Interview with Paul Stolper for “in atoms” catalogue

PS ‘In Atoms’ is a retrospective of sorts, can you explain the title, and how it refers to your work?
SH The title is a quote from Samuel Beckett’s radio play ‘All That Fall’ and it seems to relate to my work in a number of ways. Firstly there’s the suggestion of energy, the energy bordering on violence that I’ve liked to paint in cowboy and baboon paintings. But it’s also seeing below the surface to tiny particles of matter. When in 2000 I did the ‘Mutilate’ paintings of translucent, x-rayed figures I included ‘atomic’ blots and cells, enlarged molecules that hovered inside or around the figures. Then this unseen life came to mind when I did paintings based on poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) who refers to the minuscule world seen through microscopes. And I explored it further in paintings for the show ‘Immense Dawn’ (2003) in paintings like ‘Flamboyant Jungle’ in which a monkey is part of a seething forest of vegetation and cells. It’s as if the conscious energy in cowboys and baboons and explorers is underpinned by a field of unseen energy and one which threatens individual identity. I like to paint figures in bits as if they are breaking up and becoming cells or particles. But this is not necessarily a negative way of seeing but more to do with the unity of things that are all connected up in their underlying elements. And then there’s beauty in a world of the microscopic, as in Kandinsky’s ‘Composition’ paintings of discs and circles (1923 – 1939). I’d like to be able to convey that.
PS As a mid-career retrospective is there a thread that runs through your work from 1996 to the present?
SH I think one thread is to do with the way I like to paint: a combination of looseness and precision. I mean I like to paint quickly in an abbreviated manner so that things are conveyed succinctly if possible. This is to do with energy and life, seeing things precisely and wanting to get them down in a concise way. And this leads to a kind of simplicity, not putting too much in a painting, trying to get to the essentials. And then the simplicity sometimes leads to a figure seen against empty areas, being alone or exposed in darkness or light. Light is a thread that has also been very important to me, from the early 1990’s when I used to paint petrol stations at night to recent paintings of the Sami reindeer herders blitzed in arctic sun. My light can be quite uncomfortable or disturbing. It’s so sharp and piercing and can eat into my shoppers or explorers, for example, as they struggle along aisles of supermarkets or the ice-fields of Greenland.
PS I know you enjoy language a great deal, and poetry, in particular Andrew Marvell, who inspired ‘Paradise Alone’ (2002 – 2003), the exhibition held at the Ferens Art Gallery, and both inform your work. How does that relationship work? Are you looking for titles and seek inspiration from writers and poets?
SH The first line that ever obsessed me enough to try to paint it was Dylan Thomas’s ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (1933). Then I became obsessed with the work of Ceri Richards who did prints and paintings from that line. Yes, I’ve always wanted to paint poems, not illustrate them but use them as springboards. I love the impact and compression of lines of poetry, a few words that hit you and stay with you. Intensity through compression. And I like paintings that, like poems, communicate economically. There are several poems I’d like to paint from: ‘The Wasteland’, my all-time favourite, for example, but I don’t yet know how I could begin to do it. Then there’s ‘Paradise Lost’, which I love, with all its huge spaces and gorgeous colours and glittering angels. Maybe I’ll have a go at that. And Shakespeare. I did a series of works based on ‘The Tempest’ but I’d like to paint from other plays, ones with a similarly fantastical element. I get inspired by the characters in literature, not just lines of verse. For example those tramps and outcasts in Beckett – Maddy Rooney in ‘All That Fall’ – have worked their way into my solitary, trudging figures.
PS Can you look back at the last twenty years and see where you are now; are you at a certain point?
SH I think I’m clearer about what my work is about and what I want it be. Over twenty years I’ve followed my feelings and instincts and have seemed to paint lots of different things and change from subject to subject. But looking back I can see that all these paintings and subjects show similar preoccupations: figures in wilderness, in emptiness, the comedy of human pursuits, the turning of named objects into something abstract and unnameable. I think at the moment I want to work on a big scale again. I’ve been doing small pictures over the last year. And I want to try to continue to include opposite things like light and mess. I always like T.S. Eliot’s remark that he wanted to write about ‘the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.’ I’d like my painting to include these opposites but then again I want conciseness and simplicity so it’s not easy.
PS You reference the strength of light, and energy as a positive force, and yet so many of your works focus on the solitary, the lonely figure, rather pathetic at times, for instance in your series of ‘Explorers’ (1998).

SH I suppose I see my figures as part of a world of power and dynamism but they themselves are struggling in that world, vulnerable to things that are more powerful than they are. Light in my pictures can overwhelm them. Sometimes I’d like my figures to have something of that force and elation but I find it usually comes about when the central ‘figure’ is a creature, a bird or monkey, or when the human is fused to a horse: when it’s a cowboy or a rider. Obviously creatures are as vulnerable as humans but they can seem more spirited and are more spontaneous.

PS Are you conscious of a sadness that can engulf your work, or rather the figures you paint, solitary in the landscape, and so do you sympathise with the characters you paint?

SH Yes I think my figures are sometimes filled with sadness and I very much sympathise with their being beleaguered and insulted, including the insult of being reduced to blots and specks of paint. I sympathise with that sense of being at the mercy of something that may reduce or undermine or attack you. But I don’t want the paintings as a whole to seem sad as that seems a bit passive. I’d rather communicate struggle and energy. I’d like them to communicate something about the restless, comic, unfinished, untidy spectacle of life.

PS Is the solitary figure then the result of constantly reducing the composition, refining it so you can put the figure down on the canvas quickly?

SH It can be. With some of my pictures made from drawings in Fez, I wanted very simple contrasts of light and shadow and to have one figure as part of that composition. But that simplicity and emptiness was also about the figure in time, a spiritual wanderer seen against this ‘void’ of the background. The single figure usually carries an emotional charge for me. It’s not just to do with the composition of the painting. This singleness may be to do with sadness or maybe the figure is a singularity: something that has its own distinctive, idiosyncratic, individual life and is pursuing its own goals.

PS There is a marked contrast between the solitary and the messy claustrophobic nature of figures that permeate your drawing and painting. Is there a parallel though?

SH My single figure is often damaged or atomised and a procession of figures is a way of marking that transformation towards change or disintegration. I remember doing a series of cowboys in a forest. The leading cowboy is very natural in appearance but the one bringing up the rear is just a cellular blob. And some of my processions of figures painted recently for ‘Here Comes Everybody’ in St. Paul’s Cathedral (2015) contrast a mess of tangled tourists with a figure that is recognisably human. I also like switching from painting a single figure or group to painting countless people, especially crowds on beaches and in dining rooms. Painted for ‘Leisure Paintings’ (2006) and ‘World of Light’ (2008), these pictures depict swarms of figures turned into cells, circles, abstractions. They are overwhelmed not just by the dark spaces or the sharpness of the light but by the presence of each other.

PS You draw prolifically so that by the time it comes to painting on canvas you are thoroughly versed, not only in the composition but in the very marks you are going to make with the brush?

SH I draw from life, on the street and in shops, and so I have to draw very quickly. Often I focus just on one figure as I have no time for more or for the setting. In the studio things get more difficult as I need to decide what to do with the space around the figure, how much to put in, how specific to be about the location. And then I can’t just copy the marks of the drawings because the picture then looks second hand and timid. I have to make the figure again but I suppose the marks made in the initial drawing can be helpful as they have become part of my memory and experience.

PS You seem to understand what you are going to paint so well, that the paint marks become your own distinctive language, succinct as if made up of hieroglyphs?

SH Yes I’ve developed a way of seeing the figure along with signs to represent it. I’ve also grown attached to certain processes like dropping Fairy Liquid into acrylic so that it makes blooms appear or using mixtures of thick oil paint to make faces and limbs out of rich dabs of colour or allowing watery acrylic to seep over the boundaries of a body. But I’m always keen to surprise myself and look out for new things happening as the painting develops. Painting can be so unpredictable and I suppose I like it to be like that, I’d get bored if I knew what was going to happen in advance.