The Boyle Family

Mark Boyle interviewed by Henry Lydiate

Henry Lydiate’s Artlaw Column appeared in the first issue of Art Monthly when he first met Mark Boyle and his family. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Artlaw and the opening of the artists’ show at the Hayward Gallery, we invited them to record a conversation. The following piece is an extract edited by Henry Lydiate, covering the artist’s approach to his work.

Henry Lydiate: How did you get involved in making visual work in the first place; where would you pick a point?

Mark Boyle: It sounds absolutely romantic as hell, but the first night Joan Hills and I met, we sat down and discussed for hours what we were going to do with the rest of our lives, and it’s been in all different kinds of media from the way we were working then. But basically we’ve stuck to what we were trying to do then.

And what were you trying to do?

It was to do with not being exclusive. That sounds like a double negative, but it isn’t really. It was this: we’re not going to exclude anything from what we make. Whatever form it takes. The idea had always been that there is no experience, no sensation, no aspect of reality, we would eliminate, and at the same time we had to accept responsibility for what we were doing in our own lives.

How did you find yourself needing, sharing this dialogue with Joan Hills about not excluding experiences? I presume there was a point where you were saying, I need to make visual work?

Well, I wouldn’t put it like that, but, yes. You don’t realise it’s a need until you find that you very rarely think about much else. I was writing poems, had done all my life, very bad ones mostly, but some of them got published thanks to Joan’s efforts. But one day I borrowed her paints, because she was a painter, and went out into the sun and painted my first picture. Very soon after that we were both painting frantically together. Then one day we each made an assemblage in the same room. Joan made a whitish one, and I made a blackish one. At the end of that exercise we decided we were going to work together on the same piece from then on. And we have done.

How long is that?

About 23 years.

This was in the Sixties. Were there artists, people making visual work, who were important to you at that time, or did you not think about other people? Did you have an education in visual work?

The things that happened to me and us were really so extraordinary that it sounds a bit mad even to talk about. Writing poems and having just produced one picture, which wasn’t very good, Joan and I went to an exhibition in some town in the north of England which I have never been able to remember since. It was an Arts Council touring exhibition in which there was a painting by Francis Bacon, and I looked at that and I thought, Jesus Christ, that guy is doing in paint what I am trying to do in poems; and he’s doing it infinitely better. And the thing that is extraordinary is that what I saw in him was the most total reality I had ever seen in any picture or read in any poem or anything in art –
before. That was the initial impact and it was the crucial thing that actually pushed me over into working visually. But after a while I began to think, well, nobody else thinks that this guy is a realist. And it is only in the last few years, seeing a programme on television, that I found he’d used the phrase ‘the brutality of fact’ about his own paintings.

And that was an inspiring thing for you?

Absolutely. One of the most thrilling moments of my life.

What other influences were there on you at this point? Were you influenced by music?

I was influenced by theatre, poetry, music, and most of all by Joan Hills – she was gentle, brave and immensely resourceful. Working with her was very challenging. We were absorbed in one another. The influence of painters was enormous – a new influence every week until I got through the entire modern movement.

Did you have worries about making a living, keeping body and soul together, paying the rent?

Not as far as making a living from art was concerned, it never occurred to anyone that we could. We never conceived of that as a possibility.

So how did you get by?

We just would do any job that came up. And didn’t see anything demeaning about doing such work.

Were you aware of anyone who was living solely by making work?

I didn’t know anybody. It was a different era. You could actually live off fairly tiny wages. I was a head waiter at one pound a week for many years. All the artists we knew were terribly poor. Nobody was selling anything. The reason why we all made pictures was because it was the most thrilling thing to do.

Why I ask you that, is this perennial problem – when will I be able to survive so that I can be making work full-time? It’s a serious issue – if I’m not making work full-time, then I might be selling my soul and there’s a real danger that I might drift away from what I ought to be doing which is making work. But you’ re speaking of a different approach.

There was a completely different attitude. Firstly, it wasn’t just the Sixties. From the time we had an exhibition that was well received by the critics, it was 17 years before we made a profit in any one year. That’s not to say we didn’t sell pieces, eventually. We did, but we didn’t cover our overheads. We just knew that it didn’t matter what we did for money, because nothing would stop us making pictures. It may sound severe, but if people fear they might drift away from what they ought to be doing, maybe they ought to be doing something else.

Richard Hamilton once said to me that if someone, from the time they start, is still working 15 years later, they might stand a chance of making some kind of income from it. He said that 10 years ago. I believed him then. I know it’s true, now. If you think of yourself as a potential survivor.

Yes, a survivor, not a success

Joan said this great thing once, about movements. She was doing a lecture and somebody asked what it takes in people. Some movement had come up -I think it was kinetic art, which had just arrived on the scene, and I was a bit embarrassed because, like everybody at the time, I had thought how could anyone ever look at anything still, again, when there was this art that moves all over the place. And Joan just said, well, the thing about movements is, they move. And made a gesture sideways. And that’s true. The whole thing is in a state of upheaval all the time. People are going to find, even if they are doing quite well, that their lives will fluctuate fairly wildly as each new set of dogmatists arrives, declaring that everyone else is completely irrelevant all of a sudden. And, of course, it isn’t true. The trouble is the public tends to believe anybody that is dogmatic. If the only thing you can be adamant about is the fact that you don’t like dogmatism, that you are in state of adamant doubt and so on, then you are going to be a natural victim of people who imagine they have certainties. But I don’t actually believe people have certainties.

Nothing could be more certain than if somebody wants to buy a piece of work you’ve made. But artists I know have problems about that. You made it because it was important to make it, you sell, and then think, now, should I make another in that style- it’s that whole compromise issue – or do I continue to make work because I need to, then if there’s a buyer, there’s a buyer?

Well, I just see it in terms of empty walls and, if there is an empty wall in the house, it’s a great opportunity. It doesn’t seem to me that the question of the buyer arises, but I was in the fortunate situation that we didn’t really sell much for many, many, many years.

So why were you making?

Everybody raises this as a problem. There are literally hundreds of thousands of poets in this country who write poems on the back of envelopes that they know not only will never get published, but will never even be read by anyone. But no-one finds that extraordinary. So why should anyone find it extraordinary if someone should make pictures?

I came across a Scottish artist and I asked him whether he had any problems with galleries. He said, no, not at all. I asked what he did. He said the Scottish coastline is full of wonderful stone, and I just go on beaches, climb up rocks, and make these sculptures there. I asked what happened to them, did he take anyone to see them – no – did he photograph them – no – did he write about them – no – did he talk about them – well, sometimes. I then said, so there’s no dialogue with anyone else? He said, well, I like to think that maybe someone’s child will come across them

.That’s great, and some child will come across them and be enchanted. For us, it’s been a dialogue between ourselves in one state, and ourselves at a subsequent date in another state. So that it’s very easy to see that, in our work, it’s possible to be both the person that makes it and an onlooker. I may look at the piece before I start making it and then I am able to come and look at it as an onlooker afterwards and I can be critical of it too in away that is nothing to do with making it. It’s like my daughter Georgia crying in the night once saying I’ve been having a dream, and I said dreams aren’t things to cry about, dreams are wonderful. And she said, well, I haven’t like the ones I’ve been watching tonight. In the same way it is possible for me to go into the street, walk along and see it like going through a museum of our own work. It’s like strolling through a carousel of wonderful pictures. And all absolutely perfect.

When you were writing, before you were making visual pictures, can you remember why you were writing?

I could give you an answer but I should say I am probably the last person to be able to do so because I think that most people who are producing any kind of art, maybe everyone who is doing anything in life, is unaware of why they are really doing it. You think you know but in fact most of us are directed by our unconscious. And even though nobody probably removes themselves from their work more completely than we have – it’s as objective as we can make it – I am very well aware that the whole desire to do it is totally subjective and what’s more almost certainly 99 per cent unconscious. So, all I can say to you is that for as long as I can remember I had a real need to make things, and that first it happened to be poems, then gradually . . . and it’s without motive – no motive that I’m aware of.

Did anybody come along at any stage, saying you’re making work I can sell, so can you give me some more?

No-one ever came to me and said you’re making work I can sell. And that was the crucial phrase I was looking for, the idea of someone who came along and saw – the role of the dealer was to sell pictures. All the dealers we have shown with have been great people. Everyone has the idea that I’m against the gallery system. It just isn’t true. It’s worked out that we exhibit mostly in museums. That’s just the way the breaks went. Without dealers, there wouldn’t be the museums, no art world. I’m against awful dealers, of course, but isn’t everybody? We had one marvellous bloke turn up who put on a show in his gallery. That was John Dunbar. He was beautiful. He seemed the ideal dealer.

Was it important to you that the work was shown?

We didn’t think of it as art. I suppose a lot of people still don’t think of it as art. This was after I had stopped working with poems and had become visual, and I suppose to some extent I was still thinking of it as poems. It was inconceivable that anyone would show them.

But when a show occurred, did you then make a link between showing and selling to someone?

Yes. I began to think it was quite definitely effete to have an exhibition without selling something. My attitude was this: I don’t need to show; if we are going to show, let’s get it quite clear that it is because we intend to sell. I can remember doing a show in Edinburgh, and getting my hands round somebody’s throat on the last night, saying how much money do you have in your pocket – the man said eight pounds – and I said, well you’ve just bought a piece of ours. Because I needed the eight pounds to get the entire exhibition on the train and us down to London again.

Was there a time when you were first asked to speak about your work and you felt, I could do that again? it’s quite an odd thing for a maker of visual work suddenly to find himself with a live audience.

I grew up in a family of seven and you had to be able to talk and make yourself heard, and I guess it’s never changed. One of the problems is that everyone has become very verbal about art and I don’t think that art is something people should be terribly verbal about. It’s as if words have taken over from the visual experience. In fact there was a time when that was so, when everyone condemned us because we were still making objective art. At that time you weren’t supposed to produce an object. They sold us their photographs and their statements for the same prices people were selling their objects – they somehow managed to differentiate between a photograph and an object. It seemed to me both the photograph and the statement were actually objects. I could never quite work that out. So I never believed in non-objective art.

Talking to people who know I’m not an artist, but that I am involved with artists, they ask me often what I think about certain work which they see as outrageous, and I find myself ill-equipped to explain why I think work is made, what I think it does or how challenging it is to me. My impression is they are frightened by modern work. They see it as difficult, highbrow, avant-garde. And most folk have no visual vocabulary, no touchstone at all. The threat is felt because they have no way of understanding.

I have this all the time. It is one of those curious facts that I can put up a piece of mine which is a brick wall, and people will actually stand and like it and comment on it, and so on. Whereas you can have those bricks in the Tate, and people are outraged by them. So I’m constantly having this dilemma, that people are coming to me and complaining about other artists. And I find myself defending artists who – maybe I’m not all that crazy about their work – but I defend them, explain it. And it’s amazing how people, if you don’t talk to them in a patronising way, just talk to them in ordinary English, and say well this bloke’s trying to do this, even if you get it wrong, it’s your guess at it – you’d be amazed how people come round. We are out working in the street all the time, talking to those people absolutely endlessly about it. You say people are afraid. I think people are annoyed. If they don’t understand it they think someone is trying to treat them as idiots. People writing and talking in an impenetrable way about art makes most of the public feel excluded. It effectively denies them participation in one of the most exciting manifestations of life.

Our conversation has been peppered by references to your family – Joan Hills and your daughter Georgina- and there is your son Sebastian and loan’s son Cameron Hills. How involved is the family in making and exhibiting?

I’ve already told you about the night Joan and I met. Well, it was just as though two people had come together, two professionals who recognised one another, and decided that we could make a partnership. It wasn’t exactly in professional terms, but we decided to work together. We didn’t keep it up continuously. There was quite a period when Joan was working as a film editor; but she also went to a couple of galleries to try to get me exhibitions. The first time I went with her I was so outraged by the way those galleries treated her, I said we must never do this again, we just do not ask for shows – it’s wrong, we can’t allow our personalities to suffer the damage of being treated like that. Then Joan was up in Edinburgh and ran into Jim Haines and Ricky De Marco. They offered us a show in the Travers Gallery which was opening at the same time as the Theatre. So it was one of those aberrations that, because for a few years Joan was working as a film editor, at the point which was basically the start of our professional career, it got launched under my name. Having started that way, when we got back into working together it was very difficult to make the change because the world actually wanted – maybe still wants – to believe in a single, preferably male, obsessed artist.

So how many are there involved now?

There’s Sebastian, Georgia, Joan Hills and myself. Cameron Hills comes in sometimes to work on a specific project, but he has chosen his own career. Sebastian and Georgia have been working with us ever since they were big enough to find a screwdriver, and increasingly as the years went by, became more and more involved in it until they are absolutely full-time and fully committed. At some point everybody has a stage where they become the boss. This has never been formally worked out. So Joan would gravitate towards doing one thing, then take charge of another, and I would be her labourer and just do what I was told – it was relaxing. Similarly, on other bits of it I would be the boss. Now, increasingly, Sebastian and Georgia have got their areas, and they tell me. But, at every stage, from the initial idea right through, all four of us are working on every piece. It’s a privilege to work with such lovely friends.

How do you see the future – do you have any special plans, projects or major changes in direction?

I’ve never really believed in directions. I think a lot of artists need to have a general direction. For me, when the family is totally committed to the next picture, then I think that’s the maximum direction you can actually get. I just find myself sometimes not knowing what to comment because I don’t have the kind of words which say it right. In some ways you’ve got to concentrate totally on this next piece – and you’re half terrified that you can’t actually do it any more – and if you start to think about planning the future, you’re not going to be putting everything into the thing you are actually doing at the present. The elements are never random, they’re a device – they all have a metaphorical reading and are used to make the illusion more apparent.

© Henry Lydiate



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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.