A Talk Talk Talk with Richard Butler
Hayley McCulloch | January 19th, 2016.
Images courtesy of the Artist and Freight and Volume Gallery NYC
I have yearnings on cold drizzly NY Spring days to be rambling around the cold drizzly Derbyshire Peak District. Around the time of one of these bouts, I struck up a conversation with Richard Butler, painter and lead singer of The Psychedelic Furs. I wanted to put a piece of his in an exhibit that I was writing a curatorial proposal for. The particular work had been sold and the show is yet to happen, but our exchange continued - dotting around art, music, magic, religion, creativity, moving to America, landscape and the dreadful aspects of longing. Here is some of that conversation:
Hayley McCulloch: I have a tumultuous relationship with canvas painting. I enjoy it, but working on flat and static parameters often turns me back towards combined media, where I feel more comfortable. There have been some interesting essays questioning why any artist would bother painting in the 21st Century. Reading them, in passionate defense, your work always comes to mind. Almost all of the paintings that I've seen of yours, present a dark humor and a melancholic sensuality - suggesting states of psychological struggle or some meditative surrender to internal conflict. Do you feel at all resolved of some complication when you've finished a work?
Richard Butler: Why paint today? Why not paint today..? Painting has a texture and feel all its own. It’s a beautiful medium. And I like to see a person’s ideas translated by the hand in this way. When I make a painting I am always trying to translate a particular feeling, one that strikes a chord in me. An image that to me has a certain 'truth' to it. That resonates with me in an honest and direct way. I never feel 'unburdened' when finishing a painting. Just a need to get on to the next one. Hopefully having learned something about myself and about painting.
HM: Your paintings seem to be rendered in a conscious dialogue with the old masters, but they’re totally not macho or mawkish. Astute commentaries on aspects of the human condition - particularly the life of the female psyche - come through as being fresh and rich and relevant. Who are some of your art heroes?
RB: My interaction with the history of art is entirely unintentional. I of course admire many of those painters greatly, as I admire many contemporaries…Many, many painters, Borremans, Velasquez, Goya, Breugel, Sargent, Kiefer, Bacon - to name a handful. Oil paint is beautiful stuff I enjoy the silence and the thought and the problems and the solutions and the surprises, etc.
HM: The girlish figures in the Mickey Mouse style gimp masks, the girl with a bloody nose and black eye, the bubble wrapped head, the face barbed in fairy lights, the rough and bloody hand-print in lieu of a girls mouth - these all seem to be depictions of women under states of restraint and duress. Have you ever been accused as being misogynist or of portraying misogyny?
RB: I have never been accused of misogyny, and any such accusation would be missing the point, or points entirely. I have painted things like fetish masks, black eyes and bloody noses, but this by no means makes up the majority of my work, or even a really significant amount. I have painted these things as much as anything because they are interesting and in some ways beautiful things to paint - the shininess of a mask, the reds and purples of a black eye. My paintings are always made with a love and empathy for the subject. I like to feel the paintings have a feeling of melancholy, hope, innocence. I don't think I have made a painting and directly associated the black eyes etc. with violence in mind, meaning I suppose, that the act of violence is not present in my thoughts.
HM: You really enjoy painting. That definitely comes across. Your work is powerful. The final piece looks effortless. Is that mostly true of the process?
RB: Yes, I love painting, I am obsessed, one could say. Effortless? I wish, or actually maybe I don't! Effortless painting would become boring fairly fast I imagine. I like the obstacles and myriad decisions, and rethinking. There is probably more time staring and considering what is going on than there is actually painting. It’s momentous, the resolution of stuff going on within the perfect play of blurred movement, light and shadow. The results look effortless.
HM: How was your solo show opening at “Freight and Volume Gallery,” last April?
RB: It was fun. I uncharacteristically had a good time being around that many people.
HM: You’re a Rock Star! What are you talking about?!
RB: It's not the work I worry about it's all the chatter. Sometimes I'm not so good at that..
HM : Milling around sometimes makes me anxious…I expect expectations for me to explain an often undefinable practice. Maybe it’s left over from going to Catholic school.
RB: You don't have to tell them anything!
HM: I f*cking know!
RB: F*ck that!! We should fly on feeling and intuition otherwise it's illustration, no? The 'Magic' is that which we can't explain. The catholic churches doctrines are hardly rational ...where did you get that from?
HM: I attended two strict Roman Catholic public schools in the UK midlands until I was 14 ½, as one of a small number of non-Catholics. The head-nuns in both places - had it out for me. I was put on the spot, and questioned, often. The disfigurement found in rationality…like the oration + writing constructed around a visual art should be hailed as coda..or something. That’s so true what you said about the value of intuition and the definition of illustration…certain pieces always tell me where they’re from and where they’re going, when it’s going well. Anyway, that said, you mentioned before that your parents hailed from Yorkshire. Did you grow up there?
RB: Both of my parents were from Yorkshire, but moved to the south where I grew up. I used to holiday there as a child. And my parents moved back there some time ago. I visit there fairly often. I find the Yorkshire moors and dales to be perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. My mother now lives in Cumbria, the Dales. I love it there. Something in the green and rolling hills & stone walls, just feels right somehow. My father was a communist/atheist.. HATED America. He had 3 sons, all of whom moved here.
HM: Seeing as how nearly all of your exhibited work is portraiture and references contemplation of an interior landscape, I wonder do you have any landscapes in mind that you ever consider painting - because I do and know that you enjoy taking photos of the stormy English midlands.
RB: I haven't been thus far too interested in painting landscape. I like the 'presence' of a portrait.
HM: Music-wise, what have you been listening to recently, apart from Radiohead and Lorde.
RB: I listen to many things in the studio. It all depends on whatever mood takes me. Again, maybe too many to mention…I have been listening also to Brian Eno & Cluster …. & of course, Black Star
HM: The confessional box, and the allusions to the patterned partition between repentant and priest, repeatedly appears in some of your paintings – obscuring whilst revealing a face in the darkness. It’s a shuttered and mysterious place, and for me, a totally forbidden area. I attended church as a kid, but was not baptized so never included in this ritual. This veiled space, fraught with tales of frailty and transgression, is a spiritual grotto, full of guilt, shame, patriarchal power play, penance and redemption - why has it turned up so many times in your work?
RB: The confessional returns to my paintings for many reasons, though raised an atheist, I have always been fascinated by the idea of the confessional box, the admission of ones sins, the search for redemption. There is a mysterious darkness to it all. Also, the shapes seen at times close up and others at perhaps an arm’s length, allow for a certain abstraction and distortion…something approaching cubism sometimes and at others the distortion of a Bacon painting perhaps.
HM: How do you find touring, after so much solitary time in the painting studio? Is the transition easy and/or welcomed and do you keep a sketch book on tour?
RB: I don't use a sketchbook very much at all. I tend to manipulate images on the computer. But I do work on paintings on tour. On the computer that is. I spend more time painting these days than I do on touring, by quite a lot to tell you the truth. I love touring, I love the inhabiting of a different character onstage than I would normally present, and conversely I love being inhabited by the songs. I tour 3-4 months out of the year and paint the rest.
HM: I have to tell you, I still come over all funny whilst listening to "Blacks/Radio." It’s one of my Psychedelic Furs faves - a mad, dance-able tune with bizarre lyrics. I’ve bounced around in bouts of idiot glee to that many times. Only a few years that I really paid attention to the lyrics. It seems to remain pertinent, touching on black slave labor, white privilege, the fetishization of modern commodities, the stupidity of yuppie culture, ennui..am I reading it the way you penned it?
RB: (Smiling) You are reading Blacks/Radio the way it was written.
More about Richard Butler here: http://www.freightandvolume.com/artists/richard-butler
Hayley McCulloch is a British born artist, writer, performer and short film maker. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and art fairs internationally.view all articles from this author