Painterliness is a term that people throw around a lot, without qualifying or defining it on its own. In a formal sense, it is the space of light and shadow created by colour, rather than by form, in a composition. As such, painterliness connotes a more complicated manner of painting that deviates from the rote rendering of lines. It is this connotation that can be expanded into the discussion of contemporary art and extended to define the visual qualities of other media. The first time that I saw Hurvin Anderson’s paintings, they were, in fact, not paintings but prints.
Technically, they were colour etchings from his first print portfolio, Nine Etchings (2005). Despite their process, they retained the expansive idea of painterliness for which he is known. The entire set appeared to be a riff on a view.
By this I mean that there seemed to be a central image (in this case an imposing two-story home set amidst a tropical vista) that occasioned several additional closer studies. One could call these studies derivatives or details. If this were literature, they might be called vignettes in recognition of their scale and close focus. I had the sense that each of these images was related, yet that relationship was neither obvious, nor was it necessary to the function of each of the individual prints. This is a situation that Anderson might describe as possibilities, and, more specifically, possibilities based on observation. In his work there are recurrent themes and objects that suggest common compositional tropes of relationship like narrative or serialization. But Anderson resists this and, instead, offers something that is far less tangible in the form of the possibility.
For over a decade, Hurvin Anderson has worked out a quietly vibrant painting language. What might at first seem contradictory (quiet and vibrant), Anderson realizes a way to work with both abstraction and figuration. He accomplishes this in several ways. One way involves the use of fixed objects – like a house, a tennis court, or a security gate – within a loose landscape. In other works he subtracts the associations of an object (an advertisement, for example) while playing up its formal (angles, lines, precision) attributes, often through colour. These are effects that are both subduing (for the composition) and evocative (for the imagination of the viewer). So too is there a play between public and private in his renderings. This is particularly evident in his use of human figures, many of whom seem to be positioned in a balance between public revelation and private reflection.
Born in Birmingham, Britain, Hurvin Anderson studied painting at the Wimbledon School of Art and the Royal College of Art, both in London. Now a resident in London for nearly two decades, Anderson has shown internationally. In 2005, he was the artist-in-residence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Prior to that residency he had been invited to the Caribbean Contemporary Arts residency in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. This spring, we met during his most recent exhibition, Peter’s Series 2007- 2009, which was on view at Tate Britain. It has now travelled to the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the fall, Anderson will be an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. The following conversation took place over the spring and early summer in Anderson’s studio in London.
CJM: How long did you work on the paintings for the Art Now exhibition at Tate Modern?
HA: Two years.
CJM: One of the things that I really liked about the series was that, as a viewer, I felt as if each one was very contained, yet visually and spatially, the paintings are related. Is there a narrative?
HA: I can see why you would think that but I wasn’t thinking about narrative at the time. I wanted to use this space in a painting and somehow protect the barber’s privacy and not enter into sentimentality.
CJM: Why did you feel like you were intruding?
HA: Because it was his home. I felt I was taking advantage somehow by painting it. But there was a history there that fascinated me. I wanted to keep the discussion going about painting it and how it works, but some of the work slips into something else and, then, it becomes a social thing.
CJM: Why are you worried about that?
HA: The Barber is Jamaican. Jamaicans are very protective of their image, and it is the barber’s home. So I felt I was invading his privacy.
CJM: Are these portraits?
HA: No, I see them as observations. I was trying to understand what is happening in this space; trying to work out my attraction to this space.
CJM: Is that why the show is hung that way, so that the viewer focuses on the figures in the later paintings?
HA: No, it was hung in the order that the paintings were made.
CJM: Compositionally, how would you describe Peter’s Series 2007 – 2009?
HA: I was aware I was removing objects, patterns, furniture, figures, stripping things back. It could have been this romantic scene about “how things use to be”. I didn’t want that. I wanted a space that spoke back to you; for things to be not quite right. It was a battle to be objective when you feel so subjective about things. In the previous work, The Barbershop Series, I wanted to make a space that talks to you. The imagery on the walls and mirrors were supposed to tell you something. This series became technical, which wasn’t something I had really considered. They became about these two elements.
CJM: What do you mean by two elements?
HA: Above the counter, where all of the cupboards are, there is a kind of flow to the way that everything happens with the objects. When it came to the chairs, the floor, and the cupboard, the painting seems to change pace, it becomes a different picture.
CJM: Would I be wrong to suggest that the switch between a horizontal and a vertical orientation between those two spaces reflects that?
HA: Maybe… I am aware of that in “Barbershop: Short, Back and Side”, 2006 (fig. 2). The painting was made on the wall and laid flat on trestles. The posters, mirrors, counter, etc. were painted when the image was in the vertical position. The rest was painted while the painting was on the trestle. This seems to be the only way that I could make the transition between the two spaces.
CJM: Was it similar to your study of “Barbershop” from 2007 (fig. 3)? Had you done that before?
HA: Yes, but this is the first time in a long time that I have made a large drawing. I consider it a painting; I do not see it as a drawing.
CJM: It there a difference for you between painting and drawing?
HA: Yes, Normally, I consider it a drawing, a kind of study. But because it was larger size, 175.4 x 145.5 cm, I realized that it felt more like a painting. If it were a drawing, I could stop anywhere. This had to be taken to a conclusion.
CJM: If you were a viewer in this painting (fig. 2), he or she would be sitting and looking above the bar. The lower part would be your physical space in the painting. Is this why it is difficult to execute, because you come into the work at this angle?
HA: I see what you are saying. The fact that this would be the space you enter and occupy and have an interaction with, whereas the upper part is slightly more distant could be seen as the space of the imagination? Maybe. It could be that the perspective is slightly forced. I think that the drawing is slightly easier. I am always aware of painting when it comes to this point.
CJM: Can you tell me a bit about your palette?
HA: How I chose it? Well this one (fig. 2), I tried to take it [the colour] from a photograph.
CJM: Did you take the photograph yourself?
HA: Yes. Sometimes I take snaps: you are somewhere and you see something interesting. The camera is a kind of sketchbook. I took about six shots and collaged them back together to get a sense of the space. But the first paintings were based on the colour in the photograph. The idea was to bring the photographs into play. The posters in the photographs had a commentary… a story. There were posters for parties, football teams and newspaper cuttings. There were also flags. And then there were posters of pop stars and landscapes. It seemed to be a kind of conversation that went on within the images, as well as the place [the barbershop]. So, I was trying to bring those elements into the painting. I actually wanted to make a bigger painting.
CJM: How much bigger?
HA: I don’t know. I don’t know how much more that I could have made it, but I felt as though the figures needed to be seen.
I am getting around to discuss the colour, but it is kind of roundabout. As I have gone through each painting, I was trying to adapt the space to what I was already using. Here I wanted a red, white and blue environment.
CJM: On purpose? Given the connotation of those colours?
HA: Yeah. I went past the barbershop again and saw the red, white, and blue colours on the outside. It was fascinating. As kids, you would avoid red, white, and blue in any way. Whereas in the barbershop, these guys seemed to embrace the British flag quite easily. It was a kind of shift, and the images were not vague. In this painting I wanted to become more figurative, more explicit, so that I could articulate the images. I wanted to manipulate the colour…to feel that the red, white and blue coordinated the whole composition. But I also wanted a kind of harshness as well. There is a way that these environments are not designed, not planned. There is some kind of planning in these barbershops, yes, but there is also an element of the unplanned. I like the idea of using the colour to explore this jarring, uncoordinated harshness. At the same time, the harshness is not complete in the painting. I think that it is perhaps more the flaw, this kind of awkwardness. Your high street designer salon would not look like this.
CJM: It is the visuality, and not the physicality, of the poster, that interests you?
HA: I suppose it is both. At the moment I am interested in becoming visual. I am still fascinated by the way that discussions go on within society. They show themselves within the community: in how things happen, in how we do things. How you have a barbershop, for example? To me it feels like there is this ongoing discussion. It may not be verbalized all of the time, but it is there.
I wanted this lack of coordination. But in the original image, I was more intrigued by the mirrors. It created a kind of kaleidoscope. Though there was stillness in the seating area, there was activity, movement, in the background. That kind of intrigued me.
CJM: Is movement a significant feature of your painting?
HA: Yes. In the interim years between leaving Wimbledon School of Art and going to the Royal College, I made several paintings about movement. These were paintings about ships and men making ships in the middle of London. I was intrigued by what it means visually when you hear of someone planning to return home. I wanted to make a representation of someone always planning by using the biblical analogy of Noah’s Ark. I was also trying to correct the perception that all Jamaicans came here on a boat. And actually all of my family came on a plane.
CJM: What about the series of paintings and drawings (fig. 4) that depict a group of children in a field, are these also about movement?
HA: Yes, “Ball Watching” (fig. 4). It came from a photograph of me and some friends playing football in a park. On the odd occasion the ball would go into the pond. When you see the photograph there is a ball in the middle of the park. It was odd because it brought up so many other things for me. Like the idea of everyone waiting on the edge of the water. It looked like they were waiting for something, or waiting for something to happen. They also seemed to be going somewhere. Or wanting to be somewhere else, so there was the question of space and territory. I tried to re-imagine this image in a clichéd Caribbean landscape, but I made it very crude to make a statement.
CJM: When you stated before that you wanted to make a larger painting, I remember that your last show at Thomas Dane gallery included diptychs, like “Double Grille”, 2008 (fig. 5). Was this an attempt to make larger paintings?
HA: No, I started to make things one size and they grew and extended out. I have an idea for making larger work. Larger work may not be just about a painting. It may be about a different way of working: How do I create this narrative? What’s going on with these posters? What’s happening with the story of these things? They are a kind of metaphor for me.
CJM: Metaphor for what?
HA: There is a kind of cultural aspiration for everything Caribbean that can be embodied in those images.
CJM: I noticed that in your exhibition at Tate Modern, you seem to latch onto an image and work out all of its possibilities by painting it in different ways. The exhibition was like watching several different possibilities take shape. Do you feel like you are trying to do that? Is there is a serial aspect to your process?
HA: I feel like it is more about possibilities. I have one idea and then I work through this idea, which would produce one, maybe two, paintings. It is like going back to a spot and seeing something different. I am constantly trying at get at something. I thought of it one way, then, no it is not quite like that. In life maybe you cannot do that, but this is a painting. You can go back. In life, you have one coherent way of working. The way that I paint often feels like I am jumping around, but within that I think that there is a consistency in what I paint. I am interested in this idea of the past in the present. The past is always around, the past as a way of discussing the future.
CJM: How do you know when you are done with an idea? When you get inside an image and you keep working though it? And, as you have said, you keep returning to it? Are you ever done with it?
HA: Yes, I am. It just stops. The painting actually feels tired and I start to think about something else. I really want to make something else, so I realize that I am coming to the end of that other thing. The idea of returning to an older idea would be quite difficult because it feels like it is loaded with another time. It almost feels like it is another composition, more has been resolved.
CJM: The first time I saw your work, I thought the barriers were a formal device; spatial props in the composition. But hearing more about them and seeing more of the ways that they function, I wonder if they are just that? Where do they come from?
HA: To return to “Ball Watching” (fig. 4). The barriers are partly a personal story that I am trying to take to another space…less a personal space. Maybe it is a political discussion. To get to the place where we played football, we had to cross mainline railway tracks and climb over a fence. When we crossed these tracks, time seemed to slow down. For some odd reason it never seemed like I had enough time to cross. So, I started to make this painting about that sensation of slowness. Then other people brought up ideas associated with crossing the tracks. Like in the States…
CJM: …it is a metaphor for moving from good to bad.
HA: Yes, or from one community to another. Or from rich to poor. It had these resonances as well.
CJM: Many of your paintings shift from fully representational to semi-abstract and fully abstract.
HA: How much do I give away? A lot of the times it is more about the image. I just wanted to see what this thing would look like.
I had not really acknowledged this. The play between the foreground and background that you mentioned or the spatial devices, such as how the grill functions between spaces. I was fascinated with re-imaging this space. I was interested in looking at the idea of stillness in a painting. I wanted these images that looked as though I had been there painting, but actually they are from a photograph.
CJM: Does acknowledging that you use a photograph matter to you?
HA: What can I do, the camera is here. I enjoy the way that you can glimpse somewhere else. I am still caught up in the baggage of what you are supposed to do. I have tried working from life, but the work became about the object or about the place.
I see the photograph as an assistant, something that helps you out. I have worked with one or two found images before but not many. Most of the time I take the photographs myself. But there is always a transition between the photograph and the painting; I have never worked straight from a photograph. I might collage several together. And I even painted onto the photograph from which “Ball Watching” (fig. 4) was taken. You might come to the studio and see a photograph, but from that photograph, I have made 20 drawings before I start to use it for a painting.
CJM: When you describe a photographic image, you seem to describe it from your memory, rather than the actual photograph.
HA: The photograph is almost a bi-product of the process. I am trying to remake a scene. For example, I was here, in London, and wanted to make a painting about a place in Birmingham that would transport you into another time. So, short of going back to Birmingham and taking a photograph, I had to collage other images. Essentially it is the actual place, and there is a similarity to what I remember. It is familiar. I am interested in things being on the edge of familiarity. The edge of what I know, or what I knew. Maybe that goes back to what you asked about abstraction.
CJM: Are you interested in that kind of realism?
HA: Not exactness, but I am interested in feeling like I know it.
CJM: It is fascinating to me that there is so much more detail in your depictions of architecture than in your human figures. Your portrait of the tennis court, “Country Club Series: Chicken Wire”, 2008 (fig. 6), is one example. Do you have an interest in architecture?
HA: In passing. I have never looked at it like that. It may have to do with my training, working with perspective.
CJM: “Country Club Series: Chicken Wire” (fig. 6) was one in a series of paintings that you completed after returning from Trinidad and the CCA7 residency in 2002. Did working in Trinidad affect your process in any way?
HA: There is still the perception of the Caribbean being one big place of relaxation. I am interested in the contradiction between the perception of the place and what is actually going on there. So, yes, I went to Trinidad and it was personal. But that personal element left the work and it became something else. Though I did not paint at all while I was there (I took photographs, did some drawings and made water colours), I returned to London wanting to paint. There is a way that the light changed in the paintings, after I came back. I had to acknowledge the light in the Caribbean. When I returned to England it was very grey, but I was still physically adjusting to the light in Trinidad.
CJM: Is it noticeable to you that you don’t paint London? You paint Birmingham and other places that you’ve gone.
HA: I think that perhaps London is too close, too familiar. I need to paint things with a little bit of distance. It is hard to grapple with things that are too close.