CONVERSATION WITH HANNAH HUGHES & DARIUS STIEN
conducted march 2016
THE BAKERY: Could you both talk about how you have arrived at the work you’re currently investigating?
HUGHES: This recent series of collages emerged out of a set of line drawings, made as a way of thinking about the construction of form and space within my paintings. At the time of making the drawings I started to become interested in Edwin A. Abbott's 'Flatland' - a Victorian novella set in a two dimensional world, which set out to explain the perception of higher dimensions. This helped to crystallize certain ideas that I had about the 'in between' spaces in my paintings which could be found at the points where abstraction and figuration converged, and the drawings began to distill these ideas and play with a shifting spatial sense in purely abstract terms. The collages became a way to introduce colour into the drawings, but also brought about a more complex reading of space within the image. The background images are photographs of artefacts taken from found auction house and museum catalogues. Layers are then built up using coloured paper cut from magazines, undergoing a long process of configuration and re-assembly until they appear to have developed their own sense of presence and internal logic.
STEIN:The current body of work consists of a new series of small scale acrylic/gouache paintings on linen. The inspiration for these paintings came about as a result of my love for French Nabis painter Edouard Vuillard. I remember initially being attracted to his works through books and reproduction, but couldn't place my finger on why until a much closer examination. His paintings predominantly consist of decorative French bourgeois interiors full of ornament and juxtaposing pattern. While elaborately dressed figures are scattered throughout his compositions they appear to be provided no more visual weight than the highly patterned decorative grounds in which they co-exist. Oftentimes, while looking at Vuillard's paintings I would loose track of where one form began and where another ended. There seemed to be no distinct delineation between figure and ground. Thus, these compositional elements would be left to merge into one overall visual field leaving the figures shrouded in a sense of mystery. I realized then that it was this very mystery that kept me fixated on his paintings and what has provided me with the initial inspiration for
this current body of work. For these small works on linen I've taken various patterns found within Vuillard's paintings and re-contextualized them into my own compositions with a particular emphasis on both irregular shapes and figure-ground relationships. The compositions consist of smaller shapes fusing together and formulating a larger form that is both framed and contrasted by the exposed linen surrounding the edges. What I find most interesting about them is the constant state of flux that the eye remains in as shifts between the smaller forms and shapes within the composition and the larger overall composition given form by the surrounding canvas.
Hughes: I'm really interested in what you are saying about Vuillard - I think there is a similar kind of tension in Bonnard's paintings too between the figure/ground. I love how in his paintings the figures slowly emerge and also disappear from the scene - like a cinematic dissolve and how, as a viewer, you feel yourself really stretching to adjust your vision, right on the edge between two very different readings. I find that this shifting or slipping between states is also really important in my work...
STEIN: I love what you were saying about the 'in between' spaces regarding your work. These spaces where slipping or shifting may occur, in my opinion, allow for slower and more complex readings. I often think of it as a perceptual flip, where the eye or mind is unable to fixate on a given area of focus and remains in this constant state of flux. As a child, I used to love those abstract images you could could stare or squint at for long periods of time until eventually some sort of image would suddenly appear. There is a sort of magic that occurs or when you happen upon something that was always there, but unnoticed during its initial reading. I agree with what you were saying about Bonnard though. I'm equally fascinated with how his figures slowly emerge and disappear within the compositions. Vuillard's painting feel heavier and darker to me where the figures remain embedded or entangled within the larger matrix. Bonnard’s figures, on the other hand, seem to dissolve into the surrounding space in an almost over-exposed fashion. I find the works of both of these artists full of hidden imagery and surprise. I know you mentioned Abbott's 'Flatland' as a point of inspiration, but I was curious about other visual artists that you've been looking at lately as well?
THE BAKERY: You both have made evident you are in different ways "taking" from
something and re-contextualizing and re-configuring it until it becomes yours. Or as Hannah put it 'until it develops their own sense of presence'. Why and how have you both chosen this process of re-contextualizing and re-configuring to produce art? Also, I'm curious Hannah if the absurdity of Flatland at all enters into your current work?
STEIN: I guess the easy answer to that question would be that we are all doing that in some way, whether conscious or unconscious. It is hard not to be influenced by the constant flow of information coming in and out of our lives on a daily basis. I've been interested in pattern and repetition as a compositional device for several years now. For me Vuillard represented a way to narrow down the selection process of what I chose to include as part of my compositions. It also creates a greater unity or cohesion between the paintings which I feel allows for a tighter visual rhythm when viewed as a whole. I suppose I also felt the need to pay homage to someone I've been looking at and admiring for so long!
HUGHES: I have been working with found images ever since I started painting - I think this comes partly from wanting to work responsively, taking my entry point from something preexisting, treating it like a host for other imagery. In the paintings I copy the original photograph, overlaying abstracted shapes and marks. What emerged formally from this process was a tension between foreground and background - generally between a figurative perspectival space coming from the photograph, and a more frontal or flat abstracted image, which drew the eye back to the surface. There also seemed to me to be another type of space in between these foreground and background elements, which could either be seen to recede or project -I developed a fascination with these areas of the image, which I think of as 'apertures' which allow for a different kind of understanding of the sensation of space. In the collages, each fragment of colour and shape comes from a photographic image, and brings with it illusions of depth, shade and tone - each element is more or less equal (unlike the paintings) and jockeys for position, pushing each other forwards and backwards. It is a long process, involving lots of provisional arrangements but there is a moment where there will suddenly seem to be a point or conclusion, where they suddenly vibrate with each other in a particular way, and that is what I mean by 'presence', where they become whole after
being a number of disparate parts, and at this point they might even have a character or attitude. Something that might also be worth pointing out is that I am quite careful to overlay the images, rather than cut them to fit with each other - as it's quite important to me that there are surface traces of their original shapes and joins. Some have been cut quite roughly with scissors - the edges are pretty important. Darius, you asked what my particular references are at the moment, in terms of other artists. I have been looking a lot at Morandi since making the collages, and have become really fascinated by the discreet nature of his paintings - how much could be achieved through holding back and making very subtle adjustments. His idea that abstraction begins directly within the seemingly most straightforward perception of reality was something that was always important, especially when working so closely from photographs and zooming in on reproduced images. I also look a lot at the work of a number of contemporary female painters including Phoebe Unwin and Annie Lapin, who both work right at the edge of abstraction and representation. Laura Owens has an amazing painting in one of the displays at Tate Modern at the moment which seems to be engaged in a kind of mad struggle between digital space and paint, a kind of feedback loop between photoshop 'painting' tools and the actual messy substance itself. I think that we have all grown up having to slowly get used to the idea of living with more of a virtual space - it's been such a gradual adaptation, but it has completely reshaped the way that we think about the physical properties and limits in our perception of the world. Ahbyah, you asked about whether there is any of the absurdity of Flatland in my current work: There's certainly an element of the absurd in Flatland, and I suppose that to some extent my work has always dealt with certain notions related to redundancy - reflecting images and references back on themselves, making copies of copies, and in this latest work combining illusions and shadows with dead ends. Maybe I prefer to think of it as playful.
THE BAKERY: You've both discussed your processes and how you make decisions in your
work, or ways you enter a work, could you talk about decisions or processes you have
doubted within your practice? or continue to doubt?
HUGHES: I think doubt is quite heavily embedded in the process as a whole - for instance the huge number of decisions or 'moves' made and discarded before finally committing to a composition. Doubt could also be read into the type of organic, irregular shapes, which lack the certainty of precise geometry. In broader terms, doubt creeps in when dealing with figuration these days... the new work is more ambiguous. In the more distant past I was highly doubtful about painting. I went to art school in the mid 1990s and did a course which was split 50/50 between reading critical theory and practice. We were all making videos, photography, sculpture, performance and
text based work - pretty much anything except painting. But I found that my photographs were increasingly 'about' painting, and it was a matter of time before I realized that I just needed to actually make them myself. Now it's central to my practice and drives the production of the photographic collages, which I see as a way of thinking through painterly processes.
STEIN:In regards to Hannah's earlier response, I've also been fascinated with Morandi for some time as well as the work of Laura Owens. I really enjoy Morandi's dedication to a singular form over the entirety of his career. It almost feels like he was constantly fine tuning an instrument in search of some perfect tone or pitch. I often wonder if he ever fully realized his perfect composition. In my latest paintings, I find that I'm constantly adjusting specific sections in order to achieve some greater resonance as a whole. I'm also fascinated with the way Laura Owens can juxtapose marks from seemingly different dimensions and make them compatible in some way. These moments of tension and contrast have also been very influential to me as mix and match various patterns and marks within my paintings. I can also relate to what Hannah was saying about how doubt seems to be embedded in the process as a whole. I find that I experience doubt more often than not during the art making process. At times, every movement is considered and re-considered until some sort of palatable result is achieved. Overtime, I think I've begun to accept this as part of the process and would be concerned if doubt did not play into the equation at some point. I think if the artist already knew every answer with great assurance the art may begin to look
overly robotic or stiff. I believe Matisse stated somewhere that he worked really hard to make his paintings seem effortless! I faced the largest moment of doubt within my practice when I dropped everything I was working on to draw thousands of 6H pencil lines on my studio wall. I was looking to overhaul my working process and methodology and searched for the simplest form possible to work with. Thus, began my journey with lines. I believe it took me around four years to complete this project and I found myself doubting my sanity all along the way! I thought about quitting numerous times, but somehow persevered till the end. It taught me a lot about patience and trusting in the overall working process.
THE BAKERY: You’re both are from other cities. Darius is from the Virgin Islands and
Hannah you're from the UK. You both have or currently are living in Vancouver, how has
Vancouver affected your work, if at all?
HUGHES: I find this question strangely quite hard to answer as I feel so emotional about Vancouver it's hard to separate art from life in general! I don't think that I really thought too much about how place affected my working processes until living in Vancouver, where the shift of living as part of a different culture definitely fed into my practice in ways that I wouldn't have expected. I think that I learned a lot by being among such a close-knit and generous community of artists, which led to experimenting with working in a more collaborative way as part of the Drawing Salon. I have tried to bring the essence of some of that back with me to London .
STEIN: I've been very aware of how living in Vancouver has influenced the art I'm making today. Having grown up in a tropical environment along with living in Florida for four years, moving to Vancouver was quite a shift for me in terms of my experience of light and color. To this day, I still struggle with the dark rainy winters here. I noticed that over time I began using color and light in my paintings as a way of compensating for the weather which in turn helped to lift my emotions. In addition to color, I've also implemented forms and patterns within my compositions that are very reminiscent to those that I experienced growing up with in the tropics. I would be curious to see how the art would shift if I were to one day move back to a more tropical existence!
THE BAKERY: While in art school we were molded into understanding that we had to justify each decision we made so we could defend our work during crits, I've struggled with this for a long time. I feel we can think too much about what we are doing and possibly inhibit something from happening. I like to believe in what Darius mentioned about trust in the overall process. Do either of you think about this in your working process, the over thinking of what you’re doing?
STEIN: I find that I naturally over think things as it is and that art school only added to that process. Since graduating from Emily Carr, I've looked for ways to incorporate more fun into the process and leave things more open to chance and discovery. I believe that ideas and concepts, on a more academic level, are an important part of the overall process, but at times can become quite stifling and limiting. I recall seeing a Chuck Close documentary where he spoke about ideas directly evolving from the working process itself. I use this as a reminder to move on and continue working whenever I get too anxious about what it all means.
HUGHES: Absolutely! My art school education was similar in terms of encouraging a highly critical approach to making. It influenced me for many years and in fact stopped me from producing anything, as the ideas often broke down before the discoveries of making began. So while I am still very interested in theory and think that it is key to unpacking ideas within the work, I think that successful work (for me) relies on an engagement with materials and process that goes beyond the limitations of rational thought. By that I mean that although the work may be grounded by rational principles, it is the unexpected discoveries which yield for me the most rewarding results.
In terms of what we have all been talking about throughout this conversation, our work is perhaps similarly engaged with consciously setting up the conditions for unstable results to occur.