Bernard Jacobson Gallery 17 July – 10 August 2012
Karl Hyde interviewed by John Warwicker, May 2012
JW: What is the relationship between the movements you make on stage & your movements in making art?
KH: In the late 80’s/early 90’s I walked city streets collecting fragments, documenting them in small notebooks. These journeys were particularly vibrant at night and it was easy to scoop them all (along with sounds and smells) off the streets as words that I would sing when Rick and I got in the studio. As the frequency of journeys increased I began to hear and see information ‘behind the immediate experience’. The buildings, roads, lights, colours and even the odours of the city were beginning to ‘sing’ in ways I had previously been unconscious of. Words would tumble out of the buildings and shapes, would cascade off the edges of people as they moved around me. The words went directly into the notebook and the shapes were consigned to memory like the dances of the Motown groups I loved as a kid.
Onstage, these memories of Motown artists dancing unison in glittering costumes, light bouncing and sparking off them, would be remixed for my muscles to re-interpret – intercut with fragments of James Brown, Prince, Ballet and the stumbling drunks I saw as I wandered through cities. One night, whilst considering how to negotiate an elaborate dance across a stage strewn with cables and bits of equipment I realised that I was mapping out the space into thousands of shapes, anyone of which I could inhabit and articulate through my movements. These shapes were clear as any solid object to me like an actors script or an explorer’s map. Laying out routes by which I might navigate space in response to the music Underworld was generating.
These shapes were interacting with the sound waves of the music which were also becoming visible to me and these two elements were being continually intersected by the rhythms of the light show. A complex diagram of potential movements was thus laid out for me throughout every concert Underworld performed so that all I had to do was connect up the shapes with my body in order to ‘dance’ across a stage and interpret the music.
The words and the music continued to ‘appear’ to me off stage and I gradually became aware that they were making sounds. The words speak in tones of potential voices and the shapes generate sounds that sometimes have to be consciously turned down in order to hear the physical sounds of the day.
Several years ago I was on a week long press tour in Japan and was spending considerable amounts of time waiting between questions and answers for the interpreter to finish speaking. I picked up a hotel notepad and pencil and wondered if I could articulate the tiny paper space with pencil marks made with a subconscious hand whilst remaining aware of the boundaries of the paper ‘and’ holding an intelligent conversation with the journalist. The resultant marks so strongly resembled the dynamic shapes I saw as I journeyed through cities that I began a series of drawings, paintings and then films that attempt to capture snap-shots of the shapes as they danced and intertwined in the air.
JW: What I would like to ask you now is about materials and your relationship to them…
KH: I prefer to work on paper rather than canvas. Pinned to a wall it has a natural resistance to pressure and it doesn’t absorb energy in the way stretched canvas does. I know canvas can be tacked to walls but I still don’t enjoy the dialogue with its surface. Paper has a beautiful way of deteriorating through the erasing process and distorts as liquid is applied to it in ways I find interesting. The surface of the papers I choose are smoother than canvas or fine linen yet fibrous and easy to cut into with pencils or graphite chunks. I began using paper because it was readily to hand in the Japanese hotel I stay in and the pencils they supplied made deep black marks reminiscent of the marks I was currently photographing in the streets, left by passing traffic. I’ve been drawn to using paper ever since visiting an exhibition of Japanese erotic prints at the V&A in the 1970’s – I like the way it smells, invoking as it does memories of being rewarded by visits to the stationery cupboard at junior school. I use pencils a lot as they were easily found in hotel rooms whilst I was developing this series. They are portable graphite in ‘stick form, another ‘mineral’ material and can be rotated easily between the fingers whilst drawing. This is a technique I’ve used for years which enables me to free up my make-making and by holding several at a time between each of my fingers the marks I produce are closer to the images I see when I’m dancing than if I consciously controlled a single pencil.
An eraser is another very important tool in my kit, as it’s through the erasing of intersecting marks that the solid interlocking shapes which closely resemble the twisting rhythmic ribbons of energy that I see when I dance are revealed. I was reminded of the creative potential in ‘removing’ marks by stories of Robert Rauschenberg erasing a Willem de Kooning drawing. It made me laugh out loud and I just had to try to it.
I’ve been inspired for years by the working process’ of Zen calligraphers, in particular their meditation into the paper on which they’re about to write in order that they may see and connect with the image lying ‘within the paper’ and then to be able to act swiftly with brush and ink in order to articulate the essence of the image. I choose to substitute ink with black acrylic, it’s cheaper in large quantities and I like how dense and ‘absolute’ or liquid and ‘gaseous’ it can be, all within the same brush stroke. These bold brushstrokes (often made by strapping several brushes together to make one huge brush) represent the loudest and most violent dance movements that I hear or see, either on stage or walking down the street.
I use Soft Pastel for its ‘mineral quality’, like something wet dug up from the earth. In flying over the deserts of America and Australia I’m always exited by the rich colours of the earth below and soft pastel enables me to get close to this quality of succulent dust I see passing beneath me as I fly thousands of feet above the earth. The colours I choose are influenced by my time in Japan and either represent the deep blood reds of Japanese lacquered boxes or the colour pallet of eastern electrical appliances. The part of the West Midlands I come from has a long tradition of charcoal production and the forest I grew up in was the centre of the charcoal industry.
At art school I began to make charcoal artworks through the process of ‘burning’ and developed a fascination with the flickering light of dancing flames that evoked the campfires of my youth. Charcoal has been with me since I was born, sticks of black dust smelling primitive and exciting. One of my favourite tools for making crude marks that sounds wonderful as it slips across the surface of the paper whilst evoking the fires from which it came.
Chalk, often dug up from the fields around the studio, another medium chosen for its mineral quality but also recalling the marks made on school black boards and memories of the swift dance of a teacher’s hand and the noise of the chalk as it hit the board to begin its journey into forming words and diagrams. These chalk marks and the dancing of teachers often come to mind, bearing a direct connection as they do with the images I see in the air as I prepare to dance on stage; the dance of the teacher in front of the class, the dance of Jackson Pollock, the dance of Merce Cunningham, the dance of James Brown and the dance of trees blown in a storm.
JW: What about your relationship with the iPad & the iPhone?
KH: The iPad & iPhone are tools I’ve discovered only in the last couple of years. Inspired by hearing David Hockney talk about his own fascination with them I reluctantly began to make marks using the ‘Brushes’ program and through experimentation found that I was able to make expressive marks that described the euphoria of dancing. The great advantage in using these tools to make artworks is their portability and the speed with which I can fill a ‘virtual space’, which, though tiny, I imagine to be huge. For the Tokyo exhibition I made a series of stop-motion films to demonstrate my painting process and capture the dance moves I make as I work. One of the great things about the ‘Brushes’ program is that is records all the moves that I make and allows me to play them back as movies. The process of making a painting can now become a work in itself. This has a direct link to the hours of documentary footage we have of Underworld performing on stage and the extraordinary films made of Picasso and Jackson Pollock in action.
JW: At the La Foret exhibition there was a performative aspect to it that involved a wooden shed. Could you explain why a shed and what challenges did it present in terms of painting?
KH: The shed has been a powerful symbol for me since I was young. It was a place of refuge, where I could be alone and listen to the sound of the rain. The smell of new wood and wood stain, the insertion of delicate sheets of glass and the building of a miniature house was like building model aeroplanes in my bedroom. A shed is a place of meditation, a hiding place to watch the world from. It’s a portable structure of manageable dimensions that can be customised to reflect the idiosyncrasies of its owner. A shed was the first sculpture I remember building with my father and carries with it powerful memories of good times – a boy and his shed.
The performed painting of a ‘Japanese shed’ at the La Foret gallery in Tokyo was physically one of the toughest performances I’ve made. In front of a live audience and webcast from start to completion I climbed all over it in a continuous motion that reminded me of trying to paint a small boat in a rough sea. The finished work included the performance, the webcast, the painting area strewn with tools and my favourite painting shoes that had to be slipped on and off (in the Japanese tradition) as I entered and left the ‘painting zone’ throughout the performance.
JW: What works are you presenting at Bernard Jacobson Gallery and could you explain their similarity or difference to the works that have preceded them?
KH: The exhibition at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery is largely comprised of paintings I exhibited in Tokyo but with the addition of several larger works on paper and including small works on Japanese folding books inspired by journeys I’ve made around the world. These smaller drawings are excerpts from a new series I’m developing in conjunction with my friend the artist Marty St James, based on our tours around the world.
JW: Has painting changed your relationship to your music?
KH: Since I was very young I’ve used drawing and painting to help me work out my thoughts and since the age of ten, when I began writing songs, I’ve turned to drawing to find solutions to the problems I’ve encountered in music. I feel less restricted when I’m making artworks and have always found this rather amusing when reflecting upon how constricted I can feel whilst writing music.