Narbi Price can come across as being a bit of a closed book; mysterious, quiet, reserved, possibly the kind of person you would see played by John Cusack in a film such as High Fidelity (perhaps too obvious an association as Narbi works at Newcastle Art Centre and skirts on the edge of playing the elitist shop clerk). In those quiet moments of acerbic wit or self deprecation you can catch a glimpse of the character that is omnipresent in Narbi’s paintings; the everyman of British comedy whom Narbi references frequently.
Narbi Price: Apologies for the madness.
Damian Huntley: Ah God, nothing to apologise for.
NP: No, there is; I hate madness.
DH: You hate madness In All its’ forms?
(Cunning and prepared to break down our defences, Narbi laughed as he poured wine for us all)
NP: Cheers guys.
NP: So are we going to have a look at some paintings?
DH: I saw a series of photos of the development of this painting of Bob The Builder; I really liked that you did that, allowing people into your space like that.
NP: Yeah, it was more or less just to kind of understand myself a bit, what I was doing as well and it’s good fun to just flick through those photos.
(I should explain that the series of photos we were discussing here were taken at varying stages of completion throughout the creation of a painting)
DH: So what medium are you working in here?
NP: These are all acrylic.
DH: How long have you been working in acrylics?
NP: Just since I started the Masters. (Narbi is currently working on his MA at Newcastle University) What I used to do was acrylic under-painting and then go back in oil.
DH: So what caused the shift?
NP: I wanted to paint quickly so it doesn’t work like that, just speed.
DH: I know this is a really prying question but how long does it take you to produce a work?
NP: It’s that cliché thing isn’t it, where it’s four weeks and twenty nine years.
DH: It’s interesting seeing how people change, from university it used to take me months to produce every painting because I would spend so much time talking to people in between every brush stroke.
NP: (laughing) obviously every brush stroke being torn out of your body.
DH: That was it for me at uni, I was terrible like that.
NP: I reckon standing in front of the canvas, probably a solid week; it depends on your subject (pointing at an unfinished work hanging in the studio) a lot of these have your big flat colours in them which are really difficult to paint; give me some fiddly stuff, that’s easy.
DH: Like doing a jigsaw. I’ve always admired your work, it’s always embarrassing saying that to another artist but there were not many artists I knew on undergrad who could handle semi- photo-realist work, especially not at your age at university.
NP: I think some of the work I did on the undergrad; there was only one painting that I’d say was properly photo-realist and that was just after I stopped doing kitsch stuff, all this British kitsch stuff; there was this painting of ornamental really stylised smooth cats next to an old clown thing, it was a money box and they were next to each other. That was properly slavishly photo –realist. I think there is more interest to be had by seeing what you can do with the paint itself. These (current works) these started off as me seeing how little I could get away with; kind of born out of me being skint as well on the undergraduate (course) so a lot of my stuff on undergraduate where there’s white paint, there isn’t, it’s the primer. It’s transparent paint and very thinly painted.
DH: I’m a big fan of primer myself.
NP: That led into an interest in how little can you get away with? What do you need for something to be read as a kind of, if not photographic, photo-derived image. You can get away with surprisingly little; it’s more or less a kind of quality of light more than anything else
DH: Absolutely, this is a conversation I’ve had with you before because it took me years from coming away from university and thinking about your work more than anything to figure out what it was, how you got it and it is the quality of light.
NP: I think knowing how to use white is a big thing. Like if you bare in mind that the strongest thing you can do in any individual painting is put something white next to something black; if you know that’s the highest note you can reach or the lowest note you can reach... It’s also about knowing what paint does as well; something I’ve really been focusing on in this new stuff is putting opaque paint next to transparent paint and playing with those and the effect that can have. Generally in all of these (paintings) there’s a lot of transparent paint so it’s working kind of like a glazing / watercolour technique where the light’s bouncing through the paint and that’s juxtaposed with completely flat / dead paint, so that one for instance (referring again to an unfinished piece) the yellow’s completely opaque and even though they’re on the same plane, the gray when it’s finished is going to shimmer a lot more.
Also, knowing when you can turn up or turn down things with the way you can use paint and I use that quite a lot along with compositional devices, you’ve heard me talk about this trail of uncomfortable, through a use of bad composition; intentionally bad composition through having picture planes divided down the middle and horizontally or vertically but balancing them out with observing “correct” composition.
There’s that whole thing as well, that big shift that happens, the shift between a photograph and a painting; the selection process and the fact that you’ve chosen to generally upscale this thing and make it kind of monumental and from the viewer’s point of view, why has someone chosen to devote this amount of time to it? I’m not saying anything that (Gerhard) Richter hasn’t said more eloquently but it all applies.
DH: What’s king for you? Is it control of medium or is it control of subject?
NP: I think they’re completely hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other but obviously they start with that indefinable something that catches my eye and from then I might take three hundred photographs and get two images that’ll end up being paintings. The gap between what you see, what the photograph looks like, what the photograph looks like in the camera, what it looks like on the screen, what it looks like printed out; that is just a massive distance. Obviously the biggest leap of all is the leap to the painting; obviously not just in terms of scale, in terms of how things look, so there’s a whole different level of whether or not something becomes successful from that as well.
DH: You’re fighting against all of the classic things that photo-realists fight against; once it’s on facebook or the printed page, it’s a photograph again and the paintings have to be seen firsthand to be understood
NP: Yeah there’s a quote, I can’t remember who said it now, it might have been Malcolm Morley, where he’s talking about the dumbness of painting a photograph, Malcolm Morley being one of the pioneering photo-realists, no I think it was Chuck Close who said it, how you can take a photograph, paint it, take a photograph of that painting and paint it and start again which is something poignant in Chuck Close’s work considering he’s worked from that stock set of images that he’s worked from since the 60s.
DH: A lot of critics ask, “What is the point of painting a photograph?” what is it for you?
NP: It is that shift.
DH: It is a massive shift and just looking at it on the page you don’t see it at all. Even now if you photograph the work we are sitting looking at, people will question whether it’s a photograph of a painting or a photograph and it’s very loosely painted.
NP: It’s very, very basic. I mean most of the paintings are loosely painted; it’s that thing about the reduction of an image, you scale something up to do a painting but then you see it scaled down it becomes tighter and I think that’s why photorealism has become more photographic over the years. If you look at a Richard Estes, Edward Hopper, any of those quite naff 60s 70s photo-realists and see their paintings in the flesh, they’re incredibly loose and quite crude, whereas if you see an Andrew Grassie or Mark Fairnington; they’re very tight and that’s because that generation of painters have grown up primarily seeing these images of their forefathers in reproduction and a lot tighter. So where does it end? Andrew Grassie for instance, they’re photographic scale as well, in egg tempera and they’re unbelievable.
DH: So where did it begin for you?
NP: I was always that kid at school who could draw a bit, (chuckle) that’s the kind of thing that gets you through school, “let’s not bully him anymore, let’s get him to draw something.”
DH: Kudos is a good reason to start in the arts.
NP: Yeah well it’s also like “Why did you learn to play the guitar?” “To get girls.”
NP: We all do it to get girls.
DH: Was your school a good foundation in art?
NP: Not really, I found myself returning to the school thing, a lot of my work is about my up-bringing and coming to terms with all that stuff. I think these things only ever really have an effect in retrospect, that thing of hindsight being 20/20.
DH: Was there ever a point where art was in the balance against something else?
NP: Not really.
DH: Not even music?
NP: Well I didn’t really get back into music till I was 21 or something like that. I had drum lessons from when I was nine till when I was 11 but then there were no other kids from my school in the county orchestra so it was shit. Then obviously when MeandthetwinS got together Paul ended up living in a house with a drum kit and it was “ah it’s a shame we can’t use this,” and I was saying to Rachel (Lancaster) at the time, “I used to play the drums a bit” so we had a gig in three weeks and I remembered how to play the drums a bit.... 1,2,3,4 2,2,3,4, it was terrible. It grew from there.
DH: Artists always want to be musicians and musicians always want to be artists.
NP: There’s a great kind of heritage of art school bands. We’re sitting in this university where Brian Ferry went and he formed the Gas Board here and all that kind of stuff.
DH: Was your mother a lot of encouragement with your art?
NP: My upbringing has always been a little bit, “Oh let him do what he wants, he knows best.” So long as I wasn’t going out getting girls pregnant and taking crack it would have been alright.
DH: Where are you from?
NP: Hartlepool and all of my undergrad stuff is based on a single walk, a ten minute round trip from me mam’s house. The bus stop with “Fred” written on it, that’s a bus stop I’ve spent countless hours at because there was an arterial bus route that went through Hartlepool, the number 6 from the scummy end, my end to the posh end. I’m interested in that in-between space, arrival / departure, where you have thoughts / where you don’t have thoughts.
DH: I can see where the attraction lies, I took a lot of photos through the bus window on my way into uni.
NP: There’s a painting round the corner that’s taken from a bus window, one of three green bins against a wall.
DH: It’s a different perspective, it’s a perspective you don’t get when you’re walking.
DH: What brought you to Northumbria? Did you do a foundation?
NP: Yeah, I did that in Hartlepool at Cleveland College of Art and Design, which I think is one of only about three or four dedicated art colleges that are left. It’s where Ridley Scott went. Apparently the landscape of Bladerunner is based on this horrible industrial hinterland between Hartlepool and Stockton. If you go there now there are these mountains of skeletons of washing machines and in the middle of it there’s this lonely strip bar... well no it’s just a pub but there’s Tuesday night strippers.
DH: So what brought you to Northumbria?
NP: Actually it was because my grandma was ill at the time and I didn’t want to go too far afield and Newcastle was far away enough to feel like I was moving away but still only 40 minutes away on the train. I’d recommend Northumbria, I had a good time there. I know the support and contextual support that the students get now is far superior to what we got; I think it was going through quite a transitory time when we were there and it got worse before it got better. I did the fellowship there the year after (BA) and the morale among staff was at an all time low and they couldn’t afford to have visiting artists, it was one a year or something like that, whereas when we were there it was something like one a week. They started losing space as well, at one stage only half of the fourth floor was fine art but now since the departments have been put together with social sciences they seem to be doing a lot better.
DH: What did you do straight after the fellowship?
NP: Signed on. I started looking for any menial job; I was actually doing it at the same time because the fellowship was completely unsupported so I had this terrible job working for Nectar loyalty card. It was the dead of winter and I was doing eight to mid day then going into the studio in the afternoon and it was so soul destroying, “Good morning, welcome to Nectar, my name’s Narbi, how can I help?” People who phone call centres at 8 O’clock in the morning aren’t happy people. Back when the Star and Shadow was still Side Cinema I went to see The Rebel the Tony Hancock film, the first time I’d seen it on a big screen so it was brilliant; he’s a wage slave and then one day says “No that’s it, I’m turning it in,” and moves to Paris to become an artist, I saw that and thought, “I can’t go back,” so I didn’t, I signed on.
DH: Did you stop painting at any point?
NP: Towards the end of the fellowship there was a point when I was so skint I was doing biro drawings on these wooden panels that I found.... (chuckles) that was a low point. No point where I stopped making though. It slowed down after that, I struggled finding a studio so I was making drawings and making paintings in the spare room and I probably didn’t make anything for nearly a year; I was constantly taking photographs but I didn’t do anything with them for about a year but that’s the time when I was getting more heavily involved with the music scene.
DH: You’re doing your MA now- what’s brought you back to university life?
NP: just that feeling; doing the 9-5 you know? Having this backlog of images that I wasn’t doing anything with; part of the reason I wasn’t doing anything with them was that it was so difficult to get a studio.
DH: What is it about having a studio?
NP: It’s the frame of mind that it gets you in, “I’m going to work now; I’m going to this place to do this.” If you’re working in the house, “I wonder if Tricia’s on” all of these little distractions. It’s one of the things I love about this place; it’s open 24 hours a day seven days a week.
DH: Does money come into it for you at all? How do you balance your priorities as an artist?
NP: It doesn’t come into it enough (laughing).
DH: Do you think commercial success is something you’ve focused on at all with your work?
NP: No, certainly not. I think I’ve got the unenviable position of making paintings that don’t really appeal to people who’ve got any money.
DH: Is there a breaking point? Do you think you’ll ever stop caring about producing what you want to paint as opposed to commercial success?
NP: No. I mean I’m not sure if it’s something that’s particular to “today’s market”. You make commercially successful art at what price?
DH: How risky do you think it is shifting your practice? There’s a rich history of people like Ron Mueck who was working for Jim Henson’s creature workshop or Warhol who was working as a graphic illustrator. There are examples of artists who have had success after working in arts based industry and completely shifted pace.
NP: The difference there is; that is one way, they’ve gone from a crafty practical thing into a practice, rather than going the other way and shifting practice.
DH: Typically an artist is famous for being eclectic or for what they do in a focused way. Do you think it damages an artist to make a shift from what they are known for?
NP: I think if there’s a dramatic shift it can be seen as an integrity shift rather than a practice shift. How important could this thing have been if they could up sticks and leave it? Will Self was on Room 101 and he said only a boring person ever gets bored and Paul Merton said “What about waiting for a bus” and Will Self said “Well waiting for a bus is endlessly fascinating, is it going to come now? Is it going to come later? When do you cut your losses and leave?
DH: What do you think of Newcastle as an art scene or do you not think of Newcastle as a scene? Do you think of the world as the art scene?
NP: I don’t particularly think of Newcastle as an art scene. I don’t think it’s changed vastly, it’s gotten a lot better in the last ten years but I don’t think it’s changed vastly. It’s had a nice boost from The Workplace guys; I think they are doing things for the right reasons and doing it well. Vane’s new space is good, I really admired what Vane did ten years ago when Vane was the Visual Arts North East festival every October and there was a preview every night for a fortnight in all these disused spaces around the city; I thought that was great. In terms of an art scene or a commercial art scene, I still don’t think there’s the money, the market. I think the art world is less London-centric than it used to be, I think that art fairs have helped with that and art fairs having more of a profile than they had. Now frequently when you go to London, the best way to have a survey of independent galleries is to go to something like the Freize art fair or the Zoo art fair.
DH: Have you done any art fairs outside of England?
DH: Are you interested in being seen outside of England?
NP: From a point of view of making work it’s something I’d like to do. My work is very much about being English. Take David Hockney as an example, when he started being the most English was when he moved to California.
DH: Which artists turn you on?
NP: Turn me on? I like Luc Tuymans, Chuck Close, Roger Kelly, Paul Housley.
DH: I’m going to say something possibly pointless and a little bit cruel; the usual suspects then?
NP: Yeah.. let me throw you a swerve ball .. (pause) no.
DH: No it’s good, I mean a lot of artists aren’t always that honest about where they’ve come from, what they’re interested in and why they are doing what they’re doing...
NP: Well of course there’s the other stuff as well, the stuff that isn’t art; The Likely Lads and Steptoe and Son and Tony Hancock. Those things are massively important.
DH: I’m going to have to think of a different example because I keep coming back to this but it’s because it was significant to me growing up; Alice in Wonderland, it’s an incredible work and I’ve talked about it on the NAS website. Tenniel is only really known for his illustrations of Lewis Carrol’s work but those illustrations are people’s first visual clue into the world of Alice in Wonderland and then Teniell’s work more than the book has inspired everything that came afterwards. Same with Jesus, he was portrayed somewhat like you in the Byzantine and he’s been the same ever since.
NP: If you look on the MFA website, my statement on there it’s got a quote from Steptoe on it, there’s this repeat and Leonard Rossiter’s doing a cameo and he’s just escaped from the nick with an old man and there’s this lovely parallel between them and he says to Harold, “Well thanks for everything,” and Harry H Corbett replies, “It weren’t much, were it?”
DH: How do you see your work in relation to Steptoe and Son? (laughing)
NP: That’s the worst question I’ve ever heard.
DH: There’s a fairly obvious stream between Tenniel and Lewis Carrol; how do you think Likely Lads and Steptoe and Son play into what you do?
NP: Well it’s kind of what I’m writing my dissertation about really.
DH: See it wasn’t that simple a question.
NP: You know the idea of the little man in comedy, I’m interested in the pretentions and the self aggrandising thing and failure; the notion of failure is massively important in British comedy. There’s a line to be traced through from the 50s, probably before then with Tony Hancock, Harold Steptoe, Terry Collier, Rigsby, Basil Faulty, Del Boy up to The Office. This idea that you’ll never quite get there, it feeds into the compositional awkwardness that I was talking about earlier; there’s that. It’s a feeling you know? But all of that kind of stuff is massively massively important. On a practical level, I’m often listening to it while I’m painting. On my i-pod at the minute, I can’t put it on random in case a half hour Galton and Simpson comes on, so it’s not a very party ipod at the minute.
DH: It’s interesting seeing your work in that light. There’s no characters in your work.
NP: No but they’re everywhere; presence in absence, that kind of thing.
DH: When you mention things like that, the small man side of being British it puts a different light on it.
NP: To go back to the comedy thing, probably the main way in which that feeds in is that there’s a complete absurdity to what I do. We can talk on an intellectual level about that painting over there and about the wall and what the graffiti on it means and whether or not the compositional devices are working but at the end of the day it’s still a painting of a bin. It’s just a bin, it’s just a bench; so I enjoy that kind of thing, it’s about how far you can reduce it.
DH: How much do you theorise about what you do?
NP: Depends what you mean by theorise?
DH: A lot of artists bullshit about their work because there isn’t a lot to their work. I think there’s a lot to your work, how much bullshit is there?
NP: There’s no bullshit whatsoever, I make it my absolute mission to not use any art bollox whatsoever. We can talk about the signs, signifiers and semiotics and all that sort of stuff but at the end of the day it’s some mud on a bit of cloth. I’m being kind of knowingly oblique and knowingly self deprecating about it but you know, it needs to be reduced I think.
DH: Most of the people who are going to look at your work aren’t art critics and there shouldn’t be any need to apologise for what you do.
NP: I’m very up front about it. I think it is kind of about catering to your audience a bit as well. In a tutorial I still talk about Steptoe. Another way that all of that feeds in, the thing about the awkwardness I was talking about; that comedy doesn’t belong to me, it doesn’t belong to my generation, I was born in 1979 and it was all over by then. It’s kind of this experience of seeing everything through repeats and being forced to watch them growing up because your mam was watching them. Slowly these things gain in significance, watching things before you get the jokes. It’s interesting though, as much as there’s brilliant things like Galton and Simpson, for every Hancock’s Half Hour, there’s a Man About the House. For every Steptoe and Son there’s a Please Sir.
DH: That thing about British comedy, the final episode of The Office, the Christmas special; that was one of the most beautiful poignant moments in British TV.
NP: What did you think? Daler Rowney Georgian oils... .(laughter) and she’s in the taxi.
DH: The arc of the story was perfect.
NP: It was but I didn’t want there to be a happy ending.
DH: It was one of the few times in British comedy there was a happy ending without it being completely saccharin. Is there an arc to what you’re doing?
NP: Arc is a strange term because it implies that it goes down, it implies that there’ll be an end. I don’t know, I really couldn’t answer that. It’s changing; there’s been a lot more flat colours going on. I dunno, I think things evolve. I wouldn’t see it as an end to a body of work, I’d see it as an evolution.
DH: Like Malcom Morley though painting phone book covers with planes crashing into them, do you think you’ll ever just go mad with painting photorealism?
NP: Not yet. I dunno, we’ll have another bottle of wine and see what happens.
DH: Is there anyone you admire at the minute in your current horizon of artists?
NP: There’s a guy on the course called Satinder Chumber who’s doing some brilliant work and he’s got a background in special effects but he’s just changed completely to doing video art, these brilliant suspenseful videos where nothing happens, just really slow zooms. There’s that Luc Tuymans thing where he says something about, for a painting to be successful it has to have the power of silence. Satinder’s videos really do that.
DH: I think that’s definitely something you can see in your work as well; the power of silence.
NP: Yeah, (laughing) I’ve ripped that quote off a few times but I said the tremendous intensity of silence so thanks Mr Tuymans.
DH: What makes you keep going?
NP: For me it’s that blue or that bit there, the physicality of just making a mark and seeing how that bit of paint will go on, it’s a joy isn’t it?
DH: Do you like your work?
NP: I think so, it’s alright isn’t it? I think some of it’s absolutely mint (laughing, and pointing at a current painting) that blue on there’s great. I think the best thing I’ve heard in quite a while about painting was from Jaisen (Yates) he was in a crit or something and this girl started crying and he said, “Oh don’t worry about it, it’s only painting.”
Words: Damian Huntley
Photography: Ryen Huntley
Narbi's work is currently on show at the Richard Ling gallery Gosforth till September 30th.