It’s All Black and White To Us

April 15, 2010

Ever since childhood, until my work was first exhibited nearly twenty years ago, I made many (bad) colour drawings, in what I suppose was an attempt to follow what I thought I should do. Perhaps this came from the art lessons I had at school, mostly spent, in the former years, trying to paint in watercolours for uninspiring projects, and, in the latter, copying motorcycle brand designs, painting CND and designing anti-Thatcher posters to bluetack all over the school. When the famous moose head was found with one of said posters stuck on his nose, our headmaster — tipped off by the art teacher, of course — summoned me to his room.

He was, surprisingly, so intrigued by this act, performed as it was by someone who had up until that point only existed to him as a one of the ‘unproblematic’ names on the school register, that he enthusiastically suggested that I should join The Debating Society — after removing any remaining ‘work’, naturally. For some reason — perhaps stemming from the blossoming teenage realisation of the futility of life, etc. — I said, “No thanks, I’m an anarchist, I don’t believe in talking,” before swanning out, leaving a sullen, rejected, broken man (or so I imagined). For this I am truly sorry, because he was a good headmaster, an all round nice chap…

The point of this is that, years before, in primary school, I drew exclusively in black on white, be it pencil or biro — and some of the stuff I did was not bad. With my friend, Nicolas Killalea, I designed ‘ant colonies’ on A4 paper; always starting with a black prison in the corner, we would mark — in meticulous detail — tennis courts, dining rooms, airports, etc.. A favourite theme that I drew repeatedly was of a plane crashing into a pond; it sounds prosaic, but the outcome was esoteric. In a moment of uncharacteristic clairvoyance, I also depicted 9/11, twenty-five years before it happened, with another repeated motif: Madagascar/Manhattan, a three dimensional aerial view of a skyscraper built on a forest island being attacked by planes… And then there were the battles between the Penguin Army and Killer Flies, etc., etc.. I could go on.

In 2001, my work was featured in a show at Galerie Halle St. Pierre, Paris, entitled Noir sur Blanc. Don’t get me wrong, I was honoured to be there, but by then I had long started seeing my work as made in colour, like that of most other visual art. Indian ink on white canvas is black and white; but in the shades of grey produced from varying pressure put on soft pencil, or in the areas I have worn away during production — even more so in the shaded silver ink that subtly changes according to natural and artificial light — there is undoubtedly colour.

Not everyone seems to get it. A few months ago I had a lengthy and quite heated argument (in French; I was pleased with my proficiency) with a photographer, of all people, who steadfastly refused to accept that the EKTAs of my work with which I’d supplied him were in colour, not monochrome — despite the colour-code bar and cream wallpaper of the studio they were shot in, and not to mention the colour-transparency processing number on the film itself.

However, initially, in the 1990s, we had a problem even convincing the world that my work was not ‘mere’ illustration. The art of drawing in general — even just simple pencil on paper — is now being rediscovered by contemporary artists, and I think that part of the reason for this is a collective mind-change to view black, white and shades of grey as the colours they truly are. This seems to have happened so gradually that we have barely noticed until lately.

A good example of how effective this understanding can be within a curated exhibition setting was the recent Acquisitions show at FRAC Picardie in Amiens, France, a state museum specialising in drawing. Returning home after a long trip to Cologne, we made a detour and managed to catch the exhibition before the place closed. Having been shown around the space emptied of, I could almost say, the ‘clutter’ of people, it took a little while to fully express the shock and delight we both felt at what we had just experienced. Not exactly frequent gallery visitors, we tend to gravitate to just one thing if any at all — or, if my work is being shown, furtively hang around eavesdropping on conversations, appreciating neither art nor dialogue.

In contrast, here, the mix of contemporary artwork — from video installation to sketches — that included, amongst many others, some sublime works by Gabriel Orozco, was so well planned that we saw the whole as one, taking time to actually look at each work, knowing somewhere in the vastness of all this talent hung a large Hipkiss called Three. Next to a fine circle drawing by fellow self-taught artist, Hiroyuki Doi, we could finally see my work in the context we have long felt it belongs, without worrying whether it is seen as outsider, self taught, black and white, illustration, visionary, whatever. I don’t think I can even remember whether black and white was predominant. It just didn’t matter, and it was like coming home.

Chris Hipkiss


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