In The Studio is a new series of occasional interviews with artists talking about their studio processes and the things that motivate, frustrate and inspire them. To launch the In The Studio series, and marking one year of theglazelondon, I spoke to artist Paul Hallahan about his studio routines, juggling a wide range of interests, and the eternal joys and agonies of working with paint.
Excavation Beyond Use or Repercussion (series), acrylic on canvas, 260cm x 160cm, 2016
Robbie O’Halloran – What media are you using at the moment in your painting?
Paul Hallahan – I have found in the past number of years that I have been really interested in using water as an element in my work, and this obviously has led me to use watercolour paint and then other water based paints and inks. I was interested in using less toxic materials if I could, so water based materials were my first stop.
Paper was what I painted on first, I wanted to see where I could take it and I was fascinated at how fast I could work on paper. Having studied animation before Visual Art, we would draw and draw and never think of materials or end results as sacred. I needed to get back to this pace as I was finding I had hit a wall with the way I was working. I like hot pressed paper also as it doesn’t draw attention to itself as a material and allows the image to work as just an image.
After a year I moved onto some video work with paint in mind and the use of inks, this eventually led me to using inks on canvas (cotton and linen) and I have been really into this for the past 9 months and I like what I can try with it image wise and how the end result looks in real life. Documentation doesn’t show the textures of the canvas, which I feel is big part of the work.
ROH – Can you describe the process involved in making the large paintings?
PH – This changes with each painting. I had hoped to somewhat get a system in place but I just don’t have the patience for that, and I love to risk the work as I am working on it. With the process changing every time, I leave the studio every night after working on something not knowing how it will dry, if the ink will wick through the canvas a certain way or not. I like this as it means I have to then tackle something new everyday, and the material is leading me in some way and I am always fighting and using it.
Aimlessly Pretty (series), watercolour on paper, 36cm x 29cm, 2016
ROH – What informs your colour choices and your decisions about what scale the work should be?
PH – Scale is an interesting element to me. I have worked variously on tiny works and large works throughout my career and sometimes without thinking about it, but it is always a factor in my work. I had an idea in my head when I was working a lot in video that I wanted the work to be projected as large as it could be, it was fascinating that a file so small, or in reality non existent, could with some technology be presented so large.
I had no idea what scale I could work on with these new large paintings, but the rug in my studio looked good and I thought, well someone had to work out the scale for that and design it, and more than likely thought about human scale while doing it. So I used that sensibility as my guide and that was the size I used. I like to use what’s around me to inform me. The smaller canvases are mostly the same size, 30cm X 25cm. For some reason I just love this size. It seems perfect.
Colour is a tricky one for me. I always want to be less colourful but I always end up fascinated by it and this leads to the works becoming more and more colourful. Someday I will get to the more subdued colours, but for now I’ll follow this path until I run out of options.
Aimlessly Pretty (series), watercolour on paper, 36cm x 29cm, 2016
ROH – Do you work in silence?
PH – No I love to turn music up loud. It loosens me up and allows me to just run with things. The style of music I listen to changes all the time; from hip-hop to minimal composition to folk and heavy techno. It all has its place for me. Music is the most important thing for me, I can go weeks without seeing art and I am ok with that, but even one day without music and it sends me a little crazy. Some days I listen to music from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, and with my day job I can listen all day as I work on a computer.
ROH – How long do you spend on a piece?
PH – This varies so much that there is no rule really. Some works can be years in the making. Maybe I just couldn’t go any further with something and so I put it away and arrive back at it years later to just add something small. Also, a work might have made no sense to me at the time of making it, but years later it does. This happens a lot with the sculptures I make especially, and I have looked back to other works with this in mind recently. A work I never got to show, be it a painting or a video, now becomes material for a new work. I can cut it up, destroy it and see where it goes.
For paintings, the large ones take a number of weeks normally, and I am always painting watercolours, so they take between 2 minutes and 2 hours to produce. Again, there are no rules to this, but I do work fast. It can just take years for them to eventually be shown, or for me to be happy I want to show them.
ROH – Do you work on multiple pieces in the same period?
PH – All the time. I need to do that in order to work. I need to get to a place where my brain is humming in a way, frantic. This allows me to think fast and without fear. I love the act of making, and being in that flurry of making feels good for me. I can typically have 10 works on the go in one evening while planning new ideas in my head.
ROH – Do you have a vision of what you want to achieve when you start a painting?
PH – Not really. I do have an idea of the group I am working on. These are usually connected by scale and an underlying idea of what I am thinking about. I do like bringing works into the world that are more spontaneous, and this way of working can sometimes supersede a more planned concept.
Aimlessly Pretty (series), watercolour on paper, 36cm x 29cm, 2016
ROH – Is there anything you will not accept in your painting at any stage when you are making one?
PH – I try not to make paintings of people. I just think there’s enough of that in the world and it’s narrative based when human forms are in an image. I don’t want that for my works. The viewer is more important than any story or idea I can portray. To me It’s like looking at trees. Art is the same; It just is.
ROH – Do you have any content in mind when you are making a painting; specific references for example?
PH – I have tried this, but it just doesn’t work for me. It comes back to the narrative thing. I just want to stay away from it. I want to get lost in making the work in the hope that the viewer gets lost in looking at and engaging with it like I do. My opinions and ideas of the world around me affect the work, but to list them would not help the work. The same can be said about artists whose work I like. Some of their influence can be seen in my work but I’m not sure I need to mention them.
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul – HD video, 2012 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjtlxzwGN-E
ROH – Is there a relationship between your paintings, drawings and video or other work?
PH – They are all completely connected and inform each other. I also work in sound but have not exhibited this work yet. Because I am interested in so many things I could never see how they linked, but as time went on certain things came up again and again. I have come to terms with the fact that all the work will have a relationship in some way whether that is planned or not.
Paper thin walls, HD video, 2015 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U78INvxe5ow
ROH – How does your video work fit into your overall body of work to date, and do you plan to make more video pieces if the future?
PH – Video is something I have always been interested in. Who can’t be, living in the world today? Early on I wanted to work in video, and I studied animation so that I could get into filmmaking. I had the idea that if I learnt how animation worked, then that would give me a greater understanding of how film worked. It would give me an in-depth knowledge of composition and storytelling. Video for me can have so much weight in an exhibition setting. The trouble is that that’s where it ends, and it is unable to live by itself without technology, unlike a still image. This limitation worried me and is why I went back to painting and sculpture.
I’ll always make video, and I am planning some new works at the moment to be made in the coming months. I would like to present those alongside the large paintings sometime.
The artist’s studio, Temple Bar, Dublin, 2016
ROH – What are your thoughts on comparisons being made between what you produce and what other artists are doing or have done? I am thinking about the possible comparisons between your current paintings and colour field painting.
PH – This can be annoying, depending on my mood or if it is something I haven’t already spotted (I am ok with it if I am aware of the connection). But I do know all work is going to fall somewhere within a range, and that there’s a good chance it will look like someone else’s work. I try to work through this in the hope that it will go somewhere new. I can see the link between the big paintings I am producing at the moment and colour field painting. But I still think that how they are shown is a factor, and that as they are now, in isolation, yes they can look like something from the past. In the flesh they are very loose weave canvas, which makes them nearly see-through, so they are different in person than in reproduction.
Fanfare – plaster, clay, acrylic paint, 22cm x 15cm, 2016
ROH – Are there artists you think about a lot?
PH – There are artists I like and I do try to see their work when I can. But it’s like music for me; I am always on the hunt for what I don’t know, and that involves looking at artists who are working now, artists from the recent past and further back. It has taken me a number of years to flatten the trajectory of art history in my mind, and to try to think of all artworks as being made in the same mind-set as they are today. I don’t think we’ve come very far. We are the same as we were 1000 years ago. We just like to tell ourselves we have come a long way. This way of thinking has helped me to look at what are seen as artefacts and to reimagine these objects as works of art as relevant as something which was made just yesterday.
ROH – Have you learned any memorable lessons as an artist in recent years?
PH – Art is a long game. There are no short cuts. There have only ever been a handful of artists whose work actually took off while they were young. Spending huge amounts of time on your own in the studio has to be good for you. It has to be somewhere you want to be above anything else; not a struggle but somewhat enjoyable, free or even fun. The payoff first and foremost to making art is just that; making art. This is why you try everything else to allow you do this; applying for funding, working in different jobs, curating.
I am very thankful to be an artist. It can be hard at times but I am happy. I question everything, all day everyday. It’s great.
ROH – You worked with Martin Creed for a period. What was this experience like?
PH – Yes, he asked me to work with him on some live stuff. I had brought him to Dublin to play at a space I was curating a few shows for. It worked out great and he asked the year after if I would work for him. It was great to see someone with such a good career just work so hard and have a solid love of art above anything else. It lead me to re-think my working on curated projects and focus on my own art, which I did. I’m really happy that working for him let me see what can be done and how free you can think. I had been curating as a way to be in the artworld as I thought I could do both; be a curator and an artist. This is impossible, and I had to ask myself which was the most important. It was an easy decision, one I am very happy I made.
ROH – You have curated a lot in the past. What is your relationship with this nowadays?
PH – I have stayed away from it, as I need to rid myself of the curator. It’s too hard to be seen as both and I wanted to be an artist not a curator. I get to do enough organising and projects in my day job so that fulfils my logic brain. Art is my freedom. I will curate again, but not in a hurry and if so it has to be something entirely on my terms and for the right reasons.
ROH – Do you try to change your work, either rapidly or gradually, or do you go with the flow?
PH – All of the above. I do chase lines of thought and try to get as much as I can out of an avenue I am working on. It’s like mining. I am looking for seams and I need to have many different approaches to get the most out of a seam.
I change my studio around every two months. I am a person who loves routine. It allows me not to waste time thinking about what to eat, how to get to the studio, how to get home. I try to make all of these things the same everyday and then I won’t waste energy, so I have as much as I can for the studio or for day dreaming. Changing this routine every month slightly has huge effects on my work. But I have eaten the same lunch and dinner for a year now. It works for me.
Artist Paul Hallahan in his Dublin studio, 2016