Last year, we visited the east London studio of American painter Phil Hale, to talk about creativity, entropy, and the precise quality of paint.
Photography by Kevin Davies.
Nathan Sharp, Drake's: I’m interested in how you begin to conceive of a new image.
Phil Hale: I can give you my study. It sounds like a schtick because I’ve said it so many times now, but it took me thirty years to find this way to do it. I used to have an idea, which you would get from somewhere culturally, and then photograph people, models, situations, and you would make up some of it, too. But now, everything is like a very simple, binary filter. Sometimes I do still take my own photographs, but also, I go through Google images and so on, [looking] for particular things. You have a scenario that you want, and you follow the threads. I had this incredible thread on Russian cosmonauts doing water training. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, because you just look at the image and think, ‘Oh my god!’ So that image goes into the ‘yes’ pile, and each image leads to the next, in some associative way, either for you or for Google. And it’s obviously not arbitrary, [you’re] using your judgement and your experience. Then you just start to push them against one another to make very simple collages, and the ones that work really work instantly. Now you put those aside, and you’re in stage three of your filtering system. You haven’t even thought anything yet, you haven’t had a single thought in your head except ‘yes, no, yes, no.’ Then I’ll do quite loose drawings from the collages [and] when I have one I like, I transfer it to the canvas.
NS: Is narrative an important part of your work?
PH: Yeah, but I’d say it’s an implied narrative. I would not be interested in an actual narrative. You don’t want to resolve it, you want to have something that produces a lot of possibilities and potentials, where you have to engage with it in order to have an exciting thought about it. Whoever’s looking at it, it’s up to them to participate in that element, and obviously there’s no message. There’s real information, but you’re trying to remain neutral in terms of presenting it, and not get in the way.
NS: Tell me about Johnny Badhair. That has a narrative of sorts.
PH: Well, I was eighteen, and wanted to do things that were full of a certain amount of action and violence, but nothing else. I didn’t want any in-between stages of people getting in and out of cars, or reading newspapers. I just wanted the moment of impact, and I wanted it to be as extreme as possible, but I didn’t want to have people getting hurt or victimised.
There’s something great about taking a cliché, which is a man fighting a robot, and then finding something different to do with it, something particular to you. Someone else, if they were given that scenario, would come up with a different thing. So, doing that becomes a tool to find out something about your own taste, or judgement, or aesthetics in that realm. You’re doing the same painting over and over again, and each time you can examine it more carefully, and get your feedback from the painting. What have I actually done? How has it worked? What’s the feel? And you can refine it for the next one. So, you’re carrying over enormous amounts of information to each additional painting. It’s not like you’re juggling, and all the balls fall to the ground, you can keep putting balls up there, so you end up with something very sophisticated in a very narrow bandwidth. The funny thing for me was it didn’t matter that it was the same painting over and over again, because the problem was worth working on. The idea of painting the same thing over and over again and showing that it had a valid positioning – that was really exciting.
NS: What are your criteria for judging success when you’re painting?
PH: There’s a bunch of criteria, because a lot of the time you’re not judging that painting, you’re trying to organise yourself to work in a particular way that will push your art, so that you’ll be a better painter two or three years down the line. It could be saying, ‘I’m only going to paint alla prima,’ which has many powerful advantages, if you can do the entire surface in a single shot. It’s like the reverse of multi-tracking, it’s like a live performance in some way. If you hear someone perform a song live, it loses certain kinds of accuracy and control and so on, but it’s a much more direct, clear message. Often, my agenda is to paint as directly as I can, so you put something down and you don’t fiddle with it. But you can also set yourself problems that are just infuriating and waste your time. You want to be working on the right problem.
Everything comes down to these philosophical choices, and in your life, when you make philosophical choices, the feedback you get from the world is often very ambiguous, or indeterminate. But when you make choices in a painting it shows them right in front of you, in concrete form. You come into the studio the next morning and it’s still there. So, if your commitment is to painting something directly, as opposed to painting something accurately, for example, you put it to the test and find out immediately: here’s this choice that I made, what came out of it? It’s like having a commitment to an ideology, [it] almost doesn’t matter what you choose, but you follow that through, getting the feedback from what you do. Obviously, if after five years it’s failed, you stop. But other artists have painted in these spectacular ways, and they have got these results from it, so you know it can be done. But you have to survive a lot of disappointment because it’s hard to do [laughs].
My final point is this: if that’s your value, you can’t worry too much about the painting in front of you. You can’t worry about making that painting the measure of whether you’re failing or succeeding. You have your value and you have to work it out, and even though you’re seeing how it’s working in the painting, you aren’t letting it change your initial decision to follow that value system. I’m being so obscure now [laughs]! I’d never quite thought about it like this.
NS: So, you’re not letting the work guide you?
PH: You’re letting certain elements guide you.
NS: And you’re letting your principles guide you, too?
PH: Well that’s the friction, yeah. You have to deal with both those things, because if you decide to paint something directly and it just looks terrible, the feedback is, ‘This just looks terrible,’ and then you think, ‘How am I going to deal with it in my next painting?’ But also, your feedback is saying either it doesn’t work, or it will take two years of work to get control of this in some way. Obviously, I find all this fascinating [laughs]!