Challenging the myth of The Artist

November 4, 2012

A year’s hard work has led up to an exciting period for Hipkiss, with the first-ever shows of multiple, new ‘outsize’ works (in Toulouse and, next spring, in New York) and the first solo show in London since 2001. It’s also been a time during which we’ve re-evaluated the way we describe the artist. In fact, this has been a preoccupation spanning many years, as I’ll explain, but first for a short ‘disclaimer’: We are not under the illusion that Hipkiss is a major star, or that we are extra-special people; the following is of purely personal importance on one level, though it explores farther-reaching issues that probably affect many.

For some years, we’ve had a biography on our website, written by a friend of ours (a writing partner of mine, in fact), which gave the reader a literal, chronological account of Chris’ life. At least, that’s what the writers of numerous catalogues and biographies seemed to get from it; most of them have taken snippets about ‘quitting’ school at 16 (in the UK, in the 80s, it was quite normal to leave school and start an apprenticeship, incidentally), working in a ‘factory’, etc. etc.. Most seem to cease at that point – when Chris was 18. In actual fact, the biography was of two people, inextricably linked since the beginning of their adult lives, but our long-term relationship has been clinically excised in virtually every piece to use it as a source. We have removed it, realising that most people either do not have the attention span to keep reading, or the desire to convey the importance of this ‘other’ person. On one level it’s just lazy, but on another, it’s reminiscent of a certain old friend of ours, who – despite having spent much time with both of us – wrote and published ‘Her Story’, including a portrait of an apparently single, obsessive imbecile called Chris Hipkiss.

I’ll speak, firstly, of the personal side of this phenomenon. Chris and I have not only been ‘together’ for almost thirty years, in the sense that many couples are; when we met, Chris started to take drawing seriously for the first time within just a few days and – for the first time – started to ‘think big’, bringing long rolls of paper to our meetings. For me, too, it marked a different way of thinking and formulating stories and characters. It was the beginning of a relationship in which perpetual ‘idea-tennis’, and learning to appreciate one-another’s interests if we hadn’t to start with, was (and is) the most important aspect by a long, long way. It took us a couple of years to learn to drive this joint vehicle for life, but that’s what it quickly became. After seven years of being together, but working or studying separately, we began what has since become the norm, physically spending the vast majority of our time in each other’s presence. Our ideas are so merged that we almost think and speak as one. Gender, children and the usual roles that couples fall into were and are anathema to us. Our life is about our interwoven creations, in short.

When our efforts to bring Hipkiss to the notice of a wider audience started to bear fruit, a feeling that our unit was being negated, from the very beginning, tarnished our happiness at the fact. At shows, Chris would be surrounded and asked veiled (and not-so-veiled) questions about his mental health – and I would usually find myself talking to one person who would quiz me, at length, on what it was like to live with him. One lady – having ascertained that I’m not an artist myself – memorably gushed “Oh, so you just look after him.” Another was quite horrified at the thought of what I might go through on a daily basis. As time has gone on and we’ve evolved away from the Outsider genre and its expectations, our hope that crazy suppositions would fade away has, to some extent, been realised; face-to-face, many exhibition-goers and collectors ‘get it’… but the desire to myth-make, on other levels, has persisted amongst commentators. At certain times, I’ve had the distinct feeling that I’m not even ‘supposed’ to be there – that I’m some kind of unwanted distraction from the picture people want to form.

Chris and I are both ‘feminine’ people – and political people. I don’t favour the word ‘feminist’, partly because of its popular implications, but also because I (we) believe in equality, so its literal implications are similarly wide of the mark. However one describes us, our views are plain to see in Hipkiss’ drawings, but frequently overlooked. This is a huge topic, and one on which we’ve touched before (notably as side-notes for Chris’ talk at the AFAM, a transcript of which is on the site); as a male artist, one is assumed to be ‘the gazer’, whereas art produced by women is generally seen as portraying the self. I notice this, to my chagrin, even when I look at art myself. Knowing the gender of the artist affects the way the viewer understands the art. In Hipkiss’ case, this reflex is painful, as have been some of the appraisals (‘dancing girls’, ‘sexual fantasies’, blah, blah) – usually written by male journalists. It’s something he’s countered at any time he gets the opportunity, but usually that opportunity doesn’t come – and certainly doesn’t make its way into the final article even if it does.

So why are we, of all people, not presenting ourselves in such a way as to make it crystal clear what we’re really about – unavoidably so?

We’ve endeavoured to tackle it in various ways over the years – most of them sadly feeble, with hindsight. Quite early on, we attended a private view handcuffed together, which created certain practical problems but did make a point to several of those present. Since then, we’ve kept the handcuffs metaphorical and hoped that our – perhaps rather-too-subtle – words would challenge the expected norms, transmit the truth of the situation and prompt people to view the work without the ‘single male artist’ goggles in place. It hasn’t worked; moreover, along the continuing learning curve, some uncomfortable personal truths have emerged.

Jumping ahead a little: very recently, we were put on the spot by a gentleman named Pierre who is editing the catalogue for the upcoming show at the BBB Centre of Art in Toulouse after he received our draft biography and write-up:

For 30 years Alpha and Chris Mason (pseudonym Chris Hipkiss) have been living together, developing their own entwined vision of the real world, expressed by Alpha in writing and Chris in expansive drawings. Born in 1964 in England, the pair moved to a sleepy village in Kent soon after marrying before settling in the southern French countryside in 2001. The prolific body of Hipkiss work is the result of a symbiotic interplay between the two individuals – co-conspirators in a creative process shaped by the continuous exchange of ideas and techniques, and the interpretation of their bucolic surroundings in relation to the wider world.
~ ~ ~
The project currently on show marks the beginnings of an exciting new phase for Hipkiss. Perpetually challenged in terms of producing large pieces by the sheer detail of the work and the size limitations of their joint studio, years of cumulative knowledge in terms of technique have nonetheless allowed a gradual progression in that respect. The two drawings here were completed over several months and their format is one with which Hipkiss feels comfortable. The high panoramas grant sufficient space to fully explore the variations of the themes contained. Hipkiss has frequently described the work as ‘diary-like’, saying that any meaning is up for interpretation by the viewer; however, present influences, he confides, include quantum physics, the Stars and Stripes, and – as ever – fashion.
Also on show is the table at which the drawings are made, giving the viewer an idea of the practicalities of production. A photo to be found on the table shows the reality of the creative space – two people, two cats and the everyday clutter of a studio that is the antithesis of any fabled artistic isolation.

Pierre told us that it was very interesting (I’ll return to that interest later)… but asked “Why haven’t you spoken in such terms before?” Our immediate reply was simple: we have ‘grown up’ in the art world and have accepted its norms – that an artist is singular, and must be presented (and revered) as a self-contained entity. But our reasons are actually more complex than that.

I am not the type to dream of being on TV or crave the limelight in any other way. I’m quite happy as a writer, protected by my keyboard. I’d rather wield a camera than stand (awkwardly) in front of one. It’s a painful realisation, too, that even I have been influenced by conditioning that says that women shouldn’t make too much of their achievements, big or small. (A little example: a middle-aged guy once asked what I did for a living; when I replied that I was a freelance computer consultant – hardly ‘rocket scientist’ or ‘theoretical physicist’, and certainly no more than the truth – he stared me down and, in all seriousness, told me not to “blow my own trumpet”.) Maybe it’s just my problem, but it’s taken years to grow into someone who can transcend this type of unconscious stereotyping. Moreover, when one does make oneself ‘evident’, as the female partner of a male artist, the first thing most people come up with is the word ‘muse’ – a horrible, passive description and one that carries implications of modelling, etc. It’s not just insulting; it’s embarrassing, and about as way off the mark as it possibly could be.

However, whilst the ‘invisible’ male partner of a female artist is often assumed to have a hand in their creativity (take Courtney Love, whose songs have been attributed to almost any man who’s shared breathing space with her over the years), a female partner who isn’t thrust to the fore is assumed to be a mere housewife, clearing up around the vaunted creator, listening patiently to his mad, genius outpourings and stoically bearing prolonged periods of solitude while he’s in the ‘studio’. That image is profoundly offensive to both of us. Coming back to our socio-political standpoint, our acceptance of the male partner taking all the credit for what is a joint venture makes no sense. If we’re serious about portraying the work as it really is – and we are – I must step to the fore.

A couple of entries back on this very blog, Chris wrote a piece entitled ‘Team Hipkiss’. It was nice to get it out there – that the work you see is really the product of two people’s skills on a practical level – but it still didn’t properly convey my role or the importance of our partnership. Neither has the glib title of ‘agent’ that I adopted some years ago. Yes, I play those roles – along with those of website manager, photographer, PR manager, final arbiter and writer – but those labels miss the point. Hipkiss is not a male artist in essence; Hipkiss is an entity that wouldn’t exist, as such, without the feminine partnership that created it.

Moving on to the relevance of all this, in terms of artists (male or female), that we were discussing with Pierre from the BBB: I’ve used terms, above, such as ‘vaunted creator’ and referred to the expected singularity of an artist, and I think we’ve always blithely accepted those notions. We’ve never thought of it in the sense that Pierre described it. He views the myth of the artist in terms of a capitalist structure: there is the creator, at the top of the pyramid, and everyone else involved in the art – no matter how crucial to its very existence – falls into place below. As a producer of multi-media art himself, it’s something that’s troubled him often. We were the first people, he said, to have challenged that model in the realms of ‘classical’ art.

I would guess that there are very, very few artists whose creativity blossoms in the kind of bubble that the myth suggests. Maybe some of the veritable Outsiders – those whose work is not discovered until after their death – are the only true exceptions… which is why it’s so crucial for writers in the field, trying to cram living artists into ‘The Box’, to strip any normal human interaction (worst of all, a fully-functioning, long-lasting partnership) from the biographies of their subjects.

One of the fundaments of a fully functioning, long-lasting partnership is communication and honesty; that habitual mode of being sits uncomfortably with the kind of fictions we’re used to seeing peddled with respect to Hipkiss. After all this time, it feels natural to let the two converge – public and private – to reveal the true, messy, complicated reality. Maybe this blog will get more interesting over the coming months!

Alpha Mason

Atelier 2002 by Murray

Atelier by Murray

Atelier 2012

Atelier 2012

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