CLIVE HEAD, WHOSE new show opened at Marlborough Fine Art this week, is not a man afraid of rigorous self-praise: ‘The implications of what I’m doing replace photography with something far more important.’
Which artists influence his seemingly photorealist London landscapes? ‘To give you a simple answer, my work really comes from looking at too much art. I’ve probably got a greater knowledge of art history than most art historians.’
He loves Poussin ‘the inventor’, indeed places their works beside one another, as he says in the essay he wrote for his own catalogue (perhaps no-one else could get the full measure of his work): ‘The connections between [Head’s work] Terminus Place and Poussin’s Triumph of David are both startling and subtle.’ (Terminus Place, 2012, is pictured above in detail and below in full.)
Indeed, from both Head’s catalogue essay and a phone conversation, you get the sense of a very large chip being worked out: ‘Throughout my career I have been subjected to the kind of dismissal that Nunn voiced about Rembrandt,’ he writes.
‘From being told not to attend a leading art school by its head on the basis that I could and wanted to draw, to being forced to complete my postgraduate studies away from the department studios, has shown me the strength of opinions. To hold my views on art affronts the cultural norm and is met with real hostility.’
The art world, Clive Head believes, has yet to catch up with Clive Head.
HIS WORK IS certainly popular: when the National Gallery showed three of his paintings alongside another urbanist, Canaletto, it was the most-visited show by a living painter they’d ever had. (Clive: curators there have told me ‘I’m the only [living] painter they would consider showing at the National Gallery.’)
But I don’t think it’s popular for the reason he thinks it should be popular. The works appear to be normal, banal even, views of London – all around Victoria Station (the stairs, a junk-shop kiosk), from outside Leicester Square tube – painted in a hyper-realist style. Viewers, I think, like both the familiarity of the scene and the brilliance of the photographic surface.
The works are much more complicated than that, however, and have genuinely interesting points to make about perspective and place. Head walks around London, absorbing sights and sounds and experiences, and then distills those into a composite painting with a photorealist finish.
‘My work is about trying to find a pictorial resolution to a chaotic landscape rather than holding up a mirror to it,’ he says. ‘The view is of my movement through the space,’ not of the space itself. ‘It’s also the movement through time itself.’
Pictured above: Victoria Arcade, 2011, by Clive Head, now on show at Marlborough Fine Art
Not that Head likes being called photorealist: ‘To do what I’m doing today I would have had to go through photorealism. It’s far, far more different than any idea of photorealism.
‘It deals with the human experience rather than photographic style. The way a camera records a landscape is false, really. It recorded at a split second standing in one place – none of us experience it like that.’
THE ART WORLD, Head believes, is gradually coming round to him and his revolution: ‘I’m not the sort of artist that the mainstream Contemporary art establishment finds very comfortable. There was an acceptance but always a backlash. It’s upset the status quo of the art world.’ What he’s offering are ‘more gravitas and more complexity’.
‘Art hasn’t deal the with a complicated way of making and problems. How complicated a problem can I find to resolve? That’s not the sort of thing artists have been doing.’
In common with many spurned by the ‘establishment’, Head seems awfully keen to join it: ‘Over the next five years I will become a lot more acceptable in those circles. I definitely feel it in the air.’
I’m not so sure: given the relentless forward thrust of the art world, with photography, video art and installations, all of which Head spurns, he may be holding his finger up in the breeze for a while yet.
Clive Head: From Victoria to Arcadia is on at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, until 8 December 2012