Interiors journalist, Jo Leevers and photographer, James Balston recently interviewed Cavaliero Finn artist Trevor Burgess at his beautiful home in South East London for the Guardian Observer. You can read the interview here.
We caught up with Trevor, following his interview, to delve deeper into the inspiration behind some of the wonderfully vibrant paintings that are featured in the article.
Cavaliero Finn: Markets feature a lot in your work Trevor – how do you find these change from city to city? What is it about a particular location that makes you want to paint it?
Trevor Burgess: I started painting the street markets in London. For me, they epitomise the life of the city. The first paintings I did were of the Ridley Road market in Dalston. It brought together so many different cultures. It seemed to me that you could make a start in London, wherever you come from, as a street trader on the Ridley Road Market. In Spain, in Barcelona or Valencia, the impressive places are not street markets, but the big market halls: the Boqueria or the San Antoni in Barcelona are the very centre of the life of the city with overwhelming displays of piled up fruits, vegetable and meats. They are thronging with people. And I loved the display – what’s the difference between arranging a fruit and vegetable display on a market stall and arranging the colours in a painting? They come from the same sensual root of pleasure in the things of life, and the same tricks to catch the eye and make you buy.
Trevor Burgess: In Latin America, there are still markets right at the centre of capital cities and as soon as you enter them you’re in this huge, vivid, bustling place that really puts you in touch with the heart of how people live and all the products that make up daily life. You often find great places to eat in the middle of it all. In Mexico City you find massive laberinthine warrens of stalls with all sorts of brash gaudy displays, each with their Saint watching over them. I loved the Mercado Central in Quito, Ecuador. I painted the distinctive pale green interior of the market building, cool, with the dazzling light filtering in through tall windows, women patiently presiding over 40 different types of potato or pouring out coloured fruit juices from flasks. This contrasted with a first trip to Istanbul last year, where almost all the traders in the Bazaar are men, eager to strike up conversation and make a sale.
Cavaliero Finn: You seem to capture not only the physical representation of the locations you paint but the true essence of a place, the emotion of the people residing there, the atmosphere. How do you achieve this in your opinion?
Trevor Burgess: By making a painting I aim to bring back my memory of a place, and make it live again in the painting. Urban space is made by and for people to live in. I want to make paintings that make visible the ordinary business of people’s daily life that is going on around me. Images are ubiquitous now. You can paint anything and there are striking images everywhere. For me, to invest the time in making a painting, it has to be more than an aesthetic thing (although painting is of course about aesthetics and ideas of beauty). For me, the paintings are an attempt to recover my experience as well as being about what will work as a painting. Apart from that, it’s an intuitive thing, steering a painting to harbour. You have to be open to things that the painting needs. You can only control it so much.
Cavaliero Finn: Tell us about the use of colour in your paintings.
Trevor Burgess: Colour is infinitely subtle and everything we say about is a terrible simplification. Colour is the stuff of painting. It is what you dip the brush into and pour or wipe or splash or smear or drip onto the surface of the picture. And one change in one area of the painting changes everything. I rarely do preliminary drawing any more, so I just build the painting up with patches of colour and keep moving them about. So it’s all about colour relationships, how they get on with each other – and somewhere below or buried in all that, the relationships of the colours are the exact equivalent of the human communication in the painting, and in that sense it is completely legitimate to think of colour as a language.
Cavaliero Finn: You often paint on wood. What is it about this surface that you like?
Trevor Burgess: I like wood, it is resistant, resilient and solid. I like that you can wipe off the paint, and smear it whereas canvas tends to stain more easily, unless you build up a very solid ground on the canvas, but then why would you do that as it denies the weave and nature of the material? I use a wide palette knife quite a lot to establish flat areas of colour and the wood pushes back. It’s less vulnerable. But then canvas has its own qualities. I particularly like the way you can get more diffuse liquid effects on canvas because the paints soaks in a bit. But then, I got that with wood as well in the Place to Live series where I didn’t prime the plywood and so the paint soaked into the wood in quite an unpredictable way.
Cavaliero Finn: How did the Place to Live series come to light?
Trevor Burgess: I started cutting out and collecting the photos from Estate Agent Ads in newspapers. They seemed to be such a characteristic expression of living in London, where property is a sort of obsession. But more than this, these endlessly repeated blurred, inadequate images of the buildings and streets that surrounded me every day, built up as images in my mind of my experience of being here in London. I have to confess that I was fascinated by how mundane and banal they were. I knew somehow they were asking to be painted, but for years they sat there in my sketchbook. Then an artist friend of mine showed me some paintings she’d done on bare plywood – and that released it. I could see how I could do them, with glazes so the paint sinks into the wood. Now I have done over 60 paintings in the series.
Cavaliero Finn: How do you like to work – do you sketch, write or photograph first?
Trevor Burgess: I take lots of photographs and then ponder on them for ages, often cropping them to focus on details or a composition that works. I am not a good photographer, so I always think that by making a painting I can redeem the photograph and get back to the experience that prompted it. For many years I resisted painting from photographs. I started painting landscapes in the traditional way on an easel in front of the subject. I did life drawing for many years. Then I started looking for a way to make paintings of figures and I went through a stage of setting myself challenges of inventing figure paintings through improvisation on the canvas. It was only when I came to London that I started using photographs as a starting point. But I carried forward the technique I had been using of painting on the floor, which was introduced to me by the painter John Kiki. Generally, the photograph does the drawing for me, and leaves me free to focus in the process of making the painting on what is happening with the paint. However, I found that when I had a commission to paint Granary Square, which involved including a large number of people, it was necessary to organise the distribution of the figures and the composition in a series of drawings and preliminary sketches. But, ultimately, I do think that paintings evolve out of the material.
Cavaliero Finn: Can you tell us any places that you like to spend time in for inspiration?
Trevor Burgess: I am definitely affected by place – and places I have connection with. I enjoy places where the life of the people who live there is impressed into the environment. Of course, that is the case everywhere to some degree, but there are places where you feel that people have a creative relationship with the space that surrounds them. It can be a tension, but they’ve said, hey, I exist here, you know? This is my place.
Cavaliero Finn: You have previously been commissioned by Townshend Landscape Architects to create a triptych of Granary Square in front of Central Saint Martins in Kings Cross. How do you find working to commission? Is it different from creating work from your own ideas and locations?
Trevor Burgess: I mentioned earlier about how the challenges of the commission led me to do a lot more preliminary drawings and studies. There is also the element in a commission that you have to guide the commissioner through your processes. I was lucky that through this process the commissioner trusted my instincts – for example to make the paintings bigger than we’d originally planned. But this came from the fact that he knew my work and he was interested in how people used the urban space, rather than showing off the design, and that chimed completely with my interests.
Cavaliero Finn: You have won numerous awards for your paintings, which are you most proud of?
Trevor Burgess: It’s always nice- and always totally unexpected – to win an award. When I won a prize at the Discerning Eye exhibition. Somebody had to nudge me at the speeches that they’d said my name. You never expect to win awards, and it’s part of the life of an artist that there are plenty more that you don’t win. When you do win, it’s fabulous – what can you say? Thank you.