The place between me and a friend, the place between me and a painting

An Interview with Margaux Williamson

Introduction by Meeka Walsh
Interview by Robert Enright

Table and Chair, from 2016, shows a knotty table surface, the knots like eyes in a Hansel and Gretel forest. The table is tilted at no readable angle; all the objects on it should be sliding to the floor and landing at your feet. The chair appears almost legless and adrift on a rug whose background is a watery sea blue. It floats on this rich sea blue, night blue pigment. Beside it, also adrift, neither resting on the table nor behind it, is a painting of a maritime disaster—someone in peril, someone sinking.

Margaux Williamson, Flowers and Glass, 2022, oil on canvas, 177.96 × 142.4 centimetres. Private collection. All images courtesy the artist.

Offered to the viewer are endless open possibilities: a notebook is stacked on a book on a corner of the table, which is almost a at surface sufficient to support them in place; another notebook or sketchbook, face down on the sea carpet, is an invitation to pick it up and look inside for more. There is a glass holding its own for now in the appealing size of an Old Fashioned tumbler, also a small, stiff, brown paper bag sturdy enough to hold a half-pound of nails or some roasted peanuts, and other books in a small, untidy pile, on which leans a laptop underneath a stack of loosely gathered sheets of paper. The glass is empty, it can be filled again; the books invite sharing and the sheets of notes provoke questions. The paper bag is an open book, the maritime tragedy could be forestalled. Questions always imply a future, like what is that object on the chair and why does there appear to be a shallow wake behind it?

In the interview that follows, Margaux Williamson says what she always wants is more space and more time. To elaborate, she says she always looks down and across, “down at the paper and across at the glass,” and that this is how and what she sees. Overriding the at surface of the canvas, she gives us the actual, real dispersal of her apprehension. In her sight a single focus, one plane, is an untruth.

And the table is often her ideal plane, wanting as she does to recognize and work in the small world where the paintings actually take place. She’s making a world and the world can be found on a tabletop: the table—where she sits, reads, works, takes her meals and gathers the things in her life—is her frequent subject. As to the scale of her world, her response, “If you look at the table as it is, you’ll find the heart of it.”

In her most recent survey exhibition, “Margaux Williamson: Interiors,” 2021 (curated by Jessica Bradley, mounted by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, and touring through 2023), tables as subject and ground appear often. Some examples: in the painting At night I painted in the kitchen, 2013, the table is both tilted surface, where objects, as you read them individually, have a varyingly secure purchase—weight and matter straddling the perimeter—and a raft and safe haven for the familiar, an index of her attention at the moment. Cup, 2021, is the titular centre of this tabled world, sharing the surface with a glass jar, empty except for the light that emanates from it, and some paper—perhaps a catalogue and a sheet with some drawn lines. Desk, 2020, is a table turned to the purpose of a desk. On it: computer, notebooks, file folders, a glass and some things to drink, a Blue Willow patterned plate with a heel of bread and that jar to capture light, as well as a lush and aggressive orchid with some smaller blooms all in the zebra show of black and white. The foreground is wood boards becoming a brown eld as the eye rises, drifting off, maybe for the fun and pleasure of pigment and brush on canvas. Window, 2017, shows an unsettling surface—a world in dissolution. Not the patina of age or the warmth of wood grain but compacted strips of what looks like faux wood, maybe that unlovely chipboard, edges all jagged and splintered, perfect for snagging woollens and slivering under fingernails. Things float, reluctant to settle. A dark laptop, the black seat of a broken chair or stool, a picked-at cluster of dark grapes—no winey-purple there—an open book with the pages curling. A well-articulated brown paper shopping bag is on the table, and not. At the Federal, 2017, offers a more singular perspective—a table seen as though from a bird’s-eye view and, almost pulling back cinematically, from behind the single occupant whose hands, forearms and hat crown are what we see. The fingers are loosely splayed on a coarsely grained wooden table on which there are sprigs of lilacs or maybe hydrangea and the ubiquitous glasses—two with heavy bases electrified in blue, one larger one, which is more vase than drinking glass. The light is comfortably dim, like a neighbourhood bar. Flowers, 2020, implies a table, indicated here only as a pale reflection from a jar holding flowers; and Kitchen, 2021, where the table in the foreground of the furnished room is a caramel-coloured sea: still life with laptop, plate and fork and a candle warmly glowing in a glass holder. The room goes on beyond the indefinite outer edge of the table. Bread and Cabbage, 2022, is the artist painting, here only suggesting with two right-angled lines that the objects given are on a table. On the active brown ground is a neatly folded tea towel sliding toward us, a very dense and seedy half loaf of bread and the crumpled brown paper bag that carried it, a good-sized cabbage in transparent wrap and, at the far edge of the table, some Morandi-scaled pots. Moon, 2022, has many moons where a moon would be, their focused strobe lights howling in the night, illuminating an outdoor table and the glass and the book. In Table with Beer and Bread, 2022, an unilluminated chandelier with crystal pendants hangs in a wallpapered room. We see only a small portion of the patterned paper and light fixture, like a torn-away swatch, because the table with its rich patina fills the frame. On it, as the title suggests, is a portion of a loaf of bread seen at the open mouth of a paper bag, two beer bottles, a scatter of small glasses and a low, compact pile of notebooks, one ringed, another rolled back, and small sheets with drawing evident. These are just some of the tables which are worlds which are paint which are real and present. The artist sees them and they exist through reciprocity, as the artist sees them.

“I like the world of art better than the world of life sometimes,” Margaux Williamson said, in talking with Border Crossings. She went on to say that the internal order in artmaking is at the same time a kind of freedom; it’s the place to find what she calls “elegant new structures” that can take her to new knowledge or consciousness. She describes further that by “elegant structures” she means trusting her own intuition, the DNA that is at her centre, something integral and particularly hers. She calls on this.

Interesting to see, in some of Williamson’s paintings, art restating, confirming, reiterating itself—the thoroughgoing presence of art in her art. The absorbed history of a lifetime of looking, of course, but also in the inescapable way mise en abyme holds you inside the subject—a reassuring solipsistic referral. Bathtub, 2019, is an arresting, irresistible plethora of planes and interruptions—really, time and space and place: T-shirt, wall tiles, long fluorescent light bars, the wooden wall treated like a garden fence and then the fabulous bathtub horizontal and vertical with a lush cascade of water, seductive in its amplitude, falling forever into the receiving tub where the surface is all dimples and puckers. Near it is a painting—again a maritime scene: a loosely referenced battleship with explosions fore and aft, twinning or tripling the cascade owing into the tub, each made for the other. I’d mentioned earlier Table and Chair, with its small painting of a maritime tragedy. They call attention—a painted painting painted in a painting.

Margaux Williamson talks about places between, and we covet and guard the gap of this sometimes barely measurable space that is between. It is generative and it can mean two ways—a gap or opening and a connection of one to another, between things.

This interview was conducted on May 5, 2023, with the artist in her Toronto studio.

Table and Chair, 2016, oil on canvas, 160 × 229 centimetres. The Bailey Collection.

Window, 2017, oil on canvas, 160 × 229 centimetres. The Bailey Collection.

Border Crossings: Were you one of those precocious kids who could whip out a pencil and make a world?

Margaux Williamson: I guess I was good. Art was always the number one escape. For me, it wasn’t interesting to just be competent; what was interesting was to go deeper than that.

You do a BFA at Queen’s, but before graduating in 1998 you were an exchange student for a semester at the Glasgow School of Art, where you studied filmmaking. Were filmmaking and art always connected in some way for you?

If you move from painting to film, you are reminded that paintings are so still. It all seems like the same language in different forms. In some ways I honestly thought I did painting because it was practical and flat. But I’m interested in everything. I was never very interested in installation art because I was never in galleries. I didn’t have that experience, but I had a voracious appetite for anything that was reproducible. I was from Texas and moved here when I was 13 with my mother and my sister. I did see a lot of art and books, but I definitely wasn’t familiar with galleries.

I’m interested in your collaboration with Sheila Heti. In her novel How Should a Person Be? (2010), you’re a major character and then you make your film Teenager Hamlet (2010), in which she both plays an interviewer and performs as your friend in a series of lie-down conversations in which you talk about Hamlet and art. Did both of you decide that you would use one another in equivalent projects at the time?

Everything with her happened pretty organically. We first started working together quietly in my studio, and we didn’t even really talk at first, and then we couldn’t stop talking. We have a pretty magical time. We’re still really close, and we have this amazing chemistry where we laugh all the time, or we’re shocked that we’re learning something new when we think through something together. We’re both in each other’s work in a lot of ways. To me, the best kind of collaboration is with a handful of people where I have long or ongoing conversations. All that stuff is almost more intense than an actual collaboration.

Sheila’s novel includes a character named Margaux who happens to be a painter, and another character named Sheila happens to be a writer, trying to write a play. Margaux is extensively quoted. Are those sections transcriptions of things you actually said?

It’s funny. I went to the Miami Art Fair for the first time in 2006, and Sheila and I got stuck on the plane for 17 hours. She was nervously looking at me and said, “There’s this thing I wrote, maybe I’ll throw it away, but do you want to read it?” I read it and I immediately saw it was like “Sheila” and “Margaux.” It wasn’t her and it wasn’t me, even though there are straightforward transcriptions of things that happened. But it’s all art. In our collaboration, I struggled to see meaning and Sheila saw so much meaning. She was interested in platonic forms and things like the perfect example of a woman. I thought everything was pretty arbitrary. I feel like what resulted is she and I together in the middle where each person is a perfect example of themselves, with a specificity on the platonic realm. If Sheila wrote a fictionalized version of our lives and called me Margaret, it would’ve been way more horrifying.

Margaux has mixed feelings about being cast as a character. Did you share some of those hesitations, or were you happy with the way your “character” appears in the novel?

I was incredibly uncomfortable and fearful about being recorded, but after three weeks I broke through and had no more fear about it at all. I respect Sheila so much, so I read lots of versions of the book, but I didn’t say anything about my character, especially because I’d be the least expert in that.

You’re saying you are the person who knows less about yourself than anybody in the world, so you have no observations to make about Margaux?

Absolutely. How would I know?

Table with Beer and Bread, 2022, oil on canvas, 117.17 × 252.1 centimetres. Courtesy the Longlati Foundation.

In the novel, Sheila says, “A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman.” That doesn’t characterize the relationship you and Sheila have because you seem to have found that heart.

Definitely. It was a little bit like having a home for the first time.

**What made you choose Hamlet as the frame for your film? I’ve always liked the idea of middle brow and middle class. I feel it’s really underrated. When I think of the avant-garde, I think of someone struggling to have a new tiny branch on a tree. But I always ask, “What’s the tree? What’s at the heart of the tree? What are the stories we can’t stop telling over and over?” I don’t like fantasy, but I like the idea of stories or myths that we tell ourselves and what they look like when they’re tied to the ground. What do they look like when they’re bound by societal norms or reality? How do they change?

In one of your reviews of Agnès Varda’s films, you say that human beings have a propensity to tell stories, and what stories do is they make sense of human interaction.

I like that there’s some order to our choices. It calms me down to know that we’re in a culture that can’t stop telling stories about gods or ourselves or the world around us. This is something humans need to do. I’m talking as if I were an alien because I’m not such a storyteller. I don’t think about myself in stories at all. It was interesting because Sheila was pushing me to understand myself as a person, as someone on a journey. It’s like I couldn’t take myself out of the equation anymore.

In your lie-down conversations, Sheila is interrogating you about what you’re doing in the film. Is that part of her function, not just to interview the other characters but to be your interviewer?

Sheila and I had such a connection, the world felt like it was opening up a little bit. For me, it was always, “How do you pretend that there’s meaning?” In my work with Sheila, it was like, “How do you find meaning?” So I did a video experiment instead of doing an MFA. I was determined to find and prove something to myself. But I didn’t tell anyone that’s what I was doing. It was a No Budget Feature Art Video, but I told everyone I was making a 10-minute video. I was working with all non-actors and I didn’t want anyone to feel they were bad at acting. So I would say, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing.” For the sequence with Sheila, I tied my camera up to a tree. After a long day of shooting she looked at me, glaring, and said, “A 10-minute art video, huh?”

Was the film scripted or was it largely found? I’m asking if it’s part fiction and also part documentary.

It wasn’t scripted at all, but I had these 10 people who were willing to be filmed. So the notes I gave Sheila would be, “This person struggles with saying tangible things. Can you try to nail it down?” Or, “This person doesn’t want to talk about their mother. Can you try to talk about their mother?” So I had a list of instructions.

In her first interview the guy Sheila’s talking to addresses the relationship between a father and a son. So right off the top we’re in the Oedipal territory occupied by Shakespeare’s play. That focus continues in the section where a son is reflecting on his mother’s remarriage. Those discussions fit the central psychological tension in Hamlet. Was that serendipity or was that planned?

That was a lot of serendipity, but my friend did have a singles party on a boat where lots of little art projects were happening. We ran through 100 people, asking them really quick questions. But at the same time, we still had the Hamlet story. For me, Hamlet was a story of the Enlightenment. How do we reconcile not killing people? You can’t kill people. It doesn’t work anymore. Then what do you do with all the confusion and impotence because we still do kill people?

You said the problem in the film is for you to become a man of action and Shakespeare describes Hamlet as a man “who thinks too precisely on the event.” There are nine Hamlets in your film, and they do a considerable amount of thinking. Did you pick the tension between contemplation and action as the frame that you wanted to investigate?

Yes. I definitely related to the Hamlet character. We were 28 when we shot this and I’m 46 now. It’s wild to think about. It almost doesn’t make sense to me. I found seeing so much injustice in the world and being so incompetent almost debilitating. Or not incompetent; I felt really competent but being overwhelmed by it and not quite knowing what to do or how to do it. I’ve certainly resolved some of those things for myself, but I did find it confusing, and I did find it confusing to be an artist. The part of me that chose to be an artist is so bossy and strong and then the other side of me follows along behind and asks, “Do we have to?”

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and it’s considered one of his most cerebral, but people forget that it’s full of action. He dispatches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to certain death. He stabs Polonius. He fights in Ophelia’s grave with Laertes, her brother. There are sword fights and the poisoning scene in the play within the play, and at the end there’s absolute carnage and nobody’s left alive other than Horatio. It’s one of the most action-packed plays Shakespeare wrote.

Totally. Although, I guess because of the ideas, you put off all the action. But my understanding of Hamlet in the 21st century is you’re not having fist fights and you’re not killing anyone. It’s a different play.

Of course, Hamlet’s error is that he doesn’t dispatch his uncle when he thinks he’s cleansed himself of sin. He doesn’t want his incestuous uncle to go to heaven, so he doesn’t kill him. Hamlet plays God. We’re aware of the irony and the danger in playing God.

Yes. I definitely was playing an impotent God role. It’s especially confusing if you feel competent and you take too much responsibility. I know people always associate narcissism with self-absorption, but you can have narcissism with the inverse of self-absorption. You can be egotistical in social justice stuff where you feel completely alone and totally responsible. I think people don’t quite understand how much ego is in there. But I haven’t thought about Teenager Hamlet in a long time. I just met with a 20-year-old art student who came over because she really liked the film. It’s the thing I’m most proud of and most embarrassed by.

There was a hiatus in your painting that started around 2006. Was there a particular reason why you reached an impasse?

Yes. We tell these stories about ourselves and if you tell the story again, you’re like, “Wait, is that true? What was true? What was happening?” I hope I’ll tell a new, more accurate story.

I won’t know if it’s true or not. But I’m happy to be lied to as long as it’s a good story.

I do like to lie. But because choosing art was such a wild and crazy decision for me to make, I took it very seriously. Once I made that decision, I never wavered. I was 100% there. But because of that decision I threw everything away to do art. And when you do that, there’s no need for any compromises. For me, making art is amazing. It’s definitely one of the biggest joys I’ve ever experienced. There’s nothing more wild to me than getting lost and getting deep and getting confused, and then finding these elegant new structures, or finding a new kind of consciousness in the process. At that time, I was starting to do well. I had my first show in New York, and I thought, if I don’t go in really deep right now, then what is the point of doing all this work? I really needed to go as deep as I possibly could and then return feeling like I’d gotten somewhere. I thought maybe where I’d gotten to before was as deep as I could go. When I finished shooting Teenager Hamlet, it probably would have been good to do another video, because I knew more then. But it was really valuable to try to make sense of what I had shot and come to a conclusion with it. It was my first experience with having that much time and that much depth and that much space. And nobody in the world wanted a feature-length art video, especially from me. So there was no pressure other than desire. When I turned back to painting, it was another gamble. I decided I was going to let these next paintings take four years instead of making a show every year. I wanted to let that amount of time and space and depth happen with painting. I did that and thought maybe it would be nothing. But it was so wonderful to turn back to a medium that I understood so well, to see it more clearly, and have the ease of being back in a medium with new eyes. So now four years is what it takes for me to get somewhere. I’m slow.

Bathtub, 2019, oil on canvas, 122 × 183 centimetres. Collection of John and Katia Bianchini.

In the novel, Sheila says that Margaux made the best paintings of her career “after we’ve been drinking for eight hours straight.” Was that a true or fictional observation?

She was always saying I was making the best paintings of my career. But I think there is something about the dumbness of a hangover that helps. It just knocks everything out of your head. It’s funny because I feel like I’m so good at not thinking, but I guess I’m also an overthinker. In the past I probably did need some hangovers, but now I meditate 40 minutes a day.

There are also moments of art criticism in the novel. In commenting on your ugly painting, Sholem says, “Your snakey searching line is everywhere and that quality is one of the strongest things about your painting.” Would you agree with the assessment about the ubiquitous snakey searching line?

Sholem definitely said that. I remember being there when he did. The hardest thing for painting, or anything based in craft, is learning to trust or respect your best stroke, to not care so much about it and not think it’s ugly, or too beautiful. It’s hard to get out of your own way. So when Sholem said that, I felt really seen and I was so flattered.

You say you’re good at seeing the value in all this ugly stuff. What about it do you find attractive?

Let me answer this way. I was telling someone, “I don’t like symbols at all; I want to get rid of symbols in paintings,” and they’re like, “Is that why you have seven books on symbols next to your desk?” So I do think very metaphorically and very symbolically, but in paintings I want to get rid of all of that because in the last five years, I don’t want anyone to get in front of my paintings and “read” them. I don’t want them to tell some mythological story. The reason I like physics is because there are laws and there is order. Emotionally, I love to think there are atoms all around us; I love to think of the atoms in a crumpled-up piece of paper, or in a rose, and I want us to know that the paper is there as much as the rose is. I’m not sure if that’s ugly or not. I like to look at the world, even if it’s made carelessly or thoughtlessly, and I like to see what kind of order there is. The way I’ve been painting for the last five years is I don’t make any plans. I paint one thing and I paint the next thing and I reconcile each new thing on the canvas. There’s no planned harmony, but there’s a respect for an equalness to everything that I’m seeing.

There are two paintings in the White Cube show (2021) that are kind of garbagey. The one called Stream and Park includes a stream that has a beautiful Klimt-like golden section. So even when you’re painting the refuse of the ecological world, it ends up being quite beautiful.

I see much more beauty than I used to, and I like beauty more than I used to. I definitely trust it more. All the paintings you saw at the Esker Foundation reached to the edges of the canvas. They’re full. It’s almost like I gave in and said, “Fine, let’s just be here. Let’s see everything that’s beautiful.”

Kitchen, 2021, oil on canvas, 160 × 228.6 centimetres. Collection of Cheryl C Gottselig, QC, and Yves Trépanier, Calgary.

Bread and Cabbage, 2022, oil on panel, 61 × 76.2 centimetres. Private collection.

What is your studio practice like?

I do like to save time and I like to cheat a lot. I’m just such a worker, but I’m not an effortless conceptual artist. I struggle. Anything that I’m good at, or any good art I make, comes out of following my drives and intuition. My connection with conceptualism or cleverness or anything that is against craft is hard-won because I had to really think about it. I had cancer and I think I met you right after that. But the cancer took me out for two years. I had chemotherapy for a year and the following year I’d had a lot of brain damage from the chemo. I had been writing movie reviews and had gotten offers from some magazines to write. I was so excited and then the chemo started. I kept trying to write movie reviews, but it wasn’t until three years later that an Australian print-only magazine asked for a movie review and I wrote it. I was like, “Okay, thank God, my brain’s back. And maybe it’s even better.” I’ve always had a real interest in time because I have no sense of it. I’ve never been captivated by philosophy, but I can’t get enough of anything about time. I’m also very interested in time management and in how do I cheat better. When I was sick, I had only an hour or two in me a day, and I realized I was thinking of Duchamp sitting in his chair and being as clever as you could be, so that you have to work less on the work. So that’s what I did. What was interesting is that I was forced into understanding how to be a bit more clever. So, instead of laboriously making a set, you just look out and tell a different story about the real things you see, without having to rearrange anything.

What’s equally interesting is your obsession with the conditions of day and night. In the daytime, there’s austerity; in the nighttime, there’s oblivion. You talk about a repulsion to daylight and a strong pull towards the dark. What is it that has made those temporal conditions so significant?

If you’re a painter, the day is realistic and ugly, and then at night, it’s dark and scary and romantic. There’s so much depth and you can see new things that you can’t see in the day, that you can’t see in reality because your eyes are trying to form shapes where they might not be. When I had gone back into painting after the movie, this was right before I got sick, I was struggling because on one side, the paintings were looking too realistic, and on the other side, they were looking too imaginary. It was an aesthetic puzzle I had to figure out and the way I did was by combining the day and the night. I had to allow for all this depth but also the reality of the flatness of the canvas. It was so fun.

You talk about “the forceful logic of a painting.” Tell me more about how the force of that logic operates in the way you make paintings.

In most of these paintings there are no edits and no rearrangement. It’s just accepting what you do. It’s slower but it’s less work. In one of my paintings, I painted my hands in and it was wrong. It was fakety-fake. It’s like putting on a play. If my paintings have a narrative, the real narrative is I’m a painter trying to paint something and I’m not really hiding anything and if I put my hands in, my hands are making the painting, then why would I be painting them? They’re already there. Those kinds of directives have their own logic that I respected but maybe understand only halfway through or even near the end, but I trust them, and they create so much order.

Moon, 2022, oil on canvas, 177.96 × 178.28 centimetres. Collection of Xi Tao.

Fountain, 2022, oil on canvas, 178.28 × 177.8 centimetres. Private collection.

You talk about the joy of finding how things fit together. I assumed you were referencing a quest for meaning, what you call “re-examining the bones of my livelihood.” But finding out how things fit together is also a way of talking about composition, about how things fit together in a painting. Do you distinguish between the picture-making dimension as opposed to the picture-meaning dimension of what you do? Picture-meaning because you’ve talked a lot about the search for meaning, but picture-making is also where hands come in. You title one painting I could see everything, and I wonder if the equivalent manual thing is “I could make everything.”

“I could make everything” is so beautiful. I feel like the last five years it was like “I can’t see anything.” That’s the main feeling I had. But your distinction is really helpful and interesting. I feel like you just gave me something. I actually haven’t separated meaning from making very much. Or I see meaning in form. I feel like the kindergarten kid who had no imagination and was always drawing and painting. I never stopped. I’ve been painting for so long and I’ve literally never thought about composition. I’ve never thought about colour. I guess I have so much experience and so much faith in that experience that I don’t ever worry about something not working out.

You also talk about the possibility of seeing what you call “a more elegant structure” than the one you’ve been given. Is that what composing is: finding a more elegant structure for what it is you make?

When I think of an elegant structure, I feel it more in the DNA or the bones, in having the logic or the intuitive elegance behind it. I find a good part of it before I start, see more halfway through a body of work, and then see it more clearly when I know I’m done. I grew up Christian in the American South and the more people trusted in this God that took care of everything, the less work they put into creating order. I’ve had an interesting time because the further I get away from that, the more meaning and order I see.

You primarily use your domestic environment as a stage for your painting, which makes me wonder what determines the details you include. You make fascinating choices within that space. So a black beetle will turn up as part of the pattern on a bedspread.

I didn’t realize that I was painting my interiors. My logic or my drives were that I suddenly felt I couldn’t see anything. In my mind it was almost like I was painting nothing. But I was trying to be there, and I was trying to find the depth there. One of my wrong directions was painting a table and then I painted a window and I was like, “No, no, you can’t go out the window. You’re stuck here. You have to find the depth in the table.” So I painted out the window. My order comes from a slightly different place. As people say, you have to be stupid-smart. You can’t be smart-smart to make art. When I started, they were almost depressive, and even after making the first seven I still felt like there was nothing there. I was like, “Fuck this.” So I went to a coffee shop and I forced an epiphany. I just sat there until I felt like I understood something, and then I came back and saw how to bring in the joy and the life. It’s such a privilege to work like that, to be so groping and so humble. In some ways, being in Canada feels like I get a little bit more space, I get more time to be this indulgent, to grope as much as I do.

One of the things you notice when you review My Private Idaho is how seductive is the small world occupied by Mike and Scott. A small world also seems to be the place in which your paintings operate.

If you look at the table as it is, you’ll find the heart of it. I have that feeling now. I started noticing what was around me, the flowers change, the flowers die, the glasses move around. My friend brought bread by. You suddenly notice where there’s a little bit of life and movement and where the depth is and what catches your eye in these contained spaces.

I’m reminded of something you said about Agnès Varda, who argued that a person can make anything within the diameter of a 90-metre electrical cord around their house. Circumscribing the space of making allows you to literally make a world.

Yes, and it is a real pleasure. That’s what I was thinking with Teenager Hamlet. I found that cord moving in the diameter around her house so beautiful. That’s the world she was limited to, and she couldn’t go further than that. For years faith in that has been one of the most directive ideas in my head. Agnès Varda is an interesting mix of the intuitive and the conceptual, and she’s one of the best at accepting who she is, in accepting her eye and what she makes. The humbleness of that is quite impressive.

I want to focus on the objects you paint. Bottles and glasses and sheets of paper and writing implements and plants turn up repeatedly in your work, and from different vantage points. You also seem to like painting paper bags and cardboard. Is that because those are domestic objects and, as things you find in your world, they can easily become the subject of painting?

I think that everything you just mentioned are the best containers of light. A crumpled piece of paper is the wildest way to look at light. Light and dark are amazing, and especially with these last works, I noticed there is no direct light. I feel like I’m painting anything and everything, but there’s no sky. All the light you have is reflected. I was reading this Rachel Cusk book called Second Place; it’s about a writer and a painter, and his paintings are described as having “a frigid godliness that things lit by the sun do not possess.” I don’t want direct light and then Rachel Cusk writes this beautiful sentence about why it’s important to not look at light directly.

You’ve also been seduced by wood. Tabletops and chairs occur in many of your paintings. Again, is that because they’re in your world and they can easily become the subject of what you do? Does the tabletop give you a space in which you can then render light and darkness in complicated ways?

It’s like the earth, it’s warm. My studio had a wood floor and ceiling, and I finally had to paint it all white because it was reflecting too much warmth onto the painting. So the paintings outside the studio looked less warm. And my heart was sad. I wanted the warmth. It’s funny because the wood table is just like a bone; you don’t think that it’s warm, but it is.

Here’s a variation on warmth. I think you’re a painterly pyromaniac. You’re always painting fiery conflagrations.

I say I don’t make any corrections, but anytime I paint a fire I’m tempted to repaint it or paint it out. I had this big painting that was in the McMichael show, it’s on the cover of the book and I didn’t think too much about it. Then Sheila was over, and we were talking, and I was so distracted by that painting. I was like, “I’ve got to paint that fire out. It’s all I can see.” And she’s like, “That’s what a fire is. You look at a fire, it’s distracting, so don’t paint it out.”

It’s as if your painting begins with cubism because everything is tipped forward. Even in Beer and Bread, which is a fairly recent painting, the perspective is completely flat and everything gets tilted forward.

If you want a canvas to hold a lot of space and you want a canvas to hold a lot of time, then cubism is inevitable. When you’re seeing different things and you’re looking differently, it holds a lot of time. That’s what I always want: more space and more and more time. It’s also about whatever instincts I have for looking at things; I’m always looking down at the paper and I’m always looking across at the glass. It’s more faithful to how I see the world, rather than how one is supposed to depict something. When I made the first batch, I thought I had made the most normal paintings in the world and someone said, “No, they’re pretty weird.” I was like, “Okay. But they’re exactly what I see.”

Bed, 2021, oil on canvas, 177.8 × 177.8 centimetres. Private collection.

Bottles, 2022, oil on canvas, 122.25 × 182.88 centimetres. Collection of Patricia and Marc Zilkha.

When I look at a painting like Bed (2021), I see very strange pink-tipped flashes shooting off the top of the painting. It makes me think that the image came out of photography rather than perception.

It did. I took a picture of the light in my bedroom. I probably had 100 photos of that light. Not because I wanted to take a photo; not even because I wanted to paint that light. It would be, “Oh, look at the light today.” Then I’d take a picture, and I’d put it in a folder called “Bedroom.”

Does photography play a significant role in your practice?

Definitely. Because I painted for 10 years without looking at resource materials, I’m able to push paint around without thinking about it. I’m also able to look at photographs and depict them. But it would be confusing if I only did that. If I’m just painting a photo, why not just show the photo? I think it is a happy mix of the imagination or the flatness of the paint with the representational. Yesterday I was painting a rock and then I was painting water around it.

I know that Manet’s A Sprig of Asparagus (1880) is one of your favourite paintings. But when I look at your paintings of an apple and garlic, I recognize how perfectly complex a simple thing can be. That’s what the asparagus painting tells me as well. You think of Manet as a realist. Do you think of yourself as one?

No. But that is Sheila’s favourite painting, I don’t want to take that away from her. I think the reason I like Manet so much is because the women in his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1882) aren’t symbols of something. I feel like really weird things happen when you get rid of your assumptions about what things mean. So I feel the reality is revelatory, but I don’t know about the realism. I like reality better than realism.

That’s a nice distinction. You also said that you understood the problem you’d had with painting is too much realism. You wanted what you called “the randomness of a limitless imagination.”

Yes. But I think I always painted out of my mind. I did use my imagination and then I got really sick of that. Even if I had imagination, I didn’t let it go very far. Then I was like, “Oh, what is this world we’re in?” So if I brought reality into it more, then I felt I could bring in more depth and more stars and more confusing things.

I noticed your titles combine invention and renewal: We made a new map, or We made a new atlas, or most optimistically, We built a new city with our shadows. They make me think you’re combining some kind of realism with the utopian. You take the shadows and turn them into a new world.

I’m good at playing, even if I don’t have any paintings coming. I write out a list of the titles and when I did that in alphabetical order, I had no idea they were all like that. For me, it was being a bit more of a trickster and thinking of world building. So instead of an elaborate set, you just turn the world upside down. Or you see the same thing you’re always seeing, but you see it in a different way, which conserves energy, but you still get a whole new picture.

I’m fascinated by this notion of in-betweenness in your work. Rauschenberg famously said that he operated in the gap between life and art. I have a feeling that your work operates in the gap between images and words because of the fascination you seem to have with language.

Yes. With all those titles I was trying to let myself have more fantasies about the world, whether they were nightmares or good dreams. But I could see how limited they were. My fantasies weren’t very big. “Between words and images,” that’s nice. I think, too, I like the world of art better than the world of life. I feel safer and more excited. Because art was never an obligation or a duty, it felt like a free place and its internal order related to something other than a kind of duty in life.

Fireplace, 2022, oil on panel, 61 × 76.2 centimetres. Collection of Sharon London Liss.

In your interview with Sheila in the “Interiors” catalogue, you say that you love the space between things, that it feels like the best place to make new things. Is the interstitial a particularly creative place for you?

Yes, like the place between me and a friend, or the place between me and a painting. Even though I love to work alone, if there’s not a tie to the world, or to another person, or a tie to something tangible, I almost can’t see it.

You say we must always be a little bit uncomfortable. It’s an idea that moves beyond clothing style into a philosophy of making. In your review of Robert Altman’s The Company, you write that failure always seems to be an interesting part of good art. So the uncomfortable and failure are critical to the way you think about artmaking.

Yes. I think that the idea of discomfort in the world suggests bravery. Comfort always seems like falling asleep.

Is the struggle to find meaning ongoing? Does it continue to be vexing?

It has been a challenge for me to figure out how to create meaning when there are things that aren’t so obviously meaningful. That’s why I have so many friends who are poets or writers. They tend to see so much in things, and I really need that. I need those eyes. But I really do see much more meaning than I did before, and maybe that’s given my work in the last few years more ease. It’s seeing a bit more meaning in the space between things. ❚