Monday, May 28, 2012

Phil Hale's Fragmented Reflections

It is my great privilege to bring you an interview with the legendary painter Phil Hale, whose dynamic, enigmatic body of work has influenced so many of today's emerging artists, including Ashley Wood, Jeremy Geddes and João Ruas. Though he spends most of his time in his studio exploring new directions and cares little for self-promotion, he was kind enough to do an in-depth interview with me in the lead-up to the "Wild at Heart" benefit exhibition. We are thrilled to feature his painting "Study for Path Vacates" in the show, which continues through June 9th. 

"Study for Path Vacates"

Erratic Phenomena: Soon after you were born in Boston in 1963, your parents whisked you away to Kenya, where you lived until you were 7. Tell me about what brought your family to Kenya, and what you remember about your time there. 

Phil Hale: My family moved to Nairobi when I was four or so — my father was involved in an overhaul of the educational system there. The most significant effect was probably... that I was a bit of an outsider in Africa — that's pretty obvious. And your character is developed in an isolation of sorts, not so socially determined. But it also meant I was an outsider again when I returned to the States. Our town and school in Massachusetts were fantastically homogenous. Any difference at all marked you out.

The African experience was also pretty wonderful, though you don't have much perspective at that age. My mother was an artist and kept a journal with drawings of elephants, warthogs, baboons, all the wildlife — and my parents made a point of exploring while we were there. I copied my mother's drawings, and in some ways was very competitive with her — or at least wanted recognition and approval there. And clearly my parents were unusual in that they were willing to make what was a fairly extreme and unconventional choice — they faced real difficulties there. Some part of their attitude was a family trait.

EP: What sort of books did you grow up on? Do you recall any illustrations that made an impact on you at impressionable age? 

Phil: I was a pretty compulsive reader as a child. I'm sorry to say I read a lot of Enid Blyton in Africa— I can still remember them, so they must have had a fairly powerful effect on me. But I also read some of my mother's books — I am sure she encouraged me. Carson McCullers in particular — The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Probably my first uncomfortable sense of how complicated it must be to be an adult. So: Enid Blyton and Carson McCullers.

EP: You were born into a celebrated family of creative people, including the painters Ellen Day Hale, Lilian Westcott Hale, Philip Leslie Hale and Robert Beverly Hale. Your family tree stretches back to such hallowed antecedents as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, whose famous last words before being hanged by the British for espionage were, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Even your grandmother and mother were painters, so becoming an artist yourself must have seemed quite a natural thing to do. Was there a certain subliminal pressure exerted by such a raft of accomplished blueblooded ancestors, sort of a familial expectation that you would grow up to do something creative and interesting? 

Phil: That's harder to answer, because my main influence was my mother, who was not part of that lineage. But a very driven and forceful woman in any case. To choose to be an artist was known territory. I didn't have to fight to make my way, the path was already there, and it was part of our everyday life (which is to say museums, libraries, music, etc.).

EP: Your mother and grandmother were both painters, though your grandmother preferred your brother's impressionistic historical paintings to your own comic-inspired renderings of monsters and the like. Tell me a bit about the two of them. 

Phil: My grandmother preferred my brother, a year older, and very much in the eldest-child vein. A sort of precociously responsible proto-adult. I was much more self-involved, not so socially engaged, less obedient and respectful — less capable of being obedient and respectful. And we were a year apart, so I could almost compete. He was a very good and sensitive draftsman. My own drawings could probably be neatly divided into my own work (skulls, hairy pot-bellied monsters, worms) and attempts to do my brother's drawings better than he could (flowers, seascapes, spiders). And because my mother was an artist, the materials and environment was very conducive — invisibly conducive. I painted with my grandmother, as well. But not a lot of praise there.

EP: Your first love was Frank Frazetta, whose work you encountered at the age of 14, when you came across The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta. Frazetta's work was revolutionary. I remember staring at his cover for Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Fighting Man of Mars, fascinated by the lush anatomy and sensuous lighting, but also by the way he represented women as simultaneously sexy, dignified and heroic, which seemed like something of a revelation at the time. Tell me a bit about the impact Frazetta's work made on you and how it influenced the development of your vision. 

Phil: I was in a mall, just becoming a little independent, and saw his first Fantastic Art book at a bookshop. I just couldn't believe it — too much to take in. A comic was comprehensibly simplified, but you could study the Frazettas for hours trying to internalise them. In retrospect what I really loved was the insane (insane!) vitality, and how true it felt to the Frazetta. It was how he expressed it as well, of course. But to a fourteen-year-old, that crazy vitality was just unbelievable. I still think Frazetta is stunning — you may not like it, but it's a pure message delivered in astonishingly effective and informed form. I'm still thrilled by it.

EP: In the early '80s, at the tender age of 16, you were apprenticed to the master illustrator Rick Berry, an arrangement which seems quite unusual in this day and age. For such an unformed artist, Berry's influence must have been overwhelming. How did that come about? What do you think he saw in you? 

Phil: It was pretty overwhelming — I've said this before, so it's in danger of becoming its own cliche, but I left the country to get away from his influence. It was impossible to know my own mind. My work still — often — has a conflict between my natural impulses and what I took from that. He is a very generous guy, and a great believer in collaboration and education. I think he saw some potential in me, but also that he could offer practical help and guidance. It was never set out as a long-term plan, though. It was developed through pleasure in each other's company.

EP: When you were 18, your apprenticeship to Berry ended, and the two of you began sharing a studio with a couple of other artists, while you continued to learn by association. For three years, you worked side-by-side with Berry, and then you decided that you needed to isolate yourself from him in order to extricate yourself from the dominating influence he exerted on you. Was there a catalyst that led you to that decision, something that made you realize you were unlikely to evolve further under his shadow?

Phil: There was no single event — and at that age (and I was pretty naive in many ways), you're not always aware of what choices you're making or why. But I had grown up, and our old relationship was no longer such a good fit. And I could have evolved side-by-side with him as well — that was not impossible. After I moved to England, my art reverted a little to some of the themes and even approaches that I had been set on before he and I met, which is to say more work from photographs and a struggle to find a way to make the painting and the photography work together. This was never a significant part of Rick's practice. I was less comfortable generating images internally — I wanted some part of the actual world to shape the work against. It took me a long, long time to find out how that might work.

EP: In 1985, when you were just 22, you wrote and illustrated a story about Johnny Badhair for the Marvel series Galactus, which played out its final moments in the pages of the magazine Epic. Your interpretation of that character made such an impact that he has haunted your career for decades. You've also been known to revisit him time and again, fascinated by the study in immediacy, extreme anatomy and destruction that the character provides. How did you come to write and illustrate that story? How much liberty did you have to make the character your own? Why do you think you're drawn back to him again and again, despite your desire to break free of your illustration roots?

Phil: The character was really a love letter to Frazetta, initially at least. But I learned a lot through developing the series — it provided some unexpected routes. I was allowed to concentrate on the elements that interested me, and not worry about reinventing it every time — that was an incredible breakthrough for me. I had had a very limited (and unexamined) idea of what was justifiable. And to slowly realise that you could follow what interested you and not get sucked into the obligational work — it was an escape route. From things that didn't interest me.

I think the central theme — which is really about frustration and protest — and perhaps the beautiful struggle, even though you know the effort is hopeless — is a perfectly valid subject for fine art. But it's not acceptable to construct the images like a craftsman. That's tedious and predictable (and I've tried it).

EP: In 1987, you completed 10 strikingly original illustrations for Stephen King's long-awaited Dark Tower sequel, The Drawing of the Three, which paid so well that it allowed you to essentially stop working for five years. Tell me a bit about how that opportunity came about, and what inspirations you brought to creating those memorable images. How has your relationship with Stephen King influenced the direction of your career?

Phil: The King job was a bit of luck. I was put forward for an illustration for a King book a few years earlier (another artist had dropped out), and King liked my piece. He offered me the entire book the next time around, with a ridiculously generous arrangement. I wasn't happy with what I produced, though. I brought more colour into the work — very exciting at the time — but couldn't pull it together; I didn't have the experience or skill to make it all work. It was clunky and unconvincing. Ten years later, in 1997, they were going to release a mass-market version with the original illustrations. That was such a terrifying suggestion that I did them all again at no charge. But the job paid so handsomely that I didn't need to work, and it gave me a chance to do work independent of anything outside the studio. I had a lot of fun. I recorded a lot of music and designed and built motorcycles, experimented with photography and much looser painting. When I eventually had to come out again I was un-hireable.

The largest single benefit that came from the King association — and I hope he sees this as a plus — is that the financial freedom allowed me to move away from the kind of reflexive illustrational practice I had built. A pretty outrageous luxury that I didn't quite understand at the time.

EP: Rick Berry taught you that painting the figure from imagination and memory is paramount, and that painting from photo references is tantamount to cheating. When you moved to London to break free of his influence, that was one of the dictates you were rebelling against, feeling that your paintings lacked some specificity of character when you relied solely on memory to create them. Exploring photography as part of your process, you realized that in working from photographs of the body in action, you were discovering new expressions of anatomical tension and instability that lie outside those generally visualized in paintings. Did you know what you were looking for when you set out, or was photography a process of discovery for you? 

Phil: It wasn't just bodies. I wanted the paintings to have a feeling of connection to something outside of the frame of the image, just as a documentary photograph does. Where the context is a much more complete world that you can never really access, but believe is there. I was also very keen to have what I would consider actual information in the pieces and how I thought about them, and not just something that I had processed and reformulated. The use of photography is such a significant part of how I think about working — it's tough to sum it up. I didn't want to be making things up, I wanted to be finding out about something real and developing an understanding of it in a very pure cause-and-effect model. Also — important to say that Rick didn't see it as cheating, but his practice was based around generating images internally. I wasn't sure I had the same ability — and I didn't, in fact. 

EP: In recent years, you've been exploring photocollage, both as an end in itself, with your strange amalgamations of black metal devices, and as visual reference for your paintings. To a certain degree, you've chosen to preserve the clumsy construction of the photo-collage in the paintings — stopped trying to hide the seams, allowing the piece to be more interesting, awkward and uneasy. While many artists use photocollage as reference, most of them attempt to match lighting and integrate the disparate elements into a coherent reality. Tell me a bit more about why you find this deliberate artificiality and pursuit of an unheimlich quality so compelling. 

Phil: I began doing photo-collage in the early '90s, in part because Photoshop had arrived, and with it you had this unbelievably powerful tool to manipulate imagery. But one of the first things it showed was that that sort of control was not what gave images their power. It seemed much more exciting to make the artificialness of the construction explicit, but to still have the image work — often even more effectively than a groomed treatment. It meant the viewer had to make the connections work, and because they were involved, they personalised the piece, or at least were directly involved in resolving it. I didn't set out to pursue this, but it showed up pretty quickly. I was really thrilled by it. It tells you something about not only how vision works, but about how imagination and narrative works.

EP: Your career has been characterized by change more than most, as you switch gears every few years to stave off stagnation and complacency. For a time, you became known in Great Britain as a portrait painter, contributing several pieces to the National Portrait Gallery. That culminated in 2008 with your portrait of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which you broke from tradition to paint Blair at rest, collar unbuttoned, melancholy and weary, looking away from the viewer, perhaps toward the failures that weighed on his mind. What do you look for in a subject? Are there certain tensions you try to engage in them, even within the typically sedentary compositions that characterize classic portraiture? 

Phil: The portraiture was something I had done since I was a teenager, but in part because it had been part of my family's history, I had never pursued it seriously. And it is so tough and demanding that it requires pretty complete attention for a long time before you even start to understand what the problems are. Then you have to find your own way to test them. Unless you are going to be a mannerist, it is pretty clear what the standards and expectations are. Very unforgiving, and you find out a lot about your weaknesses very quickly. It was extremely demoralising.

I was lucky in that I became part of a circle of portrait painters in London, all exceptional painters (including James Lloyd, Brendan Kelley, Stuart Pearson Wright and others — Justin Mortimer was another, but we had a separate friendship). My work looked weak and a bit fraudulent next to theirs. I might have expected them to be privacious or careful. But they were (and are) a wonderful generous group of people, mutually supportive to an almost absurd degree. I spent ten years doing portraiture. But by the end, I knew I wasn't really cut out for it. It didn't quite line up with my actual abilities or inclinations. Though I still do them, still enjoy them.

One of the surprises was that I never had to have any emotional or psychological insight into the person. They presented themselves and I tried to carry that over faithfully and without interfering. That is why the portrait of Blair turned out as it did. It is in fact an extremely accurate likeness of him as he appeared; there was no political or personal agenda at all. I prioritised that over making the composition racy, or unstable, or mechanically leading.

EP: It's my understanding that you admire the work of John Singer Sargent, and I believe I can feel his influence on your work in a certain tension he engages in his portrait subjects. What do you find most intriguing about Sargent's viewpoint?

Phil: He's just such an astonishing painter. The equivalent of the guy who runs the three minute mile — for pure paint handling, he's utterly in a different league. I'm not saying his art is the most profound. But technically, there is so much to learn. Again, demoralising and difficult.

EP: In recent years, wishing to break out of portraiture, you began painting a series of abstracted skulls and faceless heads shrouded in darkness, repeating them ad infinitum with subtle changes. You've spoken of daily painting as an exercise to force yourself to get better by repetition of a specific practice. This seems to be an almost meditative endeavor, in the sense that Buddhist mantras can be drawn or written as well as spoken. Do you see yourself as seeking some kind of transformation or enlightenment through this practice of evolving repetition?

Phil: It certainly has meditational qualities — and, related to this, when I'm working on a project, I often listen to a single CD every day until it wraps — one of the great pleasures of my working life. My head drops into gear with a clunk when the first song starts, fantastic. But the repetition has a very practical aspect. I'm often microscoping on a particular aspect. It helps to hold all of the variables steady except for one. It makes it absolutely clear what is happening. That is one of the crudest engineering-style tools available, but enormously helpful.

And it is also... that I am always trying for (at least) two contradictory goals — to produce something with the minimum of intrusion and effort (which compromises accuracy), and the desire to make it as faithful as possible (and this is clear because I often have a reference). So the repetition allows me to leave something, to avoid polishing the life (and also the veracity) out of it. But to still have another shot at extracting more. I'm trying to learn about what is there (independently of me), and about how the image interacts with my vision (in my case, an ability to pull structure out of form).

EP: You've entitled an ongoing series of your work "Mockingbirds." In nature, mockingbirds will incessantly repeat the same incidental sequence of sounds over and over again until something new catches their fancy — car alarms, meowing cats, croaking frogs, shrilling insects. Similarly, you have focused your attention on repeating a few familiar images over and over again, with subtle variations — the death's head shrouded in darkness, the shirtless old man wielding yard tools, Johnny Badhair endlessly plummeting through an electric blue sky. What does this "mockingbirds" concept signify to you? Is there a certain satisfaction you derive from plumbing an image to its utmost? Why do you think you find yourself so obsessed with those particular images? 

Phil: Again, you have already answered most of this. Often I'm attracted to an image without having any sort of conscious or intellectual framework. I hope it is not some dumb adolescent impulse (though that is there as well), but rather a synthesis of experience and a sense of potential. I don't have a specific expectation beyond wanting something unexpected to alter and redefine the piece. It's possible to be pretty clear about what is happening in the pieces, and why they would appeal. But that makes me uncomfortable, because it would sum them up, when I would hope that they can't be contained in that way. Some of them can be seen to work on an almost idiotically straightforward metaphorical level, but I don't think that is the true content.

I should also say that I wanted those pieces to be, piece by piece, unstable. They only really worked in any comprehensive way as a show. The individual paintings are too unstable. Obviously the painter and the viewer have very different needs from the work. But after the fact, it's the viewer who is keeping it alive — that's a lot to ask. When I was involved in motorcycle racing, I heard it said that the ideal race bike is the one that wins and then falls to pieces on the other side of the line — it was designed to exactly fulfill its function. Anything else would have compromised the central requirement.

You have to be willing to produce weak and stupid and ineffective paintings for a while.

EP: Another recurring element in your recent work is the sometimes almost violent introduction of abstraction into an image, where a realistic figure might be abruptly truncated by a surface or partly obliterated, as if their existence in this reality is conditional and might sputter out altogether in a moment. You've said you try to cultivate a willingness to operate almost on the edge of collapse. Are these abstracted elements intended to activate the image in some way, lend it a sense of potential that mere description might lack? Would you say painting is more interesting for you when there's some fear or risk involved? 

Phil: That's absolutely right — to the point that anything that I say is really unnecessary. Activating the image, introducing something that jolts it or forces a confrontation or problem, or a barrier that the viewer has to overcome. Or even a contrast to some of the more reassuring elements. I am talking in ideals, what you might hope to allow. If nothing is at risk, it is harder to believe the piece is necessary. Why should it be necessary, anyway — that is a bit of a ridiculous term, and maybe bit of puffery. But you have to try just to get things moving and active.

EP: I sense something like a self-loathing in this constant shape-shifting, a tendency to distrust your own instincts as puerile or craven, or perhaps a conviction that your true work still lies ahead of you, hidden by the clutter of preconceptions and habits you are struggling to break through. Would you say there's any truth to that?

Phil: A great question... Well, it's necessary to act against yourself, or nothing can happen. Or at least to try to place myself outside of the control of my own self-delusion. In any case, it's probably accurate, but partial. The self-loathing (that is probably too strong) is more that I am the only one who really knows when my behaviour is cowardly — choices made out of some kind of failure or weakness. That's not unforgivable, obviously. The shape-shifting is more useful to talk about in specifics — the black heads were done at the same time as pieces in a more familiar vein. They were not a closet I locked myself in for the winter. But they allowed me to do pieces where the physical response of the paint was more important than shepherding it into some appointed position. They were a kind of practice and way of habitualising a particular expectation and response. The portraits in particular are vulnerable to over-determining, and it not only kills the piece, it reinforces a counter-productive approach — you're structuring your reflexes. A lot of effort trying to drop bad habits.

Phil Hale's painting "Study for Path Vacates" will be on view at Thinkspace in Culver City through June 9th. 


Stuart Pearson Wright said...

A brilliant interview with wonderfully incisive questions and a genuine pleasure to hear Phil talking about his work at such length, as erudite as ever. Phil's candid analysis of his work and his modesty is quite an achievement considering he is one of the greatest painters of our time

Stuart Pearson Wright

Jason de Graaf said...

One of my favourite painters. Thank you for the interview.

Liza Sylvestre said...

Wow. It is so refreshing to read an interview in which the interviewer asks informed questions instead of the same generic 25-questions-to-ask-every-single artist out there. Thanks for putting the time and effort into this reall great piece. Wonderful blog.

Unknown said...

Brilliant, as usual..
You have just given me an excuse to go earlier to bed tonight and have a good read to this interview!
Although.. I have to say, that white lettering over the black background gives me head ace :D!
Thanks a lot for the hard work!