Francis van Hout is a Christchurch-based painter who explores geometric abstraction through his carefully balanced and meticulously planned oil paintings. Ahead of his exhibition Disillusioned Thinker at City Art Depot, City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston visited his studio to talk about his work. Disillusioned Thinker opens 5.30pm Tuesday 24 May.
Tell me about where the ideas for this body of work originated.
Francis van Hout:
It started with looking back at the Every Tom, Dick and Harry series way, way back in the early days. Reworking some of those ideas, taking some of the forms and shapes out of those and working on from there. There are ideas that I’ve developed over lots of different shows that go back to constructivism. There’s a bit of influence of Picasso, Matisse, probably Walters as well. I started looking back at some of the early, early work I did at university, some of the more faceted paintings I was doing back then and reworking them. I took knowledge that I’ve discovered with my work over the last few years and applied it to these new works.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry 1, Francis van Hout, oil on paper, 269x210mm, 2014
What were the Every Tom, Dick and Harry works about?
They were based on photographs of myself that I took and then redrew, taking basic shapes and simplifying down to just planes. That was going back to just after the earthquakes. I was doing a lot of photographs of the new buildings going up and all the concrete slabs. That influenced a lot of that work as well. So basically, they’re all self-portraits.
These works are also self-portraits?
Kind of [laughs]. Well, they are based on the Every Tom, Dick and Harry works which are based on self-portraits. The title for the show Disillusioned Thinker came from the main painting which reminded me of Rodin’s The Thinker. The ‘thinking’ also maybe came out because I was over-thinking things.
Disillusioned Thinker, Francis van Hout, oil on canvas, 1016x812mm, 2022
Are you the disillusioned thinker?
I think a lot of that idea comes from what’s happening in the world – all those people that are so called ‘thinkers’ in the world and what they’re actually doing to the world. Everyone thinks that they are thinkers, like the people protesting about Covid, all those people saying what they’re thinking.
What’s your perspective on this? Do you think there is too much thinking?
I think people over-think things. That’s just my opinion though. When I made the first titles, I thought maybe I am a disillusioned thinker. Thinking about the arts and my place in that – maybe I’m a bit disillusioned with the arts. Then it does come back to that self-portrait. Something that I’ve learned over the years about art is that art is a self-portrait of the artist.
You can’t avoid it?
Yeah. Prime example being my brother, he puts himself into his art and makes himself his art. I thought the title also worked with the works. Disillusioned Thinker is a painting of two things, two portraits. You can interpret it as someone itching their nose or someone scratching the back of their head [laughs].
You’re right, a lot of these works look like they’re pondering.
I think they’re all pondering. They seem to want to do something but they’re not really doing anything. They’re a painting of a portrait, which is a still image. I’ve given it all away now so people will come in and look at them as portraits. But if I didn’t tell you that I wonder what people would think they are. The horizontal works actually come from vertical paintings that I’ve done, which have been turned over and spaced out.
Is that a ploy to stop people reading them as faces?
I think I just needed to have something that was different in the show. I want people to read them as not one, but two portraits – two people. People might just interpret them as shapes on a colour field. I think that’s the influence of Gordon Walters works on me. I have that book from the Gordon Walters: New Vision show right here. I’ve also looked at the mid-20th century artwork and architecture style.
Forward Thinker, Francis van Hout, oil on canvas, 508x812mm, 2022
It’s interesting how you’ve balanced the shapes within the compositions, it reminds me of the works in your 2020 exhibition The Rolling Moon, which had shapes stacked, balancing within the picture frame.
I think a painting always must be balanced and things within have to be balanced, otherwise they disturb people by looking like they’re going to fall off. I looked at the balancing of the shapes, or filled areas, and how they must balance the whole of the work. They look like they’re going to stay there, though I’d hate to try and build some of them [laughs]. Sometimes you just move a piece and it unbalances everything. I originally looked at the horizontal works not being full framed, but I thought they weren’t balanced. Balance was a real consideration, even in the colours.
So, these works represent a genesis of your previous exhibitions from the Every Tom, Dick and Harry series?
Yeah, it’s a simplifying down of the form and shape. I was more into tonalising in those days, making them look like three-dimensional objects sitting on top of each other. Now I’ve flattened it all right down. I think that series started off a whole lot of other works – the red painting series, the Swan Song works and even the Requiem works I exhibited at the Aigantighe Art Gallery.
How did you go about creating and finalising the forms of these works? I see you have some computer print-outs here.
Those tell me how to draw it. I plotted all the points and joined the dots.
Your process involves a lot of sketching, evidenced on your blogs – does your process start there, or on the computer?
These ones started on the computer, but they usually start off with print-outs which get redrawn and then I redraw the redrawing before doing test paintings. So yeah, sometimes my work starts on the computer, other times it comes from doing drawings and taking them to the computer and redrawing them. There’s an evolution.
There’s a lot of planning that goes into your painting.
Especially nowadays because of the cost of materials. It’s really costly to make mistakes and you don’t have an undo button on a painting (which I wish I had a lot of). If you go over a line it’s there permanently. I think nowadays I have to plan a lot more, as well as knowing what I want to paint before I even get sizes for paintings. When I’ve worked it all out on the computer before painting, I know that’s what I want. I’ll know that I like the painting before I make the final work. I paint things that I’d like to see painted.
Deep Thinker, Francis van Hout, oil on canvas, 1016x812mm, 2022
Do the images have the same feel for you on the computer as in their painted form?
No, totally different. They take on a different life. The works often change when painting them. For example, I’ve changed some colours because they just didn’t work like they did on the screen. I could have had the colours replicated at the paint shop from the computer and then painted them, but there’s no fun or feeling in that. I paint them and paint them until I get them to what I want them to look like. On the computer it’s easy to fill in colour. But then they look like prints, not paintings. That was something I was thinking of a lot when I was doing these – do I want them to look like silkscreens or do I want them to look like paintings? So, I left paintbrush strokes in them.
There are things like the edges of shapes and the texture of the canvas which certainly add to that.
Basically, there are things that have been left to make them look like paintings. It took me a while to get them there. Even getting the backgrounds right, which is so hard.
When I saw the digital plan images you emailed me, I thought of the similarities to Matisse’s cut out works.
I didn’t know if people would recognise that. I think these are more heavily in the digital world. They’re rectangular, whereas Matisse wasn’t into straight edges. But then that was part of their time. Perhaps the square edge here is part of my time because I’m used to being able to draw straight lines readily on a computer.
There’s something interesting in calling a show Disillusioned Thinker and finding humour in that.
Like we’ve discussed before, there’s a bit of humour in the works. One for example is called ‘Critical Thinker’ – that’s me having a dig at art critics. One is called ‘Wishful Thinker’. I had a list of titles and had the paintings, I looked at them and thought, would it say enough and ask what kind of thinker are you?