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Interview: Artist James Hugonin

LIGHT permeates James Hugonin’s studio at the foot of Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills.

Wooler artist James Hugonin who has been nominated for a regional award

LIGHT permeates James Hugonin’s studio at the foot of Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills. A glorious late September day sees a changing vista of colour as sea air collides with the hills and in James’ garden, purples, pinks and greens take on different hues against the grey Northumbrian stone. The studio, as clouds pass on the breeze, takes on varying shades of white and grey.

Sat in front of one of the centrepieces for the Northern Art Prize, James gestures: “These works are made here, they are conceived here, that sense of place is absolutely fundamental to them.

“I’m not making paintings of landscapes, I’m not painting what’s in front of me but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a sense of place, a sense of joy within that.”

James, 60, is enjoying a deserved recognition of his work.

It is in the collections of the Tate, The Art Council, The Laing Art Gallery and The Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2006 his work was shown at Baltic, Gateshead, and earlier this year at the Royal Academy in London.

Currently his work is displayed in Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery as part of Northern Print’s biennale and, his work is shortly to go on display at Leeds Art Gallery leading up to the Northern Art Prize. James is one of four in the shortlist.

There is the sense this has been an emotional few years for this measured, quiet man, whose work can evoke tremendous emotions.

James was born in Barnard Castle, County Durham, where his father, Bill Hugonin, 85, worked as an estate manager for a Newcastle firm.

When James was eight the family – that is James, his late mum Daphne and sisters Camilla and Serena – moved up to Alnwick, Northumberland, where Bill was The Duke of Northumberland’s head land agent in charge of around 100 farms and properties in the Duke’s estates.

The family’s comfortable middle-class existence was given a jolt when James was 14.

He had, unknown to the family, been born with a dead kidney and his healthy kidney became infected.

James recalls: “Luckily somebody said ‘Get this boy to hospital, now’.

“If I’d been born in any other century, I wouldn’t be here.”

The incident had a profound effect on James. He recalls: “I was left alone for long periods of time and my schooling was very affected by the situation.”

When he returned to boarding school at Milton Abbey in Dorset, James was told his “education is a write off”.

“I was told I should just go to the art room and mess around.

“But I thought ‘If you really think I’m that bad I’m going to prove I’m not’.”

Central to this determination was the first of a number of mentors James credits with inspiring him throughout his career.

This man was a teacher called Nutty Clark, James laughs, “which just about sums up what the rest of the school thought about art”.

“He was a very, very good art teacher. He said ‘I’m going to look after you guys, I’m going to make sure you do ok’.”

It was Nutty Clark who encouraged James to apply to art school, which he did leaving to study at Winchester College and then Farnham Art College, where he met his wife Sarah Bray, also an artist.

His education at Farnham was formal but an art history lecture turned him onto American Abstract Expressionism.

“Artists like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and I came out of it and I thought ‘Come on James, there’s a big, big world out there and there’s a lot happening that you’re not experiencing’.”

“That interest in abstraction became a lot stronger.”

James applied to Chelsea School of Art to do an MA. One of the main reasons why was Ian Stephenson, who became another mentor.

He remembers: “I saw a painting of his at the Tate the year before I applied to Chelsea and I literally couldn’t move it affected me so strongly.

“I had the last interview before lunch. I was sat in front of Ian Stephenson and Trevor Sutton, who’s become a really good friend of mine.

“Ian came from Northumberland so we talked about that for 20 minutes and he then said ‘Right, pick one of your paintings here and talk about it. Say why it’s the best painting you’ve brought’.

“The answer I gave to that question basically changed my life. He then followed me up to the car park and said ‘I really want you to come here’.”

James got into Chelsea where the foundations for his career were led.

He recalls, after a visit to attend artist Bridget Riley’s studio, asking Ian ‘Why did we get in after 480 odd people didn’t?’.”

James continues: “The answer he gave was ‘Its not really because of what you’re doing now, its because I think when you’re 40 or 50 you’re going to be producing pieces I’ll want to have a look at’.”

James explains the support Ian’s been given has been hugely important: “It was someone who had that much faith in what he thought I could do that sort of changed everything.”

Another career defining moment James talks about was a Seraut exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1991.

He says: “When I saw these paintings, again I just couldn’t move.

“They were painted in Northern France just before Seraut died and I thought they were incredible.

“It was to do with abstraction, he wasn’t just painting boats, sea, sand – he was painting about the interaction of colour, how colour created light and that has been the subject of my work before I saw the Seurat’s, for the whole of my life really and will continue to be.

“I find it endlessly fascinating what colour does when it’s put next to another colour. The extraordinary things you get from colour interaction.”

James’ work is obsessed with colour. His work is measured: his studio contains notebooks filled with orderly notes of colour and grid points.

The beauty of his work comes across as you stare at these grids, as colours move and evolve next to each other. A seeming randomness which changes as you look at it.

Standing in his studio, the work Binary Rhythm II appears very much part of the environment it has been created in.

James explains: “ I like working here – this is the place I can not just express myself but it nurtures me, which has given me an awful lot.

“I’m not painting landscapes I’m painting about intense colour relationships, which oscillate and change, they don’t offer the same thing. The longer you look at this painting, the more the colours and patterns and interactions will reveal themselves.

“It’s carefully orchestrated, nothing is left to chance, yet ironically, the only way we can look at the painting is to accept chance. Accept the fact that these rhythms don’t all join together in a recognisable pattern. But the process of making the painting is incredibly ordered.”

James has lived in his Cheviot home since 1986. He moved back to the North East with Sarah in the mid 1970s to take up a post in Teesside. He then moved to Sunderland Art Centre, he and Sarah lived in Jesmond, Newcastle, until they moved up to Northumberland.

Interest in James’ paintings has steadily grown up to this point where he is preparing work for the Northern Art Prize.

He is planning the space, which will show the last in his “Untitled” series, and the first two works of his Binary Rhythm Triptych, along with the prints currently on show at the Hatton Gallery.

It should be an impressive show, James says: “I’m really giving it my best shot. I’m interested in putting forward the best exhibition I can.”

The “Untitled” sequence began in 1988. James comments: “They started with very, very pale paintings and they were made intuitively. I literally followed my handspan.

“I was interested in this flickering of white against the very pale colours but i was still interested in the idea of complimentary colours from different sides of the spectrum.

“The compositional process shifted the whole time, it’s static for a time and then it shifts. In order to bring all these things about I had to write it all down.”

Hence the notebooks. James’ new working process evolved through the “Untitled” series and now the Binary Rhythm triptych represents a new approach to the compositional process.

He smiles: “So many people come in here and say ‘It’s just like music’, there’s a strong interest in music all through this.

“Morgan Feldman, Steve Reich in Philip Glass to a certain extent. There’s this idea of an indeterminate composer.

“I’ve always been interested in setting up a really tight system, but where someone else can choose as long as it is within certain parameters.”

In addition to his paintings James has worked with printmaker Kip Gresham, who again James said changed his life.

Kip worked with James to reduce the 200-odd colours he was working with on the Untitled series down to 30, which gave James new compositional challenges.

“I’d hit a brick wall with Untitled XVII and XVIII. I couldn’t go on.

“It was the start in the reduction of colour and finding another way of getting this extraordinary quality.”

To many in the region one of James’ most affecting pieces is the stained glass window in St John’s Chapel in Hedley, Northumberland.

He says: “It’s a memorial for someone who collected quite a bit of my early work. He commissioned this for his father.

“People really love it – they kind of go wow when they go into the church.

“Painting really is the core of my work but I love working in other media.”

I ask James if he feels he’s suffered professionally from being away from London.

He pauses and says: “Possibly, but I feel I’ve got so much from being up here, being part of the community up here and not just the artistic community.

“Really I don’t feel that my career has really suffered at all.”

Certainly James’ influence is spreading. An exhibition is planned in Holland in 2013 of his, his wife Sarah Bray’s, Ian Stephenson and Noel Foster’s work.

Northumberland is certainly no barrier to the world’s great stage.

As James finishes: “If I hadn’t lived here every day for 22 years, I don’t think these paintings would be filled with this joy of colour and light.

“I’ve got work going to Singapore, I’ve got work in New York. The paintings are speaking in other parts of the world but they are made and of here.”

James’ work is currently part of The International Print Biennale hosted cross the Hatton Gallery, Laing Art Gallery and Northern Print, Newcastle, until November 19.

The Northern Art Prize exhibition opens on November 25 at Leeds Art Gallery. The winner is announced on January 19.

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