Richard Whincop is a brilliant artist who resides in the United Kingdom. I saw his work online http://www.richardwhincop.co.uk/ and knew I had to chat with him. We had a LONG chat, but do yourself a favor and check it out. His work and his words really bring art and ideas to life for everyone.
MICHAEL: Hey Richard, Your work is so intriguing. It's surreal, allegorical, somewhat religious and even nonsensical yet also fun. I love the cross references of ancient and current, genteel with brutal. Why do you create this way?
RICHARD: Well, I suppose at some level it is a reflection of my personality, though this isn’t deliberate. It’s an approach that has evolved over a number of years, but in the first instance, you could say it was a chance discovery. A number of years ago, I was doing some studies of classical sculptures - all well and good, but somehow I felt they weren’t really going anywhere. Then I was looking through some source photos I’d taken of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and in one of them, a young woman was standing in the way. But there was something about the contrast between the youthful figure, and the time-worn sculptures that fascinated me, so I did a large-scale painting which included them both.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Two paintings in one.
RICHARD: The sense of different worlds, ancient and modern, mythical and ordinary, both within the single world of the painting, seemed to give it a powerful inner life. As I worked on it, I was going backwards and forward between the two, feeling a kind of dynamic, an emotional tension between them. And because the figure was seen from the back, it kept you guessing - you wondered what she was thinking - and the sense of something unseen, unspoken, resonated strongly; concealment can be a powerful way to engage the imagination. My imagination was well and truly engaged so I started a whole series of works in which I took the idea for a walk, initially with works based around traditional artworks set against contemporary figures in an art museum setting.
MICHAEL: That’s fantastic. I see still life paintings of museum interiors every single time I visit art museums. So cool.
RICHARD: I found that the contrasts could be poignant or funny, ironic or intense. I just kept seeing more possibilities and painted them. After a while, the settings began to dissolve, the pictures began to take on more of a dreamlike quality. Then I began to introduce landscape backgrounds and other content from different contexts. The whole thing developed a kind of life of its own, one idea leading to another. It’s like throwing a stepping stone into a river; when you step onto it, you can see a whole new bit of river bed to explore and then throw another which takes you into a different area again. Each new step is intuitive, but I allow myself the time to explore everything from that point quite methodically in a number of different works and also to go sideways and backwards as well as forward. In time, you find you have a whole series of stepping stones that you can hop between as you work! So the experience of previous works means that the content, themes and techniques get broader, richer and more complex over time. In each new work, you draw upon what you have done before and add something extra to it. I want to feel stretched not just artistically but intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem any point.
MICHAEL: What I love is the fact that you put the contemporary in the same context with history. Many people think history is long gone. I once heard someone say that the reason why humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes is because we have no memory. I would say it's also because we don't respect history and our forefathers. What do you think?
RICHARD: I totally agree. It’s a problem in our culture generally, but it is even more extreme in the art world. I take the very unfashionable view that art is a collective enterprise; that we build upon and hopefully enrich what has gone before. We should not all feel obliged to start from scratch even if this were actually possible. We are shaped by history whether we recognise it or not; if you don’t, it’s like denying that you have a place in a family tree. I think that this is at the root of the hole that contemporary art has dug for itself. Artists have to be original at all costs, which means all too often an almost paranoid phobia of producing anything which refers to an artistic context beyond itself.
MICHAEL: Dude, that is WAY deep and very true.
RICHARD: The danger of this is that some art becomes self-referential and meaningless to anyone outside of a small clique who are “in the know.” Artists of the past used a common language of imagery that could communicate complex ideas, shared values and represent symbolically the human condition and our place in the wider creation. It was accessible to the man on the street. For me, the language of representational painting is intrinsically just as relevant today as music that employs sing-able tunes and harmonies. Just because it is an old format doesn’t mean that it can’t be inventive or employed to say new things. It’s like suggesting we should all stop speaking and writing in English because it is an antiquated language. The art of the past is a storehouse of human experience that just goes to waste if it is regarded as an outdated historical curiosity. Traditional painting is a vessel in which the modern spirit can still make new journeys and discover uncharted lands. But somehow, it seems to be regarded as “passé.” And yet in London, ordinary people still queue (wait) for hours, desperate to get tickets for an exhibition of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci - that should tell us something.
MICHAEL: Isn't it interesting how many people think art is only for the wealthy and highly-cultured and yet most artists are working class and far from being wealthy industrialists?
RICHARD: Artists have always worked with their hands, which is what wealthy industrialists work so hard to avoid! The fact that painting is hand-made is its great strength - it makes it tangibly human- but also its Achilles heel. It is a pre-industrial art form trying to stay alive in an industrial era. In some respects, the place of traditional art has been supplanted by mechanical art forms: photography, cinema, computer graphics. Yet while these all have their own merits, they cannot supplant painting completely, for none of them are able to encapsulate in such an immediate and personal way our connection to the greater reality of which we are a part. I believe what we traditionally call art is fundamentally religious at heart or perhaps “spiritual” would be a better word. The vast majority of traditional art attempted to give symbolic form to eternal truths. But - and perhaps this is because we have become so divorced from these truths - in our time it has been hijacked as a commercial commodity. It becomes an appendage to a price tag, a status symbol, something that is desirable because it is exclusive. Because it is special, people think it somehow makes them special if they own it. But for most artists, earning money from their work is great because it enables them to keep doing their art. Traditional painting may begin in inspiration, but it requires 99% perspiration to make the vision a concrete reality. Artists are workers, and always have been – workers serving a higher cause. But they also have to eat.
MICHAEL: Indeed. When did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
RICHARD: My mum was always interested in art and dabbled in painting after she retired as a teacher, but I never saw her or my dad draw or paint when I was growing up. But I always loved drawing from an early age and was mesmerized by a book about Leonardo and used to try (not very successfully) to copy his stuff. I was fortunate in having great teachers who encouraged me, opened my eyes to art and gave me a great foundation in traditional drawing while I was in school. I loved music too and I remember when I was about 14, at the beginning of the school year, those who wanted to do art had to go to one end of the room and those wanting to do music to the other. I hovered in the middle for a while, but the decision to go for art was a major step down the path- a conscious choice, where so much at school is just doing what you’re told. I also had to wrestle with the fact that I was good academically and at University did an academic degree- Art History and English. However, I used to spend a lot of my time drawing and would copy the pictures we were studying. The boundless knowledge and enthusiasm of my Art History tutor (Dr. Richard Verdi, from New York) also gave me a new sense of what was possible to achieve in painting both artistically and intellectually, helping me to understand the “visual music” of painting as well as its capacity to portray mystery.
MICHAEL: Wow. What happened after you finished school?
RICHARD: When I graduated, I just wanted to carry on drawing and painting. Somehow, it felt like unfinished business (it still does!). I ploughed on despite a sense of inadequacy. The Old Masters had set the bar so high, but I felt I was getting better by my own standards and told myself that if I set no limits, then who knows what might be possible? For a long time, I dabbled in different styles and approaches, wrestled with all the contradictions in the contemporary art world, my head spinning with disorienting personal visions and off-the-wall experiments and then finding traditional disciplines that made me feel that I was on solid (but outdated) ground. But I struggled to make a living and in Glasgow in the early 90’s, had to do part-time teaching so that I could keep painting. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that I was able to make a living from my art, working full-time, and that was by doing commercial commissions - murals, sculptures, etc., for restaurants, bars and night clubs. I said yes to anything, working in a huge number of different styles, but including a lot of figurative work. I looked on it as an extended apprenticeship and it gave me great experience of working on a big scale and just getting the hours in so that I could improve technically.
MICHAEL: You were certainly determined.
RICHARD: It was in about 2001 that I began to do the series of figurative works that I spoke about earlier, and I began exhibiting (fortunately, with some success) in galleries from 2005 and began to feel that I could call myself “an artist” with a certain degree of conviction. So, this long answer is a roundabout way of saying that I became an artist gradually and it is a process that is still happening. Being an artist is not just what you do on a day-to day basis, it’s how you think about yourself. I’ve had to fight to keep going, driving pig-headedly onward through tough times and financial hardship. I recall once having to sell my vacuum cleaner in a local shop en route to meet someone for lunch, because I had no money. It’s as though life has been testing my resolution, seeing how deep the artistic impulse in me goes. As I keep working, strive and struggle towards being the best I can be, I feel just a little bit more like a true artist every day. The muse of art rewards commitment, I guess.
MICHAEL: Brilliant. Your work seems very spiritual and Christian. Are you a Christian?
RICHARD: The short answer to that question is “Yes,” but I’ll qualify this by saying that I’m not totally happy with “Christian” as a simplistic label that often has a whole raft of assumptions attached to it. I do attend church regularly, but I’m not a fundamentalist and in some ways I'm quite unorthodox. It’s not like some hidden agenda that I have behind my work, to try and sign people up to my point of view. Being a Christian for me is more than just ticking all the boxes to say that you agree with a list of doctrinal statements. Like being an artist, it is something that you grow into, and you have to continually extend and re-define what it means. I see it as the aspiration to be Christ-like, to realize the very best a human being can be - which means that most of the time, I’m not really very Christian at all! Yet Christianity’s greatest gift is forgiveness and accepting mistakes in others and yourself, being able to move on from the hurt and not letting it blight your life. Just as when you learn to paint, you have to accept repeated failures with equanimity as an integral part of a learning process that leads to success. Christianity should be a recipe for growth.
MICHAEL: Yes. And I totally see the connection between Christianity and even contemporary art. I’m not saying others must, but I do.
RICHARD: This should involve developing a compassionate outlook. Compassion is rooted in empathy, the imaginative identification with another’s experience and outlook. And being a figurative artist is about empathizing with whatever it is that you are painting. So painting is a spiritual exercise, in that it is forever stretching your capacity to empathize, as you strive to “feel” and record symbolically the inner life of the person, animal or even the landscape or the apple that you are painting. I also don’t think that being a Christian means being anti-science – despite what you might think from some of my paintings! I have always been interested in science and its history and I don’t try to bury my head in the sand and reject scientific theories that are backed up by a weight of experimental evidence. I do have a problem with science when it is unscientific - building upon assumptions - such as the universe being intrinsically dead and inert, which leads to a view of human life as “just” meaningless chemical & electrical activity. This outlook strips the universe - and human life- of all dignity and purpose.
MICHAEL: I totally agree especially given the enormous mass of artistic talent out there.
RICHARD: The problem as I see it is that we have two different viewpoints that generate two forms of knowledge; both are valid and yet they seem incompatible. Science deconstructs the world by taking it apart, looking at things from the outside, but it fails to see the forest for the trees. It is completely unable to explain, or recognize the validity of personal experience, the feeling we have that we are real and that through love we can connect with a reality beyond ourselves. Art reconstructs the world; it is a record of personal experience. As such, science has no place for it - which makes me a bit miffed!
MICHAEL: I understand.
RICHARD: I see the rift between science and subjective experience as one of the greatest challenges that face us today. Whilst it seems to be a rift between science and religion, it needn't be that way. Religion has always been about taking an overview and instead of opposing science, I think it needs to embrace it, to see scientific knowledge as an important part of a greater religious truth, but not the whole story. Instead of being defensive, Christianity should simply undergo an imaginative expansion and swallow science up! I think a lot about these issues and have tried to tackle them head on in some of my paintings, bringing together these opposing ways of looking - art, science and religion - and forcing them to co-exist. But these paintings are not just “objective” allegories of the warring viewpoints within our culture, they are also very personal - for in them I am trying to reconcile the contradictory parts of myself.
MICHAEL: I asked that because your work also has a strong theme of watching this unfolding human drama. You even have a series of paintings of people who are looking at paintings. They're so well done.
RICHARD: Thanks Michael. If you try and describe a painting of someone looking at a painting, it might sound about as exciting as watching paint dry. Yet you can sense the drama. What I love about painting is its capacity to suggest something beyond what you can actually see. It is one of the great challenges that figurative painters have always faced - how to tell a story within a single image, to create this sense of a build-up of dramatic tension, without the gradual, sequential unfolding in time that you have in music, theatre, literature or a movie. A painting can create a sense of time by implying what has happened before or what is about to happen. It can take a symbolic moment within the context of a narrative, and, uniquely among the arts, allow us to go to the heart of that moment in our own time, to uncover the forces that are at work, its emotional undercurrents.
MICHAEL: I have experienced all of that many times.
RICHARD: What makes figurative art dramatic for the viewer is when you start to believe in the inner life of the characters. That’s when it really comes to life. There’s a moment of realization, an awakening of the imagination. It’s when you realize that Michelangelo’s David isn’t standing there posing, he’s looking at the even bigger figure of Goliath that isn’t actually there - the seemingly impossible task that faces him. It’s that implied drama, and its resonance with the artist’s own life that makes it great art. You see into David’s heart and mind, as though he were a living person with feelings and an imagination; you imagine what he is imagining, you sense and feel the drama of his inner life and behind it, Michelangelo’s too. Art is a catalyst for the imagination. In my pictures, when you see someone looking at a painting or a sculpture, you can sense whether or not it is working its magic - whether their imagination has become engaged or whether it is preoccupied by something else which can be just as interesting! The artwork that they look at sets the tone, with its characters involved in something overtly dramatic or significant and the onlookers are drawn into that drama. And they can change from being mere bystanders to active participants. We can imagine the artwork that they look at to reflect something in their personal situation, some unseen spiritual struggle. So we imagine that we see them both from the outside and from the inside - their perhaps guarded appearance and the uninhibited drama that they are picturing in their head.
MICHAEL: I also love the way you include some picture frames in the works.
RICHARD: The picture frames within my paintings are sometimes like thought bubbles, embracing a symbolic image of the inner life of the viewer who stands before it. But we become drawn in more deeply when people cross over the threshold of a picture frame and enter the painting. You realize that you are not seeing external reality, but some kind of parallel dream world, where new avenues of experience open up and new realizations can arise. Crossovers occur between the worlds of past and present, between personal experience and the greater threads of our collective religious and cultural experience. So my figurative paintings are about our imaginative, inner life. They suggest that we are all at a certain stage in the process of working through some underlying spiritual problem - perhaps a common spiritual problem - and that art provides an arena where these things can be brought to the fore and perhaps even brought nearer to a resolution.
MICHAEL: Richard, this has truly been awe inspiring. You are the reason why I interview artists!
RICHARD: Thanks so much for doing the interview. I really appreciate the time that you have put into it and the understanding and enthusiasm that you have shown for my work. I have really enjoyed casting my mind over my artistic career, such an exercise always makes you take stop and think more deeply about what you are doing and why you are doing it and such self-reflection is an important part of the creative process. Many thanks once again, and good luck with your own ventures.
Do yourself a favor and check out Richard’s cool work at http://www.richardwhincop.co.uk/