Simon Callery talks to Artimage about the physicality of painting: “Since the Renaissance we have done a good job of pulling art forms apart and elevating image above all else.”

Having originally trained as a sculptor, would you say this experience has affected the way in which you look at, and create paintings?

I began my BA in Cardiff in the painting studios and migrated to sculpture in my final year – managing to keep a space in both. That fine art course was very open and it was possible to move easily between the two.

Later, as a painter, I couldn’t see why painting couldn’t have some of the qualities of sculpture. I couldn’t see why painting couldn’t function on physical as well as visual terms and I couldn’t see why an encounter with painting couldn’t involve all the senses. The roles of painting and sculpture in European art have been much closer together in the past than they are today. Since the Renaissance we have done a good job of pulling art forms apart and elevating image above all else.

What do you believe distinguishes ‘art’ and ‘design’, and do you think it is an important distinction to make?

That we need to distinguish between ‘design’ and ‘art’ is a sign of just how much we have separated them. Design is associated with working within given conditions whereas art has to set it own terms.

Do you regard any of your works as blurring these traditional boundaries?

It took me a long time to recognise the traditional boundaries and conventions at work in painting. It is easy to take things for granted but gradually I began to identify what to throw out and what to hold onto. Painting, as we know it, was developed with the specific aim of communicating through visual depiction. Since I am not working with pictures there is no reason why I should use the physical structures developed to carry them.  In some recent work I have rejected the stretcher, the canvas cloth hangs un-stretched and exposes an interior space. Many are punctured, cut open and stitched up.

Painting is a verb as well as a noun and it is important to be able to know what painting does as well as what it looks like. I have started to take the body of painting apart, to invert it and reconfigure it.

You have also worked on a number of long-term projects with archaeologists, such as the excavations at Segsbury Camp. What draws you to these ventures?

I have worked with archaeologists for many years now. I see the excavation site as an emphatically material and ever-changing sculptural environment. I think our need to excavate reveals as much about our current preoccupations as it does the activities of people in pre-history. The excavation processes are fascinating for an artist and it was my experience on these sites that encouraged me to pursue physicality in painting. Above all, these are the places where time and material come together most convincingly.

Over the past few years I have been working each summer at an Iron Age hillfort in North Wales, during excavations carried out by archaeologist Gary Lock of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. As a result, I have been working on large-scale paintings in direct response to this extraordinary site in the Clywdian Hills. The work will be shown at Plas Glyn y Weddw, Llandedrog, Pwllheli, this July, alongside artist Stefan Gant and related archaeological field drawings.

Do you have an intended response to your work?

A work can be made with an expectation of how someone might respond but it doesn’t always go to plan. The responses that I care about operate on a perceptual level – they are how the body and eye respond to the physicality of the work before any intellectual analysis.  I have this moment in mind when I take any decisions determining the character of a painting. The clue that someone is making sense of a painting is how he or she moves about it – to explore the work from side to side. This tells me more than anything they might say.

Where do you see your work taking you in the future?

It takes a long time to develop a distinct language in painting. I have reached a point where I have a language and now I want to play with it. I would like to work outside more in both the urban as well as the rural environment making works in direct contact with the hard surfaces of the streets or the landscape. This May I will initiate a project with printer Mike Ward. We will be taking the printing process to the streets of Elephant and Castle in South London. In September I will be on a residency organized by Launch Pad in France. This is an opportunity I have been looking for to work outside in a remote environment. I want to see how far I can push the physical qualities of the painting.

My work is understood better in Europe than it is in the UK.  I see myself working there more in the future. One thing I have learnt from my collaborations with archaeology is the extent to which the inhabitants of this island have always looked outwards and absorbed and exchanged ideas as well as goods through trading. I think it will be more difficult to find the support and survive as an artist once we cut ourselves off from Europe. Brexit, in my opinion, does not reflect the true character of this country and its people.

What made you decide to join Artimage, and what have been the greatest benefits?

I joined Artimage because it sticks up for artists.  Having high quality images online is a great resource and I often refer people to it. All too often images of artists’ work are used commercially and the artist is left out of the equation.  In reality there is a great deal of money tied up in art and it is about time it started to filter down to help those who are directly involved in creating our cultural environment. The work Artimage does for artists is an important step towards getting the balance right.