Matthew Bainbridge was featured on Young Space in its earliest days, almost 5 years ago! At the time, he had just completed his degree work at Glasgow School of Art. We caught up again as part of the Young Space ‘Revisiting’ series, which takes a look at artists who were featured on Young Space over the years and follows how their work has evolved.
Can you tell me a bit about you?
I’m originally from Jarrow in North East England, an old mining and ship-building town just outside of Newcastle. I did a foundation course there after an unsuccessful first attempt to get into the Glasgow School of Art, which is where I eventually completed my undergrad in painting & printmaking in 2014. I stuck around in Scotland for a while after graduating and was fortunate enough to find a job that generated enough income for me to sustain some sort of practice post-university, which I think is often difficult for a lot of recent graduates. I responded to a lot of open calls and did a bunch of self-organised shows with friends, so always managed to find a pretty consistent stream of opportunities to keep my practice going.
I moved to Montreal in March 2018 and had to leave the majority of my materials at home, so there was a kind of limbo-period last year when my focus shifted almost exclusively onto finding the means to live in a new city rather than making. It’s been difficult to find any art-related work here since my french speaking isn’t great, so I kind of settled with a job I found copywriting for a digital advertising agency. I approached it with a kind of ‘its not forever so its fine for now’ kind of attitude to begin with, but the not-ever-making-anything-ever-blues crept in pretty fast. So I bought a bunch of coloured pencils which at the time I thought would be a pretty rudimentary outlet for me to at least get something done, but having had that bit of distance from my painting-dominated practice as it existed before, actually ended up really highlighting my proclivity for drawing in a way I didn’t expect.
I’ve since went part-time at my day job and now split my time between that and this sort of new sapling-practice I’m exploring. I still don’t have a studio, so I spend a lot of time at a small desk in my apartment, which actually feels fine considering the smaller, more intimate scale of my output now. I recently got involved with GIFC Worldwide and Unibrow, which are two really great initiatives geared towards promoting works on paper. There’s a healthy balance between the two in the way they exist both online and in real life and they’ve both been super helpful in introducing me to this sort of North American diaspora of artists that share in conversations, advice and of course their own work. It’s been super encouraging to have that network made available to me since that’s definitely something I’d miss about working back home – but that’s pretty much where I’m at with my practice now!
When did you first discover art, or realize it was something you wanted to make yourself?
There’s never really been a time where I can remember not ever wanting to make stuff or have some sort of project to work on. I think I had a whole bunch of creative quirks when I was younger – I used to hoard cardboard packaging and toilet roll tubes to make mini dioramas and playgrounds with and ask for rolls of sellotape for Christmas, so I think I’ve always really appreciated the superficial materiality of things and their transformative potential. I also remember having this giant fold-out set of felt-tip pens that had something crazy like 250 colours in it, I’d get paper plates with the scalloped edges and colour in each recess super carefully, or take sheets of kitchen roll and press the nibs into the dots to colour in the pattern. Thinking about it now there are definite parallels in that sort of ingrained attraction to colour and order that are present in my work today, so its just been a question of figuring out how that fits into the context I exist in now I guess.
What do you like most about working where you do?
I actually have a super nice setup at home that’s bright and spacious enough for what I need right now and my apartment is in a great neighbourhood in Montreal. I live on one of those tree-lined streets that I guess are pretty common in North America but less so at home, so that still feels like a bit of a novelty I always appreciate. There’s a certain time of day where the sun casts a really rich, mellow light over my desk which looks great visually and is really cinematic – but is hard to work in, so I’ll spend a while just staring out of the window, or at the piece I’m working on in this really specific, transient ambience. It feels really sentimental in an almost saccharine way, but considering my history with drawing and how I got to sort of reconnect with it – I think there’s a really genuine sense of self-assurance and sincerity to be found there.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
I think since graduating I’ve become less and less concerned about the immediate connotations or symbolism contained within certain images or styles. Maybe this is to do with my own sort of slightly overparticular sense of studiousness, but when I was making stuff at art school I was always acutely aware of the need to satisfy a curriculum and on top of that, a pressure to assimilate not only a sort of canon of artists, texts and movements but also to make new discoveries, and to then somehow miraculously combine all that influence into every work I made. It was never something that was ever prescribed by GSA and was definitely the product of my own overthinking and lack of confidence, but I think its definitely something a lot of students go through. I look back on the work I made retrospectively and of course a lot of it is bad, but having that period of hyper-productivity to go back into and reference a few years down the line is such a valuable resource in affirming your current direction.
I really ran with my natural affinity for the plastic superficiality of how things can look in my final year and even though a lot of what I made felt too fraught or fast to be meaningful at the time, they’re the works I consider really pivotal in determining the course of my development.
The overarching themes of my practice are often as shallow as my work looks – I really like to draw out the inherent flatness of a surface by over-saturating and stratifying it with elements that are visually cohesive but simultaneously disparate in the way they coexist within the picture plane. I guess the end goal of each work is to level the hierarchy of artistic merit between things that have been made up and the things that have been referenced, regardless of their origin, which then opens up conversations regarding truth, fidelity and perceptibility – which I think are where my main interests lie.
Writing about it now it sounds like a bit of subconscious atonement for the anxiety I felt in making stuff at GSA, which it probably is at this point – but maybe that’s the slow emergence of a personal/emotional narrative I think my work is often missing. It’s sometimes difficult to place yourself when you think your work exists in this sort of middle ground not motivated by personal experience or politics – which of course isn’t wholly necessary or immediately edifying in itself, but which a lot of artists are doing really important, progressive and prominent things with – but it’s the persistence of that second-guessing that encourages self-evaluation and manages to stop anything becoming too complacent for me.
What is your process like?
My working process is actually super linear. There’s an obvious pervasiveness of all kinds of imagery from all angles now and I’m admittedly very tuned in to whatever online algorithms present to me. I have boards of saved images filtered into neat grids and divided into categories on Instagram, which I reference a lot, but also have lists of things I’ve written down as notes on my phone that act as a more abstract source. They’re not so organised, so sometimes the binomial nomenclature of something I’ve seen in a museum will sit next to the name of a place I’ve read about that I meant to google later but didn’t, so I have this bank of sort of semi-forgotten points of interest that I think each work has its roots in.
There’s a certain immediacy to drawing that requires you to condense your decision-making process into something slightly more rigorous – there’s also less scope for pencil to do the sometimes material-defying things that paint can be manipulated into doing, so I’ve pushed myself to find a way that encourages these conflicting ideals to coexist. I rarely sketch out a whole composition but rather work on individual elements to completion, one to the next, until a foreground comes into being that I can then spend some time with registering the personality of before moving on. There’s actually quite a lot of spontaneity involved in terms of what appears where and when, but working in this sort of front-to-back way really makes me consider the scale and depth of things and how to communicate that with the limited forms of mark-making available to the material. Although finished works often look super organised, I try to imbue them with the same sense of flow and energy that occurs pretty naturally in painting by allowing them to be informed by these unrehearsed elements.
There’s a pretty definitive end-point to my work, when the image plane is full and the masked edges are removed – then I start the next!
Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
I’ve felt really drawn to a lot of work that exhibits folk or outsider art tendencies lately, but isn’t necessarily made within the criteria of what is considered genuine or exclusive to those realms. I haven’t seen it yet at the time of writing this, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim in New York. Her work treads the line of a lot of boundaries: abstract or representational, drawing or painting; she received a formal education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she studied portraiture and landscape painting, but her work on show at the Guggenheim is explorative of spirituality and a sort of ascension beyond what is immediately perceptible. I’m really drawn to this confluence of ideas where these disparate sources meet and allow a sort of sublimation to occur, where something is born of fact and fiction in equal measure.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
I mentioned before that I work as a copywriter for a digital advertising agency – the company actually only deals with businesses within the automotive industry, which I have little to no real interest in (I don’t even have a provisional driving license…) so there’s automatically a very discernible distance between it and my art practice. There is however a facet of the industry that’s weirdly made its way into my drawings in the inclusion of certain hood-ornaments or emblems of the particular vehicle models that I write about to advertise.
Reason doing so is that there’s a sort of element of desirability, fun or luxury conveyed in these words or symbolic figures designed to initiate a very particular emotional response within the intended audience; the accompanying copy is often hyperbolic, overly-positive and so saturated with superlatives that the actual response is one of ambivalence. There’s a very deep, complicated psychology to the nature of this kind of advertising, but within the context of my drawings – these once ciphers of aspirational wealth or style represent a sort of want to understand and receive gratification from artworks without the expense of much mental acuity. It’s the kind of symbolism I’d usually shy away from, but I’m enjoying the shallow parallels in a kind of comical way for now.
Anything else you would like to add?
This is the third time Young Space has provided me with a platform from which to share my work and thoughts since my first contribution way back in 2014 – which I’m super grateful for! It’s been great to share in the development of the project as its grown and its continued commitment to creating a healthy, accessible network of support for artists worldwide is truly admirable – so thank you Kate!