In conversation with Hedley Roberts

Interview | Hedley Roberts

PIERMARQ*: What encouraged you to begin painting?
Hedley Roberts: I can’t remember not painting, but I can tell you when I decided to become an artist. It was 1982 and I was 10 years old and my mother had joined a book club. One of the books was “A Picture History of Art” by Christopher Lloyd. Nobody in my extended family was an artist, nobody went on to further or higher education. The book was full of pictures of art and architecture from prehistory to late modern and pop art. It was also full of pictures of naked people, which made me decide that being an artist might be a good thing to do. At 15 I went to art college almost by chance. My mother met another mother in the village shop. This farmers wife was quite affluent and had aspirations for her daughters to go on to art school. The regional School, Falmouth School of Art was competitive, so she was planning to send her daughter to a Saturday school 25 miles away, and needed someone to go with her on the bus. The journey took 2.5 hours and we had to be there at 9am. When I entered this old art school, I knew that’s where I belonged. 

P*: How did studying fine arts for over 20 years benefit and hinder your practice?
HR: I first went to art school at 15, and never really left. I graduated my BA from Central Saint Martins in 1994, my MA from the Royal College of Art in 1996, then I had various art school residencies and teaching jobs. I’ve worked full time in art schools since 1999 all the time maintaining my practice. I’ve been a Head for almost 15 years and in that time I did a PHD as well. In the past it was easier to maintain a synergy between leading an art school and making my own work. I always did my day job and then went to the studio, and for a long time I lived in my studio so I’d use all my spare time to be making art. It’s getting much harder now, there are a lot of new demands in higher education. But, I have to say that it’s been amazing. I’ve worked with 1000s of students, mentored lecturers who’ve become professors, worked internationally and spent most of my days thinking about art or how to enable other people in art. It’s been a tricky balance, but it has afforded me the opportunity to be totally immersed in what I love.


P*: Do you think teaching art has altered your practice?
HR: I started teaching when I was doing my MA at the Royal College, so its always been part of my professional life. What’s interesting about teaching art is that to do a good job requires generosity, the ability to empathise with others, and a need to be able to contribute to students work that might be completely different to your own. Generally speaking, artists need to focus their practice if they want to be successful, but as an art academic you get to explore lots of tangential projects with students. That gives you opportunity to discuss ideas that you might not otherwise have explored, so I think its defiantly enriched my practice. Of course, there are moments when the administration in teaching drives you completely mad, but then you go into the studio and it all disappears. 

P*: What are the core concerns of your practice?
HR: For me, making art has always been way of being rather than a specific ‘practice’. I can’t remember not making ‘art’. When I was a child, I’d always be making drawings of birds, animals, people and even of narrative scenes when I’d been scolded. When we moved out of the small village into an isolated house in the countryside I spent time making ‘art’ and art-objects because it was a task that meant I could be engaged in that I could use to avoid doing chores. I’d draw portraits of my girlfriends, friends, pop stars, I’d also transcribe paintings that I’d see in books. If I wanted to understand something I’d use ‘art’ to do it. For me, it became a way of ‘being-in-the-world’ and as integral to my life as reading a book or watching TV. In a way, the ‘art’ is my way of trying to understand what it is to be human, to have agency, to have internal dialogue, to have relationships, to try to work out how to live.



P*: Would you be able to expand on your idea of ‘non-portraits’
HR: I’ve been making these ‘non-portraits’ for almost 10 years now. They’re non-representational portraits where the identity of the sitter is lost in the painting process. The images I use as source mostly come from images sent to me by people I meet through social media. It’s not a completely didactic process, I do paint from other sources too. Before the non-portraits I was making kissing portraits, and now I’ve also started work on some vanitas ‘still life’ paintings. Why? I’m principally interested in the space between people, our inability to know the interior lives or lived experience of each other, and how our society pushes us towards making assumptions about each other based on stereotypes, myths or generalisations.

P*: Is it important to you to paint non-portraits of people you are familiar with?
HR: Sometime the people are people I’m familiar with, and then when I paint them, I realise I know nothing about them. Other times, it might be someone I want to get to know, and then I realise I can’t really know them, I can only make assumptions about them. The non-portraits are a way of trying to connect, but acknowledging that it’s not actually possible to know another person’s interior life. It’s also an acknowledgement of the limitations of the painting process, and the inherent hubris in trying to make a painting ‘represent’ a person. The paint and the painting is a metaphor for the process of failing to be able to fully know anything or anyone.


P*: Can you speak about your process from beginning to finishing a painting?
HR: When I’m making the non-portraits, I’ll be working with images that are usually sent to me by people who want to be subjects. I get sent lots now, and I collect them. I have a variety of methods. I’ll print them and draw over them, or I’ll draw from the screen, or I’ll project them and draw them in the darkness of the projection. These studies become the materials for a composition. Colour will come from an inspiration about them or a situation. The painting will then begin, and I’ll produce something. I’ll then approach it in the next session and usually paint out large sections, or overpaint, or remove paint. Sometimes I’ll reverse entire colour schemes, or completely rework the palette, the structure, composition. There’s a lot of intuitive working through the painting. Sometimes I’ll start a second or third version of the same work to progress different solutions. When I’m in the process it’s not really cerebral, it’s more like ‘flow’, realising myself to the material and methods. The reflective ‘thinking-about-it’ part comes after, and can take time. Often I’ll leave a painting for long periods, weeks months or years – coming back to it in the studio time and again. I’ll work on other paintings that might be quicker or simpler, then I’ll return to it and I’ll know exactly what needs to happen to complete it. It’s hard to know when its complete, and sometimes I’ll get ‘false finishes’ and then there will be further changes made after.

P*: Are there any exhibitions or artist that have left a strong impression on you and your development as an artist?
HR: That’s hard. I’ve lived and breathed art, artists and exhibitions for over 30 years. The big hitters, of course, Matisse, Picasso, Goya, Velazquez, Rubens, Rembrandt. I could go on, but it would be as encyclopaedic as Lloyds ‘A Picture History of Art’. However, if you asked me which painting that I wish I’d made, it would be Augustus John’s Portrait of the Italian heiress, muse and patron of the arts, Marchesa Luisa Casati, made in 1919. An eccentric bohemian, she apparently kept pet cheetahs and wore live snakes as jewellery and lived in the Venetian Villa that would later become Peggy Guggenheim’s home and museum collection. She inspired many artists, writers, playwrights and designers, including Jack Kerouac, but also more recently fashion designers Dior, McQueen, Galliano and Lagerfeld. The painting is astonishing, its full of desire and lust, and seems to capture the myth of both her character and also of John, who was himself a quite the eccentric bohemian.



P*: What can we expect from your upcoming exhibition at PIERMARQ* gallery?
HR: You’ll see Rune Christensen’s amazing paintings alongside my own. Our work is different, but there are motifs and themes that cross over, and you need to look for them. Justin and I agreed on a selection of non-portraits of different sizes, and each has its own theme and approach. It’s important to take time to visit and look at the actual work. On social media images are instantly graphic and flat, and people think they know the work because they’ve seen it online. However, whenever people see my paintings in real life, they are always surprised by the depth, colour and texture and how much they challenge you as the audience. I think looking at art online is like looking at pornography, it’s got its thrills and it can get you off, but it’s nothing like the sensation of being there in the moment and experiencing the texture of the flesh of the painting. Its infinitely more rewarding.

21 October 2019