Bobinska Brownlee New River, Canonbury Street, London, N1 2US

Rae Hicks: Anomaly

Bobinska Brownlee New River

11 February - 31 March 2021

Interview by Alexander Harding

Rae Hicks’ exhibition ‘Anomaly’ has privately opened as the inaugural show at a new London space, BBNR gallery (Bobinska Brownlee New River).

‘Anomaly’ expands and builds on Hicks’ previous preoccupation with the everyday, which he suggests has taken on a different tone since lockdown. His paintings (made in lockdown one) and sculptures (made in lockdown two), feature the same symbols over and over: sun, sky, pylons and city. But the works feel as if they are reiterating a new kind of feeling. There is a suggestion that these idealised structures and symbols around us are in fact what leads us to being susceptible to conspiracy theories; the tight order of our surroundings are settings ripe for myth and ignorance. We met over a Zoom call to talk about the show.

What do you think is the attraction of conspiracy theories, and do you have a personal favourite one? I always think of them as a way of providing a kind of order for a certain type of person. It’s interesting to think about that sensibility in relation to painting.

I’ve always been drawn to them as a kind of fiction, I guess a favourite would be ancient aliens.

What I find disturbing when talking about conspiracy theories is watching them go from being a fringe occupation, and possibly vaguely connected with the Left, to something more mainstream. It’s like what used to be the talk of fringe festival crowds, the druids and older pub regulars now has these darker, nastier associations, Epstein and Lizard paedophile rings and the like. The people who take up these theories are the kind of people who would still like our leaders to be superheroes. We all know that the secretive upper classes and the rich probably get up to various things. Whether or not that constitutes a really big, overarching organisation or not, Donald Trump is not the one to dismantle it, no single person is.

In terms of order, it’s a negative order. These people have lost their impression of order and replaced it with this kind of negative order.

Do you think that idea of fiction is a new drive for your work?

I’ve always liked the idea that you might see familiar things suddenly as unfamiliar.

Conspiracy theories often engender that, because they posit everyday items as things with fictional meaning, like stating, “that building is a headquarters of a shadowy organisation.” Or chemtrails – they are not just water vapour, they are magic, ‘mind control’. I’m interested in treating stuff that’s around us now as incomprehensible and unfamiliar, and having a kind of outsider’s view on it.

There is an edition that accompanies the show, it’s a facsimile of a novel. Could you go into a bit more detail about that?

I stole the typeface and the idea from this sci-fi novel, ‘Aerodrome’ (1941) by Rex Warner. In it, there’s this military base found nearby to a rural village, and the plot centres around the mutual mistrust between those two locations. The villagers ruminate over what’s happening on the base and get it wrong. Nefarious things are happening, but it’s not the things that they think are happening.

The book is a way of situating the show within that realm of fiction, however, I’m aware so many people are saying these days that there is limited scope in playing with fiction. Now, the goalposts have shifted and conspiracy theories are being taken up as fact. People are questioning whether that constitutes the death of fiction, because what is happening is so ridiculous. That’s why the book works as it’s a sort of dummy – there’s nothing inside, it’s like a gravestone. A sort of gravestone for fiction.

Do you think there’s something in investigating the fiction of the male painter? I think a lot of artists consciously aspire to the stereotypical image of the beret-wearing, palette-wielding genius in the studio. I feel as if you sidestep that persona quite well.

That image was levelled at me quite a lot of times when I was at Goldsmiths, and I think that was because I was one of the only painters. But it wasn’t particularly fitting to my situation. I think as an image, and as a situation, it’s actually quite redundant. It remains because it’s familiar. It describes a dynamic that we all understand, but the subjects of maleness and painting are different now. I never really worried about it. I quite quickly realised that that’s obviously not me – I’ve never identified with any of those male figureheads.

Lockdown must have really affected the status of the studio as an almost religious site, which the lone artist visits every day.

That’s an interesting point – you have the seriousness of that traditional figure and their dedication, almost religious zeal towards a pure, higher purpose. Then you’ve got art and painting as something that is connected to the everyday. I caught coronavirus around the end of November and I was working through it, which was really hard. If you saw me work at that moment, I think you’d say I was trying to live up to the image of the zealous artist.

Is the city that features in your paintings an idealised place? There always seems to be consistent references, like the sun as a simple circle or a skylight in the top of the painting.

I’ve been sort of fixated on this skylight emblem as a form of shorthand. In painting, you’re always asked to question when an image has been bled dry or trodden into the ground and completely desiccated by its use. If you can get something from these universal symbols it’s magic, sort of transcendental, like squeezing water from a stone.

My interest in ‘primitivism’ clashes really nicely with forms that suggest relative modernity. It’s interesting what happens when you create that situation in which those two things exist in the same space of a painting.

Through emblems of the city, you can also accidentally refer to a lot of really bad art that uses the city without meaning to. When I was at the Royal College of Art in London, we had to present lectures as a part of our critical theory module and I chose to start mine with two images taken from an auction which was selling an Andy Warhol sketch of the Empire State Building alongside a Donald Trump drawing of Trump Tower. Arguably, they both understood the symbol of this huge phallic building, but they both had such different take-homes from it. They’re such polar opposites when it comes to conceiving the city.

There’s an interesting quote that I heard of yours: “nobody hates my paintings”. Who are these new paintings for do you think?

I think that one of the challenges, jokes and central anxieties in art, and part of the artist personality is having the resilience to be heard over the sheer noise of the art world. I’m sure there are some people that hate my paintings, but probably not that many because I think we’re just in a very different time, breaking with the iconoclasm that came before.

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