Interview with Hetty Utley for East Wing X: Material Matters at the Courtauld Institute of Art
October 18, 2011
Many of your works focus on the fact that things are always changing and evolving. How does the use of material and your processes help to communicate this in your art?
While a stand-alone painting might show a frozen moment, projecting video onto paintings allows me to simultaneously integrate changing visuals. In “Autumn Leaves” (2006) the deepening colors of the foliage (shot over a three-week time span) is more subtle than the moving cars, but neither is still, which is also true in life. Integrating new media with painting enables transformations to be made apparent.
You say that you aim to “infuse paintings with time”. How does the use of technology in your art help you to achieve this?
Painting, like all art, is a time-based medium. While a viewer typically experiences a painting as a still work, the artist can spend anywhere from seconds to decades on a piece. I might project video of the act of painting, maybe or footage of a landscape. A cloud crossing the sky will read differently in a static painting than in a time-lapse video. I combine them to emphasize the passage of time. I also explore the temporal nature of a painting after it leaves the artist’s studio (fading, cracking, etc.).
When talking about your piece “Flat Cube” you say you wanted to focus on the process of painting rather than the finished article. How important is the planning stage to your own work? Do you spend a lot of time preparing and experimenting with materials before actually starting to create a piece or is your process and approach more one of instinct?
In a way, much of my work is devoted to answering this question. I don’t think any of us know where ideas come from. Do our brains generate them? Instinct definitely plays a role in both planning and execution. It’s also a tough question to answer because if I approach a project with a plan, I may end up completely changing it by the end. However, if I leave a lot of room for improvisation, I might end up simply doing exactly what I originally thought I might like to do – so, I have to say “both”. I prepare by ensuring I have appropriate materials, equipment, time and space, but hopefully inspiration will strike and I’ll be engaging in something previously unanticipated as the work progresses.
For the piece being exhibited in East Wing X you have recorded the process of its creation on your blog. How important a part of the art is that? And do you think it makes a difference to you as an artist?
I began keeping a blog after I was awarded a grant to create public art in 2007. I wanted to make the entire project publicly accessible. Process is important to me, as a viewer and as an artist, so I have continued sharing what I am doing since then. I don’t think the blog has any real impact on my projects, but it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in caring about what I do.
Through this work you also explore what a painting is and the difference between paintings and film. How do you feel the various materials you use facilitate this?
A trend throughout many of your film pieces is the fact that they’re different every time you look at them. Why is this something you focus on within your art and how do the various materials and techniques you use help to achieve this?
I really value unpredictability in all the arts. Using computers to manipulate video and create non-linear montages and compositions is one method to ensure the viewer won’t quite be seeing the same thing every time they look at the piece, so they might see something new in the same work during subsequent viewings. I think a major aspect of art-viewing is seeking out fresh, potentially jarring experiences. Another reason is that I like to think about what might be, or what might have been – alternate futures and alternate histories. Painting is a linear process involving a slew of decisions which inexorably culminate in a single work. By using computers to simultaneously show a painting at different points in time, you get to see a lot more possibilities, all potentially compelling in their own right.
You have been involved in many collaborations. How important are these to you as an artist?
Crucial. Ideally I’d want to spend about half of my art- making time on collaborations. It doesn’t always work out well but the benefits of having your mind blown open repeatedly by someone else’s imagination and immediately responding to that and incorporating what you are both capable of thinking and doing into a single piece really increases what might be possible. I think a major reason video games are possibly
the most popular art form today is that typically it takes teams of humans and machines working in collaboration to produce them.
Lastly, your use of materials and processes are so varied. Do you have plans to develop your art further into other mediums and if so what do you hope to achieve?
I think about this all the time. I believe soon our augmented eyes (biologically or machine-implant) will see new colors as entire areas of the spectrum become visible to us for the first time. Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns tells us technology is evolving at an exponential rate. Believing I couldn’t be a painter-director-composer-author, I made a commitment to visual art around 1998, but who knows what we’re going to encounter in the next few decades? The closer we get to the singularity, the more options we’ll be presented with. I will want to explore those new technologies as they become available. What I hope to achieve is a very tough question to answer. I try to pay homage to the artists I admire, to expand our conception of painting, to expand my own mind and encourage my imagination, to communicate my impulses (the origin of which is mysterious), to commune with fellow believers in the inherent value of aesthetics, to explore those aspects of this universe which beckon, and to contribute with every other conscious entity (biological or not) in collaborating on defining this universe as an ever-improving place. I don’t know if I‘m doing any of those things but I think they are my goals in art-making as of today.