Richard Hull has a local beer ready for me, and he pours himself a Scotch when I arrive at his home in West Town, Chicago. It’s a quiet residential area, where his studio is a converted structure off the backyard of the house. He and his wife moved there just recently, but the living room and dining room are filled with the work of artist friends like Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Margaret Wharton, Miyoko Ito, David Sharpe, and Orkideh Torabi. He’s excited to share a recent find: a George Cohen painting he happened to come upon and recognize in a thrift store. Hull is a straight-shooter, funny, and personable, and when he talks about art, there’s no jargon, so when he throws in a reference to several lines of poetry, it’s all the more compelling.
We met during the week of Expo Chicago, where Western Exhibitions featured his work in a solo presentation. I find that, in the middle of the art fair, his work radiates a palpable joy. It stems from the paint itself: the pleasure of how pigment is put down, scratched through, and marked with daps and dots. It was in the oddity, playfulness, and suggestiveness of the forms, the variety of color in a single work, and the way forms multiply and spiral outward from the center. On view is a combination of wall paintings and two-sided freestanding works on loopy, shaped MDF. The forms suggest wacky hairdos and heads seen from behind, but the shapes within them droop and probe and project out like amoebas, ears, and tongues.
After we talk for a while, Hull invites me to come along for the rest of his evening. We stop by an opening at Kavi Gupta Gallery and drive with his School of the Art Institute colleague José Lerma to the Drag City Records pop-up gallery space, Soccer Club Club. There’s an exhibition hosted by the Tribeca gallery CANADA and a surprise, beautifully quiet performance by the label’s singer / guitarist Bill Callahan. I watch Hull move through his city’s art world social scene, and can see the long roots he has there, as he runs into friends and students. The evening starts to feel like the energy of his painting: full and spreading out in unexpected directions.
Hull was born in 1955 in Oklahoma City and lives and works in Chicago. He received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1977, and his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979. Before graduating, he joined the legendary Phyllis Kind Gallery and had numerous shows in both her New York City and Chicago locations. He is now represented by Western Exhibitions, Chicago, where he has had solo exhibitions in 2019, 2015, and 2012.
Jennifer Samet: Did you draw as a child? Were there artists or visual experiences that made an impression when you were a kid?
Richard Hull: Drawing was the one talent I had as a kid. When I was six years old, I organized a drawing class with the other kids. I would say, “You just look at it and draw it like it is. There’s this line and that line.” But I found that they couldn’t do it. I was totally confused. It was the first time it occurred to me that maybe I had another way of seeing or doing things. It still kind of amazes me.
When I was an adolescent, I imagined I would become John James Audubon. I had read his life story. He lived in the woods and would shoot the birds and paint them. I liked birds, and I still love them. Audubon was the first artist that I liked, and my guess is that there are a lot of artists who have that same experience. There is access into the images, maybe even more so than the work of Norman Rockwell. They are also slightly exotic, because they often depict birds you don’t get to see in real life. They are perfect and beautiful.
JS: You grew up in Oklahoma City. Did you go to the museum there or when you traveled?
RH: The museum was the Cowboy Hall of Fame, which is now called the Western Heritage Museum. It’s still a really cool place, full of saddles and cowboy paraphernalia. I saw work by Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, and I really liked it, maybe because it’s outdoorsy and rugged.
There also was the Oklahoma Museum of Art, and I remember that they had a Lee Bontecou sculpture, which always struck me as a weird object. But there wasn’t much else. Once, on a trip to Boston, my parents gave me about 10 minutes in a museum.
JS: What was your experience like at Kansas City Art Institute? Who were important teachers, and what did they talk about?
RH: KCAI at the time was a pretty exciting place. There were about 500 students, all undergrads, so we got all the attention of a mostly quite young faculty. I worked with Ron Slowinski, along with Warren Rosser and Michael Walling. I also learned from Stanley Lewis and Wilbur Niewald. What I remember most was talking to them about the older paintings in the Nelson Atkins Museum.
Slowinski and Rosser taught that painting was a serious and noble pursuit and that being an artist was a privilege. This was right after the end of the Vietnam War, so the students were an interesting mix of Vets, hippies, and the rest of us, who were right out of high school.
The choices about what sort of art you might make were clear: figurative painting, abstraction, conceptualism (which at the time seemed to rule the art world), or personal narrative. I think most of us chose personal narrative, figuration, and abstraction over conceptualism as a kind of resistance to what was happening in the mainstream.
JS: How did you end up moving to Chicago?
RH: Ron Slowinski had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with Ray Yoshida, and he was a friend of the Chicago art historian Dennis Adrian. He convinced me to come to Chicago because of the work I was doing.
I didn’t know much about the Chicago Imagists when I arrived. I had seen a Roger Brown painting in a magazine. He described how it was based on a memory of driving in a car with his parents and seeing the lights of the city over the hills. I liked how the personal memory manifested directly in the painting. However, I was much more interested in West Coast painting and the Funk artists at the time — William T. Wiley and Roy De Forest. They were all teaching at the University of California, Davis. I made a conscious decision not to go to the place that was dominated by the work that was the biggest influence on me.
I had seen a Jim Nutt piece and I didn’t understand it at all — someone painting that carefully. It was a totally weird nude, perfectly painted. The fact that I respected it, but I didn’t understand it, was compelling.
Slowinski brought a group of us to the opening of a Barbara Rossi exhibition at Phyllis Kind Gallery. The drawings in the show were exquisite, and they were all sold. I saw all the red dots. I didn’t know that was possible. Also, at the opening, there was a bartender wearing a white coat, serving real drinks. I thought, “Whoa, the art world is really pretty cool.”
JS: Although the content and imagery in your work has evolved and shifted greatly over the years, one consistent element is your use of wax mixed into the pigment. How did you get into using wax, and what does it allow you to do in your work?
RH: I’ve been using wax since 1978, when somebody gave me a jar of Dorland’s wax. I was interested in scratching into the surface, and by putting the wax on top, I was able to scratch through. It makes the paint a little more matte and tacky, so there’s a friction between the paint and the brush.
I’ve also been using crayons for forty years. I think that the first art-making technique I was ever taught was layering crayons. When you scratch into them, the color underneath is revealed: bonus color! It is funny to make art using a child’s medium.
I still have one of the first paintings I made in Chicago, “The Houses of Call” (1978), which used to hang in Phyllis Kind’s bathroom. I used the cheapest house paint I could find for the ground, and I was scratching through the wax surface. There is a show on view now at the Elmhurst Art Museum about the post-Chicago Imagist generation, which includes 15 painters. We all were convinced that house paint was exactly the same as gesso. Turns out it’s not. But maybe the bathroom experience preserved my painting somehow.
JS: Your early work was described as abstracted architectural interiors. What inspired these motifs and forms?
RH: The paintings I was making at KCAI were mostly singular fields of color in the shape of animal hides with “symbols” embedded in the surface. My worked changed when I wanted to know where these symbols were, not just have them float about. So, I began placing them in front of a wall, and on top of a floor. Once I located them in this “room,” I felt they needed to become not abstract symbols, but something real. That was the beginning of my first personages and my “architectural interiors.”
JS: How did you start working with the form of the heads and the hairdos?
RH: I began thinking about the human form and what was essential and defining in a person’s presence. I thought of hair as that essence of someone. At the same time, I was thinking about other ways paint could be applied, like using a larger brush and more paint than usual. I began making swirling rhythms of concentric marks that felt like hair. I sometimes use a comb to scratch back into the paint, making it more “hair-like.”
The centrally located twisting shapes in the recent paintings resemble hairdos or portraits. They don’t delineate a particular person or particular type of person, though each subject does retain a kind of personality. They are also about space. The architectural work was about locating figures within the space, and now the work is about the internal space within the figures.
JS: Do you analyze other painting in these terms?
RH: I think that in all great paintings the space is wonky. There is something wrong with every great painting. I have always been interested in how the space can flatten out or be deep. These are the ideas that I use in my work. I don’t think about my philosophy or psychology.
One reason we like certain artworks is because we feel something when we stand physically in front of them. You feel yourself slightly differently in relation to a painting; you might have a philosophical sense of yourself. However, I don’t think about all of this when I’m actually painting. I’m just thinking, “Maybe the orange would be better,” or “Whoa, what can I do to save this thing?”
Jim Nutt and I taught a class together for many years called “Pictorial Structures.” It is about these kinds of issues. We would talk and argue with each other in front of paintings at the Art Institute. He really understands painting, and is a very careful observer.
On the first day of the class, we would talk about Nicolas Poussin’s “Landscape with St. John on Patmos” (1640). No one else looks at it; you can stand there all day and no one gets in the way. It’s so rich with painting ideas. It never stops. After that, we go right to Willem de Kooning’s “Excavation” (1950), and the same thing is true. You can look at that painting forever and still not know everything that is happening. One of my favorite paintings in the collection is Edouard Vuillard’s “Child Playing: Annette Roussel in Front of a Wooden Chair,” (c. 1900), which is about 17 by 22 inches.
JS: What led you to the sculptural, two-sided freestanding paintings that you have been making recently?
RH: I think of the paintings as mirrors, and the shape of the head is like a mirror too. I would leave figuring out the outer edge until the end of the painting process. It was kind of a pain, because I had already basically made the painting, and then I would have to match things or add elements. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t have to do that?”
This led to cutting out the shapes. At first, I was planning to make shaped canvases that were installed on the wall, but then I thought about mirrors resting on a vanity. I realized they could stand alone if I built a base. The base could look like shoulders. I figured out how to do it physically, and found a student who could use the CNC router and glue them together for me.
I do still think about the Hans Hofmann idea, which is that the first four lines of a painting are the edges of the canvas. The fifth line is the first mark you make. The edge of the canvas is very important in terms of how the space works, and you have to deal with it. That is where the action is happening. When I got rid of it, the world became the tension. I let it all in.
I also was thinking it would be fun to make a painting with a front and a back. The two sides could be very different. Paintings that stand on surfaces or tables reference reliquary objects. At some point, I might make a big one, like an altarpiece. My early paintings had predella panels: a band at the bottom with other scenes, depicted in a different scale. It is one answer to the question, “How does the painting end?” In this case, the shoulders or the tabletops become the end of the painting.
JS: Do you think paintings should have an end?
RH: I want things to somehow get arrested. If I just painted the loopy forms over and over again, there would be a continual unfolding. The forms would not be fixed enough, and could “slide off” of the painting. I want things to be held in place, and I want a sense of gravity. Even if it’s topsy turvy, you understand the painting in the way you understand the world. You’re standing with your feet on the ground.
When you look at painting, often the real tension of the painting starts somewhere, and relaxes around a certain point, and then starts again. There’s an alternation of tensing and relaxing: a rhythm. I want motion, but I also want a pause in that motion.
JS: I know that you have said your paintings are not abstract, and that you think about them as characters. Can you tell me more about what you mean by this?
RH: I have this idea about painting. When a painting contains a lot of information, and is more rendered and realized, the image begins to supersede the paint. In that sense, the painting becomes less real; it becomes more abstract. On the other hand, the more the paint becomes evident in a painting, the more real it becomes. You might not have a name for the image, but the paint is real. It is not abstract. It is a physical, real thing.
Also, when I make the paintings, I think of all of their components as entities. Each of the entities needs to be treated properly and needs care. I try to be fair to the parts, and not have a hierarchy. Even in the broader color areas, which don’t have a lot of stuff in them, I spend a long time painting. I make sure those parts getting proper attention. They are real to me: I’m watching out for them.
JS: Still, your images certainly refuse an easy read, and the current work is very complex in terms of the layering and interweaving of forms. Can you talk about this evolution and the idea of readability and image-making?
RH: I want more things to be happening in the work now. I want more layering and fracturing of the space or the image. It reflects how I feel: that there is a lot of fracturing, and a lot of brokenness to many things. I feel this tentativeness lately. The work is less homogenous. I am putting an entirely new shape on top of the other shapes. They are integrated but also interfering with the other parts. They are about separate incidences and multiple personalities, occurring simultaneously.
One of my favorite poets is Norman Dubie, and he ends the poem “El Greco” with these lines: “It is all the things gone separate that / Collect to frighten you. The mob / That sits plainly at a table or in the branches / Of a tree / Or worse yet as large new systems at your feet.” The work is about things which are separate, but which are collecting back together. It is about trying to hold things together, and locate them. We are always somewhere. My lifelong project in my painting has been to locate myself.
The worst kind of painting is the kind that just tells you something, as opposed to letting you discover it yourself. When anything becomes too sentimental, that’s when I try to snatch it back into a less-real situation. I tell my students, “Find something you love, and don’t make paintings about it.” The problem is that when something communicates so well with you, you assume everybody else will get it too. If you are just making an image, you might as well not do it. I don’t want to interrupt the process of seeing, by being told what something is. The image and the painting should rise together. They need to be equal partners.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.