Francis van Hout is a Christchurch artist who’s paintings combine geometric abstraction, complex paint surfaces and colour with contemporary concerns, art history and humour. Cameron Ralston visits him at his studio to talk about his work and his new exhibition Green Field, Grey Field at City Art Depot from the 19th of February to the 11th of March.
Francis van Hout’s Christchurch studio
Cameron: How long have you been working in your studio?
Francis: Since we moved here, probably ten years ago. It was already built when we moved in, so I just moved in and used it as a studio. I can’t really paint with oils in my bedroom. It gets smelly, even in here it gets whiffy, especially in the hot weather we’ve been having.
How do you keep on top of being a small-ish room, because you’re making quite large paintings sometimes?
I put them on the wall, and when I’ve had enough of that or need some wall space I move them out to the main garage. Or I just recycle.
I remember you once calling yourself a sustainable painter.
I often get the paint stripper out and start again, unless a work is getting sold or it’s going in show. But I don’t often paint big works except for shows. Usually it’s smaller works that hang around or get stored away. I have bins full of works. When I used to paint on canvas I’d store them rolled up.
Do you tend to hang on to things?
Not really, I don’t have enough room to store lots of works. It gets a bit too much to look after. Every once in a while, I have a destroy day. One day I got a whole lot of paint stripper and stripped everything off all these works I’d had up for a year because I was just sick of them.
And then you reuse those boards?
Yes. Unless they’re on canvas of course, you can’t really reuse them. You can paint over and over them but it just starts cracking. If I really don’t want them around I’ll just slash them. There’s probably someone at a dump somewhere looking at works of mine. Or they’ll end up being thrown into recycling shops – I’ve been looking forward to the day when I walk into the EcoShop and find one of my works hanging on the wall.
Surely you don’t go in and donate it?
No, I wouldn’t do that, I don’t know what happens. I’ve given a lot of work away so I’ve always wondered what happens to that.
I often rifle through recycling shops as well to see if there’s anything I recognise.
Sometimes there’s some really amazing stuff. Some are pretty funny. I would like to do a show like that – just go to the EcoShop, buy a bunch of works and put them up as a show. Outsider art, or whatever you call it.
I find a lot of my books, which I draw or paint things into, in these shops. Sometimes I buy old ex-library books – I always thought it would be funny to put them back into the library, or borrow a book from a library and make art out of it, putting paintings inside. But then they’d probably fine me.
Yes, they’d probably smell it when it came through the system.
The funny things I do to keep making art.
Francis van Hout’s Christchurch studio
Where do you grab all these pots, lids and various other things that you paint on?
Thrift shops basically. I started doing that when I was really sick of painting on canvas. I wanted some other materials to paint on. So the ping pong bats came out as well as trays, aluminum lids and cookware. I thought they were nice media to throw my work on to. And it brings in ideas from Home & Garden. Flicking through my mum’s magazines I come across stuff like hanging baskets on your walls for decoration, like these flax placemats I’ve been painting on recently from the op shop.
Do you do much to prepare these surfaces?
No, because they’ve already got protective varnishes and so on. Finding things to paint on makes it interesting, gives it another level. And it goes back to early craft and decoration, which is where a lot of art comes from anyway. Canvas painting started because people used to paint on everything – walls and ceilings – and then they would hang up rugs and tapestries. Painting on to canvas was an easier way to make the image.
And I suppose instead of just painting the fake window on your wall you can move it with you into your new place.
Exactly. That’s what I think anyway. As well, they used to paint the idea down on to the tapestry before they made it.
‘Requiem’ at the Aigantighe Art Gallery, 21 July – 12 August 2018
You obviously do a bit of research for your work – you deal with the history of art quite often. For example, your show ‘Requiem’ at the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru which dealt with New Zealand landscapes and you often show me pictures of Russian abstractionists on your phone.
My computer is just full of images that I find. I describe some of my work as a view into art history. It’s a lot of things that I like and then fitting them into the idea that I want to get across. This next show ‘Green Field, Grey Field’ at City Art Depot is more about the modern city taking over the landscape. It’s a reflection on what I’ve been seeing.
When I first moved out here there wasn’t a motorway. I watched the Southern Motorway being built and then the buildings and housing that followed. Where before it was just fields that I’d cycle around and take shortcuts through, now looking over Wigram and Halswell it’s just grey roofs.
They’re all part of the same kitset standardised colours right?
Yes, where before it was green, now it’s grey. Hence the title. The Timaru show was a response to my travels back and forth along the Southern Motorway. I remember the endless plains and the hot summer days, which resulted in the planes that I painted.
Studies for ‘Green Field, Grey Field’
What I find interesting about living in the city is how we tout it as this great environment but then pave it all grey. Then all the new sparsely planted laneways have courier trucks in them – I nearly got bowled over by one down by the Terrace cycling to the Physics Room.
But yeah, I have a lot of these books for research lying around. I found a bunch of Philip Temple books about New Zealand landscapes. I started looking for books on Christchurch after the earthquakes but I found it quite difficult finding books about what the city looked like before.
I wanted to start doing a few more things about Christchurch. I painted in a couple of books about Christchurch, one which I blacked out half the images because half of the city was gone. It was my little response to how I felt really.
So the earthquake has had an effect on the work you’re making?
Definitely. I think it affected everyone. I used to do a lot of paintings reproducing photos, but I wasn’t taking any. Then after the quakes I started taking a lot. I used to cycle into town and photograph what was disappearing. I had a lot of discussions with people I met in town about what was there, like, ‘I used to walk down these places all the time but I can’t remember’. You’d lose a lot of memories about what was there, but when it was there you were just living with it and you took it for granted. When it’s all gone, that’s when you start to worry about it. What was there?
So I thought, what am I painting photographs for when I’m taking them all the time, and I started looking for other things. I started going back to things in my design work, as well as thinking about all the discussion around modernising Christchurch – taking modern elements and thinking about the new modern buildings going up. All the square boxes, the concrete slabs and glass. That’s when I started using those rectangular forms in what I call my ‘slab works’. A lot of the Russian stuff started coming out from there.
They started out as projects. Like the photography project was posting a photo everyday for a year and seeing what would change in what I was photographing and what I was looking at. But then I just carried it on. I’m always going about cycling or walking and I want to record things before they change. Isn’t that part of art – recording history?
Other blogs started out because people wanted to see what I was doing. But now I use them more for projects. Some are works that I’m making, some are old works from years back. I also have a painting blog that I put paintings on which probably aren’t going to be seen by anyone else.
Do you have any way of seeing how many people are viewing the blogs?
Yeah, it’s amazing who looks at them. The photography blog attracts people from all around the world, except for New Zealanders. I think a lot of tourists look at it when they’re doing research on where they want to go on holiday. I don’t put any words on my stuff. Just images. I’m not a word person, I don’t want to describe everything that people look at.
Then there was another project I did called ‘Street Dumps’ documenting what people were dumping on the streets over a year. It was amazing what you’d find to photograph. The funny thing is that no one looks at that stuff, and no one is interested in looking at the photographs of it either. But it’s quite amazing that basically every day I could find something new to photograph.
Did you ever take anything from the street dumps?
The drapes here, but otherwise no, I didn’t want to touch it. It always gets cleaned away. I’m more interested in what I’m looking at, why I’m choosing these things and finding out other people are looking at the same things. Blogs are fun.
You’re quite a tech person right?
I started looking at computers when I was about 16. I remember being in Australia and seeing all these computers and wanting to bring one home but it was too expensive. You know, a Dick Smith TRS. It wasn’t until I left Polytech doing a visual communications course that I really got into computers. I bought my first Amiga 500 and started playing around with that. It had a little digitiser so I could hook up a camera to it and the VCR to capture stuff. Then I figured out I could make animations and films on them.
Van Hout’s City Art Depot model and wall plans for Green Field, Grey Field
You also have a model of our gallery on your computer.
I used the plans you gave me one day and some measurements that I took to build up a model in an architecture program. Then I could do some drawings and put them on the wall of the gallery and look at them. It’s something that people used to do with solid models and little cardboard cut-outs of their works. I watched a Rothko documentary where they were planning the Tate show and had models of the gallery and his works which they stuck to the walls to figure out how it would all hang. It’s useful to see how people will view the works in the space.
Do you change the paintings themselves to suit the galleries?
No, once I’ve figured out the works I basically stick to those. It’s just positioning, working out relationships between the works themselves on the walls and how I want people to step through the works. It also makes hanging them easier and quicker, but when you get into the gallery it can be different.
Can you tell me about this exhibition?
I think I had this series in my mind after the Timaru ‘Requiem’ show. I wanted to do something big and austere. I really wanted to do a city landscape.
Even though they’re quite austere, you still have a sense of humour that comes through all your artworks, especially in the titles.
The titles are pretty good. ‘Lake’ and ‘River’ (there’s no lake or river), ‘Mountain’, ‘Hill’ and there’s ‘Forest’ and ‘Tree’. I just want people to question them and where they are. I’ve had comments that they look like bunkers, which is something I’ve really wanted to do as well, especially with all that slab work that’s been going on. I remember going over to Halswell and seeing a big slab house being built. It had one of these windows, it looked like a pill box. Like a gun emplacement. It was just concrete blocks basically. I don’t know how people can live in these things compared to traditional wooden houses.
Do you ever think about your artworks going into one of these houses?
They’re paintings for a modern house because they’re basically rectangles. But then again they could go in any house. I sit here and look at them a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing them in the gallery.
Early drawings for ‘Green Field, Grey Field’ in the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Bulletin
I started these works off in one of my Bulletin drawings. These kind of remind me of Colin McCahon’s ‘Mondrian’ works. And last year I was trying to get some works done for some awards and I was thinking back to a colourfield work I had done. I was trying to work on top of that but it wasn’t working. And then this book [Bulletin 194] came out and I started working in the slabs.
You seem to poke a lot of fun at the Bulletin.
After the earthquakes I was annoyed because I couldn’t see any art or do any art, which felt paralysing, so I picked up one of these and I wondered what would happen if I blacked out half the artworks in here. Then I did an issue where I pixelated all the images, but I haven’t posted any of these works. On top of that I always wanted to have my work in there and it was probably the only way I was going to get that artist page. I’ve just carried on with it from there. It’s a good way of doing works, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on big canvases all the time but I still want to work. These are my drawing works really. It comes back to the white page – artists don’t want to spoil the white page or white canvas. It’s really good to already have something printed. I see it as enhancing it.
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