Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Laura Hudson: Sure but I might need to start way back, at the age of 5, when I first wanted to be a paint-mixer. It was the first day of school and I was given paint to use for the first time. I can still remember the mad excitement I felt when two colours mixed together suddenly transformed into something completely different, a new colour. It was like magic and I was hooked. Later at school, we learned about art and artists, (Western Renaissance to the post-impressionists) not having a wider horizon at that time I thought Paris was the only place you could learn to paint. It was almost a disappointment when I discovered that you could study art in Scotland – which is where I lived and so I applied in my 5th year at school and was accepted into Edinburgh College of Art. At 16 I was probably too young, and I didn’t like it much so I left and went to Glasgow School of Art (GSA) instead, where I studied Mixed Media and Environmental Art (1985-1989). While I loved the city and the artists around me, I didn’t have a great time at the school. I was working in 3D and used the wood workshop a lot but when I was physically assaulted by the technician, despite it being witnessed, rather than him lose his job I was banned from the workshop. That effected what I could make and made me pretty angry. Those were the bad old days for women at art schools. Not long after that Mona Hatoum was invited as visiting artist and tutor, she was wonderful and turned everything on its head. By that time I had found a space in the basement of the old girl’s school, where Environmental Art was based, and was making installations with waxed-paper, drawing around the walls and on long paper till rolls. Mona Hatoum pointed out that the layered cave-like spaces I was creating and the sequential imagery might point toward filmmaking. I went out and bought a simple super-8 camera for the grand sum of £5, in the Barras junk market, and started making short experimental moving-image works. I was in my final year at GSA, and the preliminary programme was announced for Glasgow’s year as the European City of Culture. There were almost no women mentioned in it so a small group of GSA students and alumni got together to do something about it. We raised over £250,000 to put on exhibitions, events, and an international film festival, of work by women for 1990. I was probably spending more time on that than on my own work but I still graduated with a show of sculptural installation and film. I remember the school had to bring in an external filmmaker to assess it because the Environmental Art department, at that time, had no one who knew anything about film.
I left Glasgow in 1991 to do a postgraduate in Moving Image at Central St. Martins in London and was awarded a travel scholarship to study Eastern European avant-garde Cinema, traveling through Hungary, Austria, Poland, and Germany to meet filmmakers and look at work. When I returned to London I got the job of Cinema programmer at the London Filmmakers Co-op (LFMC) now Lux. I pretty much stopped making my own work around 1994, I still did the occasional cinematography for other artist’s films, but running the LFMC cinema and working as a freelance curator took up all of my time. I continued curating and project managing film and new media arts until I left London in 2004 when I went to France to set up a small farm-holding in the Cévenes, growing rare heirloom vegetables for seed. It was an intervention on the threat to biodiversity in food-giving plants and the corporate patenting of seeds. I feel strongly about food security and people often ask me why I don’t make artwork about it. Plants are dynamic and my intervention needed to factor that in, so I needed land and time rather than a gallery. I spent 9 years growing all kinds of edibles, sharing their seeds and information about growing them. I made an information resource for anyone wanting to learn how to grow food; it is still online at https://kitchengardennotebook.wordpress.com/
It was an incredible experience, one that taught me a lot about balance, time, the incredible symbiotic nature of the planet and what not to take for granted.
Returning to the UK in 2012, we moved back to London in 2016 to practice art full-time, which has surprisingly led me to reconnect with my 5-year-old self and her love of paint.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
LH: That is always a difficult question, there have been so many. Mona Hatoum was a big influence of course and in the early days I was lucky to have some incredible mentors and friends who were older and wiser than me, people like artist Louise Crawford, filmmaker and writer Bev Zalcock, Annabel Nicolson and Tina Keane who both used film in an expanded sense beyond a single screen. Maya Deren of course, the grandmother of experimental cinema, who showed me the poetry that could be found through the lens and Yoko Ono, whose work I travelled to see at the Serpentine in London, shifted what I imagined art could be. The Situationists were and continue to be a big influence.
It depends on what I am thinking about at any given time but the things that influence the focus of my practice most deeply often come from outside the art world: cinema, literature, politics, theory, science, philosophy, technology, social structures and their impacts, life really. There are a few artists who have the ability to tap straight-in emotionally, who can bring me to tears just looking at their work; Agnes Martin, Giorgio Morandi, Kay Sage and Forrest Bess in particular. I admire painters for whom drawing is a priori or a way of working things out, people like Philip Guston who battled out the opposing gravitational pulls of abstraction and figuration through drawing, Brenda Goodman whose paintings are built upon a palimpsest of painted and scratched marks, Amy Sillman and Asger Jorn whose painting practice extends into zines combining drawing and text to articulate a broader and more generous perspective and of course cave paintings. Those drawings made by our ancient ancestors, in every corner of the world we settled, are proof that art is innate and fundamental to us, it is a proof I use to push back my own doubts.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
LH: I think fundamentally what I am doing is looking at how we exist in a material world mediated by images.
My practice spans many disciplines, from cinematography to sculpture, but drawing is the thing that keeps me connected – the only thing I never let go – and the one thing that remains a constant.
While I was working on the land in France I realised that all a camera can do is record an instant in time that is reliant on light and fixed by the surface of things, whereas the marks we make while drawing or painting seem more able to mirror the dynamic processes of accumulated time and material memory, and to more acutely materialise human perception and thought. Imagination and memory are so closely related to seeing and thinking that we are able to construct for ourselves an anticipatory future, that is forever present, yet born out of the past.RB: Can you say something about the variety of processes that you use and how they inform one another?
LH: I need to understand the materials I use so that they become party to the act of drawing. I’ve used all kinds of stuff from boot polish to pigments I’ve dug up in the field and often make my own materials such as inks, charcoal, paints etc. in order to understand them more fully. Working processes are often arrived at through lengthy repetition, variation, and experimentation. I feel the need to allow the process of failure to happen so that it can leave its mark because it is often the flaws that activate a work or inform future works for me.I use sketchbooks as material logs to document the interactions between materials and to discover their singular qualities. Experiments might lead directly to new work or lay dormant until needed.
Some drawing experiments are about finding ways to articulate or work through an idea, as in the case of the Transducer drawings. These drawings are working through an idea for a sculptural installation of ceramic pods that emanate sound vibrations. The drawings helped me to physically work out the feeling, form and dimensions for the clay pods. The process and materials create tangible marks that stand in for what we cannot see. The paper is first crumpled to make it soft and bruise the surface so that the dry pigment when rubbed into the paper will catch in the small fissures making them visible.
The same pigment is mixed with water and gum arabic and used to paint the pod form in the centre of the paper. The wet ink causes the paper to buckle and the edge between wet and dry manifest the physical boundary between inside and outside between sound and silence.
Transducers : Drawings for Sculpture
carbon on newsprint. 2017 – 2018 (dimensions variable) Transducer n: a device that converts variations in a physical quantity, such as pressure or brightness, into an electrical signal, or vice versa.
There is a specific drawing practice I use in the studio that helps me to push back against the incoming sensory overload and still some of the noise. Performed almost as a ritual, a simple gesture tracing a circle or enzo is drawn with a brush loaded with ink onto paper. The gesture is practiced over and over until it becomes automatic – and until the body ceases to be a distraction and the mind is calmed.
One process I often use is to draw while moving. Sketching as I travel through a place, momentary glimpses of land passing, folding in on itself, overlapping fragments jut forward from the memory of a place I have just been. The mind processes information while drawing, while moving, the eye records changes, observes patterns, notes oddities, man-made structures, fields, power lines, quarries, hedges, all the while on the move. Mapping the nature of things and places, disjointed and broken, recombined fractions of a moment perceived – a glimpse of something residing on the surface, a shadow – a clue to something much more complex. These drawings have in the past formed the structures of paintings.
In terms of materials, supports are always more of a problem. If I have a support that is expensive or too perfect it becomes too precious and I am intimidated by it. I find that I work better on scraps, discarded canvases or cheap reams of paper. My MA tutor suggested that I should use better paper for the nail house drawings but none of the drawings I did on the quality paper worked – they were all stilted and had no agency of their own, as if they too were intimidated by the paper.
RB: Can you say something about your Powerplay series?LH: In the urban dictionary Powerplay is defined as the struggle to obtain power and exert control over an opponent. Further defined as the act of using knowledge and or information against someone in order to gain an advantage. The inspiration for the Powerplay series came from two sources; the Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic in which objects left behind by an alien race are inscrutable to the humans who find them. These objects are two copper disks held together by an invisible force, referred to as ‘empties’ they are just that, empty space that has the power to hold together two sides that cannot be pulled apart or pushed together. Invisible forces beyond our knowledge led me to think about the discovery of graphene. I was fascinated by the discovery of a previously unknown carbon crystal, that can be stretched to a transparent membrane capable of containing gas yet allows water vapour to pass through it. 100x stronger than steel and so thin, 1000x thinner than paper, that it had gone undetected sandwiched between layers of graphite. I was equally intrigued by the story of its discovery. The world’s first two-dimensional material and the thinnest, strongest substance known to science had been discovered accidentally using sticky tape to peel increasingly thin layers of graphite from a block. The properties of graphene and the empties led me to think about the hidden power struggles that shape our current socio-political climate, those invisible forces that hold things together or keep them apart, construct the narrative and control what is visible, led me back again to the empties in Roadside Picnic. Employing graphite and sticky tape this series began as an experiment in depicting an alien object with invisible forces but the nature and behavior of matter itself became the subject. Carbon the basic element of life takes its place as an actant in these performative drawings. The pristine white surfaces are doctored, each stretched linen panel has various coats of gesso layered with small events using sticky tape to create restrictions, blocks, and controls on the otherwise smooth surface. From the initial propulsion (the act the dropping) the falling motion of the graphite is affected by even the slightest draft and as it lands the shifts on the surface interfere with its course. Both metaphor and microcosm of the world we inhabit, matter makes visible the hidden forces and powerplays inherent in the human condition.
RB: Your Nail House Drawings mediate between the photographic source and a series of paintings. Can you say something about this working process?
LH: Nail houses are architectural holdouts, buildings where people have refused to make way for development that I had found on the internet and are mostly in China. I felt I was witnessing (albeit at a distance via a global circulation of imagery) a window that might soon be closed. A point in time between one political system and another where people still had the right to resist eviction even in the face of huge corporate or state powered ‘progress’.
I collect all sorts of things mainly images and information and I had been collecting nail house images for years. Sometimes I found images of the same building deteriorating over time; pictures taken from different aspects, by different people, at different times. I studied the images as well as the stories and histories around them. From those photographs, I drew lots of small drawings in sketchbooks. When I started the Nail House Drawings I put the photographs aside and drew from what I remembered about them, what I had learned from repeated drawing, what I felt about them, and the physical attributes they seemed to share. The extreme actions of developers; clearing land to leave just a stack of earth below the footprint of a house, digging huge ditches around houses or brutally ripping down either side of a structure in order to rid these buildings of people transformed them. These buildings seemed to strangely share an iconography of wealth, despite their abject state they became citadels, moated castles and avant-garde architecture – manifestations of small acts of resistance by their incongruous presence.
Land, or the ownership of it, is always contentious and never clear cut. I didn’t want to draw the buildings on clean white paper, no fresh start or tabula rasa. The paper is first given a rough wash of a mixture of two liquid materials (a French writing ink and acrylic paint) that initially mix but repel as they dry, a mixture that is not only turbulent but will discolour over time. A perfect ground on which to draw nail houses.
RB: A number of your works involve drawing from memory. Why is this important to you and can you give some examples of your drawings that involve memory?
LH: Sometimes I find that what is in front of me, in the real world, can be overwhelming. There is so much incoming data; sound, smell, taste, vision, even physical responses to temperature or atmosphere are all being registered by the body simultaneously. In my case, as someone with AS, the way that we piece together what we see from fragmentary information can get caught up with the other senses and the whole thing becomes a noise that I cannot make sense of. I find that when drawing from memory, my brain has had time to sort the incoming data, piece things together and distill the experience into something more manageable. There is a kind of shorthand that starts to happen, a simplification, the essentials are there but none of the superfluous.
I am fascinated by how, when working from memory, we are more easily able to reject the influence of photography in the translation of the three dimensional world.
Viewpoints might be movable, multiple, deny perspective, include the peripheral and embrace the imagined. Space becomes malleable or more porous, in that we seem able to be both inside and outside of the imagined space, with space both above and below us rather than be constrained by the perspectival frame of the mechanical lens.
Sometimes I work on a series over a long period, such as the Portrait Project I started around 2014, it is an ongoing series of portraits of people I’ve known – all done from memory. The series started when I lost a dear friend I hadn’t seen for a long time but whose presence in my life was indelible and important. There are many people who have left a trace and this series is about recording that by making portraits of them. I’m interested in what memory and the closely aligned imagination bring out that direct observation cannot – the psychological dramas of our relationships and the unnamable shifts a single interaction can cause.
Working from memory means that the most meaningful aspects of something, someone or an experience are retained according to mechanisms we have no conscious control over. The gap between the experience of something and the act of drawing, at some later date, allows for the intrusion of subconscious thought and the connections that are deeply rooted between one experience and another. What might appear through drawing could be revelatory or previously unknown; a kind of psychic mapping.Sometimes drawing from memory has an archeological force that excavates back-in-time to make visible something that was lost, unknown, transitory or in danger of being erased. It can condense experience in linear time into a single plane where the felt past and anticipated future create a lived present.
RB: How has your drawing process changed in the past years?
LH: I think it is always changing, as I am always changing, but the moment of drawing always seems to be the most trustworthy moment. Drawing brings something from the outside-in or from the inside-out , it allows or gives form to an emotional state that I couldn’t otherwise articulate.
I don’t really have one process, it depends on what I am drawing and why that determines how I might approach a drawing or what materials I might use. For instance, if I want to learn the form of something or how it is in the world I will draw it over and over from life, it doesn’t really matter with what or how, just drawing so that it becomes embedded in my memory. I might draw to document or archive and using a single sheet of paper just keep adding observed things to it, the image might not make pictorial sense but rather articulates something about its evolution or motion in relation to time and space such as Studio Table.Sometimes it might be the material itself that dictates how the drawing takes shape as in the case of the Powerplay Series where it is the behaviours of graphite powder and how it can be manipulated that dictate the form of the drawing or Enzo (1/80th) where ink made with an earth pigment from a 350 million year old deposit is an actant arrested only by the mechanical shutter, in the moment of photographing it. Drawing might act as an intermediary or a starting point for something else like a painting, in which case I want the drawing to be as free as possible, barely there even, in order to leave room for the paint to evolve and form its own thing, to leave room for invention.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
LH: I am in the final year of an MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School, and will be working toward my thesis in June and degree show in September.
At the moment I am working on a new body of work that began in November 2018, while on a residency at Windsor & Newton’s Colart Lab in London. Using a process of automatic drawing or doodling to tap into memory banks and iconographies saturated by incoming information, they cannot help but reflect both present conditions and previous knowledge. These drawings become triggers for new paintings; irreverent, porous and scripted with political intent, they appear to be open-ended and free but they too are a construct and it is perhaps the nature of the construct and its relationship to the technologies that shape us, that interests me most. Between the lines there is something of the unknown, spontaneous and accidental yet insistent and trying to take root elsewhere.
All images copyright and courtesy of Laura Hudson
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