Published  27/02/2015

Helen Flockhart: ‘Art doesn’t have to be large to be powerful’

Helen Flockhart: ‘Art doesn’t have to be large to be powerful’

The Scottish painter on her time at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s, being influenced by conventional artists as well as models from knitting patterns, and how she produces her detailed, labour intensive works


Janet McKenzie: You attended the Glasgow School of Art during the 1980s with the artists who became known as the New Glasgow Boys, and your work was published in The New Glasgow Style: Painting in Glasgow 1980-85.1 Were you aware then that Glasgow had become an important centre for art and that you were part of an art movement that would be recognised worldwide?

Helen Flockhart: I’m not sure if I was conscious of this at the time. I was aware there was a lot going on, both within and outwith the art school, with the ferment of creative activity, creation of artist-run spaces and general debate around art, but I assumed these were things which would be happening everywhere. There was still a perception that London was where the big success was.

JMcK: The Glasgow School of Art has also nurtured a significant number of Turner Prize winners since then. Can you recall your own education there and what it was that distinguished it from other art schools?

HF: There was a combination of tutors who were passionate about art, encouraging students to find their own individual path/voice, and a number of very driven and talented students who, equally, were really invested in breaking their own new ground and pushing themselves. There was a lot of debate about the role of art in society, the art establishment and what students felt their relationship to it should be. Creating art seemed a significant thing to do with one’s life. I think, in the previous decade, it was more expected [that you would] graduate and go into teaching (or, perhaps, [it was] necessary due to fewer opportunities to do otherwise). There was a shift in the early 80s where it became feasible to graduate and become a full-time artist.

JMcK: Art education is Scotland has had a strong emphasis placed on drawing: the classical tradition of draughtsmanship. Can you recall your own training?

HF: Drawing was important, yes. We had compulsory life drawing and life painting in first and second year, and the option to carry on in third and fourth (and, for me, through my postgraduate year in Glasgow), which I did with weekly life-drawing classes. I loved the life studio; there was a quiet, industrious, respectful atmosphere. After second year, life drawing was an activity that ran in parallel with my painting, as my painting took off in a direction that no longer relied on realistic representation, but was still important in being able to work through ideas visually and to realise my vision on canvas.

In our first year, the tutors all seemed to be on a mission to “loosen” us up. We were encouraged to draw and paint more expressively (and, of course, from life). This was a continuation of the method taught at school, but was in complete contrast to what was being taught by the time my daughter was at school, where they were taught to draw from photographs – the tighter the better, and where the mark of a successful drawing or painting was whether it looked like a photograph.

We also had access throughout art school to Culzean (on the coast in Ayrshire), where the art school had dormitory accommodation and a studio, and we could go and stay for a week or so at a time. There, we had the opportunity to draw and paint outdoors and collect source material directly from the landscape.

In first year, there were lessons on portraiture, and there was a lot of talk about mark making and composition. We had lectures on anatomy in the Mac lecture theatre using skeletons and life models, lectures about colour and pigment, materials, and art history, of course, and tutors who were familiar with traditional drawing and painting materials and technique.

JMcK: What part has the unique character of Glasgow as a city – its history and social milieu – made it an inspiring place to work?

HF: If I was to look at my paintings from that time (or even now) specifically to find some aspect of Glasgow reflected in them, I’d have to say not at all. My influences were a mix of the fairly international combined with the input from tutors and fellow students. However, in terms of the character of the student population, it probably did differ from the mix you would find now. The majority were from the west of Scotland, with a few exotic souls from the Highlands and Islands, the borders and the east of Scotland. Of course, we had grants in those days, and a good chunk of students would be the first generation of their families to go on to college. In other words, you might have a higher percentage of students coming from working-class or first-generation middle-class backgrounds than you might find now, which probably had a bearing on the general political ethos, attitudes and culture of the student body.

JMcK: The figurative paintings of Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Peter Howson and Ken Currie are in stark contrast to art of the previous decade in Scotland, or anywhere in the UK. Do they, in your view, have inherently Scottish qualities that distinguish them from other parts of Britain?

HF: If you look at them individually, they are all quite different from each other; for example, Ken and Adrian’s paintings were really quite different in subject matter. However, I think there was a commonality in the bombastic nature of the imagery, a thrusting, prolific energy both in the paintings and in the confidence and drive of their careers. It has been described as macho, and that certainly would apply to Peter’s but I don’t think you could say that of Adrian’s, which were more lyrical. They were all pretty large scale with a juicy, quite loose, expressionistic paint surface that may have been informed by painting in Glasgow in the previous years, though with quite different subject matter and dynamic composition – more imaginative, story-telling and some social realism. And it was big in scale.

JMcK: Did you find the fantastic surreal dramas of Campbell and Wiszniewski, for example, an important inspiration for your own art practice?

HF: I wouldn’t say I found their work an inspiration, much as I agree that they are, and were, significant artists, and I do like their work. Of course, they were part of the whole world within the art school where students were pushing themselves and their talent and, in that respect, there must have been an influence. At the time, the artists who were influencing me were: Ana Maria Pacheco, whose sculptures I saw in the Women’s Images of Men exhibition in the Third Eye Centre in 1981 (I think it was Some Exercise of Power that I saw there. It was the first artwork that gave me that electric shock-type reaction, which really moved me. I had no idea at that time how I could strive for a similar kind of communication in my own work, though); Frida Kahlo, which is kind of obvious I suppose; Fernando Botero; Käthe Kollwitz; Gustav Klimt; Egon Schiele; Niki de Saint Phalle, whom I saw in the Pompidou Centre in 1983; and Edvard Munch. David Lynch’s Eraserhead was probably an influence, too. Looking at how different the work we students of the 80s produced was from what is going on at the moment in art schools, I can see we must have been the products of similar influences. I guess we were all tapping into the same zeitgeist. Conversely (and maybe a bit petulantly), over the years, I have reacted against that large, male, splashy “oeuvre”, and my images have been distilled into smaller, more densely packed, and unashamedly feminine in the use of pattern, detail and embellishment. These can be subverted where an intricate background of beads or clusters of plants might conceal references to anatomical symbols that might be lurid if depicted graphically, but, this way, it’s as if they can get in under the radar. Art doesn’t have to be large to be powerful. In fact, I heard Grayson Perry say, I think in one of his Reith Lectures, when singing the praises of small art, that, if you look at an artist’s body of work, the best is rarely that produced on a large scale.

JMcK: Your own paintings evoke a mood of reverie, where the characters and creatures appear to be an extension of your self, in the context of classical mythology or the detached worldview of Henri Rousseau. How did your distinct imagery develop?

HF: I began in my third year painting symbolist landscapes. I’d start off going out en plein air doing studies and collecting visual imagery, trying to capture some turbulent energy that I felt in response to my relationship with the landscape. Returning to the studio, I’d layer the collected elements into fairly expressionist compositions. Gradually, figures crept in to the compositions until they were the main focus. I loved Klimt’s paintings at that time, but my feelings about them were ambiguous. I loved the decoration, the pattern and the flowing figures, the delicious density. But they irritated me, too. I found the depiction of women irksome; they were so beatific, so either idealised or old hags. This irritation gave rise to a painting and some drawings sending this up. My tutor assumed they were about “starving Biafrans” and said I should be careful of dabbling in things about which I knew nothing; another student thought they were about female vivisection. Actually, despite the fact that this was apparently a screaming figure, it was actually nothing like Munch’s Scream, and, not for the first time, I found that what was, in fact, humour/satire was missed. Though it didn’t help that I was completely incapable of articulating what was going on in my work in those days.

Although the imagery in my work has evolved from being generally larger and more loosely painted and has become more condensed, what has remained the same throughout is a desire to convey calm, unflinching directness with the viewer. After Glasgow School of Art, I spent a year in a Polish art school. While there, I spent a lot of time in churches and museums looking at icons, paintings and sculptures. I was drawn to the searing directness of communication that these artists achieved on a human level, and I think this fed into the work that I was to go on to produce. I went on to marvel at 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting for a while, and have always loved, and still do love, Rousseau. I also love JW Turner, Lucian Freud, Gwen John, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, pre-Islamic art, cherubs and relief sculpture, Polynesian sculptures, Celtic, Roman and Greek reliefs and ceramics, textiles and wallpaper. As well as these conventional art influences, there are the likes of models from Woman’s Weekly or Woman’s Own that arrived in our house every week, or in individually purchased knitting patterns from, for example, Patons, as all the women in my family knitted in the 60s and 70s. These matronly belles looked sultrily over the shoulder while wearing a lumpy cardigan of intricate construction and an enormous collar in some elaborate stitch. Something of this pathos finds its way, peeping over the shoulder of my portraits. Similarly, the models from clothing catalogues from the 70s, such as Freemans, where mannered models contrived to look blithely casual while waving across the room as if just spotting a long lost friend while wearing only underwear. All have fed into my bank of images that probably sit there until they seep out unconsciously.

JMcK: Your paintings also share the invention of exquisitely created illustrations for literature, where minute detail and fine brushwork feature strongly. Yet their intention or meaning is never overtly obvious.

HF: They often deal with that which I’d have difficulty expressing verbally, and there is often more than one thing going on. To be honest, when somebody baldly asks what a painting is about, in my head I am saying firstly, “I can’t tell you that!” but also, “Isn’t it obvious?” as it seems so to me. So much so that I may obscure it by painting something in a whole other setting from its origin in order that it is easier to deal with/becomes a better place to inhabit for the duration. I know that is not fair: we produce paintings to exhibit publicly, but make them in privacy about often intimate subjects – it’s a paradox. Daily human interaction can seem like negotiating a tightrope, constantly checking and counterbalancing. Painting gives a space to express without those shackles.

JMcK: Your sketchbooks are very small and the sketches within are minute. On a single A5 page, there might be as many as five tiny images for paintings, no bigger than postage stamps, yet they are dynamic and can be adapted to a larger canvas. How do the minute images enable your working process?

HF: They hold an essence, which I try to hold on to right throughout the painting process. If it doesn’t work on that tiny scale, if there isn’t that energy and tension in the bare bones of the composition, then it won’t work when it’s hundreds of times larger. They often begin as a pair, or collection, of abstract shapes that relate to each other in some way. For example, one overwhelmed by another, one supplicating, a blot over a whole load of complicated mess; and they evolve into figures or elements (it’s quite a meditative process – this part normally takes place in quiet without distractions). I have ideas of images, textures, patterns, colours, landscapes, floating around my head all the time, or in actual notes in my sketchbook, or as a collection of scraps on the wall of my studio. These may be brought in and combined with the bare-bones-composition fleshed out if they fit. Sometimes an idea comes along, or images/patterns etc, and it/they has/have to wait until something comes along to combine with it to bring it to life.

In the past few years, I’ll also sometimes do a small study in oil pastel; again, trying to keep the thinking and drawing fluid at this stage. This will generally be on a scrap of brown paper or some unprepared surface that isn’t very precious. The impermanence and throw-away potential of the medium seems to lend itself to freeing up the creative process at this stage.

JMcK: Your paintings are extremely labour intensive with minute detail and brushstrokes meaning that each work takes months to produce. Can you describe your methods?

HF: Yes, they can take from a couple of weeks for the tiny ones to up to four or five months for the larger ones. I generally go straight from the tiny sketch (or if I’ve done one of the small oil-pastel studies) right up to the painting, trying to retain the potency and urgency of these initial bones and harness them within the rich surface of the larger painting. At art school, I used to do an intermediate large drawing in graphite, rather like a cartoon, where everything was mapped out exactly in monochrome. Anyway, I’ve long since done away with this stage. It’s always apparent what the dimensions should be. Scale is important. If something is meant to be 90cm x 120cm it won’t work as 30cm x 40cm and vice versa. Ideas aren’t always transposable across different scales. I measure the small sketch to gauge the proportion of height to length and scale it up.

I work on a white acrylic gesso ground and use oil paints, genuine turps and linseed oil to thin and mix, and that’s all, no other mediums. I start by drawing out the composition with a brush using yellow paint well diluted with turps. At this stage, I almost always don’t know, other than those bare bones of the composition, what is going to be where in the picture, how it’s going to be filled. This is the hardest part of the process. Everything looks scrappy: it would be easy to dwell on making the wrong choice of where to go, but, of course, there isn’t one, you just have to creep towards it. Of the areas that I know about, I’ll block them in in thin layers of paint diluted with a lot of turps in quite pure, dilute colour. If something isn’t explaining itself, I’ll leave it blank until it becomes obvious what it should be (this is contrary to what we were taught, where the whole painting should be kept developing together, working up areas in relation to each other, but, hey, the imagination doesn’t always furnish you with a template ready formed from the get go, it has to be teased out. This layer dries within a day or so. I start working into those thinly blocked areas with slightly more moulded paint with a slightly higher ratio of paint to turps and a bit of oil. This carries on, allowing layers to dry using the fat over lean principle, working the surface up until it is densely finished and becomes its own world. If I’m working up, for example, lace or pearls or anything, really, each layer has to be painted and dried about three, four or five times.

JMcK: Portraiture is a strong element in your dreamlike works, but you also make portraits as such. What does the human form enable you to address, to explore?

HF: The portraits are a touchstone to which I keep returning. They provide a moment of direct unflinching communication, something I can find difficult in actual day-to-day human interaction, and this is a world in which I am in control and have freedom.

In the 80s, the figures were squat and small, with heads larger in proportion to the body, often against a black background. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to expose the minimum surface area of myself to the viewer, the hands and face always being most important, though. Full length with exposed neck and limbs felt too exposed, too gangly. Over the years, they have become more spread out, and I’m embracing that exposure. However, at the same time, the backgrounds became more cluttered with dense texture and pattern, which kind of contains the figure so it doesn’t feel exposed. The clothing also can be heavily embellished and dense – a little like armour to protect them. There is something about taking this traditional format, in which, historically, the woman would be depicted as revered, saintly, good and ethereal, and placing my imperfect self within this construct. This may be hard to believe, but there is humour in this for me, too.

Where the figures used to clutch objects that bore some personal symbolism, nowadays I’m interested in the nuances that can be conveyed by the smallest adjustment of the way an empty hand is positioned. So much is revealed in the merest curl or straightening of fingers.

JMcK: The New Glasgow Boys in the 1980s (like the original Glasgow Boys, 1890-1910) suggest that their female counterparts, such as you, were marginalised as artists, though the trans-avant-garde artists in Italy were all men, and the German artists, too: Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, AR Penck. Has gender played a part in your career?

HF: It’s hard to say, as how would I know if it would have been otherwise had I been a man? My whole experience of life would have been different and I may have made other choices as to what to paint and where to go with it. Certainly at Glasgow School of Art there was debate about whether women were being given a fair crack of the whip. Of the painting tutors, one was a woman – Barbara Rae; plus one first-year tutor – Sandie Gardner. Myself and another female student organised an exhibition of women’s art in our fourth year (1983), in the Mackintosh museum in the art school, titled Working Women, as we felt that women’s work was not given the same respect as that of men. We were incensed having learned that one of our (male) tutors had been heard saying women did not have the balls to paint (and also, later, that the women’s work in the show was “all tits and bums”). So we invited women artists and went around the art schools and invited artists whom we felt were producing strong work, both established and student, to exhibit. Of course, we had glaring gaps in our knowledge about how many women artists were actually producing and I squirm now at the memory that we had the cheek to actually select the work of fellow artists, including those older and better than us, but there you go ­– the arrogance of youth, and we had plenty of that. There was a lot of debate about the function of art in society when I was at the Glasgow School of Art. I can remember being present at some quite earnest organised discussions where we were told what was suitable subject matter for painting – social realism, basically. None of this felt like something into which I could comfortably fit, so I started looking at what other women were doing, and I felt more of a common bond with some of that. “The personal is the political” seemed to be the phrase of the time. I never really got this, but it seemed to console artists like me who didn’t know which peg to hang themselves on that they must be doing something right.

JMcK: What advice would you give an art student working today?

HF: Call me old fashioned, but learn to draw – it does, and will, matter. Find what it is which excites you, not the next person, and home in on that. And get on and do it, don’t wait to feel inspired, to have the right studio, for the planets to be aligned, just do the work.

1. The New Glasgow Style: Painting in Glasgow by Alexander Moffat. In: The Visual Arts in Glasgow: Tradition and Transformation by Christopher Carrell, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 1985, pages 6-7.


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