Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Simon Head: Well, I started drawing as a child. My father’s career led my mother and me to move from one county to another and the drawings became a way of registering something about progress and fear and loneliness. When I was seven my godmother, who recognised my creative need, gave me a set of oil paints along with a letter which instructed me to use a limited pallet of colour and some artists’ names who I should look out for.
By the time we got to Sheffield, I was a teenager, and training as an engineering draughtsman and to be honest I never looked back; the rigour, precision and measured view of the world has played an important role in my life. I was in my mid-teens, and moving south I enrolled on a print apprenticeship. Through a day release scheme, I was made aware of a world of print and importantly typography, the engineering of language.
I enrolled at the London College of Printing, which was located in what had been the Daily Mirror print works in Clerkenwell. I had the world of type, design, printing processes, photography and book binding at my fingertips; it was heaven.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
SH: Two fortunate encounters that pointed the way. These early experiences helped shape the way I look and see. I was eleven and during a series of confusing events I observed the violent reaction that people had towards an object placed outside a new office block. It was vandalised weekly and featured heavily in the local paper. I was fascinated why this, as I later discovered, Barbara Hepworth sculpture, could be so controversial and be such a strangely powerful object.
On a later occasion, having hitch hiked across Europe I found myself in Paris. Walking and taking in the city I found an open doorway and entered. It was Brancusi’s studio. I was sixteen and had never heard of Brancusi or the incredible structures that he made. I was so lucky, literally I walked in off the street into his studio and was hooked. In a way I never left.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
SH: I’ve been told that my work walks a line between material, science and poetry; works that require time and patience to be created as well as appreciated. I would go along with that and add that in choosing ways of creating an image by lack of control, I am at the same time, completely in control.
My asking questions and turning over both metaphoric, and actual rocks, reveals the world of things I may have overlooked or missed altogether. I will retreat to poetry and understand it as a photograph and a map.
Projects, which are often research based, are at times conducted in laboratory-like conditions, investigating processes of time and chemical reaction. This slows down the making of work, which equates with slowing down the reception of that resulting work. Mixing up the input and output of an idea.
During the last few years of researching the origins of iron oxide, I became interested in how rust migrates. It led to the first Rust Beds work which proposed the separation of mark making from the medium that held it, kind of an interim space.
To start, I made a note of the papers dimensions and weight. This drawing/print was to be made of rust. Immersing the paper in water and covering it with weighted sheets of rusty mild steel, I left the work in what I refer to as the Rust Beds, which are under an apple tree in our garden. I made a note of how much time had transpired before moving the work to the studio for drying and subsequent re-weighing.
Subtracting the weight of the paper from this new measurement gave me the weight of the iron oxide drawing, the weight of an interim space. This resulting work made for delicate abstracts opening possibilities of interpretation into landscape and primitive mark making. This series of work is called, ‘Rust Beds / Fission’.
Moving on a little, the research side of things gave me an inkling into a period in time which referred to ‘the first and the second, great oxidation’, but also the first known genocide. Some early life forms didn’t do well with oxidation and took refuge with the newly formed calcium that formed the first skeletal structures, and eventually us.
Someone showed me an accordion bookbinding fold, which looks very spine like. This prompted an edition of ten or so concertinaed ‘o x i d a t i o n’ books.
2018 was a busy year and a more structural notion of the iron oxide work came about in Scar Tissue.
RB: Can you say something about the variety of processes that you use and how they inform one another?
SH: Nothing learned is ever wasted.
Processes in my practice? The question is always which one of them communicates better. Over time, like anyone, I acquired a bunch of skills and making is my oxygen. Everything I ever made or thought about making comes from experience. The journey has seen me make the same ideas rendered in many other formats, but do I ever learn?
Put simply, drawing influences everything for me. Writing is drawing and pictographs are writing and all is abstract.
I’m constantly cross-referencing. For instance in the projects, Patient Airing Shelters and Testimonio, photographic information is presented in isometric composition. This resonates with mechanical drawing but has a surprise for the viewer in that the works not only inform us of the two perspective views of a structure, but also brings attention to a self-movement and an environmental-movement sensed by myself whilst on location making the work.
I produced both still and moving film images of these structures. The surprise for me was in the way the printed diptychs desperately want us to believe them to be three dimensional objects, whilst the opposite is true of the structural movies, which when watching, want us to believe them to be two dimensional.
I’m thinking of making some large drawings, probably graphite, from these photographic references. Drawings like Trying to remember China, and Minor Tectonics, took some time and brought back a great number of memories, of place and people and smell and temperature; I like that.
RB: Can you say something about your work Buffalo Yoga, which was chosen to tour with Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize 2018?
SH: The nature of Buffalo Yoga’ is to encourage the viewer to spend a long time examining and engaging with the work. Referencing the iron oxide patina with the graphite drawing of itself. To some extent the Buffalo Yoga series may have been born out of the Minor Tectonic’ drawing, which commented on the identical small section of Thames estuary shoreline with a time lapse of thirteen years. Buffalo Yoga on the other hand references a Rust Bed work which took several weeks to produce, juxtaposed with a graphite drawing of a few hours duration. Both propose a different truth of the same subject.
RB: You often use text in your works (I’m thinking of the hexadecimal coded text from Lucy Lifedrawing series), using ‘text’ as ‘drawing’. Can you say more about this?
SH: ‘Lucy’ came towards the end of a solid five or six years studio project, ‘image/data/image’ progression, which was an initial response to the digital revolution. My typographic practice had been turned upside down and technology had forced its way into the equation. In order to understand and comment on the programme requirements needed to perform previously intuitive tasks, I needed to express my concerns and decided to meet it on its own terms.
My opening gambit was to scan a small A5 line drawing into the computer and convert it to hexadecimal coded text. Hexadecimal computer code is a language consisting of all the numerals, 0123456789, and the first six characters of the alphabet, abcdef.
I had various options at this point, but my first thought was to go back to the origins of carved letter forms, as we know them, and visit the ‘Trajen Inscription’. Over the coming months I learned to carve letters in slate and made my first carved alphabet, Hexadecimal.
Moving on, the originally scanned A5 line drawing, now translated into 250 pages of coded paragraphs, was taking on a very different life. By printing out all the pages at the default setting of the machine, I was able to ascertain how big a canvas was required to utilise all the text. So, I could alter the proportions of the canvas but the programme was instructing me on the working parameters. Reverting to familiar territory, I ran each A4 sheet of printed text through a waxing machine, which, traditionally, was used to put together camera ready artwork for the printing industry, before cutting up every line of each page with a scalpel blade and applying each line, with the guidance of some self imposed rules, to the canvas. Months later, ‘voila’ – what the hell is this!!! The truth be known, I had no idea what I was doing or quite where this first ‘image/data/image’ progression was going; this was true of many of the subsequent hexadecimal collaged, painted, and printed works made during the following years. Relinquishing control only to take back control, not being sure, edgy, makes for interesting outcomes.
I often work on long-term projects. I tend to put the consequent other ideas, that creep into my peripheral vision, pretty much immediately into smaller asides; like a working note to myself. Initially Lucy Lifedrawing was just such an aside. Scans taken from life drawings of a model named Lucy, became the ‘lifetext’ of a series of works which proposed printing the Lucy Lifetext, onto fragments of itself.
Compositions for the final typographic pieces were organised in a system based on human scale as discovered by the architect R.M.Schindler in his ‘Reference Frames in Space’ of 1946, before Le Corbusier’s Modulor.
The original series of Lucy Lifedrawing was inkjet printed onto some sheets of handmade paper, which had to be ironed before the printer would accept them. The thing is they could never print the same twice over, the antipathy of computer logic; eventually they broke the printer.
RB: Your work, IT’S SWEET TO BE REMEMBERED -2016, consists of a graphite wall drawing and an igneous rock on a polished cherry wood shelf. Can you say something about this?
SH: Carving is a performative action. I sometimes like to carve on found stones and refer to them as ‘handstones’, obviously you can hold them in your hand. Drawing a line to follow on the stone feels slightly presumptuous in that I would prefer the stone to tell me where the line should be. Holding the stone firmly down on some paper I proceeded to draw half the top outline of the stone, I turned the stone a quarter turn towards myself and drew another quarter outline, then turned it again and drew and finally once more. This exercise gave me four versions of lines to adopt in the carving, but importantly what I had drawn on the paper could be considered a freehand plan of that ‘handstone’.
The stone plan drawing dovetailed nicely with Charles Wright’s poem ‘It’s Sweet To Be Remembered’ and became an entirely performative work. Each time I show this piece it’s different, the cherry wood shelf is very C.W.
I’ve made a number of these drawings and intend to scale up the work, maybe rolling boulders on a beach and drawing with a stick in the sand. I definitely see the outcome of this as a movie, and future installation work.
RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate?
SH: At times poems are a catalyst for work and thoughts and forms of measure. This is definitely the case with ‘It’s Sweet To Be Remembered’. I want the viewer to spend more time looking, not just at my work but looking around after seeing my work. Bruce Nauman famously made a piece of work titled ‘Please/Pay/Attention/Please’, it’s how I feel too. I think of this image retention as ‘Half Life’, but in the poetic sense of how long after witnessing something like art or music, that experience lives on in you.
All my work tries to encourage or provoke the viewer into spending more time with, iron oxide, or a rock, or a structure in the grounds of an asylum, or computer code. I want them to use my work as a way to experience themselves and the world around them more thoroughly; as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘The world is all that is the case’.
RB: How has your drawing process changed in the past years?
SH: I don’t do enough of it, that’s for sure. I write a fair bit and constantly fill notebooks. I got into a habit of drawing my left hand, holding say, a knife or a fork or my mobile phone, posing like this was fun to draw. It’s something I admire in the Basque artist, Eduardo Chillida’s own hand drawings, but he didn’t do the posing thing.
If anything has changed it’s clearer to me now what I need to draw, I guess I have more to say. I’m looking at the ‘image/data’ work again, playing with code and mixing it up with graphite and rust and photography. I started drawing the silhouettes of Victorian house slates over the past four or five years. I was unsure where this was coming from but last year I was involved in an art residency in the church, St John on Bethnal Green and drew more compositions of slate motifs over digital copies of the original Sir John Soane plans.
I realised that somehow the slate motifs and the idea of a roof structure were somehow connected to Gaston Bachelard’s ‘House and Universe’ text from his book, ‘The Poetics of Space’; some significant memory of shelter and safety. I am going to include some of the very first ‘Problems In Machine Drawing’ examples, which are the exercises I learned all that time ago, with the slate motif graphite drawings as I believe this is the rumbling start point of these drawings.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
SH: Right now I’m working on a second series of Buffalo Yoga, and a new series of Scar Tissue. Typewriters are playing a central role in a number of works. I guess there is a romantic side to this but I’m just as aware of how influential the machine is to our lives. Drawing thick graphite slate motifs on thin Japanese paper, I like thin Japanese paper, feeding the folded drawing into the typewriter and typing blind, (no ribbon), over the graphite area.
Writing with a machine is writing blind, akin to the hand being blind when drawing conventionally, the difference being that with the typewriter I can’t see what I’m writing till it’s written.
There are a number of what I call ‘postcard poems’ on the go. Poems to the extent that a drawn area, formed by filling in a postcard-sized template with thick graphite, has no image as such. Only the blind typed information references the missing image, information taken from the reverse side of the original postcard. Reading this text re-establishes the image to the mind’s eye. But importantly, when looking closely at the graphite area, the typing, now seen in reverse, makes for a new understanding of what has taken place.
The first ‘postcard poem’ was taken from Rachel Whiteread’s ‘Untitled(Amber Bed), 1991’; Her work blew me away when I first saw it in a funny little gallery called ‘Krocodile’, in the early nineties. I recognised the postcard image to be from that exhibition because of the herringbone flooring in the photograph, and things like that, can only lead to other things.
All images copyright and courtesy of Simon Head
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