Malcolm Willett: The Meaning of Abstraction

From what age did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

Well it’s not quite as simple as that, I was blessed with being good at lots of things, so being an artist was an option of many, and as it turned out the schooling system didn’t allow you to do science and art at A level. I couldn’t follow everything, so art was something that I had to give up. I dropped it when I was 16. I was a natural, but I guess I didn’t value it at the time, certainly my parents didn’t, they thought I should pursue my scientific abilities. I ended up applying to study medicine, but I didn’t get the A-Levels for it, so I went to university and ended up studying bio-chemistry.

 Rise before the Fall, 2015, Acrylic and Gouache on Paper. 93 x 73 cm.

I liked biology and I liked chemistry, but I didn’t realise that bio-chemistry was the most boring bits of both, so cut forward another four years and I came down to London and I didn’t know what to do. I remembered that I could draw, but it was hard to find a voice at that point. I did a few life drawing classes and did an exhibition in Brixton, in a pub on Acre Lane, and I didn’t sell anything. That was it, I thought ‘this is rubbish’ I didn’t try very hard to keep going with art, but a few years after that my wife (well, she was my girlfriend then) said ‘well you can do cartoons can’t you? Why don’t you have a go at being a cartoonist?’

With a bit of help from her financially that got me started on being a cartoonist which then got me more into illustration and then finally, years later I have found time to think about painting again.

So, you are back to exploring it again?

Yes, but with all that experience in between.

What were you trying to achieve with these abstract paintings?

When you are a young artist, you are quite often very attracted by representational art and you think that it is amazing that someone can draw what is in front of them and it looks exactly like it. That is what I would have been interested years ago, but I completely turned around now and I am bored with anything that is representational and I want to do work in abstract ways, but still with a hint of representational art in there.

These ones are purely abstract, they aren’t meant to represent anything. What I like about abstract art is that the human brain is so attuned to looking for patterns and looking for shapes that you can look at an abstract painting and each time you look at it you will see something in the form, and it will perhaps set off an emotion in you. When I show these paintings people tell me about what they see in the picture and it is always very interesting. It’s not at all what I would see in the picture but that is their brain seeing things.

The ambiguity leads to the viewer getting a reflection of their own mind in the shapes, like a Rorschach ink blot test.

Yes, it is like that. It always bemuses me when people talk about abstract paintings having meaning. I’ve been standing in front of abstract paintings (not mine) and people have said to me ‘well, what does it mean?’ and I thought ‘what a silly question’.  I didn’t want to offend them but I tried to point out that it was an abstract painting and that it probably didn’t mean anything, it means what you get from it, or what it sets off in your own head. The artist is not trying to tell you anything, if he wanted to tell you it he would have used something a bit more obvious. So, abstract painting is a bit more exciting for me, each time you come to it and look at it, it could mean something different, and it could be anything. You can get so much more from it, whereas with representational paintings you will always get the same story.

Better Remain Silent

So is it making the viewer ask a question as opposed to giving them an answer?

Yes, I’m not one to over intellectualise painting. An abstract painter I know used to make up stories about what his paintings meant, because people would forever ask him what it was about. Because he worked in a completely spontaneous way and he would get his canvas and just splash paint all over, there was no conscious thought, maybe something subconscious in his brain but no conscious thought during the painting process. The finished painting would set off ideas in his head, so the story would come after the painting was finished.

Why do you think the general public are so determined to negotiate some sort of meaning out of the artwork?

I think that applies to everything in life; everyone wants to know the meaning of life, of why did I get cancer instead of that bad guy, people always ask questions about meaning and often there is no meaning. I think there is just coincidence of events and timing and the rest of it. I am quite happy with that, but a lot of people want to have a meaning and they will grab one even if it’s a load of rubbish. They just want to have a simple answer and life is not simple, it’s really complicated.

Do you think that is a fear of the unknown? Because they can’t place something they want to put it in a folder in their head, put it away and to rest?

That’s one way of looking at it. Who has the time to think about all of these things too much, but it is quite satisfying that things can fit in boxes and you can put it away and be finished with it and move onto the next thing.

Who would you say is your biggest influence when it comes to abstract work?

I am a big fan of Richard Diebenkorn’s work, he wasn’t always an abstract painter, he did a lot of representational stuff but he actually tries to combine abstract with representational work. That would be my ideal, to have a painting whereby you really aren’t quite sure whether it is representational or abstract, you have a bit of both, on the cusp. So I could say to people there is something in that painting, and there is a real story and you could just make it out if you were given the clues.

So with the spontaneity of the abstraction, but also you are pointing people in the right direction.

It would be very difficult to cheat because I work in two different ways, these paintings were just done without thought, where with my other paintings I have something in front of me and I am trying to paint that.

So it’s automatic painting, like the surrealists, in the absence of control.


How do you enforce that? Every time I have tried to do automatic painting I have passed a half way point and have noticed patterns which I then start work with, some sort of conscious decision does begin to work

Yes, well each painting is individual for me, and obviously that can and does happen, but with abstract painting you don’t know how it is going to turn out and if you are keen to work with it you have to do lots and lots of them and accept that 99% of them will probably be rubbish.

It’s experimentation.

Absolutely, and if you find you are doing certain things and you don’t like but you can’t help it you have to find a way to force yourself out of that habit, being conscious of certain movements.

Fish out of Water

You are going for abstraction, but there is an aesthetic contemplation within each piece, in the sense that you are waiting for the one that works.

Yes, it’s one of those situations that you don’t know until you have done it you can’t plan it. And if you like it, you like it. If you don’t you should probably destroy it.

What would you say has been the most pivotal moment in your art career so far?

I think coming to the studios here at Make Space, because prior to that I was working at home and the isolation of being by yourself didn’t suit me at all. It was fine for my illustration work, I was working for four, five magazines every week so I had plenty of work to do and it was fine for that, but artistically it was not very helpful.

Around the same time my wife took on the job of Principal of Hampstead School of Art, and she encouraged me to enrol in some of the classes there. Being exposed to different disciplines and getting back into painting after years of just using a computer was great for me. I did life drawing, portrait classes and abstract painting classes. The abstract class was a real eye opener for me after all those representational life drawings and really hard for me to let myself go.

Seismic Shift, 2015, Acrylic and Gouache on Paper. 93 x 73 cm.

Between those two things and me being here in the studio where I could practice art and it’s a messy business, not something you want to do at home.

What do you hope for the future of your art?

I am trying to go away from representation and more towards abstraction. I think I am slowly developing these ideas, unfortunately mostly in my head at the moment, because I am not finding the time to paint, as I am working on animations which take a very long time. Interestingly my ideas for painting feed into what I do, they are all visual so I get ideas from one area which will feed into another. I also, do a bit of sculpture as well, so there are three dimensional aspects which go into it.

I hope to find more time for painting and to make money and have the time. If I didn’t have to earn money I would spend all day painting, but as long as I have got paid work to do I shall be doing that.

So maybe to get paid more for the painting?

Yes, if my paintings sell then I shall do more of them. Some people keep pushing paintings out and not selling them, in fact hundreds of artists do that, and I presume they are painting because they want to do them and they have the time, that’s fine. In fact that is the best reason, but given that I don’t have that much time, if they don’t sell then I won’t push it as I need to be practical as well.

Ultimately I would like a great big huge studio. I always remember thinking when I was younger that I wanted to be an abstract expressionist and the idea of flinging great pots of paint around really appealed to me, but to get to that point you have got to have tons of money.

I am also keen to do more sculpture, but it’s difficult as I am being pulled in different directions, it’s hard to concentrate on one

Malcolm WIllett shall be exhibiting his abstract paintings in Focus LDN's 2016 Winter Exhibition. 

For free tickets click here.