Dan Hays interviewed by Ben Tufnell, Spring 2006

BT: You’ve spoken about having ‘good excuses’ for making paintings. I think that’s quite an interesting notion. The question is, does one need to have a good excuse to make a painting now?

DH: I have a particular difficulty in conceptually justifying painting, because it’s a very strange and privileged activity, strongly associated with the commercial art world. So, rather than worrying about whether I can justify doing it, I find an excuse. It’s kind of dumb, which suits me fine.

The first excuse for painting was for the guinea pig series: they were the perfect subject to experiment on. That allowed me to go off and enjoy the act of painting, using colours, exploring composition, etc. With the tent series, Under Canvas, there was the pun – being in a tent, the illusion of depth, and the image lying under the canvas - so I guess that was the excuse.

BT: The notion of justifying or excusing an activity suggests a degree of doubt about it.

DH: Yes

BT: How much is the notion of doubt something you embrace in your practice?

DH: I think I really embrace it! I feel that it’s essential to my way of working. If a work is successful I have feelings of doubt towards it; there’s something left that I’m not sure about. This might seem strange, as the paintings look so finished.

BT: There needs to be something awkward or unresolved?

DH: That’s part of it. The subject comes into it, the technique I’m using, and so on, so ultimately I have doubt on some level. Much of this is due to spending so long with one image I can’t see it anymore. There are fleeting times when I feel confident about what I do, eureka moments, which happen once or twice a year if I’m lucky. Obviously to carry on you have to have some supreme self-confidence somewhere that you’re going to hit on something that will reach other people or have some value outside of your own interests.

BT: In 1999 you discovered a guy called Dan Hays who lives in Colorado and has a website full of images of the landscape around his home. Was that a eureka moment?

DH: Its funny, it didn’t really hit me straight away. I remember showing a friend, Helen, the day I found the website and she just said, Dan, you lucky bastard! But I didn’t know what I would do with it, finding this website with lots of images which related to the work I was doing anyway. So there was an initial excitement but the real breakthroughs came through the work and my interpretation of the imagery.

BT: When you decided that you were going to use Dan’s images as a sort of ‘portal’ to another place, did you have a sense of how this might pan out? When you wrote to him to ask if you could use his images did you have an idea for a series of pictures?

DH: Not at all. I really did love his pictures instantly, yet I didn’t do anything with them for around six months. I just continued with what I was doing already (Mists, Overgrown Path and Underwood, etc. coincidentally derived from found photographs of American wilderness).

The first set of Dan’s images I painted, Colorado Impressions 1 - 4, were on a small scale. I was quite faithful to the originals, maybe just simplifying the colours, painting them in a few days. I really thought that might be it – I guess I wasn’t so sure about reproducing images so closely. Then I returned to the subject a few months later and it was a stepping up process. Colorado Impression 5 was double the size and maybe took two weeks. Colorado Impression 6 was on a much bigger scale and ended up taking three or four months. So it was a very steep curve. By this stage I knew that it was going to be a big project for me. I worked directly from computer printouts of the image, wanting it to be true to the original. It was quite a faithful reproduction, but after that what was I going to do? So for Colorado Impression 7 a slight kink in the grid substrate behind the picture was introduced as a way of subverting it. Then subsequently with each painting there was a different formal device, be it in terms of colour or painting technique.

BT: So with each step the project gained in complexity. Then there is also the question of references to the Hudson River School, Cézanne, Monet and other artists.

DH: Yes, there are those art historical associations, which I think were there from early on. In 1999 I’d painted Monet’s water lily garden at Giverny using found video footage (Reflection, Transmission and Deterioration, 1999). Photographs of the television screen were turned into paintings – quite unsuccessfully – but I had the glimmerings of an association between digitally compressed imagery and Impressionism. The Hudson River School came into frame by the chance of Tate Britain having a show, The American Sublime, in 2002.

BT: Was that when you realised that there was historic context in terms of depictions of American landscapes?

DH: Yes, I am a poor relation of these heroic painters of the nineteenth century, who I really wasn’t aware of before. Obviously there was a real connection to the Colorado Impressions. However, it was more about the subject of the American landscape rather than a way of painting it.  Impressionism is still the overriding formal thing, and Cézanne I guess, the analytical approach to landscape.  The Hudson River School connection is more of a romantic link, the idea of uncharted wilderness - a metaphor for the Internet. The fact they were painting around the same time, the second half of the nineteenth century, intrigues me.

BT: Can you talk a bit more about your interest in Impressionism?

DH: My appreciation of Impressionism is on a technical level - how this broke with the studio-based methods of artists before them, by studying the effects of light directly in the field. I see an association between digital images and Impressionist painting. They are both anti-iconic; a computer gives every pixel an equal value, which equates closely to the Impressionist approach to depicting a scene where a hierarchy of forms is dispensed with. Also, image compression programs, like Jpeg, serve to reduce the file size of images, speeding up download times, equivalent to the impressionist’s restricted palette, used to capture the essence of a scene as quickly as possible.

By using images plucked from the web I could be seen as simply parodying the Impressionist imperative of studying nature directly, yet I feel this reflects a state of impotence and longing for an idealised view of the world, for the natural, unattainable after a century.  This dislocation is what I am really trying to express in my work.

BT: I’m fascinated by the way that your paintings at first seem to be immaculate but then break up on closer inspection, revealing a very painterly and fractured surface.

DH: The expressive or painterly mark has always been a troubling thing for me, my relationship to the physicality of paint being one of reverence and suspicion. I have never considered myself a natural painter, losing myself in painterly flourishes and virtuosic trickery. Painting something that looks like a painting. Style is the enemy. It gets in the way of the subject of a painting. This is a conundrum, as choice of a painting style is inescapable. I find myself now imprisoned by the mechanical rendering of pixels. This could be said to be a consistency of style, although my feeling on the inside is one of an escape from stylistic considerations.

The choice of painting method is predominantly functional. The paint is mixed with oil or glaze to a consistency that enables speedy application while successfully covering the surface.

From a distance the painting needs to move the viewer, drawing them in to see the mechanics of the image, the physicality of the paint, and then back out again.  This enchanted space, which is most special to painting, can be strongly articulated by the use of colour as much as the indexical mark.  Digital images are immaterial and exist in their pure form on a phosphorescent screen.  Their rendering in oil paint reveals what is essential to paint: its magical property of representing light.  This is hopefully achieved without the distraction of a painting genius getting in the way.

BT: I wonder if you could talk about how the role of chance, but also veracity and the process. You are engaged in reproducing something pre-existing, but also in creating something new. And the reproductive process is one that deliberately introduces a flaw.

DH: Yes, there are deliberate and accidental flaws, so I don’t know what the final result might be exactly. I just know that there will be a modulation of colour. For example, I might paint in a checkerboard first and then fill in the missing squares with a different range of pigments, a different mix of paints. There will be anomalies and fluctuations in the continuum of the image, which are there already in Jpeg images. It’s a way of hopefully accentuating that, of claiming it for paint, although I was drawn to jpeg images in the first place because of their painterly qualities, if that makes sense.

Sometimes I use simple mathematical systems, which guide me through the range of colour and technical combinations. Occasionally it’s slightly more random or intuitive, but mostly there’s very little chance involved. I’m enslaved to a particular system, which hopefully complements the arbitrary nature of the source images.

BT: You’ve spoken about fortuitous accident, and embracing that in the working process. You’ve also joked that you are really little more than a ‘bad printer.’

DH: Yes, very slow and very low quality.

BT: I’d like to ask about subject and ‘authenticity.’ I know you haven't painted landscapes exclusively for the last few years, but they have dominated your work. Colorado is distanced from you, both literally (geographically) but also by the framework you are working within (Colorado Dan's images, your technique). Is the idea of Colorado as a real place important? To what extent do you see your works as 'landscape paintings' or conceptual paintings that use landscape as a vehicle?

DH: The painter and subject are in a relationship. This is one of a possessive kind of love - a romantic attachment. Colorado chose me by chance, initially through the channel of Dan Hays’ website. My devotion to it as a subject gave rise to a sense of ownership or colonisation that is mutual. This love is, necessarily, unrequited. The act of physically going to the real Colorado would dispel the reverie of what has become a mythic place, the land of COLOR, inhabited by an alternative Dan Hays. In this way I lose myself and find myself. Other happy accidents, like the fact that the state is roughly a 4 x 3 rectangle, the same proportions as a computer screen and most of my paintings of the place, simply reaffirm these romantic delusions.

The real Colorado remains an abstract concept through my (poor) impressions of it; more amenable to the visual abstractions imposed through various colour systems and formal distortions. My works are conceptual paintings using landscape as a vehicle, although the conceptual framework encompasses a sense of longing for place that, in a sense, is applicable to all landscape painting.  The way we approach and view landscape reflects our relationship to the world.  In this way it seems impossible to paint a landscape without it being authentic.

It could be that by copying these beautiful images I can disappear on a creative level, as an artist, for fear of failure. The other Dan Hays is the authentic Dan Hays. I am his double, his slave, his ghost. My work is a kind of displacement activity, a distraction, smoke and mirrors.

BT: Do you have a sense of idealism in terms of taking landscape as a subject, as an artist who lives in London?

DH: Yes, I do wonder if I’d paint landscapes if I lived in the landscape. It’s a kind of perverse idealism. I get an ironic pleasure working with the landscape while being removed from it. This is the human condition, at least the developed capitalist situation. Nature is used to sell virtually anything. This is something I feel extremely ambivalent about. I revel in that ambivalence, finding it fascinating how the more removed from nature we are, the more our desire and yearning for it seems to increase. Depictions of landscape are a good substitute for the real thing – the real thing being unattainable.

BT: An optimist might say that the area you’re exploring - mediated imagery, photographic and digital imagery - is really fertile territory for painting and that in fact painting is perhaps the only medium that can really address this. A pessimist might say that actually painting is being forced into an ever more limited territory.

DH: You could say that the fact that someone is spending four months painting something that can be transmitted instantaneously, when there are millions of images generated every second around the world, is really the death knell of painting, confirming its futility. I’m not a pessimist. My work is about valuing images, when confronted with so many; about really looking at fugitive, transient images, which aren’t great in any normal sense of the word. By spending so long inhabiting a particular image I’m exhibiting a reverence to images in general, and articulating the preciousness of these things.

BT: Painting can slow things down, and create a space for reflection.

DH: I guess so, but I see this in photography and film, so I don’t think it’s a quality of painting in particular.

BT: I suppose what I’m suggesting, is that painting is uniquely equipped, the particular properties of painting are such that they can allow you to explore this world of images in a way that you couldn’t do with other media.

DH: It’s because it bestows on them a special kind of value. This is the awe that people have when confronted with anything that’s clearly taken a long time, a Persian rug, or whatever. I want to forget that but it’s really key and inescapable in the work. Spending so long devoted to one image, is a message for people viewing my work that I want them to get, and I don’t know if that’s a philosophical or poetic thing but its definitely part of what I’m doing. I want to slow people down. (Although not as much as me).