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Waterfront Festival

Hew Locke

15 July 08 words: Kat Wojcik
"We all want black and white, and we all want cut and dry, but life is quite often grey with grey areas. And that’s where I’m coming from"

Artwork by Hew Locke, Photography courtesy of David Sillitoe

Bright and flamboyant, yet loaded with hidden meaning, Hew Locke’s installations are one of the most sought-after in the country – and his latest piece resides right here in Notts. Originally from Guyana, Locke’s visual language is forthright, rebellious (see his Royal Family installation that caused uproar in Daily Mail-land, for example), but also reflective. In the past he has exhibited at The Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Britain, the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and as part of British Art Show Six.

Tell us about your piece at the New Art Exchange…

It’s a photograph-based piece, using images of Nottingham; bits and pieces of buildings and architectural details.  These are then painted and turned into silkscreens, printed onto aluminium, worked into a pattern and fixed to the ceiling of the café as a public sculpture.

Your work is incredibly complex and intricate and works on many different levels.  How do you go about weaving all these influences together?

What I tend to say is that there are layers of meaning, and literally layers of process, in making the work.  Sometimes it can be read one way, and other times it can be read slightly differently.   And I like to make things that can have a multiple reading. For example, the images of the Queen that I use in my work can be read by some people as celebratory and by some people as something defamatory.  And for me that is how it should work.  I like ambiguity, and I like complexity, and the older I get I find things less simple.  We all want black and white, and we all want cut and dry, but life is quite often grey with grey areas.  And that’s where I’m coming from, really.

Your work often uses bright and colourful objects, so why have you opted for a monochrome look for the NAE?

I felt that to do something colourful, on such a low ceiling, would be too overpowering.  If the ceiling were much higher, that would be different.  In black and white I feel that I can say things in a much more punchy way; it comes across much more direct.  Even though it’s in monochrome, to me there is colour in the different shades of cream, white, grey, whatever.

The political and historical references within your work seem more digestible presented in a tactile and colourful way. Is that intentional?

Exactly. For me it’s about seducing people and also seducing myself as well.  It’s about making something that’s tactile and attractive.  Then once you’ve drawn your audience in, it’s like fishing basically.  Once you’ve got somebody on the line you slowly reel them in, and then people realise what it’s about. Then people come up with their different stories about what I’m saying.  Everybody brings his or her own life story, their own life experience to the work I produce.  And that’s fair enough.

Black and Asian artists are extremely underrepresented in contemporary art, aren’t they?

To a certain extent, yes, particularly in the contemporary gallery scene; there are very, very few black and Asian artists compared to how many black and Asian artists there are out there.  That’s a problem.  But then, it’s business, and people are finding their African and Asian artists in Africa and Asia, or finding people in New York, in Paris, or South Africa.  And that’s how it is. It’s an international art world, and the competition has got stiffer.

Do you feel that people make assumptions about your work because of your cultural background?

Yeah, people definitely make assumptions, and sometimes I play along with it and sometimes I make a critical comment on those assumptions.  The photographs I’m making at the moment for the show How Do You Want Me? At Hales Gallery, London, are specifically a response to people’s reactions about me and my work. A lot of the time, things can come out of peoples’ reactions to the work, and these recent photos are definitely that, for sure.

Your recent work has a moved into a performance-based approach. Is this reaction why you are present in the images?

Exactly, I need to be present within the work.  For it not be someone looking at an object, but the object to be looking back at them and the object to be me.  This is a shift I have been working on for a number of years, to put an extra spin on things.  It’s very personal to allow myself to stand there in a costume and almost mentally embody a particular character.  And these characters are all quite dark and quite scary, but are very bright and colourful at the same time.

So there’s an element of seduction?

Yes. For me there has to be a seduction there. The characters are seductive in a way that you find in films today.  Ever since the seventies with the creation of an anti-hero, there is seduction in characters. An early example is Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns. Is he good? Is he bad? Or is he ugly?  And I find a similar thing with figures like dictators.  Who are these guys? They are extremely unpleasant people on one hand, but then they also suck people in, and get a huge amount of attention.

How have you found the negative reactions to your work, in particular The House of Windsor?

I find it interesting what people think when they don’t like something - and why they don’t like something.  I think the work you do becomes so much a part of you that you don’t see it as disturbing any more.  In actual fact these pictures of the Royal Family, which are all quite strange, are done with an incredible amount of sensitivity in terms of the formal aspect of the image, which is very careful, meticulous and precise. But they end up looking obviously quite weird. Long story short, it doesn’t bother me what people think either way, if people thought I was doing very pretty, celebratory images, I would be a bit concerned that I wasn’t pushing enough. I find people’s reaction to work interesting on a historical level.  When Caravaggio started using real people as Mary Magdalene and St Peter, that at the time was incredibly shocking, and now it’s, whatever, you know.  It’s still bloody amazing work though, but at the time the shock value was huge.

Do you think that in the future people will change their impressions of your work?

My work is quite Impressionist, as in literally Post-Impressionist, when I finish it.  You make something and you have no intention of it being that, but at the end people are like, oh, that reminds me Monet or Bonard or something like that.  That’s really weird, it’s not fashionable at all, and I quite like that.  But also, you forget how those guys were hated, beyond belief, really reviled.

They were ostracised completely.

And now its chocolate box stuff, you know what I mean? Everything eventually becomes mainstream.  It seems that the capacity for shock isn’t there any more, and my work does not set out to shock at all, it just sets out to work, you know.

Hew Locke’s installation is on permanent display at The New Art Exchange, Hyson Green, Nottingham.

Hew Locke website

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