AS: The objects in your paintings have weight; they look heavy.
PH: I quite like things to have that feeling about them, for lots of reasons, psychologically, physically and something to do with the actual material of the paint. Most of these paintings have got about six paintings underneath. It’s a physical build up of completely different paintings. I find a white, canvas surface quite difficult and I like to have something to work against.
AS: Do you mean the whiteness can be intimidating?
PH: In some ways, especially canvas. It’s such a nice aesthetic thing in itself that you don’t want to mess it up. You have to break the seal as it were so it’s difficult in that sense. I find I have to make a few bad paintings to try and dig out a good one. It doesn’t always work. I’m trying to get to the point now where I make less bad paintings and make better decisions. I’m aiming to become a more minimal painter.
AS: By making fewer marks?
PH: Fewer marks, like the dolls head there, which is basically made of spots. Almost reducing something to a pattern. That’s the direction I’m going in. I want to lose the modelling, but my mind changes all the time and each painting is a bit of a compromise. You start off trying to make a certain type of painting and end up making a different one. I’ve always had a problem with backgrounds. I’m making paintings where I only paint the background and bring out an abstract quality.
AS: Is that a figure/ground problem; not wanting those things to be separate?
PH: The thing is that all of the painting has got to be interesting, not just one particular bit so when you paint an object you tend to concentrate on the object and it becomes the focus. I’m trying to play around with that a little bit so that the background becomes more important and gets diffused and integrated. I taught myself how to draw objects and how to make them believable and how to get depth and weight and I can do those things now so I want to be able to do something else. You’ve got to keep yourself interested.
AS: You use the same objects over and over again, as if you’re striving to get something else out of the same thing.
PH: I don’t think the number of objects is a problem. In a way that’s the challenge of it. An obvious comparison would be Morandi; the idea of having just a few objects and the amount and range that you can get out of those things. I like that challenge, to eek out interesting paintings with limited resources and small objects and so on.
AS: I saw a painting of yours done back in 2004 called ‘Big Daddy’. I think it could be of Cezanne. Your new paintings also reference other painters.
PH: I suppose that was the first one I did as a precursor to these new paintings. It was a one-off but I’ve come full circle. The recent Picasso show was a real influence; the way he was using old masters. I think the main thing for me is to get away from using photographs. That’s one of the reasons I started painting objects. And if I don’t then I’ll reference a painting rather than a photograph.
AS: I suppose a photograph flattens everything immediately so perhaps some of the work is already done for you.
PH: Well it can be seductive. I was using photographs from National Geographic and I was influenced by Luc Tuymans, but it’s limiting. You learn how to paint like Tuymans which is a limited style of painting to start with. So I’ve gone further back. The kind of paintings I’m looking at now are from the 17th Century so, in order to read those paintings, I have to learn a bit about what those painters were doing. You can read paintings on several levels but to actually physically understand how it’s made is one of the more interesting levels if you’re a painter. The kind of stuff that I’m really interested in is indefinable. You can’t say why a particular Rembrandt is such an incredibly powerful piece of work. Even great painters don’t nail it all the time. Every now and then something is imbued with something beyond it’s own physical attributes. I’m in no way talking about anything spiritual. It’s just something else. I mean to some extent it’s an illusion but it’s a very powerful, convincing illusion and maybe that’s enough. Certain paintings just seem more alive than others, like Velasquez or Courbet. They don’t date or age. The paintings that I’m trying to make are my conversational response to those paintings. I want to be part of that conversation.
AS: You’ve literally put those painters into some of your recent paintings.
PH: Some of them are direct but I’ll often give the paintings titles, like I’ll call that cat Velasquez. I’ll always acknowledge what I’m using. It’s always genuine. Doing the Rembrandt thing, that’s an odd one because it’s almost pathetic. It’s not pathetic in the sense that it’s a pathetic judgment on a Rembrandt painting because I love Rembrandt. It’s about an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of what I was trying to do. Even signing things can be a statement in itself or part of the composition. I put a fake Courbet signature on the Snoopy painting. That’s about as close as I get to conceptual art these days. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.
AS: You’ve done a few residencies. What was that like?
PH: I did one in Berwick, which was very isolating. I did Newcastle then I ended up doing one in Durham. Fellowships are odd things. I’ve done a few and they all look great on paper but in reality it’s expecting a lot to just drop an artist somewhere and expect them to get on with it. It takes a long time to actually get used to where you’re working so quite often they’re not actually very good for your work. If you make any successful work at all, you’ve done well I think.