Paul McGillick: Alun Leach-Jones is one of Australia's most enduring and innovative artists -- painter, print-maker, sculptor, tapestry maker. Alun's work is hugely imaginative and dare I say mercurial. I spoke to Alun in his studio in Sydney to get some insight into this amazing world.

Well, let's start with some chronology. Tell me a little bit about your family background, your early life in Wales, and your education.

Alun Leach-Jones: Well, no education. Working class background. Yes, I think working class background. My father was Welsh. My mother was Scottish-English, and she came from a family of nine children. She went in domestic service as had, you know, most of the family.

And my father was the first one in his family to have education and became a teacher. Otherwise he would have gone down the pit. So that was the background.

My mother and father met in Liverpool, and then immediately moved back to live in Wales. So I had my childhood, you know. Six months old, from then on, until 1947, I was brought up in Wales and Welsh speaking. I couldn't speak English, because Welsh was the language in the family. But I've lost all that now. Now I only speak Australian. [laughs]

Paul: But you had some education?

Alun: Yes, well, my father was a teacher of the local school there, and there were 30 children in the school. All of the farmers' children. I father became my teacher, and so for all my childhood teaching was literally done in the schoolhouse, where we lived. You know, the house was attached to the schoolhouse. My education was pretty basic.

I have no recollection really of what I actually learned, except to be able to sing in Welsh very well. Hymns and things like that, because we were a chapel family, Methodists, you see.

Paul: But the Welsh background became important later.

Alun: Very, very important.

Paul: Later, later it began ...

Alun: Very, very important.

Paul: Well, let's return to that later. At what stage did you decide that art would be your vocation? Was there a particular trigger or a set of circumstances?

Alun: Well, it was both, actually. That question is quite pertinent, because I actually can pin that down. Up to the age of...oh, let me see. What would it be? 1946, that would have made me eight or nine. I had no sense of really the visual arts, but I had a strong sense of the literary arts, because we were a very literary family and singing and music and all that sort of stuff, and hymns.

I had an uncle who I was very, very fond of. He had very bad war, and he was convalescing. He wanted to come and live with us in North Wales where it would be peaceful. You know, for him to recover.

So he came to live with us in 1946. And he was still with us in 1947. His name was Albert Leach. He had no artistic background, but he was vaguely interested. In the terrible winter of 1947, he bought us a pair of snow shoes, the two of us.

And he said, "I've got a lovely idea. We're going to go out into the snowy landscape and we're going to paint watercolours. It was a fantastic experience. We did this. We painted the watercolours. Tramped all over the countryside. It was a remarkable experience, because he could teach me the rudiments of watercolour.

As a consequence of that, he then said, "You know? It mightn't be a bad idea for you to consider becoming a visual artist." He said, "You seem to have the aptitude for it."

It did strike me, although at that very young age, there might be something in that, because the sheer pleasure of doing that painting in the company of somebody I was very, very fond of. And he returned to Liverpool where he went to work in the postal service.

While he was there, I visited Liverpool and all that sort of thing. We eventually moved back to Liverpool. I joined the local post office club, which he was part of. He commissioned me to paint murals for the bar in the post office. That was the first professional experience I had. It was absolutely wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

And then when I went to work as an illuminating ... illuminating manuscript writer, an outfit called the Solicitor's Law Society, a very old-fashioned thing, where you penned wonderful documents on parchment for freedom of the city, that sort of thing.

And I was lucky enough to...another young man, slightly older than me, who was Scottish, and he joined the company. He was keen on painting. We became like that, very, very close friends. So we, him and fact, he became, remained a friend until he died, 10 years ago. All those years.

And he was older than me by about two years. He was very ambitious. He said, "Look, we're going to Paris this week to have a look at a Gaugin exhibition." I had never heard of Gaugin, obviously. And he'd say, "We're going to go to Madrid to the Prado." So we'd go to Madrid. Always taking our girlfriends with us, you see?

And so that sort of background, by the time I was...because I left school at 14 and a half, became apprenticed to be a law writer. From 14 and a half on, I was thinking visual arts all the time. Visual arts all the time.

But my fam ... my family was not wealthy enough or, so I only had my education up to secondary modern school, where you were supposed to leave at fifteen. And I left at fourteen and a half, and that meant I couldn't get a scholarship to go to an art school or a grammar school, unlike my sister, who was born ten years later.

We were more well off then, and she got a scholarship and she went to the Liverpool School of Art, which I never ever had. But she never became a painter, but I did without that education. You know, that visual arts education.

And so that's how it all started. I think I can say by the time I was fifteen or sisteen, I already had it...a vague sense of maybe of a vocation. But there was nobody there around me in the culture, in the context, my family context, that could really say that, "Yes, that is true. If you pursue this, you could go from A to B."

But there was that sense, because of Ronald McKinzie, this friend of mine. It was a possibility, because we both then went to night school at the Liverpool College of Arts, which was, you know ... we started to take ourselves quite seriously.

And that's how it really started. And although I had no idea of what the journey was going to be, and what the destination was, because you can never predict those sort of things, how it goes. But from that moment on I think there was a sense of I want this to happen, you know?

Paul: Now, one important stage in that journey occurred in 1959 when you saw the seminal show, "New American Painting" at the Tate. That had a big impact on you. Tell me a little bit about the impact.

Alun: Well, prior to that I'd become interested in Matisse, as I mentioned to you earlier on.

The idea that painting or colour in painting being an expressive tool to show emotion. Not to describe things or to think philosophically, but colour seemed to be so emotional that it was almost wordless. If you can make a visual image rich in colour, you would have feeling naturally following in its wake. I think I'd learned that lesson from Matisse.

Then 1959, I then saw Barnett Newman, Rothko, and that reinforced that abstraction just married to colour was a powerful tool to express feeling. I'm not sure what the feelings were or are, but from that moment on, I was more or less dedicated to the idea of colour being central to painting. That gives you a very strong sense of vocation.

Paul: In 1960, you emigrated to Australia. Why Australia? And why Adelaide?

Alun: Well, again, fairly clear answers. I just lived through what was known as the "age of anxiety," the postwar period in Britain where everybody was impoverished. My social position in that world was such that I really would have no hope to go to higher education, art school, let alone a Red Brick university, and certainly not one of the great universities.

I had a distinct feeling...north of England, impoverished...there was really no, there's no future to stay here. I was going to be blocked at every way. I had the wrong accent. I came from a working class background. I didn't have education. So what place was there for me to go?

And so I thought, "Well, maybe emigration, going someplace else which was more open to somebody with none of those qualifications, but through energy and through talent you might be able to succeed." I thought maybe America and I thought New Zealand and I thought Australia. I didn't try America. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should have gone to America.

New Zealand turned me down when I wanted to emigrate there, and Australia accepted me. So I emigrated in 1960, knowing nobody, arriving port Adelaide with ten pounds in my pocket, going into a hostel for about four or five months like a boat person, you know? Just to get my feet. Not knowing anybody, no background, and just made it, because Adelaide was very open and it was very free.

As an old guy who was...I used to see regularly in a pub, because I used to go around on a Saturday afternoon because I didn't know anybody and I'd sit in a pub. I was renting a little room...apartment nearby, and the two of us were in the bar. He was at one end. He came up to me and he said, "You're looking a bit down."

And I said, "Yes, well, I am. You know, I've got no money and I haven't got a job. I'm living in a hostel and I'm an emigrant." And he said, "Oh, perfect qualifications to be an Australian." He said, "We don't anybody seriously until you've been three times bankrupt."

And I was so reassured by that. I thought all I'd have to do is keep going. I did a lot of crummy jobs, awful jobs. Eventually, I got a job as a library assistant at the state library. I enrolled at the South Australian School of Art for night classes and that's where I met Nola, my wife, who is still my current wife. That's where the real professional life started.

The idea of a vocation that was shapeless, Adelaide started to shape that instinct into a plan. What do I study? Where will it lead me? Who should I see? All of that sort of thing. That was 1960.

And having got this job, I'm going to the South Australian School of Art, you start to move around the city. At that time, Kym Bonython had just opened his first gallery...his gallery. Naturally, I gravitated to the gallery.

One day he spoke to me, he said, "Are you enjoying the show?" It was a Louie James show actually. I said, "Yes, it is terrific." He said, "Who are you and what are you," and I told him my background. He said, "Would you like to come and work for me as a night keeper or the gardener?" I said, "Well I can't because I'm working at the South Australian Library as a book shelver" or what have you.

He said, "But no you can come and live here in the gallery in the basement. Before you go off to work you can make sure everything's all right around the gallery and mow the lawn and do all that sort of thing." I took it on.

That exposure with Kym, to a professional gallery, showing people like Laurie Daws, Sidney Nolan, and people like that, Fred Williams. I remember Fred Williams did a show there. I helped to hang it.

All the Fred Williams were £25, and it was panned by the critics. But it gave me a sense of what being in art was all about. You do serious work, you've got somebody to support you, shows it in the gallery.

And so I just carried on with my studies of the South Australian Art Gallery, working part time at the South Australian Library as a design artist, and working for Kym Bonython. Now that's a very generous city that enables a young man with no background, no money, and knowing nobody, that was a wonderful thing. Really fantastic thing.

And to answer the other question, when I went for my interview as to which city I should choose, I said, "Well tell me about all the cities." He rattled off all the cities. He said, "But you might like Adelaide," he said "You know single man" and all that. He said, "It's a city of churches and pubs."

He said, "So you can do a lot of drinking if you want to or you can go to church, you see." He said, "It is also the cultural hub of Australia." Now I don't know whether that was true, but it struck me as not a bad recommendation to go and live in Adelaide. And being a small city, you could make your way.

I think now on reflection if I'd come to Sydney, it might have been too big, and I might have been overwhelmed by it. I was able to incrementally improve my understanding of myself and where my career could go in the visual arts.

And then of course I was lucky because small city, interested in books so I gravitated to Mary Martin's book shop. There were other book shops of course, but Max Harris who was a very convivial book seller. One day he asked me who I was because I was buying books and all this sort of thing. I told him that I was an artist and all this sort of thing.

He said could I see some work. I took in some drawings and that led me to do my first commission when he asked me to illustrate a book of his poetry.

And in the course of that, because I was in and out all the time, he said, "One day Alun, there's somebody here I'd like you to meet. If you want to be a painter, you might like to follow this example, he said "Sydney Nolan, Alun Leach-Jones". It was a fantastic, fantastic experience.

You know, he wouldn't have remembered me as soon as he walked out of the shop, but we suddenly gained reinforcing that sense that you could belong to the arts in that way if you worked hard. The openings were there, people were generous and there was a real visual arts culture to aspire to, which was fantastic.

Paul: Between 1960 and 1963, you studied at the South Australian School of Art, and I think I'm right in saying these were the glory days of the South Australian School of Art. And I think I'm right in saying, these were the glory days of the South Australian School of Art. Amazing people like Charles Reddington, Udo Sellbach, Karen Shapers. Tell me a little bit about those.

Alun: Paul Biegel was the dean of the college.

Paul: Paul Biegel?

Alun: Paul Beagle, the sculptor. Very open minded, and he was the one who employed those you've just mentioned. So I studied along with a bunch of people like myself, you know, Syd Ball, Jennifer Marshall, Bob Boynes...all coming from varied backgrounds.

We all met at the art school and became a sort of, not a clique so much, but we all knew one another and we'd all been taught by the same individuals.

And it was a fantastic period, really fantastic period. People like Udo...Udo Sellbach and Jeff Brown, who was teaching printmaking, who'd learned printmaking in London. They drove this group to form the first graphic art society I think in Australia. Certainly in Adelaide.

We used to meet regularly every month, plan exhibitions, and Udo Sellbach, who printed for Picasso in Germany before he came out here, he was the mentor who guided us all and told us what was what about being professional.

How to organize a show, what to do with your work, how to present it, all that sort of stuff. Reddington, Karen Shapers, Franz Kempf, all provided that sort of truly professional training in attitude, if not in technique, as to what it constitutes to be a visual artist.

I don't think it could get better. It was wonderful. And Reddington of course, he came from America and brought in that sense of, if you're going to go in, you're going to go the abstract expressionist route. He was the spokesman for that sort of thing.

On the other hand you had...Udo Sellbach saying, yes but if you're going to make great portfolios based on Ovid's Metamorphosis, you've got to look at Picasso and learn how to make etchings. Between those sort of things it's quite extraordinary in how it stimulated you.

Paul: That cluster of people led by Sellbach, who I think was head of the you said, brought to your attention issues like vocation, the discipline of the practice. The other thing though, because printmaking has been so important to you, does that date from this time? Because printmaking was so strong under Sellbach and Shapers.

Alun: Yes, absolutely it dates from that time. Absolutely. I can remember the lessons. I remember Udo, we had to do a lithograph, we all had to draw a Coke bottle. I've never forgotten this. I meticulously worked on this stone with this Coke bottle. It had to be fantastic.

And he said that's terrific, he said, "You've produced a really wonderful, banal, useless image." He said, "Now where's the imagination coming into change the Coke bottle" you see. That sort of tuition in relation to a craft was quite extraordinary. It taught you to make risks aesthetically and think beyond the look of the object.

At the same time he was teaching you a craft that went back centuries. Absolutely fantastic. Now I don't know what is...that's a really good foundation, and I think we all experienced it all in our different ways.

Paul: You returned to London in 1964. Why?

Alun: Well, culture in Australia in 1964 was not exactly top of everybody's agenda. Certainly the absence of regular exposure to...I hesitate to use the word, but great works of art. We both felt, Nola and I just thought we would be good to back and live in Europe, so we could go to Paris and the great museums. Go to Venice and all of that sort of thing, which we couldn't do here.

So we decided, not permanently, but we decided to go for two or three years. We stayed for four or five. Of course, going to London, Nola had decided to study further, and so she went to the Chelsea School of Arts. I just did rough jobs. I met a lot of young British artists.

In fact, within a year, I had made a very close friendship with an English painter called Brian Plummer, who is still alive and he's a close friend of mine, who's a geometrical painter. He invited me to share his house and studio in North London, which we did for the three years we were there.

And of course, he then introduced me to people like Gordon House, who was designing the catalogs for Marlborough Gallery, and a whole host of other people that we met by being there, which we wouldn't have met. I met Patrick Heron and I met Norbert Linton and people like that, critics and painters, which we wouldn't have had if we'd stayed here in '64. I think that was quite an important period.

Paul: Now during the London years, you produced your first significant work, if I may say so. The Noumenon series of paintings, which continued for about the next ten years.

Paul: To me, this series of paintings signals the enduring theme running through your work, the transformative power of painting. For example, the use of Celtic imagery, the use of the mandala, which is the circle within the square, which is the key Asian symbol of the mystical essence.

All of these things were telegraphed by the title "Noumenon," which, of course, comes from Immanuel Kant...the idea of the transcendent object. Let's talk a little bit about these paintings.

Alun: Well, just to go back a little bit. Linked to that, while we were in London, I was exposed to the, how can I say, the explosion of screen printing due to Chris Kelpra's studio in London. And so, being a member of The Contemporary Art Society, I was exposed there before coming back, to all the new screen prints by people like Caulfield, Blake, Howard Hodgkins.

So, when I came back I also had that desire to go on with the craft of printmaking in relation to the "Noumenon" paintings that you were talking about. So I made a whole group of screen prints that related to the "Noumenon" pictures...paintings, all in that disk that you were referring to.

And I think that the two do fit together there very, very importantly. So, when I lost the way in painting I'd go back into screenprinting and explore, how do I resolve this multiple image where everything was the same within the disk, if you know what I mean. That was very much a transformative thing.

And of course, the Kantian references, "Noumenon" is the idea of perceiving a purely intellectual entity, which became the subject matter of the painting. That was really what drove it. That is where the collective title came from, which is a very abstract way of thinking of things.

I think that again reinforced philosophically, my lack of need for the appearance of objects. Of course, what you put in its place...well the speculation about colour. And then how colour could change form and shape into a new entity, comes out of that way of thinking.

Paul: I don't want to dwell too much on influence.

Alun: Influence is important.

Paul: Well, influence is important. As my late brother used to say, "The key thing about influence is how you dealt with it." How you work your way through it. Because if you don't, you become a victim of your own influence.

Paul: Anyway, notwithstanding that, I want to talk about Matisse.

Alun: I agree with that comment.

Paul: Let's just take just one influence on you. When did you first experience the work of Matisse, and what was the impact? Because to me, you seem to have absorbed some very important principles from Matisse.

Alun: Yeah. Well I think I can date it pretty accurately. It would have had to have been around 1954, 1955. It really relates cause I had no idea of subject matter. Because I wanted to be an abstract painter I was faced with the dilemma that if I don't have subject matter what is going to be the subject matter of the painting?

And Matisse struck me as a very striking example, where everything that he did was subject to the way colour manipulates everything. Form is shaped by colour. Colour itself can become form. And then of course whatever that you result in, that should have meaning, but not meaning in a quantifiable way, if you know what I mean.

So, that influence, and I still have that influence today. It's a lesson that I've never learned that if I'm stuck in a painting and I don't know what image to put in, I will put in a colour. I'll just smear it in with a hand, or make a brush-mark with the colour.

As long as the colour is right it'll lead me to shape. I don't know what the shape will mean, but that's unimportant because the colour has led the way. Since I'm relying on the colour to invoke feeling, not meaning, feeling, that's quite a good formal way of going. I think Matisse personifies that.

I mentioned to you earlier, the most recent show of Matisse, at the Pompidou Centre and the Museum of Modern Art, was an exemplar of this. It's only become apparent now because the pictures that were in the Pompidou Centre show had never been seen together before.

So, they all look like one-off, powerful, individual expressions of something very individual and specific to that particular painting. The Pompidou Centre brought together lots and lots of paintings that all looked the same.

It was Matisse painting the same painting over and over again, with shifts in the colour, which just reinforced my view that the meaning of Matisse's work, and its substance, is feeling through colour.

So that if you draw a man with a hat and you change the size of the hat and it goes from black to pink. It's not because you're interested in the shape of the hat, it's because you're interested in doing something with colour.

And then he'll do another painting, and he'll do exactly the same painting but he'll shift the colour, the palette will change, and the meaning will change, or the sensibility that you bring to the painting...changes with that in the painting. That's what I think is the colour of the painting. There's nothing else.

It's not that you want to draw a tree. It's not that you want to draw a landscape or a portrait. What you want is a piece of expressive colour that grows out of the act of painting that will invoke feeling itself very, very directly, and all the rest is just all the rest.

Does that make sense to you? That's why it's still a very powerful influence on me. But of course it's disguised by my own handwriting in the painting.

It's like your brother said, "If you become enslaved to the influence, it will ruin you." But the principles that you might take from the influence can be used in your own unique way. That's my own unique sensibility. I think any good painter does that. That's what gives them their individuality.

Paul: What about, if I may use the word, decorative? Which in my vocabulary is a positive word, not a negative word. Because I do see also a bit of a link between the decorative quality of Matisse and your work. Is that a fair comment?

Alun: Absolutely fair. When you think back of my early training as a law writer doing manuscripts and the influence of Celtic art, there you're dealing with decoration, how to make a wonderful letter, decorative in a scroll.

And maybe at the same time, weave into that shape, the subject matter of who is going to receive that particular thing. Like, it might be a doctor, so you'd weave in a stethoscope into a beautiful letter, which is the first letter of his name. And that's very decorative, very decorative.

Now when you bring in that sort of decoration as something quite powerful and expressive in its own right, and then, you add it to something like Matisse, who was a great decorator, as well, you can see how it all comes together.

Paul: To return for a moment to chronology, you stayed at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanian in Berlin in 1980. This seems to have been a very cathartic experience for you, and it resulted in a new series of paintings called, "The Romance of Death." What was the significance of this period in Berlin for you?

Alun: Well, I think it reinforced a sort of Welsh melancholy, if I can put it that way. I don't think the Welsh and the Irish are terribly cheerful people, although they pretend to be.

I think that sort of melancholy, or sadness, or whatever, was reinforced by Berlin because at that particular time the Wall was still up. It was a very gloomy city. The darkness of the city really appealed to my temperament.

I didn't want to paint pictures that were attractive. I wanted to paint pictures that maybe were very, very serious, and maybe use a dark palette, and maybe choose a subject matter that reflected all of that.

Added to that was the studio I had was absolutely abutted to the Death Zone on the Wall. So, I could look out of the window in the morning, and I've got photographs here of rabbits playing in the Death Zone, and concrete barriers, and barbed wire. I used to look out every morning. At that time in Berlin, that's what I was looking at every morning.

And then, one morning there was a shooting incident, and somebody was shot trying to cross the barrier across the Wall. I just happened to see it through the window.

And, it started to ring bells with me straightaway. I thought that there was somebody trying to gain freedom, a romantic notion from oppression to freedom, from the Communist world to the democratic world. He was paying with his life for that romantic idea.

So that's where the romance of death came because in a sense it was a heroic death based on a romantic need that he had. I just could not not do a suite of pictures called, "The Romance of Death." Now that was the core of it. But of course, once you start painting and you're using a theme like that, you don't stay long with the theme. You know, the pictures take you off someplace else.

So when you look at the pictures, for all its title, you can't really see specific references to the trigger that made it, because, you know, I made them decorative. I used silver leaf on them and sand and glitter and all that sort of thing. So they were anything but the romance of death, but I still think the romance of death is quite a nice notion, quite a nice notion, whatever its context.

Paul: Now, the next series of paintings was called "The Instruments for a Solitary Navigator," which you commenced in 1990. The title is just so poetic, so I have to ask you how did you come to select that title?

Alun: Well, before I answer that, let me just say, titles are rather like naming...this is an old saw.

Titles for a painter, particularly an abstract painter, is rather like an owner of a race horse. It tells you an doesn't tell you anything about the horse, the title, how fast it runs or how beautiful it is. It tells you a hell of a lot about the owner. So when a painter gives a title to a work, it doesn't tell you about the painting. It tells you a lot about the painter himself.

Now, the idea behind the "Instruments for a Solitary Navigator" is, and I think we all have this. In our lives we're searching for, for want of a better word, instruments that we can use to learn how to live. You know? Whatever it is. Love is an instrument to make yourself happy.

So the "Instruments for the Solitary Navigator" is my making of a painting, because I am the solitary navigator negotiating my way in the world. And the paintings are like a slime trail left by the snail behind him.

That's why I'm still using that title, the "Solitary Navigator," because I'm still the solitary navigator. I paint alone. I live alone in my head, and I'm going to die alone, you know? And that's quite important.

Now that overarching idea for a theme enables you to take painting almost anywhere, anywhere.

Paul: I like your image of the snail trail.

Alun: Trail, that's right.

Paul: Because...and linking that to the word "navigator," because what do you think about the proposition that the works of art, the physical objects are really just the artifacts left behind...

Alun: Exactly.

Paul: a result of a process.

Alun: Absolutely. That's exactly what it is. In my opinion, that's what it is. I think, you know, you take Titian and you look at a great painting that he might have done for the Doge's Palace, wonderful decoration. But after a while, after the centuries, four centuries go by, you look at the Titian and it's a trace of Titian's life. And the Doge's Palace really didn't matter at all, you know?

I think any painter, any poet, any composer, whatever they make, they're the trails for others to follow of what it means to live a life rooted in culture, in thought, and the attempt to make something worthwhile that reflects that. That's where it comes from. That's where I hope it takes me.

Because people always say to me, "How can you keep going? You know, you haven't got a social life. You're always standing there painting, painting, painting. Don't you ever run out of steam?" And the answer to that is "No." Because the more you go in, the more you do and the more questions you ask, the less answers you get, so it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

You start with knowing everything, and you finish by knowing nothing. And that's what the painting show the trace of. Does that make sense to you?

Paul: Absolutely. Of course, you very diverse in the media that you work in, printmaking, we had mentioned already has been very important to you. To me, printmaking's very much about mark making. So would it be true to say that your printmaking explores dimensions which remain implicit in the paintings?

Alun: Yes. I think that's quite accurate. I think it's also true to extend that and say the sculpture is also implicit from the paintings. I mean, what Udo Sellbach the big influencing the printmaking would have argued that.

And Lynton Parr and Bob Klippel, both close friends, who for ten years encouraged me to do sculpture, because they kept on saying, "It's implicit in what you're making in the painting." That it's transferable across into another dimension. It took me a long time to have the nerve to do that.

Paul: Of course, you've just anticipated my next question, which is about the sculptures, which you began making, what, about 1999? Around there? Right in that period. Because they seem to me to be very implicit in the paintings, in the implied deep space and complex spatial complexity of the paintings.

Alun: Yes. Yes, that's right. There is a problem with that, because the spatial complexity suggests the real space of everything out there. When you make that illusion of the space in the painting, it provides an easy excuse for people to try and read the paintings as if they were objects from the outside world.

And it's very, very difficult to keep that sense of the abstractness with the illusion of the space, if you know what I mean.

I mean, most...a lot of abstraction goes very flat, because he wants to avoid the illusion of outside. But I've always thought I want everything. I want the implied space, but I don't want to be read in a conventional way. So that's why it's always like a puzzle. Nothing quite joins up, even though it's implying space.

But it's the space of an's an abstract space, not a figurative space...or a descriptive space. I think that's a central core that's implicit in all those other activities, in drawing, in printmaking, in sculpture, as well as the painting. And they reinforce one another and help you to solve problems.

If I'm going to make a new suite of prints, I'll think about what's going on in the painting. If I'm going to make new paintings, I think what's going on in the sculpture.

And then I look at the sculpture, maybe see the shadow and I think, "Oh, that's the shadow that can be taken over into paint, into printmaking". You know, it's an endless maze of questions with no answers which you set up for yourself.

Paul: I'd like to go back to colour...ravishing colour is what I would describe your paintings as having...ravishing colour. But also a word I stopped myself using earlier which I will now use, which I was introduced to by an old girlfriend many years ago. The French word "jouissance," which is a kind of sheer pleasure in what you're doing.

Does that word resonate for you ...when it comes in your use of colour.

Alun: Yeah, yeah. I think "ravishing," to be ravished by colour is a wonderful thought, you know? In the end, it's probably more potent than sex, because sex runs out, you know? You tire of it, but you never tired of colour! [laughs] It keeps reinventing the feeling for you. I agree with you, yeah.

I think that's a very, very...embodied in the way "ravishing" is also decoration. You just absolutely swoon by the shear lusciousness and the ravishment of the colour itself.

Paul: Which, of course, brings us back to Matisse.

Alun: Which brings us back to Matisse. I think music has it all the time, because of the abstractness of music is always ravishing. But not always in painting, because sometimes you slip over the edge and you suddenly realize you've painted something that's just like a big dumb tree or, you know, something like that.

Paul: You know, maybe we should talk just briefly about music, I mean, because you are a compulsive reader. You listen to music constantly and before we began this interview we were chatting about music.

I suggested that the spatial quality of say, early music, baroque reflected in your work. Now you seem to suggest that that might be true. Would you like to say something about that?

Alun: Well, I got that from Robert Gray, the poet, who's a friend. He wrote a text on my work quite a number of years ago. He called my paintings "baroque abstraction." He couldn't have put it better. You know, the shear love of curlicues and spaces and very, very overstated elements. All very baroque, you know? The wonderful gestures, all that sort of thing.

I've taken that to heart, and what gives me confidence to get more and more complicated in the painting is the idea of the baroque in the painting, which is a musical thing translated to the painting. And I think if you can get that sort of baroque richness and complexity of space and colour and scale, you don't need subject matter.

Baroque itself becomes the subject matter, if you know what I mean?

And Robert Gray was good at that, because being a wordsmith, being a poet, a poet I admire, for him to come up with that. He put his finger on it, just like that, you know? Whereas painters take a long time. They're not very bright. Other people see it first. [laughs]

Paul: Finally, your work is always beautifully finished. Very considered. Does this reflect the way you work? How do you, for example, approach the practice, because we've discussed this a little bit in relation to Sellbach. How do you work? What kind of a discipline is it that you have as an artist?

Alun: Well, much to my dismay in recent times, the idea of discipline, paying attention to detail, to constantly asking and inventing new questions, is the process by which I make the work.

Without the discipline, without the patience, without the attentiveness to the larger question as well as the small details, I don't think you can make a good work of art. It's integral in it. The whole thing has to have all of that.

So if you think of this picture's going to be a very complicated picture in black and red, from large forms to small forms, then you ask the question, "How do I do it and how do I shape it?" You're suddenly confronted with maybe just a section of the surface of the canvas might take weeks and weeks and weeks to resolve.

In fact, there's a big long painting behind us here, and I started it two years ago. It's going through all these transitions as I search for a more perfect form of image. That means constantly redrawing, constantly repainting. And if you don't have patience and you don't have discipline, you're never going to get there.

And I think we've settled for often short cuts in contemporary times. I don't think there are any. It's integral to the art itself, that you've got to have those things there, like patience and constancy and diligence. Picasso always said, "Talent's not enough. It's just not enough." And it's that other stuff that is enough, that makes the thing happen.

That's hard. That's really, really hard, you know? It's a lovely day. Call goes, "Let's all go out and have a lunch, you know? Have a nice afternoon." That sort of thing. You can't do that. You've just got to keep going. Life's very short, so you've just got to keep writing and keep painting.

Paul: I kind of, since you mentioned Picasso, it reminds me, I think in Roland Penrose's book on Picasso he asks Picasso about the erotic quality in his work. And Picasso replies, "But surely all art is erotic." You agree with that?

Alun: Absolutely. All art, if you can get your rocks off on it, well, then it's definitely erotic, all of them [laughs] music, literature, you know? I think that's true. No matter what the [inaudible] is, those general ideas definitely apply.

But in recent, recent times, I've come to a view where your question is highly relevant. You get to a certain age where there is really no future. You're too old to have a future. So hope, which is one of the driving forces when you're young, becomes redundant.

So when you reach that point where you can't look to the future to do work, because there is no hope, you know, you may be dead in a year or two year, you turn back to what? You turn back to discipline. You turn back to knowledge of how a thing is made, and you rework it and rework it. Like Cezanne.

So you go back and reclaim the past as the powerful engine for the future, even though there is no future. When you do that, that's when you need discipline. That's when you need concise thinking about why you do something and when and how. That requires that sort of patience and discipline.

Now I don't think that comes early. It's not a young painter's attitude. It's an older painter's attitude, who's learned through the experience that when you've run out of steam and the journey is still ahead of you, you're on your own, and the only thing you can do is to refer back to your own history. Part of that history is the discipline that made you what you are on that particular day.

Does that make sense to you?

Paul: Absolutely.

Alun Leach-Jones, thank you very much.

Alun: My pleasure.


Interviewer: Paul McGillick

Camera, lights & sound: Cameron Glendinning

Video editing: Dr. Bob Jansen

Technical & assembly: Dr. Bob Jansen