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Never Introduce Yourself at a Bar as an Artist

by Sean O’Toole / 11.05.2011

Look for the lightning, he says. So I do. But I don’t find it. Eventually, after a couple of left and right turns in a warehouse space off Roeland Street, in central Cape Town, I find the door. The two orange motifs on the door don’t look like lightning. I knock. Ian Grose, 26, answers. He looks different to how I had imagined. Thinner. His studio is small but airy, on the disciplined edge of untidy, its walls decorated with photos and art ephemera. There is a logic to the way the wall is decorated, a schema, but I don’t ask. Grose’s paintings, which generated a lot of chatter when they first went on show at the Michaelis School of Fine Art’s graduate show last year, they’re here too. Their dissolving realness and muted palette make you look harder at what is being portrayed. An unmade bed. A dun landscape. Lindsay Lohan, two of her. She looks down at me as I quiz the painter. He was born in Joburg. We talk about growing up in Bryanston, traffic, moving to Cape Town aged 12, starting a new life, a new school, Rondebosch Boys’ High. Start tape.

Ian Grose

Mahala: You mentioned earlier that you were one of artist Andrew Putter’s many protégés. When did you meet him at Rondebosch?

Ian Grose: When I started doing graphic design, which was 2001.

Was he a legend at the school?

My brother, who is two years older than me, was in his class. His class included Rowan Smith and a few people who became quite involved in the Cape Town art scene. And I suppose I was looking at this activity happening two years ahead of me and I was quite keen to kind of get involved in it.

But you didn’t come from an artistic family?

Not at all.

So what were you doing to manifest your creativity?

I made little films.

Were you using online software?

Well in those days software was pretty basic so we were using analogue cameras, well sort of home video cameras. They were pretty crap in terms of quality and resolution.

Narrative films or just experimental things?

Narrative and experimental.

Narrative like a school play filmed?

Well, there was a narrative but at that time it was pretty obscure. No dialogue.

Was this for you or for projects for school?

It was for myself but I managed to submit it for my graphic design portfolio, which was pretty cool.

And, the experimental stuff: were you filming skateboarders or was it truly experimental?

I actually did film skateboarders but in a certain kind of narrative. I was about seventeen/ eighteen at the time.

Was it something that you wanted to follow up on when you left school?

Yeah. In High School I was thinking “I’m either going to go to film school or study literature” – I’m glad I didn’t go to film school.

What prompted you not to?

The quality of film schools in Cape Town.

So you enrolled at UCT?

I had a gap year where I wanted to consolidate these certain threads of production – painting and filmmaking in particular – and then after that I enrolled in UCT.

During the time of Steven Watson?

Yeah. I actually took a seminar with him and he introduced me to [Jorge Luis] Borges, which became fully influential too.

Ian Grose, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Translator of Borges
Ian Grose, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Translator of Borges, 2010

I see you have a Borges work on your Blank Projects show, a portrait of his one translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. [Sounds of paper shuffling] I’ll come to Borges, but first I want to ask this. Is painting a lonely profession?

I think so but in a good way.

[Sounds of paper shuffling] Okay, so I wrote out this Borges quote from 1934, when he broke off his relationship with his lover.

Well he had quite a few relationships, which he then broke off.

He wrote this: “I ask myself anxiously, where am I? And I realized I didn’t know. I thought, who am I? And I couldn’t say. I was filled with fear. I thought: this disconsolate wakefulness already is hell, this pointless wakefulness will be my eternity.” A beautiful piece. What draws you to Borges?

At first it was because I didn’t have the attention span for novels. He has these cryptic short stories – the name ‘short stories’ doesn’t even seem to apply – I suppose his little thought experiments and his paradoxes. It’s the conjunction of poetry and philosophy. I don’t really know of anyone who mixes the two fields successfully.

He is such a reference point, across disciplines. I know a lot of artists who like him. Anyway, I want to talk to you about wakefulness – “pointless wakefulness” and “disconsolate wakefulness”. I’m just wondering, when you’re standing in front of a canvas painting, is it a process of becoming wakeful, or is it more meditative and dreamy?

For many years I described the process as meditative. I was doing these commission portraits and people asked me if it was boring painting some picture of the son of a rich person. The word boring never really entered into my mind, so I would describe it as meditative. Now painting is pretty much different because I can’t really just switch off and go on autopilot.

Because wakefulness, to me, implies an alertness, even if it’s disconsolate.

There is a very exhausting alertness that is involved when I paint.

What is it an alertness to – Is it things around you? Experiences? A Sensation? Is it just purely visual alertness?

On a simple level its just alertness to the picture I’m working from. I found that I can never become alert to a picture in a sense that I cannot become more alert and learn more about it, even if it’s just the simplest little picture from a magazine.

Back to UCT, you were paying some of your tuition fees by doing commissioned portraits.

Well not tuition but I was paying my lifestyle fees.

How many portraits did you do during that phase?

Not many, I never advertised. Things just sort of came to me from word of mouth.

Were they fairly realist portraits?

Oh yeah. Here’s one of them.

It’s very photorealist.

Well that one in particular, the family was very keen on photorealism, and I was happy to oblige. Now I don’t think I could do that.

Did you work from a sitter or did you take photographs?


This obvious facility you have to paint photorealist portraits, was it always there?

It developed. I made some shocking paintings years ago. But I usually made shocking paintings when I was trying to get away from the photograph, and I made some pretty shocking attempts at photorealism. It took a few years to develop.

Where are those shocking examples?

I’m not sure actually. In fact I was throwing them away and then a friend of mine salvaged them; he owns them, but I don’t know where they’ve gone actually.

What made you decide after you’d finished your B.A to go to art school, because clearly you could have done this as a career or as a lucrative sidebar to a different career.

It was never very fulfilling, in that it wasn’t unfulfilling and I do actually quite like some of the portraits I made, but for each of them I had to be asking myself a certain question with regards to paint and images and I set myself certain challenges with each portrait. The last ones I did were in 2009 and by that stage I had to seriously force myself through these paintings because I had answered the questions already and they weren’t challenging. I knew from the start actually that it couldn’t have been a career.

Ian Grose, Eschew - A Shoe (From Homophone Series)
Ian Grose, Eschew – A Shoe (From Homophone Series), 2010

You enrolled in a post-graduate diploma at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Why?

I had a certain facility as a painter and then I wanted to go to art school and turn that.

To corrupt it.

To corrupt that facility and become an artist. I put myself on the fast track and then I didn’t want to do a Masters because I would’ve ended up there for three years, which I thought was too long. So I took a year to try and figure out what my inclinations were and my own interests and how to articulate these things with paint.

How did you resolve it? By blurring things? Let’s take a concrete example, say the Lindsay Lohan mug shot portraits on the show. There are two very distinct portraits of her in prison orange jumpsuits. If I look at the one, it’s very crisp, very graphic, but with the other I get a sense that the portrait subject is beginning to dissolve.

I suppose the first thing to say about these ones is that I found these images and I thought they were remarkably successful portraits. It was quite disheartening because I had spent a few years trying to make successful portraits and I felt that these were doing a better job than I did. The photographic images. Something about them, they looked painterly, which was surprising given the context in which they were produced. They really struck me. What I wanted to do and why I ended up painting them is that I was thinking a lot about taking images and reproducing them. And taking a different path in reproducing them. And ending up at pretty much the same place, in that there is a higher degree of likeness, whereas the photographic pictures were produced in this certain context of police or bureaucracy, probably under a climate of antagonism or fear or whatever. I was taking the pictures through this different route by taking them into a studio and reproducing them in this painterly mode, which I had associated with this certain fascination and this certain love of something. And then ending up in the same place and seeing if the final product’s meaning is altered by its history of coming into being.

Where did you find those portraits? On the net or in some physical form?

On the internet.

Ian Grose, Lindsay
Ian Grose, Lindsay, 2010

Why were you looking at Lindsay Lohan?

I was looking for a mug shot of Mischa Barton, which I’d seen in a magazine. I didn’t know which actress it was and came across the Lohan portraits. I thought they were successful.

Google’s images are fairly small. Did you have to try and find larger versions or did you use the thumbnail?

I used the thumbnail, really bad jpeg, which is why the colours go strangely saturated.

The pixels almost dematerialize.

Exactly. I quite like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary idiom of painting. A lot of the time I’m blurring things because these marks seem just too traditional and I prefer to just rub them off. But in terms of that jpeg, that certain handing of colour, I’ve tried to sort of emulate that in painting.

Your Blank Projects exhibition will present work from your Michaelis graduate exhibition. There are two works missing, a pair of unmade beds. An unmade bed is a recurring subject in photography. What’s your interest in it?

I would get home at night and be confronted with my bed and bed sheet.

You make it sound very menacing, to be confronted by an unmade bed. You felt guilt at not making your bed?

[Chuckles] I would see my bed sheet – maybe it was the light, or maybe it was because I’d spent the day looking at art history books – but it always strongly evoked this whole art history tradition of drapery and sheets, the reclining nude and all the kind of sumptuous drapery that surrounds this reclining nude.

It’s strange how it becomes a point of observation for viewers and critics. I know with Deborah Poynten, some people say, “Wow, she paints curtain really well!” I’m sure she doesn’t want people looking at her paintings obsessing over the curtains, you know, it’s the figure.

I’d probably look at the curtains too. I suppose you are supposed to look at everything.

Ian Grose, Just Cause You Feel It Doesn't Mean It's There
Ian Grose, Just Cause You Feel It Doesn’t Mean It’s There, 2010

Let’s talk about all the dealer courtship that followed your graduate show.

It wasn’t unanticipated, in fact, it was quite strongly hoped for. I was thinking that if I don’t have dealer courtship then there’s a problem. I dealt with it by picking the best gallery to show my work. I’m pretty reluctant to stick to a gallery at the moment. I don’t want to become part of a stable or anything since I still feel I’m very young and I have a lot of ideas to get through and clarify for myself.

You also participated on a group show at the Goodman Gallery. It comes with its own very daunting reputation. Was it cool? Not cool?

It was great. At the moment I’m honestly trying to be on as many group shows as I can. For that show in particular they’re experimenting with using their storage area as an exhibition space. They offered the opportunity to a number of different emerging artists.

Sounds like a dirty word, “emerging”.

Emerging, yeah. It’s been coming up a lot lately.

There are many painters but one doesn’t get the sense that there is much conversation around painting in South Africa. It’s just an activity that individuals do. There’s no sort of big discussion around different trends and that. You see Penny Siopis try to kind of create debate and that. Is that something that would interest you, or does it not matter that there’s no public conversation?

Obviously I’d prefer that there were more people talking about painting. More lively debate.

What about in your circle of friends? Are there any painters?

I’m good friends with Georgina Gratrix. We talk about painting a lot.

Do you lend her all your bright colours?

Well I wouldn’t actually lend her anything. Because it would come back destroyed. I’m friends with her and Linda Stupart.

How do those conversations help your work? They are both people that I think spend a lot of time thinking about art.

I was alarmed when I realised that people can be artists and yet be in a completely different world. You can be a figurative painter working in the same city as another figurative painter who is your friend and the conversations that you are having in your work can be completely divorced from your friend’s conversations. But still I have to remain convinced that these painting need to happen otherwise if that starts waning then there’s no point in carrying on. If you see a painting as a certain line of a conversation that happens throughout history then lots of the people I’m talking to or talking about, I’m being quite explicit in mentioning them. So there quite a clear line you can trace back. But these people are mostly dead and they’re mostly European.


Edouard Manet is a big one, Degas, Richter, photographers. This could just evolve into me talking about my influences.

It’s a question that one tries to avoid.


Ian Grose, Boris On A Snowy Path Without Boris
Ian Grose, Boris On A Snowy Path Without Boris, 2010

On one level being a South African painter is a very difficult thing because one’s encounter of pictures is often as reproductions, not as fact, and they look very different when you see them. Is that something that you’re very aware of?

The work behind you, which is a reproduction of a Manet. I’m explicitly trying to deal with this sort of situation, of being a South Africa who encounters this tradition of painting almost always by reproduction. These works exist on a pretty small scale. Mostly in a book. Mostly completely flat and texture-less. Something you can sort of hold in your hand.

Pretty much like how one consumes a celebrity like Lohan. They just exist as pictures. Do you have a business card?


My question actually is at what point did you start calling yourself a painter as opposed to a student?

Probably a few months ago. Definitely not artist, never artist. You never want to introduce yourself at a bar as an artist.

You sound like you had bad luck with that when you did once introduce yourself. What happened?

Terrible. I’ve actually just kept away from that name.

You make painter sound respectable.

I think something about its specificity makes it excusable.

Is it the difference between saying I’m a writer versus a novelist or a poet.

Yeah, well saying you’re a poet, that’s very tricky. But yeah a few months ago when it became clear that I can do this fulltime then I started calling myself a painter in bars.

Does it at least come with some form of remuneration or pay check?

Yeah. I’m still waiting to sell these works and it’s been pretty tough, financially. I’ve sat on them for a few months now.

So Lindsay will finally get to go to wherever she wants to go.

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