Graphic, historic and photographic sources as the foundation of an abstract practice.
We are welcomed by an onslaught of baby blues, pinks and yellows as we enter Chris Hawkes’ vibrant studio at Phoenix Art Space in Brighton. Colour becomes the foundation for each of their works, and a restricted palette poses a structure for the artist to respond spontaneously within. Combined with imagery sourced from their research into art history, personal photographs and breathed moments, the final free-flowing paintings provide indefinite conclusions to an initial set of restrictions. As these directed works loosely come together, they mirror the intricate bricolage of sampled images, overlaid with an illusory veil of translations and mistranslations. This is when the intention of painting comes to fruition for the artist, as they generate harmonic blendings between these multiple embedded elements. Unfolding their approach to creating ambiguous narratives within their work, the artist chooses to depict figures, objects and spaces that mirror their own queer identity rather than setting a rigid subject matter for each work. Revealing how “their life generates images for them”, they share that they engage with elements drawn from real conversations, encounters, and interactions within their lived experience. Collaging their lived materiality, Hawkes creates a manipulated reality that celebrates colours and embraces their most feminine self in an act of unapologetic rebellion.
Having completed residencies in Chongqing and Liverpool, in what ways have those diverse environments influenced your resulting work? How have these encounters contributed to strengthening your practice?
The combination of being somewhere new and having a deadline to create work was very energizing. Both cities affected my work in different ways and the paintings I made feel very connected to each city and time. The work I developed in Chongqing was very playful and loud, very much the result of exploring a new place, photographing everything around me and working with the images back to the studio. My time in Liverpool felt more reflective, stepping away from routine, processing things from my personal life and painting. It didn’t have what I call the ‘half-holiday’ feeling of working in a different country. Both cities have definitely influenced my practice, particularly by adding new elements to my work rather than changing my focus.
I hope it will, but due to quarantine it hasn’t felt that much like a social habitat. I only moved into my space here at the beginning of March so I’m yet to experience how the building normally runs.
I think up till midway through my 3rd year in Brighton, I had this hang up about making ‘serious’ paintings. In my mind that meant creating gritty and unaesthetic paintings. I really liked the work of Francis Bacon and Joan Mitchell, made up of big and expressive paintings that had a very serious, Modernist feel to them. In my painting series ‘3.1’, I was working from photos taken in my mother’s veterinary practice. This is when I first started to get hold of new elements to build onto my paintings, as before then, I only added these from memory. One of my tutors mentioned that the subject matter wasn’t really needed, it puzzled me for a while but slowly I just incorporated components from my life instead of deciding a subject to look at. From there, the work became less pre-set but much freer as I became more confident in merging multiple sets of imagery with my own life experiences in my paintings.
When working, what comes first, the need to paint, an aesthetic vision in mind or an idea to convey?
I suppose it’s a mixture of the need to paint (or at least to be working on a creative project) and a loose aesthetic vision. Usually, once I‘ve finished a series of paintings I’ll feel a little lost in the studio for a few days, do some of the admin work I’ve neglected, then start flicking through preliminary ideas in my mind. This could be a set of images or a colour palette; I like to have a solid starting point for a series of paintings but not a fixed idea of the final result.
As you expressed in our studio visit, colour plays a crucial role in the direction of your work. Do you start a painting with a predetermined palette in mind? If so, where do you draw your tonalities from?
I usually have a starting palette; this helps to group different works together. From there, I’ll add additional colours as I respond to the paintings. The starting colour tones can come from anywhere really. For my degree show, the colours were taken from Sobranie Cocktail Cigarettes, partly because I was drawn to the colours and these were something I’d buy from time to time and partly because I was interested in overly gendered products. The starting palette for my last series was taken from drapery in Baroque paintings and for the series before, the colours were chosen to create a specific tone for the work.
Following the precise tracing of photographic and historical sources, these drawings are projected onto canvases before being abstractly painted. Does this methodical approach carry a ritualistic significance?
I hadn’t really thought about it like that before, but yes. I want the end results to look like sampled images, whether they are or not. The process allows me to translate and mistranslate images into something that fits into one of the visual languages I use. It also allows me to filter out any images that may not really work within a painting for any reason. This way of working allows me to “pre-make” most of the potential elements of a painting, similarly to having a starting palette. Then, the painting process becomes more about collaging these elements together.
Disguising the surface by building up layers, does each overlapping application of paint have a conceptual, personal or somatic importance to you? How has this process evolved over time and when do you decide it’s time to finish adding coats?
Definitely personal, but to different degrees. I don’t think my paintings are planned enough to be conceptual and I never start out with a message that I want the paintings to convey. My work explores different themes and there are ideas moving behind and within the imagery and painting process, but the most important thing for me is that a painting works. I see my paintings as more abstract than figurative; they have to function as images. I think of the connotations that the images within the painting represent more like poetry. There’s no story or narrative but these images connect the paintings to something definable in the outside world. I’ll often start with an idea of which images I want to combine in a painting but end up using different ones. People sometimes ask me if I made sketches for my paintings but if I did, I’m almost sure I’d never end up painting them. It’s the process, the phase of working things out that’s most interesting to me. A painting is finished when it looks finished, you can just kinda tell. Each element hangs properly, the movement is right.
While your Instagram bio reveals your “queer, non-binary and offensively pastel” nature, your website describes your work as being “highly feminine yet unapologetic, as an act of rebellion against the machismo of painting”. How does the gender fluidity, popping chromaticity and queer sexuality of your identity respond to traditional tropes of masculinity and femininity in your work?
There’s definitely an idea in European and American culture that the artificial, the colourful or camp (basically anything seen as feminine) isn’t serious or is ‘lesser’. David Batchelor looks at this connection in his book Chromophobia, and for me this draws a parallel with my own experience of moving through the world as a person who rejects a binary view of gender. I try to ignore traditional gender roles, subvert them maybe. It’s an odd combination of both being highly aware of visual gender queues, while also spending most of my social life around people that reject traditional ideas of gender and naturally this influences my work. I see my paintings as feminine but not traditionally so, they don’t demure or connect femininity with being female or a woman. It’s the unapologetic expression of non-traditional ideas of gender, the celebration of colour and lack of shame towards my own more feminine taste that I see as rebellious.
Although hand painted, your works have a strong graphic presence. Are you fond of new media art at all, or are you more concerned in raising a conversation between the traditional art form of painting and the visual production of the digital age?
Definitely the latter. New media art is amazing, and I’m interested in it as a part of the visual landscape. But it’s making art in the physical world that really interests me. We all live in an increasingly digital age, so it would be odd not to use imagery and references to that. Instagram, photoshop and selfies are as much part of our imagery as advertising and consumerism was for the Post-Modern era. It just doesn’t make sense to paint as if it wasn’t there or as if it was too lowbrow to be allowed to be part of contemporary painting.
Having spotted various art books in your studio, do you exclusively source figures from Old Masters paintings as visual studies or are you endeavouring to translate those renowned images into a modern context? Is this a manner of reinterpreting history?
Most of my figures are sourced from photographs from my own life, it’s only recently that I started lifting figures from Old Master paintings. The paintings that you saw in my studio when you visited were mostly being used as studies. I’ll study the paintings, looking for different visual references I want to add to my own work. It’s more about learning or understanding the making of the image and recognizing the visual styles rather than reinterpretation. With the Baroque paintings I’ve been using to make this series, I’m looking at the application of chiaroscuro on a figure and how drapery was used to add splashes of colour, almost like abstract marks or shapes to guide the eye or create movement. I’ve also always loved Classical myths so wanted to take another look at depictions of those. Alongside looking at Old Master paintings, I’ve also been watching or rewatching Baroque influenced films like Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and the 1951 The Tales of Hoffman.
As part of your ‘L.19’ series’ developed in Liverpool, one work titled ‘1.7’ has a calligraphic quality, reinforced through your fluid gestures. Did you use the trace and transfer method with this piece or was it an intuitive hand stroke? Does this action link to the tradition of signing as a nod to the legacy of an artist?
I used the trace and transfer method for that. I remember reading how Johnathon Lasker’s giant doodle elements actually start out as small-scale doodles which are then meticulously copied on a far larger scale in his paintings. The gestures on that painting were taken from two different scribble drawings I made on an iPhone. But with them painted in black, they look more like a nod to calligraphy as you said. I do want to start experimenting with sign writing techniques though, there’s something that I love about copying digital imagery by hand and if I do decide to incorporate text into my work; which I’m always on the fence about; the font and style used would have to be just as much a reference as the words. There is something very non- ambiguous about text that puts me off the idea of using it in my work. People seem to view it as more important than other elements.
In adopting a restrictive approach to painting, does this method mirror the limitations imposed by societal constraints on your personal expression? Does creating art offer you a freedom from this perceived restraint?
Definitely, there’s less that has to be compromised on within painting as self-expression than in dressing or acting. I don’t paint negative things in my work really, at least I don’t see my paintings as about an “issue”. I like to make things without having to decide exactly what I’m looking at or with a conclusion I want the viewer to take away. The spaces and people that I draw from in my works are mostly those I’ve chosen and that reflects my own identity more than if I took the subject matter from somewhere outside of my own life. Of course, there are exceptions, like with the paintings I made during quarantine where the figures were taken from other paintings. But still, these are things I have chosen, which I’m interested in. There’s also a connection between the way I paint now and the way I put together a drag or clubbing lewk. I think that was an important point in my practice, to say I don’t have to decide what my work is about before I start creating. There are different things I want to explore, what’s important is that by the end I’ve made something that is visually captivating and interesting at the same time.
Are there any figures, objects or references in your work that hold personal, or even symbolic meanings to you? Have you ever encrypted a secret message for a family member, friend or lover on any of your paintings? Do these historical allusions reveal clues to any autobiographical moments?
Somethings start with a personal connection, but this usually dissipates as the paintings develop. There are images of objects that belong to myself or people close to me, dates stamped over and over to create a pattern. I use these more as starting points or sometimes jokes or references just for myself. I don’t want to create narratives, at least not very clear ones. I think people can always tell if there’s a reason, a process or system within an artwork. You don’t need to understand it completely for it to make the work more engaging. The titles are often more expressive of what the paintings are ‘about’ as I think of these after the works are finished and I have figured out what I was working out or actually looking at.
Since many of your compositions depict moments with close ones, was it difficult for you to find motivation to paint during lockdown, especially when you weren’t able to make physical contact with any of them? Did this peculiar circumstance push you to instigate a new subject matter?
There was a lack of subject matter at first. Most of my ideas come from life and conversations with friends and other creatives so that lack of social events and sharing of ideas made me feel a little lost at first. I think this is also why I really turned to art history for a starting point, I started making art that reflected what I was looking at, watching and reading. I don’t know how new the subject matter was, there’s nothing from a new subject I only found due to lockdown but the decision to include elements lifted from another artwork is new. There was the realisation that if I wanted new figures in my paintings, I had to borrow them, as my life wasn’t generating images for me.
Considering that your practice is strongly related to your queer and non-binary identity, how does this awareness infiltrate your decision-making? Are the gender ambiguous figures and their raised compositions in your work a step to elevate our cultures’ understanding of queerness?
I made the conscious decision to include my identity in my practice in my last year of uni. And I think it’s important to declare that I’m queer and non-binary both for visibility and so that people know where I’m coming from when gender or sexuality appear as themes in my work. It gives greater context to my practice. The idea that my work makes steps to elevate our culture’s understanding of queerness I find problematic. It assumes that is made with a non-queer audience in mind, then we start to get involved with ideas of the straight gaze. This is properly something I need to think about more to be honest. I don’t want the paintings to allow the viewer to look down on a scene, so the raised figures and their directness help this. I include the people that I’m around in my work, and usually the way I represent them is influenced by the slight glamorisation that’s now the normal way of presenting oneself on social media and was also rife at the time of pre-modernist portraiture.
I think I’d like to include more detailed figurative elements as well as learn different techniques to be able to reference a greater number of painterly languages. But I don’t see the relationship between figure and ground changing much in my work, at least not at the moment, so I guess the paintings as whole pieces won’t become any more naturalistic or traditional. I’m hoping that returning to a classroom/studio environment will give me more time to experiment and hopefully, having a new group of artists around me will help to generate ideas that maybe wouldn’t have come to me if working alone. I feel that having left university three years ago, my practice has continued on the same thread. I’m not unhappy with how it is at the moment, but feel like playing with other possible paths will be beneficial and fun.
Alongside your paintings, would you consider experimenting with alternative contexts, mediums or motifs in the future?
I’d like to. Last year I made a wallpaper design for an exhibition which got me thinking about experimenting with installations. The idea of people being able to move through a painting really interests me and there’s something about 2D theatre sets that I’d love to incorporate into a kind of extended painting / installation. I also have an interest in pattern design, I’d like to work more with wallpaper and maybe take this into fabric design. I’ve also been talking with a friend about collaborating on some super short video pieces but it has been put on hold.
Where would you like to undertake a residency next? Do you think an unfamiliar environment will have an impact on your work?
I’m not sure at the moment, I was looking at residencies in Berlin and Lisbon and I’d really like to go back to China. I think any change of scene is going to change someone’s art practice, it allows you to notice things that seem new to you and release things that in comparison are odd about where you are used to living. The whole aesthetic of a different place throws up new combinations of images or colour palettes that you might not see in the spaces you normally inhabit.
Words by Vanessa Murrell