Simon Ling in his London studio
Simon Ling in his London studio © James Royall

A tall figure in blue tracksuit pants, Chris Ofili strides into Greengrassi gallery apologising in sonorous tones for losing his way so that he is a little late. Before I and Simon Ling, the painter with whom Ofili has come to talk, can reassure him, Ofili has already pounced on a painting. “Is that yours, Simon? Is that at home? In Wales?”

A neat, pale figure in tailored shorts, Ling replies in the affirmative.

The plan to interview two of Britain’s leading painters simultaneously was exciting but nerve-racking. But Ofili’s instant engagement with Ling’s work sets the mood for a generous, fascinating conversation.

Our focus is on Ling’s practice. Right now, the airy spaces of Greengrassi, which is his gallery, are devoted to a group of his paintings that will shortly travel to Tate Britain for a show of five British painters under 50. Its aim, according to the press release, is to interrogate “what painting might mean now”.

Ofili and Ling dive into this question via the canvas that has captured Ofili’s eye. Described by Ling as “the foundations of a building that got covered in moss”, it pursues the viridian flora until it dissolves into a well of silky, tonal greens – emerald, moss, forest, lime – whose provocative, semi-abstract chromatism recalls the landscape symphonies of Constable, Daubigny and Monet.

“It’s a painting of nothing as well as something,” observes Ofili. “You fall into it; there’s nothing to hold on to.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to approach,” Ling responds enthusiastically. “The idea that you can paint nothing and it becomes everything.”

Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili © Grant Delin/David Zwirner Gallery

Ling and Ofili, who were both born in 1968, have been friends since their days as students at London’s Chelsea School of Art.

Their backgrounds are very different: Ofili grew up “in a terraced house in Manchester” and, without a bursary, would “never have considered art school”. He enrolled at a local college with the plan of studying design but an inspirational teacher, Bill Clark, opened the door to painting.

Ling was brought up on a farm in Pembrokeshire where outdoor work was part of daily life. At 15, he took a book on Lucian Freud out of the library. “Then I saw what I wanted to do,” he laughs drily. “It took me a long time to learn how to do it!”

At Chelsea, Ofili remembers Ling’s then unusual practice of working from a life model. “It was the last gasp of a life studio,” Ling recalls with a smile. “This really eccentric lady would come in and jabber [while we painted her]. But that kind of observational painting was being squeezed out.”

Briefly Ofili had the studio next door. “I was getting a bit more observational myself. I had started doing self-portraits. And I started to worry: is this a backward step?”

It wasn’t of course. Ofili’s decision, which was surely about turning his gaze inward towards an exploration of self and the culture that shaped him, led him towards a vision that has made him one of the most exciting painters of his generation.

Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998, represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and, in 2010, enjoyed an acclaimed retrospective at Tate Britain. Today, he lives with his family in Trinidad and his work has evolved from the ecstatic collages that made him famous to radiant, mysterious emanations whose intensity plumbs myth, fantasy and dream.

Ostensibly at least, Ling remained true to observation. Unusually, he paints en plein air. (Ofili recently spotted him on a roundabout in the middle of the city. “My little girl cried out: ‘Oh look, Daddy, there’s a man painting!’ And it was Simon.”)

Two of Simon Ling's untitled works (2012)
Two of Simon Ling's untitled works (2012)

Ling’s subjects are deliberately nondescript: a dismal office block; an IT store cluttered with gadgets; an anonymous stretch of high street. Sometimes he fabricates curious objects to paint in his studio.

Ofili peers intently at a painting of enigmatic, lozenge-shaped objects. Painted in a garish hue meticulously constructed out of a spectrum of orange, its original source was a packing crate.

“It’s already broken down,” Ofili observes elliptically “So you’ve got yourself off the hook right then! You walk in here and it’s buildings and orange paintings. So you check out the buildings first, but the orange paintings have dissolved already. You’re liberated. There are no ties.”

“There are slight ties,” murmurs Ling. “And that’s what acts [as an anchor to reality].”

Ofili’s gnomic insight expresses the vibrant tension in these paintings, the fruit of Ling’s intense scrutiny of the world heightened by subtle, abstract betrayals. The computer shop anchors you with the familiarity of its piled-high digital tat, yet in truth the window display is a shifting patchwork of gestural dabs. If this is realism, it is in the visceral vein of late paintings by Freud, which evoked not life so much as the emotion it kindles.

“How do you start these paintings?” inquires Ofili, transfixed by a wan city building whose architecture-by-numbers is made compelling by the haphazard perspective, the scrupulous accuracy of its depthless windows, a ragged burst of tree-top sprouting in one corner.

“Well, this is about the city’s lack of aspiration,” replies Ling. “The lack of planning and failure, where the city is almost like a tectonic construction, a weird jumble.”

“It sounds like you are describing a painting,” observes Ofili.

“Yes, it’s the perfect subject,” agrees Ling before expanding on his technique. “It’s not about getting everything covered and finishing it, and doing it right. Often, it’s the bits you don’t do in the end that are the really active bits. You have to learn to leave those bits.”

In the exultant pessimism of the discussion that follows, I am reminded of Beckett’s conviction that a writer’s only goal was to “fail better”. Both agree that the narcissism fostered at art college was a vital seedbed.

“You can make things because you’re trying to make yourselves,” remembers Ofili. “Looking at yourselves over and over again. It’s unbearable at times.”

For Ofili, his teacher was a catalyst. “[Mr Clark] was interested in getting to that breaking point that Simon is talking about as quickly as possible. When you’ve completely given up and think ‘Sod it’, that’s the time you sit down and start painting. You’ve bottled out, all of your bravado has gone, and basically you are left with all that energy translated into another form.”

It takes, I murmur, courage to be a contemporary painter when there is so much history at your back. “Is it hard to still believe that you can do something new?”

“If you have done your job, the self-knowledge job, then it’s going to be [new],” responds Ling, “If you have been paying attention, you are going to come up with your voice.”

His words prompt Ofili to reach for his iPhone to show us images of paintings by Manet from a recent show he has seen in Venice. “Something in his brushstrokes says, ‘Fuck you’,” he whispers in admiration. “It’s the revolution in his mind.”

Yet in Manet’s time, there were still huge leaps to be made. It’s much harder now, surely? “Painting is really good at getting you close to certain kinds of things. Subtle is radical,” says Ling. “You make a mark with paint, it holds that thing, for as long as anybody’s going to look at it. That movement [of looking] is now held in a material. You combine all those energies and you make this thing which is a living record.”

‘Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists’, Tate Britain, London, November 12-February 9 2014.

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