“Coming Apart as Much as Coming Together”: A Conversation with Clive Hodgson
On the eve of his debut US solo exhibition at White Columns, New York, Hodgson talks in his East London studio with fellow artist SHERMAN SAM, artcritical’s London Editor.
March 4 to April 19, 2014
320 West 13th Street at Horatio Street
New York City, 212 924 4212
Sherman Sam: So you were actually a successful figurative painter to start with. When did you change your work?
Clive Hodgson: Well, I made those paintings until 1989 or something. It’s a very long time ago. I did them because when I left art school I wasn’t sure that I’d done certain things I was curious about, so I made those figurative paintings because I was curious to find out if it was possible to make those kind of genre paintings that operated on a small scale. To me they were a formal experiment…
But you were successful though. Doesn’t the Arts Council own some of that work?
I think if I could get it back I would destroy it. It became a burden because you can’t get involved with that work without becoming involved with some kind of narrative about what the people were doing.
So you were painting pictures of people doing things?
What was the genre you were painting?
They were a bit like characters out of Dickens. Greedy people, people fighting, people being disgusting, self-indulgent.. They were more like Dutch tavern scenes. But what I was really doing was playing with arrangements of things.
Like you do now.
Yeah. Circles of people, people in a line, people bending over. What I think is interesting now is that the background often contained stripey things, or patterns, or elements that since appear in their own right.
So when did you stop painting figuratively?
I did a whole load of these “tavern-like” people and I thought that it was too grim, so I did a series of paintings of bathers that were ridiculously idyllic, and even a bit gay for some reason. The gallery I was going to show them in went bust, so they got mothballed and then I felt as though that was definitely the end of the line. I couldn’t sustain that. I was curious about other things. So, in fact, I reverted to making abstract paintings.
Also, I did those figurative paintings at a time when Mrs Thatcher was in power. I felt that the social situation was bad. I went to see a big show of Schnabel at Whitechapel and saw Gilbert and George’s work at the Tate, and I remember thinking that there isn’t any point in competing with anything like Schnabel, that I wouldn’t go there. I formulated for myself this idea of small-scale painting, which had very different values. At the heart of that figuration there were some good ideas that did something, but – I think – there was the danger of being seduced by completely stupid ideas about what people are doing, who they are, where they are etc. that was way off target.
So you made abstract paintings before you made figurative paintings! Presumably then you made abstract paintings when you were in art school.
Early on, yeah.
Wow. And what were they like?
Pretty much like the ones I do now [laughs] Some of them were loose hanging pieces with a lot of painted surfaces. They didn’t have content in a way, they were just objects that were painted or had very simple division and that’s something that’s recurred for sure. But the first abstract paintings that I resumed with were of spots and stripes, in a pattern-like mode.
Was there a reason for this or was it where the instinct took you?
The bathers were some attempt to make something much lighter in spirit and form. But the spot things was a way to make something with very little reference to mass. Something very light, and something dispersed.
Was there an allusion to any formal concept or something, in the way, for example, Bridget Riley alludes to nature?
No. That would be repellent. Things that look like something would bother me.
Yes, I feel the same way about my work. I think if I wanted it to look like nature, I would have done nature. But your earlier [abstract] paintings were not straightforward geometric abstraction then?
They had a lot to do simply with patterns, lattices, stripes, spots, and often they were done serially. There were groups of five or seven, say. I made for example a large object, which formed a ring, in which the colors could go in any order.
How did you come from there to what you paint now? It was quite a long time right?
I’m afraid it’s been a long time, yeah. To go from there to where I am now is probably to do with exploring different manifestations of this idea of lightness and dispersal. So after the geometry and the spots and the repetitions, or series of paintings with spots with different colorings, like variations on a theme, I started to do things that were deliberately ornamental. And to do with symmetry. I was using some borrowed motifs from Renaissance art, or earlier. Again they had a kind of structure that was basically coming apart as much as they were coming together.
So was it the idea of choosing something minor from a visual language and making it the focus?
Yes, but its also that I’d been interested in decorative things.
“Decorative things” as in when someone collects door handles or as in a type of representation?
The decorative thing I saw as being painting, existing in a real and vivid form precisely because it is outside of traditional painting – that is formal painting, easel painting, paintings confined by a stretcher and canvas. So there would be decorative painting on walls, like marbling or patterns, and on furniture…. All of that attracted me, and it had to do with the painting spreading outside of a confine. And that represented something that appealed to me – something rambling and not centred.
Sounds like 1970s French philosophy.
A rambling thought..less-ness
Full of puns.
But it was also about using a motif that wasn’t too freighted with meaning. Even circles and stripes seem to resonate with certain bits of symbolism. One can’t really escape that, but some of the decorative, ornamental work I saw and made seemed to point towards an area of playfulness and to something that refused meaning.
Why is it important to you to make painting that refuses meaning?
It’s a very difficult thing to explain.
Well, did you have a program where you wanted to do these “meaningless things” or was there a moment when these representational things didn’t work? And you just thought, I’ll go with painting that, then it led somewhere and then you were eventually painting these things?
It was more deliberate than that. I got sick of the “meanings” in the figurative paintings for sure, where narratives seem to get in the way of an encounter with the painting itself. I think that of course it is possible that they go together, there is a whole art history where they could go together.
Let’s come back to the point when you made this decision.
At some point painting becomes more articulate in its own right because it becomes isolated from carrying messages, so the ornament thing is familiar but it carries no message. Things easily seem to get too symbolic or have very strong geometric connotations, for example in a Euclidian way or a Platonic way, and then it begins to seem like symbolism again. I was looking for where the painting seemed real to me in the way that decorative painting seemed real. Something begins to happen because there aren’t any points of reference for meanings.
It’s like the eerie experience of seeing cave paintings in places like Lascaux, where an animal is scraped into the curve of the wall but unlike a lot of representational painting where you always see the representation, rather than the object of the representation.
I’ve tried often enough to making a painting where there is a representation and also it operates as a painting that satisfies me.
Like those still-lifes you were painting last year.
Exactly. Whether or not it succeeds is open to question, but the question again is quite deliberate. I was curious to know if I could put something back in there and allow the painting to be something that I felt was operating at another level.
But that’s like having two genres instead of one….say, for example, a group of people having a picnic in a landscape. So there are portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.. as in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
I was curious as to whether I could put back various elements into an image, but that is like going back to the question that came up with the figures in the first place. I’m not convinced that it’s a sensible thing to do at all.
Making paintings or making abstractions?
Could they be landscapes then?
I don’t see why not, or portraits.
But what strikes me is that your most interestingly bad paintings are the ones that are not still still-lifes as such but they representations of still-lifes. They look sketchy…[laughs]
God, why are we talking about the still-lifes?
Because you were thinking that you were going to devote a year to them, so they must be worth something to you.
What you’ve just said has something of the truth in it – that they are paintings about paintings of still-lifes. So they’re not just about the still-lifes. There is a double layer to it.
But I think that’s what your paintings are, they are paintings of paintings.
The abstract paintings do this too. I think they refer to abstractions in a similar way.
But not ironically. They still want to be paintings, rather than philosophical discussions about the nature of painting.
They do want to be paintings. I’m in favour of making some thing confrontational, which may sound absurd considering what I do, but something that has got some difficulty in it, both for me and for other people. The still-lifes are difficult, presumably, for people who think I’m an idiot for doing them.
Isn’that just the nature of making serious paintings today? We live in a time when things are getting easier and easier to consume.
Recently, after several years of making paintings with my name in, which some people found very annoying, these paintings gradually got quite empty of anything except the name, and seemed a bit, in a way, nihilistic.
Why is that, do you think?
Well, the danger is that it seems a bit maudlin… in the way that there can be a sentimentality about poor old Clive painting these sad paintings. Following those relatively “empty” ones, I questioned again the idea of putting something else in, and there was a question in my mind about whether that was a concession, to allow people to have something to relate to, to be less solipsistic.
Yeah, exactly, Ryman was there first, 1955 or whenever.
But that doesn’t make the work nihilistic.
No, for me it was the coupling of a kind of emptiness with the rest of the painting.
Well Ryman’s paintings are a bit more aestheticized than yours. Or perhaps we’ve had more years to digest them. Maybe you have no taste? Well, not no taste but… there is a deliberately shoddy surface.
Raoul de Keyser has that look.
That’s very difficult to place… umm I don’t know about that. I make them quite carefully, it seems to me.
In your generation, you were quite well trained presumably?
Yes. But I guess I want them to include a moment of impulse. So there is a feeling of some moment of attack. Or perhaps of a jump.
In the time I’ve known you, the quality I find most consistent in your work and in you personally is the quality of doubt. You question what you do a lot, but we also find that quality in your work. How they are made, their scale, makes us question the status of your painting.
I find that I can only work with an idea for a certain period. I can work on a certain number of paintings till something rises up within me that says, if this has got such and such quality, what would happen if it did not have that quality? So there is a reaction and counter reaction always. It’s quite difficult in terms of continuity, if people want continuity, because it makes me react against my own work. And often I want to destroy it and indeed do destroy it. So in that sense I am skeptical of what it achieves and I’m skeptical of the ideas I work with, and I’m not certain they have any value. But maybe I don’t even want to be certain that it has value?
Do you think the work you make has value in our current visual culture? Do you think your work is contemporary?
Well, I worry about it seeming like the work of somebody who’s obsessed with steam engines or someone who likes to fix up old things. Painting is probably a less significant art form now, and I am specifically interested in painting. But I also think that one makes work partly because of the context – to some extent you are for it or against it. So the scale of work, the nature of work, my interest in its hand-craftedness, the nature of it being slightly unpredictable, I think that is to some extent, in some small way, a reaction against certain currents of the contemporary art world. Even to a certain extent politically so. But having said that I would like to keep finding always some way of dealing with actual, lived experience . We’re each of us in our own little time zone, and it’s different from the Fifities, different the Eighties, from the 2000s even.
I think if you were the same person as an adult in the Fifties you probably wouldn’t be able to make what you make now.
Yes, that’s right, I would be reacting against or for things of that period. But it’s very difficult to map out what is for or against. I think time will reveal what is contemporary. Or not so much what’s contemporary as what has insight into a particular moment in time.