#69: Francis van Hout – Portraits, Idols and Robots

15th Apr 2024

Portraits of unknown humanoids constructed of rudimentary forms and earth sourced from the Port Hills form Francis van Hout’s Portraits, Idols and Robots. Ahead of his exhibition van Hout discussed these intriguing paintings that leap between cave painting and the sci-fi world of today with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston in his studio. Portraits, Idols and Robots opens 5.30pm Tuesday 23 April at City Art Depot and runs through to 13 May 2024.

Maschinenmensch, Francis van Hout, loess, red oxide and charcoal on stretched calico, 405x305mm, 2024

Cameron Ralston: How do robots come into these works?

Francis van Hout: Well robots can be anything these days. Everyone will look at these as portraits, then when you give them a name it becomes a portrait of that person. But really it could be anything.

So these aren’t based on any particular people?

No, I didn’t want to have that as part of the show because it’s not really about that. What it came to be is that they are all the same thing these days: portraits, idols and robots. We make people, we make idols, we make robots and we make all these in images of ourselves. It goes back to ideas of creation and God making man in his own likening and mankind making idols and robots in their likening too. That’s where it ended up basically.

Where did it start?

Someone asked me at art school, I think it was Tim, what painting was. I said, ‘Flinging mud at a canvas’. Hence why the materials came about.

So, you’ve used mud to make these works – where did you source it from?

From the hills. Plenty of it and it’s been around for millions of years.

It gives the works an interesting texture.

It came out surprisingly good. There are three elements: the yellow ochre, the red oxide (iron oxide) and charcoal. I found those on my walks in the hills. Charcoal was originally from bits of wood I found after the first Port Hills fire.

Is the colour of the works here the same as the dirt you collected? What are you mixing in?

That’s the colour it is basically. I put a really thin shellac into it and a lot of methylated spirits which I thought would help to sterilize the materials – I didn’t want anything growing in it. So those are the original colours. But they’re pretty layered. What it does remind me of is a Colin McCahon book 15 Drawings which he did on brown paper with black ink. As well as that they’re quite New Zealand colours – yellow ochre, the black and the red oxide. Red oxide always reminds me of being on the farm, you always paint sheds red oxide for some reason. They are New Zealand colours too because I found them in New Zealand. What do I call the materials, mud on calico? Calico is much better for this.

Roy, Francis van Hout, loess, red oxide and charcoal on stretched calico, 505x405mm, 2024

You’ve mentioned that cave paintings were an influence on your work.

I’ve always been interested in Māori cave paintings. I didn’t want to make cave paintings because I didn’t want to be appropriating that. But then I thought perhaps these could be like cave paintings of the future where the AI robots have taken over.

There’s something appealing in the rudimentary forms you’ve used.

That harks back to my animation days. It also came from a lot of work I’d been doing over the last year on portraits, where I kept simplifying down the traits. I studied portraits done by McCahon, Fomison, Picasso, Rembrandt. Did a lot of copying of their works and then developed my own work from there.

Why do some of the portraits have no facial features?

They’re like online robots. I had this image in my mind of a TV programme or film I’ve seen where the robots had no faces. Maybe as well as that they could be faceless idols. You still put faces in them, they just haven’t been formed properly. Like a faceless thing you don’t see but you know is there. You ring up a place and the voice is human but you’re not sure if it’s a person or a robot.

Do you think a lot about AI?

You have to think about it a lot these days. You don’t know where it is anymore. It’s amazing what comes up when you type AI in online.

Gort, Francis van Hout, loess, red oxide and charcoal on stretched calico, 405x305mm, 2024

Have you tried using an image making AI?

No because I can make it just as fast, and it’ll be what I want. It doesn’t have any interest to me. It’s some smart aleck sort of thing. You’re asking a computer to make something it doesn’t understand, where I understand my work and what I’m doing much better. So there’s no enjoyment in doing that, I get enjoyment out of what I make and that’s why I do it. And it helps me understand my world around me. So yeah, I have no interest at all, though I did think about doing this interview by AI just to see what would come out. I’m sure someone’s thought about and done a show through AI.

Why do the figures wear such straight or solemn looking faces?

Maybe it’s a reflection on my personality. That’s just the way I drew them and so it’s how they came out. If you look at some of the other drawings in my studio, you’ll see the same sort of thing. They’re somewhat expressionless. Maybe it’s a comment on our society, it could be a lot of reasons. It’s just the way it came out, that’s all I can say.

Why have you gone for t-shirts as the clothing?

Because I didn’t want them in suit and ties (haha). The only reason really, I didn’t want them to be too formal.

I feel like a t-shirt is quite a modern style too.

It’s modern, probably everyone dresses in one. Casual wear. I didn’t want it to be a focal point as well. It’s just the way it came out over the hundreds of drawings I’ve done and it seemed to be the simplest form of dress, otherwise they look naked.

In a lot of your previous shows you’ve used quite strict geometry and even maths to plot out points. These feel very organic.

That was after the last show a.d.o, where it was just colour field paintings. Then I thought maybe I should invest some time into doing figure drawing. That’s what I did. I went totally backwards, well, I went away from all the geometric forms. Maybe I thought that people think I can’t draw, that I’m only interested in straight lines. Which isn’t true, it’s just the works I was doing at the time needed to be in straight lines. It’s still there, some of the works that didn’t make it into the show have the geometric forms.

When I first viewed the works in progress you had some totem-like works. What made you move away from those?

It clicked for me after I had to figure out a title for the show. It occurred to me that the portraits, idols and robots could all be the same thing. I thought if I made all these portraits then people would have to figure out what were the portraits, what were the idols and what were the robots. How we recognise people is interesting to me. Idol has two meanings – religious idols and then the pop star idol. I did do paintings of typical robots but then I thought they look like robots and maybe looking too much like toys. We don’t have robots like that anymore. I also thought there was too much appropriation of religious artefacts in painting idols.

I did leave some faces blank to make people think about it more. The blank faces could be anything. Especially with AI, can you tell when you’re talking to a computer these days?

Most of time I would hope, but it is getting harder to tell.

As I keep saying, people can make up their own minds about them. I like the pictures. They intrigue me a lot.


Because of that whole notion of, what is a portrait? What does it signify? Like you said, what you get out of it is the remorseful look they have, but as well as that, are people going to read other things into it? Like me being a Pākehā artist painting different skin tones? The modern world forces you to think about what is and isn’t appropriate with things like appropriation and identity.

Rachael, Francis van Hout, loess, red oxide and charcoal on stretched calico, 505x405mm, 2024

Do you have a keen interest in sci-fi? What kind of sci-fi? It’s such a large genre.

Yes. All sorts really. Good interesting stuff. I did start out doing the good old space opera like goodies versus baddies in big, huge battles i.e. Star Wars which I went to see when it first came out 13 times. I got into sci-fi when I was really really young when I had a subscription to Science magazine and they had short story science fiction.

Robots have always been a part of that too?

It’s interesting – they go right back to H.G. Wells, even back to the 19th century around the industrial age where people were thinking about automation. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of stories about AI. One that comes to mind is an internet-based AI that became self-aware, so people got up in arms and wanted to destroy it when all it wanted to do was good for humanity.

Part of what makes cave paintings so intriguing is that you can never truly tell why it was made.

I’d thought about that as well. What would I do if I had a cave to draw on? I couldn’t draw the things they were drawing, mainly because of what I’ve experienced and learnt. I don’t think that anyone else would be able to do that anymore too. It’s unique to those times. It’s how they drew and looked at the world. I would try to draw something modern. What I’m showing now, that’s what I would draw. Looking at graffiti artists we have these days, you can see some correlations to what they’re doing, especially in their lettering and wording stuff, to what people were creating on caves. Instead of drawing their names, they were drawing their hands as signifiers. I wonder what were these people doing, what were they thinking when they were doing those prints?

You’ve got in some cases many thousand years between then and now. You can put a lot of meaning onto things from this perspective.

We do that all the time these days. I’ve been thinking about that and perhaps trying to do some works where I try to forget about all the things I’ve learnt and start trying to draw something. Something that I haven’t seen or done, and see what happens. Maybe it’ll take a while to come out. Find a way of going backwards, which I’m trying to do at the moment.