Aesthetica Art Prize Call for Entries Countdown: 12 Days to Go. Painting

Jo McGonigal’s practice is concerned with hybridised forms of painting that have resonance within the phenomenological ambitions of Minimalism. In her work, she considers how the compositional and material components of painting affect the experiential basis of the viewer: not what the painting means but what it does. Longlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize 2016 for Unmaking Painting I, we interview the artist about her inspiration and techniques.

A: In your work you use found and everyday objects alongside the made to create compositional ‘spatialized’ paintings which break down the so-called ‘frame’ between the artwork and the viewer. In doing this, you also invite the viewer to play a continuous, organic and active role in how the piece is viewed and how they respond. Can you discuss the role and importance of the viewer in terms of their response to your work?
JM: I want the work to engage both the body and architecture. My interest has been with using surface and distance to destabilise the normative vertical upright position of the viewer, when encountering painting. So I resist this pressure of a single or stable vantage point, and aim to keep the viewer moving where both close-up, near looking and distance looking are required to experience the work. Some of the paintings insist upon pressing the viewer up against the wall to find a vantage point, striding back and forth, or leaning into a diagonal position, all strategies to self-consciously activate the body as much as the eye. These ideas of ‘choreographing’ the viewer are becoming more important and were examined within Real Painting, a group exhibition I curated with Deb Covell last year at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.

A: You describe your practice in terms of a cookery book, listing the ‘recipe’ items of a painting – “distance, perspective, edge, line, translucency and structures of colour” – and discussing how you break these aspects down in order to understand how they work and how the viewer responds to them. How do you feel that each individual’s response to the same painting can be affected?
JM: I’m not sure where I’ve discussed the work in terms of the ‘recipe’ but I’m currently in a group exhibition at APT Gallery, London called Ingredients, Method, Serving Suggestion curated by Alaena Turner, so perhaps this is where this reference comes from.

The work begins from a position of ‘undoing’ or ‘unmaking’ painting which in a sense comes from quite a traditional view of image making within art history. For instance, I have spent a lot of time looking at the work of Poussin and other Baroque painters, to examine their processes for presenting deep complex space, translucency, stillness and the transitory, pushing colour forward, zigzag eye movement, dark to light, etc. I am fascinated with this language as far beyond narrative or any other external references, it is the act of looking that I’m concerned with. With my work, I’m getting between the planes of painting, trying to experience the ’inside,’ it’s interiority. By taking painting apart and getting inside the work, I can examine/reveal its interior, using this as the framework to examine what else painting can do, what makes a painting and reconsider its functionality when its physical presence holds the same value as the image plane.

Defining a work’s affect is difficult territory but recognizing its materiality and bringing this forth, drawing upon the notion of ‘haptic’ seeing as opposed to the more dominant ‘optical’ modes of seeing, distinguishes perception from sensation so the body becomes incorporated. The sensations can be seductive or aggressive, sometimes both. In the essay Painting Beside Itself, David Joselit refers to an artist’s brushstrokes being like a ‘caress before a slap’ and I like that, intimacy and closeness alongside something that pushes or kicks back, creating confused sensations.

A: You mention that in Unmaking Painting I (2014) you are fascinated with looking at what a painting “does” rather than what it means. What do you mean by this?
: By placing the emphasis on painting’s physical structure over the pictorial, the work upends traditional ideas of representation by using real things, including the gallery itself, to become the ‘image’ in the painting. The painting is not an autonomous, independent image or thing but an interactive presence that incorporates the architectural site and its spatial particularities to unite painting and space, to examine in part, what constitutes space in relation to painting.

By getting behind the scenes or underneath the surface, exploring pictorial structures through use of the made and the found and the condition of each element, matter/material itself becomes the ‘actant’ and conduit of meaning. Material components are considered in how they evoke tactile sensation through looking, inspiring a haptic, sensorial response. The work extends into space, occupies and activates architecture, where the frontal fixated focused vision is disrupted and we begin to experience painting as we experience the world, which isn’t just visionary.

A: Your projects play with the conventional notion of painting, suggesting that instead of needing to use paint an artist can look to other materials. Similarly, you suggest that a painting is not a visual subject to be admired but instead a physical object with which an immediate relationship can be formed. With this you inspire questions about the very nature of painting itself. What do you consider justifies a piece as a painting?
JM: I’m investigating new ways of making paintings; a process not reliant on producing discreet “things” but instead relating the “thingness” a work’s physical and material existence, its story, to the space that it occupies. The work projects out of pictorial space and occupies the same space as the viewer- it colonises or claims the space in a very conscious way, hustling the other occupants, the viewer.

In answer to your question about painting defining itself, one either accepts them for how effective they are in claiming this space and doing something affective with it, or one does not.

A: What are currently working on or planning to create?
JM: I have a solo show coming up next month in Glasgow with Patricia Fleming Gallery which involves several new pieces and one new spatial painting that makes a link between both the gallery and painting studios opposite. I’m very excited about this opportunity as I’ve got a strong connection with Scotland and Glasgow is such a great city for studying, making and showing work. I also have a further solo show in London next year and will be participating in the Biennial of Non-Objective Art in Lyon, France, towards the end of 2017. Following last year’s success with Real Painting, Deb Covell and I are working on a follow-up so watch this space for another international painting show in 2018!

For more information about the artist visit

The Aesthetica Art Prize is open for entries until 31 August. To submit, visit

1. Jo McGonigal, Unmaking Painting I (2014). Courtesy of the artist.