DIY fillers in works like Oestrogen (2021) because I ran out of paint during Covid, an example of what I would describe as a lucky accident. So yeah, I mean what actually keeps me painting is the joyous process of applying any material to the canvas.
NM: Yes, even in Lullaby (2020), that is so conceptual in its use of the bed headboard, text and colour, it just opens the door for me; after that, it is the materiality and presence that transfixes.
PM: The headboard wasn’t really brutal enough, compared to the one I actually remember from hospital; it was quite delicate, but I wanted to have something there that would not repel you – to kind of drag you in with beauty. I think I surprised myself seeing my own show, particularly how I was able to use colour and whatever material to do that – to draw you in, even if the idea or ‘subject’ might possibly be uncomfortable.
NM: I wonder how you understand the relationship between your very highly developed ‘realist’ painting skills and your stated lack of excitement in conventional painting. I guess you could probably have had a comfortable career as a more traditional painter?
PM: Well, to drop back into realism is my default setting. Occasionally I use it, and invariably it’s for the wrong reasons. I have a modest collection of other people’s work and I can’t think of one painting that is realistic. I am much more drawn to artists like Philip Guston or Rose Wylie, who just look like they’re having fun in the studio. You have to ask, who are you painting for?
NM: So along with maybe being ‘unseen’, that brings me to your audience. In the Haiku piece, amongst other texts, you literally ask Cornelia Parker to be an audience.
PM: Yes, I suppose that’s rather a frantic plea. I feel like someone who has missed the last train leaving town and is desperately reaching out. Cornelia Parker is a big hero of mine, as is Marcel Duchamp; they both enable one to make art out of anything. That gives you a tremendous freedom. In this exhibition I definitely felt that I was doing plenty of screaming but that’s important when you live in such a remote part. Luckily some of my cries have been heard and that gives me enthusiasm to plod along. So even if the reality of the audience in Donegal and Ireland is small, for a moment at least, my imagination and ambition can place them in another context.
NM: Let’s go back to your relationship with other painters. You are pretty unique on this island for the time you spent in London during the eighties assisting Lucian Freud, while working for his agent James Kirkman, and meeting the likes of Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach in the process. I am guessing such early encounters with serious icons of painting implanted something in you. You have two paintings in the show that address those painters’ work, which could be pastiches, but to me despite the risks, you somehow pull them off and put the artists to bed with your own voice. I like that you take huge risks with subject matter and respond with a mixture of darkness and humour – it is somewhat unsettling.
PM: Thanks Nick, that is very generous. Strangely, those paintings referencing Bacon and Freud were the least important to me in the show. I guess I just wanted to have fun and show off a little. I always wanted a Bacon painting of my own, so I just said, “fuck it, I’ll make one”. The Freud painting was less fun to do, but I felt that I needed to move the monkey off my back. Freud was my inspiration in art college and by bizarre coincidence or good karma, I ended up working for his dealer. I used David Dawson’s photo of Freud on his death bed. The piece is called Cremnitz White (2022), which was the name of the lead-based paint that he used without gloves, and I often wonder if it contributed to his demise. I suppose one of the things that I admired about Freud was his drive to paint right until the end of life, something I aspire to. The last thing I would say to anybody who happens to read this: you should always wear gloves when painting with oils!
Nick Miller is an artist who lives in Sligo.
Philip Moss is an artist based in West Donegal.
‘Unseen’ ran at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny from 25 June to 3 September.