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Meredith Leigh Crowe speaks with Hamish Coleman

Painting with Hamish Coleman

Friday, January 30, 2015

Meredith Leigh Crowe

Hamish Coleman is an emerging artist in Wellington who works with paint on canvas.  His work emanates a strong and thoughtful engagement with colour, from monochromatic, to compound or triad relationships.  His series that uses faces and torsos seems to capture snapshots of figures as they are on the edge of something, there is an anxiety, a fear of deterioration present in many of their facial lines and body language.  Coleman’s figures are isolated and anonymous, people you couldn’t get to know even if you wanted to.  Another thread of work is his engagement with basic geometries that goes right into the linen.  Coleman stretches his own canvases and many of the forms and scales he works with at this early stage of the process dictate the rest of the work.  I visited Hamish in his studio on a sunny Wellington Friday afternoon to see what he is making at the moment.

H – This is pretty much how I have my studio, I was going to clean up, but then I don’t want to make it too clean, that would be a bit boring.

M – Nah.  This is nice, a beautiful space.

H – this actually used to be the old central nervous system for the wellington WIFI, that’s why there is like fifty power-points around the place.  Now it’s all housed in that cupboard, so the catch of being here is that sometimes guys just come through and open it up to do work, and you come back in to the studio and everything’s moved around.

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M – I suppose the first thing I have to ask you is how did you become an artist, how did you get here?

H – I reckon just out of necessity aye, I don’t really know how to do anything else.  And its one of those things, I wasn’t encouraged so much to do, but I’ve been allowed to do it since I was a kid.  That sounds crazy, it’s a majority of my life.

M – And have you always worked with paint?

H – nah I used to be scared of painting, used to be scared of using colour; which I think is quite a common thing. I used to draw, I’ve done a little bit of photography, a little bit of sculpture, but, painting just seems like the most direct way for me to get something across.

M – Its amazing that you say that you used to not like colour, or try to work in colour because it is really prominent in what you do now.

H – Yea it’s funny that aye, but these images with faces in them they come from stills which are black and white, and so while colour is crucial to the success of the painting it only really comes about like that because I set myself constraints, you kind of have to.  I’ll say, it has to be two or three colours max.

The figurative works come from film stills of fans from Beatles concerts in the sixties, there are tons and tons of historic footage that has recently been uploaded to YouTube, like 20,000 hours of video or something ridiculous, and its perfect for what I am after.  I was really drawn to them because the fans are hysterical, absolutely hysterical, they are crying and fainting and shit.  When it’s captured in paint in this way you lose the context, it becomes hard to tell if they are laughing or crying; screaming in excitement or in terror.

M – I was going to say because looking at them in photos they do look ecstatic and overwhelmed, but when it translates into paint some of that becomes darker; like I don’t know whether she is very impressed, she looks a bit tense and upset.

H – Yea exactly, something gets lost, and that’s all part of the process I guess.  You know I still use Microsoft Paint to get these stills, its very primitive, pretty low-fi.

M – It’s interesting that you say you start with Microsoft Paint, and then in your other works that beginning point, that canvas is really important, it seems like you have quote strong roots in the beginning of it, just as much so as the finishing.

H – Well I sort of came to realise that you don’t need a reason to start something, but once you start it takes on its own reasons.  Which is a really romanticised view of art.

M – Nah its good!  It’s good to say that something doesn’t have to be important for you to start it, but once you have started it, it will be important.  And that counts.

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M – You stretch your own canvases, which is pretty amazing, and it seems like some of the work, you know, starts off with that shape and that strategy right at the beginning, and that dominates right through the other things that you do to it.  How did you get in to stretching canvases?

H – I think I’m just a practical person.  You get to art school and they have a workshop and I’m like, fuck yeah I used to love woodwork.  The idea of buying materials and making it just makes sense.  And no one is there telling you it has to be a square or whatever so I was making octagonal canvases.  And I managed to get a job at the French Art Shop because of that.  I invited the guy who used to be the owner there along to one of my openings at Toi Poneke and he saw my work in the flesh, like round canvases and stuff and he was pretty impressed, asked me if I wanted a job.  And doing all that stuff, it definitely influences the painting.  I wouldn’t be making what I’m making if I weren’t working there.

M – It seems obvious, but to me it feels like the natural place to start, get the wood, get the canvas, and you do it.  After seeing your work and talking about this making process it would feel weird to go and buy a canvas.

H – I find things are more satisfying if you do it the hard way, making your own things out of nothing.  Those circle ones in particular when I stretch those up, that’s like half the painting done.  So it’s a painting, but the process is about so much more than the paint.  The paint surface aesthetic is important, but it isn’t the only thing happening.

At work I have to make these perfect canvases with the best linens you can get, and then it was like, you know, what happens when you fuck it up and cut a big hole it in, and that brings up a whole heap more questions.  With these works I kind of want them to be like music hidden lyric, imparting a little bit of narrative in them in such a simple way.  I call them disk paintings, otherwise I was going to call them donut paintings.. but I went with disk.

M – I like disk, donut might have been a bit much with some of the high gloss candy colours going on.

H – Haha yea, and with these others starting from videos of music crowds, these sort of reference music formats too.  They are all painted without any sort of stencil, they are all imperfect, none of them are actually in the middle.

M – I’m actually surprised that you don’t have to brace the centre hole.  I had always imagined there being a ring on the outside and a ring on the inside, and the painting sort of folded back on them both ways.

H – Wouldn’t work with a square at that scale!  Only works with a circle.

Pat (the photographer) – I can only imagine trying to not get that to split and fray and just generally be horrible.

H – Haha yea, well I definitely have ones that worked, and ones that don’t.  Its present in the figure paintings too, like they are paintings that I spend weeks on, and then once they are dry I get a huge ugly house brush and go over them, real gnarly.  It gives it that grainy look, but underneath they are these pristine paintings, and I could stop there.  It’s a bit of a rush, but to go over them and fuck it up, well not actually fuck it up, but feel like you are fucking it up, is pretty cool.

M – Its great to see the originals, to see the grainy stock footage that they come from.

H –  And it kind of references the grooves in a record, the static and the noise.  But that’s the thing, I just start, I just do these things and I’m not sure why.  But once you start its important, and the links between what you are doing become clear as your going, and you start to create a dialogue.

Meredith Leigh Crowe

Photo courtesies: Pat Crowe-Rishworth

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