“It’s horrendous, it’s constant failure”: Geoff McFetridge on the pain of painting
The Canadian artist and designer talks about the agony of working on an exhibition, the importance of legibility, and the limits of design.
In Geoff McFetridge’s light-filled studio in the Atwater neighbourhood of Los Angeles, the artist and designer has a stack of sketchbooks that is, he estimates, “probably over five feet tall”. These date back to the beginning of his career some two and a half decades ago. “There is a sort of weird old-man filing system,” he jokes, shuffling through them. “In some ways, I have a terrible memory, but then I can remember something that happened in these books years later, and I can go back and look at it and see what it was really like.”
He picks a sketchbook up, seemingly at random, and leafs through it. Each page has been roughly divided up into a series of panels, and each panel contains its own sketch. Looking at them in sequence, it’s clear that each sketch shows a slight progression compared to its predecessor; sometimes just a tiny detail has changed, other times, it’s a more obvious conceptual shift. “One thing leading to the next to the next to the next,” Geoff says. “For me, it’s like getting outside of yourself. Or you could say it’s like an inner journey. How do you go deeper within yourself? It’s an incremental journey, from the first thing to the hundredth.”
What emerges from his “filing system” is a clear sense of the ideas and concerns that Geoff has been preoccupied with over the years. Sometimes, he says, when looking for inspiration during a project, he’ll return to an older sketchbook, open it up and be stunned: “It’ll be the exact same stuff. Like, I’ll have drawn the same thing for ten years.”
There certainly are recurring themes in his work. In fact, recurrence and repetition are themselves important (not just for his repetitious creative process). For his 2016 show, The Quiet Of Not Listening, at V1 in Copenhagen, he wrote about what it would be like to walk along a Möbius strip. “It would be an infinite wander,” he said. “The continuousness, ending up in the same place as where you started, is recurring in what I do.”
Yet this does a disservice to the sheer range of work that Geoff produces. His practice is difficult to categorise, bridging those often-artificial gaps between illustration, graphic design and art. His list of clients includes some of the biggest brands in the world, but the outputs are equally as diverse and impressive – he has made animations for Apple and The New York Times; designed shoes for Nike; painted a mural for Warby Parker; and illustrated covers for magazines. But then, almost half of his time is spent methodically applying acrylic paints to canvases.
What unites all his work is an understanding of the power of images – their ability to communicate complicated ideas in an instant, but also their capacity for confounding us and presenting us with a puzzle. As he said in this interview (carried out over a year ago, before the pandemic struck), his paintings aim for this ideal: “It’s such a long paragraph. But it’s just one image.”
It’s Nice That: First off, how did you end up in Los Angeles? You seem like a born Californian, but you’re originally from Canada, right?
Geoff McFetridge: Yeah, so I grew up in Calgary in Alberta, Canada, which is a city just above Montana. It’s an oil town. I lived in the suburbs, but there was a tonne of natural beauty all around. And Calgary leans West. It might seem like it’s in the middle of Canada, but it always felt like it was pointed West. When we would go on trips, we would come to California. And then all the culture I was into was culture from California, real West Coast culture – like skateboarding and punk-rock music or whatever.
INT: And surfing? Was that already one of your passions?
GM: I was aware of it, for sure. But I had no context. I understood surfing only through being into skateboarding and being into California. In the 80s, surfing was cool-guy culture, so I dressed like a surfer – well, I was wearing the mall version of surf clothes.
Anyway, then I went to the local art college in Calgary, the Alberta College of Art, which was literally 15-20 minutes from my parents’ house. I had discovered, through doing projects for friends, like drawing things for friends’ bands, and doing posters and zines – I discovered, “Oh, I want to be a graphic designer, I want to make commercial art.” That local art college was very archaic, but it taught the basics. And I was immature, so it was kind of perfect.
Then, when it came time to go to grad school, I found out about CalArts. Before that, I’d been working really hard – making graphics for snowboard companies, that sort of thing – and sort of understood, “OK, this is what it’d be like if I just did this.” And I sort of knew, even as a young guy, that this was not enough. So I went to CalArts in the early 90s, which was a great time to be there, and that brought me to Los Angeles. From CalArts, I moved into the city and lived in a garage – my friends had a little house and they had a single-car garage, and I built it out into an apartment. I lived on nothing, like zero – a few hundred dollars a month. So yeah, I’ve only really lived in Calgary and Los Angeles.
INT: What was your time at CalArts like in the 90s?
GM: It was a totally utopian experience, truly life-changing for me. I had come from this world where everything that matters is what something looks like and at CalArts, they were just like, “No, all we care about is how you think, we don’t care what it looks like.” It was all concept. There was also a lot of process – it mattered how you got to the end. And I became interested in the question: What if you could see all of that thinking in the work, but at the same time, what if the work had all the stuff I loved from before I came to CalArts, like the vitality of stuff I would show to my friends?
“That is the benefit of design: It lets you get underneath everything and explain it.”Geoff McFetridge
INT: Your practice today is really multifaceted, combining what we would traditionally call art, graphic design, animation, illustration. Was your practice always a bit of a hybrid?
GM: In those early days, I took a job in a design firm in LA, just to save enough money to buy a computer, basically, because I didn’t have one. But from then onwards, I’ve sort of had a studio that’s basically the same as now. I was flirting with the idea of doing design projects. But I had this realisation that my limited experience with design up to that point was just a total waste of time. It was like, “So, I do ten things and you pick one of them? Well, I’ll just make ten things for someone else, then.” I said I’m not going to do this for the rest of my life, because I realised that, eventually, I’d have people working for me and – what? They’d do the ten things? I didn’t see any end to it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was basically saying to myself, “You need to be an artist, to have an art studio.” I never thought that I would call myself an artist, because the things I wanted to make were all designed – they were things that were being produced and put out into the world, and the way you did that was by calling yourself a designer. If you had an art practice, you’d have to wait for a designer to hire you and they would use your art. So, right away, I thought, well, I’m just going to call myself a designer and I’ll do the painting, the artworks and whatever that means. So it’s a very subtle manipulation of a role. I don’t really care about titles, but now I’m more like, can you just call me an artist?
The root of what I do is an art practice applied to design. I’m designing art. But then it’s also fair to say that I never actually take on traditional design projects. When I’m doing a true “Design Project”, it is shocking, because it’s totally foreign to me.
INT: When you say a “Design Project” like that, what do you mean? Like an identity for a company? Is that something you wouldn’t take on?
GM: Well, the thing is, I would do that, but I would start the project by asking: Do you really need an identity? Wouldn’t the most interesting thing for a giant company be to baffle your consumer by your identity being ever-present, but ever-changing? I approach all projects like that. I want to meet you in your place, where it’s most like you and most like what you do, and I want you to talk about what your brand is, in your own words. That, to me, is the benefit of design: It lets you get underneath everything and explain it. But if the project is: Let’s get under everything and obfuscate, let’s hide that, put a mask on this thing – to sell it, to convince, to explain away aspects – then I don’t know how to do that. I love design, but I always think: Is that it?
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Geoff McFetridge: Installation of “These Days Are Nameless” at V1 Gallery, Copenhagen (Copyright © Geoff McFetridge, 2020)
“It’s horrendous, it’s constant failure, it’s hard and it’s not working and you’re confused.”Geoff McFetridge
INT: As we’ve spoken about, you work across a range of different mediums. You also work across more commercial projects as well as gallery shows. What do you prefer doing? When are you at your happiest?
GM: My wife says I’m most unhappy when I’m painting. She said to me, “I never see you as unhappy as when you’re painting for a show.”
INT: That’s interesting!
GM: Yeah. I’m a tough boss, in some ways. There are certain types of commercial projects, where it comes easily. But the painting shows, it carries a sort of weight.
INT: You have to be pretty happy with something before you have an exhibition and an opening party, with everything that involves.
GM: Right. And how do you justify making a painting, you know? Is it worth it? I’m constantly telling myself: “It’s okay, you’ll make other paintings.” Throughout my entire career, I’m best when I’m at my loosest. I’m trying to get to this place that’s this purest form. And the way I get there is by making things and by making more, and through that, I just get little slivers, glimpses of it. So, when you ask, what is the thing you want to do for the rest of your life? You could say that it’s in painting that I get the most of those glimpses. But it’s not like a constant glaring, beautiful, godlike light. No, it’s horrendous, it’s constant failure, it’s hard and it’s not working and you’re confused. But yeah, you get those glimpses.
INT: There must be a part of you that likes the challenge as well.
GM: With painting and drawing, but especially with painting, there’s an infinite technical riddle. I’m constantly learning things, but it’s less visible. There’s this sort of invisible building up of skills.
INT: We’ve had a quick look through some of your sketchbooks. What role does drawing play in all of this?
GM: Everything is linked by drawing. I’m the clearest and the most myself, when I’m drawing. So, when I say “my loosest self”, you know, it’s all drawing. It just ends up as a different thing – so it’ll start as a drawing, end up a painting; start as a drawing, become an animation; start as a drawing, end as a logo.
INT: So, why not just stop at drawing? Why go further and convert these into paintings?
GM: I did that for a while, in the 90s. I would do the sketch and then I would scan it and blow it up, and be like, “Here’s your ten T-shirts” and they would all be just the sketch. But then you ask how you can raise your expectations for what you make. How can you travel through space? So, it starts with a drawing, but that’s just the launching-off point for other things.
“My paintings announce something and then confuse you, or they propose some sort of unfinishable proposition.”Geoff McFetridge
INT: Yet you do maintain a really simple execution, even in your paintings. No matter how complex the idea behind it is, the final outcome is always really simple.
GM: I find that something is worth doing if it can survive simplicity. Because everything starts with drawing, I’m producing a lot, really a lot. So it’s an editing situation. I have stacks of sketchbooks full of drawings. You have all this material, so then you go like, well, what will warrant being painted? What will survive? What if I refined it?
Another of the reasons for the simplicity is because, when everything starts as a drawing, everything is possible and, because everything’s possible, you have this inclination to put in place limitations. I think my paintings announce something and then confuse you, or they propose some sort of unfinishable proposition. It happens in an instant. So there has to be a moment of legibility. Which is why there are very often in my paintings these people – they’re figures, shapes, silhouette-y things that are recognisable, so you have this legibility. I don’t know if it’s a design process, but it feels like it relates closely to that idea of a quick read. It’s about a singular thing.
All the complexity cascades out from there. You can start to question the legibility of that thing. It’s sort of like whittling. Why do I understand that? Why do I understand that dot as a head? I like to go on the edge of that legibility and often that edge of legibility is super simple. It’s not an abstract painting, a messy painting.
INT: Because an abstract painting implies that you’re going to bring your own interpretation to it?
GM: Right. So, I’m saying, what’s the opposite? What if it’s super clear, signage-clear? Like in the airport, you know, and it’s explaining something to you. But instead of it being where to go to find the lounge, it’s something very poetic, but you’re still engaged in that way.
INT: It’s interesting that you bring in signage and wayfinding, because it feels exactly like what you were talking about earlier – how you’re “designing art”.
GM: As you participate in design as a designer, you start to see the evolution of things, you see, “OK that’s legible, that’s a thing, that starts to read. Oh whoa, that makes a letter ‘R’!” These are the experiences of being a designer, where you’re taking things that exist in the world, these signs and symbols and words and images, and you’re messing with them. And you go into this Tron-like world where you can change perception, manipulate understanding.
For me, it’s like, what if you could share that with everyday people, people who aren’t designers? It’s their language, it’s our shared language, because we get fed this design language whether we want it or not. We’re all literate. So my work uses that sort of lexicon or series of designy or graphic moves, but then it becomes really about what I use them for.
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Geoff McFetridge: Us From Above Infinitely (Copyright © Geoff McFetridge, 2014)
INT: I love that idea of design being about manipulating understanding. There’s one painting that I’d love to talk to you about – it captures a moment when a woman on a bike goes past another woman, it could be herself, and turns to look at her. What was the idea behind that painting?
GM: This painting came from a show all about understanding. I started by asking myself: What if we didn’t have a word for understanding, for mutual respect and love for a stranger who we disagree with? I gave myself the task: What if, instead of words for understanding, we had an image? I then did lots of drawings exploring understanding, misunderstanding, sharing, all these variations. She’s explaining this idea of understanding ourselves.
The painting is explaining this moment of legibility. It’s almost like a two-frame animation. If the painting was just the girl on the right, you’d be like, “I don’t know what that is.” But with the girl on the left, you understand that it’s like a two-frame animation. It’s how I like to think about design – if you had ten frames of animation, what would you do? And then, how can you say all of that with one image? That to me is design.