Sabine B. Vogel: How long have you used ornament in your art? What helped you decide to use it initially?
PHILIP TAAFFE: In my work I deal with not only the history of painting but also with architecture, archaeology, and anthropology, so my decisions have as much to do with what I leave out as what I include. When I make a decision to engage a subject, it has to be something very meaningful to me. I feel a very personal connection with all the images that I’m working with. In this respect the importance of ornament is that it signifies an encapsulation or crystallization of a cultural energy embodying the geographical place and the historical time from which it emerges. This element then gets distilled (an alchemical concept) to a fragmentary concentrated symbol that stands for the entire lived cultural reality specific to the original place and time from where it is drawn. That’s the essence of the beauty of ornament for me.
Later I am able to work with and build upon that seed of an image to create something of my own fiction, my own fantasy — but not a fantasy, really more of an imagined pictorial reality, which is a place. I think of a painting as occupying a separate and distinct place, both physically and geographically. I know a painting is an imaginative construct, but it is also a location that the viewer can have in his or her mind and imagination. That’s an important function of painting for me: the degree of transference that can take place between ideas and cultures, and between the mind of the painter and the viewer.
SBV: Do you prefer particular patterns or ornamental traditions?
PHILIP TAAFFE: I do quite a lot of research into the decorative and ornamental motifs that attract me. I search out old books and visit museums, and learn about the visual source material. In the course of this activity I am always struck by the way forms tend to migrate across different cultures. I concentrate on these elements and study and make notes and sketches. Eventually something emerges from this research, which I identify, isolate, and hold aside for a time. Then I go into another area of research and take something out of that and compare it to what I have found previously. I start to make these connections, and before I know it I have a group of disparate images that seem to be taking on a certain relationship or interconnectedness. That’s an intimate process and the results are always very surprising to me. Then as I begin to draw and change these elements, I study the similarities and differences more deeply, and in the process I’m internalizing these shapes and lines and images, and before I know it I have an individual cast of characters that I can use as part of my theatre of operations, my theatre of signs.
SBV: What role does ornament play in your paintings and installations?
PHILIP TAAFFE: Next, when I begin the painting, I start to use these elements gesturally, so they become animated, energized, expressive tools–that’s another way of internalizing them. First I familiarize myself with them through research and make choices as to which images belong together. Then through drawing and making linocuts and relief plates and silkscreens, I become more intimate with the material, embracing these images until I really know them. Finally when I make the painting I begin to use them in ways that break that familiarity, which is a process of abstraction and all that this word entails. All of this becomes very complex, but at the same time it also becomes more and more open and free. A lot of this constraint—the strict decision making and the discipline of making these choices—is ultimately in the name of freedom and liberation: liberating the imagery and liberating myself as an artist, trying to bring my understanding of contemporary reality to a new point through this process of research and discovery and implementation.
SBV: Do you see a shift in how ornament is perceived compared to traditional meanings and assumptions?
PHILIP TAAFFE: Matisse would be a good example of how people misunderstand the decorative aspect; on his level, it really has to do with a personal struggle. There is even a lot of pain involved in the process. It’s not about happily filling a space, it’s about having a dialogue with other cultures, having a real voice; it has to do with expression and enunciation, in very specific pictorial ways, through the medium of painting. It’s about making an articulate, visual presence, and that is different from decoration. I love decorating, but painting is entirely something else, and what I do is entirely something else.
Finally, my attraction to the decorative has to do with my own genetic memory. Very often I feel as though I have a memory of a certain place and time, which is part of my genetic makeup, an archaic consciousness that emerges as I am working. Painting is a manifestation of human consciousness: it’s traveling back in time and knowing the past is a part of us. These are not dead artifacts to me, they represent a living reality. To find that living archaic reality, to feel it and to have that awakened moment is what I search for: anagnorisis, this Greek tragic idea of recognition. All of a sudden you are there.
SBV: Thanks a lot!
Interview for the catalogue of „Political Patterns“, ifa Gallery Berlin, Stuttgart 2011. curated by Sabine B. Vogel