Looking at Painting 

Robert Holyhead in conversation with Anthony Spira

Anthony Spira: It’s actually quite difficult to talk about your paintings themselves so perhaps we could start by considering the context from which they emerged. Could you describe how you became an artist? Where did you come across painting – through books or in museums?

Robert Holyhead: I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, which was a cultural desert. As a child I was never dragged around museums, although I remember spending a lot of time alone copying books. My mother often spoke fondly of the time she worked in a photographic lab and my father was a very active engineering enthusiast, designing and making everything from small circuit boards to petrol powered model aeroplanes. Art as a more serious endeavour only really started holding my attention when I was 16 or 17, when I had to make serious decisions about which way to go in life. It wasn’t through a lack of interest in other things or because I wasn’t any good at writing or with numbers. It was just that I found considerable enjoyment in the physicality of painting.

AS: So choosing to be an artist must have been quite unusual?

RH: At that time I felt a huge amount of dissatisfaction living in a very small town, with nothing going on. I wasn’t reading about art then, I would just draw and paint. It was an activity that held a certain type of seriousness for me, yet I didn’t know what that seriousness signified. I knew it meant something, but kept thinking ‘what did it mean?’ The only way to find out was to pursue it.

AS: What were you making? Were you already doing abstract work as well as copies?

RH: I have a very early painting from that time which has a resemblance to what I’m doing now, although I was much more naïve and unsure of what was happening spatially. I would do anything from a half-finished abstract painting to something like a landscape. I did not declare the work to be abstract but a lot of my painting at that time was provisional, with no definite conclusions. When I look back, it’s in those understated moments where I think, ‘there was something happening’, where the ground is left open, where a specific part of the canvas remains unpainted or where the scale is intriguing in relation to colour and form.

AS: So how did your education dovetail with what was clearly quite an instinctive departure? Was your period at Manchester University fruitful?

RH:  Manchester was the first time that I had the chance to think things through and I was rigorously challenged theoretically. It wasn’t until a particular moment halfway through the second year that someone pointed at one of my paintings and said,  ‘This is an interesting abstract painting’. This was the first time that the idea of abstraction presented itself; I was told that it was abstract and that I was allowed to perceive it as so. It was only then that I tried to figure out why painting ‘sticky stuff on cloth’, as it was called at the time, had become important for me.

AS: Can you describe that painting?

RH: Of course everyone at art school starts a black painting at one point or another. Mine was a large black painting with certain fragments of colour painted out within it. I had painted particular bright colours before painting the whole surface out in black. I had to go through that process in order to understand that I had somehow attempted to negate the surface. Through this negation I had actually created something that could critique the dominant trends in painting. At the time, it was important to question the medium, and to understand what possibilities were still left open to explore. Maybe I was ill-informed, but there was a decorative type of painting coming through by artists like Keith Farquhar and Daniel Sturgis, sometimes low-fi, often semi-geometric and with many painters using household colours or paint. It seemed that people were being very ironic about painting, working in a distant, critical way, trying to be as inoffensive as possible in order to be offensive.

This was incredibly interesting for me to discover as I was trying to figure out how this all worked for me. I remember seeing Chris Ofili’s early work in the BT New Contemporaries in 1993 and being very curious about the intensity and physicality of actually placing forms on the surface and working around them. The time of the British Art Show in 1996, with artists like Gary Hume, Damien Hirst and John Frankland was quite confusing as a student, because I couldn’t help being bombarded by overpowering imagery. As someone who was attempting to absorb and renegotiate what I saw around me, it sent me in many different directions that in the end delayed me getting down to actual painting.

AS: So, how did your large black painting negotiate this terrain? Could you describe how it developed?

RH: I painted coloured forms in a very haphazard, semi-distributed way and then just painted over the colour in quite an opaque black. It had a semi-glossy surface, which reflected slightly and made looking at the painting a little bit awkward. You would notice something on the surface that revealed these fragments of colour, just poking out or twinkling. So by painting the colour out, I painted it in. The black paint was applied in vertical and horizontal strokes so that there was an imbedded grid in the surface.

Both the idea of the grid and of negation became quite interesting for me. I was not particularly interested in the grid as a type of truth. I didn’t want to go down the road of someone like Mondrian who was trying to get to the truth of painting. In fact, I was rebelling against it by making broken grid paintings in a very aggressive way: big paintings with yellow grids and half-finished grids, etc … Negation of the surface was important because it became the negation of a particular rhetoric or theories or issues in painting. These things did not really relate to me but I was using them as vehicles for moving painting forward in a critical way.

AS: But you worked your way through these principles in order to deconstruct and abandon them? Presumably the brush mark was also a kind of readymade that you toyed with at the time?

RH: I was working with the brush mark, the grid, the negation of surface and a relatively reduced palette at that time. I used the brush mark as a device for looking at painting in a distanced way, thinking of an artist like Bernard Frize, and the brush mark as a way of suggesting authorship for example. Or repainting work by David Reed but with more looseness. At that point I was using the brush mark as a way of asking questions about painting. But in the back of my mind I always knew that I wasn’t fully contributing to painting. I was sort of a voyeur. I had the paint on my clothes and I was making paintings but I hadn’t quite understood what it was yet.

AS: It sounds like collage or a type of assemblage of materials and particular ideas, using existing motifs and piecing them together. It’s as if you were deliberately enacting different roles, knowingly using particular motifs for specific effects.

RH: You can bring these elements in to suggest that there’s a surface here and the brush mark can sit there and each one can play its specific role. But I think that if you exaggerate or really outline the brush mark as a stand-alone activity on a surface you can change its use very quickly, not in an ironic way but disconnected, almost like Letraset, as something you just put down and rub onto the surface. You don’t necessarily know what’s happening but you understand its value. You can put down a wash of colour or you can make the painting very large to allow it to do something. All these actions are only really gestures towards something. It’s not complete.

AS: So after Manchester, you went to London and did a Masters at Chelsea. How did your practice develop while you were there? 

RH: Moving to London was the only option, really, but I initially had some very confusing years here. At that time, there was a lot of low-fi going on and a lot of temporary things, paintings made on anything but wood and cloth. Other mediums were also being pushed to extremes as artists tried to renegotiate the discourse surrounding art at that time. The whole activity of painting became not painting.

 I almost abandoned painting because my work became a sort of caricature of itself. I was playing with borrowed images and it just became a gimmick. My work became a jamboree of oddities that I could not in the end bring myself to call mine. That whole experience was not very healthy or good for me. I was thoroughly confused with the whole culture and the whole environment. Not that I’m a terrible romantic but I was attempting to find a way through.

AS: So how did you get out of it?

RH: I basically stopped making any art for about a year and just travelled and looked at work and visited museums. I got to know many spaces in London and went to certain museums in Europe. I started to be interested in people like Mary Heilmann whose show at Camden in 2001 was quite enlightening. It showed painting could have a particular touch and freshness, and deal with the ghosts of past abstraction at the same time. Also artists like Fabian Marcaccio, who was exploring possibilities by making stretched hybrid paintings. And Simon Bill who was a very curious painter. But I never had many heroes. I would just see good paintings, or not so good paintings. Or I would see a painting exhibited in a way that was very sympathetic to it. That allowed me to think how art in general was perceived. It was an important process because it allowed me to go back and reconfigure my work.

AS: Thinking about your more recent work or the build up towards it, are there any particular signposts in your career when you look back? How do you articulate the last ten or so years of work?

RH: What really informed me are those moments when I found myself completely unable to make anything, when I’ve had to completely re-establish what it is I am trying to do. For example, in 2003, I made a series of excruciating paintings based on the brush mark, which I couldn’t see going anywhere. It was a series of paintings which I realised I had no interest in doing, so I stopped. When I started again later that year, I made some watercolour drawings, abandoning the fetish of oil painting. I threw the linen away and stopped being concerned with the actual object-hood of painting; I put aside ideas of image and assemblage. I just wanted to concentrate on what could happen spatially within the edges of a piece of paper.

AS: How did you achieve your particular results? There are dozens of small drawings in the studio, some of which appear to be prototypes for the paintings, with numerous permutations of shapes and colours. Is there a system behind them? Is each one trying to work out a particular idea?

RH: The watercolour drawings are really a type of accumulation, a type of personal history or personal language that I’ve created. These small paper works are either made completely there and then or are informed by others that could have been made five minutes ago or two years beforehand. They act as a way of thinking through either current ideas or ideas that never really matured in the past. They allow me to establish whether these ideas are possible. It’s a very fluid bank of ideas.

AS: Are they kind of exercises in style? Like variations on a theme?

RH: ‘Style’ is a hard word to use. The drawings allow me to pursue certain things such as how paint with a precise viscosity might move on a surface or how form can be isolated in a washed colour without bleeding away. Sometimes I ask the paper to allow for a series of relatively conventional forms to hover in space. Other times I just want the edges to perform a specific role. Each time I approach a watercolour drawing I’m asking it to behave in many ways. I may ask a drawing to advance on previous thoughts about how the physicality of paint can line the surface, or how particular forms can exist in tension within the space. The questions I ask of the watercolours are both continual and again accumulative. They allow me to move through ideas very quickly.

AS: They feel very playful, as if you’re working out possibilities almost like a deck of cards, or even a board game or maybe a never-ending jigsaw.

RH: My enquiries come down to trying to answer the question ‘what is painting?’ The more I think about abstraction and painting the more I understand that what I’m trying to make is a painting. I’m not trying to arrive at a conclusion.

AS: People have often written about Raoul de Keyser’s work in terms of ‘doubt’ but your work is perhaps distinguished by its incredible precision. Your studio set up is quite clinical and the brushes are laid out almost surgically. This inevitably translates into the pristine appearance of your painting, where any ‘accidents’ are very carefully manipulated.

RH: Absolutely. I do not want to present a type of provisionality without a type of precision. I’m quite fascinated by precision. It’s something which I can work around. The cleanliness of the paintings might have something to do with the fact that the decisions and history in the surface are invisible. My paintings are executed with a different type of time to someone like De Keyser who never really finishes his paintings. He can come back after many years to rework a painting, whereas I have to finish them. 

AS: How do you know when they are finished?

RH: There is a particular poise or balance in the painting which has to come about for me to think about its finished state. It is the poise between different forms and a sort of fluidity between one form and the sharpness of another. It can only be based on knowing that what has been set up between the edges has come to rest at a certain moment which is both precise yet slightly awkward at the same time. If the painting is both clean yet allows for a type of openness then I know it is near to being something, that it is almost finished.

AS: Do you always know when it’s done?

RH: Well, I know when it’s not done. I do rework things within a certain time frame. The paintings and the surfaces are set up to allow me a certain type of generosity, which gives me two days of wiping back the paint… The surfaces I prepare in advance deteriorate and fall apart if I continue to wipe back the pigment. So really there’s a performative element where it’s not a case of painting a little bit, going home, coming back the next day, and so on. There’s a certain amount of pressure time-wise. The longer I work on a painting, the more problems I come across, because I have to resolve the painting to a certain point within that moment. I work very slowly but then I have to execute the painting very quickly.

AS: Do you destroy lots of work as a result? Has this changed over the last few years?

RH: I used to destroy a lot of work but one starts to understand the paintings a little more, even if their precariousness is still equal to that of paintings made a year or so earlier. Maybe I’ve developed certain situations or rescue strategies for the paintings, which allow me to pull them back into shape. Before, I was much more concerned with executing paintings in a particular way which relied on a type of precision, or a clearing of the space. Now I want to move beyond that although the execution can only ever be incremental. My inquiry now is based on subtleties within my own vocabulary, for example the treatment of a particular edge against its adjacent surface or the dialogues between forms within these edges. My satisfaction in achieving a particular position on the surface is less problematic now because I’m much more interested in those little glitches, which I might previously have wanted to eradicate. Now, I let them sit and do their thing. Now, I actually like the thing that might previously have been the reason I had thrown a painting away.

The time I take to make a painting has actually doubled over the last year. They used to be done in a day and now they take two to three days. This sounds a little strange or simplistic but I want a type of gesture or touch in the paintings, which maybe didn’t exist two years ago. I’m trying to bring in this thing called painting rather than this thing called abstraction. That’s really important for me. I need to see the work as an inquiry into painting. There’s a fine line between precision and hindering the painting. I’m trying to show the little glitches or punctuations which aren’t gratuitous in any sense but which aren’t so restrained.

AS: Who are you trying to show the glitches to? Do you have a viewer or a particular response in mind? Do you expect to evoke certain things for the viewer?

RH: I’m trying to allow dialogue to develop over time, maybe with someone who is thinking through painting. I want to continue a type of guardianship of this kind of painting and thinking into the future. I don’t want to force anything upon anyone or to have ownership over the works. I am trying to present something familiar that is full of un-familiarity, maybe something like adopting a new language. Viewers may already recognise something outside of the paintings, something based on the outside world, on a skewed geometry, for example.

AS: People have talked about intimacy in relation to your work and obviously the scale has a bearing on that. Would you consider the work to be quiet and contemplative as a product of the slowness of the studio as opposed to the chaos of the outside world?

RH: I find painting extremely stressful and the inquiries incredibly difficult. It’s certainly not good for my health. So the quietness you mention is my way of trying to slow people down. My intention is to allow them to move through the works, at a different pace. I find the idea of visual intimacy very curious, the experience of being involved and encountering the paintings so that one can become absorbed by a particular edge or application of paint or a certain subtlety within them is very important.

AS: But as you say, there’s still a dissonance, there’s still something unsettled in the work …

RH: I think it is about picking up on a peculiarity. It’s not about being pin-pricked, it’s about suddenly realising that there’s a little something not quite right here. What is that? I’m not sure. 

AS: You have mentioned a couple times that the paintings contain elements that refer to the outside world, but at the same time they resolutely refuse to be recognised. Could you expand on this? I don’t suppose you ever take photographs or use a sketchbook?

RH: Of course they’re not representational in any sense. They don’t rely on any sort of figurative imagery, yet at the same time there’s a problem for me if I tried to make pure abstract paintings. I don’t even know what that is. The external world appears in a very complex and unrecognised way … painting is a mediator, really, between me and a very abstract sensibility. Essentially, it emerges through the idea of touch or a particular way of wiping away the paint, or the way I may use my thumb to wipe back certain shapes. It’s this touch in my paintings that’s important.

I’ve tried to bring in things which are worldly yet unrecognisable. I try to translate my perception and curiosity in the real world and use forms which may have been seen somewhere but still have a very strong relationship to my abstract vocabulary.

AS: So it’s different to De Keyser whose work is entirely anchored in the real world and even Ellsworth Kelly whose abstraction derives from colours and forms glimpsed every day?

RH: Yes, my paintings are not fragments of the external world that have been stripped of their surroundings and turned this way or that to be unrecognisable. They are certainly not like those situations.

I look for a type of familiarity, to create a presence that allows itself to be exposed on the surface. I am pursuing this idea of navigating something spatially within the painting. It’s important that this navigation is allowed to be influenced by the thing that it isn’t, as well. It shouldn’t be restricted by an abstract language that can often be closed off. I am interested in negotiating outside of that language to reflect my perception of particular visual encounters. For instance, I was very curious about this boarded up window, which was painted in a very strange way, like an abstract painting. I pick up on things that are a little bit peculiar and that exist awkwardly in the world, that are already abstract. It’s much more to do with seeing something which becomes abstract in my mind over time before becoming a motif in the studio or eventually a gesture or form in a painting. I’m not so sure how they come in or where they have come from. My work doesn’t have any particular reference points outside of itself yet external influences creep in as I make it. As such, my painting presents both a type of personal language and some familiarity with the world. 

London, July 2010