City Art Reader 32: Francis van Hout

12th Jun 2020

Francis van Hout is a Christchurch artist whose paintings combine geometric abstraction, complex paint surfaces and colour with contemporary concerns, art history and humour. Ahead of his exhibition ‘The Rolling Moon’ at City Art Depot, the first in the gallery since the Covid-19 lockdown, Cameron Ralston visited van Hout in his studio to discuss this new body of work. ‘The Rolling Moon’ opens Tuesday the 16th of June at 5.30pm and runs through to the 6th of July.

Cameron Ralston: How did you fare during the lockdown?

Francis van Hout: I didn’t notice it really. The only thing was not being able to do my long-distance bike rides. But it was really nice when I did cycle because there wasn’t any traffic. I could zoom around everywhere without worrying. Basically, I spent a lot of time in here and at the computer, painting and making boards to paint on. I started running out of materials and getting new materials became the hardest thing. I thought everything would be okay and if I got really desperate I could order things online but then I got worried about purchasing things online because they was taking weeks to get here.

‘Moon Shadow’, Francis van Hout, oil on board, 210x300mm, 2020

So, what is ‘The Rolling Moon’ all about?

It was one of those days where I was sick of being in the studio, sitting at the computer and I was flicking through a Facebook page called The Unofficial Flying Nun Music Vault and they had a link to The Chills’ 45 ‘Rolling Moon’. I was listening to it and it was stuck in my head. David emailed me and we were talking about me doing the first show after things opened up again and it was still playing in my head. A lot of the works were circular works and I thought why don’t I just call it ‘The Rolling Moon’. What else would I call it?

I think it’s quite fitting.

Yeah, I thought so too. I had been in a show called ‘Pink Frost’ which Charlotte Watson put together in Australia. So, I thought it was ironic and it’s part of my past. It also gave me a theme to name all the works – they’re all moon-based such as ‘Blood Moon’, ‘Over the Moon’. I looked up moon on the internet and was actually looking through a film site for moon and thousands came up. Then there were songs as well such as ‘Moon Dance’.

‘Moon Dance’, Francis van Hout, oil on board, 610x510mm, 2020

There are no literal moons in the artworks?

No. Well, there could be – what do you mean by moon? Because we just see it as our moon in our sky but moon doesn’t mean that. It actually means a satellite of another body basically. It’ll be an interesting thing that people will try figure out. Are there any rolling moons in the works? No.

You could imagine them moving if you wanted to animate them.

You could do that with any art basically. The titles don’t necessarily mean what it literally is.

You seemed to have moved away from the hard-straight lines of previous work.

Well they’re all contained within straight lines. I mean the canvases are within the bounds of straight lines – there’s still that edge there.

Manipulated bark drawings in Francis van Hout’s studio

In your previous exhibition you had planned the works out on your computer – are you still working in that mathematical way?

No, a lot of these came out of some photographs I did when I was at art school of tree bark. I took some of those and abstracted them out to form paintings. They got more abstract and looser until they became what they are now. Some of them remind me of 1950s’ mid-century artworks, with that kind of woven background which came out of the gessoing, painting and sanding back. Then I started doing some drawings – I do a lot of drawings which I post on my website. Then I started looking at a lot of early Māori rock drawings – there are a whole bunch of sites around the country you can go to. I started looking at how they interpreted what they were seeing onto the cave walls. The circles just came out of wanting to balance the drawings out. I thought they looked good.

Drawings in Francis van Hout’s studio

I like them, they add a bit of fun.

They are fun; they’re a bit different to what I usually do. It’s a different period that I looked at – mid-century 1950s artworks and architecture. I’ve done the period before World War Two and now I’m doing the period after. It also goes back to my graphic design days looking at design works from different periods. These are more graphical. If you look at mid-century architecture you’ll see things like this on the walls.

I can definitely imagine these sitting alongside some of those mid-century pieces of furniture.

I’ve even got that kidney shape in there, another good 1950s’ shape – I used to have a 50’s kidney-shaped table.

‘Blood Moon’, Francis van Hout, oil on canvas, 500x500mm, 2020

You get some of that through the colours you use too – they’re of that era.

Yes, they have that woven background fabric look. I wanted to explore something new and different. I don’t like repeating the same things. It’s why I have a studio – my laboratory.

It’s interesting to see where artists are drawing imagery and inspiration for their works from now. A lot seem to be drawing from the local area.

I was worried that people might start thinking these are about social distancing. You start seeing all the weird things online using circles and bubbles. These paintings were done or planned before that.

‘The Rolling Moon’, Francis van Hout, oil on board, 460x610mm, 2020

Tell me about the use of painted frames in the works.

The black frames around the works go back to my photograph days, 6×6 photographs – they always used to have printed black frames around them. I have this thing about painting to edges as well. It’s like it stops, so I paint inside things and try to have all the objects touching the edges of the frames for some odd reason. I think it’s a natural balance thing inside my head that thinks otherwise they’re going to fall over.

The objects would look floatier if they weren’t grounded against the frames.

I don’t think they would have worked if they didn’t have the frames. It’s like having a window into the work which pulls you in so you’re not pulling out to the edges. They’re just like jugglers’ balls, they’ve been played with and stopped in motion.