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Charles Avery, interview 

by Marie Maertens

I read that you were sent down from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art in London because you wanted to devote yourself entirely to the medium of drawing while your teachers found that you already knew how to draw very well, even too well. Is this true?   

Yes, to which I replied that you can never draw well enough and that I didn’t consider drawing merely as a medium. I didn’t want to stop practicing it because I had a very definite idea about what I wanted to realize and felt that I had to construct my drawings even better. This became a sort of obsession for me. But then again, this wasn’t the only reason why my teachers asked me to leave the school…    

What seemed so attractive to you about drawing?

In my view, it’s the most direct source of expression and one where it is possible to add a notion of time. By this I mean that drawing fosters the capacity to transform things very quickly by giving them a temporality other than the one in real life. And finally, this is work which as always attracted me. I still remember the little drawings by Picasso that I had discovered at the age of six and whose economy of means seemed very appealing to me. These days, I am not the kind of artist who does the rounds of exhibitions and is in the know of what’s happening, but I like the fact that drawing remains very egalitarian and accessible. From the moment that you feel the desire to draw, all you have to do is to get down to it, without the slightest preparation, whilst every other medium requires so much more. Drawing satisfies questions of immediateness and urgency that I could compare to the practice of writing, also a very direct medium. Even though my drawings demand, via the means I am currently employing, a much greater investment on my part.  

Very early on, you implemented the project The Island, an island allowing you to transcribe your whole universe. How did this come to you?   

In fact, I had been thinking about this project since the beginning of the 2000s but, without doubt, the idea had germinated earlier on, then I made the first works in 2004. I created The Island because I needed a place to store my ideas. I was already drawing a lot and taking part in exhibitions, but I needed to include my interest in mathematics and philosophy in my work. I like to write and I felt the necessity of connecting it all together, therefore of creating a space to develop those ideas from which I recreated a system. That might seem a bit naive but I also imagined a State which would allow me to construct political analogies. When you are a young artist, sometimes you think you’re the first to have such and such an idea, but have you noticed, what is amusing is that the instant you make a piece, there is always someone who will say to you: “It’s good but you should take a look at the work of so and so who has done something a bit similar…” So, you see that every problem has already been treated and that’s why I say to myself: “It doesn’t matter that the question of evolution comes down to Darwin. Perhaps, he was the one who started it but that shouldn’t stop me.”  

You talk about politics but do you feel a kind of commitment? Indeed, some critics have linked your work with William Kentridge’s in particular…   

I like him a lot, but he is much more connected than I am to very specific contemporary political problems, especially to do with South Africa. Even though he’s a fantastic artist, my questions prove to be more general and I deal with more global subjects on colonization or governmental issues. The fiction of The Island goes beyond specific economic cycles and in my reflection, one point leads to another. For instance, I can talk about industrialization but I am not so involved in current affairs as I create more of a framework or a backdrop. Some critics have also made the parallel between my island and the political situation in Scotland, something that I have never thought about seriously as my ambition in that project is to create a structure where I can deal the cards which can then be read in different ways.  

In fact, you create a very personal world and I was wondering if it might include the viewer in its various interpretations or if it distances him in some way?

I am always struggling against a total structure because it is not just about a set of drawings that I fill up or that I slip into by adding details. The structure is like a State for me and perhaps finally all of that world I am imagining will end in a very short story…. I don’t know it myself in spite of the great amount of research I carry out. 

Your reflection is really identical to a writer’s…    

Totally, moreover I feel very close to that process of creation. I like authors who include their daily life in their projects, which can be quite realistic with numerous details, because sometimes something tremendous suddenly emerges! My process is similar, even though I can’t describe everything in detail and I need to leave some forms unfinished so that I can then focus on certain other elements. I realise more and more that if everything is done with too much precision, you no longer see anything. The hunter character, who is my main protagonist, represents the one via whom we progressively enter The Island. He is both the author and the onlooker, the one who discovers and identifies that world, in a half-way position, simultaneously passive and active.  

You talk about a touch that can turn out to be light every now and then, but isn’t this also a means of giving the sheet of paper energy?    

This would mean that the unfinished state is lighter than the finished one, which would be more associated with substance… But, in fact, I think that not finishing a drawing adds more energy, and not totally completing it is deliberate on my part as this allows me to let things escape me in a certain way. Then that begs the question of knowing at what moment the work is finished and I like that element of freedom. Lately, I have tried to add even more vitality and I alternate incomplete phrases with very elaborate details. But this is also due to the fact that I take a lot of photos of my drawings that I carefully scrutinize before starting again. It’s like making a study the other way around, giving me a fresh approach. Generally speaking, I begin with a detail then move on towards larger elements before coming back to more precise things.    

Does that mean that part of your work is also very intuitive or do you consider things as a whole in this world you create before picking up your pencils?   

It’s a little bit of both, because I can start off with a micro-detail from where the drawing unravels even though at the same time it always remains an orchestrated and deliberate part. As I work alone, most of what I show comes from my imagination and not after a life model or after nature. The people in my drawings are all invented which also leads me also to imagine the relationships and passions existing between them, such as love or hate, therefore the shapes come by themselves. If we wish to pursue the parallel with writing, it’s like grabbing a notebook and taking notes.   

Is your drawing narrative in your view? 

It’s certainly not linear, even if it relates to the global story of the island. A path is drawn so that we can wander through the island, which also requires an ending that we don’t necessarily recognize when we are on the inside… The island regroups objects and spaces, but what seems to be the end can lead to another place, allowing us to understand the general structure. For me, the narrative touch is quite light, even though I write a lot about what may define the island. I do it inwardly or put it on paper because I need to capture my ideas and writing can sometimes appear to me as the most direct form of expression.   

You have also created your own avatar on this island… 

I suppose it’s the hunter’s… At the outset, I wanted this character to be without a gender either, therefore both man and woman, but that wasn’t possible. So, in its place I also conceived its opposite on the island, Miss Miss, who forms an impossible attraction with the hunter and represents everything he is not.   

Do you think that this project is going to continue throughout your entire career? 

Indeed, it does seem to me that I will realize this Island project right to the end and that there are no other parallels in my work. Since I’ve been focused on it, when I draw a chair, it’s a chair from the Island. Everything belongs to a particular categorization of the island and of its beliefs. I have even imagined an exhibition with artworks which really exist in order to play even more on the idea that it is not totally imaginary but just another space. This allows me to accentuate the duality between reality and fiction. While continuing, as from the outset, to want to create a State dedicated to all these reflections connected together and to regularly return to the archaeology of that system.   

What is interesting is that we are talking a lot about new realities or virtual realities, in particular with today’s computer tools…  

Indeed, whilst I propose something completely different. I suppose that when I created The Island, the main idea was to refer myself to a specific timelessness and distance myself from technology which implies obsolescence. So, I imagined structures allowing each person to conceive their own. I don’t seek to convince but to develop the possibility of feeling things on different levels. Whilst virtual reality is more about physical perception, I call more upon intellectual reception. There again, I go back to the fact that I believe in the simplicity of the drawing, which when it is well made allows the public to become totally involved. As for me, I am a great admirer of cartoons but also of caricatures or sketches like the ones we see in The New Yorker, with controlled lines going straight to the essential.   

Can we talk about the way you use colour which also turns out to be quite restricted in its use…

Yes, but there again it wasn’t deliberate, even though in the beginning I didn’t work with colour at all, whilst today I have incorporated it into my drawings. I use it in order to attract attention to such and such a place on the paper or to add substance. Then, I admit that one colour can lead to another, so I progress slowly in my palette, but that brings more immediateness and texture to the Island’s conception. I began to think about things more in colour, even though you can’t colour everything, but it can also be useful for creating flat zones and adding contrast between the various parts of the work.  

For that matter, wouldn’t this become more of a painting if you were too focused on colour?  

Yes, even if I situate myself more beyond the question of mediums in my approach. I know that what I make is called drawing but for me this type of work should not refer to what is in front of you, but echo some other place, a different architectural plan or anything that is outside of the moment or the present time. In my case, it is therefore a fictional place leading well beyond its own object.   

You, yourself come from an Island in Scotland. Do you think that this had an influence on the creation of your imaginary island?   

Totally, and when I evoke this exchange between the imagination and the world itself, I am referring to very precise examples. In particular, already four years ago, I drew a jetty which is directly inspired by a migrants’ arrival point and I have many other physical spaces in my drawings inspired by my native island of Oban. Sometimes, fiction even seems to unravel from reality because we have been able to build a real jetty on my island which perhaps in turn will be transformed by fiction… I intend to develop the ties that bind them together even more as I am fascinated by these two islands.  

Marie Maertens 

January 2017