Waterhouse & Dodd is pleased to start the new year off by featuring the celebrated artist Clive Head as our January Artist of the Month. Concerned with expressing his reality, Clive Head's work is a culmination of observation, lived experience, fears and fantasies, achieved by the re-interpretation of conventional perspective and his subject matter. His work over the last 10 years demonstrates an evolving and intricate practice, continually seeking resolution to the idea of encapsulating reality as it is experienced.
Waterhouse & Dodd's Director of Modern British, International Post-War & Contemporary Art in London, Jamie Anderson, interviews the artist on his process and the evolution of his practice over the last decade.
JA: Your work has evolved a great deal over the last 10 years; can you explain what spurs this change (in general rather than specific terms)?
CH: Evolution has always been integral to my practice. Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine described viewing my work as like walking into the studio of Guido Reni. I was making large neo-classical paintings with elusive narratives. It was very different to the urban landscapes that followed but the transitions tend to be incremental.
I think change is rooted in my fundamental beliefs about what an artist is. In trying to make sense of the world around me through painting and drawing, I stumble into possible solutions. Ideas are tried out which then inform the next stage. It is in our nature to grow and to change, and as we do, we learn a little more about what it means to be alive. If painting is to have any real validity, it must keep pace and be part of that process. It must develop. I can’t predict how I will paint 10 years from now, all I can say for certain is that it cannot, it must not, reiterate what I am doing now. For that to happen, I would have stopped asking questions, and stopped finding new solutions; in effect, I would have stopped being an artist.
JA: Your work had become highly recognisable to the wider public after the National Gallery exhibition and the publication of your Lund Humphries book, it was a brave decision to develop and move on from this (many artists would not have wanted to). How easy (or difficult) was it to break from the immediate past?
CH: I can see that recognition by the art world could lead to an artist abandoning that evolutionary process which I have spoken about, and of course, not all artists share my definition of what it means to be an artist. In fact, we seem to have moved into an era where artists behave more like fashion designers establishing a brand. I suppose this might make more commercial sense.
But for me not to evolve would be tantamount to giving up. I always thought that if I just carried on making the same work for the sake of fame and fortune, I should give up painting and go into business manufacturing widgets.
The work made at the time of the National Gallery show represents a snapshot of where I was in 2010. It was not the same as the work of a few years before, or a few years after. Colin Wiggins, who was the curator at the National for special projects, had taken an interest in my work and invited me to show. At that time, I had some collectors and galleries who really appreciated my work, but the art establishment in terms of museums and most critics had never shown that much interest. Colin may have had a hunch that the show was going to be successful, but I don’t think anyone else did. When we broke attendance records, there was some squirming in certain circles, but the contemporary art establishment was quick to signal its disapproval.
I enjoy meeting so many great people when I do events like the National show, but one is also thrown into the cultural politics of the art world. I’ve always tried to stand apart from the mainstream and maintain my independence. When I was a student, I chose to study in Wales rather than in London. I have always valued my freedom to do what I wanted to do. I’m not sure I would see that as brave.
JA: How do you approach a bare canvas – with excitement or apprehension? And how much is either emotion mitigated through advanced drawing and preparation?
CH: Rarely with either emotion. A bare canvas is not really a beginning for me. Typically, I will have a drawing with which to open the painting, even if the outcome shows little connection to this original drawing. And I don’t fear the blank piece of paper in making a drawing, because I might just be setting out to draw a tree in the garden, or one of my cats, or a figure in the life class. There is no cause for apprehension in engaging with life through a few marks on a piece of paper.
But what I do fear is not having a blank canvas to work on when I need one. I like to work and would become restless if I had nothing to do in the studio. That doesn’t happen very often, probably because I know I would be miserable if there was nothing to keep me busy. I don’t have to work every hour of every day, but I do like to potter in the studio everyday if I can.
JA: How has the Covid pandemic and lockdown periods affected you personally and how has this been reflected in your recent work?
CH: There is no point in becoming an artist if you can’t work away happily on your own. So, I think it is easier for artists to deal with an enforced isolation than for most people. And I’m lucky to have my studio at home and my family around me.
I would draw a sharp distinction between painting and illustration. I don’t set out to make a painting that illustrates particular issues or events, but my work does reveal many aspects of my life and my thoughts, concerns, memories and dreams. In looking back at the paintings from this year, I can see that they betray its unprecedented nature. Works such as Postman’s Knock and The Sirens of Hopper’s Crib touch on the danger and fear tied into activities that we would normally regard as harmless, and then there are works which focus more on our problematic relationship with the natural world such as Canute’s Flatterers.
Whether or not it is as a direct result of the lockdowns, I can’t say with any certainty, but my work has become more orientated to my immediate surroundings this year. Typically, many of my paintings are begun from drawings made of the city, perhaps London or New York. But most of the paintings this year have their origins in drawings made in the garden. This has been an important development for me in two respects. Firstly, I have been able to fold art and life together more effectively; the work seems more faithful to my existential being. Secondly, I have finally got rid of any traces of photography in my work. For all its value as a working tool, the camera inevitably imposes its way of seeing over my vision. I purged the studio of photographs a few years ago but I was still using the camera to document my experience. Drawing directly from nature has given me a newly discovered web of rhythm with which to work. I am very excited about this breakthrough.
To see the selection of works by Clive Head, please visit his Artist page HERE.