Oil on canvas
Oil on sack / artist's
frame / 152x122cm
Oil on canvas
Chris Shaw: Brick walls, fences, gable-ends feature prominently in your work. Why?
Rae Hicks: 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.
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. 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?
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.
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?
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.
Talk about your materials.
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.
Talk about your process.
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.
Do you enjoy painting? Is it something you do everyday?
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.
Who are your major influences?
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 mundane-ness 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.