Painting After Punk: Interview with Christopher Orr

Christopher Orr discusses his show in the Talbot Rice Gallery, punk, Vermeer and Bosch

Feature by Rosie Priest | 01 Dec 2014

Christopher Orr’s first solo show in Scotland – The Beguiled Eye – highlights the work of a Scottish artist who richly composes engaging and uncanny scenes. The characters in his, often, small scale works, draws the audience in to look closer at the layers of the pictures and provides engaging and aesthetically intriguing miniature, murky and jewel like images. 

This is your first solo exhibition in Scotland: as a Scottish artist what does showing your work at the Talbot Rice Gallery mean to you?

There was a nice connection showing my work at the Talbot Rice Gallery: the gallery used to be the University's Natural History Museum where Charles Darwin visited, it also still houses a collection of Old Master paintings. The work fitted in so well with the gallery itself linking together the taxidermy and pharmacological aspects of the gallery with my work.

Your work contains a lot of found imagery – how important is found imagery, not only to the final work, but to your process?

The artistic process for me often starts with a found image. In the studio I have a large archive of books and images, and often set out looking for a specific image but stumble across something completely different. Removing these figures from their mundane surroundings and reinterpreting them and giving them a new identity from their original context is key to my working process. We also have a lot of 16-millimeter film in the studio, which we collect and project onto the walls, often over lapping films and images that create incongruous moments, and this is also a good way to create ideas, the film and photographic archives act as a sketchbook.

Often the titles of your work are references to song titles (for example Time is The Diamond referencing a song by the band Low). Does music hold a lot of significance to your practice?

When The Sex Pistols released God Save the Sex Pistols in 1971 I was ten years old, the cut and paste aesthetic as well as the punk aesthetic in general was a huge influence on me. I worked in a printers before I started at art school, where I laid out graphics by hand. It was before Photoshop made image manipulation simple, and the cut and paste practice mimicked that of the punk aesthetic: often the images would be erroneous and incongruous. I wouldn’t say that music is considered as part of my work, but it does have a place in making my work; there is always music on in the background of the studio, typically quiet electronic music and often a song will be put on repeat and become a sort of soundtrack to the art work itself.

I suppose this cut and paste aesthetic talks to the 'hand of the artist' almost – there is always evidence of your process in your final work, elements are sometimes partially erased, why is that?

A lot of my earlier works were highly finished, but the way I work now I really enjoy the mistakes, the phantoms that come out of mistakes and the process of making the work being part of the final piece. 

Your work is often small in scale, which came as a surprise to me seeing your work for the first time after having seen images of it printed, perhaps because it invokes notions of the romantic, especially in your colour palette. Why do you choose to work on such a small scale?

While studying in Dundee I was making large abstract paintings, but still using similar sources as I do now: stills from video games and sci-fi imagery for example, and out of curiosity I started to paint landscapes on wooden blocks. It just started to make sense, bringing together all of the ideas I had didn’t have to be on a large scale. Some of the art that interests me, such as some classical Flemish paintings were produced on a small scale and I liked bringing some of that influence to my work.

You seem to reference artists such as Vermeer and Bosch in your work, what is it that you find in these older works of art that interests you?

Artists like Vermeer tell a story, and the figures in his work are often very engaged in what they’re doing, which is usually an act open to interpretation: physically it is difficult to tell what the characters in his work are doing and I like the lack of objectivity towards his subjects.

The saturated hues of Kodachrome come across your work, how do you use these indications of older image making technologies?

Most of the images I source are pre 1970s, and all of these pictures tend to be in Kodachrome: there’s something very attractive about the Kodachrome aesthetic. The images I use are very staged, but not manipulated (using Photoshop etc) or particularly stylized. Taking these very staged images and re-staging them in paintings and utilising their colors suits my palette, which has developed over the years to almost imitate Kodachrome.

Christopher Orr's exhibition The Beguiled Eye is open until 14 February 2015