Alex Hubbard

Interview with Alex Hubbard, in which he discusses his quick-drying paintings, risk, slapstick cinema and painterly video.

Alex Hubbard, Just to Complete the Thought and La Califia (both 2011)

Ellen Mara De Wachter: Can you tell me a bit about the process you used to make the two paintings La Califia (2011) and Just to Complete the Thought (2011) and also about where the titles come from?

Alex Hubbard: It’s the same for both: there’s a ground painted on canvas and then acrylic black. Over that is a finger painting in red for La Califia and blue for Just to Complete the Thought. Finally, there’s a coat of tinted fibreglass and resin on top. In Just to Complete the Thought, there’s also a painting underneath that was destroyed that you just see coming through. La Califia is a terraced hotel on a cliff in Northern Baja in Mexico. It’s just at the edge, holding on. When you go, you can see that there are traces that it used to be the place to be: for example, Cybill Shepherd was there in the 80s. It still operates as a hotel but there are probably just two guests in a place for 200 people. Just to Complete the Thought was the idea of finishing something even if it’s not necessary. I think it came from talking about looking for matches, if you smoke and you want to light a cigarette but you can’t find matches. You’re going to keep going until you find the matches, because you’ve started this thought and you have to conclude the thought. For me, that kind of extends into making work.

EMDW: Is that because there are particular challenges with the materials you’re working with?

AH: Yes, with these the issue is the drying time. That was the initial way for me to paint. Now it has changed but at the beginning, the idea was that I could sit at a canvas with a brush and the standard tools meant there were too many choices for me. Working with quick-drying materials was a way to take a lot of the decisions out of the paintings; it was a way to make the gesture into the creation. The force and the constraints of the materials were the thing. But then you learn to control the thing and it’s no longer that. You lose something, and you’re filling in and it becomes something else.

These were made with the works flat, they are poured and the fibreglass goes on first. Where the fibreglass overlaps or where the materials don’t hit the canvas: those are things you don’t really control. They were the beginning of me trying to put painting back into the paintings. I got to where I had a perfect control over materials that were designed to almost handicap me and once I was controlling that, there was nothing really left. I lost interest quite quickly in just putting two things together. I still want to be making decisions in the paintings, but I don’t want to just be mixing chemicals and having control over the materials and the formal parts of the work.

Alex Hubbard, La Califia (detail)

EMDW: They are abstract works and like many abstract paintings, they also have a performative aspect because they actively convey their own speediness, dynamic processes and movement. Can you talk about the place of performance and performativity in your works, both painting and video?

AH: The videos started out mimicking performance. They were heavily planned, composed and choreographed in advance and I would film for two hours and then edit down to four minutes. So they had a speed like someone was just wrecking through something or making super quick decisions, but really it was three weeks’ planning and then two weeks to get it trimmed up and put sound effects on.

With the paintings, it’s the same thing: you want to have that life, but either you’re going to edit heavily or you’re going to plan to a certain degree. But it is that mix: you can plan the best painting and it might be terrible, but if you’re in the right mood and in the right space you can make something in 20 minutes that turns out so much better. It’s a balance. You want to be in that perfect place where you’re in the right mood and you have everything ready and you can act. That’s life, and you see the works that have life. You make one for three hours that turns out bad, but you learn something that then takes you two minutes to get right. How do they live on their own? That’s the harder part you learn later: how to contextualise work, how to put things together so that it has excitement.

EMDW: These materials are volatile and difficult to control, and you have pushed them even further by putting them through experimental processes. What role does chance play in your work? Are you conscious of setting up risky parameters before you start or do these tactics arise as you work.

AH: You know there are things you should not do. I remember cutting into a cymbal, and knowing I should not do that, it’s a stupid thing, I’m going to hurt myself. But you kind of suspend that and go ahead and do things you shouldn’t do. For me, that’s the real liberty and the real joy. I set up all these things in my work, and it is so much work to get to actually have the time to work on things. All of that goes towards this point where you do the one thing that shouldn’t be done, and hopefully it produces something. It doesn’t always; sometimes it’s a disaster. Like the urethane paintings I’m working with now, it’s the same. There’s so much work to get one of those ready, and then we get 20 minutes with it. You have one moment of risk, and that’s what I enjoy. Sometimes it’s dangerous, like bad chemicals, or with the video I made with the car, Annotated Plans for Evacuation(2010), there were moments in it when it was really stupid. People were flagging us down and asking ‘Where did you get those drugs?’ and it was like ‘We’re not on drugs!’. It’s a balance of that, or figuring out how to do it, how to take that chance in the right way.

EMDW: A balance between rational and aleatory. In a way that describes all learning. You have to go beyond what you already know and take that risk, it just depends what your areas of interest are. For example, Isaac Newton stuck a needle in his eye to see what would happen, because he was interested in optics. Would you say there are specific things you seek?

AH: Movement is a lot of it, and video’s relationship to editing and action. Editing can become a kind of drive and an engine to move through time and make movements that may have been hours apart look like they are one act, with a consequence and a directness. With painting, you can see when someone is unsure, and the painting I do has to look like it has a certain amount of confidence to it. There’s a lot of painting right now that looks like it is intentionally shruggish, and that’s interesting too but it comes out of a completely different way of looking at things, including the studio.

EMDW: There is a light tone to some of your works, in which you are playing with materials and choreographies. Do you consider play to be a specific strategy?

AH: Yes, and you get to do it in these tiny moments and that’s the best part about doing it. The amount of work you do makes that moment harder to get to. The more you have a studio and people helping you, the more you’re expected to produce. But you don’t want to look like it was hard work to get there, or like it’s tired.

EMDW: Do you feel the pressure from a market that’s asking you to make works?

AH: Oh, yeah, that really bothered me initially but now it has gotten easy. I got to the point where I could ignore it or write it off. In the middle of the night sometimes I’ll be like ‘I’ve got to make ten paintings!’, not to pay the bills or anything, but because I have this moment right now. But then I wake up and I can’t. The way I make paintings, it wouldn’t work – I can’t get lucky that many times in a row.

EMDW: There is also a strong involvement of the body, performance and improvisation in your work, partly because of the body-like scale of your paintings, but also because you appear in your videos, sometimes as a silhouette or a hand and sometimes as a puppeteer off screen. How do you prepare for these performances and how do you decide on the level of your own presence in the works?

AH: The level of my presence changed because there was only so much I could reach in and do, and I got tired of that movement of the hand on the edge of the frame. That gesture was exhausted and I wanted to try and insert myself into it. Initially, the first one I did was Annotated Plans for an Evacuation, with the car, and there was no time to think about how I was going to look, I was just working. Then when the movies started to become collaged together, I used a big seamless backdrop in the studio. It then did become a question of what I wore, and what the artist was in this. I didn’t feel like I had some kind of strong persona I wanted to inject in it. I played with the costume a little bit but it was more about how I moved, trying to look natural. I tried it nude, in different clothes, work clothes, but I never really solved it for myself. In the newest one, I’m just wearing protective clothing and that seems to work.

EMDW: I guess once you start thinking about it, you almost can’t stop, because there’s the history of theatre, cinema, performance art feeding in. There’s such a self-consciousness of the appearance of the body in the frame.

AH: And you think about the artists who did and do inject their persona into the work, but that’s not a part of my practice at all.

EMDW: Some of your videos are like moving paintings. Could you talk about the relationship between moving image and painting in your work? And also perhaps touch on aspects of the cinematic and slapstick that come up in some of your works? I think one of my favourites is The Paranoid Phase of Nautical Twilight I-III (2009) in which you’re cutting through the wall and there’s an aura and mood, and tremendous suspense but at a certain point it just becomes funny.

AH: That was the slasher movie one. It came from Anthony McCall, but it’s like the Halloween version. I had seen a beautiful Donald Judd drawing or something, and I thought: what if instead of making gestural things, I made a minimal thing in the same manner? What if I’m cutting a circle or trapezoid? And then you see it and realise it’s all been done, but not like that, not in a disaster way. I made two layers of drywall with luan, a smooth wood, on top. I painted the front so that it was the opposite colour of the lighting gels, and I used a chainsaw to cut through the two layers of drywall. It made an unbelievable mess. That was the last thing I made in that place, because the neighbours hated me already. It was fun, and it was so satisfying because it worked so well, especially the circle, which is kind of perfect.

The Paranoid Phase of Nautical Twilight I-III (2009)

I would go and look at silent cinema a lot initially. It’s the language that then became cartoons. I don’t really have a relationship to theatre but I am a sucker for staging; if I’m in the dark and I see that, then I’m genuinely impressed! What became a bigger question was that a lot of people wanted me to show sets or leftovers and props. It was a real decision I made, that the finished piece was abstracted from the performance, and removed from what I actually did in getting it edited down into a video. That’s what I really wanted to focus on. You see these film stills of Robert Altman movies that show the cast and crew and it’s neat but that’s it, it’s not interesting. Video art so often fails, to me, because it’s redoing 30 seconds of what a good movie does. So video art is good when it’s doing something that cinema doesn’t even try to do.

Alex Hubbard interviewed by Ellen Mara De Wachter, 15 March 2013, New York, NY

This interview was originally published in Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection, available here.

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