Published  22/04/2017

Secundino Hernández: ‘As a painter you have to have the courage to not be afraid of change’

Secundino Hernández: ‘As a painter you have to have the courage to not be afraid of change’

Secundino Hernández talks about his academic origins, the delicate equilibrium he seeks between accident and control, the quintessentially Spanish spirit of his painting, and his current exhibition, Paso, at Victoria Miro, London


In his second solo exhibition at Victoria Miro, Secundino Hernández (b1975, Madrid) exploits two distinct gallery spaces to present continuities and novelties in his investigation of the possibilities of painting. The kinetic thrust of the exhibition’s title, Paso (step), suggests Hernández’s movement between abstraction and figuration, testing and perhaps refuting them as distinct categories. His exploration of that distinction, assuming that it even exists, emerges with particular allure in his quasi-portraits, intimations of faces fashioned in some cases with a bare minimum of paint. Not easily discernible in reproduction is Hernández’s adroit exploitation of the canvas itself, a compositional element he puts to work as much as his expansive colour and graphic verve. The prominent presence of the canvas emerges not only in his imaginary, fresco-like portraits, but also in the restrained, monochromatic studies displayed at the Wharf Road gallery in north London. In potent contrast with these spare, black-and-white works, looms his most monumental, assertively carnal palette work yet.

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: “Academic” now seems like an antiquated concept in reference to art yet you had an academic training: how much of an effect did that have on your later development as a painter? There is a strong component of controlled, even virtuosic, draughtsmanship in your work.

Secundino Hernández: When I was studying, we did exams based on making charcoal drawings of classical works, which should give an idea of how academic the approach was at the Fine Arts Academy. That was at a time when people were starting to work in video, performance art, at least in other parts of Spain, but not in Madrid. At the time, we always felt we wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere more modern, more in touch with technology. But in time I realised I was lucky to have gained that knowledge, of drawing in particular, which is the basis of everything.

In art, it’s important to have ideas but also important to know how to execute them. As part of our training, we would sometimes visit neighbourhoods after class to draw, learning about proportion and scale. It was still an analogue world, the end of an era in every sense – we didn’t even have computers, we did everything by hand.

ARC: Your work has often been compared with abstract expressionism, both in formal terms, as well as in the “action”, performative aspect of your process. Were you consciously interested in American postwar abstraction in your formative years?

SH: At the beginning I was very interested in it, but after 2005 I moved to Rome and ended up in another academy, the Spanish Academy, where my room was above a library largely dedicated to Spanish art. I went there every day and realised how important those roots and references were, and how much they affect your work and so how important it is to understand them, even to understand other types of art in the context of a global world. So the language I use has something of American abstraction but the spirit is very Spanish.

ARC: To me, that Spanish spirit emerged most fully in your series The Earth is Round that has a comic, absurdist exuberance. Were those self-portraits, something to do with the condition of being an artist?

SH: Yes, something like that; the idea was to represent fears. They were also based on Francis Picabia’s beautiful painting Villejuif where you can’t see what that figure is doing with its hands. I was quite naughty in that series and actually wondered who would buy the works. That was around the time I moved to Berlin and started drawing a lot, thinking about line and wanting a certain alla prima element in the work, a spontaneity. I was also thinking of specific Spanish references such as Goya.

I’m not so interested in those actual paintings any more but more in what I was developing around them, a certain abstraction, the beginning of what I’m doing now.

When people said at the time that they were examples of expressionist art, I always said: No, if it is expressionist, it’s very slow-motion expressionism because I planned everything very much in advance. I did lots of sketches and always tried to keep a balance between painting, drawing, line and colour.

ARC: There’s also something of an element of calligraphy in some of your work, a kind of unrestricted calligraphy, as if you’re thinking of that join being line, writing and painting.

SH: Yes, but, of course, that changes when you’re in front of a three or four metre-high canvas, because while you can plan everything on a piece of paper, the painting becomes much more performative. Technically, it was a goal of mine to be able to transfer that rhythm, lightness and control of a drawing on to a large-scale work. So I see those early works as referring to a means of transferring line on to a large canvas with a tube of paint – something I still do.

ARC: It’s interesting that you talk about the need to plan, because at the same time a particular characteristic of your method is your use of a heavy-duty pressure washer that erodes the pigment through to the canvas. I imagine it’s much harder to control with precision, and introduces an element of chance to an otherwise premeditated design?

SH: This is quite a recent development. I suddenly thought it was time to try something else. When I sketched the works in the planning stage, I felt free and unself-conscious but that feeling never translated to the canvas. I never painted directly, in a natural way, and wanted a way of changing that process and introducing accident, which is something you have to be mentally prepared for. I ended up with this method because one day I wanted to destroy a couple of works and recycle the canvas so I needed to find a way of peeling off the surface. I saw that this process gave such a nice, unexpected depth to the paint.

ARC: In your current show there are some new directions. At the Wharf Road gallery you have these stark, monochrome pieces, in comparison with earlier work. Why did you feel the need to turn to these very restricted elements of canvas, primer and black, using them as your sole compositional elements?

SH: I started to make these black and white works in Vienna, not knowing what I was looking for, just taking black tape and playing on the surface. Then I realised I was learning how to compose, breaking the surface, like when you peel tape off paper or another material. I realised I had the perfect chance to continue developing those earlier experiments, looking at how the paint masked the primer. People think they’re new, but they are the result of something I’ve been investigating for over a decade now. The idea is to dig into the surface, reaching the pure canvas. It’s a sculptural process, the opposite of what normally happens in the painting process where you’re always adding, like in the palette works where you’re also modelling the paint, and that’s also a sculptural process.

ARC: Certainly both have a sculptural element, for all their differences. In one case you’re digging in, piercing layers, while in the palette works, the paint is so intensely en relief as to become entirely three-dimensional. You’ve done palette works before, but never on such a monumental scale.

SH: In part it was a challenge to see if I could work on such a monumental scale but, in general, the idea behind these palette paintings was to keep the work open and generous in the studio, to share their physicality; they’re like generators. They are very important but no more important than the other works. With the large palette painting, it was almost a feat of engineering; I had to build a bridge with wheels to work in the middle. And I never thought I’d have a crane in the studio to lift it up. But these works are also like a diary, a memory of the process in the studio because they develop spontaneously.

ARC: We associate the palette with what happens before the real work is made – think of all the self-portraits of artists holding a palette, as if in the process of blending their colours. In your case, it’s as if you make that preparation of colour and texture become the work itself.

SH: I’m not that worried about what they look like, especially at the beginning, since I know they’ll change in time. With other works you have to be more careful – when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I like to start and end the day mixing colours, it’s such a free feeling and you’re not afraid to be wrong, it’s just an accumulation of material.

ARC: Since these works have such a markedly sculptural impetus, have you thought about taking up fully fledged sculpture?

SH: I have thought about it more and more, but I think it’s good to be patient, to have the right ideas to change your medium from known territory. Even when a painter works on paper, with a change of medium you have to change everything. But I am thinking of doing some experiments with sculpture.

ARC: In the Mayfair gallery, you’re also showing a series of figurative works, apparently portraits, largely based around a particular colour. Are these in fact portraits, or are they a pretext to move into representation, perhaps an extension of your abstract work?

SH: I think they are an extension of my abstract work: it’s good that you say that. When I decided to go back to the figurative, I wanted to test what would happen after almost 10 years of abstraction. They are still quite abstract – I didn’t want them to be too narrative.

ARC: It’s remarkable how little paint some of they have and yet how much of an illusion of figuration you manage to conjure up with a bare minimum of material.

SH: They are very reduced and it is a challenge to reduce each element as much as possible. The washes I use here mirror the way that, in nature, water dilutes everything but the strongest lines. In painting, too, only the strongest lines remain, so it’s a natural process.

I don’t usually like to go back to a painting but with these works I had the chance to begin painting, then leave the canvas and return to it, perhaps erase a little, which is something I had never done before, I never hid anything.

ARC: Nearly all of these works are untitled, as are many of your abstract works. In the case of abstraction, it’s more understandable to omit titles as they’re apt to manipulate meaning. An exception in these figurative works is Entrance. Why did you choose to give that particular work a title?

SH: When I’m sketching and planning work, I sometimes give a title but in this case I thought these figures were unknown people but now they are real, they don’t need a title. I didn’t want to be too narrative and say this is of a particular person. I don’t know why I called this one Entrance. Iit could be the title of a song; sometimes I use a name connected with a place I’m visiting. But I usually like to leave the meaning open by not giving a title.

ARC: Do you see your studio as a self-contained universe, where you think, test, produce, restart, erase and so on. In other words, is it a place that you experience as separate from the real world?

SH: I have a very different experience of my studios in Berlin and Madrid. The one in Berlin is based on my inner world, it’s in an apartment next to my apartment so I can just go in my pyjamas with my coffee, or work until very late. My studio in Berlin is my interior life, a space in which to be quiet, rest and think about projects, develop ideas. It’s a private place and even when people want to visit me it feels like an invasion. If Berlin is about working with ideas, in Madrid the studio is completely different and about the work itself, the production. It’s in an industrial area and I like to be in touch with the metal workers, carpenters, my neighbours, we all know each other and it’s a much more social situation.

They are such different cities and the best situation for me is the combination. Madrid can be too much but Berlin, too, alone, can also become too much. I need both the chaos of one and the peace of the other.

ARC: Do you see yourself as belonging more to the art scene of either city?

SH: I feel connected to Europe and European artists. Even though I know artists in their 80s who go back to the old question of whether painting is dead, that was never my experience and I think the question belonged to an earlier generation. For me and my generation, painting was always alive, painting will never be dead.

• Secundino Hernández: Paso is at the Victoria Miro Gallery (Wharf Road and Mayfair) until 6 May 2017.

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