Interviews with Artists

Mikey Cuddihy



Jeremy Akerman: AD

Eileen Daly: ED

Mikey Cuddihy: MC


22 March 2014, Lewes, East Sussex



JA: Within your paintings there is a lot of writing, perhaps you could start by talking about that.


MC: Yes, it goes back quite a long way to the early days of showing my work where I didn’t physically include writing but I would write short narrative pieces that ran alongside the work. I had a show at Riverside Studios in the 1980s with Helen Chadwick and Annette Messager; I wrote a piece for that show. The show was reviewed by Michael Newman. He praised my writing, which I was really thrilled about. At that point I was showing these pieces that had oversized objects floating around, printed on a background of wallpaper with fish and bricks on it, that I pieced into large wall-sized paintings or backdrops. I made lots of drawings of domestic objects: knives, forks, tin openers, jugs, spoons, high heels. I projected them and painted them out again in a sort of Patrick Caulfield style. These were juxtaposed with doodled images of women’s faces and sometimes my own body outline as well. With that work I also wrote a piece about my childhood, which people were quite intrigued by. That set up a precedent in a way, and so when I showed my work I could write a little bit about myself in a narrative way. A lot of the writing was about my childhood.


JA: Was the writing shown alongside the painting or was it in the catalogue?


MC: We produced a leaflet so the writing was in there. Not long after that I showed at the ICA, in the concourse. I showed a piece called A Bed of Roses (1985). Again I wrote a piece for the catalogue, again in an autobiographical, kind of mildly poetic way. It wasn’t to explain the work. The following year I was given the opportunity to show in a space in south London called Unit 7 that was run by Nicky Oxley and Nicolas de Oliveira. They gave me the chance to work in this old luggage factory for a month. I decided I’d make work in the space. At that point I was only working from doodles so I wasn’t using objects at all. I was working from things I wrote down when I was on the telephone. I did this really technical, for me, thing where I photographed some drawings, doodles, and put them on a slide, hired a slide projector and enlarging lens and worked with the images, hugely enlarged, on the walls of the space. And what happened was that some of the images had text in them, they were fragmented and could be taken out of context. There was this one phrase, ‘4 chairs 4 Francois’. That became the title of the show. Then I borrowed four chairs and put them in the space. The text was from a conversation that I’d obviously been having with a friend, I jotted this note down. I think that’s the approach I’ve often used with my doodles; I almost use them as if they’re found text, they’re throwaway.


JA: Is that also related to memory, in that when you come across them you don’t know what the fragments are referring to? What once was important is remembered again, but in a different place?


MC: Yes, I think that’s true. What happened with that piece was I also had some other texts that had lists and things and because I was using a slide projector I was able to reverse imagery as well so the text had a calligraphic, decorative presence but it couldn’t actually be read. I became interested in the handwriting as well.


ED: Do you think there’s a writing that’s more like drawing then? Before it gets structured into writing?


MC: Yes, absolutely. I think for me that urge to write things down is incredibly close to drawing; I’ll pick up the thing that’s closest to hand like a biro usually and the back of an envelope. I always have pens and pencils with me and bits of paper, so when I’m moving around I can write things. Because always whenever I’m away and in a landscape or something I tend to write about it.


ED: Is that linked to anxiety, that fear of forgetting?


MC: What, the writing down? I don’t know. I think it’s something to do with identity. I had this experience when I was a child actually that I wrote about for 4 Chairs for Francois where I was staying as a guest in a house. I didn’t have any parents and in the holidays would be farmed out to different people. I was in this lovely bedroom and there was an embroidered linen cloth on the bedside table. I had an old penny and I had a biro. I thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like to draw round that penny onto the white linen?’ I went all over it, I drew round and round this old penny and thought, ‘That’s great’. Then the woman the next day was like, ‘Who could have done this? Who did that?’ I was horrified and of course I didn’t own up. In a way there was that impulse to make these marks. I think it has a lot to do with material as well, the seductive quality of materials.


JA: If you used a sketchbook for drawing, did you ever write in that as well?


MC: All the time. More and more over the years, the sketchbooks have got filled with writing about my work, slightly diaristic but always referencing my work.


JA: When you say always about your work, do you mean you were writing about what you happened to be working on in the studio?


MC: Yes, and so less about my emotional state than actually what was happening in that space. I mean things like, ‘Here I am back in the studio after whatever,’ but not going into it.


ED: Okay, so how did that morph into actually thinking about writing a story?


MC: Yes, that’s interesting. I think in my 30s I got much more into reading. Again, I travelled a bit. Always when I travel I seem to write things down that I thought had a resonance, that seemed to work as things on their own. They turned into poems. At the time I was living with someone who was a poet and a writer so he was quite encouraging. I sent a few poems away to things, nothing ever happened. I also had an uncle who was a poet philosopher. I used to write to him and he used to write to me. He would write back and say, ‘I love the way you use adverbs (sporadically, initially, finally); entire lines of handwriting shift in place like waves, breaking on the beach at Watermill’. He was very encouraging actually about my work but also about the writing. Little Black Dress was my first short story. It’s about my mum and as a child I remember seeing her lying in a coffin wearing her favourite black dress. It starts off with this young woman who goes to a shop and tries on a little black dress that’s a bit too expensive but she buys it anyway. She realises it reminds her of a dress that her mother had worn. Something made me write about that experience, actually of buying a dress.


JA: Would you offer the idea of writing something to whoever was organising or curating the show?


MC: I don’t know. I mean I think it hasn’t happened. The last few shows there would be someone else to write the introduction. That could be because the work now has quite a lot of text in it. I think after those narrative pieces I became interested in making paintings again anyway. I was quite dissatisfied with just making work that was made on the walls of a gallery and then you go back home and don’t have anything. I began to make these paintings, again always working from doodles made when I was on the telephone. Then I made the Bella painting, which has the name ‘Bella’ painted on it. That’s when I became interested in the conversations that I might have been having at the time, so they’d be named after the person I’d been speaking to when I made the doodle, such as ‘Aimee in Galashiels’ or ‘Katherine, Veiled’. The paintings became coloured in a way by the personalities. Then I went on to make the nameplate paintings. That’s when I began to insert actual pieces of text, from the notepads that I was using, in a decorative way. There were these fragments, they weren’t telling a story really. The painting would be named after something in the text, like Don’t I Know Myself (1998) and What I Said (1998). I wasn’t really considering the content of the texts. Because they were just fragments I thought people wouldn’t be that interested in reading them. But when I showed the paintings, people would go up and scrutinise these bits of handwriting and think, ‘Gosh she’s talking about an abortion, about a miscarriage here. How can she put that there?’


JA: The markings are very calligraphic. If they’re from doodles as well, it is that pen on paper thing that, as you’ve talked about, is very close to writing.


ED: Yes, those ones come a lot closer to writing because of their mark making. Also they’re quite fleshy as well aren’t they, a fleshy writing. How far do you have to go in the other direction then to get away from that if you want to just make an image with no words on it?


MC: I’m more drawn to these earlier pieces again because they don’t have any text. There is something ‘done’ about them. You can enter into them in a different way. These little figurative ones link into how I was writing because the writing is based on my own experience and memory, to a large extent, but also from notes, and from the diaries I might have kept. I became interested in the sketchbooks that I kept for years and years. I made a little series of paintings from drawings that I’d made in the 1970s. I’m quite interested in that idea of using drawing as note-taking that I might go back to and put into the present, into a painting.


JA: Maybe you can say something about autobiography and your writing because although you sometimes use the third person, very much it seems that the stories are obviously very close to your own life, and yet they read as fiction. Do you see them as memoir or autobiography or fiction?


MC: I’m still a bit confused. I’ve been writing this memoir based on childhood [A Conversation About Happiness, 2014], but what I’ve been doing is going back and recreating conversations or re-dramatising things and making things up actually. For instance I wrote this narrative about my sister as a child. She’s lying on the couch in my uncle’s apartment in New York City, with her feet on her boyfriend’s lap, reading this book that had just come out called Summerhill written by A.S. Neill. That’s the school that we were sent to eventually. This never happened but I have her reading things out from the book and saying, ‘Listen to this, God!’ I sent the text to my sister and she said, ‘Well, I guess it never happened but I can absolutely imagine it.’ You’re recreating this thing that probably didn’t happen but it fleshes it out somehow. I think maybe it was like that with the paintings that I’ve made, the teenager paintings and the paintings taken from drawings I made in the 1970s, you’re repainting it or fleshing it out into something.


JA: Is it trying to keep memories alive or keep them very present?


MC: Keeping them present rather than past. I’ve been working out what memoir writing I like. I mean I like a variety of things. There might have been something by Nathalie Sarraute, she wrote a book called Childhood. It’s terribly fragmented and doesn’t have a strong narrative but it’s wonderfully written and evocative. Then on the other hand I really like Janice Galloway’s writing where there’s a real story, people are having proper conversations. You think, ‘How does she remember that?’ But she’s recreating, dramatising, as in This Is Not About Me, and All Made Up. Similarly Karl Ove Knausgård’s painstaking detail of his life in his six volume memoir My Struggle. Sheila Heti (I love her writing) interviewed him for The London Review of Books. When she asked him about a detailed scene he describes from his boyhood – his mother scrubbing potatoes at the sink – Heti was terribly disappointed when he said he ‘made it up’. But this doesn’t mean his memoir isn’t ‘true’.


JA: In the short stories though you write a lot about the art world in the 1980s and 1990s and sometimes you name the people that were around and other times you don’t. Does that bother you at all that you’re writing about things in the recent past where there are people still living who have their own memories of those experiences you may be writing about?


MC: Yes, it is quite hard but I have quite a lot of fun changing names sometimes as well. But yes, I do worry about upsetting people. I think maybe if it comes to it with a few things I might go, ‘Oh hang on a minute, maybe not’.


ED: Do you think that the writing makes the space for something missing in the painting?


MC: I think what I like about the writing, what’s been a lot more practical for me as well is that you don’t need a space to write. I think that’s been an issue for me in recent years. I haven’t had as much time and I can write in fragments and bring it together, working with all those fragments that you’ve gathered up. I think the thing with painting is you have to physically have a space. Time wise you need big swathes of time. On the other hand, what I found with the memoir and the stories as well is that you think, ‘Will this ever be finished? Will it ever be complete?’ because there are so many versions of a thing, or it had a different beginning one day and then it changes the next. What I like with paintings is that they have their own autonomy somehow. They are things. They are these objects. In my case some of them are huge objects and you think, ‘Why did I do that?’ Then on the other hand what I love about a painting is that sense of scale, ambition and crazy impracticality. The whole space, material thing, is completely different.


JA: Quite often we’ve looked at trying to make connections between the visual and textual. I think that most artists either immediately identify it and say something towards it, or just don’t bother about it. I think there is something about this question of what’s able to be described in the writing which sometimes a painting can’t fulfil. Then there is this other problem of the image in writing that painting can fulfil. That seems to be the dynamic between them and seems to be borne out in your work. Like some of the underwear drawings, for example, which are almost like writing because they’re in biro. It’s a writing of the flesh, isn’t it, everything is like bunches of grapes, very fleshy and sensuous. Most of the shapes in your work are sensuous shapes and in the writing there’s quite a lot of detail about human interaction and human relations.


ED: I think the writing has quite a strong visual quality to it, not just purely description but somehow writing an atmosphere which seems to be akin to something that’s visual.


JA: Do you have any rules for writing, for how you go about your day-to-day writing? Is there a routine?


MC: I guess there is, yes. I’ll sit in the front room in the morning when the sun comes in with a coffee and write a few things out by hand. Later in the day, I’ll go upstairs, put the computer on. I have a pile of bits of paper, scribbling and things to work from. Often, if I’m stuck, going for a walk or a swim – even a bus ride – helps bring ideas back into place. There is no real pattern, as I tend to work at night as well. In the evening I’ll have something to eat and then go upstairs and do some more work.


ED: You’ve written in a number of different forms – there are obviously the fragments that ended up being part of the paintings and drawings. Then when you started writing the short stories, they’re all fairly short, maybe less than 1,000 words and now the memoir. Do you prefer the short form?


MC: I find short stories quite hard actually. Something that kept me going for a while was sending stories away to competitions and things. They often have a word count. I quite like that, you must have between 1,900 and 2,010 words or something like that. It can’t be over, it can’t be under. And your Flash 500, I had three stories that I looked at that were over the 500 words, which needed to be cut down. I quite like that constraint. How can you keep a story working with this small amount of words? Fragile Girl, the story that you included, is a story that I developed after a visit to another town with a friend, who was visiting her friends. Because I didn’t know the people very well, I was an outsider, so I observed them. The story was pretty short when I first wrote it, but I enjoyed cutting it down, and still keeping the essence of the story. In fact, I think it was better cut down.


ED: Do you get someone to edit your work? Do you show anyone your work?


MC: With the memoir I’ve been working with my agent, Jemima Hunt; who’s also a great editor. She’s really helpful. I’m not showing the stories to people as much but I tend to read things out loud to myself. Then I print them out and it can change completely when you print it out. I change the size of the text when I’m working on it from 12 point to 14 point; I do all kinds of things to get a ‘fresh eye’. It’s very hard to get people to read your work, that’s something that I’ve found. It’s really different to painting because for someone to actually read something written, it takes a lot of work on their part. There is that expectation that you want some feedback as well. I love having feedback – it’s crucial. It’s much more necessary with writing because people always talk about the voice or hearing it.


ED: I think the voice is the key thing, keeping the voice throughout the whole piece. Obviously with the longer work it’s more of a challenge to sustain. And as the writing is strongly autobiographical I’m interested in how you make a choice to use first or third person.


MC: I started out writing in the third person because I was pretending I was writing a novel I think. Then I sent out some really early drafts of the novel, which is now the memoir, to a couple of agents and the agent Pat Kavanagh wrote back. I sent her three chapters and she whispered over it with a pencil and corrected things. She said something like, ‘I love the writing but you’re not quite there yet. Is it memoir?’ I thought, ‘What is she saying? Okay, well if it sounds like a memoir, put it in the first person’. That’s when I changed it. I think that’s when everything changed actually. There’s something about the third person I do quite like because it creates distance, like you hold the thing at arm’s length in a way to be maybe more descriptive or filmic, whereas when you’re writing in the first person you’re there, in the action. The way I’ve been writing for the memoir in the first person present, I start out as a ten year old. It’s a bit like progression therapy actually sometimes – ‘I’m ten years old. I’m sitting on my mother’s bed with her jewellery’. Early on in this process, Brighton – where I was teaching, contributed towards a creative writing course, with the Arvon Foundation. That was a wonderful experience. It was the first time people who didn’t know my world actually read my writing. The tutors – a poet and a novelist – said that they could ‘see my world’ and that felt great – like an affirmation.


JA: Would you still do exhibitions where you have a piece of text in some of the pictures like you did that first time?


MC: Well funnily enough I’ve been writing about my work in a slightly different way. Actually I’ve been writing about making it, how I make it or how I have made it. It’s in a slightly more emotional, narrative way. I’m quite interested in doing that. Something else in the writing that has happened is that I’ve written a couple of essays about other people’s work, written in a short story format. The writing has entered into the visual in that way as well.


ED: There was that piece that you did for the exhibition Driven, which was a photograph and a story shown side by side.


MC: That was a show at Fieldgate Gallery in Whitechapel in 2007. Everyone made work about cars and I wrote a short story about my mother’s Packard, a convertible. I had it stapled together and made into a booklet so that people could take copies of it. My sister had found a photograph of me as a child in front of the car. I’ve used photographs a lot as prompts for writing.


ED: What authors do you read or what are you currently reading?


MC: I’ve read a lot of memoir recently. The things that I happen to have read this year have been memoirs written in the voices of children. There is a wonderful book that I’ve read recently by Irmgard Keun called Child of All Nations. She was German and it’s written during the Second World War in Europe. It’s just great. I love that. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud is probably closest in mood to my own memoir.


JA: What artists are you looking at? Do you see any contemporary people out there, writers? I mean there are more of them now.


MC: One of my favourite artists, Emma Talbot. There is definitely a story in her work. She tends to use text sometimes. I happened to buy a piece, one of her watercolours from Transition Gallery. There is just something about her work. It’s figurative but it’s very, very pared down. It’s quite cartoony. It’s got a real poignancy because it’s got a lot about loss and death and sadness and heartbreak in it. I love it, love her work. Louise Stern, an artist who also writes, and who is completely deaf. She had three stories on the radio in 2013: The Deaf School, Window Washer and Black and White Dog. She’s American, published by Granta. Chattering is a lovely book of short stories I had from her last year.


ED: You teach at the University of Brighton, what about the students, are they interested in writing and the visual? Do you see anything coming through in what they’re doing?


MC: Yes, I do have some who use text. We’ve got one third year who is trying to work out the relationship between text and image in her work. Some of them write as well. Last year the university, with a couple of other universities were publishing a literary magazine, and they wanted people to send things in. We got some work in that and the students were really encouraged.


ED: Is there anything else you want to say about your writing?


MC: I think what writing has done for me is that it has given me a voice that I hadn’t had, or that I felt I hadn’t had with painting, because with painting someone else always speaks for you. There has always been that issue with the paintings, that there is a story behind them that’s wanting to be read or told. I think that’s been hugely important actually.



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