Exile in a land of mischief

Martin Naylor, an existentialist English artist living and working in Buenos Aires, has got a local rock star to curate his latest exhibition. He talks to David Cohen
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The title, Important Mischief, of Martin Naylor's current exhibition at the Borges Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires, and of its centrepiece installation, could also serve as a good description of how he views art, and how he comes to be living and working in Argentina. Naylor is a self- declared maverick who prides himself on being a romantic outsider. To drive the message home he has pinned a text from Albert Camus at the entrance to his show. "It is by a continual effort that I can create ... It is how I despair and how I cure myself of despair." As if the purpose is to remind himself, as much as to communicate with his Argentine audience, the quotation only appears in English.

This is his fourth exhibition in the Argentine capital since 1989, and they have all been in public venues. At first he came as a tourist, his British Council retrospective stopping in BA on its way to Montevideo, Rio and Sao Paulo. Then he was given a massive painting show in the newly inaugurated Museum of Modern Art. When that show went on regional tour, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City of La Plata. He is accepted now as a permanent fixture in the Buenos Aires art scene, but rather than settling into the woodwork, he seems intent on "taking on" the critical establishment.

In Argentina, it is paramount for public exhibitions to have a curator: the art world often takes its bearings from whichever critic lends his or her name to the show. But, as Naylor told the national daily, the Buenos Aires Herald, "I have an overwhelming suspicion of critics. Most of it is junk, philosophically nonsensical, non-grammatical and parochial." To cock a snook at convention, he decided his "curator" had to be Charly Garcia, the Maradona of Argentine rock music. "He is regarded by thinking people, and not just by fans, as something of a symbol. A symbol, I think, of individualism," Naylor tells me. He sent a batch of catalogues to the elusive 43-year-old star, who was on tour, and immediately got a positive reply. Although he appears on the billings posted around town on an equal footing with the artist, Garcia's "curating" took the form of a poem extolling Naylor as a fellow "freak".

Although they have communicated mostly by telephone, the two men have formed a close rapport. There is talk of using a Naylor for Garcia's next record cover. On what was only their second meeting, Garcia took me aside to explain his empathy for Naylor. "In this yuppie, post-modern society, intense is uncool. I recognise him as a fellow freak and give him my support. Welcome to the club.

"Looking at Martin's catalogue, just after I had had a bad day in Spanish TV with very square managers, feeling a real fish out of water, I saw this poem which I really liked. At that moment he called me. We talked every night for hours. So I made an introduction for his catalogue. Far out!"

Martin Naylor was born in Morley, near Leeds, in 1944, and studied sculpture at Leeds and the Royal College. He belongs to a somewhat overlooked generation which came between Anthony Caro's 1960s followers and the "Quiet Revolution" generation of Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow that emerged in the mid-1970s. But Naylor has had a fair deal of institutional take- up. He represented Britain at the 1977 Sao Paulo Biennal, had a Serpentine show in the mid-1980s, and a full-scale retrospective at the prestigious Yale Center for British Art in 1992. There is an element of bravura in the way he announces his "exile" from Britain, citing as his reason for departure disdain for the prevalent neoconceptualism favoured by official circles. Despite support from the British Council for his latest show, timed to coincide with a Henry Moore exhibition in the city, he professes to "feel like Osborne: Damn you, England!"

Like his posturing, his art tends to the confrontational, awkward and defiant. It is much concerned with violence and sexual tension, and is unabashedly literary. "Existentialism is and was very important for me: Camus, Giacometti; I don't care how unfashionable it has all become, the making is still about that." Closer to home, the contemporaries who impressed him most were the painters Francis Bacon and R B Kitaj. With the latter he shares several character traits: pinning texts to the wall, professing to emphasise drawing, and hating art critics.

Leitmotifs, clearly of personal significance to the artist, recur through the exhibition. Scrawny Klimt-like squatting women with cascades of red hair are identified as Les Precieuses, an allusion, presumably, to Moliere's Sirens. The sculptural installation Important Mischief is actually represented at the Borges Centre in three separate versions, each a variant of a piece with the same name from 1976 (recently acquired by the Leeds City Art Gallery). One of them entailed hauling 16 sheets of cordon steel plate up many flights of stairs to the cultural centre, which is perched on the top floor of a downtown shopping mall. On top of these is sprawled a heap of rusting cogs and machine parts. To complete the scenario, a steam machine periodically belches out its acrid discharge - no doubt a stand-in for the artist himself.

He explains his habit of working in series in terms redolent of his existentialist credo: "Never being able to make the thing you are trying to make - the constant trying is what the making is about." But although, as he puts it, "one is aiming for clarity in the knowledge that it will never be there", he now expresses himself well satisfied with the latest version of Important Mischief - after 20 years of variation. In common with its 1970s forebear, it is dominated by an eerie blow-up photo of a menacing young man, unshaven and in a dishevelled anorak, lurking in an inner-city alleyway brandishing a baseball bat and sporting odd marks on his forehead. It looks like a clip from a Surrealist movie, but was in fact staged with a medical student friend posing in the street outside Naylor's Old Street studio.

While Naylor's early reputation rested on his sculpture - he was the influential head of sculpture at Hornsey School of Art in the 1970s, when Anish Kapoor was among his students - his most striking achievements are now a hybrid of sculpture and oil painting. Objects like a doll's-house staircase, or an ominous black cloth, protrude from the surface of his hefty triptychs. These are painted predominantly in at once exquisite and nauseating salmon pinks and flesh-tones. Violently agitated brush- strokes intimate body parts and sublime landscapes.

Disenchantment with England aside, Naylor's main reason for relocation was an enchantment with Argentina. He is about to marry his partner of long-standing, the psychologist Dr Liliana Maler, who is from Buenos Aires, and it has not hurt this working-class Yorkshireman's assimilation in Argentine "society" that he is a handicapped polo player. He likes the feeling of being "a bit of a pioneer out these parts", of being "part of the promotion of the resurgence of Argentina as a major Latin American country" since the restoration of democracy.

How does the Argentine art world react to him? Jorge Glusberg, director of the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the country's most influential critic, admires his art, but is nonplussed by his career move. "Everyone dreams of going to live in London or New York, and this crazy guy comes to live here," he jokes. Oscar Molina, visual arts director of the British Council in BA, perhaps aware that he is dealing with a tricky customer, says: "He's an Argentine artist now."