Press |  1990s | 

‘Walking the plank’ by Gordon Burn

John Hoyland harks back to a time when painters were action men, and painting was king. Gordon Burn finds that the forgotten revolutionary of British art is pretty salty about his peers – and braced for a kicking when his own work goes on show next week.

‘Solitary studio practice’ is a term that has been bandied about a lot in recent years in connection with young British artists. Solitary studio practice is something that the hard-drinking, hard-drugging, up-all-night, who-pushed-your-button? YBAs just don’t do. Angst has never been their thing. In a work mode they have a tendency to be cool, unexpressive, emotionally disengaged. Warhol’s children, expressing complete boredom for aesthetics as we know it.

As the world and his granny must be aware by now, Sarah and Tracey and Abbie and Angus and Mat and Sam and the rest play and work mob-handed, giving it large in the bar at St John in Clerkenwell, pissing it up further along the street at Vic Naylor’s or wherever, and staying at all times full-on. That’s full-on. Yeeeeaaarrghh!

It so happens that John Hoyland lives on the other side of Charterhouse Square from the falling-down places of recent legend, and solitary studio practice is something he knows all about. Just after six most mornings, when the lights in the meat market are being diluted by the dawn and the art world’s gilded girls and boys are trying to decide whether to call it a night or move it all on, Hoyland is rolling out of bed to start work.

Twenty years ago he bought a large unit in a former hat factory on the square, overlooking Bart’s hospital and tantalisingly near to the pubs that open in the middle of the night for the Smithfield butchers and market workers. He turned the back part of the space, with a view of the railway lines going into the Barbican station, into a studio. And it is there that most pre-dawns will find him preparing canvases or slinging the old chromatics on to monster canvases that he has laid horizontally on the floor. For years, his preferred working method has been to walk into the picture. He likes to loop and detonate paint straight out of the bottle and tube – getting the whole body behind a gesture; drawing from the shoulder. It’s like Jackson Pollock made holes in cans so he could do an extended line. It’s like that. He can squirt and spray, and it’s like frozen energy when it dries. The speed and violence of the mark are all in there. The cult of Pollock seems to centre around photographs, not of his paintings but of him painting. And more than 50 years later, Hoyland is still at it.

It is excessively physical. He sweats. The stretchers are big and unwieldy. The ceiling is not that high. But he is drenched most of the time in panic sweats. He takes off his shoes and steps into the canvas when he wants to paint wet on wet. He sets up breeze-blocks and a plank and walks the plank over the painting, flinging dribbles and gouts of paint like a dervish. Feathering it like a parlour maid or van Gogh’s Sower. A man in his 60s at six o’clock in the morning. Hey, geezer!

‘I ought to have some sleek trolley cantilevered out, made out of core-ten steel, or bloody aluminium or something. Some hi-tech machine like a crane or something,’ he says, not sounding convinced. ‘A bridge. But I’m afraid it’s just a plank that I got from the builders, when they were doing the scaffolding, that doesn’t bend in the middle. You’ve got to be careful you don’t fall into it. Trip and fall off the fucking plank.’

A pair of boots standing on a shelf in the studio tell how long this has been Hoyland’s life. A pair of 60s, high-zip dandy boots from Blades, lined in leather with block toes and rock’n’roll ##heels, the whole encrusted in acrylic. Museumised. A museum of himself. Painting in the studio is a job. It’s different from the perfectly worthwhile jobs that people do. It’s a different activity. But you do your job. ‘I go round picking up the canvas, so the silver iridescent’s all moving around, and then I start throwing colour into it. Yellows, violets, oranges, into the wet. You know you want some kind of a rhythmical break down there. And then I start picking it up and manipulating that. Letting that stuff all break up the flow. It’s like trying to pull a fish. You can’t just yank it out. You’ve got to let it run, find its own nature, and then gradually haul it in.’

He says, ‘It’s like being a god half of the time and a murderer the rest of the time. You’re creating a universe in the studio. You’re trying to make something new in the world one minute, and then you’re cutting it up and lacerating it. You’re tearing it. Sweating like a pig. Totally soaked. Painting is killer shit. It’s kill or be killed. It is. Painting is a killer sport. That’s why it’s so nice to do craft kind of work sometimes. Like prints or glass or ceramics. Collaborations so you can talk and chat and have a laugh and listen to the radio. Whereas when you do painting anybody can come along and say, “Well, you’ve led a completely worthless life.” And, hey, listen, they will. Oh, are you kidding?’

Hoyland’s has been a heroic endeavour. During a 30-year period when painting has been at an all-time critical low, supplanted by photography, video, assemblage and installation, he has never let himself be dragged down or wavered for a second in his commitment. The Royal Academy show (opening next week) should establish him beyond doubt as one of the most gifted British artists of his generation and one of the best non-figurative painters still working anywhere.

As Paul Moorhouse, the curator of the new retrospective puts it, his paintings now look like irresistible icons for the cause of painting.

Hoyland’s predicament is one that is common to all artists of his age. At 64, he isn’t yet old enough to a be a grand old man, but he is no longer young enough to be regarded as a young turk. He spent the early years of the 90s without a dealer. The Tate hasn’t bought a picture of his for more than 20 years. Although he added the Wollaston Award for most distinguished work in last year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to a long list of honours and prizes, it took the intervention of a long-time supporter, Sir Anthony Caro, to secure the Academy show for Hoyland, who has been an RA since 1983. He has known a fond disregard. A stasis. He has been a dweller in limbo-land. Hoyland decisively rejected Minimalism and Duchamp-inspired Conceptualism, where a favoured young painter such as Gary Hume, say, many years later embraced them. The result is that a painter who was once seen to be on the cutting edge of advanced art is now, thanks to the vicissitudes of fashion, relegated against his will to the ranks of the nay-sayers and cultural conservatives.

These circumstances have made Hoyland, with his super-tuned bullshit detector, an uncomfortable presence. He has earned himself – unfairly, his friends would say – an abrasive reputation. He can be irascible. He can also be rib-achingly, scurrilously funny. He is to the art one-liner what Les Dawson was to the mother-in-law joke. ‘They’re like Sickert on Tizer,’ is his description of Frank Auerbach’s ‘exercises in suburban expressionism’: ‘With Frank, there’s all that struggle and turmoil, and then he ends up having to put a cartoon face on top of the thick paint. A couple of dots for the eyes.’

Francis Bacon’s art is ‘far too illustrational. He might do a little seemingly free mark, but actually it’s a little toss-off, and then a little air-brushing on it.’ Bacon and Lucian Freud are merely painters of ‘melodrama’. ‘Drama is one thing. But melodrama is another. Like painting your mother naked with all her old veins and a rat on her tit. Or it might have been her shoulder. I mean, what kind of a life is this? People lying around with their bloody dicks hanging out.’ He describes an eminent contemporary as being ‘a big star of stage, screen and horseshit’. Britain is ‘visually uncultivated, cultivation being fine as long as you stick to gardening, and you better keep it neat.’

Hoyland didn’t go to the Venice Biennale this year because he ‘didn’t want to see any more videos made by Uruguayan transsexuals’. ‘Do you want wooden or do you want wooden?’ he says, holding open a catalogue of etchings that has arrived in the post. ‘Would you like it in teak or balsa?’ ‘Those tossers in Art and Language. You know where their headquarters is? Leamington Spa. It’s not Brooklyn.’

[Interview in advance of Hoyland’s retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London]

© Guardian News & Media Ltd 2013