Percept/Pathos: Colm Mac Athlaoich in Conversation with Erik Bergrin
Conversation / June 2021
Percept/Pathos: Colm Mac Athlaoich in Conversation with Erik Bergrin
By Jacob Barnes
Colm Mac Athlaoich: For this exhibition, the source material for my work stems from images that I found online, which you had posted. I’m using them with a particular intention, which we will discuss, but fundamentally it’s centred around the idea of methodology and process, which is what makes [the photographs] interesting for me. That’s to say, there’s a reason why I’m using this source material – it serves a purpose, and there’s a relevance.
Erik Bergrin: People are attracted to things for specific reasons. There are so many images that you’re not attracted to, that when you see something that’s drawn you in and you feel connected to it, it’s always more than just deciding to use an image.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: It also depends what your practice is as well – like, when you make work inspired by Buddhist monks, even the material becomes important as part of a broader process and project. For me, that elevates the work and gives it more gravitas, when an idea becomes all- encompassing. Although, when I’m painting, the visual message can be read in different ways, through colour, style, methods – it’s still important to maintain the thread connecting my ideas from my painting to my source material. So, what really interested me in this series of photographs that you posted was the journey of the image itself: there were black and white images that were colourised, and then they were posted online. Then I took it, I did a series of drawings, and abstracted it to the point where it became a painting. So it’s a simple, straightforward story of how artists work with source imagery, but I wanted to draw attention to both that initial attraction to an image, and its subsequent journey; its activation. You probably still remember the original photographs?
Erik Bergrin: Yeah, I do remember them.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Something that I quite liked as well was the way that you did a little synopsis of each photograph. Were they your words or were they taken from somewhere?
Erik Bergrin: They were taken from the book of photos. It took me a long time to do, and I usually don’t do those posts. There were a lot of photographs, and I had to choose which ones to use, and then remember the order that I posted them in order to write the caption. It was a lot of work, but they were so amazing that it really felt worth it.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: It’s interesting what you said in an email to me: it’s quite easy to over-intellectualise and to put words onto ideas; to dissect photographs, and unravel this attraction. But there’s something incredibly poignant about them on their own, there’s something immediately alluring about them. I think the colourisation of these photographs definitely activates them – it’s like breathing life into something that was dead. I think the original [black and white] photographs would have been incredible as well, but the colourisation definitely hits you.
Erik Bergrin: Putting words to things puts them in a box, and you can’t actually experience anything. However, it is always interesting to know why I’m attracted to something. For example, on my Instagram, there’s a running thought between them all, but I don’t know if I could articulate what that thought is.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: I can see that. Maybe you can call that your aesthetic? But I think it’s probably something more than that; you can’t just reduce it into a single word. Every post you do is probably loaded with the experience that led you to that image. But this particular show is called “Percept/Pathos”. “Percept” as a term interests me; the difference between a percept and a concept is that a percept involves sensations and memories, whereas concepts only involve memories. So when you see it, it’s more than just a memory trigger, it’s a sensory trigger as well; it’s often something that you actually can’t explain, and words will do no good. But what interests me about this term is that I can draw a lot of parallels to painting and how we actually see and look at art. We can talk and describe the ideas behind it, but ultimately, my explanation or someone else’s explanation falls on deaf ears when a spectator looks at it, because they’ll experience it for themselves, and see it in a way that you can’t dictate to them.
Erik Bergrin: Do you think, as the creator, that you can have a desired effect on people, and basically trigger the same sensorial response for everyone?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Maybe the reason why I’m pulled towards abstraction is that I like to leave the image unresolved; I like to leave the viewer to find something else in the image for themselves, allowing the image to continue existing without a “full stop”. There’s always a friction between realising the image – it’ll be nearly recognisable, and then it’s not. And that’s always a challenge with yourself – you’re fighting to resolve an image for yourself, and then you have to pull yourself back; stop yourself. But that’s the act of painting, I suppose. Is it different when you’re making a garment? Maybe your design has to be very exact for when it gets to the cutting room; maybe the thought process is different?
Erik Bergrin: I go through so many changes throughout that I’m never really sure where a piece will end up. There are a lot of unknowns – I’ll often start with drawings (which I usually like to stick to) but they change, and come back, and there’s always an element of chance.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: It’s quite nice to take work on that journey. I mean, you can’t create something from thin air, there needs to be a starting point or subtext, but from there, how it gets resolved is a very personal thing.
Erik Bergrin: How do you know when to stop?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: It can be difficult; sometimes it’s very tempting just to keep going. I mean, if I had more time, I probably would keep on adding layers and pushing the image further into obscurity. A lot of it has to do with your headspace as well, because there’s a lot of sitting and staring at the canvas for hours, doing nothing. Also, for me, music features in the process – I have a background in music, particularly jazz and classical music, which has informed much of the structure of my work. Not to draw too many parallels, but there are harmonies and rhythms. I do definitely believe my background in music has played a role in how I work and how I stop a piece.
Erik Bergrin: Did the music come first?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Yeah! I probably would have been drawing as a kid – you know, crayons and all that – but in terms of formal training, it was music.
Erik Bergrin: That makes sense to me – even though jazz seems so chaotic, there’s still a kind of structureless structure.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Jazz is very structured; it’s so phenomenally structured, but they make it sound chaotic. That’s the genius of jazz – you’re an architect and a labourer at the same time; you’re designing and building on the spot.
Erik Bergrin: And what about colour in your paintings; how do you use colour?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: I suppose I would use colour as a form of expression. My relationship with colour is very intuitive, and becomes a kind of guiding language. In that regard, it’s much like my relationship to music. For me, colour can sometimes take over form, and can be what leads the way forward with any given painting. And considering this battle with form, it’s nice to have colour as a dominant tool in my arsenal. Even with these source images, which were coloured, they maybe offered hints, but I didn’t strictly use the colours of the images.
Erik Bergrin: I hate the word “intuitive,” but I don’t think there’s really another way to say it: with colour, it’s rare that I make something and question what colour it should be. I always stick to earth tones and tones that are organic. In fact, I recently was working on a piece, and because the material I was using comes in different colours, I was trying different colours, and I don’t think I had ever done that before. I’ve never questioned why I don’t do that before, but now you’ve brought it up – I guess I feel like, for me, colour is very secondary to material.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: It must be very different for you because you have to decide before the actual production [of materials], whereas with paints, it’s a different process. It’s like the score that you write – you have way more immediate power. I believe everyone has an “Inner Palette” that they tap into, for sure.
Erik Bergrin: Do you think that because you’re a painter, and you can make that immediate colour change, that you then change it more? Or rather, because I have to think about that stuff before I actually do it, and it’s more of a process to change it, that my process develops more of an intuition, because I’ve had to? Or do they still work in the same way?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: My background before painting was in printmaking, so when you’re working with that process, colour is a bit like with textiles: you have to decide what colour plates to use. You can’t be as liberal with your style. I’m very conservative with my decision making, initially; I don’t just go wild with the paint. It’s quite methodical, actually, and I do labour for quite a long time over deciding what the next colour should be. But I also use colour to reconstruct form – so if there was a pencil sketch line that was cutting across the canvas, I’d mix a canvas colour paint to cover it. I very rarely use a brush – I use palette knives – so you’re scooping and mixing and spreading and scraping, and it actually becomes quite a physical process.
Erik Bergrin: It seems like you have some pretty good outlets – painting and music.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Well, painting, music, and cycling – although I did recently get into meditation as well, which has been great! I’ve been doing this thing called watsu massage – do you know it?
Erik Bergrin: I don’t! I’ll have to check it out. But I do want to ask: Do you ever design your paintings beforehand? Does design come into it at all?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: That’s a really interesting question! There definitely is a design aspect, in that there’s a composition that ends up on the canvas, which I’ll arrive at from a series of sketches and drawings of the source material – I need something to start with. I’ll often do a sketch from the source, then project that sketch onto the canvas and do an outline, so I’ve got a framework to work with. So in that sense, there is an element of design, but it’s only to get away from the original source, because I don’t want to copy the original. By the time there’s an image on the canvas, it’s gone through a few rounds of drawing and projection, and so forth. But like I said, I’m designing with colour and using colour gradients.
Erik Bergrin: When the drawing is on the canvas and ready to paint, do you usually do the drawing?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: No, no – the drawing is just something to bounce off. When I start painting, the foundation [of the drawing] is this point of control, and then you reach a point when you start figuring out what you need to do. Once the pieces begin to come together, you can take liberties and make decisions. Actually, I’ll purposely force myself into difficult situations with painting – I’ll decide to put “problematic” colours down and then cover over a big section that I’ve already worked on in order to figure out how to fix it. I suppose part of my practice is that I’ll purposely self-sabotage the work at times to get out of my comfort zone, and out of the neatness of working in a certain way.
Erik Bergrin: It seems like you put yourself in those tough situations because [that struggle] is where the gold is going to come from.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: The more you practice something, the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the easier it becomes. Naturally, as a human, you figure out ways of problem solving so that you don’t have to face those problems anymore. And I think in many ways, painting is problem solving, meaning that you constantly have to generate challenges for yourself. That’s the rationale of the self- sabotage. It’s also a way to not take your process for granted; you have to think about how and why you do things.
Erik Bergrin: Coming from a design background, I was making costumes and then started making sculpture. So I’m still doing sculpture from almost a design standpoint, but [the sculptural process] is a lot more free-flowing, with much more “release.” But I do often go back to costume design, so I’m balancing between art and design. This isn’t everyone’s process, but there’s something about art that makes me want to approach it as more free-flowing, without always planning it out.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Well, I would definitely identify you as an artist – but these titles are irrelevant for me. It’s more about hearing your process and about how you make your work which is intriguing. I rate artists by what inspires them and how they go about realising that in a piece. So you’re an artist – although, you may not align yourself with the art world.
Erik Bergrin: It’s just that you have to find the place for these [works], but I also don’t really want to – gallery shows make the most sense because I’m not making them for stage or screen, and I guess they don’t have much of a purpose beyond being displayed. I’m kind of floating between these distinctions. There is a hierarchy, though: when you’re called an artist, it’s a step above a designer in a sense. It’s not, really... but there’s something there.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Maybe that has to do with the commercialisation of fashion, but there are of course designers who work on specific projects, get funding, and they’re incredible – they bow to no one.
Erik Bergrin: But painting – that’s so free-flowing.
Colm Mac Athlaoich: Painters: we carry a heavy history on our shoulders in the canon, which we’re constantly reminded of. Talking to a lot of French and Belgian painters in Brussels, they’re super conscious of the history of painting in their country. Conversely, being Irish, we’re more famous for our writers than our visual arts, so I feel completely liberated in that sense. I feel free to do what I need to do.
1. Courtesy of Grove Collective