“I get really nervous doing interviews,” says British artist Hush during a Skype video call from England. Though he did not specify why his nerves get rattled, it might be because he will say just about anything, and he usually does. For someone creating such serious and haunting images, this Brit is downright hilarious. It certainly adds one more interesting layer to his densely packed signature style.
Hush is commonly described as an action painter who might work on a piece in short spurts for several years. The Asian women in his art anchor the pieces with a sensual and unapproachable mystic, which the artist then adorns with a mashup of graffiti tags and colorful, hand-painted patterns. The Brit spent three years living in the Far East, and his art explores the seductive elements of Asian art and pop culture through a western paradigm. Hush explained more in his conversation with PRØHBTD.
A common characteristic in your art is the blacked-out eyes. What was the first piece in which you did this?
You know, I don't think I've ever painted eyes. Eyes tell you the personality of the person, and I wanted to take that away. The person is there, but the personality isn't. It can make them dark, it can make them serene, but it definitely takes away the element of personality so they become a female, not a person. Oh shit, that sounds bad: Women aren't people, though they are.
What draws you to silvers and blacks as the primary colors for the women?
A lot of people call me a colorist because I use so much color. I have a definite palette, but the blacks and silvers almost take away race, so I'm trying to create a character that is surreal in a sense. Everyone thinks they're always geishas because of the coloring: the black hair, the red lips, the white face. Actually, I've painted black girls white. People have asked, "Why did you paint that black girl white?" Well, it's not a race issue at all. It just takes another element of what's human away from the subject. Wow, I kind of sound half-sensible there.
When you take away individual characteristics, how do you transform the characters?
When I paint the female form naked, it's more sensual than sexual, even though it does embody the power of sexuality. That's what most of the paintings stand for, the power of beauty and the power of the presence of the female form. I always think important art, no matter when it's made, points us to the past. My point is to the female form in art history.
Tell me about your travels in Asia.
I trained as a graphic designer and illustrator, and I worked for various companies in Hong Kong. I always made art on the side. I never wanted to be a bread-and-cheese artist. I like bling too much, you know what I mean? I painted what I wanted to do rather than what sells, and then I started making money, so it was a nice, progressive, gradual, quite wholesome path.
How did Asian culture influence you?
Asia opened my eyes for the acceptance of different cultures, and the cross-cultural aspect was a massive influence. You've got guys in China or Japan dressing as punks and taking it further than the punk scene ever existed in the U.K. or the States. Then you got this hip-hop vibe and the anime vibe. You see all these guys imitating how they think Western guys are, and vice versa. We take on a lot of Japanese and Chinese street culture as well. We usually misinterpret their cultures, and I think they misinterpret ours, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. You are just adapting it to what you know.
Manga [comics in Japan] can seem very sexual out there, but when you bring it into the U.K., kids think it's quite cute. I suppose it was started to bypass pornography in a sense and rules about showing genitalia. What was the question? Fucking hell, I lost myself there. Oh, we both misinterpret, and it turns into something different and creates another street culture, which is the interesting part.
I read that you often work on two versions of the same painting and purposely take more risks with one of them.
There was a point where I did it with every single painting, but now I'm quite confident in the path I want to take. I created 24 pieces for this show, and eight of them were probably duplicates that I'd take further each time. In one aspect, it's a learning curve for me, but in another aspect, I can never make a painting on a blank canvas. It has to have something on it before, but I've worked out how to do that.
If you have a blank canvas in front of you, will you just start putting random images on it?
I have canvasses for years, but no canvas is just on the wall, fresh, new. I go through lots of different phases where I'm almost doing action painting or expressionism. I'm just painting colors, tagging the canvas, aging it to a certain extent, and then I just forget about it. Later, when I have an image in mind, that canvas will grow and expand and take over, and that's the canvas I'll use to make the actual painting.
That is interesting.
I'm kind of actually pleased with myself, you know?
You're doing great.
It's like 9 out of 10 [good answers] at the moment.
What painting in Allure would be the oldest in terms of the start date?
I started quite a few of them a year and a half ago, but the canvas, as far as when I made that first mark, it could be four years. I wouldn't say I've worked on the show for a year, but I started a year ago. It sends you crazy, man, sitting in a studio by yourself. Then I always hate the works after I finish them. I send myself through mental torture saying this is the end of my career. Then I enjoy it when I see it again. I need that time off, you know what I mean?
Do you find it difficult to know when a painting is ready?
The only thing that tells me a painting is ready is that it has to leave the studio. These guys have been calling me because I told them about three months ago that the studio's about to dispatch the paintings. Then I started reworking. See, if I started a painting a year ago, a lot's changed within a year. I start to introduce [elements] to the first painting that I just introduced to the last one, so all the work starts again. It's a vicious circle.
Can you tell me about a key piece in this exhibit?
I find it hard when a collector comes in and asks, “Which is the piece I should get?” Usually I'm looking around thinking which piece hasn't sold yet.
I've got paintings lying here on the floor. If I wanted to be cheap and just sell work and make money, I could do it. I just want to make sure that I'm telling the truth here. See this painting here? See how I printed over it again because I'm not going to use it?
Hush holds up a painting.
This took about a month to paint. This guy in New York paid me for it, and I sent him a photograph. He said, "Yeah, great, send it." Then I emailed him back and said, "Sorry, I don't like it." It took another six months to get him a new painting. I think I'm protecting myself, basically. I don't want to put out something if I'm not happy with it.
A long, long time ago, you used to design and illustrate flyers for raves.
Yeah, well, that was in my dark past. I lived in Newcastle, and it's quite a mad place. Growing up here, I know everyone. I know all the people that you should know and all the people you shouldn't know. It was the late 80s, early 90s, I was at art school, and I wanted to show my designs. That was my introduction to putting artwork on the street. I thought, “I'll start on club nights, design posters, put them up on the street.” I did that until I got warned off by a few people, and that was the end of that.
You got warned off?
Well, you know, there's a lot of people who run that type of thing. My works had become quite popular so I had to stop.
Considering your background in rave culture, did you ever try painting high?
Do you know what? I can never do that type of thing. Even smoking weed. Do you know how some people are operators? I've got these friends who get fucked up, taking everything, smoking as much weed as I might smoke in a year, and they're painting. I can’t do that. I can't even tie my shoelaces.
How does the art scene here differ from Europe?
In the States, people celebrate creativity. I'm always surprised… you can get grandmas and granddads turning up. You can get the graffiti kids coming because they know you might use tags or spray paint. You've got contemporary artists who maybe [appreciate] the colorist aspect. You've got all these age groups and backgrounds. I feel quite privileged at the diversity of my audience, really. It's not just the cool kids.
Last question. Do you ever have really old guys who fought in Vietnam or Korea talking in a weird way about how much they like the female characters in your art?
I don't want to say. I don't want to say that guy with his little girl next to him maybe told me, “I love your work.”
You have had those experiences?
I might have. I might.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.