Francis van Hout is a Christchurch-based artist. In his exhibition re:Tyre-Meant van Hout abstracts the pattern, depth and weave of tyre tread. These meticulously painted artworks play with our relationship to the tyre in terms of its visual and environmental impact. Ahead of the exhibition, van Hout discusses these works with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. re:Tyre-Meant runs 6-26 July 2021 at City Art Depot.
‘Wilderness’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 508x406mm, 2021
Francis: How’s things?
Cameron: Things have been very busy lately. But you’re making my set up nice and easy with your computer layouts, similar sized works and short titles this time around.
I think a lot of people burden themselves with a lot of stuff. Art should be simple and easy.
Would you say these works are simple and easy?
Well, they were. They’re not easy to make. Freehand painting them is a pain in the arse. I drew them up as stencils but painted them. First, I downloaded lots of pictures off the internet of tyres and tracks, then I drew them in a program like Illustrator.
Did you use that to find patterns that worked as a cohesive series?
Yes, I picked things that looked like a pattern which would be recognisable quickly.
‘Dirt’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 508x406mm, 2021
Do you want people to look at them and think, ‘Yep, that’s a tyre’?
No. And people won’t. Would you recognise them as tyre tracks if I didn’t tell you? They just look like patterns.
You’re right, they just look like patterns. Maybe in this work, Bush, I could see a bit of a tyre.
That one reminds me of Space Invaders – the way the aliens move. If I hadn’t called it that I would have called it ‘Space Invaders’.
There’s also a bit of Tetris in some of these too.
They kind of remind me of digital work. A lot of my computer stuff has been generative art – computer generated art – which is mostly patterns. It’s my design background coming out.
‘Bush’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 508x406mm, 2021
Your earlier studies for this exhibition definitely feel closer to Māori art than the works in the exhibition. Was that appropriation something that you were consciously trying to move away from?
I had wanted to do some pattern works relating back to Māori art. I had painted my first patterns within painted frames like I had in my last exhibition. I thought they looked like someone had taken something, cut it out and made a decoration out of it – they didn’t look like what I wanted. I did some tests having the whole canvas as decoration and I thought it looked better.
It was a challenge to how to do it and present it because I didn’t like the way they came out at first. I wanted to make tyre tracks going up a wall thinking back to Andy Warhol’s dance diagrams, the footsteps of the dance pattern. Then there were Roy Lichtenstein’s tires and James Rosenquist who painted billboards basically with lots of tyres. There’s reference to things that I studied and looked at years and years ago.
They look like they could go on forever.
Like wallpaper. As well as that I hadn’t coloured them then. I started with gradation of brown from light to dark but it didn’t say anything and it looked like anyone could do that. I started playing with putting other artworks behind the patterns. I did some Colin McCahons which weren’t working until I found his cloud paintings. So the black and white works in the exhibition are based on those. I wanted to keep the clouds. It also has a double meaning with the black/white being the digital zero/one, cloud computing, which is the rage right now.
‘Cloud’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 1000x500mm, 2021
A lot of your work comes from your sense of humour. Is that ingrained into the works you make – and the works you like?
I just wish other people would get my humour! You have to have a bit of humour somewhere in your work because people take art too seriously. It’s a thing that sits on the wall. You have to find your own meaning in things. As well as that, I do my work for myself. That’s the thing, all the works are part of me. These works show the designer in me. I can also hark back to my dad who trained as a carpet designer in the Netherlands. I have all his design books.
I wanted to keep certain colours in the works. The earth series uses red which relates to red oxide that comes from the earth. The colours in the bush works originate from camouflage colours – I googled ‘New Zealand camouflage colours’ and thought they would work really well. There is also a double meaning with camouflage and tyre tracks – like driving four-wheel-drives into the New Zealand bush.
They all have nature-based titles. Is there an ecological side to the works?
I think that runs through a lot of my work. Mainly because I don’t drive and I like walking and cycling around. You see a lot where people have driven in 4WDs and left their marks behind, whereas people walking and cycling don’t leave such impressions. One of my pet hates is car advertisers who advertise all their cars in New Zealand nature. We promote ourselves overseas as being ‘100% Pure’ but then we advertise these cars in our nature. I just find it ironic that New Zealand has this double face. Landscape artists don’t paint cars in their landscapes.
‘Earth’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 508x406mm, 2021
Cars and their emissions is a hot topic right now.
What are the farmers going to do when there’s no petrol left? Who knows, let’s see what happens in the future. So that’s the story of how the works came about. The titles have been a bit of a pain.
You always say that.
Yeah, I think these titles have been the hardest. The title of the show, re:Tyre-Meant, has lots of different meanings behind it and I was thinking maybe I could do something like picking out titles from ‘retirement’ – old people’s homes, retirement villages and so on. But then I thought, nah, and went towards nature titles.
You could even look at the eventual retirement of the tyre.
That’s the thing, we’ll never be rid of them. They just get slimmer and smaller I notice. When you start looking at things like that you start looking at people’s car tyres all the time. You start to learn about tyres themselves, the patterns and how they came about. The tread on a tyre gets worn down and then there’s still so much rubber left over, so much waste. Even my bike tyres, so much of that rubber doesn’t get used.
Did you look at any bicycle tyres for the works?
No, because they’re too slim. Basically, I just wanted to pick on car and SUV tyres. I did stylise a lot of the patterns as well.
‘Meadow’, Francis van Hout, oil on stretched canvas, 508x406mm, 2021
Was deciding where the lighter and darker tones in some of these works a random process?
I just left it up to the pattern I found. I used the eyedropper in my computer program basing it off the background texture. I just let it happen and I think it worked out well. I didn’t really want to make it so obvious that I was trying to make it look like something. It’s so easy to start making a pattern with the colours. What the viewer must do now is figure out what it is. But I guess I’m telling you anyway, so there’s no more secrets.
You do have the word ‘tyre’ in the title of your exhibition.
I had to spell it with a ‘y’ to get it away from ‘retirement’. Artists never retire, they just die. Andy Warhol retired from painting, so then he made films, then he retired from films and went back to painting. Making art just becomes ingrained into you.
There’s also the thing of we’re slowly retiring the human race. Or retiring the Earth with everything we’re doing to it. There’s a lot of things you could read into it.