Conversation with Nick Fudge in Turps Banana Magazine 18, July 2017
‘And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? And how should I presume?
From: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T. S. ELIOT
S.H: Before I knew your paintings, Nick, I knew that we shared similar tastes in literature, especially a liking for TS Eliot and his bleak, fantastical and fractured early poems. Eliot really is my all-time favourite poet and I find his poems about awkward social situations particularly inspiring. I respond to the feeling of a gulf between people in his early poems as well as in the more famous The Waste Land. There is a sense of division between the speaker and his words, that gap between the inarticulate “I” and a polished audience. How shall he begin to talk to “them all”, shall he say this or that? He isn’t able to say what he means. He should have been a wordless crab. And this, as you suggest, is a main source of my dinner party paintings – the dining rooms in which some figures are predatory and others helpless, some are like the disdainful society women in Prufrock and others are like the tongue-tied narrator. Beneath the organised glamour of a banquet I want to paint mental disarray seeping out through the social veneer while neon light pinpoints struggling figures as if they are, like Prufrock, ‘pinned and wriggling on a wall’.
N.F: I’d never come across anything as perceptive and strange as those lines by Eliot. By my second year at Goldsmiths, Eliot’s poems, in general, had become such a part of my psyche that I made a series of cubist like drawings, prints and collages on the mechanics of sexual reproduction – in them sex was both a human and crustacean activity (which came directly from Eliot’s imagery). Actually, I referenced modernist literature a lot in my work at that time – I was particularly proud of a portrait I made of J. Joyce as a sort of ‘cubist’ crab that was ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’; a work that included collaged elements of domestic wallpaper and pornography. Our conversation initially began when I wrote you with my strong response to your paintings. ‘Not only is your colour palette insidiously seductive, but you also create a sense of enchanting estrangement by the way you weave figuration and abstraction together in your paintings – as your figures seem to melt or slip in and out of abstract space – achieved through a range of gestural techniques and devices such as extreme light and shade, paint drips and splatters, violent smears, delicate swirls and oozing amoebic shapes…’
S.H: Even though the paintings are based in everyday life, I want them to depart from ‘reality’ to some extent. And, as you suggested, this is not just because of odd colour and hallucinatory brightness, but because named objects swerve towards something unnameable. I love those lines in The Waste Land when Eliot refers to “other withered stumps of time/Were told upon the walls; staring forms/Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed”. I love the mystery and threat of those ‘forms’, of things without a name, that have their identities removed and I like figurative painting which turns the recognisable image into something abstract, ambiguous, doubtful. It’s what happens in your own paintings when you leave a gap, when the image suddenly falls away into empty space.
N.F: This idea of leaving areas ‘blank’ is my adaptation of Picasso’s tendency to leave parts in a drawing or painting ‘unfinished’. The white and empty spaces in my paintings are there to highlight the falseness of mimetic images. By leaving parts of the image untouched; represented as ‘white’ or ‘transparent’ in the digital realm, a sort of ‘blind spot’ happens where the illusion depicted on canvas remains incomplete.
I not only use these white and transparent spaces to focus attention on the image as illusion but also to point attention to the processes that are used to ‘paint’ images in digital space. For example, if you paint an image in a graphic software program, you create your painting from making marks on a number of ‘layers’. These layers are situated over a ‘transparent’ background layer. When the layers of the image are collated together to produce the final version of the painted image, the transparent layer that is used to initially ‘ground’ the image disappears altogether. It feels a material process in an ungrounded dimension. I represent these white spaces and transparent background layers using vector drawing techniques, they aren’t bitmap based images but drawn by hand on a graphics tablet. I do this because these are everyday aspects of creating images – or painting digitally – that are completely overlooked, but are central to the production of contemporary painting. It’s a focus on a new ground.
S.H: I do think that this confected, unreal quality was something that hit me when I saw your work for the first time. The first painting that I saw of yours was Reality Drive and I immediately responded to the bleakness, eeriness and the switching between different kinds of representation, emphasising the fake quality of the painting in it. Flat slabs of tone, like computer-generated brushstrokes in an abstract painting, are jammed between de/saturated realist landscapes. The picture gripped me with a sick feeling of disorientation, of not just being confronted with a painting that investigated conflicting kinds of depiction, but one which returned me to seeing the “real” – the deadening reality of by-passes and motorways, as if it were part of Eliot’s unreal city. The empty signs standing on an apparently solid piece of tarmac that then melts away also intrigued me; they are so startling. You expect to be pointed in the direction of somewhere, not presented with signs to nowhere on a stretch of road that collapses.
While you describe the collation and building up of an image through layers, you are also interested in undoing, defacement, taking apart, as in your paintings with titles like Undo Painting or Undo, Redo. What is this “negative” process; this two-way business of doing and undoing?
N.F: These are terms, appropriated from digital workspaces that are about the aspects of painting, hard to express in words, such as using human intuition or, making purely aesthetic choices. Such human activities have the power to break down or ‘undo’ the logical binary architectures of the digital. But the paintings are also about the reverse – they incorporate the working logic of the digital that extends beyond the humanly possible – as you can undo an activity in digital, and indeed in artistic contexts, but you cannot undo an activity in ‘real’ life. When I explore painting in the digital context it becomes a kind of ‘transparency’ – a groundless world like the poetry I respond to.
There is a process of moving back and forth between digital and analogue activities, working in the studio and working on the computer, that are particularly demonstrated inJaz Drive, where the range of gestural marks are done and undone (and are also painted in reverse) until it enters a sort of hard core painted abstraction of digital logic architectures.
Actually during our correspondence you mentioned the importance of ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’ in your own painting practice. Could you describe your process of ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’ in your work and does this relate in any way to poetry or poetic method?
S.H: Well some of my paintings seem to go on and on since I keep putting on paint and scraping away. Making and unmaking are inevitably and frustratingly part of the process. But I also like retaining some of the mess, the inchoate, the unfinished in the finished painting. For me the undoing of coherent images opens up possibilities, potential. I think it relates to Eliot’s use of unnamed entities, the ‘leaning forms’ for example, the suggestive power of things that are not made too specific. And it also relates to Eliot’s struggle with words, the ‘intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings’ in Four Quartets and with things that he or one of his narrators cannot express.
N.F: I wrote about your painting Vermillion Dining Room, that: ‘The cooked crustacea palette of your dining room paintings eviscerates the lie of decorum and produces a noisome effect that is lurid to the eyes, sickly sweet to the nose and nauseating (in Sartre’s sense of the word) to the spirit.’
S.H: That’s a great and intense way of putting it. I think that this effect comes, as in other paintings, from the painful quality of the colours. First they may be painful in their migraine-inducing brightness and yes, you’re right, the intense light in my paintings has been fostered by the light described in Sartre’s La Nausée, and also by the light I experience in Camus’s L’Étranger. Then I also think that the paintings are painful through strong associations with the artificial and synthetic: the coating of false jollity, innocence and comfort that is part of the strategy of the shopping mall, superstore or casino. The colours come from looking at these commercial urban spaces and they may be loud come buy-me oranges and cyans, or the soft seductive tints of the smooth mauves and lemons and limes of sweets and pills and fashions. Beneath these unctuous, creamy colours or their louder variations there is a disquieting undertow, a nausea if you like and I like to try to make these sickly colours more unsettling by arranging them in discordant, off-key juxtapositions, the sour gold against magenta in my painting Jabberwocky, for example.