Interview with Michael Ajerman, August 2013
Alli Sharma: The pumpkin is strongly linked to the American traditions of Thanksgiving and Halloween, how did your first pumpkin painting come about?
Michael Ajerman: The first was made on a whim. A friend of mine had bought me one in the autumn to celebrate finishing my application for extending my UK visa for the first time. In the back on my mind I thought about painting it.
I made a deal with myself that I would carve the pumpkin once the application was off in the post and left it on top of a large jar of paint on a table. In the morning somehow the pumpkin had fallen off the jar and off the table, collapsing onto the floor.
So here I got this pumpkin, that I was procrastinating in painting, and I can't move the object, it felt as if I would move it, it would crumble. So, I got right too it, time was short, the pumpkin was beginning to ooze. I made the painting and then the pumpkin had to go in the trash.
I think everyone, including myself who saw that painting knew I was onto something fresh. At times, there does not feel like there is much space with all the history of and in paintings. The pumpkins always felt like breathing for me, but also left me completely perplexed about what I was going to do to it. We never carved them when I was growing up, I remember my mom would let me draw on them with black marker. That pumpkin was the first pumpkin I ever carved.
Image wise the only 'pumpkins in art' that come to mind was the Sonic Youth cover for Bad Moon Rising. It would be years later that I found out that Euan Uglow made one.
Pumpkin, 2004, oil on board, 27.5 x 27.5cm
Private Collection, London
AS: It was necessary to make the pumpkin painting quickly then? Do you like to get things down fast?
MA: The first one yes, I mean, it was on the floor, shattered, rotting and oozing. It was either paint it and then bin it, or just bin it. The speed is just something you have to expect. Once you make a single indentation with a knife or drill or nail through the pumpkin you accelerate it's decay. The last pumpkin I had in the studio from October to May. It changed very slightly, but once an incision was made in the Spring, you are racing against time, no matter how well you clear out it's inner structure. I like to get things strong and direct. Fast doesn't seem like the right term
AS: Do you think you responded to this urgency in the painting of it or did the oozing pumpkin subject matter suit how you like to paint?
MA: I think I like to take my time in general, but there are various deadlines that can occur in any work, a person can not sit anymore for a portrait so you have one or two sessions left so you have to make stronger and clearer choices. I always think I have a lot of time, and then I seem to realise there is a crisis and I better move forward as directly as possible.
AS: Do you always paint directly from things and not images?
MA: I do both. I really don't want to be pinned down to a specific method for working. A lot of paintings over the years have been following memories, or ‘diving within’. I like working that way but it is incredibly exhausting. Most of the figurative oil pieces are done that way, some with photos some not. Looking at something, or someone has always been a way of working for me. The pumpkins have been great to paint because it seems to be something I can react to in that way of looking, and respond with colour much more clearly. The amount of information is ripe, so in a sense you are minimising it. Or using the information, sometimes just in sections to get the painting to do what you want it to do. The pumpkins are never a complete literal copy, I'm not doing realism.
AS: There is the strange anthropomorphic character of the pumpkin, menacing, and definitely alive. They become their own characters?
MA: I spend a lot of time with the pumpkin completely confused as to what to do to it. In a sense it's like stage fright. Something finally happens, I make the decision of what to do, to the 'face' or even to the scale of the piece. The faces have been a way of making a portrait in a sense without a traditional sitter. I think it relates to making a persona with very little. The menacing nature, is coming from me.
Drivin' on 9, 2012, oil on linen, 61.5 x 56cm
AS: Has it become a seasonal thing? As a breathing space do you still feel the desire to make a pumpkin painting occasionally?
MA: I made the first in 2004 and it has become an annual event. You can only get them in grocery stores in September and October and then they are gone. Sainsburys actually clears out all pumpkins from all of their stores on November 1st. Where they go is a mystery. By doing one a year, it doesn't become a cliche - it becomes an event, which is much more exciting. I don't think I could make more then one pumpkin a year that would be successful to my demands on my work. Each one seems to reflect different ideas and different years. 'Say something once, why say it again' - Talking Heads.
AS: Can you tell me about the other paintings in the show and how they relate to the pumpkin pieces?
MA: They all come from an interest in objects that are hollow, concave, or have an internal empty space. I seemed to realise this afterwards. I think the hollowed out object gives me the chance to solidify the exterior in some way through the act of painting. With the stuffed toy in the teapot it was more literal, the image seemed almost like a cannibalistic joke.
AS: And the paintings of figures on horseback have been influenced by your interest in film?
MA: The Mad Max paintings came out of a hiccup or a transformation. I was working on a painting of an outstretched arm and before I knew it, the painting bottomed out and the arm became a horizon line, suggesting an open rural space, then other marks became a horse. The horse took me to a scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that has always stayed with me, the 'Gulag' scene. Mel Gibson is thrown into a barren desert, tied up on a mule as punishment. They stick a huge Mardi Gras mask on his head of a man's face with a hat, and off into the desert he is sent. The image seemed to fit with where I wanted to take painting at the time, the head we see being a hollowed out mask, covering the real face. It is oversized and cartoony. So having to place that onto a realistic body that was smaller in scale, and on top of a horse with all of it's textures, whilst also trying to depict a sense of the heat and the desert, made it complex to make. I haven’t seen the film in years, and in a sense it's a memory of the film or the scene itself, and I worked very hard on the intense cropping and composition of those paintings.
Study for Gulag, 2013, oil on board, 40.5 x 30.5cm
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