South Africa-based painter Richard Hart brings a recipe for immortality to the canvas with fresh perspectives on a globalized neo-primitivism.
Here is what I notice about artist Richard Hart when we first meet in Dumbo: the dude comes prepared. He greets me with a winning smile and a firm handshake. As we talk, he looks at me dead-on—never wavering, never missing a beat, consistent eye contact. Hart doesn’t play around. Conversation comes with ease. When I ask if he has brought any samples of new work with him, he passes me a small black booklet. Inside: How to Live. Forever., a collection of his most recent series, gorgeous compositions printed in full color, laid out with the astounding precision and obsessive aesthetic found only with the best sort of art design. “I run a design studio,” he says simply as I flip through the pages. Go figure, Hart. The booklet is, in itself, a work of art.
Later on, as I go back through I realize that this new body of work is actually somewhat an illustration of a larger narrative. Within the cover, Hart has printed:
“After years of turmoil, brutality, corruption and war, a new Pan-African power base emerges. It is less a form of government than a transformation in consciousness, a sea change driven by the new values of a digitally empowered youth. Determined to right the wrongs of their forebears, and suspicious of Western political systems and failed economic models, the emergent leaders look inwards for counsel. They turn to their ancestors. To the Nature Spirit. They meld traditional notions of mysticism, magic and muti with technology and science. They forge new mythologies and rituals. Weapons become adornments. Music, poetry and rhythm are restored as portals to the divine. Animal spirits are called upon and revered. It is the dawn of a new primitivism. Though the dark soul of the continent remains, it is a warm, enveloping blackness that holds at its core love, optimism, healing and trust.”
I get it. Hart is molding new worlds, fresh possibilities, and a plan for eternity. And no wonder: each painting and sculpture presents faces, bodies, and objects with brave sight and new understanding. The work is all at once surrealist and stimulating, bemusing and beatific. Hart’s universe is one unknown, the geographies unmapped; there is so much to explore. The act of discovery is tantamount to the act of looking with each piece; to find is to see, and vice versa. Figures and structures unfold with a lyricism that excites and astounds. This is a novel direction and it is clear that Hart is in it for the long haul. With four international solo shows under his belt in locations ranging from Berlin to Cape Town, Hart is poised and ready to make his U.S. debut. Watching him hard at work, I can’t help but agree—this is, indeed, how to live forever.
After our first meeting, Hart and I continued to correspond, recording the artist’s first-ever interview about his creative practice for American press. I am honored to present it here.
Legacy Russell Let’s talk about about your relationship to South Africa as a space. Do you feel that there is a presence of a particularly South African influence in your work?
Richard Hart Although I’m not a native of South Africa, it has been my home for the last 30 years or so; I moved there with my parents when I was twelve years old. So while I have always felt like a bit of an outsider, it’s nonetheless the environment that has shaped me. That being said, growing up as a white, middle class male in South Africa is not an unmediated African experience. We listen to British and American music, watch Hollywood movies, follow European fashion, all the while being immersed in a black Africa that is itself as influenced by the West—hip-hop, celebrity culture, western ideas of beauty—as it is by its own culture and traditions.
So perhaps there is a South African influence in my work, but it isn’t entirely clear to me where that influence ends and other influences begin.
LR What background do you have in art training? Did you go to art school?
RH I didn’t come from a privileged upbringing so art was not considered a viable option in my family. In fact, art wasn’t even offered as a subject choice at the high school I attended. The concession was that I was allowed to study graphic design, which is still what puts food on the table.
LR Tell me a bit about your history with graphic design.
RH I co-founded my design studio, disturbance, with my sister back in ’97 after spending four years abroad, squandering the funds of a scholarship I had been awarded at the end of my studies. For the first decade or more of our studio’s existence, I thought of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool designer and had no real interest in making art. I fell in love with the idea of the brief, that yardstick that measures the success of creative output. The lack of an empirical mechanism for measuring the success of a piece of art bothered me. In any case—like many graphic designers—image-making became the centre of my practice. Our studio became well known for illustration and typography. Later, when we took on a third partner—a photographer—my interest turned to the possibilities of photography within my design work. This was also a deliberate response to what I felt was the increasing popularity and decreasing quality of illustration.
LR How has this impacted your current body of work?
RH My daily involvement in art direction—orchestrating photographic shoots with a specific outcome in mind—has come to bear quite heavily on the work I’m currently producing. At the outset I sketch out thoughts and ideas, refining them through a process of drawing, much as I do in my design practice. I then carefully plan and stage the tableaux developed in these sketches and photograph them, using these images as source material for my paintings. It’s a labor-intensive process, involving casting of models, location scouting, building of props, design and fabrication of garments etc but it is a process I’m comfortable with, closely related as it is to much of what I do daily at work.
LR Why paint? It’s one step further than photography, and there is a classic romanticism with painting as a medium . . . it’s also more tactile, messier, less sterile. What value does it have to you?
RH It’s a good question. Ostensibly the photographs I shoot have high enough production values to be presented as the final work. But paint has always held me in its thrall. The physicality of paint, and the visible presence of the artist’s hand, somehow imbue painting with a power that for me, a photograph can never match. Which of course is my own very romantic and perhaps naïve idea, but I’m okay with that. And then there is the simple pleasure of making marks with coloured paste. Without that it would be a rather dry and joyless form of art-making for me. Perhaps the rendering in paint is my reward to myself at the end of a process.
LR What is your relationship to the human body in your paintings?
RH Although conceptually my work is very much about the human condition, I tend to employ people much as I do other physical objects. In some ways I become very detached from the person within the body, rather it becomes a vessel for communicating the idea I’m grappling with, and as such it is open to being manipulated and handled as a sculptural element.
LR Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: race. You’re a white man, making this gorgeous artwork in South Africa, a space that, like the United States, has a heavy history regarding the politics of color. You’ve chosen paint as your medium which is this very classical mode of (re)presentation within the scope of art history, yet your figures seem to be suspended somewhere between a more mystical past and a very pop-imbued present. There is a lot to draw from here. It also seems that there is an exploration of blackness in your work, both literally in the exercising of a palette, and in the vehicle of the human body. Can you speak to this?
RH Conceptually speaking, race is not the issue I’m primarily concerned with. Nor do I see the work as straddling any point between a certain past and the present. In fact it is very much about an idea of the future. And specifically an African future.
Visually, Africa has always been served up to the rest of the world in cliches; the bare breasted virgin; the painted warrior; the woman carrying a load on her head; the tribal patterns and traditional garb, etc. But there is this radical young Africa that has nothing to do with these images. I think of young artists like Athi Patra Ruga, Spoek Mathambo, Michael Macgarry and Die Antwoord that are seriously fucking with the prepackaged western idea of African-ness. To me what they are doing is exciting because it feels like a natural, authentic evolution of things, even though it is highly theatrical. I’d like to think that my work speculates upon where this evolution might lead to.
As you’ve pointed out, South Africa has a heavy history regarding the politics of colour. So of course to some extent the race thing is considered. I am aware that, had I employed models of a single ethnicity, the work would have lost much of its power. Bringing the issue of race into the picture forces people to confront their views—how does a picture of a prone naked white girl with black men standing over her, their hands hovering above her body, affect your reading of the image? Would you read it differently if the ethnicity were reversed? The work becomes charged simply through a choice of pigment.
But what is more important to me is the cultural mashup—not only in what is represented, but in the fact that I am this Scottish-born white guy speculating with great earnestness on what an African future might look like. Perhaps it’s not so far from Spoek Mathambo a young, black South African hip-hop artist breaking through by covering a Joy Division song—this is the conflicted reality of contemporary Africa.
LR Absolutely—and of a globalized world. Where will it all lead?
RH I think art is very much about not knowing. And I really don’t know where contemporary African culture will head in the years to come. But that’s what makes it exciting to me. If you fumble around in the dark for long enough there is always a chance you’ll find the light switch.
The work is really about imagining a future. But of course our ideas of the future are shaped by our experience of the past. In this case I think recorded African history is all but irrelevant. I am drawing from my own experiences and impressions and memories. It is less art as a product of research, than art as personal response.
LR I want to know about who these people are in your paintings. Who are they literally—and who are they within your imagination, as you begin to construct worlds around them via your work?
RH I imagine this powerful movement that sweeps the African continent. Driven by a disillusioned youth it is less a form of government than a transformation of consciousness. I see them as avatars of this movement—of a new primitivism if you will. They are mystics, sangomas (traditional healers, aka witchdoctors) and fetishists, connected through rite and ritual, technology and magic, nature spirits and science.
In reality, they are just a really lovely group of art students who are happy to spend a day naked on a photo-shoot just for the experience. They are pretty much all liberal middle class kids, which of course adds another layer to the inherent conflict of the whole thing.
LR Can you expand on what you mean by “conflict” here? Also—“new” and “primitivism”—a paradox, no? How can these both be placed on the same plane?
RH Perhaps conflict is the wrong word. I’m referring to a further muddying of the waters, culturally. This is not intended as art that presents the neat, easily digestible notion of Africa, but rather art that wallows in the mess of where humanity is at in terms of culture and creed in the 21st century.
As far as the words “new” and “primitivism” go, I’m happy to let them live with each other. My reading of the word “primitivism” refers to something primal and animalistic as well as crude and unsophisticated, rather than ancient. Björk has been mining the neo-primitive vein for years!
LR In your earlier works, it seems that there’s a near Flemish influence . . . the colors and the use of light seem to call upon Johannes Vermeer, or even Jan van Eyck with the degrees of saturation. In the ones that came later, the entire palette darkens, the figures are more complex. In both bodies of work I am struck by the surrealism, but also the collision between human and nature and organic and inorganic. In moments, I see O’Keefe as much as I see Dali. The colors, bodies, objects, and the spaces around them—all seem to be in a state of limbo. Who are some of your primary influences?
RH My influences are probably best split into two categories: conceptual and formal. Conceptually I feel great resonance with the work of photographer Roger Ballen and maybe sculptor Mark Manders and how they work with the human form. I also love the visceral nature of Terence Koh’s work and the way it evokes emotions I don’t fully understand—to me that is art that succeeds.
I also have spent a lot of time looking at the work of Richter’s monochromatic photo-based works. And Wilhelm Sasnal, Tilmans . . . painters that employ great economy in the representation of their chosen subject matter. But purely as a painter, I’m most drawn right now to the work of Michael Borremans. I’ve only fairly recently discovered his work, and it somehow gives me reassurance in my direction. Perhaps I feel that I’m playing in the same key. I feel his work has a narrative quality. I’m interested in narratives, even if they are unclear. Maybe especially if they’re unclear.
LR So, what’s next in the narrative regarding your own practice? Any idea?
RH I have always had this compulsive need to see things through. So for now this body of work has a long way to go. There are fifteen or so photographed tableaux that are waiting to be painted, and sketches for another dozen after that. And I have a number of ideas for sculptures and installations. So I’m pretty sure the narrative is written for at least the next year or so. Thereafter I look forward to it becoming unclear again.
For more information about the work of artist Richard Hart, visit his website by clicking here.
Legacy Russell is BOMBlog’s Art Editor. She is an independent curator, artist, writer and cultural producer.