A lot of my work has art historical references, they provide me with a number of entry points into making work, producing motifs and helping me understand my relationship with art. I always like to acknowledge my debt to past masters and on one level the work acts as a homage to them. I think it is impossible to make work without engaging with work of the past. Painting in particular is a complex interwoven language that morphs between genres, styles and time lines. Engaging with the past helps me learn and move within this language. Picasso is a constant for me. He is a big beast of an artist and can be very problematic in terms of influence and referencing. Many artists simply won’t touch him and I totally understand, but that is what is appealing to me, I want to climb into the belly of the "Beast" and come out the other side.
I am interested in all aspects of painting and all genres. Traditional genres have a fascination for me tied up with the weight and complexity of their histories. In some ways the "subject" matter is the least important aspect of making the work, it is to some extent just something to hang the paint on. I tend to go for simple universal motifs, even possibly banal, putting emphasis on the material reality of the work rather than the image. I often talk of blending genres, referring to the "portrait of the object”.
To some extent all the work has an element of "self portrait". The work can be seen as one long continuous pursuit to understand oneself and what it is to be alive and how best to spend your time and what makes most "sense". If your work has any power you should be able to say these things in a bowl of fruit just as much as the use of the human figure.
I often rework my paintings, many have numerous paintings underneath and show the scars and traits of their creation. A work usually evolves over a period of time with numerous revisions mostly which are intuitive. I am not precious with my work in terms of I am prepared to "destroy" what could be a perfectly good piece of work in the attempt to get to a "better" one. My work means everything to me but it is impossible for me to "value" it.
Like most artists I work long hours and view the solitude of the studio a blessing. I work most days and have habits and routines that evolve from the studio practice. The studio can be seen as a state of mind as much as a physical space. I tend to work on numerous things at once, a sort of controlled chaos. I rarely plan things, I get momentum and ideas from shifting between things.
The show at Farbvision in Berlin came about when Paul Mcdevitt asked me if I would like to do something there. The space is in what use to be an old butchers, and retains some of its original features and in particular its atmospheric green and white tiles. The work I made for the show was in some ways influenced by the space. I produced light bright paintings with acrylic and spray paint which felt more right for the space than my heavier oil work.
The use of spray paint in my work is not a totally new thing for me. I am always looking for new forms of expression and actively seek to sometimes disrupt my working practice in order to shake things up or open new possibilities. I like the directness of spray paint, it has a certain "dumbness'" that appeals to me. At the moment I am enjoying using an array of paints at once.
As an artist I choose to embrace a certain "romantic" vision in how to navigate the world. There are many contradictions involved in being an artist. On one level it seems a rather selfish act, wrapped up in an enormous leap of faith into the void of ones own ego. It is both noble and ridiculous at once.
‘Art history is Hobbesian,’ Peter Schjeldahl once wrote. ‘All ambitious artists com- pete with all other artists, living and dead.’ Yes, but we often forget it. In part that’s probably because raw competitiveness as creative spur feels redolent of other times – modernist at latest, artists-as-yoked-climbers times. If our era is outwardly more atomised, that may reflect the post-medium condition (when you build your own aesthetic, whom does it appear you’re battling?) and the outward triumph of collabo- ration, or networking, over competition. For one reason or another, it’s not routinely apparent in the art, at least not how it was.
Yet in painters’ studios in particular, lifelong games of engagement with fore- bears go on: an absorbing alternation of learning from intent looking, developing eye and hand, and seeking to overmaster the greats, or at least rise to their occasions. Painting in these circumstances is a clandestine language, fluently spoken – and heard, as it were – by few. But spoken nonetheless. For artists who recognise the stakes at hand, the goal is to enter, progressively exhilarated, a living conversation span- ning centuries, to jump in a deep and wide river and change its present course. That hardly any painters appear, for whatever reason, able to recognise and act upon those stakes – and this, one would have to say, is partly because there has been so much conceptually inclined painting in recent years, a distinction resultantly opening up between ‘painters’ and ‘artists who paint’ – ensures the importance of those who do, who can. And for an artist who manages to make venerable iconographies speak in accents apposite to the present moment, that’s doubly true.
In the final year of his life, 1980, Philip Guston painted Untitled Cherries, a still life that could be a landscape. It’s a monumental pile of stalky cerise fruit in an ice field of white that suggests a pile of bodies, a pile of decapitated heads. This painting explicitly haunts several made more than thirty years later by Paul Housley, including Dead Soldiers (2013). Housley isn’t covering any tracks here – saying, rather, that this is how painting works, how the great learning goes on, that all paintings are about other paintings. His intended audience will most probably recognise the Gustonian contours of his artistry, understand his plays and inversions. Untitled (Cherries) is a painting of everyday objects that holds an underworld of psychic pain within its cartoonish form, but does not speak of it; Dead Soldiers, potholed with underpainting, radiant with primaries, and retaining the bulbous stacked-circles format of its predecessor, hazes what its own stack is actually composed of. The image was based on a pile of squeezed-out paint tubes, but the loosened brushwork insinuates flowers, cupcakes, a Christmas tree – and the title, which literally points to corpses, is also metaphorical, slang for emptied bottles of alcohol.
So Housley at once makes explicit the violence in Guston’s still life and then reverses, saying it’s not real bodies he’s talking about, while hardly making the work innocent; while creating, in so doing, his own referential twist on the still life as psychological self-portrait. Because the reading bifurcates, between source and title: it posits painting as war, and also could suggest that here are a lot of bottles of relief. And from what? Bringing the two inferences back together, from the fight of making painting, assumedly: a romanticism that Housley addresses knowingly without saying it isn’t real. Moreover – another pressure – what are artistic ancestors but dead soldiers, those fallen in the field of battle? Even if dead they are unavoidable, Housley is forever assenting, while identifying liminal overlaps between them that, in turn, clarify his own interests, throw light into his own constructed corner. A Guston still life, where modest subjects feel to contain far bigger emotions, surprisingly has something in common with a Morandi; and there is an architectural quality to a Morandi, a scale-confusing uncanny and radical stillness, that in turn has some- thing in common with De Chirico.
As a result, a painting like Yellow Block (2013), where those flavours collide, can reflect something of all three while being powerfully Housley’s own. It appears at once put on its mettle by past greatness, able to collapse practices across the twentieth century from the vantage point of the twenty-first – from the perspective of a closely observing painter, less interested in continuities asserted by conventional art history than by those his own intuitions reveal – and disinclined to perform any of the panicky withdrawals from the field of battle that characterised the ‘death of painting’ era that stretched from the mid-1980s into the late ‘90s. When one notes that even those artists who might be considered ‘painterly’ today are frequently working in an interstice between painting and photography, the significance of Housley’s prac- tice is clear. For Housley, as he’ll say in conversation, painting has nothing to do with photography: a painting is not an image, it is a thing-in-itself, and the thing is far, far bigger than what it depicts. A generation of artists would benefit from being remin- ded of this – and from recognising the manifold affective force of painting handled this way. In terms of distinction, it’s equivalent to knowing how to play an extra- ordinary solo on a musical instrument or knowing how to trigger a sample of one.
Yellow Block, for example, is a record in part of being gripped in the day-to-day by the proliferating associative qualities, the poetry if you like, of a found object: spe- cifically a building that Housley suddenly noticed on the South Bank of the Thames – a slim shambling place with popped-out windows that’s used as a training building for the fire brigade. In Yellow Block this architecture appears as a stepped yellow ghost, windows like dark fingerprints, against a sky of forceful Prussian blue. That is the subject, yes, but subject matter is not central to the painting’s force: that’s for people who think that painting is a means towards articulating subject matter, who don’t understand what De Kooning meant when he said, famously, ‘It’s very tiny – very tiny, content.’ That is, the painting is a thing in which iconography and painterly matter are not divisible. If the painting feels mute and lonesome and a little plaintively ridiculous, that’s because of everything in it – from paintwork that feels at once heavy and tentative, to the operatic midnight richness of the sky, to the subtly curving base which suggests that the building is not just situated on land but a monster on the curvature of the Earth. We might return to the safety of talking about forebears because there is not much equivalent verbal language for the emotional pull here. What there is, is simply language about something that is already language, a highly refined mode of articulation.
Housley, evidently, works with genres: the still life, the landscape, the nude, the portrait, though often the boundaries are smudged. (Above are discussions of still life as landscape and landscape as still life; both are portraits of a sort, and an osten- sible portrait like England Sleeps in Shakespeare’s Cheek, 2012, freely fuses portrait and landscape.) There are several reasons for this generalised fidelity to formats. Firstly, in terms of subject matter for painting, the good ones have long been taken. Sec- ondly, if you make an incremental jump within the familiar, it’s impressive, a kind of quiet showmanship – and that, too, is an artistic tradition (e.g. Ce?zanne’s apples). Housley’s art certainly recognises the intense self-consciousness of the weight of art history. But, then again, this weight is in Picasso too. The river runs and he’s in the river, but it is artists who make the river bend, too.
So Snoopy in Blue (2013) is Schultz’s famous beagle in an art-history-referencing pose: that of Titian’s Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (1510), which was the model for Rembrandt’s 1640 self-portrait (both works in the National Gallery), and shimmering with coloured speckles – a chromatic mist through which the dog appears genuinely, if bathetically, thoughtful. Risk steams off it, through the ridiculousness. Speaking of blue periods, the female nude The Thinker (2013), which conflates comedy, melancholy, and about five other qualities in a manner we might come to expect of Housley, certainly references Picasso’s twisty pinheaded beach odalisques (with Rodin’s cheesecake-defying title) – the artist who’s previously painted a Self Portrait as Picasso (2010) is not attempting to hide his tracks. But it’s the living artist’s show, and it’s alive: the way the arm curves into a second, negative-space head; the way he manages to instill a clenched emotionality on the default face via a few casual-looking blats of paint. The thinker, meanwhile, is exposing herself as she thinks, unashamedly so. One is tempted to call it a self-portrait. Snoopy too.
At times Housley is his own river, a river of connections and ambiguities that finds room for sources all across the spectrum – which says, implicitly, that inasmuch as art history is there to be conversed with, so is everything else, and that wildly disparate subjects can commingle, surprisingly equalised in complex emotional scenarios. Motifs and fragmentary sub-motifs pinball among his paintings – the banana-armed woman in The Thinker feels like the same one in the verdant and tense Figure in a Landscape (2013), the head shrunk even further and mysterious events trans- piring around the torso region. Snoopy’s Rembrandtesque (or Titianesque) forearm is gifted to the feline artist in 2012’s Night Painting (recalling, of course, the title of Guston’s daughter’s memoir, Night Studio), and the historical pose, clearly some kind of obsession, is reworked again for the buzzsaw-mouthed Young Rembrandt (2013), and, it seems, Srem (2010). That these paintings are utterly different from each other, in tonality and compound voicing, hardly seems irrelevant. See enough of Housley’s work and fascinated fecundity comes to overarch it. The making is as close as one gets to the meaning.
A quest, even: Mixed Dice (2013), with its vignetting of a handful of dice, is among several recent works that find Housley coursing through Cubism – though it also, in its dotted planes, manages to recall the sentinel building of Yellow Block, situating the studio as a place where everything interpenetrates. Cubism is the wellspring, too, of A Loose Hand (2013), with its flush of cards – which in turn connects to the house of cards in Night Games (2013), which in turn leads us back to Chardin, and also via its title to a weird 1980 film about, to quote the Internet Movie Database, ‘a sexually repressed woman only able to be aroused by a man in a bird suit.’ And connects back to Housley’s own artistic past – he used to make drawings on playing cards, and stick them to canvases – reminding us that certain fascinations never really go away. In any case, there is in such work the renewed excitement of angling and bending the picture plane, though not in a nostalgic way – it is a means to be combined with other means, to send Cubism in directions it didn’t explore, single-minded as its architects were: to send it, indeed, into the future.
But notice also that dice, cards and houses of cards bespeak gambling and fragility. And winning, sometimes. This feels like a painter talking about the stakes of painting – the idea that you might have to destroy your best canvas to make some- thing really, really good; that you have to pit yourself against the greats, and know what made them great. To commit, in short, wherever it leads, for life. You might start with Rembrandt and end with a chainsaw, not knowing why necessarily but knowing the chainsaw is right. And a smile promising damage is apropos, since destruction is inbuilt in these works, in their encrusted layers, which tell of the five or six paintings beneath the surface of each one. Not for nothing, perhaps, does the array of instruments in Painter’s Tools (2013) include an axe.
Those roughed surfaces convey, of course, time – time taken to make a thing by pushing coloured mud around on cloth, a thing that at once is its sheer materiality and something constructed yet real, all at once. A thing that is the highest form of graffiti insofar as it says, of the painter, I was here. I was here, I am here; I thought and felt and learned to this visible end. When Housley paints heads, it’s notable he is frequently an obliterator, from the bandage-like hatching in Self as Invisible (2012) to, most obviously, a work like Small Blue Skull (2012). Amid the clotted pinks and blues of that cranium, and the black socket eyes, this head seems as alive as anything else in his work. It has an outlook, an attitude. If it’s not animate, it’s not dead either; rather, to perhaps be pretentious about it, this is a model of suspended passage between life and death. And something meta, since painting at its best is that too: looking enlarges the viewer, making enlarges the maker, and Housley’s art, wholly uncommonly today, reflects both those mortal facts at once. The house of cards in Night Games is going down – that’s inevitable – but for now it stands. From some angles it looks pre- carious as hell, and from others it could last forever.
Journeys to the Interior
My Victories are great and many
Vast are my Empires
24 inches of table top
And all the Light my eyes can eat
From one single barred window
— Paul Housley
Paul Housley's short poem The Painters Boast provides us with a good introduction to his latest solo show, Journeys to the Interior, at the Belmacz gallery. The poem is an ode to the artist’s craft and a romanticised take on the solitary life of most painters’ studios.
The works in Belmacz summer show concentrate on depictions of the artist’s studio. Though not finely rendered or accurate architectural depictions, these paintings are imagined, psychological studies of where worlds both expand and contract. The exhibition investigates what an artist wants to depict in their work, their interior dialogue, and what occurs with each working day. Housley also explores how artists in their studios address the accumulation of time, and the endless hours invested pursuing the indefinable. The paintings are littered with the tools of painter's crafts along with the ephemeral contents of their studio. These objects have been gathered over many years, and are kept as 'familiars', good luck charms, or actual practical components to be used in the making of work.
Each work describes the ebb and flow of time, the shifting components of atmosphere, light, success and failure. The studio is a place of light and shadows, of things briefly glimpsed and of objects acutely studied. It is many things: a retreat, a factory, a sanctuary, and sometimes a self-imposed prison. The work talks of flux, and the chaotic nature of the studio, and the desire to make some kind of order and sense of the hours spent in pursuit of creative freedom. It also deals with the notions of the artistic ego, which is seen both as a necessity and a burden.
There is a scene in the final moments of the 1957 sci-fi film The Incredible Shrinking Man, where the protagonist who has been gradually shrinking throughout the story, reaches a point where he is about to become infinitesimal and disappear into his environment. He is becoming a part of the universe, and at this moment he accepts his fate, and is at ease with himself and his place in the cosmos. In much the same way, the artist accepts his role in the solitary pursuit he has chosen and is comfortable with his desire to journey into the centre of his interior life and in someways 'disappear' where life and work are so intertwined that it becomes impossible to separate the two.