INTERVIEW Alastair Whitton PHOTO Maria Bell Photography
UK-based artist Jo Hummel’s work is characterised by a painted and paper collaged surface on which she employs spontaneous variations of space, colour and form. Cape Town-based Art Director and curator Alastair Whitton sat down to talk with Jo ahead of her first solo exhibition on the African continent titled Looking Out.
On encountering your work for the first time I could not help but think of Henri Matisse’s large ‘cut out’ and masterful collage, titled ‘The Snail’ (1953) that hangs at TATE Britain in London. What affinity, if any, do you have with the work of this late great artist, whose latter works arguably paved the way for abstraction?
Along with Artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, Matisse was undoubtedly part of group of trail blazers presenting collage as painting in the early 20th century, and for that I am grateful to him but I think largely, the similarities stop there. My work is concerned with the action of collage painting and I have found little to suggest that Matisse shared the same modus. Although he did talk in detail about the strength of colour relationship and proportions of form over figuration so perhaps we did share an affinity here. I did find a quote by Matisse where he says “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else” And I can relate, except In contrast I am not bothered by it at all.
Seemingly resolute in their preoccupation with form and colour, you have indicated that while your constructed paintings, made from shapes of cut out painted paper, are physically engaged and materially driven, their context is purposefully anthropological. Perhaps you could explain this seeming dichotomy?
When describing the work in this way what I am referring to is the experience of making the work itself and how that informs the practice. In the past I have referred to this as a phenomenological study, meaning I am studying my own consciousness. For me painting functions as a psychologically exploratory activity, wherein conscious intention and decision regarding the formal aspects of the work might be or beget behaviours and artefacts upon which an intimate reading of unconscious influence may be made. Every day is an expedition of intimate and intense self-research.
Although for a number of years now, aspects of figuration and notions of race, identity and sexuality have arguably been the dominant discourse in contemporary art, there seems, particularly in Europe, to be signs of a resurgence in abstraction. Firstly, would you agree with this observation and if so tell us how and where you see your work contributing to this conversation?
Yes I agree there seems to be a resurgence in Contemporary Abstraction in Europe although I will admit that my radar is abstract centric. I’ve noticed a wave of hard edge, geometric and reductive painting.
Throughout history and particularly in indigenous culture there are stories and identities embedded in shapes, colours and patterns. My work was borne out of foraging for found material, discarded paper bags, vintage wall paper, book jackets and like. Everyday items from everyday lives. Interlaced within my practice are socio-political concerns surrounding the biosocial parameters influenced by the British class system. I tend not to harp on about it but if you look closely you will see that my process, my materials and my politics are firmly rooted in anti-classism.
To date your work has been presented in group presentations at institutions like the Royal Academy and Saatchi Gallery in London and more recently you have held solo exhibitions in Barcelona and Munich with your first museum show coming up at the Vasarely Foundation in France. Your solo exhibition in January at Barnard Cape Town, as well the inclusion of your work on their booth at the forthcoming Investec Cape Town Art Fair, represents your first engagement on the African continent. Perhaps you could share your thoughts on this and what this opportunity means to you both personally and professionally?
Because I’m not based in central London I don’t expect to gain from its resources, and I look further afield for engagement. Reaching an international audience has always been an important strategy for creating a sustainable practice and travelling with the work is one of my greatest joys. At my solo exhibition in Barcelona my exhibition text was translated into Spanish, which a visitor translated for a friend into Turkish, whom I then had a long conversation with about the concepts in English and its fascinating how different cultures offer a different lens from which to view and make sense of the ideas. I learn a lot in situations such as this. To exhibit a solo body of work and be included in an art fair presentation on the African continent is an absolute privilege, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing people’s response!
Finally, and closer to home, despite being born on the UK mainland and having studied at the Royal College of Art in London, you and your family now reside on the Isle of Wight. Does being situated close to the sea and specifically living on an island have any bearing on your work and practice?
I’ve always liked Islands. Culturally, there’s an independent identity to island communities, people are tightly knit and proud of their home. I’m most energised when I am in the natural environment. I love cities, I lived in London for many years and I enjoy travelling to foreign cities but my work has a spiritual home by the sea. It represents so much, figuratively and metaphorically. It wasn’t until I relocated back to the coast that I discovered my authentic voice in painting. I like to retreat mentally into a private space when I’m making work and living on an island is the physical representation of that. Logistically it has its challenges, everything has to come and go by hovercraft!
Looking Out by Jo Hummel will be on display at the Barnard Gallery from 17 January – 14 February 2023, and at the Investec Cape Town Art fair from 17 – 19 February 2023.