Interview with Paul McDevitt
British artist Paul McDevitt has long been a key figure in a certain sect of Berlin’s art scene, working together with many artists and musicians to build collaborative projects. McDevitt’s Prenzlauer Berg project space, Farbvision, has already housed a dozen solo exhibitions since its opening in 2015, presented in the unusual, ornamentally-tiled former butcher shop’s storefront room. The artist’s studio, where he works on his own labour-intensive print and drawing practice, is in the back of the project space. Adding to the tumult that McDevitt says fuels his work, he also runs a small-scale record company called Infinite Greyscale in the space, with collaborator Cornelius Quabeck. Infinite Greyscale combines their vinyl music releases with limited edition artist screen and risograph prints, combining sound and visual art in a rare and exciting handcrafted product.
SMAC: Where does your interest in DIY practices—like screen printing, graffiti, cartoon, collage—come from?
Paul McDevitt: I started drawing primarily but print has come increasingly into my practice. I really like the crudeness of printmaking; I like the simplicity of drawing. I like the fact that you can make something for €5 because the materials are really basic and the paper is cheap. It’s very easy to get seduced by production in art and get caught up making things that are expensive and complicated but I really like these basic things sometimes.
The tools I use can be very simple. It means when you travel you can also use the same materials, whereas if you do residencies it can be very hard to replicate the studio if you make something more complicated. Drawing is an immediate thing: everybody’s done it. It’s not like painting or sculpture. It’s a universal language.
I have a risograph printer here and a basic screen printing setup. Bigger prints I do in a workshop, but things like the records I do in smaller editions. I try to make an edition for each of the artists who show in the Farbvision space, as well: we do a colour risograph print for each edition, in house.
These strategies, like risograph printing, can be interesting because they limit the work as well in terms of colours and size, right?
Yes. The ink drums for the risograph printers can cost up to €1000 so I’ve only got three colours and the limits are nice. I think everyone treats them differently. It’s liberating. There’s a consistency to the whole series of artist editions, which is about 13 prints so far. Each one has red and blue cross-hatched lines but, depending on the source material when we work with the artist, each edition looks incredibly different. Some are very graphic, some are quite painterly, some reference other art movements. It’s quite amazing what you can do with really simple means.
How do you choose the artists to show in your space?
I choose people whose work I admire and who I’d like to work with. Like every artist you have your limits of what you can do yourself. I’m a rubbish sculptor but I can work with a sculptor here and make an interesting show or make a video installation. It scratches the same itch. It’s an expansion of the practice, I suppose.
Through your different projects—Farbvision, Infinite Greyscale, and Clarke & McDevitt—you work a lot with collaboration.
That always brings an element of surprise, something unpredictable to the work. Clarke & Devitt is a platform to formulate thematic exhibitions, which started when I met Declan Clarke in college almost 20 years ago. The exhibitions often involve a lot of different artists. I only do solo exhibitions here at Farbvision, but with Declan we do group shows. We are very different people with completely different backgrounds and interests in art so sometimes that collaboration can be a meeting of minds or a combative situation. When we agree on something we know it must be pretty good. You make decisions more quickly when there’s two of you, as well. In the studio, alone, you can stumble along for a long time without finding the right path.
That’s what this space is good for, with my personal studio and the more collaborative project space. It’s nice to be able to switch projects a bit, it re-energizes you.
Have you worked on producing artworks with Clarke as well?
Some, but not many. We mostly do group exhibitions. We were commissioned to do a piece in Dublin where we bought a concrete tischtennis table here in Germany and brought it over. There weren’t any in Ireland. The show was a Communism-themed show so we thought we would bring this table tennis to the public space. We put it in the commercial high street, the widest shopping street in Europe. What we didn’t count on was the wind of Dublin: the balls would just go flying and there were two lanes of traffic on either side. It looked amazing but it was a bit dangerous. After the exhibition we gave it to the council and they put it in a park somewhere. Apparently it was very popular with the Chinese community in Dublin.
The last show we did here in Berlin invited artists to contribute a sculpture referencing the painting by J.M.W. Turner called ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. There was no image of the painting in the show but we described thematic, compositional, and colour-elements in the painting through different contemporary sculptures.
We’ve also done a few printed things. Twin Magazine asked us to contribute, recently. The theme of that issue was ‘Youth’ so we asked different artists — David Shrigley and Mamma Andersson and others — to give us their invitation cards for their first solo shows.
For Infinite Greyscale and your series of album covers, do you have a specific genre of music that you work with?
Experimental. We try to do things that wouldn’t be popular, more like an art piece. Holly Herndon, for example, did a piece for us unlike the popular music she releases normally: it’s the sound of a person dancing. Dance music without any music. It’s quite a heavy guy, moving through a space, with the squeaking of his hands on the floor. It’s really visceral.
We did another piece that’s an occult recording of a man speaking in tongues, from the 1940s. The artist composed a score for it: there’s a cellist making the same sounds, cut overtop of the guy speaking.
There’s no money in it, we cover our costs. So artists feel free to do something different, that doesn’t have to sell, or tick any boxes in that way. Some sell better than others. We do different events with these records: we had a big show at the Kunstbibliothek last year. They have an archive of all the records now, so it opens another door.
Your show at SMAC is called ‘Modern Furnishings’. Can you explain the title?
I’ve always been interested in graphic arts, alongside fine art. I like DIY materials, comic books, simple printing, so I got into making repeat patterns quite simply —screen printing or block printing — partly to incorporate drawings and partly as works in themselves. Of course you can print everything digitally now so you can get really perfect renditions. But I really like to do this with screen prints because it’s quite confusing to fold up and print 3x2m: it’s really massive. On the table, when there’s paint everywhere and it’s drying on the screen and you’re trying to get your head around linking it up to another part, it all gets out of control. I find that lack of control very interesting. I’m always looking for that, also with the collaborations. I like to be put under pressure sometimes and to have things be unpredictable. Through the process of doing this by hand, a character with certain idiosyncrasies develops in the work.
The show explores these ideas of repetition and pattern. The two floors of the gallery will have the same installation and structure: each will have a large repeat pattern on screen print. Each will have one of the two editions, which could join up. It’s kind of like area decoration, which has been largely overlooked. Probably because it was a lot of women doing this work and no one cared about women in the art world until about five minutes ago. There’s all this amazing stuff that hasn’t really been seen. The title suggests that it doesn’t matter how it’s classified, and that we might, in the future, rearrange what we think is important in art.
In one piece you repeat the patterns of rocks from a Scottish sea wall. Can you tell us about that?
These were from photos I took just a couple of weeks ago when I went to visit my mother. She lives in Fife, which is just north of Edinburgh. There’s a very dramatic piece of coastline where the tide goes out a very long way, so there’s a sea wall there. It’s like being on land when the tide’s out: it’s a massive piece of beach. And there’s no beach at all, when the tide comes in. Being Scottish myself, I can say we’re a nation of scumbags. There’s a lot of rubbish in the sea wall. The rocks have old bottles and cans wedged between them that washed up in the tide. I took photos of them and made this repeat pattern of bottles jammed in between the rocks.
And there will also be a series of drawings?
Yes, I also have a series of ‘Notes to Self’ drawings that I’ve been making for years. This is a pad of notepaper that I have on my desk where I write different notes of things I’m supposed to do, FedEx numbers, and so on. A few years ago I started keeping these and then I would take them out and work on them again. I found it was quite a nice way to kickstart thinking again when you get stuck on bigger projects. They are always done in one session so they are very quick. Ideas of success or failure are less relevant. I’ve made more than 300 by now. There’s a different kind of repetition, like a habit, so I thought it would be nice in the show. I made a repeat pattern of the notes and screen printed them on fabric.
They are quite personal, I like that. You can get all my credit card details and passwords, I guess. They sit for ages: I don’t take out the most recent set of notes to draw on, so when I’m stuck there’s already a structure to respond to on the paper. In terms of this collaboration theme: it’s a bit like collaborating with an earlier version of oneself.