I recently visited artist, Anthony Banks (b. 1988, UK) at his studio in East London. Anthony uses abstraction as a path into work that is both ambiguous and figurative. Among other things we explore the influence of post-war art, his use of framing devices, and why his paintings take years to complete.
Anthony Banks: My sense of Englishness is neither totally celebratory or shrouded in shame—rather nuanced through historical references, which have conversations on place and history through a gaze towards movements in design, industry, architecture, fashion. This makes each work sound dense and laden with allegory, although it’s more through me trusting my instincts and using myself as a filter to explore the history of land: geological and human. If a pattern, subject, or composition feels correct visually then I’m willing to follow it. These choices often begin aesthetically: an exploration of a composite or complex beauty.
Whilst we are talking about making work that could be superficially ‘British’, I don’t want to make work that isolates itself to only being discernible through knowing these islands. These narratives and histories contain a universality and ambiguity, and just happen to be expressed through my lens: an inbuilt sensibility towards a certain colour palette, patination in mark making, and way of composing images. Ultimately, I can only make work that reflects my own existence.
These narratives and histories contain a universality and ambiguity, and just happen to be expressed through my lens: an inbuilt sensibility towards a certain colour palette, patination in mark making, and way of composing images.
Anthony: The tropes or genres that I find myself returning to in my works are deeply seeded within me. I have probably produced drawings or paintings of these subjects since I could first hold a pencil. These often fall under certain categories, for example: seascape, landscape, still life, industry, wildlife, transport. Often collisions between the natural environment and the human, referencing a heritage or faded historical elegance—these layers of different histories settle like the sediment of geological time onto an image.
Revisiting these themes creates a freedom to explore more mannered and obscured responses, articulations which allow for the allegorical depth behind my works to exist quietly.
I have probably produced drawings or paintings of these subjects since I could first hold a pencil.
Anthony: I have always connected with a post-war aesthetic. One of equal parts optimism and existential searching for significance and meaning. A time when artists were striving to rediscover the world around themselves and accept the world as strange and disparate. How both internal and external searching can coexist in an aesthetics and not to simplify complicated emotional responses.
I remember clearly being given the “Paris Post War” book which was published in conjunction with a show at the Tate in the nineties when I was at school. This was when I saw work by artists such as Fautrier, Dubuffet and Picabia for the first time, which exhibit strangeness, pain and beauty. Use of an internalized sensibility towards responding to what has gone before, as well as the present and the future. Trusting there is no defined answer but getting closer to understanding and truth via an act of questioning.
In Britain: Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens, art with a deep resonance to the land. Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury groups deployment of gesture and pattern to display a growing freedom and mode of escape. Bernard Leech’s use of wrought and weighted objects given brevity through a softness of touch and mark. Mid-century aesthetics in regard to design, architecture, fashion—they a have sensibility for function and form, as well as a use of materials that still feels relevant to me. These influences are sometimes worn in my paintings by a certain patination or palette or even composition design. I often refer to modern patterns, posters, and design from this era as way into a painting, offering a decorative reference point which I can use to camouflage or undo something to fixed or solid.
Anthony: Art is contemporary to the time it’s made. I think when painting tries to copy a trend or fashion too heavily it instantly looks dated. This doesn’t seem to be as much of a pitfall to artists working in other disciplines. Also when I look at a lot of contemporary painting a main concern seems to be producing a style that is easily replicated by the artist and therefore immediately recognised as their work, more an exercise in completing a task. That’s not how I work, in fact the opposite: every time I’m painting, I feel like I’m re-discovering something.
Of course there has to be the zeitgeist, but there are plenty of people making work about this moment in mediums of the moment—that’s not my concern and luckily there is space for all of this, we are not in a time where one aesthetic has precedence which I think is freeing. Having said that, there are many great painters working at the moment to push the conversation forward. I am appreciative of other mediums of making work; sculpture, film, fashion, sound, design, they all have importance; they are all that painting isn’t.
Art is contemporary to the time it’s made. I think when painting tries to copy a trend or fashion too heavily it instantly looks dated.
Anthony: I return to the subjects which have surrounded me as a cannon for departure. Through revisiting certain tropes or genres, I become emboldened in my descriptions, pushing their latency to the point of becoming symbols or emblems that seem specific yet universal. There is an openness that allows a viewer to project on to the work, in that they are held in that liminal space, which is hard to grasp, between something seen and something felt, provoking interpretation. I’m always fascinated by how often someone looking at work will openly tell me the exact meaning or subject of a work.
There is also a depth of meaning locked within the physical history of the surface of each work, as legible. So potentially I make works which have the qualities of memory or dream.
Anthony: From a young age I would start building the opportunity for chance and mistakes to become a part of my process of making, I enjoyed the moment when a work failed or disappointed me and then the avenues that would open from that to divert the work into something other than what I had initially conceived.
I could never make the same painting twice: this places an intrinsic value on each object. Through investing time into each surface, forgetting and remembering a work, allowing them to shift alongside my own sensibilities, like memory some residues of past histories remain as new marks cover over and redefine a new present.
For me finishing a work cannot be predetermined, it’s become more about reaching a certain balance on the surface, where the work seems poised in its own thought and undeniable.
I could never make the same painting twice: this places an intrinsic value on each object.
Anthony: Quietness or slowness feels like a position today, so maybe that’s part of the manifesto. Being introspective and whispering rather than shouting. Allowing time for abstract thought seems counter-intuitive or reductive. We are taught to consume more, absorb more, think less. We need to find ways of connecting with the world that go beyond purely the superficial or instant. It’s hard to see slow paintings as urgent in and of themselves but as a stance on contemporary values maybe they become subversive. I suppose counterculture can take many forms, there is a politic in subtlety and nuance that seems radical at the moment.
We need to find ways of connecting with the world that go beyond purely the superficial or instant.
Anthony: I think I have always had an inert sensibility towards a colour palette and mark making which at times I try to fight and other times I go with it, allowing muscle memory and reflex to take over. I believe I’m refining and becoming more eloquent; however, I still look back at paintings I started ten or fifteen years ago and think: ‘actually, I wish I still painted like that…’ I suppose that is a good analogy for my work really, preserving something historic as a way of redefining or rediscovering it, allowing it to morph into something new.
Also trusting the process of working has become important to me, being comfortable with not forcing myself to finish work or becoming anxious in the moments where my work is in flux. Knowing that when I start a work that it’s an investment which might not come to fruition for years, however not being passive but fostering the right conditions for my work gestate and being susceptible to influences of change, it’s a fine line to tread; between sleeping and walking.
I create paintings of paintings, meta images that talk to each other through both languages of fact and fiction.
Anthony: Frames or borders for me have multiple functions: I have always had an interest in the peripheries of paintings – often finding myself spending most care creating tensions across the margins of the work. In these suburbs, the painting is able to spill out in more purely free abstract or patterned language. This is considered in relation to the rest of the work not in isolation but a way of pulling out conversations already within the work just in separate expressions. A discourse between different modes of creating space that allow me to extrapolate my interests in both abstract and figurative space.
Like a portmanteau film which has one narrative is held within another, breaking the fourth wall, forcing you to question what it is being presented to you: I create paintings of paintings, meta images that talk to each other through both languages of fact and fiction. The internal painting itself becoming monolithic: a monument, presented in a decorated environment. Allowing for separate languages to coexist in an internal dialogue, meta narratives, questioning the act of depiction and painting itself. Internal conversations that play out through games of encryption and description, like camouflage, points of reference and interpretation resonate deep within the patina of each surface; noisy yet discrete.