Painter Michael Ajerman, in conversation with Laura Harris.
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Michael Ajerman is an American painter based in London, UK. He holds an MA in Fine Art from the Slade School of Art, University College London. The artist recently exhibited 'Grip', curated by John Silvis, with Aleph Contemporary gallery. Ajerman is the recipient of several awards and fellowships including the UCLA Kitaj Research Fellowship 2018, the Manhattan Graphics Center, SummerINK Scholarship, 2012-2014; British Institute Royal Academy Award, 2003; and the William Newman Memorial Painting Award, 1996.
LAURA: Welcome everybody to tonight's Instagram Live. I will be speaking with artist Michael Ajerman. It's the 14th of April 2021. Hi Michael!
LAURA: Okay! Wow! it looks like you're on top of a mountain. Just to introduce you again this is Michael Ajerman, Michael is a painter first and foremost, he's also an academic, and we have a mutual love of the painter Paula Modersohn – Becker. So, we have plenty to talk about, where should we start? Should we talk about your recent work?
MICHAEL: Well, I don't even know where to start! I think all of us deserve a gold star, so to speak, in regards to keeping works going and everything; so, I kind of just been keeping to the same themes; the interiors and the body and full concept of objects and metaphors and just trying to keep things going. I've been doing a lot of drawing, because my studio is south of the river and I couldn’t travel there. The studio was quite far away and everything; so it kind of pushed my work on paper, different types of pencils on paper and pastels on paper and some watercolour. I'm just trying to keep everything going I guess, like everybody is.
LAURA: Did you just wave at a bird by the way Michael?! Or was it a person?
MICHAEL: It’s a living person coming into the building where I live.
LAURA: Ah, right!
MICHAEL: I have been known to wave at animals but they don't wave back!
LAURA: Anything goes now, because we've been locked down for so long.
MICHAEL: Actually, in Nepal, all the wildlife, they wave back!
LAURA: Okay, alright! I'll have to believe you on that. Brilliant! So, tell me about the artists that inspires you; because I know we both do love German expressionist painters. Which painters do you like?
MICHAEL: The Japanese artist Shiragu. I just recently did a lecture on Maria Lassnig. she means a lot to my work. People like Bonnard. You know, a friend of mine gave me a huge seven hundred - page Francis Bacon biography. Some of that stuff kind of changed the game. I think in regards to German expressionism, I think their approach to the graphic works like works on paper and pencil and techniques are phenomenal. I think in regards to a painterly approach, it might lean more towards French painting.
I work in a figurative vain, but I've been kind of spending a lot of time thinking about the energy of the mark-making and the approach of the depiction of a single room or a situation. Shiragu’s work is not representational painting, it is incredibly physically made works that were made flat on the floor, and sometimes wrestling with the material. I don't know how that fits into what I'm doing but it's something that I like. With Paula Modersohn – Becker, I don't always see many around, you would see a tiny - like tree stump painting; and that would be hers, or little paintings of children that would turn up at art fairs but most are in Germany. I think the interesting thing about her is that it's such a, it's such a dramatic approach to imagery and beliefs and taking the best of some aspects of Paris painting, along with like 21st Century Parisian paintings, particularly Cezanne. A really tactile way of making imagery and her work is phenomenal for the really short amount of time that she was around.
LAURA: She was born in 1877 and died in 1907 so she only 30 or 31 when she died soon after having her first child. I saw a quote from her which is “There is no need to be concerned with nature in painting. The colour should exactly reflect something that you have felt in nature but personal feeling is the main thing" So this was written in her diary. So, what do you think about that statement she wrote in her diary Michael, could you kind of draw some things out of that you're interested in?
MICHAEL: It's interesting you know she was such an observation-based painter and was almost I will say like to the core so to speak, but what comes across quite quickly from the ones I had seen in books, these incredible, nocturnal paintings of the moon. She was working in an observational vain but was kind of making conceptual decisions in order to intensify or you know, sedate an aspect of harmony in things.
I'm just trying to remember, there are one or two things, like those beautiful night-time carnival scenes with figures. I think more than anything, especially in regards to things like photography when you're looking at something or someone for quite a good period of time, and the sense of time is involved in the making and the sense of time is involved in the whole aspect of looking. I do think you'd begin to see more and hopefully, as you're seeing things, you are letting time pass, you're also observing more and I think that comes across quite clearly in the self-portrait and paintings she did of her daughter-in-law so to speak that she kind of adopted.
LAURA: Absolutely, she had a fairly complicated personal life, for example, her parents wanted her to get married.
MICHAEL: From what I read, back then, it was either you got married or you became a school teacher. And she did train as a teacher.
MICHAEL: I's a situation that I think many people deal with, what kind of life they want to have, what kind of lifestyle they want to have. And later there were the complications such as, did she want to have children or when did she want to have children? These were all decisions that she made but she made them on her own terms, even though she was married but she spent a great deal of time apart from her partner who was also a painter, he stayed in Germany, predominantly the majority of the time. He had very little interest in what was going on in Parisian modernism, in Cezanne and Lautrec. And at the latter stage, her obsession with Cezanne’s work, she loved it. She saw it as the way for her to move forward. It's a kind of very beautiful eclectic work and not everyone likes it. Some people find it a bit eerie, some people find it weird. But the people that do seem to connect to it can see how it connects to some aspects of 20th Century figure painting that has a lot of robust use of paint, like the use of wax and things like Jasper John and the people that have made it work out of sculpting the physicality of the face with the material.
LAURA: She did make several trips to Paris to see Cezanne’s work. Some of those trips weren’t with her husband , as she did have some problems with her marriage as well. The two artists that popped into my head who I can think of women who also had several issues with either fertility or not wanting children. Tracy Emin and Marina Abramovic. Going back to your other point, I know you are interested in Philip Guston?
MICHAEL: I did my recent lecture on Guston, I've been doing his lecture through the lockdown, it will take me four to eight weeks to put it together. I was doing a lot of research on them, and there were a couple of people who were quite nice and wanted me they kind of keep going with them, the whole kind of Instagram, Zoom, you know like you and I are having this discussion there's a bunch of people watching. The whole concept of having this kind of interaction is great but the whole other issue; these other people watching we don't know if people are squirming or laughing or interested or not.
When the Guston show was postponed, I had a real sort of mixed reaction, I would usually have gone for openings with friends and talk about it, but the opportunity didn't even exist so I wanted to have that ability to have that dialogue with people and that's why I did the lecture. Guston has a tactile approach to how he made his work, before it went to figuration. It's been really exciting and helpful for me. I found that the whole concept of long calligraphic marks going through works, almost sort of guide to the flow into formal painting, you know when things are kind of formal and basic, the mark is kind of flowing into things. So I think the works are incredibly skilfully made, even though there is a whole idea about negating the technique. I couldn’t make a 5 by 6 painting like that, it would look naff.
LAURA: Absolutely! Going by your point about doing things in real life, if you look at his works together on the wall in the gallery or already previewed at auction, they are really so powerful. They are all taken out of context now because of the time in which he was making those works, he was looking political climate in America but it is a different world now.
MICHAEL: I think the whole concept, we now live through our phones but back then a lot of people lived through their TV’s. The whole concept of Vietnam war footage coming back on reels of film, watching student protesters get their heads clubbed in about an hour, post-live, when there was supposed to be a democratic convention for leaning to the left. It was kind of the death of so much of a type of liberalism and I think it took the democratic party a very long time to revive itself. At that time it was kind of open woods stuff in the middle of nowhere in the wood, teaching universities, but our lives fortunately or unfortunately can be so dictated by our phones. Back then, the TVs was it. the TV had the same way.
LAURA: The TV had the same power!
MICHAEL: Alright, so give me thirty seconds so I can go get my charger.
LAURA: He's back! The only thing about Instagram Live is that it does use up a huge amount of juice on the phone. Have you got a charger outside though or is this a portable charger?
MICHAEL: It's on two extension leads. I use the extension leads in my flat.
LAURA: How is it outside tonight? Is the temperature alright?
MICHAEL: Well, it's alright, the Sun's beaming on me; I'm talking to you and I'm talking to the world and I'm getting a tan at the same time, which is all good.
LAURA: I can see you enjoy the outdoors. So, where were we? Talking about colours, we were talking about colourful work like Phillip Guston, do you want to talk about colour in your work, or how it affects the mood of the painting or you have stories you want to tell?
MICHAEL: Well, in some ways, the colour is basically everything. It's the material that I use in use to construct the image more than anything. There are some discussions about Bauhaus colour theories and I’ve tried to get hold of those books. I think there are certain painters that I saw, that really kind of intensified and are really visceral in the use of colour. At the same time, sometimes you are kind of working with greys and black and white and they can be incredibly successful too. When I am painting in my head, I almost kind of think of it as a lung, something that expands and contracts.
When I was a student in New York, there were certain people, their palette was almost like a freight train. There were so many colours, but it gets to a point where there is so much going on the palette, I don't think you can control it as well anymore. And then when you start looking at any painting that you quite connect to and you start thinking, how many colours are in there in this thing? Sometimes you find that the palette, there are times where people are not using that many colours but in that range of colours, they're mixing different hues and different combinations; it does seem like a whole kaleidoscope so to speak.
A lot of the time, I'm interested in nocturnal images, so the whole idea is kind of saturated purples and earth tones and things, in order to kind of help control and sculpt the image a little bit more, in regards to how to make an image that can try to be sort of looked at in a certain way.
LAURA: I don't know about you, but for me, when I use oil paint, I find that the colours can alter along the way, that is the joy of using oils. I don't know if you find that. Somebody said I should ask; they want to know about the subject matter by the way that you are looking at it?
MICHAEL: I kind of take from just about everything, everything either relates to things that I've personally seen, or things I have seen in images or read about, or people have told me about. And also, more than anything, the kind of painting that we're talking about, where forms and placement of things, literally move around. I try to move around, I do move around in the image and in the figure, a lot and in finding the composition. I'm finding the way the people and things work as I am kind of working through them.
Subject matter like I have an affinity to using finite objects, I was doing this pumpkin painting sometime last year my challenge was that part of the challenge after I carve them, it was a race against time to get them done, before the rot set in, that's one of type of painting.
Another type of painting is to slowly rationalise how to build and make the image. I just finished painting a figure in the water, it took a long time to finish the painting on and off but my initial idea of how it will look, didn't kind of happen. I know people that want to know the way the thing will look before they do it. They want everything kind of planned out but for me, that usually makes the surface dead and not very exciting. From the painters we’ve talked about, I think for me one of the things is just that everything is kind of charged in the paintings, everything is felt, and the pieces are usually overworked as a whole, not just kind of one little pocket. It's more like take a tool and just scrape that part out so that the surface can kind of be a little bit better.
LAURA: Also, someone pointed out earlier that the tree shadow on the wall behind you is amazing, it is really cool.
MICHAEL: When you talk about lighting too, I remember when we did this before in December or January, met under electrical light, I bought the one Amazon suggested (a ring light) and it was horrible, so I just decided to use outdoor light.
LAURA: Well, Michael, I think we've talked for about half an hour but I know that is not very long because you are an academic lecturer you can probably go for another couple of hours. I think we should do another one sometime and talk about any new work and exhibitions you've got coming up?
MICHAEL: I am going to be at the at the Drawing Biennial, at the Drawing Room, they have a painting in the Ruth Borchard, which is going to be online in May and some of the paintings are going to be exhibited outside of London. And I will be in the show at Kings Gate which is in West Hampstead that will be over the summer. So there are things that are happening and percolating.
LAURA: Amazing! And your work is also on Aleph Contemporary’s website. Let's have a look at your work. I tried to type in some of the locations. Do you have a website as well Micheal that you can share?
MICHAEL: My website is in shambles, so at the moment I kind of use Instagram. It's time to sort it out, I have just been putting it off. Instagram is the best way to connect with me.
LAURA: Can I just say about your Instagram, am so amazed that you got Michael Ajerman because every other person has extra numbers or something at the end, so that is impressive that you got your actual real name.
MICHAEL: There is not many of my kind!
LAURA: That's amazing, you could not do that with my name, there are all kinds of people with my name.
MICHAEL: I think there is a violinist somewhere in Europe, I know but that has my name somewhere in Europe it is just me and my dad.
LAURA: Lucky you for having a unique name.
MICHAEL: Yah lucky, lucky me. Also, happy birthday. You should be partying all week.
LAURA: I am going to celebrate for lunch on Friday, thank you for asking. Thanks so much, Michael, really looking forward to seeing you soon. Keep up a good job with the painting and keep us posted.
MICHAEL: I will, have a lovely evening!
LAURA: You too, bye now thanks for joining everybody!