Finding form through repetition.
There is repetition throughout daily actions; the sun rises and falls whilst artist Jo Hummel’s shifting forms continue to rearrange themselves in acts of spontaneity and intuition. Fluctuating paintings in nature, where scissors replace brushstroke and line, her works reflect on the human condition itself: structures, cycles, calendar events, festivals, rituals… Hummel commands a parallel between the certain and uncertain, whilst rooting her creative process in the modular systems of symmetry, chaotic behaviour and safety in repetition. An obsessive collector of materials in her youth, the artist reveals the emotionally charged nature of paper as a medium, using it in her artworks to fortify fewer highbrow associations than other materials. Oscillating between finding metaphors in landscape and exposing the ‘power poses’ her mind desires, Hummel’s practice finds a consistency that reflects the breaking of waves or the erosion of rock. I hopped on the train and ferry to visit the artist in her studio on the Isle of Wight early this summer, where we drove through the houseboats in Pembridge Harbour and talked about the artist’s editing process, removal of authorship and use of structure to encourage growth.
Originally born in Surrey, you moved to the Isle of Wight as a child, when your parents got divorced. At the time, the Island suffered a serious landslide due to the cliffs being made up of weak sedimentary rock. Due to this parallel in personal and global damage, have you always associated emotion to landscape?
I guess you could call it a critical moment in my self awareness. My six year old mind fused the unstable landscape to my then, unstable emotional state. After then, it became a habit to seek out metaphors and comfort from landscape. Which in turn means that I find the city overwhelming. Although I studied and lived in London I couldn’t settle without the horizon, it just didn’t feel like a real place to me. I used to cycle a lot down to the thames barrier.
After your MA, you have worked as a curator, tutor, consultant, lecturer, and initiated an artist studio project space in a Chapel for numerous years before deciding to implement your full time towards your practice five years ago. To what extents do these accumulations of past work experiences within the arts inform your practice?
Working in a gallery and running an artist studio taught me a great deal about the practicalities of being a self-employed artist. You need a multitude of skills, from predicting other’s needs to writing, marketing, curating and installation, using tools, understanding materials, transport, finance and budgeting and of course people skills. I was a painfully shy young adult so it forced me to be more confident, I had to introduce speakers, chair discussions, open exhibitions and work alongside some strong characters. I also gained an objective understanding of the arts rather than what was previously a subjective one. However, when I’m making the work my mind is in another place, I switch to something entirely opposite and unburdened of such practicalities.
I believe that animation brought you into drawing which then expanded into collage- making and painting. Can you go through this cycle of medium exploration in which the digital has led you towards the analogue?
My natural instinct is to edit. I was told off once at university for cutting up some location drawings and rearranging them. There is something brutal and liberating about this taking away process. So I quickly immersed myself into digital media, photoshop, after effects, film making. It was a creative process which made sense. I would collect sound and go back to the studio, draw and collage my emotional response to the playback, and then create cell animation which consists of hundreds and hundreds of individual works on paper cell. At the time it felt like painting but with time and sound added as another material. This was definitely a transformative period when I moved from figurative to abstract.
Having trained in digital media, specialising in animation, do you consider your painting process as ‘editing’? How much does this process of selection help towards the removal of your own anxieties?
Yes, I use the term ‘editing’ a lot to describe my process. The joy of working in digital is that you can always undo an action. In terms of reducing creative anxiety this is highly effective. I naturally carried this tool over to my analogue work by continuing to collage and create work which is in constant flux until you make a final decision and commit to a finished piece. I also paint my paper sheets front and back so I can flip and choose colour variations when I’m arranging a work. It is an odd idiosyncratic way to work if you compare it to traditional painting. I was always frustrated with painting, waiting for paint to dry so you could apply the next layer, constantly mixing colours and also, I have an affinity with a hard edge, and so out of frustration my practice developed into something more soothing and fluid.
From initially using throwaway material such as found paper in your early works to your current use of thick watercolour paper… When and why did you decide to limit down your medium to paper? In that sense, is there no waste with your choice of material and does that return back to the idea of using the ‘found’?
I used to collect ephemera such as vintage print and layout, aged wallpaper, maps, book jackets, paper bags etc… It’s an impulse since scrap booking as a kid, peeling off holiday wine bottle labels, bus tickets, that sort of thing. Paper has always resonated as an emotionally charged, everyday material. I also find its fewer highbrow associations such as it being used for mass production of images and preliminary works appealing as a material choice. My progression into using watercolour paper was purely chance. I won 100 sheets of St Cuthberts Mill watercolour paper for a painting prize. I was able to take risks without fear of cost and learnt that watercolour paper allowed me to work bigger and with heavier opaque paint. Even though I’ve moved on from working on found material the language developed in those initial years continues through to today. Repurposing and use of the found is a very important aspect of my working methods. The instinct to do so is what has led me to collage rather than paint. It would be easy to regard this part of my practice as purely physical but the routes are purposefully social and anthropological. The phenomenological study in the destroying, rearranging, sorting, editing and choosing is what drives my practice.
Your process of placing and moving the paper on the floor is reminiscent to that of planting seeds or placing pebbles or ancient stones… do you believe there is an innate drive from humans to create order? Do you try to disrupt that order through more intuitive actions?
Yes absolutely. There is something instinctual in all humans to separate objects, line them up, plant in rows and create order. We even inflict this impulse on social design, you see it in classrooms. I’ve described my practice as phenomenological. It’s a matter of being present during your own decision process and either allowing or restraining the impulse for both order and chaos. This is a rich area of thought for a lot of artists. My practice is a place where I can simulate chaos and experience it safely. In the past I’ve mentioned human cycles, calendar events, festivals, rituals etc as areas of interest. It’s in our nature to create order but also to react against it and embrace disorder.
Once the works are finished, there are still decisions to be made, such as making them a plywood base, adding a book-binders glue to stick the work to the base, flattening the work with a heat press or using resin lacquer to cover it. Are you quite precious about the finish of your pieces?
I have very specific requirements for the finish of the work. I’ve been developing my work for years so it can be displayed without glass. And I’m using processes and techniques which I’ve had to invent as I couldn’t find others doing it, or at least not sharing how they do it. I’m very particular about the fragility and texture of the paper being exposed. There are often raw edges on show and accidental marks, I like to force something crude and make it beautiful and elevated.
Control sits alongside intuition in your works. However, other dualities invade your practice such as the impression of strength in works that are ephemeral in their nature. With these dualities, are you fighting against human’s instinct of repetition? How does that link in with ideas of authorship and your removal of it?
My works are created using a building language or process. There is a material, there are tools to manipulate the material, there are joins and junctions where the separate physical components make up the piece. I will rearrange the separate elements hundreds of times whilst trying to arrive at a work which is both intuitive and designed. The repetition is in the daily action, as well as the systems I create for making the work. Repetition for me is a safe arena to explore intuition and spontaneity. I wouldn’t say I’m fighting against this repetitive instinct, I’d say I’m utilising it as a tool for experimentation, so Intuition can co exist alongside rational procedures. My recent works are describing both strength and certainty, alongside the illusion of safety and uncertainty. As I develop the series I keep hearing the words ‘power pose’ in my mind. The works are power symbols. I am creating what I need to see. This is where creative practice gives me insight into my own psychology and presents details which I didn’t consciously intend but can learn from. It is the important conversation between the conscious the subconscious taking place.
Although you work with collage and assemblage, do you consider the works as paintings?
Yes, I describe the works as paintings. They are paint on paper. I create line and form with scissors rather than a brush.
From a recent correspondence course at Turps, you developed new works composed of sheets of raw paper that overlay each other. The works are very sculptural in their approach however at the same time feel quite flat and graphic, is this contrast intentional? What about your playful revealing/unrevealing of the amount of material used?
The works you’re referring to are a series titled ‘Stacks’ . I pinned the layers of paper to the gallery wall using a single copper nail. Here you see gravity controlling the language of the piece as the paper sheets hang from the nail. All the interest is behind the first layer which if you peel it away, or view from the side, reveals the countless other layers of colours and shapes. It’s a narrative continuous to my practice, one that is of hidden systems, hidden activity and hazardous fragility.
Not only with these recent works but with your overall practice, there seems to be a functional/modular language, where the works are either in constant flux or seem to reveal the process to the viewer?
I look to the world around me for solutions in making work. Modular systems, pattern, repeating motifs, symmetry, repetition, are all borrowed from industry, human habits or landscape. And at the same time I question the importance of such and what they can tell us about the human condition. We find symmetrical patterns pleasing because they are resonate of a mothers face. The motif of the circle is the sun, the moon and a mother’s pupil. Repetition and cyclic behaviour is that of planting and harvesting, it’s the building structures for survival or its day and night. I’m always searching for an understanding of why people behave the way they do, I like to peel everything away until your left with human instinct. For me, the works I make, reveal something to me about the human mind and the human condition. Perhaps there is a constant sense of flux because I believe the creative process itself is as significant as the final outcome, in which case the enquiry is ongoing.
From using kitsch colors in the past to your current use of pastel and block colors, is your choice of color informed by your surroundings?
Very much so. I am immediately surrounded by colourful house boats, man made beach paraphernalia such as kiosks and deckchairs and huge salmon pink, blue and grey pastel skies, as well as the colourful backdrop of the sea. All of which is overly romantic but who cares, I love colour, I’m drawn to it. After my father’s death I suddenly had the urge to surround myself with colour, like a giant safe colourful nest. At the time my emotional state was changeable on a daily basis and I sought comfort in certain colours depending on what I felt I needed. I recently read an autobiography by Viv Albertine, lead singer of the Slits, and she describes obsessively needing the colour purple to get her through a difficult period.
The Isle of Wight is just about close enough to London to engage with visiting shows and social encounters and just about far away from central to concentrate in the studio practice. How important is it to your process to be displaced/isolated from social distractions? Is there a community of artists’ living/working over there that you relate to?
I lived in London for 6 years before deciding to return to the coast. It was a difficult decision to make and for a period it felt like I was doing something wrong. But my instinct to protect myself from the distractions of London and to create an affordable and sustainable studio took over any feelings of guilt for leaving. Now I feel I have the right balance of living and working in a place which fills me with energy and ideas and I’m connected to individuals, galleries and events in London which is 2 hours away if I need to go. These days, my working week consists of communicating with people all over the world, not just London. My work connects me to people regardless of geography or location. However shipping work on and off an island requires a bit of extra planning. Yes there is a large community of busy contemporary artists living and working here, as well as photographers, designers, musicians…
‘Sunrise’ and ‘Echo’ are the titles of recent prints, which accurately are actions that repeat themselves in accordance to the mechanical process of actually printing these. Does your use of titles relate to the process or narratives explored in the works?
The concept of the screen print had to make sense in terms of reproducing in image. So the concept of the print as an object was considered. I looked to the outside world for instruction on how to solve this problem of creating an edition. The sunrise was my first area of interest as the daily rising of the sun is the most obvious repeated natural cycle.
The theme of ‘repetition’ is one that you are exploring in an upcoming group exhibition. Can you tell us more about this show and what else do you have in the pipeline?
Over the past year I have been meeting with artists Sara Dare and Tom Wilmott to discuss and develop new works around the theme of repetition, with the intention of a group show either at the end of 2019, or early 2020. Alongside this I’ve been developing pieces for 2 solo exhibitions opening this autumn at And Gallery in Edinburgh and Nordic Art Agency in Malmo. I’ve had an enormous amount of good studio flow combined with the Turps Banana correspondence course writing and feel that after the two shows coming up I need to gather everything and consider where I go next. Something playing heavily on my mind is the concept of a practice which can be both routed in material engagement and yet also be socially aware. I want to better explore this.
Words by Vanessa Murrell