Work

More about the the art work of Nicholas Houghton

First and foremost I hope that the works can speak for themselves. This supplementary information might be useful, but I hope it isn’t necessary.

 

 

13 Cars (1974) was my breakthrough work. Up until then, I’d not found a consistent direction for my practice. In part I’d been making run of the mill, conceptual art, very much of its time: post-minimalism, combined with exploration of new media, together with a bit of social and art critique and a pinch or two or Fluxus influence; in part I was doing things which moved me on from that kind of work, in particular a series I called at the time ‘narrative art’. However, I still felt I was searching for something more in my work, something different. In part, my temperament wasn’t altogether suited to the aesthetic which underpinned conceptualism at the time. But the biggest problem I saw was that this kind of post-minimalist aesthetic might have opened up a lot of new paths, but they all appeared to be a series of dead-ends and lead nowhere.

In re-evaluating my practice, two works I’d done over the previous few years remained especially important. In 1971, I’d presented a performance piece called ‘Bedtime Story Event’ at a big survey show at London’s Alexandra Palace called ‘Art Spectrum’. I named this as my first ‘narrative art’ piece. Such a term and all it embodied were totally out of fashion at the time. For the performance I’d set out thirty single beds, on which visitors were asked to lie down. They were then invited to shut their eyes as I read them a story I’d written for the piece (using the second person singular), which was about somebody dying.  In 2004, when I had become dissatisfied with what I was doing and was looking for a new direction, I saw this work as pointing a way forward. My work needed narrative. Moreover, in this work I had discovered the effectiveness of using the language of modernism against itself.

The other work that helped to point me in my new direction, I’d produced the year before. Onto a film of a full length, World Cup soccer match I’d superimposed as a soundtrack a Bruckner symphony. They were both exactly the same length. I really liked the incongruity and tension between the visual and the aural, each of which would build up to their own climaxes at different times. For the ending, however, the fanfares from the orchestra, building to a crescendo, did at last seem to echo what was happening on the pitch.

For 13 Cars, I used the commonplace formal, visual language of conceptual art of the early seventies. I stood on the roadside of an uninteresting street, looked through the viewfinder of a camera and took a photo as soon a car came into view, thirteen times. (A conceptual work at this time would almost certainly have opted for a rounder number and my choice of 13 was deliberate, as it already undermined the quasi-systematic approach of so much post-minimalist art, while also having particular connotations; it also felt right for the story which was being told.)

Beneath the photos was attached typed text. Within the confines of the conceptual art movement of the time this wouldn’t have been at all out of the ordinary. What was different was that they narrated a story I’d written. I knew as soon as I’d done it that I’d made a breakthrough and found what I’d been looking for. The formal language of the photographs would normally have been referring to an art context, or a system, or to the artist in some way, or some previous artwork or art history, whereas here the images had, in addition, a much more important function: to be both in tension with the text, while also somehow amplifying it. The almost off-hand dryness of the images only made their emotional impact, when seen beside the text, all the more poignant.

I then produced a series of works combining pictures with text, such as Dusk, The Night She Left, Embers and Nothing to Say (all 2005). In each, there was a tension and eventual reconciliation between the two elements - and the story they told was melancholy. I’d found my voice and discovered it tended to be rather gloomy. This seemed absolutely right. The work wasn’t autobiographical, wasn’t about me and it seemed to me that the quasi-tragic sadness running through the works expressed the only universal message I could embrace with integrity.

It was evident that in doing this kind of work, I’d be ploughing a very lonely furrow – and probably for a long time. A breakthrough for me proved to be a breakthrough too many for others. The very titles were a million miles away from the titles usually given works at the time (a favourite always being the ubiquitous ‘untitled’). The stories I was telling were the very antithesis of current conceptual art orthodoxy; it must almost have seemed to some that I was taking the micky through producing conceptual works full of emotion, when conceptual art at the time had as one of its central tenets the expulsion of all such concerns. Even though the work was fictive and not about me, it might have appeared far too close to the kind of expressive work conceptualism had been reacting against.

On the other hand, beyond the (then) small world of conceptual art, my art was challenging in the way all conceptual art was. The expanding field of art practice and the use of lens-based media and – especially - of text were amongst the developments most people in the art world at the time found impossible to accept. I was caught between two stools. Moreover, it’s not a good career move to innovate alone. The art world rewards those who are a part of a movement. From that point of view, I’d have been better off doing more of the work I’d been doing before I produced 13 Cars.

However, the more I looked into it, the more I was convinced about what I was doing. The concerns of Modernism and its rejection of moribund history painting and semi-kitsch genre scenes obscured the fact that a central concern of art had been to tell stories – often with text. In our age of high literacy, the use of a combination of text and image by the publicity industry was commonplace. It was also apparent that in an age of such a proliferation of images, the image – any image – had been rendered banal and I had discovered a way of taking advantage of that, so that through the accompanying text such ordinary images could be rendered significant and emotive. This work was breaking too many conventions and it was clear to me I needed to be prepared as an artist for a long time in the wilderness.

To earn a living, I taught at various art schools and universities and for a few years in the latter half of the seventies sold more conventional paintings and drawings, in which I was picking through the bones of modern art’s carcass, in particular I was exploring the tension between positive and negative space and between colour and line. Although the results might have looked like a postscript to an almost obsolete tradition of western figurative art, working in this way has had considerable benefits for what I consider to be my real work. I have found that in the latter I can use what I’ve learned from observational drawing and that all sorts of avenues open as result, although I feel ambivalent about making the results public. (Please note that I am stating observational drawing is beneficial for me; I am not in any way claiming this would necessarily be of benefit to other artists.)

By the 1980s, the art world itself was ready to embrace a return to figurative painting and drawing, but by then I had made a firm decision to keep such endeavours to myself and for my public-facing oeuvre to concentrate on my narrative works. I had been in the ironic position of finding that the work I was doing mainly as exercises was commercial, while the work I considered to innovative was unknown. It would have been better had I used another name for exhibiting the former, like an author subsidising their creative writing by writing bestsellers under a nom-de-plume. But I hadn’t done this and didn’t want to be known as somebody trying to vivify the entrails of Modernism and so I closed that income stream and concentrated on teaching. Luckily this happened before the internet and so that part of my career has more or less disappeared without trace.

At that time, I produced Clouds (1982). Although this was similar in form to the narrative works I’d produced before, it seemed to me that I’d taken this kind of work to a new level. The pictures were not only telling their own story in parallel, but the two narratives were constantly interacting. It was to be another fifteen years before I would have an opportunity to exhibit it (in Utrecht) and even then it was treated with incredulity.

Unable to exhibit my works, I considered producing them in book form. However, when I made mock-ups, it was evident that this wasn’t right. They had been made to be seen on the wall and look right on the page for a number of reasons, including the size of the image in proportion to the text. (In the same vein, I’ve found trying to show them on a website to be very challenging.)

As the years have gone by, I have become ever more confident of the value and quality of my work. Even now, the fact that it’s fictive, and makes allusions to the literary, place it well beyond the mainstream - even in the splintered world of contemporary art

In 2001, I made a work with wall mounted sculptures (Face of Death). This opened up new possibilities, which I’m still exploring. In 2012, I produced Reflections, one of my more ambitious works with 12 images. In this and much of my current work I find the language of formalist art to be an ideal foil for the narrative contained in the text. I find I’m now enjoying a very productive period and still realising the possibilities that 13 Cars opened up.

 

Like many in the early nineteen-seventies, I was concerned with the way people were bombarded with images. The impact of images now came from quantity, rather than just quality and, like it or not, with such a large number to absorb all through the day, they were glanced at, not scrutinised.  Any residual power an individual image contained came about through the number of times it was reproduced. Images were viewed as part of a context. When you saw a Mondrian grid painting, you saw it while carrying in your head the memory of the many steps which had led up to it. Moreover, the path that led to your seeing that picture in real life had been prepared through seeing numerous reproductions. Images had become trite and only through allied information could their power be recovered. So, far example, the 1972 photograph by Nick Ut  of a girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Viet-Nam war made a huge impression because one took to it knowledge and views about this conflict.

I came to understand that images in my work needed supplementary information and that only then they could become vital in a way images no longer can on their own. In film, journalism and publicity this relationship between image and text is usually obvious. In my work, I preferred to set the one against the other, so that when it is apparent why they are together, the overall effect is all the more poignant and powerful.

 

 

In the early 1970s, the term avant-garde was still widely used to describe new art. However it seemed to be me that the concept was no longer helpful (I was far from alone in this, but nor was this common at the time). It seemed to me that modern art had made most of its innovations during the first two decades of the twentieth century and then gone on to expand on them, enlarge them (often in the literal sense) and extend them until it arrived at the end of that particular cul-de-sac. This was liberating. Too many artists seemed to be trying to second-guess art history and produce the next thing for the canon. Women artist friends made me keenly aware that you didn’t need to extend the canon: you could refer to it by all means and it was essential to know it and not appear naïve. But you could also do so many things that the gatekeepers of the canon would not allow. Even with the present-day plurality, there remain areas that seem to be frowned upon and perhaps my work impinges on these areas.

 

 

In 1973, I started calling my work ‘post-conceptual’. This was because on the one hand it acknowledged and made use of many of the breakthroughs of conceptualism, including using new media, using ideas and rejecting many of the tenets of modern art. There could be no going back to the Romantic concept of art as vehicle for self-expression. On the other hand, I couldn’t accept that art had to be an emotion-free zone. I noticed that many artists and critics who proselytised that this was what art should be, would in another context enthuse about films, music and novels which were crammed full of passion. In 1972, I was still feeling my way towards producing art which lived up to this aim. Two yeas later, I managed to.

 

 

My work is fiction. None of it is autobiographical and nor does it describe real events or actual people. On the other hand, it is hoped that the emotions it engenders are genuine and resonate.

 

 

So much of my art is directly or indirectly about death. Perhaps most art is. Perhaps that’s what separates art from only being decoration or entertainment: that it alludes to death. Mathematics can escape this: it can exist in a world of infinity. Art can’t. Art has to include the finite, to accept and acknowledge that everything is finite, that in retrospect everything can be seen as processing towards an ending, towards its death.

 

 

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