Heaven, Hell And The Dreaming Space Between

The Eleventh Revelatory Interview
By Phil & Sarah Stokes, 5th December 2005

With thanks to Kurt, your help is warmly appreciated, and to David Armstrong who kindly joined us.

Revelations : "Let's talk about the paintings in the Visions Of Heaven And Hell (And Then Some) exhibition - they look great together as a collection."

Clive : "Thank you - you've seen everything pretty much, haven't you? There's a lot of new stuff, obviously, that people haven't seen before."

Revelations : "You've created a real mixture of thoroughly disturbing characters and some really serene pieces."

Clive : "Yeah, well I think that's in the title, isn't it? I really wanted for once for the title to mean something, you know, and for there to be pieces which, yeah, were a little hellish and pieces which were a little heavenly. And Heaven and Hell are always different to Cosmic everyone who imagines them, but some of the characters that I've painted - there's a picture called Cosmic, for instance, which is a naked man who is piebald coloured, white and black and in the black there are stars. And that to me is very much a heavenly image - it's an image of a man who's totally at peace with himself, and who has, somehow or other, drawn the universe and the mysteries of the universe into himself."

Revelations : "It's a very organic piece, isn't it?"

Clive : "It is, yes - and then there are, as you say, images which are profoundly disturbing - and then there are pictures which I think are open to a sort of interpretation: the picture of the man amongst the bamboo..."

Revelations : "The Earth Martyr, yeah?"

Clive : "Right - now that comes from us having bamboo stands which I planted around the house, because I love bamboo. One of the things that''s amazing about bamboo is how quickly it grows - I mean it grows four inches in a day, literally; after rain it can grow four inches, actually overnight. And so, when it's rained and the following day it's warm, you watch these things and you swear, well if you sat there long enough you'd see one of them move! And so I've always had the idea of what if a gay man, a gay, sadomasochistic man was sitting, squatting, prepared to be invaded in any number of intimate ways by these shoots of bamboo. And so - he's a kind of shamanistic martyr in a way - he's sitting or squatting in this stand of bamboo with this very short, sharp spike of it passing through the underside of his penis and yet he is completely unbothered by this."

Revelations : "Completely at ease - enjoying it, even."

Clive : "Yes, well, yes and both his head and the head of his penis have halos, so it's obviously something which is taking him to another level. So a picture like that I think almost is both heaven and hell, it suggests a marriage of both."

Revelations : "And did you get to finish the other martyrs that you were working on?"

Clive : "Yeah - the other two - there was going to be a sequence of three; it was going to be two martyrs, the Earth Martyr on one side, the Water Martyr on the other and then the Devil, or certainly a devil in the middle. And I started the back-painting for both and I got a long way into them and I began to feel that making them a triptych was just gilding the lily. Though I had the Earth The Martyr in Clive's studio Martyr in my studio - which is very unusual, normally when a picture is finished I just get it out of the studio as fast as I can, so that I don't go back and start to fuck with it - and I had Kurt bring it back from the gallery house to the studio so that I could keep a consistency of style between the triptych, so that all three paintings felt like they were a unity and as I was painting the other two, and I was painting the other two side-by-side, popping back and forth between the two, I realised that they felt redundant. Not redundant in the sense that I will never finish them..."

Revelations : "But that they might detract from the one that you already had."

Clive : "That they might detract - exactly right. And I thought, you know what? I'm just going to let the Earth Martyr speak for itself - and I'm glad that I did it, now that the pictures are hung, I'm glad that I did it because the gallery is filled to capacity."

Revelations : "And you're pleased with how it all looks?"

Clive : "Oh yeah, man, it's great! I mean it's a big gallery, it's four big rooms and one small room, and both Bert and I have a sense that we should give the big paintings a lot of space, but, with the smaller pieces, particularly the letters, for instance - the chapter headings - we've put all of those, all ten of those together on a wall and they look wonderful!"

Revelations : "I can see how those would live very happily togther."

Clive : "And you'll see when I do this video for you, and I take you round, you'll see how it all plays out... So yes, I'm very pleased - I feel the gallery is really filled to its limit is the thing, if there is going to be enough space given to each painting, then it is filled absolutely to capacity. There isn't a single place I would put another painting."

Revelations : "And you've got a few red stickers already as well - which is good news."

The Man in The Trees

Clive : "Yeah, it's interesting - did you buy one?"

Revelations : "Hmm - we might have done!"

Clive : "Which did you buy?"

Revelations : "The Man in The Trees."

Clive : "You bought the first one - David said that one will be the first to sell..."

Revelations : "Well, he was absolutely spot on, wasn't he!"

Clive : "He was absolutely right, absolutely right. I think it's a great choice - you won't be unhappy."

Revelations : "It is a little difficult - we know from seeing a lot of the paintings for real that however good the online images are - and these are very, very good - it's not doing complete justice to the paintings."

Clive : "No - and when you get the picture in your hand, you will see that around his head there's a lot of scratching, indicating something which is very close to a halo - it's not a halo, it's much, much rougher than that - if you chose to interpret it as simply scratching delineating the head more clearly you could certainly say that. But I think - it's one of David's favourite pictures; I think it may even be his second favourite in the exhibition."

Revelations : "Oh dear - you'll have to give him our apologies!"

Clive : "Hold on, David's actually just come to the door - let me just pass you over to him - "

Revelations : "Hi David - how are you?"

David Armstrong : "Hello, how are you - so you bought my painting, huh? I told Clive, I was like - that is the one that is so beautiful and I told him it was going to go right away, and we weren't sure if you guys bought it or someone else, but that's very good."

Revelations : "I was saying to Clive, we can't wait to see what it's like for real."


David Armstrong : "It's gorgeous, and the thing is I was kinda sad that it sold, but I now I know it's going to a good home, so I'm happy."

Revelations : "Well, that's very gracious of you - all I can do is promise that we'll definitely give it that good home!"

David Armstrong : "Perfect! That puts my mind to ease!"

Clive : "So, now you see, it was a true story - I wasn't lying! David just loved that, even in it's first form, even as I just had put it in, you know, just put the basic figure in before I'd even delineated the tattoos or lines - I don't even know that they're tattoos, I think they could be seen as a lot of things, but certainly before I'd decorated the body. anyway, I think it's going to be a nice present; he's a very calming presence. Cool, cool."

Revelations : "In some of the newer pieces we're starting to see a lot of line work on top of a gentler palette - in things like the Seduction piece; that's such an unusual painting for you."

Clive : "The palette has changed, and part of it is of course what you choose to put into an exhibition has to have its own continuity, has to have - there needs to be a kind of synergy between the paintings and so inevitably there were pictures that we wanted in the exhbition but we decided not to put in because they simply didn't fit and one of the things that I think we realised - and Bert [Green] is a very smart man and has really helped me understand what I'm painting. I mean, that might seem silly but most creators, I think, would say that a lot of the time they don't really quite either understand what they're doing or know where it comes from and I certainly fall into that category and he said, you know, there's a lot of these more gentle pieces, a lot of these pieces with a gentler, a cooler palette and maybe we should going for the two extremes - so that I think what the exhibition has is, for instance there's that picture of the pyramid standing or emerging from a bank of black cloud..."

The Fourth Engine

Revelations : "Yeah, the ziggurat - The Fourth Engine."

Clive : "Yeah, exactly, The Fourth Engine. And that's for Abarat Four, believe it or not! But I felt it belonged in this exhibition simply because it was actually one of the most hellish images I've ever painted, I think; the colours are basically red, orange and black. And then, at the other end, you have The Ghost Tree, with the spirit emerging gently from the tree and the little boy standing on the right, completely undistressed by the fact. So, the Spirit Tree picture - what do I call it?"

Revelations : "The Ghost Tree."

The Ghost Tree

Clive : "The Ghost Tree, right, well The Ghost Tree is a completely uncharacteristic painting and yet - and it will be another Abarat painting, I think; it will belong in one of the Abarat books, I think, but I'm not entirely sure - the gentleness of the colours sits nicely against something like The Fourth Machine, for instance, which is all roaring and fire and an engine, you know - a machine; something huge and dangerous, whereas the Ghost Tree could not be more opposite to that, and that's what we've been trying to find throughout the exhibition, is that balance."

Revelations : "And you've got the humour in as well - "

Clive : "Yeah, yeah - we did that. I mean, I think sometimes, I think painting should be able to make you laugh once in a while, and I think it's a much undervalued quality and sometimes you're in a situation where you're choosing pictures as we have been and you tend to, I tend to, let me be honest, I tend to be very concerned that people be taking the work seriously and then - I'm sure most artists would say that, you know, the pictures that are going on the walls of this exhibition have taken a long time to do and obviously I want people to take them seriously. Every now and then, something pops up that has a cheeky, mischievous quality, if you like. Which ones particularly?"

A Zethek

Revelations : "Well, Boner of course is very cheeky, and The Zethek has a great expression - was this one a study or the final painting?"

Clive : "A Zethek - from Abarat - no, he's what's in the book. And what's interesting is I did - this is more interesting to you than it would be to practically, well it would be interesting to anybody who would be reading this, I think, but it wouldn't necessarily be interesting to everyone who comes to the exhibition because not everybody will be familiar with Abarat - the Abarat material is almost all, or overwhelmingly, ninety-eight percent of it, is oil on canvas and I had, I got really, really tired, actually about this time two years ago and I got really into just a thoroughly exhausted state, and I could not face another huge canvas; it was just overwhelming to me and I decided to make a bunch of pictures on paper, using acrylic and then oil pastel and they were smaller, therefore easier to do, less challenging, physically, and the ones that appear in Abarat that are made that way are the ones that are in the exhibition, plus two triptychs which we didn't have room for. One of them - and they're not shown as triptychs in the book, obviously - but one is the forest at Twilight at Seven O'Clock where Candy finds the palace - you know? There's a long picture which is in fact a triptych on three pieces of paper, and that was done with acrylic and then oil pastel and because it was done that way it just was less demanding, physically, than painting three 48 x 60 canvasses. And then the other one which is also a triptych is the one of the water, of the sea, pouring into the city of Chickentown, or into Chickentown, which I painted in one night with just acrylic, it has no pastel on it. You know, throwing, throwing acrylic at the canvas, paint-loaded brushes at the canvas to get that spray of water - "

Revelations : "To get the movement - "

Clive : "To get the movement, exactly. So, the other ones in the same mixture of media on paper are the ones that I put into the exhibition."

Revelations : "But you always come back to the oil on canvas, which would maybe suggest that working on paper isn't so ultimately satisfying?"

The Sea Comes to Chickentown

Clive : "Yeah, I have, I think that's right - I mean I actually enjoy - I think there are times in my life, and it's obviously going to be true as I get older and I'm less mobile, there are times when I come off a big painting when I'm just wiped, man - when I painted The Beautiful Moment - I was like, I didn't paint for two weeks after that! I had to go and like, OK - just do something passive, physically passive, like writing, not intellectually passive - but you know you're sitting at your desk. And some of the paintings also, the 60 x 48 paintings that have, that may be relatively small by comparison with The Beautiful Moment but are still demanding because there's been a lot of scratching and impasto and you're loading your brush with paint, it's a battle with the canvas and you're in a state of - you know you sweat - I inherited from my dear Dad; I'm the sweatiest man on the planet. It's one of the reasons why in every picture that anybody ever takes of me, at signings, you know, I'm shining with sweat, and people say, 'Oh gosh, it must have been hot,' well, no - some places, I was in Toronto in the middle of winter..! Like my Dad, I've inherited from my Dad this, I think, probably healthy thing that my body does, I get out of the shower and ten minutes later I sweat! But that's what I do when I'm painting as well - I soak my shirt; I've got a collection of T-shirts down there so I can change T-shirts after they get too sweaty. But there is a physical demand to painting, particularly to oil painting, and particularly big oil painting that you have to be ready for; you're moving around, you've seen my studio, I've usually got five paintings on the go at the same time - right now I have six on the go at the same time!"

Revelations : "Well, let no-one think you were going to take a break as soon as you'd finished the exhibition pieces!"

Clive : "No, it was very important that I didn't. One of the paintings is the cover to the limited edition of Visions of Heaven and Hell, which I'm doing for Britton Trice - that's an oil painting and I really want to make sure that it's really super. And I also have, during the time that I've been finishing these pictures up for the exhibition, I have a backlog of Abarat ideas which I've just actually written on the wall..!"

Revelations : "Just don't let our kids hear that!"

Clive : "Oh yeah, right - you mean they'll be writing on your wall! Well, all around the telephone there are numbers written on the wall in oil pastel, and then I've got a place where I've written titles and I'll probably transfer it to a piece of paper now and wipe them off, but there is a backlog in my imagination of stuff which I now very much want to paint for the third book, because when I turn in this book, when I turn in Scarlet Gospels, which is very big now, I've got a few more months on it and then I turn it in, the first thing I'm going to do - let's say I turned it in on a Friday, on the following Monday (I'm going to take two days off) and the following Monday I'm going to be straight in to Book Three."

Revelations : "And do you find that the Abarat paintings are a mixture of Books Three and Four, because you've been talking about the two of them for some time almost as one book."

Clive : "That's completely - you know you're actually so right - and it's only now that I realise that I have been doing that and it's only now that I realise - yeah, how very observant of you..!"

Revelations : "It's not just the case that you've done One and Two and have two to go, it's that you been talking about them as fundamentally dependant on one another."

Abarat notes Abarat notes

Clive : "No, completely observant, I had not realised that until this moment, but yes, I am, in a way - all the notes, for instance, and there are files of notes that I've kept for story elements, have 'Abarat Three and Four' written on them, on the front of them and that's in part because I haven't yet figured out where I'm going to take the break in the story and it's partly because there is a shit-load goes on in these books - there're going to be big books - and I also have a couple of ideas which I haven't yet had a chance to talk over with Joanna [Cotler] about - some radical things that we might do, painting-wise, which might be kinda fun, so I've really got a lot to deal with - in a good way - when I've finished this last picture for the cover of Heaven and Hell, because I really think that people when they finish Three will be eager for Four and a conclusion. And Four will bring the whole thing to an end and it will raise the stakes and make for a big, epic ending. And I sort of am, in a way, thinking of those two books as one huge run-up to a massive climax."

Revelations : "So is that an argument for writing them back-to-back?"

Clive : "That's what I'm doing. That's what I'm absolutely going to do - obviously it won't mean that they'll get printed any faster, because my belief is that Book Four is going to be very, very fat, but yes, I mean I have a lot to resolve and a lot of secrets to spring on people! The thing you haven't asked, though I thought it would be the first thing out of your mouth, was, 'You said you weren't going to sell any of the Abarat pictures,' and, well, do you want me to answer that?"

Revelations : "Absolutely! Yes, it is interesting - it was a dictum at the beginning, wasn't it?"

Clive : "Yes, it was a dictum, it absolutely was, and then I realised, well this isn't fair - I've put a bunch of Abarat work into the book and I'm definitely, you know, tying this to the book, in the sense that the exhibition is entitled with the addition of 'And Then Some' so, if I've got Abarat pictures in the book then I should have Abarat pictures on the wall. And they should be for sale. I chose pictures that I really, really like, even though, in some cases, I don't know exactly their narrative function yet, like The Fourth Engine, I know enough to know that it's the Fourth Engine - I know enough to know that there are three preceeding engines - and I kind of like the idea that somebody is owning a picture, that The Fourth Engine is going to hang on somebody's wall - presuming it sells, if it does sell, if it's on somebody's wall - they are living with something which is going to have massive significance in the fourth Book of the Abarat."

The Dragon Duchess

Revelations : "Yeah - how cool!"

Clive : Exactly - it's fun!"

Revelations : "And the Dragon Duchess - you have to say a word about her whilst you're talking about Abarat characters."

Clive : "Yeah, right, she's in Abarat again"

Revelations : "She's spectacular."

Clive : "She's fun, isn't she? And she's, obviously there's a little of Elizabeth I in there with the collar and the flames behind her - there's a lot of apocalypse in Books Three and Four of Abarat, I mean this is in one sense a sustained apocalypse, and the images of fire and smoke and destruction are very prevalent, not only in the paintings but in the books themselves."

Revelations : "And, maybe this is making a leap, but there appear to be creatures of the apocalpyse and creatures absorbed by it and - "

Slug and Burd

Clive : "You're absolutely right - no, that wouldn't be wrong at all - I almost don't want to say too much, but Slug and Burd, for instance, are definitely creatures of the apocalypse - you'll have fun with Slug and Burd - but you're right and I think that you can tell, pretty much, when the palette goes a particular way whether apocalypse is in the air, if you will - there's definitely a darkness on the horizon of these paintings; there's night and occasionally there's night with stars, which is sort of misleading because the Absolute Midnight will have no stars..."

Revelations : "How intriguing..! "I think what has really struck me about the exhibition is how well it all works together, because we've always looked at your paintings in isolation and so seeing them work together was a real surprise."

Clive : "I have to echo you on that - and I hope not egotistically in the sense that - but I was actually very nervous that they wouldn't work together. You're absolutely right, you see these pictures in isolation, and actually when they're in the house, in the gallery house, Lord knows you've seen often enough now, they're in such chaotic abundance it isn't even a question of well, do they work together, they're not even working together they're just there, you know?"

Revelations : "It's a fabulous abundance but, you're right, it's chaotic as well."

Clive : "Yeah, exactly and so, when you make a sifting of those choices and you put them on the wall then, boy, you really start to ask yourself questions - 'Does this look like it's the product of the same mind?' And that was the fearful thing, you know, that it wouldn't feel like it all came from the same imagination - I know that's silly, obviously it does, but so why wouldn't it look like that -"

Revelations : "I can understand that you wouldn't want them to look too unilateral or abstracted, but the cohesion really shows, as far as we're concerned."

Clive : "Yeah, I think it's there, and it's been very cool for me to have Bert's expert hand helping me refine the choices. And when we hung them yesterday it was actually great fun, because you're backing and forthing and a bunch of the solutions that we thought we were confident about in the house when we were making them two, three weeks ago, didn't work when we got them into the gallery! You know we were putting three paintings together thinking, they'll go on one wall and once you took them away from the visual noise of the gallery house and you hung them in a much quieter white space, and put the three together - what had looked fantastic in the house did not look fantastic. And almost - I have to say almost everything, with the exception, obviously, of the ten chapter headings which were always going to stay together; because they're all the same size and all the same medium - the order of everything changed. Everything we had decided on, and smugly walked away from - done that, done that - turned out to be a crock of shit! And we had to start again!"

Revelations : "That's bizarre!"

Clive : "Isn't that strange? But it really does teach you something about how an environment changes a painting."

Revelations : "It shows there's a real talent to the presentation going on there."

Clive : "Yeah - that's where Bert's genius is; I mean his genius is saying, well, is firstly being able to pick from the visual chaos of my gallery house to say, 'OK, I'd like to take this one, but not this one.' And then, no - there was only one picture we sent home! It was a little picture, probably 12 x 18, that's the only picture we simply didn't have room for."

Revelations : "What is it?"

Clive : "It's not even a picture you know - I'm going to call him The Exile, because he didn't get to go to the exhibition - he's got a big grin on his face, I don't think he much cares!"

Revelations : "So a fun day yesterday..."

Clive : "It was, actually, well it was, it was very interesting because yesterday was the day that the paintings went up and it was the day that I killed Pinhead - he died yesterday, I wrote his death yesterday... how interesting...!"

Head across to our Exhibition News Page for further details of the exhibition, including Clive's live painting and photography session at the Bert Green Gallery.

Visions of Heaven and Hell
Abarat (Book One)
Abarat (Book Two)
Abarat (Book Three)
Abarat (Books Four and Five)
Scarlet Gospels
And here for The Video Tour of the Exhibition

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