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William Watkin

William Watkin

he / him
Wallingford, United Kingdom


William Watkin is a Professor of Philosophy at Brunel University who rediscovered art later in life. An obsessive drawer and maker as a child, he often thinks his art is marked by a strange amnesia. For nearly all of his adult life he forgot that he was an artist until he saw in his 40s a video of Gerhard Richter making his scrape paintings. "It was," he says, "a profound epiphany. 'I should be doing that!' was immediately replaced with, 'I used to do that!' I went out the next day, bought ten large canvases and a few gallons of paint and got to work. I don't know how or why I forgot this talent, but it is as if each day I remember one more piece of the puzzle through the act of painting and erase another. This is the perfection of scraping. You add, and take away at the same"/ William is an professional autodidact, an entirely self-taught painter who has never has a lesson in his life. "I learn by painting," he insists.

William was educated at Manchester University where he graduated in 1988 with BA in English and American Literature. He then took the cutting-edge MA in Critical Theory at Sussex University. His interest in contemporary British art began around this time when he shared a flat with the brother of two of the prominent YBAs and started to mix with them in their studios in Hoxton and Brick Lane. Living in London in the early 90s he was always on the edge of the scene; an enthusiastic observer. Since then he has followed contemporary British art and has several artist friends and neighbours.

For several years William travelled Europe living in Poland, Ireland and then London before settling in Belfast to do a PhD on the New York post-war arts scene. The impact of abstract expressionism is strongly felt in his work. But it would be many years still before he saw that Richter video. He has been painting ever since, for a decade now, and feels ready to start to show the world what he has discovered.

Artist Statement

My art is marked by a strange amnesia. For thirty years I forgot the obsessive artist I was as a child, even though I remained fascinated by looking at art. Then one day I saw a video of Gerhard Richter scrape-painting and it was as if someone flicked on a light switch in my memory. In an instant the feeling I should be doing that, was replaced by, I used to do that. I began painting the next day. That was 10 years ago.

Much of my practice is informed by my intellectual life. I am a world-leading expert in contemporary, continental philosophy. I am not a conceptual artist so much as a painter who pursues arguments in paint. I paint thoughts, basically, not their content, but their form.

I am also fascinated by contemporary digital information systems and their combination of random noise and formal algorithms. Inspired by rule-governed procedures in New York music and poetry, I establish simple algorithms or rules, before I paint. At the moment the primary rule is "I only scrape. I add paint, I take it away".

Yet at the same time abstract expressionism also informs my practice. I find I am intuitive, yet systematic. Another rule is "Do not plan, do not make choices." I like to think of my practice as constructivist expressionism. In this way my work echoes that of digital culture, the constructed nature of online interaction moderated by the random affordances of how the systems actually play out.

Yet there is always a nagging, almost Freudian aspect to the scraping that makes me think, is there a personal, emotional side to my art, and of course our online lives? As I scrape, I build up abraded, complex, textural surfaces. These surfaces cover up previous surfaces, ones which can be revealed later, by scraping back, but never entirely as they once were. Adding to the surface creates a physical palimpsest much like our online data. Nothing is ever truly deleted.

Why did I stop painting as a child? With each scrape I ask that question.

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