Anne Collier’s interview with Alex Farquharson, republished here with the kind permission of Nottingham Contemporary.
Alex Farquharson: You lived in California for several years until a few years ago. Did that influence your work at all’
I studied at both CalArts and UCLA in Los Angeles, and was fortunate to work with artists such as Michael Asher, John Baldessari, James Benning, Morgan Fisher, Allen Ruppersberg, Jim Welling, and Christopher Williams amongst others. This experience definitely impacted upon my own approach to both thinking about and making art. Their work was rooted in an open-ended relationship with the world around them. My work - which often references film, music and celebrity cultures, as well as the hippie, new age and self-help movements - probably has its roots in my own exposure to the Californian culture and lifestyle of my adolescence.
I know you’re happy to be showing alongside Jack Goldstein. What aspects of his work do you relate to’
I relate to his interest in the potential of images. A lot of his work traded in what might be thought of as visual clichés, yet he somehow managed to make these often-ubiquitous images his own. I also like the psychological and emotional intensity of his work, which was already evident in his early performative works, but persists throughout his life and his career.
You met him once. Any impressions you’d like to share’
I met Jack briefly in Los Angeles about ten years ago, when the renewed interest in his work was just starting. He seemed very shy, awkward even, but really endearing. I remember he was wearing a promotional jacket from one of the movie studios, which seemed very appropriate.
To what extent is the art of the Pictures Generation something of a departure point for you’ How would you say your re-use of existing, mass-circulated images differs from theirs’ Why those differences’
I was born in 1970 and their work - that is the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, etc. - was effectively the first contemporary art that I was aware of. I understand their work as a generational reaction to the social and political landscape of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was, and remain, influenced by their work. It is hard to imagine making any kind of photographic image now without negotiating their work and its legacy. I’m interested in depicting different manifestations of photographic imagery: how photography is employed in relation to everyday objects such as magazines, record sleeves, posters, etc., and how these mass-circulated things can absorb - and illuminate - our own narratives. I don’t really think of my work as a form of appropriation, as the original nature of the things I document remains largely evident in my photographs.
Women sometimes appear as both subjects and objects of photography in your work. How would you characterise the sexual politics that your work performs and its specific negotiation of the ways photography (high and low) has been gendered’
I became interested in the depictions of women in professional camera magazines and journals from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in particular self-reflexive images of women posed as if taking photographs. The resulting images were typically highly sexualized and often unapologetically sexist, and it was clear that the women were merely acting as photographers. As a female artist working with photography in the present tense these older, seemingly anachronistic images still exert a powerful charge.
Your work is cool and immaculate, stylistically speaking. At the same time it’s indirectly emotive - at times you make other people’s images speak for you, lending them an autobiographical significance (that for viewers remains unverifiable, however). Could you speak of the reasons for this paradox’ Why transmit the self (real or fictitious) through a plethora of existing images by anonymous others’
At college I struggled with making more explicitly autobiographical work. I was always somewhat uncomfortable at my own presence - literally - in the photographs, and started to progressively distance myself from actually appearing in the work. At the same time I wanted the work to retain the emotional and psychological impulses that motivated me to make it in the first place. Consequently I started to document found, existing objects, such as the self-help cassette tapes or second-hand record covers, that I felt somehow resonated not only with my own history, but that could also operate independently of my relationship with them. This space, between the personal and the universal, is something I’m usually trying to negotiate in the images.
Your photographs often depict an unusually shallow space. It gives rise to an odd perceptual play between two and three dimensions; the physicality of the thing photographed and the photographic image that appears on it. How do you want that spatial ambiguity to function’
I only work in the studio and use a large-format plate camera. It’s a very laborious process that allows almost no room for improvisation. Everything has to be perfectly aligned and calibrated. I’m typically photographing things that are two-dimensional: book and magazine covers, record sleeves, film stills, etc. or objects that have very little physical depth such as the developing trays or audio cassette tapes. I’m interested in this flatness. My approach to making images is very influenced - and informed - by commercial and technical photography, where there is no ambiguity as to what is being depicted. Like commercial photography I’m interested in establishing an aesthetic clarity but at the same time, through the nature of the objects I shoot, I’m equally interested in creating a sense of emotional or psychological uncertainty. This tension - between what is depicted and the nature of its depiction - is central to my approach.
Abstract, monochromatic space (albeit ‘found’ - a white wall, a plain floor) is an important pictorial device. Could you talk about its role in relation to the photographic imagery alongside it’ It implies a conversation between them - the values of art and photographic images.
Photography, by its nature, encourages various forms of framing - whether it’s in the camera’s viewfinder, the format of the film used, or the dimensions of the subsequent print, you are constantly made aware of how a photograph edits things. The studio is increasingly present in my work as a kind of stage where objects are presented and documented. This is perhaps most evident in the images of stacks of records leaning against the studio’s grey floor and white walls. I’m interested in the apparent neutrality of these kinds of spaces, which include the monochromatic backdrops I also use in my work. Like the white cube gallery space, these visual devices serve to distance individual objects from their original circumstances or context, creating a space that is somehow both specific and ambiguous.
Sentimentality, cliché and nostalgia aren’t positive attributes in art. Can you talk about your use of images that have these values’ What is your relationship to these images and how do you indicate that relationship in your photographs’ What is at stake, and what transformations do they undergo’
At times I think I’m ultimately more interested in trying to establish a sense of melancholia in my work. Inevitably sentimentality, cliché, and nostalgia play a part in this idea, but in isolation these tropes often err towards kitsch. I’ve always liked how popular music can walk a fine line between sentimentality and profundity, in ways that visual art rarely finds an equivalent for. I’m very conscious about the tone of my work and a part of this process necessitates that I keep some of my own personal emotional and sentimental leanings in check.
William Eggleston, 21st Century, Victoria Miro, London