Artist Talk: Ally Fouts & Bob Hooper

Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

Esthetic Lens presents another installment of Artist Talks. Artist Ally Fouts visits All Parts Are Both, an exhibition featuring the work of Bob Hooper at Regards Gallery.

Outside of Regards Gallery, I stomp on the sidewalk to an imaginary beat in an effort to free my shoes of winter slush before using my numb pointer finger to ring the doorbell. Upon entering the space, a sense of warmth immediately melts me. Looking around, I am confronted with nine large paintings. I recognize the radiant yellow of the three pieces nearest to the entrance where I stand as being the source of the warmth. Having thawed, I notice prominent motifs included throughout each piece. Included is the architectural quatrefoil, as well as the artist’s invented “circle-square” shape, and diaphanous “scrim.” I discuss the exhibition, All Parts Are Both, with the artist himself, Bob Hooper.

Ally Fouts: I’d like to start with a question about the “circle-square”; true to its terminology, this shape appears to be a hybrid of a circle and a square. Can you tell me about the genesis of this strange and alluring shape?  

Bob Hooper:The history of it goes back to an old farmhouse that we renovated in Massachusetts. I had to build a peninsula for the kitchen. I wanted it to be a circular table, and in order for it to be attached to the peninsula, I had to create a right angle on it. It’s a large piece of plywood with just one right angle that the circle was embedded in. When I cut that out, I immediately thought, oh, that’s an interesting, bizarre, awkward shape. It eventually found its way into my studio and I started to use that as a shape in paintings. That’s where it came from initially, its purposefulness has grown over the years.”

figment, 2020, Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

“The reason the circle square is so purposeful is that it is a hybridized form in itself. I can work different strategies from it. On one corner there is a square, so I can work off of a traditional, right angled, ground plane, and all of those traditional historical manners of working compositionally off of a square. I can set those expectations off against the circle, which is the Tondo, and start to use two different ways of thinking strategically against each other, creating an internal argument, a dialectic. It’s a pretty awkward shape in itself, which I really enjoy. It’s offering something that right away a viewer immediately needs to negotiate. It has different ways of being read; It can be read formally as just the circle-square in itself, it can also be read as a virtual conical shape where the right-angle side tends to go back or forwards in space from the circular portion I can actually turn it into a cone or a virtual cone because it’s a flattened shape. I like the virtual-ness of that, which I think of as a sustained, active, continued immediacy. That becomes this electric charge from the painting surface where I believe most of the painting exists, whereas the painting itself is more prompts. In essence, the painting isn’t there: the painting is between the surface and the viewer. The circle-square offers a lot of different strategies for me. Being a dialectical form in that way, the fight between curve and right angle, that hybridization becomes a phenomenon.” 

AF: Can you tell me more about this concept of the paintings serving as prompts?

BH: “The notion about how I think about the prompts from the paintings is analogous to the idea of the diagrammatic exploded object. Like when I used to make a bicycle or something similar when my kids were young; I would get the box full of parts from Sears, within would be the instruction sheet. I’d have a diagram with all these parts, like washers, wheels and wingnuts, exploded out along on these various axes. I think about that with my work because everything is there that you need, but it doesn’t look like a bicycle. You look at the diagram and you can see a bicycle happening out of these different parts and vectors. More is being promised than being depicted, in the sense of a traditional picture space. It gives you an experiential quality of reconnoitering and re-conjugating an object in your mind; so that’s where it exists then. That’s the transference I’m interested in; the perceived and the imagined come together to create something which is phenomenological and become sensate, idealistic, and objective. The prompts co-exist on the flat plane negating that virtual read – a simultaneous building and collapsing.  I think of a writer like Robert Walser – without whom Hesse, Kafka, and Beckett might not have happened. In one short story, “The Job Application”, Walser narrates a job applicant’s essay where he puts forward his keen interest and qualifications to a prospective employer. All the while, at the same moment, he naively and counterproductively reveals his own absurdities. But we learn a lot about a human nature in the process.” 

bloombillow, 2020, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: In bloombillow, the circle-square is less prominent than in the other paintings. The combination of the scrim and the quatrefoil gently camouflage the form of the circle-square at first glance, but it becomes visible by the upper left-hand corner being filled in. The quatrefoil stands out in this piece. Where does your interest in the quatrefoil form come from?  

BH: “Yes, this one is all about the quatrefoil – actually three-quarters of a quatrefoil. I’ve always been intrigued with the quatrefoil because it is again, a hybridization of opposites; four circles embedded and extending from a central square. I had cut out the shape and had it laying around. I have tried to stick it on paintings in a collage fashion just to see how I could introduce it into the paintings for a number of years. Then, I’d forgotten about it. One day, walking through the studio, I heard this “click, click, click” coming from the bottom of my shoe, and it was the quatrefoil shape that had fallen tape side up on my studio floor. I was walking around and here it was on the heel of my shoe, like the dog that comes begging for a treat. I thought, let’s try to give it another shot.”

Bloombillow is a quatrefoil set into a square with that square being the edge of the painting onto which I had painted a blackish “scrim”. Bloombillow is one of the first paintings where I used the quatrefoil. Painting in the negative spaces between the quatrefoil and the edges of the painting form what I refer to as the “brackets” which give shape to the quatrefoil. Using all four brackets locked the painting in so I released the upper left bracket, as you mentioned. I was immediately startled at how the blackish quatrefoil image bloomed and blossomed. It was just what I was looking for without looking for it. It was a thrill  – so much came together at once.

“I started to negotiate the quatrefoil in different amounts, different sizes, different fragments, and in different manners. Sometimes the bracket goes into the corner of a circlesquare and becomes a quotidian shape, like a quote or a thought bubble. The idea of having this sense of volume while containing a sense of depth at the same time relates to some poems by Wallace Stevens that I’ve always been intrigued with. These poems have to do with how we experience life and how life can come towards us and can envelop us. There’s a poem in particular called ‘Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination.’ In that poem, he talks about how there is an in-solid billowing of the solid. It’s at night when everything becomes open and mystical. Elements start to then emerge, change, and billow . Objects lose their contours. Things that are solid become space, and there’s an all pervasiveness where what is perceived is transmogrified into an experience of life at hand.” 

“I’d be bored silly if I was just making paintings to make a good paintings. These paintings are about the engagement of life, using that notion of a sustained immediacy. It’s a proxy for life, or it is still just life. I like that conflation and how painting then becomes life at hand.”

flavorful, 2020, Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: That element of sustained immediacy comes through the paintings even though they are not realistic or “life-like” in the traditional sense. The source material for these paintings plays a colossal role in that effect; the kitchen table you built for your family; the cut paper quatrefoil nagging at your foot, both begged to be used. Another effect of the paintings is the pertinent after-image that appears because of the vibrancy of the colors in relation to the precise shapes painted within. For some paintings, the quatrefoil takes a backseat as the circle-square holds the focus. For others, the quatrefoil blooms forward. I am curious, can you tell me about your use of color in combination with your use of scrim?

BH:The scrim has been something I’ve worked with for quite a while that predates the circle-square and quatrefoil. I used to make larger paintings up to about seven by eight feet that were all based on scrim. The way that the scrim was painted was almost holographic. There was a planar effect, it was still very evanescent and vaporous. That again is about a notion of belief and engagement with life: Where’s the surface? What is the known? I was a Doubting Thomas. Now I often start with a scrim on most of these paintings and then add the negative space bracket of the quatrefoil on top of the scrims.” 

“I started to then place some of the quatrefoil brackets on a flat ground. First, I brought yellow. I’ve been working with gray and black for so long, I just wanted to bring something else into the studio. It was great having a studio full of yellow. It’s historically a tricky color for me to work with. I started to collage the quatrefoil shapes on at first because instead of having to negotiate the paint, I wanted to keep a very pristine surface and I wanted just the color with no mark-making involved. It takes a lot for me to let go of something, and it was very difficult to let go of the scrim making. Partly, because I knew it so well, I knew how to use it and manipulate it. I let the yellow then become the agent to work against off the plane. It’s such an eventful color that tends to irradiate from the plane and acts in a way that supports the prompts of the quatrefoil. I’m using color now as a proxy for the scrim.” 

quiddity, 2020, Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

“In quiddity, the yellow painting in the center of the wall of the gallery, or opaque thought, the yellow painting to the left of it, it’s intriguing because the yellow becomes opaque. It brings the negative space into the positive in its use against the quatrefoil bracket. In other places, it becomes perfectly translucent, or it becomes an irradiation in other places.” 

opaque thought, 2020, Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: As you described, you create these paintings that are prompts to the viewer. They aren’t prompts that you necessarily hold answers to, but rather are prompts that you are curious about yourself. Each painting is a culmination of your own ponderings, and you yourself as the artists are doing the investigation while painting them, followed then by the viewer getting to investigate as well. You’re proposing questions for the viewer while looking for answers yourself, which I think is why the prompt element is so successful. Seeing the endless amount of additional paintings in your studio, how did you decide which specific pieces to include in this show?

BH: “The prompts are, at times, formal – needed to move the viewer towards a particular read, if even, virtually. At other times the prompts are narrative in nature, a conceit, an extension of a metaphor. It was difficult… I’ve had a really good last couple of years, I’ve been working a lot. It’s been hard work but very enjoyable work. Regards is such a great space to show in with the different viewing angles.  Architecturally, Regards Gallery begs to further elucidate aspects of itself, the show and each image individually. I really like how the space creates locations that are more interior, and others much more public. There’s a lot to take advantage there. As far as the paintings go, it’s how to hang the best show in a relatively few images. There are nine paintings in the show, which surprised me. I was thinking of probably going down to six just because these paintings want more space rather than less. My understanding of the gallery in itself is that this space tends to read well with less rather than an overcrowding of imagery. There’s a poetic aspect of the work that really wants more space to be read and felt. It’s a question then of, what does one painting have that another painting might also contain, reflect or want? Natalie and Mike were wonderful in helping to coordinate the install. I think it was interesting to hear the different voices and how we worked together to achieve the goal of hanging the best possible show. I was asked how to best position images to create not only the best viewing moment for each painting within the space, but then amongst each other so that the other paintings in the show help to amplify what might be in each of them.” 

How a Painting Breathes, 2019-2020, Oil on canvas, 22 x 22 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: The atmosphere of the gallery space plays a large role in how the show is perceived as these paintings do definitely require room to breathe. This architectural consideration comes full circle back to how you approach the paintings themselves. It is interesting how you consider architectural forms within the space of the canvas, and in addition, how the paintings will appropriately fit into a physical space. How pertinent are considerations of architecture and space in your paintings?

BH: “Good question. That’s another whole bailiwick actually. In the large pink painting, Noumenon (pink) has a ‘y’ shape in it which divides the painting into thirds and then becomes more of an architectonic space, like looking up into a corner. I never thought I’d be using a quatrefoil, which is both a Renaissance and Gothic architectural feature most often found in churches or monasteries in Italy, though it’s been used in other cultures as well. Its nature as being an architectural form fits in with another line of thought. I’m interested in Jungian psychology and I don’t directly use this in my work, but it’s there. Just as a bit of a note, a really close friend of mine is a prominent Jungian figure. He would often talk about houses and rooms, and the nature of those spaces as a psychological container, where we often act in our dreams within these spaces for particular and purposeful reasons and with particular resolves in particular kinds of compensations. Dreams are about the compensatory event, not necessarily just prognostications. I do think that space is phenomenological and has a subjective as well as quantitative read to it.” 

Noumenon (pink), 2018, Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: When I arrived at the show, my plan was to do a quick lap around to get a feel, and then spend time with each individual piece. There was no quick lap. I was confronted with paintings that begged me to stop and meditate with each individually. I felt I needed to be present with each painting because each painting was being present with me. There is an element of emotion to them. It’s not just about form. It’s not just about color, there’s definitely some sort of element of living that comes from them. How do you feel you were able to achieve this?

BH: “I spend so much time looking at these paintings and honing them and making sure that I can believe in them. I do believe that there’s a transference of a degree of the subjective nature that’s a matter of more humaneness to the paintings. I realize that I’d be hard pressed to find a viewer who is at all interested in ‘my’ subjectivity – and therefore do not foreground it – other than occasionally through some titles I might use to ‘lead’ a viewer towards it. If worked correctly – I think my work only places the viewer onto a particular ‘ballfield.’” 

“I want these paintings to be giving, I don’t want them to just be a matter of a sensation. It has to feel like something that I have faith in and believe in as something which is the reason for making it. It gets down into larger personal questions about what to do with life and the purposefulness of it. A lot of my paintings do discuss otherness; things start by coming from a space of ‘other’ and then move forward.”

Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: What does your process for making these paintings look like? Do you draw out the composition, or approach a blank canvas with the idea directly?

BH: “I don’t draw before the paintings per se; I do get ideas and make notes, but they never happen. I never pursue them because when I get up to the studio, it’s always something new. I always like what Albert Pinkham Ryder said about thinking of himself as a painter: he thought of himself as an inchworm that would be out at the end of a twig and anchored by his hind legs. The front legs are out looking for another place to land. It’s always inquisitive and necessary. That’s how I move: anchored by things that hold me but sometimes are hard to let go of, and at the same time looking out for something that’s constantly new. In that process, I often use collage. I’ll take them, position them, play with them, and find out new relationships and new possibilities. It’s really just the process of discovery.”

Portrait d’ un Poète, 2020, Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: What does the future of your paintings look like as of now? Are you moving on from the quatrefoils and circle-square, or do you feel there is still fertile ground to uncover from these motifs?

BH: “Great question. I’ve had a number of shows, and I know that they become markers. The show was proposed in the beginning of the pandemic, and I didn’t think about the show in terms of the theme. I tried as hard as I could just to keep the paintings moving, without having to make it feel like there was a divisive moment with the show. Right now, I’m still going to be involved with both of those forms. I still owe it to them to see what else is in there.”

“I’ve been working through some paintings right now with nothing on them but the color. There’s a painting I finished called Vanilla, which is an off-white painting using the circle-square. I think it’s a really intriguing painting. It’s asking the viewer, ‘I’m vanilla. Is that really incredibly wonderful and engaging and alluring? Or is it just plain?’ It has that dichotomy built into it which can be very nuanced, lovely, and floral – or… vanilla.”

“While I was doing that, I also started at several other paintings with a touch of Burnt Umber and  Raw Sienna into the white. In other words, it’s a warm and a cool. One became this slightly pinkish, Calamine, Band Aid color. Then against the other one, which was cool, they became the slightest whisper of a beautiful pink and blue sensation. They started this entire relationship. How they might work as pairs or even triads as circle-squares without scrims or with minimal scrims is really interesting to me. That’s something I’m thinking about right now, just how then they can continue off on themselves that way. Maybe even without the quatrefoils.” 

(monad), 2020, Oil on canvas, 27.5 x 27.5 inches | Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago. Photograph by Brian Griffin

AF: It seems that you source elements of inspiration from poems, writings, conversations with friends, etc. These different source materials inspire you because they make you question. So, you take these inspirations, you put them together not to find an answer, but just to create a visual motif of that question in your head. Then, you propose that prompt to the viewer. It is a fascinating way to work. It feels very honest and true to who you are as an artist, but also as a person; the things that make you curious; what gets you out of bed in the morning; are the same things that you bring to the table when you’re making the paintings; which are then the same things that you are putting out there in the world for people to also wonder with you.

BH:Wow, thank you. Well said, it rings true. Thank you.” 

Check out Bob Hooper’s Website and Instagram.