Whitehot Magazine

September 2008, Interview with John Warwicker and Karl Hyde

September 2008, Interview with John Warwicker and Karl Hyde
John Warwicker (background) adding finishing touches to Naomi Troski's Short Stay with Karl Hyde (foreground) at work. photo courtesy of John Warwicker
Kara Manning interviews John Warwicker and Karl Hyde

On an alternately stormy and sunny August afternoon in New York, John Warwicker, co-founder of the catalytic, British-based art collective Tomato, is spending the day – as he’s spent the past ten days – tirelessly multi-tasking at the Jacobson Howard Gallery near Madison Avenue. A lean man in white t-shirt and baggy jeans, he’s a restless presence; adding quick strokes of oil pigment to his large scale painting, advising colleagues, amiably chatting with visitors, journalists and potential buyers and furtively stealing away for quick smoking breaks on the roof. As for his most exhaustive task, Warwicker has been the curator or “frontman,” as his longtime friend Karl Hyde of the electronic band Underworld calls him, for a two-week exhibit entitled Beautiful Burnout: The Art of Underworld.

The show, which closed on August 15th, is another step in the ongoing flow of “ArtJams” that Tomato is planning at not-yet-determined sites in Japan, Europe, Australia and the States. The collective of ten visual artists and musicians - first co-founded in 1991 by Warwicker, Underworld’s Hyde and Rick Smith, and five more friends - organized its first ArtJam last November in Tokyo with an ambitious, massively scaled project: a painting completed in just 16 hours during a day-long, Underworld-led music festival at the cavernous Makuhari Messe.

For Beautiful Burnout Warwicker, Smith, Hyde and Tomato took a different tack, given the cozier dimensions of the Jacobson Howard Gallery. When co-owner Loretta Howard - a longtime champion of master abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell and an admirer of Underworld - contacted Hyde in June and offered the collective fourteen days at the Upper East Side space, a refined but equally ambitious plan developed.

The result was a small, focused exhibit of photographs, paintings, drawings, film and soundscapes that not only showcased the work of Underworld’s Smith and Hyde, but that of fellow Tomatos Warwicker, Simon Taylor, Michael Horsham and Joel Baumann. Underworld and Tomato’s “extended family” of visual artists was also represented, via participants like Naomi Troski, Graham Wood, Toru Yoshikawa, filmmaker Toby Vogel, photographer Perou and Brooklyn artists Richard and Laura Schwamb.

Work presented included Smith’s deceptively tranquil soundscapes and elegant digital photography, Baumann’s studies of the terrain of the Marmarole Dolomites and Taylor’s expressive, elliptical, typewritten prints.

But it was the ever-changing ArtJam which felt so uniquely Underword/Tomato. Unlike most traditional gallery shows where work is displayed but rarely improvised on site, Warwicker, Hyde and Troski strode into the space with bags of brushes, tubs of acrylic paint and boxes of Sennelier soft pastels and created new paintings and drawings in front of their friends, families, strangers, press and other artists. Curious viewers from Sapporo to Swansea could head to the band’s website and watch via webcam. Most fearlessly for Warwicker and Hyde, given their self-confessed competitive nature (“in a loving way,” qualifies Warwicker), the duo worked with their Tomato colleagues observing the genesis of their projects.

 Karl Hyde
 Everything is Dirt and All Dirt is Beautiful, I, II, III
 Hand drawn monotype on cotton rag paper:
 61 x 135 inches
 courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery

On this quiet Tuesday afternoon, Warwicker is thoughtfully studying one of Hyde’s abstract drawings, part of a series called Everything is Dirt & All the Dirt is Beautiful, which the Underworld singer, lyricist and guitarist began in England and digitally sent to New York to complete. This particular print, which Hyde hopes to expand upon before he and his family catch a plane to Heathrow that night, is in restive mid-birth. He rapidly marks a corner of the 1.5 meter high by 1 meter wide paper with aggravated marks of graphite and peers at his fresh handiwork with slight frown.

“Have you tried the black oil stick?’ asks Warwicker, pointing at a spot, “To reinforce again between the graphite and the other line. In the gap there.”

“Yeah, I could,” Hyde responds, sounding a tad uncertain. Hyde is admittedly more tentative about his drawings, although he’s an accomplished, obsessive photographer who carries a cheap, half-frame camera and a mobile phone everywhere (“a cell phone is a camera that people can, inconveniently, phone me on,” he dryly explains). Hyde, who shoots with film, is resolutely lo-fi in his technique and his ephemeral, light-drenched photos of the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof or Bratislava’s New Bridge fleetingly recall the dusky, conté drawings of Georges Seurat.

As Warwicker fetches a pigment stick, Hyde turns to a visitor and grins, “ It’s great working with John. Like I’m back in college again.”

Though Hyde, a graduate of Cardiff University’s progressive art program of the late 70s, admits that it’s slightly “scary” to add oil pigment, given his preference for dry medium, he decisively takes the stick from Warwicker and makes a bold, textured arc on the bottom half of the drawing, mirroring the brambled, graphite line above. He adds more brash flourishes as Warwicker nods.

“You’ve now got an extraordinary range at your disposal,” says Warwicker gently, “and of course being oil-based and you can drip and dilute the mark with turpentine.”

As Warwicker wanders into the gallery’s office, Hyde turns and appraises his friend’s on-site painting, where and when, a kinetic, urban blizzard of forms on aluminum panels, punctuated by robust slashes of oil pigment and a hoarfrost of twilight hues.

“That one’s great,” says Hyde, “He’s gone from something that was quite controlled to something that’s quite expressive. It shows another side to John. The dancing man.”

Hyde has known Warwicker for 25 years and Smith for 28; the three friends even played together in Freur in the early 80s, a dreamy, Krautrock-meets-New Romantic band with an unabashed fondness for crimped hair (which still seems to fuel jokes between them). Over the years the trio has not only vigorously collaborated on work commissions for Tomato, but also on Underworld’s strikingly visual live shows, an innovative concert DVD (Everything, Everything), artwork for albums and digital releases, the band’s website, books, installations, videos and even a bimonthly online publication called The Book of Jam which they plan to publish in physical form in the near future.

 Karl Hyde, John Warwicker and Rick Smith (photo courtesy David Atlas/Jacobson Howard Gallery)

Beautiful Burnou
t: The Art of Underworld was a transformative two weeks for Warwicker, Smith and Hyde, invigorating the three friends’ ever-mutable conversations on the flux between art, music and life. In a series of interviews over the course of the exhibit, Warwicker and Hyde told Whitehot Magazine more about what was planned … and what eventually transpired:

Whitehot: When you look back over the last two weeks at the Jacobson Howard Gallery, did you and your Tomato colleagues experience or achieve much of what you’d hoped?

John Warwicker:
One of the objectives [was] to change the usual character of the gallery which would have the presentation of a picture, possibly on a wall, for absolute contemplation. We tried to create a more kaleidoscopic experience here by having other things always in hindsight, just to see what would happen. I think it’s achieved it. It’s got a certain power and energy through that difference and interestingly enough sometimes an unintended relation and connection. That’s one of the great things about doing something like this. It helps you form ideas for the next thing … or things that you’ve thought of but haven’t given a name to.

Karl Hyde: It’s also in the conversation, of what you’ve learned in the conversation, [like] walking the streets last night. Taking pictures of cracks and paint, and dodging cars that are slowing down to have a look at what we were doing.

Warwicker: And my camera is better than his.

Hyde: Yes, you’ve proved that now.

You are competitive, aren’t you?


Yes, of course we are!

It’s all about seeing what everybody’s doing, learning from it, asking questions, responding, and then even stealing from each other. Or sort of introducing what those people are doing into one’s own work: interpreting, reinterpreting and misinterpreting with the idea that work is being done. Because it’s about affirming life, one’s life, I suppose.

John, given your exhaustive work schedule, you’ve said that you regret the very limited time you have for your own artwork or projects. But you finally gave yourself that freedom in New York.

I think the painting I’ve done, has taught me a vast amount. It’s the first one I’ve actually completed in 27 years. The reason is [that] I was always scared of letting the genie out of the bottle for myself. There’s nothing worse than going back. Of having a glimpse of something and having to return to what you’ve been doing previously. Not that I dislike what I was doing previously, but of course there are pressures, purely with earning money to feed the family. The everyday pressures that everyone faces. And so in a way I have to concentrate on that and put my desires, wishes and really what I’m supposed to be doing in my life to one side. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be able to attempt to reconnect with that and [it’s been] a huge struggle physically and intellectually and emotionally.

How so?

Warwicker:. I’ve never drawn on aluminum. That was going to be a challenge because it’s very unforgiving. You can’t rub out. As my 4-year old son amply demonstrated when he added a mark. And that was a bit of panic. And then of course at the private view somebody with a suit and a backpack went across the painting directly under the very large sign I put up saying ‘Wet paint, be careful.’ Which wasn’t disastrous, obviously. Sometimes it’s quite good to have that thing to rescue. When you’re doing something that large, the first marks are really exciting and interesting and the end of it is exciting and interesting because that’s what you’re supposed to get to. But the middle part – that’s where the fight is. And the guy with the suit and the backpack just brought the fight far earlier than I expected.

Was working on two 8’ by 4’ panels quite challenging?

I normally do painting quite large and drawings quite small because that’s the nature of them. But the physical exhaustion of doing something that big beyond your grasp and keeping the marks consistent with the right amount of energy over a long time period is remarkably hard. Paintings only work if they look like they’ve been done in an instant.. That’s true of a Titian as much as a Jackson Pollack. Because then you accept it. You can deconstruct it afterward if you like and reveal its structure, its rhythms, its building, the whole thing. But when you look at a Titian at the National Gallery in London, you accept it, totally, as one thing. As if it’s an instant. But it’s obviously taken months and months to do.

Whitehot: Karl, what is the impetus behind your series Everything is Dirt & All the Dirt is Beautiful?

Some of these drawings started earlier this year in the winter. I love the winter – it’s my favorite time of year. [There are] hawthorns that are so indigenous in the UK. These wonderful hedges [and] when farmers let them go, they get to be very tall, almost tree-like. Against the sky [they look like] these very frantic scribbles, these dances, because of the intensity of the hawthorns. When they lose their leaves in the winter, you notice that there are old fences within the hawthorns that were there originally and then the hawthorns got planted to keep the cattle and sheep out. And so I started to do some drawing replicating that, using graphite to fill them in. They were horrible, really horrible, so I thought what would happen if you removed it instead, if it was negative space rather than positive space? And it started to work.. And then of course you start to layer on top of that and that starts to be dancing. A couple of months ago I started to erase some of the lines that cross over each other, that suggest shapes or forms. I started to erase things that were clouding out the forms, marks, so the forms started to reveal themselves. And some of them I started to fill in with chalk because I wanted to use mineral-based materials, like graphite and chalk.

Whitehot: Though they’re all quite different, there seems to be a bridge between your drawings, the assemblages you were doing this winter with natural materials and your street photography. True?

[The drawings have] come out of two things. It’s walking the streets for years and years and seeing the marks that people leave. I just don’t mean graffiti, I mean, the way tires and feet and things scuff walls and curves and marks that are actually left by people’s passages through cities. Plus, the kind of synaptic connections and turns and twists that go on in my head when I’m putting together dance movements live on stage. Those two things came together last year in Japan as I was doing a series of drawings to kind of help ease the process of doing interviews (laughs). Because you sit there and you’re working through an interpreter so there’s a lot of downtime while they’re talking to the journalists and the journalists are talking to them. I started to let my hand jerk with a pencil and express itself. The two things came together one night when I was photographing in the alleyways of Tokyo and this connection was made that these weren’t random movements. Actually, they were a description of marks that I was seeing in the street, coupled with these jerky connections that I make in my head when I’m freeforming dance steps.

The lo-fi but luminous quality of your photographs, like this one taken in the streets of Bratislava, seems almost painterly. Is this taken with the half-frame camera?

Hyde: It is, into the sun. That’s something that interests me - taking pictures into the sun. It starts to reduce the information that’s on the film, makes a very delicate mark. …. Light is like hope And it’s also not the thing that you do when you take a picture, you shoot with your back to the light. Shooting into the light [reduces] people to drawings, to silhouettes, to squiggles and they become characters in motion. Like figures in a piece of music.

Whitehot: John, I heard you’re considering a future ArtJam in an outdoor space in Japan?

That’s quite possible, yes. I want Rick and Toru [Yoshikawa ] to do that. I personally want Rick to do a soundscape in the forest. I’d love Toru to wrap the forest in silk, like the silk painting he created in the Makuhari. I think that would be utterly magical. Karl or I or whoever wouldn’t have any presence there. So what? It’s the work that counts. We’ve got to try different things.

Whitehot: What else?

Warwicker: I would love one ArtJam not to have any imagery at all and just have sound. I think that would be really nice. And needed for many reasons. Of course there are other ones where we could say that we’d have a whole room of Karl’s cellphone panels. [Or we’d] each have a room and the Jam that happens is made through the people visiting, connecting the various and disparate ways of expression. That’s sort of connected but not connected. None of these ArtJams I’d imagine are ever going to be perfect by their very nature. However the next one might prove me entirely wrong.
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Kara Manning


Kara Manning is a playwright and music/arts writer based in New York. She has written for Rolling Stone, MTV News, State, Print, Contemporary, American Theater and Jazziz. 

email: karisaig13@gmail.com


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