CLIVE HEAD: THE PARLOUR PAINTINGS
“I think the extraordinary should happen in painting. I think that's the role of painting, to make a different world."
- Clive Head
Landau Contemporary is proud to present new works by Clive Head for the gallery's first online exhibition of 2021.
Head is considered the leading realist painter of his generation in the UK. However, with this bold new series, Head has woven fluid rhythms and complex perspectives into sophisticated tapestries that are focused on form and whose organic structures give birth to new worlds.
As the global pandemic continues to disrupt social and economic certainty, Clive Head's new works offer us a moment of welcome respite and quiet contemplation. In this inspired series, The Parlour Paintings, so-named because they are meant to be lived with and reveal their expressivity over time, Head has challenged his artistic range like never before, in terms of scale, formal structure and technical execution.
For the previous two decades, Head’s practice might best be summarised as that of an investigative realist whose works were infused with an elegant and subtle fracturing of physical, temporal and spatial principles. He compiled a considerable ‘library’ of reference material for his paintings, including a huge number of photographs taken on location that helped inform his seamless urban landscapes, all free-drawn due to the technical impossibility of tracing a reality that transcends natural and physical laws.
Although Head continued to use his camera to document the world well into 2019, these landscapes were gradually usurped by more fragmentary perspectives and imagery as Head became increasingly interested in his passage through the world over time and in capturing an object or form as it moved through space.
He then made the decision not to base his paintings directly on the “libraries.” Instead, he began with drawings and studies, and once some structure was established on the canvas, the process of painting itself was the only source of direct reference used in the studio, the grandeur and expressiveness of his works amplified in scale and intensified through deft use of colour.
In the last year, Head has drawn on his experience of being in the studio, being at home, and being in his garden as an opportunity to focus inward and reflect on his career. Through that lens, he discovered a novel approach to figuration developed in the studio, which has flourished in the Parlour Series as he gained a greater understanding of his capabilities for imagination and invention.
These new works are rhythmic structures made in response to spending time with people and in nature. Their specificity is focused on form, not historical narrative, and yet layers of inspiration and meaning emerge in each work. "There’s a great deal of mystery to come to terms with, and that was the principle behind The Parlour Paintings," noted the artist.
"These are not illustrative paintings and one reading should always be balanced by many."
- Clive Head
Detail of Canute's Flatterers, 2020
Through these works, Head has reawakened his interest in the artists who have motivated his practice - Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse, Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix, among others - and his younger self; the child who was a prodigious landscape painter and the hungry student who studied under abstract expressionist David Tinker.
It was Tinker who first encouraged Head to paint in this size and focus on creativity and understanding the creative act. These smaller canvases, roughly 30 x 40 in., allowed Head to work on multiple paintings simultaneously during the creation of this series, inciting a closer relationship between experience, thought and pictorial expression. These paintings are meant to be lived with, "to hang in our homes and burn very slowly," says the artist. What we see is drawn from his thoughts, memories, fantasies; the form it takes is entirely down to how he thinks it should be on the canvas.
Landau Contemporary is pleased to present you with a guided tour of selected works from this series and its origins hosted by Clive Head, beginning with The Sirens of Hopper's Crib.
Arrived at through the same level of deliberation and revision as his paintings, Head's titles offer us a way in, though equally, they might add to the mystery. Here, the sirens refer to New York at the height of the pandemic.
Head received a letter from a painter friend, Robert Neffson, updating him on the outbreak. "Living in the heart of Manhattan, Robert described a desolate but beautiful city," Head recalls. He was struck by Neffson's observation that the emergency vehicles were silencing their sirens. Weeks before, it was all that could be heard, the sound of ambulances rushing people to hospital. "They finally decided to turn the sirens off and just have silence."
"The tension, the fear, the uncertainty is often expressed in my work through more of a sexual chemistry than a violence."
- Clive Head
In the present work, Head's sirens are not those emanating from ambulances; they are mythological creatures, seductive and threatening, their forms twist, turn and expand not just to fill but denote a city that is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.
For Head, the act of painting is "making connections to my thoughts and memories, which are then built into the formal structure of the work, only to generate further motifs." A dense palimpsest of narratives becomes the very building blocks of the painting, whether perceived by the viewer or not.
"This series of paintings, The Parlour Paintings, is an ongoing investigation into what painting might mean to me, my development."
- Clive Head
Hopper's,Office in a Small City, 1953
(Photo property of Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In Fountainhead, Head has revisited his artistic roots in realism. The painting evokes the memory of renowned photo-realist gallerist Louis K. Meisel, who would hand out copies of Ayn Rand's famous philosophical novel to visitors.
"Meisel would tell them of the importance of excellence in the arts and give them a copy of The Fountainhead to read," says Head. "A tale of a talented architect thwarted by a world that enshrines mediocrity, Rand’s message comes over clear. And so does Meisel’s, through promoting art that is meticulously crafted."
But Head’s Fountainhead is not exacting in its realism. It is quite unlike the art that Meisel promotes. Head may have some sympathy with Rand’s thinking, but he is rejecting the conventions of realist painting as the foundation for great art to counter a complacent mainstream. Head no longer works in the way that we would expect a realist to work and, with this painting, Head is making an unambiguous statement that he has moved on.
The problem that Head sees with both photorealism and academic painting is that they are both overtly reliant on appropriating pre-existing systems. "Photorealism is dependent on how the camera represents form, rather than a creative act engendered by the individual," argues the artist. Rand’s architect is a Modernist, and it is with this spirit of innovation and invention that Head has painted this extraordinary image of his wife.
"Fountainhead is very different from a realist painting. I’m using different devices. I’m trying to invent a new way of painting."
- Clive Head
Head's realist urban landscapes were built upon complex mathematical structures of his own invention, but that has now been replaced by a working practice that draws much deeper on a more intuitive and idiosyncratic approach. Wherever the means come from, these paintings claim their legitimacy as works of art because they knowingly resist being overtly complicit with all that is known about representation. They work on their own terms. However, that does not preclude them from referencing the great artists he is drawn to.
"There’s another little nod to Matisse here, in this green line that comes down the nose in this central portrait of my wife," notes Head. "Because, of course, there’s that famous Matisse painting of his wife with the green stripe down the center of her nose."
"I have become increasingly fascinated with the gallimaufry of imagery that I've discovered in the painters that I'm drawn to, that thread through art history that I feel connected to which includes Goya, Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Matisse, De Kooning to name just a few."
- Clive Head
The Green Stripe, 1905
(Property of Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark)
Fountainhead shares the same original drawing as Shore Leave, painted early in the series. There was no indication of water in the drawing, yet both paintings have rivers, bridges and a riverside skyline of buildings.
Head notes that the narrative of a beach scene with sunbathers may refer to the early news reports of crowded beaches during the pandemic, people giving into hedonistic excess irrespective of the harm that they could cause to others. “I don’t really set out to illustrate any particular news stories or events that are happening at the time," said the artist of his process. "But, just working onto a blank canvas, things tend to emerge that are happening around me without me necessarily needing to plan those things." Head’s elderly mother lives in a coastal resort, and his concern for her safety was exacerbated by news of these activities.
As the painting developed, the motif of a sailor materialized, which then grew into the narrative of a sailor on shore leave. "In hindsight, I realized it's reminiscent of my painting tutor when I was at university, David Tinker," Head recalls. "And David was a sailor, a naval captain during the war, and he often recalled stories of his time during the war."
Like Fountainhead, Shore Leave aligns itself with Head’s interest in Modernism; stylistically, it reconnects the artist with Tinker's lyrical abstraction, but it also articulates the influence of other Modern painters like Oskar Kokoschka’s visionary figuration.
"As the series progressed...the colour becomes more vibrant, more expressive, and I think this painting parallel’s very closely the work of Oskar Kokoschka."
- Clive Head
Kokoschka’s paintings share that morphological feature that is intrinsic to Head’s work. The fluent and expressive manner in which they are painted might conceal a layering of narratives, but it’s the density of meanings and motifs which really distinguishes Kokoschka’s expressionism from current exponents of expressionist painting.
Head has consciously built a myriad of images, but as he freely admits, he continues to see new motifs in his paintings that he did not intend. Describing them as zoetic structures, once established, the paintings continue to suggest more and more as we become acquainted with them. "I’ve always like Kokoschka’s paintings, and this painting in particular, which I was looking at over the summer, is called The Sailor’s Bride, seems to make a connection to my painting of Shore Leave," Head recalls. "Again, something which I realized having made the painting."
"Kokoschka talks about trying to keep visionary painting alive, not figurative painting, not abstract painting but visionary painting. I suppose that’s really what I’m trying to do coming into the studio, facing just a blank canvas, perhaps a few lines from a drawing and then seeing what emerges."
- Clive Head
Detail of Kokoschka's The Sailor's Bride, 1970
Head's recent works forge a link with Kokoschka’s “visionary” legacy, which can be traced back to pre-war Germanic Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkiet painting. Similarly, some of Head’s studio drawings from this series also acknowledge this history; Otto’s Parade pays homage to Otto Dix.
In these drawings, the network of lines is finely balanced, both across the picture plane and into a shallow space to capture figurative possibilities. "It’s an organic, abstract net that has human significance, painstakingly arrived at over days of speculative drawing," notes the artist. In the first, the title implies a connection to Dix's paintings and drawings of the Berlin Metropolis in the 1920s; the women forthright and provocative.
Drawing is the backbone of all of Head's work. Otto's Parade and Drawing to the Dance of Tantalus are studio-based drawings made like paintings that explore ideas as the artist tries to find new ways to express reality, but which stand on their own terms.
As Head notes, "Such studio drawings really have the status of being like the early stages of a painting. If they are sufficiently complete, then that would be the end of that project, and there would be no painting. Painting must be about exploring the unknown."
Like the mythological figure Tantalus whose food and water were always just out of reach, Head argues, the Dance of Tantalus is a comment on the struggle of the artist to discover new modes of expression.
"We are trying to do so many different things, and it is so difficult. Success is always just beyond one's grasp."
- Clive Head
The first paintings in the series began from drawings of overlaid imagery, based on information collected when Head was travelling away from his home and studio. Typically, these drawings had their origins in being in the city, like London or New York, as we've seen in Sirens of Hopper's Crib and Fountainhead.
As the series progressed, Head found the beginnings for new paintings not in the drawings made of distant places and events but from his experience of being in lockdown with his family. "We all began to consider the importance of our home spaces where we spend most of our time; of the spaces where we are not just passing through."
The English countryside is rich in history and legend. At the end of Head’s garden, there are several willow trees, which he has drawn. Drawing from nature gives him patterns to work with that generate all kinds of images. But drawing can never be an entirely abstract exercise. The subject has its own history and meanings, which enrich our understanding and experience of the world. And so it is for Head with the willow tree.
If The Parlour Paintings began with Head revisiting his student days, these later paintings in the series take him further back. As a child, Head was a prolific and prodigious landscape painter. He regards those first steps into becoming a painter as being of great importance as they belong to a version of himself before he knew anything about art, received any instruction or visited any art museums.
For all their layering and formal sophistication, there is an aspect of this new work that recaptures the nucleus of Head’s identity, his first forays and interests. They never left him. Head is an English painter. He lives in the countryside and loves the English landscape wrapped in legend, fairy-tale and literature.
Canute's Flatterers was painted during the height of the pandemic when, barred from travelling, the artist did a lot more drawing in the garden. "Moving closer toward drawing, and moving away from the camera, has helped to develop these new paintings," says Head.
In setting his easel in the garden and drawing directly from living forms, Head believed he might deduce networks of significance, that the lines that he drew in response to the landscape might have the fecundity to generate new forms in the studio. Head began this painting, having made a drawing in the garden of a dead blackbird. At the outset, the painting seemed to be concerned with giving the bird new life, like a phoenix rising, and this motif still resides in the foreground, in the vibrant coloured bird.
"It's about the relationship between us and the natural world that suggests the theme of King Canute and the folly of man to stand against nature."
- Clive Head
But perhaps the emergence of a new narrative on Canute’s mortal failings is indicative of Head’s own creative doubts. King Canute tried to stop the waves before his followers but couldn't. He said to his people, 'I am just a man. I am not a God' to remind them of his place within the natural order.
Head is mindful of the real dangers caused when man ceases to respect the natural world. The fate of the people in this painting seems less certain than that of the birds and the fish which will return safely to the air and water.
In Willow Wives, Head touches on the potency and mystery of the willow tree in different cultures and gives form to the artist's weekly activities in drawing from the life model and drawing in the garden without being a direct manifestation of either.
In fact, the only motif in this painting to be taken directly from one of his drawings is the squirrel in the tree at the top of the painting. It screamed at Head so much when he was drawing that he felt obliged to keep it in the painting.
"I'm interested in the landscape, but the landscape as a receiver of myth, of history, of ideas, of folklore, of mystery."
- Clive Head
Head notes that coming away from the landscape and moving into the studio allows the opportunity to discover new possibilities, new narratives. "Because when you're confronted with reality, whether it's a life model or a landscape, there's always that insistence to be true to what's in front of you," he says. "It is much easier to copy life, but that insistence on reality stops the imagination, stops that exploration into the self, into one's own imagination."
The process of painting suggests possible meanings, and Head must be open to allowing the painting to unveil whatever it needs to. It’s imperative that he doesn’t impose a false narrative on the work, that he doesn’t bring something into the studio that doesn’t naturally belong there, nor that he censors anything that emerges which he finds uncomfortable. Head’s paintings are about the nature of painting itself.
Head began Playing Fields of Actaeon with the drawing of a tree which he transformed by chance into a stag. Woven into the landscape are numerous figures of Diana and Actaeon and hunting dogs, or perhaps it is a landscape born from these figures. This work continues the story of Head's 2014 painting Wash Day with Actaeon. Actaeon, for his sin of coming across the naked goddess Diana at her bath, is transformed into a deer and is hunted and killed by his own dogs.
Head argues that this painting, "by its nature, is about transformation, and, I think, that makes it particularly challenging because it means that every brush mark, every patch of colour, has got to work, not just in formal unity, formal harmony, creating rhythms across the painting, but also about creating figurative meanings."
"The key to painting is to have the right kind of process, to know how to go about exploring the self, exploring the possibilities of where the painting will go."
- Clive Head
For all its shifts in scale and imagery, this painting, perhaps more than any other in the series, reminds us of Head’s first love of landscape painting in a vista that evokes an arcadian grandeur. This is a landscape worthy of Bierstadt. It is also a reminder of the artist's struggles.
Head was struck down with a poorly understood neurological disease in 2004. Since then, he has developed ways to manage his illness and prioritize what he wants to accomplish. Painting has become a bigger part of his life, and the studio, a place of retreat as much as a place for work. Head’s landscape is of a steep incline. It’s an imagined landscape of harsh differences. The odds are stacked against the mortal Actaeon through no fault of his own. A beautiful terrain perhaps, but oddly rooted in Head’s own difficulty to achieve what others may take for granted.
In discovering the themes, motifs and possible narratives of each of the Parlour paintings, we do so knowing that these emerged largely as a result of the painting process. It is the act of painting that is making connections to Head’s thoughts and memories, which are then built into the formal structure of the work, only to generate further motifs. If they seem to leave us hanging, asking more questions, it would be reasonable to assume that it is only a partial narrative, the weight of the explanation given in the title being commensurate with its status in the painting.
Look at a painting by Head up close, and it is entirely unpredictable and unfathomable. These patterns, patches of colour and tone, should not create the imagery that we see. We may attribute influences from art history, stylistic borrowings, Head's memories and fantasies, but we are unable to account for precisely how these paintings function as they do. That is Head's achievement as a leading artist of his generation.
Landau Contemporary would like to thank Clive for presenting us with these remarkable new works and offering us a moment of respite and reflection during these difficult times.
Detail from Shore Leave, 2020
Head was born in Maidstone, Kent, in 1965, the son of a machine operator at Reed's Paper Mill. He had a precocious talent in art and, in 1983, he began studying for a degree in Fine Art at Aberystwyth University under the tutorship of the abstract painter David Tinker.
In the 1990s, he founded and chaired the Fine Art department at U.C.Scarbrough for York University, leaving teaching in 2000 to paint full-time.
He first gained prominence in the 1990s for his hyper-real urban landscapes, which were laced with the pictorial aesthetics from art history. They were distinctly unlike the cool banality of photorealist painting and evolved from earlier paintings that made overt reference to Western Art. Head’s solo exhibition with Paton Gallery, London in 1996 consisted of large classical tableaux.
In 1999, he had his first exhibition with Harry Blain in London and was also championed by Louis Meisel, the founder of the Photorealist movement, who regarded him as the most important realist painter to come out of Europe in the 1990s. His work from this period has been exhibited at numerous museum exhibitions dedicated to Photorealist Art. Notable examples are exhibitions at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemsza, Madrid, Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels, Tampa Museum of Art, Florida and Kunsthal, Rotterdam.
In 2005, he was commissioned by the Museum of London to paint London from Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II. In the same year, he joined Marlborough Fine Art making ever more complex paintings founded on his own experiments with spatial mathematics. These became the theme of Head’s solo exhibition at the National Gallery, “Modern Perspectives” in 2010, and the subject of a major monograph published by Lund Humphries.
Head’s life-long fascination with the work of Nicholas Poussin became the subject of an installation at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2013. Head made a vast, impossible landscape of the subterranean halls of Victoria Underground Station to echo the structures of Poussin’s classical arcadia. This became the subject of a film documentary by Bill Cran (From Victoria to Arcadia, Invision).
In 2014, Head began a new investigation that started to break the seamless space of the paintings from the previous few years. He abandoned his enquiries into mathematics for an entirely free-fall and intuitive response to painting. He has described this period as reconnecting with the spirit of his student days in the 1980s when he painted instinctively under Tinker's tutelage.
Heads paintings from this time to the present have "evolved into an overt palimpsest of spaces and colliding time-frames," transcending any easy classifications such as realist or abstract. His work from this period has been exhibited at numerous museum and gallery exhibitions. Notable examples are exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
2017 Kunsthal Rotterdam (Netherlands)
2017 Tampa Museum of Art (USA)
2016 Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn
2016 Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels (Belgium)
2016 Osthaus-Museum Hagen (Germany)
2014 Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao (Spain)
2014 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich (UK)
2013 Royal Academy of Arts, London (UK)
2013 Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid (Spain)
2013 Kunsthalle Tubingen (Germany)
2013 Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum (Duisburg, Germany)
2012 Dulwich Picture Gallery (London, UK)
2010 Kunsthal, Rotterdam (Netherlands)
2010 National Gallery, London (UK)
2006 Peninsular Fine Arts Centre, Newport News, Virginia (USA)
2004 Roberson Museum and Science Centre, Binghamton, New York (USA)
Notable Public & Private Collections
Imperial College London
Victoria and Albert Museum
Museum of London
Maria Lucia and Ingo Klöcker Collection
David Ross Collection
William Pears Group
Minneapolis Art Museum
Parrish Art Museum
Duke of Beaufort
Skip and Linda Law Collection
Louis K Meisel
Marcus Tellenbach Collection
Robert and Alice Landau
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum
Museo Thyssen Bornemisza
City Art Gallery, Birmingham
Museo de Bellas Artes
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art
Walker Art Gallery
Chiostro del Bramante
Peninsular Fine Arts Centre
National Gallery, London
Clive Head's Exhibition at the National Gallery, London
We thank you for visiting our online exhibition. Please contact the gallery to find out more about this exceptional artist. Photos and videos courtesy of the artist's studio.