For his fourth show at Western Exhibitions, Richard Hull presents a new series of abstracted portraits as both paintings and for the first time, sculpture. Repetitive shapes reverberate concentrically around Hull’s “heads”, shapes that he sees as inner mirrors where repetitive thinking and behaviors are events of self-discovery and learning. The show runs through May 16 and opens with a free public reception on Friday, April 13, 5 to 8pm.
Below are selected excerpts from an interview commissioned by the gallery with the painter Alex Bradley Cohen, available as a take-away at the gallery.
What is it about Chicago that has kept you here painting for so long?
I have been painting here so long? I have, and have had, a great life here. I hate it when people complain about Chicago. There’s so much to complain about but I don’t think Chicago should be it. I mean, we can complain about the politics of the city and the way bodies and economies circulate, but the actual city of Chicago has so much to offer. The past 40 years has given me much. I have had an amazing experience here that goes beyond the visual art world. For a while I sort of dropped out of the art community as I stopped going to openings and started meeting writers, musicians and people in theater.
Hmmm… it’s interesting to think about theater and the influence that it has had on your work, especially your early work. When you’re creating or developing more of these narratives — these street scenes or conceptual stages where events occur — did these paintings come from your involvement in the theater community or was it something else you were trying to depict?
No, I wouldn’t necessarily say the paintings came from a direct influence of being around theater. They more came out of necessity. I needed a place for my characters. I thought of these characters as people and really wanted them to exist in a reality, a non-scripted place, as opposed to theater’s scripted one.
Fast-forward 40 years and you are still painting characters or attitudes but now just in the form of a head. Can you speak on this?
I’m thinking about these characters of having limitless potential while simultaneously creating specific recognition.
What was the process like for you to get to this point? How did you make the shift from making the more narrative scenes to where everything is so focused on a head? What does the head do for you that the scenes stopped doing?
It came by chance from a backdrop I collaborated on with Dan Grzeca for a performance at the Cultural Center by Ken Vandermark. It was an exquisite corpse. The image was the Trojan horse, one of the sections I painted was the tail end. I really loved the shape of the tail and the rump of the horse and that led to paintings using those shapes. I was thinking of continuous form where one thing empties into another. Soon thereafter a friend turned me on to the Klein bottle, which began to stabilize the image for me, also presents ambiguity and I like that. Once I was able to isolate this shape, I began to discover the heads.
What about the repetition of form in the paintings?
I see the repetitive forms within the head as rhythms. These rhythms are a representation of time, one moment to the next.
What about the repetition of images from painting to painting?
The repetition of image from one painting to next is also a kind of rhythm; variations large and small can accumulate. Though the work certainly looks similar from piece to piece, each time I begin something new I start with a notion that is different from the last, pushing the boundaries of the work, but then pulling it back in, until it’s something I want to look at, sort of moving forward while staying in place. I’ve used many different kinds of imagery over the years, each time sticking with an idea for a while and mining all the possibilities.
Do the heads have anything to do with contemporary issues surrounding social media and narcissism?
Maybe, but I mostly see them as mirrors, especially the new sculptural pieces that take the actual form of a vanity mirror, with a nod to among others, the Rogier Van Der Weyden two-sided painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. I have always been interested in two opposing forces in a painting.
Giving things dual meanings? Is it an imagined and a real space, or a conversation?
Well, I think of everything as real in my paintings, and it is also about situating a conversation within the painting. It is a basic conversation between the color and the forms. And not a literal conversation; paintings do not talk to you.
Paintings don’t talk?
Thank god. They tell you things but they don’t talk.
What does the painting process look like for you? You make drawings and paintings that speak to each other but your process is a little different than most artists.
For me it’s always been the paintings that inform the drawings rather than the drawings informing the paintings. The crayons I use to make the drawings are unforgiving, paint is a lot more flexible, allowing for discovery.
What is the discovery?
A new shape or a form might make me think of something else. For instance, the exquisite corpse of a Trojan horse led me to the Klein bottle and that lead me to the heads. Discovering an image by that process is what makes me feel most connected to the image. I want everything in the paintings to feel real, and when they get too disconnected or abstracted they begin to disintegrate and reality slips away.
It now seems like you are trying to paint all these interesting characters. It’s also interesting when shapes become features.
Yeah giving these characters features is kinda freaking me out. It’s been happening a little bit lately, I don’t want it get to contrived.
Like the eyeballs?
But they aren’t eyeballs in eyeball positions.
But they are still eyeballs. Let’s wrap this up. Who are these people?
They are unknown people. Like I said I don’t want them to be literal
So in a sense they are about people that you don’t know?
Yeah I like that. I like the distance.
But you like people?
I like the wide range of things, including people.
Would you let me paint on these paintings?
Sure, I’ll let you then I’ll paint over it. We will have to paint with oil.
Gotcha. What advice would you give to a younger artist moving to Chicago for grad school?
Always be ready.
Man, I feel like I’m always ready for it to end.
I was talking about career, not about making things; making things never ends.
Download the entire interview: Interview_RichardHull_WesternX_April2018.pdf
RICHARD HULL (b. 1955 Oklahoma City, OK) has paintings, drawings and prints in the collections of several museums including the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C.; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Smart Museum, Chicago. He has exhibited his work at many of the above institutions as well as Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, CT; Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, OH; Portland Art Museum, OR; the Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland, OH; Herron Gallery of Art, Indianapolis, IN; Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston IL; and the Painting Center, New York, NY. He joined the legendary Phyllis Kind Gallery before graduating from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1979 and had numerous shows in both her New York City and Chicago locations. Richard Hull lives and works in Chicago and is represented by Western Exhibitions.