nicolas rule

Leslie Tonkonow: Do you think of yourself as a painter or as a conceptual artist?

Nicolas Rule: Before I went to art school I called myself a conceptual artist. Then I went to art school and painted. I was as much grounded in conceptual art or the history of art as I was in the actual physical manipulation of paint on canvas.

Tonkonow: Your work has a certain minimal-conceptual attitude. Is that something you consciously think about?

Rule: I don't think this is true in terms of attitude; in terms of style, perhaps. I do use the iconography of minimalism and the iconography of conceptualism. I say "use" but it is possibly misleading because this iconography is not picked from history as one choice over another. It is the necessary outcome of an attitude, but that attitude, I'm sure, is not shared by the artists who initiated minimalism and conceptualism in the sixties. I do think about what specifically painting, as opposed to other media, can mean and what paintings in a very general sense — any painting hanging on a wall — can mean.

Tonkonow: What about the typography that you use in both the works based on horse genealogies and those that excerpt text from the novels of H.P. Lovecraft? Do you see the style of the type as a cultural signifier?

Rule: I've only used a few styles of type, probably seven or eight at the most. It's an interesting subject for me. To scan the history of type is to follow minute adjustments that might not be visible in themselves but become apparent when one looks at a full page of type. A hair's breath of difference in a serif adds up to so much more or less light on the page.

Tonkonow: Is that kind of graphic expression important in your work? Maybe it's not even an issue.

Rule: Well, I'm very particular about measurement — measurement on a very small scale, say, the thickness of a line or a slight variation in the hue of a color. And I do have to choose which typeface to use; some will work, most of them won't.

Tonkonow: In the text paintings, the style of type that you use has a more narrative relationship to the actual words. It conveys a gothic feeling while the writing in the horse paintings doesn't.

Rule: Yes, in the Lovecraft paintings I use an American woodblock face, a display type from the end of the nineteenth century that, in fact, you might see on those old Wild West "wanted" posters. But, of course, the way it looks when painted with a brush is different. In the horse paintings I use a rubber stamp alphabet that, in the type book, looks neutral and "informative," like the smart look of conceptual art, but looks different when printed with paint on a canvas.

Tonkonow: Are the horse and text paintings related or do you see them as separate but parallel bodies of work?

Rule: They are related, but I hope you wouldn't have to know one to know the other. To me the difference is comparable to the difference between, say, a landscape and a portrait.

Tonkonow: I have my own ideas about how they relate, but how would you say they relate?

Rule: Well, let's see what your ideas are.

Tonkonow: When I visited your studio for the first time, it immediately occurred to me — probably because you are British — that your paintings were ironic commentaries on the English gentry and the tradition of class difference, the importance of ancestry — that are not supposed to be important in this country but are probably just as significant to Americans as they are to the British. And I think this was especially apparent during the eighties when the English manorhouse look became so fashionable. So for me, your work has a lot of cultural satire and humor but also a bit of a political edge.

Rule: I suppose I'm attracted to popular images of aristocracy — Ralph Lauren and Vincent Price come to mind. Art has a lot to do with not being middle-class.

Tonkonow: Is that true of the horse paintings as well?

Rule: Pedigree is the last word in snobbery; but there are other reasons for using the names of horses. The horse paintings are lists of names. It seemed suitable to use horses as opposed to people because names of people would have a more direct relationship to something we know about. One would always be thinking, "Who is it?" The names of thoroughbred horses constitute a kind of language of their own — like a dictionary. Their names describe all sort of things.

Tonkonow: Does your personal and cultural history figure importantly in your work, like the fact that you are British?

Rule: I don't think I would be making this kind of work if I hadn't been living in New York for the past ten years.

Tonkonow: Do you consciously try to engage your work in the culture outside the art world? Is there a socio-political subtext?

Rule: I'm always aware of the privilege that has to be granted to people in order for them to either make or take an interest in what we understand as contemporary art.

Tonkonow: So you accept that art is inherently an elitist activity?

Rule: Unless art exists in the form of public sculpture or an unlimited edition, the world at large has very, very limited access to it. Whilst this might offend people's sense of what is politically correct, I don't see anyone trying to change it, least of all artists. It's definitely a club with limited membership; no one seems to want to have it any other way.

Tonkonow: Does your work criticize that elitism?

Rule: As best as it can, I think. I am preoccupied with the idea of overrefinement, which is the theme behind a lot of horror stories — the overrefinement of a sensibility. You know, Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher — that sort of thing. Painting can be a very morbid activity.

Tonkonow: In some of your earlier paintings the letters would drip red paint. I never really dwelled on the obvious connotation of blood. I saw them as a self-conscious gesture about paint. But you must admit that the connection is obvious.

Rule: Yes, I definitely had blood in mind. There's been no reason for me to identify colors other than red, blue, or violet. With these colors any associations are limited to blood or things vaguely macabre. The bloodline is a means of getting a series of colored vertical lines on the canvas. It is a kind of template.

Tonkonow: What about the pieces with no text, where you have a graph or the remnants of the ge-nealogical chart without the names missing?

Rule: They're images of multiplication or proliferation and its opposite, breeding and inbreeding.

Tonkonow: Does the drip refer to abstract expressionism?

Rule: Yes, but to the extent that a drip — well, one of these drips — is directed by gravity. I tend to think of Gothic architecture and the way it stresses the vertical. A drip doesn't necessarily have the same meaning as a blot or a splatter, but all somehow literalize the use of paint by reminding one of its fluidity.

Tonkonow: Your drips don't appear to be accidental.

Rule: Well, some are accidental and some are controlled.

Tonkonow: Accidents were important to the abstract expressionists.

Rule: I don't think it matters whether the formal image is a result of accident or deliberation. I suppose, to the abstract expressionists accident was indicative of the unconscious at work — surrealism. But that has no bearing on my work.

Tonkonow: Have you appropriated texts from sources other than the novels of H.P. Lovecraft?

Rule: I have used only H.P. Lovecraft. One reason is that I like his name: Love-craft; another reason may be that I actually haven't found any other writer who uses so many adjectives, which in a painting function in several ways. They actually help to perceive the painting as a whole in that one's eyes are attracted all over the text because these very charged words, like "unthinkable" or "hideous," occur so frequently. The texts also have to fulfill a kind of grammatical structure. They have to begin with a pronoun, like "it" or "that," which could refer to the painting or, at least, something related to it.

Tonkonow: There are many artists who work with text right now — it has been a modernist convention going back to cubism. How do you see your work in relation to other artists who use text?

Rule: Most of the work that uses text, which comes to mind, doesn't involve painting as a necessary medium. I don't think that my work has any relation to a xeroxed page or to advertising copy. The content of the text, once rendered or read, becomes redundant and what you're left with is a painting, not a message.

Tonkonow: I am interested in the fact that the text in your paintings isn't meant to be read.

Rule: I think having to read something on a wall in a gallery prohibits one from actually seeing the work. Reading isn't the same as seeing or looking at art. It's a very different visual experience because your eye is lead along a predetermined path that goes horizontally from left to right — at least in Western languages. You might try to get back far enough from the piece so you can't identify the words, but you're still drawn into getting close enough to read it. It's either in focus or not.

Tonkonow: So your work is really more optical than literary. The text is a pictorial device.

Rule: It has more to do with the way the text looks — the image of the text.

Tonkonow: Do you try to justify your ideas philosophically?

Rule: No, I don't use any philosophy. I don't work from a text, I use text as an image. I don't think art should illustrate a text. That sort of relationship to philosophical writing is very dubious and I don't think it lends credibility to the work.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.