J.H Standing in front of these works I've become more aware of the marks and traces in the surfaces, I'm wondering what role this mark making plays in the work?
P.L. There are traces of the activity, traces of painting, and these derive from the construction of the colour, the grinding and rolling of the pigments on the surface of the piece, and the moving and scraping up of that material.
J.H So its unintentional or accidental?
P.L. No I wouldn't say that exactly. Drawing and the concept of drawing is very interesting to me, Francois Jullien has described drawing as something that 'still consists fully in the movement of its genesis'. Drawing is something that is unfolding and never completes itself. So from that point of view its not really in the mark making. I am more involved with the handling of quantities of colour, of paint material and not with making marks deliberately or with deliberation.
The surface of a painting has to come out of a deeper modulation and working of the material to kind of draw out its immanent potential. My works are generated through attention to this procedure and as such they are not wholly visually orientated or driven. They don't set out to display their contents for examination as with signs and cyphers, painterly tropes and references.
J.H Can you say more about this process that you are using?
P.L I think that procedure differs enormously from process. I could reduce my activity as a painter to steps and stages within a process and that could be a useful and informative list but it would not go far at all towards exploring the procedure.
I think of procedure as the awareness that I can bring to my practice within the uniqueness of the moment. Between stages of process there are moments both spacial and temporal that are easily over looked. As I move forward I am exploring those spaces and informing the painting as I proceed.
J.H So the choices that make the painting are informed by this kind of sensitivity?
P.L. When a work begins, any work, any body's work, a kind of set of possibilities are quickly established and the circumstances unfold that influence the way things are going and what may become possible. Working with procedure is working with those circumstances if you like. Its being aware of the disposition that is put into play and what ones part is within it.
The painting that is then presented is just a catalyst within a larger disposition that includes the viewer, the space, the moment etc. But that's something of great influence on the potential of life in that moment.
J.H You make your own paint is that an important part of the procedure?
P.L. Yes, I bring a lot of attention to the mixing of colour. I may begin with a ready mixed white or black and I will develop it using pigment and other oils until I am really fascinated with the tonality and there is enough material prepared. I would say that preparation is very important, it intensifies my relationship with the colour and the material, perception of the colour and handling of the material.
J.H There is a sense of light and space striking through even the more monochromatic paintings. I am reminded sometimes of Impressionist paintings….
P.L. I was thinking recently about the Impressionists, Pissaro and Sisley in particular. They were radical people, socialists, anarchists I think or at least supportive of the anarchists who were very active revolutionaries in those times. The Impressionist movement was anti scientific, working against the Enlightenment theories that were taking hold of society and driving the Industrial Revolution. For them the world was not to be simplified, quantified and controlled, on the contrary they painted, (as you know) sensations that were in flux, perception itself was embraced as an ever moving changing phenomena.
OK this is quite a different visual art from that which came to characterise the avant garde in Russia, for example, at the beginning of the 20th century but it certainly was not intended as a decorative effect and has been vastly mis-read in many cases.
In my work I don't look to create certainties, whether in colours or surfaces. I'm moved by those in between states of tonality and structure. In that sense, my natural disposition finds itself, finds a certain freedom in ambivalence and uncertainty.
J.H Yes, I have sometimes heard other painters speak of the importance of doubt in their working process, is that an important aspect for you too?
P.L Well, I'm never really sure about doubt (laughs). I think its something different, I mean doubt could be simply an uncertainty of choice, in other words the choice between one certainty and another.
What I'm more interested in is getting outside of that dilemma and remaining in a condition of potential, something that does not feel the need to explain itself, assert itself or establish a position of identity.
J.H Like the concept of drawing?
J.H Relating to the elements of your work, what part does the immediate environment or the natural world play? Does the work relate to the natural world?
P.L It might do…. it might have a relationship in contrast as much as in harmony. That's really something for the work to do on its own, where it is hung for example, in what context it is seen. There are paintings here in the studio that were made in central Berlin in 2006 but when seen here somebody commented on the pallid emptiness reflecting the moorland hills after particularly dry weather. In Berlin you might think of construction sites, plaster and cement or walls. This is all association, you know, its secondary really.
J.H Looking at this new piece on aluminium panel, a deep dark grey…. Its difficult to define the colour exactly and the panel has light grey edges…..
P.L The edges are the colour of the industrial priming, and the grey was actually the lightest tone it could be, it would have been white but its not possible or available in white. So there is an example of circumstances playing there part. Its actually had a very strong effect on my colour sense whilst working on it and this dark tone developed.
J.H You have titled this painting 'Dersu Uzala'?
P.L That's right. Its the first painting that I have titled for a long time, but it just felt right. After the sparse working period for me between 2007 and 2013 I'm coming out the other side and this painting marks a new beginning.
J.H Dersu Uzala was a film, right? (Japan/Russia 1975)
P.L Yes he was a character who was first described in a book by Arseniev, 'Dersu the Trapper' (a true story) and later in the masterful film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
J.H Dersu was a hunter living nomadically in the Tundra?
P.L Yes that's right, he is encountered by a Russian Captain who is leading an expedition into uncharted territories. Dersu Uzala becomes their guide but more than that he becomes a counter point in the Captains life, a mythical character that survives really by his heightened senses and astoundingly keen observation of the changes in both the nature around him and his own inner nature. The Captain arrives with his refined navigational instruments and equipment but on meeting Dersu he encounters a profoundly different human being and his world is gradually thrown into question.
J.H And the painting relates somehow to the film?
P.L No, it does not relate to the plot. ….The longing to encounter Dersu Uzala or even be like him that the Captain experiences has a philosophical dimension. Its that longing for a profound degree of awareness and perception that interests me. The Captain observes Dersu with admiration, almost with envy at one point, pity at another. He observes that this level of immanent intelligence that Dersu attains brings to him a continual renewal of vitality and connectedness to all life. The painting simply stands next to this idea that is expressed in the title.
Philip Lumai in conversation with John Higgins, 14 April 2013
photograph © Philip Lumai – Derzu Uzula, 2013, oil on aluminium, 67,8 x 109,7 cm