Emer Mc Garry interviews Ronnie Hughes on Strange Attractors

The following text is the synthesis of a number of conversations between the artist Ronnie Hughes and curator Emer Mc Garry regarding his artistic practice.

EM: What is it that excites you about painting?

RH: That’s a very complex question but the obvious things are formal qualities – colour and shape, their relationship and how these are orchestrated to create sensations of pattern, movement and rhythm. I’m also very attuned to the sensuous qualities of paint and how a painting’s surface can hold or reveal a sense of how it was made i.e. the artist’s touch (or not). Allied to the content matter this is often a big factor in how we respond as viewers. Thirdly I like that a painting surface can often contain and reveal the history of its own making – time condensed, as it were.

EM: Can you expand on this idea of the visual compression of time?

RH: Well, bearing in mind that a painting may be over a number of months or even years, a work can often betray the physical evidence of this process in different way; accumulations of paint or, conversely, signs of attrition and sometimes by the sheer complexity of image parts. In my own work the process is one of trail, error and response and I’m interested in ‘finding’ the finished work. When a particular state doesn’t feel resolved I like to try to add another level that doesn’t completely obliterate what was there before. In other words I (usually) actively try this temporal sense into the painting or drawing.

EM: How do you title your work?

RH: Once the work is finished, and documented, I try to sit down and work out what the title it. I find this very difficult as I think titles are very important signifiers to not only how an artist thinks about that particular work, but perhaps the work in general. I like the title of to be poetic: I like it to situate the viewer in a particular area but, perhaps conversely, to open up possibilities of interpretation. It’s important not to suffocate the viewer. I usually use single word titles. Sometimes the word is used for its meaning, sometimes its sound. Occasionally I invent words. In practical sense it’s also important for me that I will see the painting in my mind’s eye when I hear the title.

EM: Can you talk about the combination of drawing and painting in your practice?

RH: For me drawing is central – painting is, in many ways, just drawing with paint (or an equivalent). It is important to me that there is a ‘drawing’ sensibility at work – I don’t this in a traditional sense but in a spirit of discovery – to ‘draw out’ or ‘draw forth’ – to wrest an idea, a form or an image from the ether. Contrary to much that I was taught at art school I discovered that this often times me slow down or work carefully, thoughtfully and methodically.

EM: You mentioned during our studio visit that you look at your work with a ‘quizzical eye.’ At other times you have referred to your work requiring ‘curious viewers.’ Is this kind of reflection or investigation intrinsic to your work?

RH: I think that art is at its most gripping when it both attracts and resists us – when it garners our attention but refuses to be submissive. I like the idea of making art that acts as a kind of conundrum – what is this I’m looking at? What is the pattern and why? What values are at work? How do I feel or what do I think?

EM: It is clear there is a stylistic diversity in your paintings. How do you achieve this and why is it important to you?

RH: An old teacher of mine (performance artist Alastair MacLennan) used to say that your thumb and forefinger look very different buy they belong to the same hand. I’m very resistant to the idea of ‘style’ – bearing in mind that this can be born our of habit or, more accurately, lazy research methods. I try to foster an experimental and creative approach and I’m happy for work to engender variety. That said it is one of the inescapable paradoxes of art-making that more, and longer, one labours then the more the work can be ‘tied up like a sausage’ (to quote de Kooning).

EM: You have said previously that what interests you most as a painter is plasticity. Can you expand on this idea?

RH: Simply put: I like the idea of malleability, of transformation – in materials, processes, configurations and ideas.

EM: Your work over the years has moved from representation to pure abstraction. Can you tell us more about this change and why it happened?

RH: Well first of all let me say I don’t believe in the concept of pure abstraction! There is always representation, allusion and suggestion. At one time I used to make work that used to recognisable images to try to eke out ideas or expressions about particular thematic issues. At a certain point I wondered what would happen if I emptied out the symbols and tried to work without reference to essentially linguistic ideas. I soon discovered that this was a folly as the world follows you into the work anyway. This freed me to just be in my work without worrying about steering it. So in a sense there was no real rupture in how I worked; a shift of emphasis perhaps.

EM: Is there a grammar and syntax to how you work out your paintings? How do you find a balance in your work that is coherent?

RH: I think most creative endeavours (art, writing, music, film et al.) are ultimately determined, or resolved, by grappling with problems of structure – organising parts into coherent whole. This fundamentally formal problem is, as you note, one of finding balance. Each new work creates a different, and complex, set of conditions to respond to and of course with the flow of time one presumes we respond differently too.

EM: There is a three-dimensionality to your finished paintings. Do you feel your painting practice ever slips into object-making? Why do you make paintings and not sculpture?

RH: I’m completely in the world of object making! I’m very conscious of making an actual thing as opposed to merely an image or illusion. Over the years I’ve made a number of works that would be considered as sculpture and I prefer to be described as an ‘artist’ rather than as a ‘painter’, but the simple fact is that I enjoy the minimal directness of painting and drawing. It’s about desire.