Hilde Skilton Paintings
The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. More information here.
3rd August 2013, the artist’s studio, near Bath, Wiltshire.
Those present: Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Alexandra Harley, Nick Moore.
Mark Skilton: These paintings have been made over the last couple of years and are developed from earlier paintings that were more [overtly] structural in composition, in that the blocks of colour were all more specific and tended to define space through shape as well as colour. Hilde has in these new paintings started working in a more dispersed kind of structural fashion, in order to get the colour to work more specifically with space.
Hilde Skilton: What I was doing [before these] was bringing in the drawing element, which I am now trying not to do.
Mark Skilton: You felt the drawing element was misleading?
Hilde Skilton: Yes… I’m trying to find a way to work with space without the drawing element… and so for me space was the motivator, and colour; then gradually that also changed, because the tonal range of the colour became important in also structuring space. In fact, space became the main thing I was always thinking of; trying to get deep space but at the same time acknowledging the planarity or the picture plane of the canvas.
Alexandra Harley: I think they do both. I think that works really well. I love this one (Bumble Buzz). You have set up the forms that are going up and down; and I love the way it gets from way down at the bottom [left] of the canvas and then right across.
Mark Skilton: Is it the arrangement of the way the colour shapes have been put down on the canvas? In the others they are much more ‘random’.
Alexandra Harley: I suppose that the physical presence is what I am picking up on [in Bumble Buzz]. The structure of some of the colour-forms feel a little more coherent, in terms of ‘going somewhere’. I am not saying the others are ‘random’, but I don’t feel they come together in the same way. I think this one works across… you have got a set of colours going across, but you have also got the depth that Hilde says she is looking for. In Calendula Landing [by contrast] the colours-shapes feel to be floating around more. I am not saying that is a bad thing, but that there is a difference between the two. I like the way that [in Bumble Buzz] those knit together.
Mark Skilton: Your word was ‘physical’…
Alexandra Harley: Yes. The others, for want of a better word, ‘float’.
Hilde Skilton: But do the areas that go in, do they just disappear or do they manifest themselves again… because that’s my intention and I don’t mind the fact they ‘float’; and that they come [back] out. There seems to be air within…
Mark Skilton: So do you like the physicality in Bumble Buzz because it is familiar or….? Well, I am trying to find out what you mean by physicality in painting…
Alexandra Harley: OK, I feel the areas are more grounded. I still feel a sense of depth and a movement across; but the areas feel knitted together.
Mark Skilton: So you don’t get the feeling that one of them is going to slide off the painting…
Alexandra Harley: Exactly. If one slides off, it will take the rest with it.
Robin Greenwood: Is that because of the nature of the shapes in Bumble Buzz? That’s a very different set of shapes [pointing to another painting]… as are most of the other paintings… and there is more variety… This knitting together; is it a ‘spatial’ knitting together or a ‘surface’ one?
Alexandra Harley: It is a ‘surface’ knit. But I can see some spatial elements in it. It’s not a flat thing.
Anne Smart: When I came to these paintings, what I tried to do was to forget everything that you [Hilde] say about your intentions. I tried to look at them afresh, and as if I had not heard what you were talking about. Bumble Buzz I found myself rejecting the most, because in trying to look at it in a new way it seemed the most dated in its thinking. What I was impressed with in most of the others was the feeling that a new thing was happening. I remembered how I have read and listened to people talking about abstract painting, and found I couldn’t put a lot of those phrases to these paintings. For example, I saw a painter on a film on abstractcritical say things like ‘I created an incident’… I felt I had heard it all before, and thinking about the word ‘incident’ in terms of Hilde’s paintings, I thought there is no individual incident in them that makes them into a ‘thing’. The ‘whole thing’ is a happening. I like the fact that that each painting is a whole ‘happening’. The space you talk about, in a more technical way, becomes even more clear and more natural – an all-over space. One of the things that for some may be a problem is the similar shapes, the ‘head-like’ elements, the system of this; but I thought this was their strength. Each of them has so many different things happening within them… well, it’s just so surprising how a single shape slowly, slowly, builds up intensity. Some are not quite as intense as others, and some are more so, and then suddenly things come into focus. If you just look at the blue, for example, it comes through strongly in each one and that makes me think how everything else relates to that blue; so seeing them all together just tells me there is something new going on here, coming out of the combination of the new things you are using. I am really taken with that.
Mark Skilton: And do you think that the size and the uniformity of the shapes is part of that?
Anne Smart: I think there is something really strong about that. Say, for example, in Split Shift there is such a lot of movement in there. You wouldn’t have thought that; it manages to get this massive feeling of stretching. This white here it just goes on and on, solid and forceful. It doesn’t look as though it should do and yet it does. Then you’ve got this massive space again in a vertical painting without it becoming a vertical column or a ‘totem’, which could easily happen. I think that for a small painting it’s a ‘big’ painting. It has that thing that painters look for – can I make a small painting big? It does it in a non-gestural, non-stereotypical way, which I think is a lot to do with how Hilde is putting together these elements. There is a given intensity and a given complexity which you don’t get [straight away], and initially there is a tendency for them to appear bland. Then out they come. To continue the first point I made – and it’s come up before, about how programmed we are to look at painting and sculpture in a way that we are familiar with – from my point of view we have a responsibility to try our hardest to look at painting and sculpture as though we had not seen it before.
Robin Greenwood: So you are saying Bumble Buzz is a more conventional painting…
Anne Smart: Yes. More built in a way that we have some knowledge of. It is more constructed and it’s not as loose. The others have a naturalness beyond any references to landscape; they are more open.
Anthony Smart: Bumble Buzz is not really colour painting, it’s a more orthodox ‘composition’; and the elements in it have a role to play; they act out their roles and ultimately they may bore you. You get an understanding of it quickly. It’s the opposite of what’s happening in most of the others.
John Bunker: For me, the best one is Total Turnout. I’m used to dealing with lots of hard edge and strong colour hitting the edges of things, defining things; but what’s interesting is that the more time I have spent with them, the more interesting they become. I am too used to seeing one hit wonders, paintings that want to talk to you for a moment, and then you want to leave. The language of these paintings wants to maintain some kind of conversation with you; and I agree with the process of finding different energies through the painting. Total Turnout was the one that said ‘yes’, I can see this process. Once I had latched on to that, then the rest of the paintings started to come to light for me. I don’t know if it has something to do with the slightly muted quality of the colour; it’s not ‘in your face’. The colours are starting to breathe; they are starting to relate to each other in a more subtle way. It’s Total Turnout best for me at the moment…
Anne Smart: The strength for me is in the continuing of the similar scale, colour and shape across each painting, but each shape having their own space within. Say in Three of Three, there is a spontaneity, not gestural, but this constant moving backwards and forwards… spatial with colour… so constantly you are given more and more information to hold on to. So it’s not random like a kaleidoscope. They have a natural feel to them. That’s why for me Bumble Buzz doesn’t work. It’s a bit landscapey, the combination of verticals and horizontals.
Sarah Greenwood: Something you [Anne] were talking about in Split Shift – the white is pushing out there, tying all the colours into the space and stopping it becoming too vertical. It’s actually explaining that space. I quite like Brancaster Bunch where you have large areas, but their relationship with the edge of the painting is very different, where all these shapes seem to be working within each other. It’s a different space and quite deep; is that because that green catches the edge of the painting?
Anne Smart: For me, the space in that painting [Brancaster Bunch] is held together with this purple disk [top left] there, and that is turning the deeper-tone shape behind it, jerking it round and out of the painting. So the rest of the space is trapped by that… then the whites come forward. That is like a handle to the space.
Nick Moore: When I first looked at this work I had the same feeling as John, that Total Turnout drew my attention the most; and it still does it. It has to do with the way it’s been painted, with these passages where you have some red covering over the top of that grey, the way the red swirls around on top of it. I love this here where the yellow is covered up by the mauve, which is covered up by the muddy green. It’s those layers, and the way you see through them sometimes, that makes it more consistently fluid than any of the others, even though actually the colours are flatter than in some of the others. That, as a painter, is what appeals to me; the painterliness of it, the way you get things coming through, and the shifts in the colours. They are very beautiful paintings.
John Bunker: I’ll tell you what, though; Total Turnout was a way in for me, but since then, in a short time, I’m beginning to register the paintings in a different way.
Anne Smart: In Split Shift the tension across the painting is over-ridden by this orange hook here [bottom centre]. It comes into almost being a real thing, which hooks over and holds up all the rest of the passages of paint, and yet is so much part of something bigger; to me, that’s what ‘complexity’ [in painting] means. You have got something going on which is more than the sum of the parts. This orange thing acts as a driver for the rest of the painting; this element is sometimes in the front and then at the back, trapping big chunks of the rest of the painting. So you have it holding, and picking up, and doing something else. Then you start to read different coloured sections of the painting as bigger things. The purple up there is so strong on top of the other dark area it gives a directional movement out of the painting. This puts all the rest into a spatial context of deep and shallow space.
Robin Greenwood: Is that not going back to the conventional, slightly figurative way?
Anne Smart: Might be… but it’s doing it in a different way… and that’s the start of something new.
Robin Greenwood: And the orange hook in Split Shift, I think you were saying that there is more than one reading of it, functioning in different ways at different times. Is that what you meant, a hook or a continuous thing, behind the grey? You could read that as a continuous item; this orange with that grey over the top; or you could read that hook as a separate thing.
Anne Smart: So is that what complexity is in this sort of work, and if so, is that what is holding our attention?
Mark Skilton: …and does the space in the painting change if you look at the orange as one thing with a big blob of grey on it, or you look at the orange as separate parts…
Anne Smart: That is a complexity. You can do all those things. None of them has a fixed purpose. Whereas, going back to Bumble Buzz, that is never going to achieve any more than that [it’s compositional restrictions].
Mark Skilton: Yes, the compositional element of that will restrain any hope of spatial variation. It imposes a known kind of subliminal structure. It is a ‘certainty’ we are drawn to. We don’t like things we can’t define. Certainty limits what is available.
Hilde Skilton: What Robin has asked… can any one of our paintings stand up to a Cezanne or a Matisse? That as an aspiration is great, but that history, that has nurtured and sustained the work we can look at and have the privilege of seeing, also holds us back. At this point you want to find yourself not being aware of all that, but just being in the moment when you are working, to allow things to happen.
Anthony Smart: It’s a terrible responsibility to go down that road. It can’t work with that weight of history hung round your neck. All great artists have wanted to do something different from what the guy before was doing. They have turned their back against history and struck out, have either got somewhere or just been consumed by history. I think it’s time to put the question another way. With these paintings, we have to take more chances, we have to turn our back to their origins and resolve not to repeat those origins. What we want is the void over there, and to go and fill it. We don’t want Constable and Cezanne etc. in our spaces.
Hilde Skilton: And there is the history of painting… but there is also a history of language, how we talk about painting…
Anne Smart: I’m worried about how we are individually talking about painting… I’m hoping there might be a new way of talking about painting, and I think we should really try to do that, because, here we are in Hilde’s studio, and she is doing things that even she doesn’t understand; and we have a responsibility to try and see if we can understand them, and give it back to her, what we can see…
Anthony Smart: But to do that we’ve got to probably go away and think about it. It’s not going to happen in an hour and a half. The big expectation of these talks is to cut through the ordinary, and get to the extraordinary; and the extraordinary thing with Hilde’s paintings is that thing that you aren’t used to seeing. You are not seeing obvious structure, so the idea of ‘chaos’ or ‘random-ness’ pops up, but actually it’s more likely that we are looking at a new sort of structure – but we don’t yet know what the hell it is.