Artists Interview Fairs United Kingdom

Richard Wright: the magician plucking art from thin air

The artist explains how light, shadow and the past inspire his site-specific works

Richard Wright beside his painting, No title, 2009. Photo: Press Association Images

Richard Wright may have won the Turner Prize in 2009, but the Glasgow-based artist acknowledges that his striking site-specific wall paintings owe as much to the art of the past as the present. He will be discussing this relationship with Jasper Sharp, a curator at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, at Frieze Masters on Sunday 20 October (one in a series of Frieze Masters talks that begins on Thursday).

Wright’s art-historical references are broad and multifaceted: for the Turner exhibition, he drew on the apocalyptic and visionary paintings in the Tate’s historical collection to create a dramatic single piece, measuring 4m by 7m, in gold leaf. His commission for the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, unveiled earlier this year, comprised more than 47,000 six-pointed black stars painted across the ceilings of the two rooms next to the gallery containing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 1642. All of his wall paintings are laboriously produced using Medieval and Renaissance fresco techniques, whereby a paper cartoon is pierced with holes through which chalk is rubbed to create faint outlines on the walls. These are then painted in, usually by the artist himself. Despite all this painstaking labour, most of Wright’s paintings have an intentionally brief lifespan and are made to be seen for a finite time before they are painted over and disappear forever. His most recent work can be seen in “The Show is Over” at Gagosian Gallery, London (until 30 November), and he has also made a permanent window as part of the refurbishment of Tate Britain, which is due to fully reopen in November.

The Art Newspaper:Your paintings are not only directly applied to the walls of a space, they are also made in response to the actual site. So when you first enter a space, what are you looking for?

Richard Wright: I suppose I’m looking for a place for the work, but the problem is that I often don’t know what the work is going to be. I’m usually looking for some kind of clue in the architecture, something to do with the way voids meet surfaces and the way it holds light and shadow. Sometimes I walk into a space and I can see the work there already; it’s on the wall. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I know what symptoms it’s going to have. It’s almost like I have a sense of a figure, but I can’t see the face. But it’s not always like that—sometimes I have to look really hard. I find spaces with no windows especially difficult: I think it’s to do with this question of light. I also feel that the air is very important. In every space, the air has a sort of visibility; you can actually see it. So often for me, the work is in the air. It’s in the space between you and the wall and I’m always looking for a place where that can happen.

As well as responding to the particularities of their location, your paintings also bear witness to a long legacy of looking at art from all periods and cultures—how does this filter into your paintings?

It is important to me that the material has some kind of currency. It might be something from the past, but hopefully something from the past that is brought into the present. Over years and years of drawing and looking, you distil things down to quite essential categories. I love Mondrian because he succeeded in doing something with very little, but which is completely different from all other things. You can’t imitate him, and in a way I am always looking for that kind of radical simplicity. At the same time, I am also very interested in handwriting, whether it is ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or something on a baked-bean tin—it’s how we deal with surfaces and how minute decisions and inflections can affect our sense of meaning. One of the problems with the notion of the avant-garde is this notion of originality; what interests me is how a cover version can use the same material as the original but blow it into a whole other territory.

I’ve read that, even as a young boy, you were making copious drawings inspired by illustrations of Leonardo da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch—the art of the past seems to have had an enduring appeal.

I wasn’t a terribly good reader as a child, so when we went to the library, I would always get books about art and make drawings from them. When I was a student at Edinburgh College of Art, I had access to Titian’s Diana and Actaeon [1556-59], which was then permanently on show in the Scottish National Gallery. I’d go and look at it on my way to art school; I’d sit sometimes for hours, and it had a tremendous effect on me. I didn’t really know the history, but these things affected me in an incredibly physical way. My response to the art of the past was that I wanted to make it for myself. I knew that I could never own a Piero della Francesca so I went home and tried to make one. I also really wanted to draw like Holbein, and for several years concentrated my attention on trying to do so.

Before you started making paintings directly on the wall in the early 1990s, you destroyed all your earlier works on canvas. What lay behind that decision?

The destruction of the work from the past wasn’t done as a John Baldessari kind of statement; it was more of a coming to terms with the fact that what I had done felt redundant and hadn’t been a success. Destruction sounds very dramatic—as if I was weeping over this bonfire of the vanities—but it was more about feeling that I’d been carrying around a dead weight and this seemed to be a way to let it go.

Although you might bring in some assistants to help you with the large-scale pieces, the labour is predominantly yours. Why is it so important that you make the work yourself?

It isn’t to do with a notion of authenticity or the sense that it has to be my hand, but that most of the ideas come from within the process of the work and I might be lost for ideas if I didn’t do that. It can be problematic, because the only way to make real money out of art is to be able to produce a lot of it, and the physical limitations of what I’m able to do mean that I can’t. But I don’t want to get into the situation where I am just managing the production of the work, although there have been pressures on me to do so.

Another key factor is that your work is intentionally ephemeral: even though your ceiling paintings for the Rijksmuseum are a permanent commission, the museum has the right to remove them at any time.

I am interested in a conditional existence and the way that we choose some things of the past to be with us and many things not to be. Often the work is made from materials—such as silver, gouache or watercolour—that are unstable and won’t last over a long period of time. Much of its meaning is in this instability and in the fact that it exists provisionally; I want to heighten the fragility of the moment of engagement.

Yet the window you have designed for the refurbishment of the Tate Britain is a permanent piece.

It is a simple leaded glass work that replaces a window removed during the Second World War. Tate Britain is a listed building and the intention was to reinstate the window much as it had originally been. I am working with clear handmade glass, which is assembled in quite a simple structure; it’s very much about the material and what is reflected and seen through. I hope it drifts into the brickwork and that many people do not see it as a work of art at all. The main reason I began to paint on the wall was that I wanted the painting to become part of everything else. I hope this window soaks into the situation around it and might be as ignoble as it is interesting.

Richard Wright is in conversation with Jasper Sharp, Frieze Masters, Sunday 20 October, 3pm

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