Monday, 20 April 2020

Christopher Hanlon and Fiona Finnegan

A corner of the studio

SOTP: Well it’s nice to have a reason to get these painters’ interviews up and going again, and also the time to do so, given that we’re all in Covid-19 lockdown mode and working from home. Maybe you’re not finding it so difficult though, given that your house has been your studio in Belfast for some years now? You both studied in England- London and Brighton- but decided to settle back here. What were your paths towards studying painting, and being here now? Any reasons for this; and what about how you are finding things right now?

CH: Brighton and London were great places to study, but I decided in 2010 after a brief spell there that London was never going to be particularly conducive to producing work for me. At that time, I remember yearning for a slower paced lifestyle, so when Fiona found a house with enough room for studios in Belfast, we decided the best thing to do for both of our work was to move back.

We’ve been in this house for the past ten years, and it has been on the whole a very productive time for us. There are some interesting artists working in Belfast and I have met some great people here over the years, particularly through teaching at Belfast School of Art.

Right now, the pandemic is obviously awful for the human race which weighs heavy on all of us, but I’m finding the lockdown fine actually, and feel lucky for having a home studio to work in, as well as a garden to catch the sun.

The studio garden

FF: We moved to Belfast accidentally in 2003 after our chalet at the foot of the Mourne Mountains caught fire; we were looking for somewhere to live and a friend knew of a house that might be free in Ballyhackamore, so we ended up there for a spell. I wouldn’t describe myself as settled here, I go into town so rarely these days I feel like a tourist; it’s changed so much recently and is becoming as ubiquitous as any other city.

What I do love about living here is how the city is nestled into the hills, and the changing views of Cave Hill and Black Mountain as you navigate through town. I also love how quickly you can get from city to nature by bike. I read that Phillip Larkin, who once lived a few streets from us, loved to visit churches by bike during his time here, perhaps even inspiring the poem ‘Church Going’. I love the vision of him cycling through Queen’s in his tweed suit and thick rimmed glasses.

A corner of the studio

The studio floor

SOTP: What sort of influence has your studio set up had on your painting? Chris, I’ve at times associated your painting and imagery with a sort of domestic world, and Fiona, even although your work is by and large landscape associated, I think maybe your work also often has a feeling of the interior, or at the very least of ‘place', somehow?

CH: Yes, you’re right there’s definitely a sense of domesticity and interiority in some of my work; in fact my friend Sam Douglas, a landscape painter, pointed out only recently nearly all my works deal with interiors in some way, which I hadn’t really paid much heed to before.

Also, I suppose the scale and physicality is quite domestic, imposed in part by working in a relatively small studio. I think the mindset of working from home is different to the typical shared artists' studio, perhaps with a more in-built introversion, slower pace, less urgency, and a more exquisite sense of solitude.

I’ve always loved that image of Magritte working on an easel in his dinning room, which he put away in a cupboard after a session before dinner, and though I’m much messier than Magritte I do feel closer to that temperament in a way.

FF: I love working from home, I find it so much more productive, especially as I work in layers. I can prime or varnish in the morning and return and do another layer in the evening; as each layer builds up, it pushes the image further and further away before a final layer of varnish, which perhaps is what suggests that heavy, interior feel.

My studio is at the top of the house facing east, so I always see the full moon rise over the chimney tops; at the back of the house the sun sets over Black Mountain in the summer, and lately Venus and The Pleiades have been putting on quite the show. I love feeling connected to the cycles of the cosmos from indoors, it somehow makes it more magical and full of yearning, so I suppose that finds its way into the work. For me, the landscape simply serves to host the subject of the painting; I think of them more as dreamscapes, which is something you do indoors, inside.

The studio window

A corner of the studio

SOTP: Now I’m thinking about both your shows at Domo Baal gallery in London, which is the perfect setting for your paintings, given that the gallery is in an amazing old house near King’s Cross. How much does the feel of that gallery influence how you devise your paintings, or would you say your work is more influenced by your studio environment? Or do other factors come into play as well?

CH: When I’m working towards a show with Domo I find myself thinking, albeit subconsciously, where I might position certain paintings in the space, but on the whole I don’t let it dictate too much when I’m actually making the work, as I don’t want it to feel too contrived. Once I'm hanging the work however, I like how the space has required me to think unconventionally about where to place things and react to certain architectural features, unlike the more featureless ‘white cube’.

The work is usually born out of an organic and naturally evolving conversation with myself in the studio, and the chance encounters between images, ideas and influences circulating at that time. But my general surroundings always creep into the work I’ve noticed looking back, be it obliquely, or sometimes directly.  For example, my last body of work featured a lot of screens and room dividers, which I’m sure was in part informed by my time working in the University; all that utilitarian equipment lying about, objects so ubiquitous they’re overlooked.

FF: Most of the work for ‘The Frog Devoured The Sun’ at Domo Baal was already made before being offered the show; the space had always appealed to me, the bygone grandeur really suited the work and I love the history of the space.

I sometimes find it stifling to work towards anything concrete as I prefer the work to be more ambiguous than literal, as the paintings are mainly informed by my general feeling towards the world. I tend to work in a more internalised way, so I try not to let outside influences interfere too much, which is one of the reasons I tend not to take breaks between shows and continue to make work.

SOTP: I suppose the slant of this interview, and in fact the reason I wanted to get them up and going again, is that we are all in this weird space just now. Bloody awful for the entire human race and those that are really being hit by it; maybe better though for planet Earth, and oddly quite satisfying for us artists I think. I’m loving the slower pace of things, the routine of making art and reading at home. In fact everything could potentially change for the better on the other side of this. How are you dealing with lockdown painting?

CH: Self isolation is nothing new for any painter I’m sure; the reason most of us started making art in the first place is because it’s a solitary experience, a way of passing time alone. But in such an extreme situation like the pandemic we are all living through, the heightened and convoluted sense of time, and pensive atmosphere, naturally brings out an even more reflective tendency I think for everyone, which like you say, could hopefully change us for the better. I keep hearing people complaining of being bored due to the lockdown and I’m reminded of a line from John Berryman’s Dream Song 14, ‘Life Friends, is Boring’, where he quotes his mother scolding him for complaining of being bored:

…'Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,   
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   
as bad as achilles…

Paradoxically of course Berryman’s tendency to become indifferent and bored has resulted in this brilliant poem, so he clearly does have the inner resources afforded to reflect on this very affliction, but the simple point I’m making is that artists and creative people in general are so very lucky to have these resources available to them, to have an outlet if you like, and the potential to transform a negative situation into a potentially positive and illuminating one.

FF: Day-to-day, it actually has had very little impact on the way we live, as social seclusion comes quite naturally to both of us, but there is the oddest serenity in the air, eerily quiet and unsettlingly clam, which as an artist is only natural to feed off.

SOTP: What are you reading or watching just now? I’ve gotten into the habit of watching obscure YouTube films- I watched a David Hockney LA community tv interview done in his studio in the 80s the other morning. And you know how the internet leads you from one thing to another. So then I came across the art critic Peter Fuller’s son, Laurence Fuller, posting all kinds of interesting things online- so now I’m really intowatching Peter Fuller on YouTube at about eight in the morning! Are you discovering any gems, or reading or watching anything that this Covid-19 time has been the catalyst for?

CH: I’m always watching and reading very different things simultaneously. Not sure the pandemic has been the catalyst for this, but I have been re-reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. I love his multi-voiced persona which he termed ‘semiheteronyms’, very sensitively written,  fragmentary or diaristic; sardonic, and with an often witty tone. Again, Pessoa writes a lot about boredom, for example I love this quote:

“Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there's nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there's nothing worth doing. This means that the more there is to do, the more tedium one will feel."
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

There’s something relevant about our current crisis in there for sure! In addition to this I’ve been dipping into Magritte’s selected writings which are great, and Christopher D. Johnson’s ‘Memory, Metaphor and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images’ which is one of the most interesting I’ve read on the subject of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, as it focuses on the metaphoric thought processes involved in the organization of Warburg’s image panels.

FF: Chris introduced me to Leon Spilliaert about 20 years ago now, and I’ve been smitten ever since with his interior emotional landscapes and figures. I was hoping to get to see the show at the RA, its closed now but thankfully I have the book, and there is a video tour of the show on their website:

I always paint to music, recently I’ve been listening to the new album by Brian and Roger Eno, ‘Mixing Colours’; it’s the most perfect album to paint to and I’ve been delving into the Roger Eno back catalogue.

SOTP: So now I’ve been looking at some of your paintings again online. Chris, your ‘Tobacco’, 2017, is quite unusual within your generally figurative oeuvre. It’s one I’ve always loved amongst the many others. Then also your ‘Untitled’ from 2014, from your exhibition “Chamber” at Domo Baal. That was quite a big scale work for you- it was like the back of a sculpted head, very wavy and chiseled looking. Can you tell us a bit about those works?

Christopher Hanlon/ Tobacco/ 2017/ 
oil on linen stretched over board/ 54 x 39cm
courtesy the artist and Domo Baal, photography Andy Keate

CH: ‘Tobacco’ was actually born out of a bit of a mental block in the studio, as one summer day I quite lethargically put these coloured pages from some old books together to form a simple composition, and the colours put me in mind of tobacco, the packaging perhaps, which in turn was influenced by a previous piece I’d made depicting a diseased tobacco plant.

In the case of the ‘Untitled’ piece from 2014, the initial premise was to make a painting of a sculpture, a form of transubstantiation in a way, translating one substance with another, but I was also curious about both the abstract, and metaphoric potential of this. The head depicted is from a statue of the Greek goddess Diana, or Artemis, which in Latin is akin to dium (sky), and when making the painting I kept seeing the waves of hair as cloud formations or weather systems, a turbulence contained within a mute object.

Christopher Hanlon/ Untitled/ 2014/
oil on canvas/ 178 x 122cm
courtesy the artist and Domo Baal, photography Andy Keate

Regarding the stylistic or formal differences in the work, the genesis for each painting follows a different, sometimes flippant proposition or logic; for example, it can be as seemingly arbitrary as ‘this image of a plant gives me the perfect excuse to paint a bright yellow background’ or ‘is there any way of elevating a somewhat boring artifactual image of a jug?’ Or sometimes more literary angles: ‘this image seems to communicate or stand in for an aspect of this book I’m reading’ and so on, but in every instance there is a haphazard coalescence of ideas and images which have
been restlessly swimming around the orbit of my studio, memories, books I’m reading and so on, which sometimes come together in surprising or interesting ways. I’ve never been interested in cultivating an instantly recognizable style, but more interested in the poetic interstices between artistic ideologies and languages in the hope of avoiding explicit tropes, a certain non-hierarchical language which doesn’t paint me into a corner.

Christopher Hanlon/ Inside Out (diptych) / 2019/
oil on canvas stretched over board/ each 40 x 32cm
courtesy the artist and Domo Baal, photography Andy Keate

SOTP: And Fiona, your ‘How Vacantly You Gaze at Me’ from 2019, which is on show in “Penumbra” at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery just now (locked-down of course!)- this one perfectly fits with what I thought about your work earlier- the cloaked figure is ‘interiorised by the hood, and is also surrounded by foliage so looks doubly ‘enclosed’. How did that work come about?

Fiona Finnegan/ How vacantly you gaze at me/
2019/ oil on wood/ 80 x 58cm
courtesy the artist and Domo Baal, photography Andy Keate

And then there is ‘Pyramid’ from 2017, which was in your show “The Frog Devoured the Sun” at Domo Baal- and again, you see what I mean, there’s this pyramid structure which we know might contain passages and tombs, and it in turn is contained within the woods. Can you tell us how these two paintings came about?

FF: In ‘How Vacantly You Gaze at Me’, I loved the idea of playing with who is the ‘you’ in the title; it is not clear if the figure is facing or turning away from the viewer, either way there is an uncomfortable vacancy. The cloaked figure itself is symbolic, alluding to the grim reaper, patiently waiting… the title stems from a piece of music by
Harold Budd, ‘How Vacantly You Stare at Me’- most of my paintings’ titles come from lyrics or songs.

Fiona Finnegan/ Pyramid/ 2017/
oil on wood/ 50 x 40cm
courtesy the artist and Domo Baal, photography Andy Keate

With the painting ‘Pyramid’, the title stems from Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’, one of their most beautifully haunting songs, which describes what could be interpreted as a journey to the afterlife. The image itself plays with the sci-fi cliché of happening upon an extra terrestrial object in a forest, alluring and beckoning the viewer to ‘jump in’.

I’ve always liked the idea of paintings reflecting the gaze of the viewer, implicating them in the space of the painting somehow, which is compounded by the reflective surfaces, as though behind glass with a certain added luminosity and depth. It’s an aesthetic Iadore in early photography- Edward Steichen being a particular favourite.

SOTP: Any final thoughts on how your work is going to go over the next few weeks and months? Can you see any benefits to you as painters, or is it all feeing a bit unknown? I’m finding that a bit, but in other ways it seems to be giving me greater clarity and time to, well, not really get too worked up about the next bit of work. That’s why I’m enjoying getting these interviews going again!

CH: I agree, there is a strange feeling of freedom in such uncertain times, less pressure perhaps, I mean, who knows when any of us will show work again! Our work has to be our friend more than ever at the moment, we have to really enjoy being alone with it.

FF: Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:

When Isaac Newton stayed at home to avoid the 1665 plague, he discovered the laws of gravity, optics, and he invented calculus.”

With that in mind, I think I can manage to make a few paintings!

SOTP: Well, it just remains for me to say thanks for taking the time to do this, and being the first painters to help re-open the blog interviews. See you both back in the outside art world sometime soon!

Fiona Finnegan and Christopher Hanlon are both represented by Domo Baal gallery in London.

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