September 2015

A Q&A with Rae Hicks

CANAL is delighted to present a solo stand by Rae Hicks at START Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery 10-13 September 2015

Here, Rae Hicks speaks about his work with Chris Shaw, director of Three Works, Weymouth

CS: Can you identify the major themes in your work?

RH: To consciously make work towards a theme or subject is too dogmatic for me. I’ve always had the impression from artists who do this that they are in some way desperate not to confront that making work and having an agenda are two things that will not develop together in a cooperative way. Probably, in that situation, the two things are being used as excuses or qualifiers for the other - i.e. an artwork needs to be useful so must have a critical application, or that a critical application is too unsexy, and needs a poetic face.

CS: Brick walls, fences, gable-ends feature prominently in your work. Why?

RH: I once read an interview circa 2007-9 with Maria Lassnig, in which she states how uninterested she was in background, and so focuses on the topical foreground. Although I think she actually made great work, that was an attitude that I just couldn’t reconcile with at that time, and still can’t. I think that only backgrounds have power, and this is through their ‘potential energy’ - to borrow the scientific term. I still can’t understand the human figure as interesting or pertinent in painting.

If drawn to the captivating power of otherwise mundane things, I just want to go straight to that, and I’m excited about what emerges when something symbolically flimsy is treated with these very substantial tools such as linen and oil paint. It forces it into prominence. Perhaps this is the point at which some kind of commentary appears about our habits of design, nationally, but I don’t want to go as far as to make any of that explicit.

CS: Some of your paintings include a strip of primary blue along the top and a strip of cheerful green at the bottom and often there's a bright yellow disk somewhere between them. These elements seem to reference the sky, grass and sun as they appear in children's drawings - a sort of archetypal staging device for all kinds of imaginative wanderings. In your work, however, the sense of entrapment and disappointment is palpable. People are absent but giant drill bits stand immovable like the monolith in Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968). That film takes us back to an origin and how an animal bone becomes an object of fascination in the hand of one cave-dwelling bright spark. In lieu of a knowable reality we can all agree on, are those strips of primary hues in your work an attempt at least to get back to some sort of unsullied, however unsuitable, ground zero from which to work?

RH: I don’t think of them as unsullied, because they’re hand-me-downs. However ‘ground zero’ is a good way to think of it. All of the works are attempts at identifying our most commonly recognised visual cues, but this is a means rather than focus in itself. Visual tropes are useful in understanding expectations of how things should be. It’s not that lowest common denominator imagery is necessarily ideology; its appeal lies in usefulness. It speaks of convenience taking the place of being ideological when forming a collective picture. But of course, ideology is a necessity and forms whether convenience is the leader or not, so actually these images become very comforting.

I often give these flat panels of hills and moons a shadow, which is visual shorthand for consequence. I want to, as simply as possible, pose the idea of real-scale implementation of insignia. But of course, it’s not me that has had this idea. This is how things are manufactured now. It’s also not that I want to combat convenience symbolism as being at the core of design, it’s that I want to understand how image mixing bleeds across boundaries and cross-contaminates all involved.

CS: Would you say your use of grids and colour fields are directly inspired by the Constructivists and their adherents or are you more interested in how their ideas and motifs have filtered into everyday life?

RH: I haven’t spent any time contemplating constructivism, but what I have is an observed, partial understanding of what happens to avant-garde ideas over time. The grid and the colour field both have ancestry in exactitude, whether that was in art or just a school exercise book, and so there’s a densely compacted set of meaning layers when you approach these forms with the faltering hand and the ‘expressive’ brush stroke. Making a painting which indulges this is the act of uniting the historical cases of the form in question, which includes both pragmatic and poetical examples. So any formal similarity drawn between my work and constructivism references, are because of its subsequent integration into visual language.

CS: Who are your major influences?

RH: Getting properly into Markus Lüpertz’ work recently has been a huge thing. Especially the ‘Tent Paintings’ and the works made in the mid-to-late sixties, which seem to prefigure a lot of recent imagery. Something about the colour combinations and semi-everyday forms that aren’t quite themselves, point the way to responding to the picture question nowadays. They have an unbelievable bright and sunny mundaneness which despite pop and op, doesn’t seem to fit in with anything from the time or even today. There’s something of Periode Vache there, maybe the awareness of negativity combined with an irreverence to it. Günther Förg’s work has a similar weight for me, as does that of Per Kirkeby. All three artists have their own way of undermining this tendency towards unwarranted theatrical darkness & visual illusionism which painting lapses into repeatedly - think Adrian Ghenie or Michaël Borremans. I feel the drag of that tactic on my practice and encountering examples of its opposite is very enabling.

CS: There's a phrase from the film The Wizard of Oz (1939) that keeps floating into my mind when I look at your work - "there's no place like home" - does this famous phrase resonate with you?

RH: Very much! Although perhaps in my case it should be ‘there’s no place like Homebase!'.

CS: I've mentioned Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) and now The Wizard of Oz (1939)... Blue Velvet (1986) seems pertinent to your stuff, too - all those garden fences, blue skies and suburban banalities framing unseen activity. Do films, and novels for that matter, impact on your paintings at all?

RH: My first attempt to deal with those banalities you’ve mentioned was film photography because in my simplistic way, I found it contradictory that all that prettiness can just stand in disinterested witness to atrocity. I remember reaching the understanding that that kind of beauty did not symbolise harmony at all, and was in fact potent in and of itself, because it didn’t insist on tranquillity as accompaniment. It’s not euphemistic because It doesn’t actually dictate a narrative. It’s a background and a fertile but indifferent and massive space. Anyone who insists that a meadow and mountains is analogous to pleasantry has disregarded 100 years of visual culture. Going back to my previous mention of Maria Lassnig, putting these shapes eventually into paint was how I grabbed hold of them and forced them into subjecthood. If they stayed on film then they remained a supporting character. But yes, films and novels are precisely how I’ve come to understand how we mix signifiers, or background and event, and then how to re-order those according to what I feel ought to be brought forward or pushed back.

CS: Does it bother you when people misread your work?

RH: It depends who it is. If it’s someone who I might expect to ‘get’ it then I worry that I’ve not communicated very well and I’ve created an unintentionally cross-purpose impression, rather than feeling that they’ve misread it. But then, my work doesn’t exactly have a point, so misinterpretation is not really an applicable situation.

CS: How do you go about preparing and starting work on a painting? Can you speak a bit about your process?

RH: I take a lot of photographs but rarely, if ever, draw. The photos themselves are not closely observed and are only used to compensate for my imagination gaps. Most works start with a dimension of stretcher that I find appealing, and that’s the first compositional pointer. Then I start by implementing an idea that I’ve had for a while, which inevitably does not carry the painting through to completion and needs to be either heavily re-appropriated or erased altogether.

The aftermath of this is an amount of visual noise, which provides the ground for the next phase, which is a combination of other ideas and more spontaneous working. I chip away at it like this for some time, between a day and a few weeks until at some point it just clicks. Occasionally though, I plan a painting and just produce it accordingly step by step until I’ve completed all the necessary stages. It’s boring to work that way but sometimes produces the best results.

CS: Do you enjoy painting? Is it something you do every day?

RH: Luc Tuymans famously remarked that the first three hours of painting are hell, but in my case it’s nearly all hell! The payoff is at the end though, so I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. I guess I paint for a few days out of each week, sometimes a lot more intensely and sometimes taking a break for a month, depending on if I have something to work towards. Maybe one day my practise will solidify a bit and I’ll find the various stages more reassuring. I said something to this effect when giving a talk at a university once, and I think some of the students found the prospect of this, as a life, a bit depressing. But it ain’t!

CS: Can you talk about your materials?

RH: I can’t wield acrylics or watercolour. Their qualities are so unforgiving that it takes a very special intelligence and approach. I use heavy cotton canvas or linen, and I find extra thick stretcher bars nauseating, so I go for 3 and 4cm. For brushes I prefer good quality synthetic decorating brushes and a small selection of finer, shaped, traditional ones. I mix in large plastic paint kettles, in which evolve colours and mixtures that have a DNA going back many months. I like ending up with something resembling the colours you get pre-mixed, but that have organic variations.

CS: Sean Penn once said that he would like people to judge his films as a body of works and not as stand-alone projects. In isolation, he was saying, they could be viewed as inferior - or superior for that matter - to his previous efforts; but overall, he said, it is the entire vision that mattered most to him.

I sometimes exhibit work that I'm not sure will be carried through into what I do next, but what I do next depends on all sorts of digressions and wrong turns. Do you have reservations - deep or otherwise - about current works and yet exhibit them anyway?

RH: I’ve had to let go of the worry about how something that I’m working on might dictate what I need to do next. The main fear there is that it will appear schizophrenic and incomprehensible as a chronology, when someone opens my website and sees the last two years in projects. But so be it, this habit of needing to see things as a coherent chain is really nasty if it’s insistent and is the result of reading too many biographies. The only thing I really trust when considering whether to carry something through is whether it feels like an impulse, which is much more important than whether it fits the brief or character of a space or exhibition. On the other hand, I’ve worked that way for a while now and there’s an inevitable consistency which descends upon all of the works, when seen together. This is not a problem at all, I just don’t want that to be something which I planned out.

CS: I follow some really interesting threads on facebook - for instance, Matthew Collings's series of threads mostly on painting are quite juicy where they have these fantastic and stimulating debates littered with hilarious put-downs. What do you think of facebook and other social media as a way to communicate and get your work and thoughts out there?

RH: Like all public debate it’s mired in self-representation and approval seeking (especially when it comes to the comments on a Matthew Collings or Jerry Saltz page). But it’s also very good if it’s not too shambolic. If you’re one of those artists who doesn’t like to appear alongside their work then it’s no good but if you do like that, it’s another publication of your mantra. It also has a funny parallel to the previous question of consistency within a body of work, in that I flip-flop between playing by the rules and presenting myself in a coordinated way, and then feeling the need to destroy that and be all honesty and vulnerability. I suppose it’s quite unique in its early-onset ability to raise that question of persona and shop front.

CS: Can you speak a little about the work you were doing five years ago and how it differs from the work you do today?

RH: In 2010, I was actually making things that are very close to what I’m doing now, when compared to what was happening between 2011 and 2014. I was very interested in Ludwig Meidner and attempting these quite thick, colourful cartoons. But this was when I was really struggling with the idea of subject, and couldn’t seem to find a frame to work this approach around. I made some very embarrassing works in which I was just cataloguing iconography and handling it in a very clumsy, confused way. I couldn’t deal with the huge baggage that an image comes with and so couldn’t skilfully deconstruct pictures through making them – which is what I feel more engaged with these days.

Of course at 21, many artists are already very empowered in their practice and seem a lot less mired than I was at that age, but when I look back at the work, I can say that at least I see a genuine attempt to deal with a big problem, albeit one not many others have. Because of this, I think there will always be something awkward in my practice and it will never have the finesse that others sometimes have. But this is just a particularity to me and I’ve come to see it as a quality.

CS: What is your thinking behind the work which was included in the Three Works exhibition?

RH: I selected works which all dealt with the flatness of the picture surface, and what happens when that surface is again translated through an additional lens that edits and excludes. One is a display of flooring samples which were assembled on a wall outside of a hardware shop, and one is the colour segments from a beach-front sign, with the decals and text removed. When isolating the backgrounds in scenes from visual displays, it can be the same as isolating a residual understanding of short-hand imagery. It is an exhibition of the binding structural fibre that serves as a ground against which to position more targeted visual cues. I intended that together, they might bring to prominence something that has sunk into legend. Legend is a great word actually! As it is of course also the small explanation of visual symbols that give a map relativity and meaning.

This interview, conducted during Rae Hicks’s solo exhibition at Three Works gallery in May 2015, is reproduced with the kind permission of Chris Shaw, director of Three Works Weymouth

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