Interview | Mychael Barratt
Interview with painter, printmaker Mychael Barratt whose solo exhibition ‘Muses, Maps and Myths‘ opens at For Arts Sake gallery on September 11th:
Let’s start from the early days. Where did your printmaking journey begin?
I studied printmaking at art school but it didn’t really properly hook me. Then I was wandering past the Royal Festival Hall one day when I ducked inside to avoid a sudden rain shower and saw an exhibition of work by artist and printmaker Chris Orr. I was so captivated that I spent hours there and enrolled for a course in etching at Central St Martins the next day.
I was always drawing as a child and was especially fond of the Dutch Masters such as Frans Hals, Vermeer and especially Rembrandt. I had an enormous complete works of Rembrandt that I would carry around with me absolutely everywhere. I tripped and fell on it one day and broke my nose.
What’s your favourite work of art?
Guernica and the monochromatic version of Las Meninas by Picasso; I and the Village by Chagall; The Art of Painting by Vermeer; The Rake’s Progress by Hockney; all of Rembrandt’s self-portraits; and everything by Van Gogh.
Where did you study?
I studied at a small independent art school in Winnipeg and then the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
When did you move from Canada to England and what impact did this have on your life?
My life shifted dramatically when I moved to London as it focussed all of my interests and ambitions. I don’t think I ever would have been able to work full time as an artist in Canada.
What is it about London that appeals? Do you think you being a Canadian gives you a different perception of the city than someone who was born in this country?
I have an immigrant’s zeal for my adopted city that constantly permeates my work. The choice to settle here and to think of myself as a Londoner (though still a Canadian) informs much of my life and artistic choices.
As both a painter and a printmaker do you have a preference and how do you split your time?
The two pursuits operate completely separately. They have very different settings – a busy print studio in Bermondsey and a quiet painting studio in Muswell Hill. As I paint on my own in a studio in my home the painting ends up feeling more recreational but I enjoy both equally. There is never a conflict about which projects become paintings or prints – every idea has a natural medium as part of its concept.
You were elected President of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in 2013. What does this role involve?
It involves many different things. The Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers share the running of Bankside Gallery and much time is spent liaising both the gallery and the other Society. We help to plan the exhibition schedule and direction of the gallery and I meet once a week with the Director and members of Bankside Gallery staff. I represent my members’ interests both outside the Society and on the Bankside Board. I am also responsible for setting the Society’s future exhibitions both within and without Bankside Gallery. We have established two new major series of exhibitions, The National Original Print Exhibition and The Masters which both take some time organising each year. Very time consuming but also very rewarding.
Many of your prints have been selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As an exhibitor, what’s your experience of the show and what impact does being selected have on you professionally?
I love showing at the Summer Exhibition. I’ve been included a handful of times over the years but have had quite large pieces hung in the last three years. It can make quite a difference to your summer especially if you are hung in a good spot. I also love showing at the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy. This year I had my London Map of Days bought by the British Library for inclusion in their permanent collection of maps. Very gratifying.
What is the starting point to a new work?
Every major piece starts with a firm idea. After that I tend to research the pieces for months before the first drawing is done. I combine memory, observation, photography and sketches on virtually every piece.
I am influenced by all of art history and don’t hesitate to pilfer ideas and images. Picasso said once that ‘bad artists borrow, great artists steal’ and I use this as my mantra. In addition to art history, I am often inspired by books, films, plays and random incidents from my life. My favourite area in London is probably Bankside as I have spent much time there between the Globe Theatre, Bankside Gallery and my previous studio on Clink Street. These places have all been hugely important to me artistically.
How important is humour in your work e.g. the Beehive for High Barnett in ‘Notes From the Underground
From art school onwards we are told to avoid humour in your work if you want to be taken seriously but I clearly just can’t help myself.
You like to work your audience with hidden clues and references in your work – would you say you’re a bit of an intellectual tease?
Yes, but I’m not particularly proud of that trait. When this works best I feel that the more work a viewer has to do the more they engage with the piece, providing they are rewarded with minor successes along the way. The titles are conceived at the same time as the images and are very important to the pieces. They are often the clue that leads the viewer to decipher or understand the work.
Can you tell us a bit about the techniques you use, especially in your printmaking?
I am developing a grudging admiration for digital art but for me it is essential for original printmaking to be printed by hand. I am open to any medium however, and have recently used all forms of intaglio, woodcut, linocut, screenprinting and lithography.
Where do your next ambitions lie – what’s your next dream project?
I always have artistic plans stretching years into the future with work already started on big projects for 2017!
Mychael Barratt was born in Toronto, Canada but thinks of himself as a Londoner since arriving for what was meant to be a two-week stay twenty years ago: “From the moment I arrived I was struck by what a fantastic, mercurial and captivating city this is. It has definitely become my muse either as the subject for my narratives or by providing me with endlessly fascinating backdrops.”
He is a painter and printmaker whose detailed work is often as narrative as it is visual and he was commissioned as Artist In Residence for The Globe Theatre throughout Mark Rylance’s reign as Artistic Director.
His book ‘Intaglio Printmaking’ was published in 2008 and his latest publication ‘Muses, Maps and Myths’ will be published on 24th September by Unicorn Press and launched at For Arts Sake gallery.
In 2001 he was commissioned to paint a major piece of public art in the Olympics Borough of Tower Hamlets. He painted an 8×10 meter mural on the side of a building on the Mile End Road, London E1, depicting important buildings from the Mile End and Whitechapel Roads and peopled the scene with a plethora of famous and infamous people that are connected with the area. Mychael Barratt’s painting of the mural is also included in the exhibition.
He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painters-Printmakers in 2002 and in 2013 was elected President and his work has repeatedly been selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
In the spring of 2013 Mychael completed work on ‘Notes From The Underground’; a four-plate etching and relief print done in honour of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. This piece combines a stylised map of the London Underground with 270 specific references to all the stations.
As well as being a painter-printmaker, Mychael is developing a reputation as a cartographer, with three of his ‘maps’ included in the permanent collection at the British Library, including ‘A London Map Of Days’, an eight plate etching joined together in the manner of an ancient map which features 366 date specific references to events or people throughout London’s history.
Mychael Barratt’s solo exhibition ‘Muses, Maps and Myths‘ will run at For Arts Sake Gallery from 11th September to 11th October 2015. To meet the artist and attend the private view and book launch on 10th September email [email protected].