Interview: Ed Haslam | London, England
Ed Haslam is an artist from London and graduate from Manchester University. He explores Western painting traditions and the human psyche through his figurative painting practice. Read his artist statement here.
While the human body is a central theme in your work, the subject of dreams or the human unconscious is suggested through facial expressions, brushstrokes, and referential titles––"The Open Window," "Vision," and "Lucid," for example. Can you discuss the dialogue in your paintings between your realist renderings and dreams, which you note in your artist statement "evade scientific explanation."?
Dreams and the unconscious hold such a great deal of mystery. Unlike the functions of human organs that are scientifically researched, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest why we dream. Dreams bridge the gap between our unconscious and conscious minds and therefore open an alternative door into exploring deeper issues of the human situation.
Dreams have been used in psychotherapy in an attempt to discover repressed emotions that may have been too destructive to fully comprehend in the conscious mind. I'm trying to capture that dialogue between reality and fantasy in the mind.
In my paintings, sharply focused areas of paint convincingly inform the viewer that this image is of a human and that it is real. These concise marks merge with looser, accidental forms, creating a balance between accident and ‘truth.’ The intention of this is to draw the viewer's eye into the painting and never leave it with a complete sense of satisfaction. During this process I want the viewer’s mind to wander and reflect upon his or her own feelings.
What draws you to depict your subjects' solitary and inward experiences from an onlooker's perspective (such as the portrait of a seated man with his eyes closed in "The Open Window")?
In painting, "The Open Window," I was trying to create an image that would hold the viewer's gaze. Once you cast your gaze onto a painting hung on a wall, you have an objective view of the painting. You are in control of the image and can always walk away. So in painting a downcast figure, I hope to invite the viewer in. I have been experimenting with how I can control the gaze so that the viewer wants to keep looking further into the image. Their solitary appearance has more to do with the fact I have only been experimenting with individual poses while I develop my skills as a painter.
"The Open Window" is the first painting where I used a glaze, which gives the image a hazy atmosphere. This highlights the subject’s head and pushes the rest of the image behind a translucent curtain. The disorientating marks that form the pattern of his shirt convey a sense of the image breaking away from the concise rendering of his head. I hope that anyone standing in front of the image is constantly drawn around the painting, always towards the subject’s head, but never completely satisfied once there. The eye is drawn into his mind where his downcast pose suggests he is thinking or dreaming. The painting is not an image about his dream, but it displays the sense of a dream state. By leaving so much of the image in a blurred and distorted state, my intention is to displace the sense of a dreaming process onto the viewer.
Who are your subjects? Are they primarily drawn from life, or what other reference materials do you use? The subjects featured are all male, is there something in particular about the male psyche that you look to explore in your paintings?
My subjects are all friends, chosen because they have a strong sense of character. There is no distinct reasoning behind these choices. It is more instinctual. It is almost as if I have a sense of what I want to convey through the painting and I choose a model who I think will suit it. This is probably why most of my models have been male. There are very strong connotations of beauty attached to painting the female figure that I didn't want to conform to. It is not necessarily that I find the male psyche more interesting but it has certainly lent these early paintings a very raw and powerful sense of emotion.
When I have painted the female form I have tried to give the paintwork more weight than the sexuality. I didn't want to create images that glorify femininity from a male perspective or contend with painters like Saville who so successfully contest the sexual objectification of the female form. It has been frustrating to be asked by gallerists for more paintings of the ‘beautiful male model.’ In the future I do not want to make paintings that are perceived only as decorative objects. This has led me away from painting individual works to thinking about a larger project that will have male and female figures interact within a broader space.
Two of your works are titled "Temperament Study," and the subjects of your paintings display a range of moods from contemplative to somber or strained in some way. What interests you about the process of creating these studies? What technical attributes of your paintings are you most aware of when depicting a particular mood or expression?
These titles were thought of two years into the three that I have been painting. They represent a time in my mind where I was beginning to explore something deeper than the mimetically represented human form. I was trying to convey a sense of emotion beneath the painting that would react with people's own psyche in different ways. In painting these works I was developing ideas about what purpose I want my work to serve.
I think the textures that result from the many painting techniques I use are a means to express the emotive quality of an image. If I painted the piece 'Reflection,' in a concise, photo-realist manner, the final painting would be bland and lack the depth that I feel it has.
Which artists (historic or contemporary) have had the most influence on your painting style or on your thinking about realist painting generally?
Everything stems from Bacon [Francis Bacon (1909-1992)]. The large majority of contemporary figurative painters have been in awe of his life and work. I am most influenced by the psychology of his images and how I feel when I stand in front of his work. When I was teaching myself to paint, I had an early Saville book open the entire time. It is completely stained in oil and paint and describes my very early development. Since then I have felt myself refine my technique to be less imitative and I now regard mark making with greater purpose.
I also studied the Surrealist Movement in school and continue to read about it at great length. So I am now exploring the unconscious desires of the mind through the painted human form. Most recently, I have been looking at Rothko and Bill Viola who have influenced ideas about creating experiential or installation based works with visual images.
What are you working on now or what can we expect from your upcoming projects?
The next project I am planning is the product of my paintings done in the last year. I'm going to build a square room, wrapped in curtain which when you enter will be like walking into a dream. The viewer will actually be inside the paintings rather than looking onto them objectively. It should be a reflective space that I plan to be an ongoing project involving writers and composers exploring their thoughts and using the space as an initial trigger.