Michael Coppelov was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with his work The Seven Bridges of Köningsberg. Across the canvas, a faceted, complex landscape cascades in all directions, in what appears to be at once both a random and ordered structure. Here, Michael tells us about developing his own languages and symbols, computerised landscapes and keeping his hands busy when faced with the unknown.
Above image: Parole in Libertà, 2020, Michael Coppelov, Oil on canvas, 160 x 200 cm | 62.9 x 78.7 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Michael: Drawing and making has always been my default setting for as long as I can remember, so it was never really questioned that I wanted to work as an artist.
After leaving school, I did a foundation course at UCLAN in Preston where one of my tutors helped me put together a portfolio for application to BA courses. I still remember his very practical and calculated strategies which enabled the work to look as strong as possible. It was no-doubt thanks to this that I managed to get a place on the BFA course at the Ruskin in Oxford which blew my mind for the three years I was there. There was an attitude of risk-taking and experimentation in the school and, because it was such a small school, I got to know everyone really well. There was such an immense cross-pollination of ideas going on the whole time.
I then did an MFA in Glasgow which helped me to try new things in the studio like working in metal and plaster before I inevitably returned to painting. I carried on making work in the years that followed, but was working full-time so it was hard. In 2017, I quit that lifestyle and moved to Iceland to do a three-month residency and subsequently moved to London where I started working as a part-time artist. After a couple of years of making new work, I got a place on the two-year onsite course at Turps Banana which really helped to open me up again, allowing me to make new, exciting artworks. I’ve just finished that and have moved into a new studio in East London, which I’m loving.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Michael: My paintings all originate in my sketchbooks which I always carry around with me. They’re filled with drawings, haikus, bits of writing and all sorts of ideas which are jotted down whenever they enter my head. In the studio, I use these as a starting point and make a whole load of quick paintings and drawings on scraps of paper and bits of cardboard that are lying around. Some ideas are made into physical objects using cardboard too. The work then kind of condenses through this process and sharper ideas form and come a bit more into focus. As this happens, ideas will emerge which then feeds back into the sketchbooks in a sort of feedback loop. The best, most exciting ideas are then often painted onto fairly small canvases or, if an idea really excites me, it’ll be worked out through a whole system of drawings which then ends up being made into a larger painting or an object ready to be cast in resin.
Clare: Some of your paintings appear to have a variety of languages written across them, almost like signs in the landscape. Can you tell us about this?
Michael: The text in the paintings came after a period when I was painting computerised landscapes as seen from an isometric point-of-view. Primarily, I was painting all sorts of buttons and switches all over the landscape in the way that all the surfaces within an aircraft cockpit are seemingly covered. I often listen to podcasts as I paint and happened to be listening to one all about the safety information sheet found within Kinder Eggs – which went into great detail about language and global politics. Almost immediately, I began painting relief text from the Kinder sheet all over the landscapes. This idea has continued to develop and recently I’ve been developing my own symbols and characters and inventing my own nonsensical languages.
Clare: Can you tell us about your 18-sided canvas? Did you make this yourself?
Michael: Yes, I did – the one here was my second multi-sided canvas. The first I made was on residency at Husk, before I started Turps which had 21 sides.
Whenever I’m struggling to paint or draw I like to keep my hands busy by making things without really thinking about what I’m doing – the 18-sided canvas was an example of this. It was towards the end of my first term at Turps and my head was spinning with questions and thoughts from all the recent input through tutorials, discussions and artist talks. Unable to pick up the paintbrush because of this, I gathered up some stretcher bars that were in my studio and began to modify them by changing the normal 45degree angle into all sorts of different angles: acute, obtuse and reflex. I wanted to make sure that the stretcher still worked in the normal way, slotting together with the option of adding pegs, so I ended up chiselling bits out, gluing extra bits on etc. I didn’t know, initially, that it was going to have 18 sides – I just kept adding bits whilst bringing both ends back towards each other in a big loop. The problem I found, as with the first, was when I began stretching canvas over it – the lack of structure in the middle meant that some bars were pulled apart. This meant I had to engineer a system of cross-bars that would allow the whole thing to be held strongly together when the canvas was tight.
For me, the process of making is always much more interesting than the end product and even though I was pleased that the whole thing held together when it was finished, I felt almost a sense of disappointment that I’d come to the end of the journey. Moreover, because of the time, money and energy I’d invested in it I needed to paint something worthy of the canvas itself which I found difficult to do so. After sealing and priming it, it hung on my studio wall for a few months before I had the courage to paint on it. I was only able to tackle it after lots of preparatory sketches, tutorials with my then tutor Neal Tait and finally by disengaging my brain through distracting podcasts.
Clare: The resin works you have been making this year are really interesting. Can you tell us about these?
Michael: The resin pieces came as a direct result of the first lockdown and my inability to make paintings on canvas. When things are going badly I always revert to the making of objects from corrugated cardboard and lockdown was no exception. Initially, I was planning to make an object which I would later make a painting of but I quickly realised that I had no real interest in doing that. At that time, I came across the works of U.S. artist Matthew Palladino who makes cast resin pieces and thought to myself that, as no-one was making any work and there was no time pressure to produce anything, I’d use the opportunity to teach myself how to make a mould and cast a piece in resin. I then repurposed the cardboard model I was making, bought books, sought advice and made my first resin piece which I was really excited by. I have since made two more and am planning the next few at present.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour choices and how do you set up your palette?
Michael: I like working with a limited palette and mixing colours before I make my paintings, which limits the decision-making during the painting process, releasing me to paint more freely. Most of my recent paintings on canvas have had the same blue background, which I like because of the way it recedes into the distance whilst also having an artificiality about it. There’s also been no need to change that aspect of my painting as it’s currently working.
Similarly, my resin casts also have a limited palette for much of the same reasons. For these, I’ve been spraying enamel using my airbrush and using around six colours which has allowed me to make the best possible painting in the fewest possible moves. Adding more colours would just complicate matters.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Michael: My glue gun, my stanley knife and my cutting mat. I’d be lost without them. For the past few years, cardboard has become my go-to material. There’s something so freeing about working with a medium which is so readily available, so cheap and so easy to use. I love the fact that there’s absolutely no pressure to worry about making mistakes or work which is rubbish – it can simply be cut up and repurposed. Working with such basic tools and materials allows me to think with my hands and totally cut-out the cerebral brain stuff which always blocks the creative process. I am able to play, to experiment and to take risks which all allows the work to develop naturally and surprisingly. For example, when I was in a tiny studio on the residency at Husk, this way of working enabled me to make a massive plinth out of cardboard which all slotted together in the gallery and ended up being over four-metres tall, so that: A. No-one could see the artwork on top of it and B. It had to be weighed down with 20kg of rice to hold it in position. This kind of humour is important to me and it seems to come out naturally when I disengage my brain and start making without thinking.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Michael: Lockdown has had a transformative effect on my practice. When it was first announced, I collected all my art materials and tools from the studio at Turps and moved them all into the garage at home, intending to continue my art practice as before. However, it very quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen. Finding myself unable to face the canvases, I turned instead to the making of very small watercolour paintings – making work from photos I had stored on my computer and phone – a real eclectic mix of imagery including J-pop artists, films, music and long-distance walking paths. Around the same time, I was making hand-produced zines to send to friends back home, filled with short stories, drawings and haikus. Realising that these were more interesting than the work I was making in the garage, I started producing small books which I filled with my watercolour paintings.
It was the making of the book based on J-pop artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu which led to my first resin piece. Specifically, I became obsessed with an image of her holding a chameleon whilst pulling a tongue at it and wanted that same stupid humour in my artwork, so I made a piece which contained that image, surrounded by loads of wavy lines and Japanese text. Since then, I’ve made another resin piece, largely based on that same image and another which is based on a sign in southern California, which I’m also obsessed with.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Michael: My influences are wide-ranging and include some of the things previously mentioned like J-pop, films, music and long-distance hiking trails. My core focus, however, has always been our interconnected world and how everything is connected to everything. This means I’m intrigued by transport infrastructure and computer networks.
In terms of favourite contemporary artists, there are so many influences. I keep a sketchbook dedicated to the collecting of photographs of artworks which interest me which are mostly taken from screenshots from social media. I have just bought a painting by the L.A-based painter Elizabeth Huey, whose work I’ve loved for the past several years. Her work is both playful and Matisse-esque. Matisse himself is undoubtedly my all-time favourite painter. I also love Becky Kolsrud’s paintings, which effortlessly flit between abstraction and figuration. Recently I’ve been wowed by the work of Issy Wood and thought that her recent show at Goldsmiths CCA was phenomenal. The utterly beguiling subject matter and idiosyncratic way of applying the paint coalesce to make really weird, fascinating artworks. I could honestly write several pages of names of artists who are influences if I had the time and space.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Michael: I like to keep longish office hours and get in early when my energy levels are the highest. I cycle to my studio and on the ride in I like to know exactly what I’ll be doing in my day. So if there’s half-finished things, wet paint, piles of partially glued cardboard for me to get stuck into then I’m happy. I normally have lots of ideas right before I leave at the end of the day so it’s always good if I’ve had chance to start things off in the previous day that allows me to get my hands busy right away. What I hate is having to think about what I’m doing right at the start of the day.
One of the habits I developed in my last studio at Turps, thanks to the influence of the three others I was sharing with was the sacrosanct “1 o’clock rule” – that everyone downs tools at precisely 1.00 pm in order to have lunch together. I’m currently in a building where lots of Turps friends also have spaces so it’s a good day if they’re around and we can enjoy lunch together.
Guston was once famously quoted as saying that there are loads of people in the studio with you – friends, teachers, critics, painters from history etc. and that when you are really painting they all walk out. I’ve found that to be very true for me – I need to kick all these people out before I can make any work and can only freely work if I can somehow kick myself out too. In a good day, I can do this by listening to interesting podcasts. Regular favourites are Desert Island Discs, Excess Baggage, The Boring Talks and Stanford’s Travel Podcast. In amongst this I also distract myself by listening to Radcliffe & Maconie or Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music catch-up.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Michael: My next London show will be the Turps end of course show in the summer (which was postponed due to COVID) at Turps HQ in the Aylesbury estate, Walworth.
I’ll be showing new work at Durden & Ray in L.A. later in the year as part of a group show with six other Turps painters.