Josh is a British artist who creates seriously intense paintings that are boldly colorful http://joshhollingshead.net/ and seem to portray a world that borders on chaos. I saw his work online and knew I’d have a great chat with him which I did. What inspires Josh? Read on and find out…
MICHAEL: Josh, Your work is killing me. What am I looking at? It's beautiful chaos. It's an explosion of color, people, activity, hope and doom. What's going on in that head of yours?
JOSH: Hi Michael, It’s not so much what’s going on in my head as in reality! It’s the world painted in colours which show the heightened intensity of the moment, an endless stream of dilemmas, small and large. I like to make works where the longer you look, the more you find, where every detail is precise but in flux, and adds another aspect to the narrative.
I should add, the chaotic impression of my paintings, on close inspection is revealed to be entirely deliberate. There is always a sense that life, for any individuals is uncontrollable unless broken down and segmented into parts, though most of the parts are interrelated. Colour holds that in check and unifies these disparate elements. It can also allow for a painting to be a Trojan horse, a false impression of harmony fading upon further observation. I would say society in general functions in a similar way; the reality is glimpsed only sometimes and is mostly only reflected upon in the mind or in words.
MICHAEL: Yes, I can clearly see that. Your work almost looks as if it's done in layers because there's so much going on. How do you begin a painting? Do you start with a concept or color or a detail that you expand upon? Do you start in the middle of the canvas?
JOSH: I start with a clear visual impression in my mind, almost a mental photograph, but with hazy edges. There is usually a basis for each work in direct observation, though often only a glimpse of several real scenes. This often occurs while I am travelling or reflecting on memories of scenes fleetingly observed. I will then sketch until I reach a point where further research is necessary, from books or photographs. It is important to me that my perception and ideas have some basis in reality and the meaning especially so.
I start each picture in a different way, deliberately so, working with a different colour underlayer or painting very slowly, piece by piece onto blank canvas. One time, I’ll create from a full-scale drawing and another time I’ll paint straight from memory. I get impatient with routine approaches to an image which is supposed to be a one off, and each idea has a separate requirement in technique and materials.
MICHAEL: While you're actually painting, is the process intellectual, emotional or spiritual? What's going on in your mind? What are you thinking and/or feeling?
JOSH: In general, it’s mostly mechanical, putting my brush in the right place! I don't have a steady hand and there is always a vast swathe of detail to paint. I feel strong emotion when I get an idea, it hits me, my hair stands up on end! Then it’s about engendering the same response in others rather than feeling it myself. After that, the planning of small details, making the meaning clear - the intellectual part. 99% of the process is concentration, time, patience and luck. Sometimes, the idea develops and some humorous asides creep into the painting or I add spontaneous passages, move figures, but it's really the use of colour that keeps me stimulated throughout the process. Stimulating - that is what I would like each painting to be.
MICHAEL: Your work is obviously your commentary on the world. What do you think about the state of the world? Are you more worried or hopeful?
JOSH: Neither particularly. It is worrying that certain modern fairytales are being propagated in place of religion, such as sustainability. Clearly energy has to come from somewhere and ‘renewable’ energy uses rare earth metals - what happens when these are depleted?
Some say debt is a matter of blame! One person’s debt is another’s savings and the bondage of one increases the freedom of another, however subtly. Illusions are continually being foisted upon people through easy and hopeful narratives. I am not advocating an absurd council of despair, yin yang or some antiquated body/spirit dualism, but where the ideal enters our minds, consequences follow. Religious hierarchy is restraining the freedom of thought of followers, from birth to the grave, and gaining power with every fresh convert, and an apparent religious revival seems underway in many parts of the world. Parallel to this, scientific knowledge advances beyond a single minds capacity. Easy answers are so attractive. From my perspective, all knowledge, practical invention and political progress arrives through complex patterns of individual and collective trial and error, and to exile ideals from public life would serve us all well.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? Where does your talent come from? What inspired you to become an artist?
JOSH: Yes, artistic, but not focused on painting. My dad was a singer/songwriter and builder. He made paper mache bowls and wax paintings. He showed me as a child how to ‘size up’ the proportions of a subject when drawing, to observe analytically and would give me constructive criticism and encouragement. His partner is also a great friend and she has always been creative in one field or another; food, paper mache, collage. She and my dad bought books about art from car boot sales and charity shops. My uncle used to draw well too and my mum has been involved with puppetry for many years. Working briefly at aged 13 doing simple tasks for a local professional artist and friend of the family was a good experience.
A few years before, when taken with my family to visit my uncle in Zimbabwe, it was amazing to see the local sculptors and batik makers work, seeing what they achieve with meager resources. As for talent, I feel most of this is gained through spending enough time making art. Having a supportive family that understands what this requires has certainly helped me greatly. Nothing in particular inspired me to be an artist. I made the decision because of a basic compulsion. At school, copying Vermeer, Gericault and Murillo paintings in coloured pencils and drawing objects around me was good practice. After that, I started painting at age 16 and decided soon after to take it seriously and put in long hours. Working on an increasing scale, with greater detail was very absorbing. I thought I might make something worthwhile and liked being solitary, almost separated from reality, entirely concentrating on the task at hand.
MICHAEL: So, did you attend art school or are you saying that you’re self taught?
JOSH: Yes, I'm self taught. After considering going to art school, I found that it would not suit my approach. I like to concentrate on each artwork for a long time. Being set different projects would not have left enough time to complete large paintings with the thoroughness I prefer. I can't muster much enthusiasm for painting a subject selected by someone else and prefer learning through reading and trying out different techniques and materials. I joined a local printmaking group at that time and was able to gain from working in a different medium alongside more experienced printmakers and artists. This allowed me to work alone or with others as I wished.
MICHAEL: Wow. You're driven. And you're not a stereotype. A lot of people still fear their kids will want to become artists who they believe are these bohemian, never do well types who can't hold down a job and don't "fit in." What do you think about this? Do you feel negative artist stereotypes still exist?
JOSH: I think everybody should try a little harder to accept other people’s quirks and character flaws, where they don't directly harm anyone else. Artists vary as much as mechanics or insurance salesmen. Everyone has a different approach to their life and work. I can understand why parents might be worried. If their children become artists they may not be financially secure (I'm certainly not right now), but who can be sure that any such difficulties are permanent? If it isn't right for them, they can probably try something else later. Anyway, if people leave their art behind when they die, instead of money, what’s so bad about that? Studies from 1840s London showed many artists and engravers were homeless, some drew on the pavement for coins from passersby. At the same time, other artists made a fortune from travelling pay-per-view exhibitions of a single painting in a box. Those extremes exist in similar forms today. If people are good at making art, many will try to eke a living out of it, and, as ever, luck plays a role in making that possible or not. Fretting won't change this.
MICHAEL: Are you in London? Is the average British citizen actually buying art? Most Americans are buying food, iPhones, cars and houses ... IF they can afford them. They're certainly are not buying contemporary art.
JOSH: As any country becomes less financially equal, the number of buyers of larger, original works of art decreases, but those still buying spend much more. That is the reality. Many people prefer limited edition prints, or photographs, because that is the equivalent of the old tuppenny or 100 guilder print, the form in which art reached the masses in past centuries. The art book is bringing art to more people than ever before - add those sales too and I don't think the picture is bleak. These are times in which collectors compete, leaving artists more independent and no longer obliged to produce propaganda for the church or the Borgias. I'm not in London, I'm in Dorset on the south coast, and here people buy smaller artworks, prints etc. With no Golden Age behind us, or before us, stoicism is all that remains. In my experience, all sorts of people buy contemporary art; plumbers, a chemistry student, the owner of a car dealership, not just prints but also original works, if necessary buying in installments! Part of the problem is getting art to its audience.
MICHAEL: Are you saying that the art gallery model is limited or has its limitations?
JOSH: No, galleries are vital as far as most artists are concerned, but it’s complicated. Each artwork is different. One may be popular with a certain group of people, another with a broad range. All will be more popular in one place than another and shipping costs are a limiting factor. A buyer will not know the artwork they want until they see it. Therefore, how do they know where to look? A gallery, yes, but which one? If looking online, are the photos a true reflection of the works? Is the gallery near enough to check this? Will the piece look good at home? Is it fragile? Social media speeds up this process, making galleries much more accessible, but people need to know about them and what they specialise in.
Artists can sell their own work quite well online, others locally, by commission or even through well publicised residencies. I don't think this is an easy balancing act and if an artist spends all their time selling their work, they will end up with nothing new to sell. Preferably, galleries are the prism focusing eyes onto an artist’s work, and letting the world know it’s there.
MICHAEL: Josh, I could go on and on with you, but I'll make this the last question. Why art? What's the point? Art isn't saving the world or curing cancer so why should people care?
JOSH: No field of endeavour is currently saving the world. Art is a very condensed means of communication, an expression of imagination or experience. Throughout life, people have to constantly ask themselves, what is true or untrue, can the senses or peoples words be trusted, what is the chance of something happening tomorrow, what is the right thing to do? These things require subjective thought.
Why do people care about anything at all, beyond survival? Perhaps because people are not entirely rational and cannot be solely, entirely confined to basic food and shelter considerations without knowing something is lacking.
Perception, imagination and beauty interest everyone to some extent and art can explore these themes across language and educational divides. Look at many old paintings and you see the life of past times, the practical details, the biases, the conditioning which led to the artists’ perspective. Art marks time. You can learn quickly about many subjects through art; myths, social history, political history, propaganda, notions of utopia and dystopia, the natural world, the human body - at rest or in movement - changing ideas of beauty, cultural and political differences, real and improbable national characteristics, industrial development, globalisation, expressions of psychological states, ethics, anthropology, thought experiments, empathy. Everything that has been or can be seen or imagined, can be expressed as art.
MICHAEL: Very nice. Thanks Josh. Cool chat.
Check out Josh at http://joshhollingshead.net/.