London based artist Tom Howse recently sat down with art historian, writer and curator Hector Campbell to discuss his interest in prehistoric plant species, his life-sized paintings, his affinity for folk art and outsider art, and his current solo exhibition ‘Moonwort Gorge Replica’ at Lychee One in London Fields, which runs until May 6th.
H.C: An abundance of nature is regularly evident in your paintings, with plants, flowers, shrubs and trees populating both exterior and interior settings. To what extent are these floral forms factual representations? Do you ever refer to botanical textbooks or reference material as source material for your works?
T.H: The plants in my paintings are a concoction of real and imagined species. It’s hard to invent a new plant form, colour combination or leaf shape which doesn’t already exist in one way or another in nature, so I often mix and match elements from different types of plant to create new hybridised forms. There are species I paint that are more noticeably fictional, and they sometimes exist within the painting simply as a way to indulge myself within a painterly language of colour and marks. An important feature is the form and character of the plants – in particular, the bigger plants or trees which are more sculptural – I always pay close attention to the shape and feeling of their form, the weight of the branches, the character of their lines, even just how one branch connects to another.
On the other side of things, when I do copy a specific plant from life or source material it can charge the image with that weirdness of reality, especially when they are surrounded by potentially a lot of nonsense. It’s similar to the notion of the uncanny valley, when something simultaneously looks too real, but not real enough, and makes the viewer feel weird just looking at it.
A particular aspect of the plants in my work is the use of prehistoric species, these old plants which evolved way before any flowering plants, they are so visually alien and in my mind provoke ideas surrounding our evolution. I like to consider the origins of existence and ontology, thinking about the primordial earth in which life began and imagining this ancient prehistoric earth with steaming bogs and volcanic landscapes, I find it all very rich and exciting.
H.C: You’ve spoken before about the prominent role that drawing plays within your practice, either as a direct precursor to your paintings or as a source of individual features that can then be collaged together into large compositions. How closely do your paintings stay true to these initial sketches? And are there particular elements you find yourself most often altering during the painting process?
T.H: Drawing is an area of my practice where I formulate ideas from the incoherent noise in the back of my head into more understandable and usable information. It’s never going to be a waste of time doing crap drawings because it always helps your brain to figure stuff out.
Even drawings that don’t resemble finished paintings are still loaded with thoughts or feelings, often in a more rogue and intangible format, and they hold an incomprehensibility and unrefined quality that I want in my paintings. The neat, logical part of my brain naturally wants to bring order and completeness to an image, and by referring to the drawings it reminds me that, more often than not, the over-refining process can ruin the mystery and complexity of the image. It’s a balancing act between order and chaos, and I need both those parts of my brain to be satisfied with a painting.
H.C: For the past few years, you have repeatedly painted on a large, almost life-sized, scale, producing works frequently in either 200 x 150cm or 350 x 220cm formats. What draws you to operate on such an imposing scale? Do you think that the life-sized proportions of the paintings affect the viewers’ response to the works?
T.H: I believe scale has a big effect when viewing the work, when I look at my larger scale work it definitely helps me to engage with the image more, almost as though the scale of it consumes your attention. I usually paint things on a life-sized scale as I find it easier for me to engage with them at life-size, and I want to create scenes into which you could be absorbed, I just find it exciting seeing massive paintings. Then, when I do smaller paintings that can hang alongside the larger works, both complement and exaggerate each other’s scale.
Recently I have been trying to explore scale more, painting scenes in a smaller format such as a distant receding landscape through a window, which because they are a view into another space can still be contextualised within a life-sized setting. This is something I want to play around with more, a reality within a reality within a reality etc. It fits so comfortably within art historical composition with image making that you have the opportunity to do something really weird hidden within a well-understood format. It can be used to camouflage weird or uncomfortable elements.
H.C: A diverse range of influences are often discussed in relation to your practice, including your interest in cave painting and traditional craft forms such as quilting or mosaicking, as well as your affinity for folk art and outsider art. How do these various artistic interests inform your own paintings?
T.H: They inform my practice in so many ways. I grew up artistically on outsider and folk art, as well as lots of books about Dada and art brut, then during my mid-twenties I became fascinated by craft traditions like pottery and quilt making. These are all things which in one way or another I have inherited from my parents and grandparents work and hobbies, and all of these areas of influence are connected by the act of human expression.
I’m a trained artist, I’ve studied it and know a lot about the context surrounding my work and my life, so making work influenced by naivety can pose problems, particularly when I was younger. I wanted to make work like the outsider artists I loved, but I couldn’t because it was either an affectation or just rubbish work, I think the issue for me was sincerity. The artefacts of humankind over our millennia of existence often originated out of necessity, to keep warm, build shelter, cook etc, and so there is an elegance and logic to their evolution and design, their purpose sincere.
Think of cave paintings, the earliest instances of human expression, without much clear necessity other than to record and preserve experience, the acknowledgement of life, and once you have recognised the present it also reveals the past and supposes the future. The want to record existence and express being is an important characteristic we possess, and I think if it’s done sincerely and honestly it is a beautiful thing, and that is what I see in historical craft forms, Neolithic artefacts, and outsider art.
H.C: Imagery and subjects associated with evolutionary theory and the study of natural selection are prevalent in your recent paintings, with prehistoric fossils or biological studies appearing within your primaeval landscapes. What drew you to examine the evolution and the origin of species within your practice? And could you talk further about the conceptual ideas that underpin your paintings?
T.H: This links to my previous answer, and also connects to the aforementioned prehistoric plant species. From outsider art and historic craft traditions, and further back to Neolithic art, I’m interested in that innate and inescapable need we have to express ourselves and to record our presence. When you look at a cave painting it’s clear that those individuals were no different to modern humans. And when you see the great apes – gorillas, orangutans, chimps – it’s easy to see ourselves in them. So at what point did we make that shift?
When you follow this pattern of enquiry, you not only conclude that every living organism on the planet is just as important as the next, but also that we are all just creatures coexisting on our planet. If we and apes both evolved from an earlier common ancestor, which itself evolved from another earlier species, you can keep going back and back further into prehistory, but where do you stop? Are life and existence only worth considering when you get to apes, or dogs, or bats, or jellyfish, or coral, or bacteria…when did life begin? How did it? And what is life?
Our brains have reached this sort of terminal velocity, it seems we are no longer capable of functioning coherently because evolution has over-egged the cerebral pudding. We as humans are in this unique position where we both are fascinated by ourselves and our world, and want our species to prosper, yet our presence is debilitating the universe and bollocksing it up. The universe just can’t take it anymore, something will have to give eventually.
But we are all in this together, we can help each other, and we have the ability to not be horrible bastards. We are an inexplicably improbable occurrence of cosmological fate, and we are scared and alone and perhaps this has all gotten a bit too scary for us. I think that when you zoom out of ‘existence’ and recalibrate our position within the universe, you gain some perspective about what it means to be human. It is a subjective experience, but whatever that experience is, that ability to dwell upon and consider who we are is something we all share. We are all equal, as organisms on a planet, all together.
H.C: “Fun” and “Happy” are two words you find frustrating when used to describe your work, however for the most part the figures that inhabit your paintings do seem content and even cheerful, frequently smiling, holding hands or embracing. Is this intended to present as a child-like naive optimism and enthusiasm for life or a genuine expression of hopeful positivity? Or neither?
T.H: In the past, I have definitely been dismissive of the labelling of my work as ‘fun’ or ‘happy’, not because I don’t intend the work to be those things – I do and it is intentionally positive – but because of how one dimensional the descriptions ‘fun’ or ‘happy’ are. In the past, when I used humour or happiness in my work, there would also be elements that challenged that positivity, which contrasted it with some sense of dread or made the viewer doubt and question the smiling faces. I have a similar issue with the comments I get about plants or cats and how much people love them, it’s not that I have disdain for those comments, I love plants and I love my cat, but if my only goal was to paint happy cats and pretty plants, I would have achieved that goal years ago.
Recently, a big development for me has been a stronger focus on a more humanistic and emotional engagement with the figures in my painting, to create works with a complex and dynamic range of feelings and associations.
A couple of years ago I went to the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, a small parish church in Hampshire where Stanley Spencer was commissioned to paint the interior. It’s inspired by the private chapels of the Renaissance – artists like Giotto or works like the Brancacci chapel, or the Medici family’s private chapel painted by Gozzoli – with elaborate works covering multiple walls, floor to ceiling, depicting different scenes of a huge story all at once. In the Spencer chapel, he depicts remembrances of his time in Moldova during the First World War, but unlike other war artists who depicted the aggression of war, the smoke and blood of battle, the patriotic pride, Spencer was clearly not in favour of the war and as best to avoid the conflict he had enlisted to the medical division. Therefore, the scenes he paints in the chapel are tender and private moments of young soldiers returning injured from battle, resting, eating bread and jam, cleaning the bathrooms, feeding horses, changing bed sheets. They are so delicate and emotionally engaged with the individuals, those innocent human beings that these people were, caught up in the misery of war. Visiting was one of the most profound artistic experiences of my life. Other works of his depicting people returning to life post-war, or lovers embracing, as though this only interest in people was their beauty as human beings, the joy of humanity.
Artists like Beryl Cook do this so well too, there is not a single drop of cynicism towards the people she depicts. With so much horror and vileness in the world, it’s astonishing to be able to wipe that away and recognise the beauty we have underneath as people. I was in tears in front of those Stanley Spencer paintings, and that doesn’t happen just because they are happy or funny, that’s a level of emotional complexity that I can only dream of being able to pursue.
H.C: You’ve spoken before about an anxious or uncomfortable side to your paintings, and in recent works ghostly apparitions and translucent geometric forms or ethereal portals appear increasingly alongside your seemingly harmonious depictions of man, flora and fauna. What do you mean to suggest with the addition of these more eerie and preternatural elements?
T.H: These may be some of those elements I include to challenge the ‘happiness’ in the work. That’s not to say they stand solely to provoke an antithetical response, more to suggest an extra level of thought. I want the work to have a complex emotional escapade going on.
On one level, I think the portals that sometimes occur in my work, or the floating ghost-like apparitions, originate from a sort of science-fictional parallel dimension, from time travelling, or from some occult magical supernatural device. It’s all of it and none of it at the same time, nothing too prescriptive.
I also think these fantasy elements serve to contrast against the reality in the work, so that you can never be quite sure as to what is real or what is unreal in the work. If you are being led to believe that the scene is real, but various incongruities challenge that, then everything can exist on the same level. You’re permitted to indulge the mystical fantasy of semi-invisible figures merging in and out of reality because it’s all coexisting within the normality of a charming interior scene. That tender privacy of a person hugging a camel, by engaging with that emotion, the feeling and smell of a big bushy camel mane, but also mixed with the closeness and community of those figures being there yet not being there, it can be lonely and private but at the same time joyous and full of people.
H.C: Finally, ‘Moonwort Gorge Replica’ at Lychee One consists of paintings produced during the most recent Covid-19 lockdown, includes a sizeable portrayal of a figure wrapping their arms affectionately around the neck of a Bactrian camel, another depicting a scene of apparent domestic bliss and a smaller collage of two frogs in carnal embrace against a patterned backdrop. Could you tell us a little more about the artworks in this current exhibition? And has that the last twelve months of intermittent lockdowns affected or informed your practice in any way?
T.H: There is nothing specific in the work that has been affected by COVID, but I would say that I regularly notice elements that, without having intentionally considered them, have made their way into my work. We are always absorbing our surroundings both consciously or unconsciously, and elements of paintings such as self-isolation and staring out of windows have been pointed out to me recently. But I haven’t spent the last twelve months hugging camels and watching frogs shagging!
I have noticed that in a lot of new works I’ve begun making, there is a heavy focus on feeding birds, which I’ve gotten into a lot in the last year. It’s hard to say whether that has anything to do with COVID, but it’s something I’ve got into. I like ducks, pigeons and swans, and I enjoy feeding them, it makes me happy.