Picturing a Culture (a Carl Randall interview)
One of the powers of pictures is that they can transcend words. And in today’s hyper-connected world where, submerged in textspeak and Twitter, the tendency is to reduce text to a bare minimum, people’s reliance on photos is higher than ever before. They are now arguably the fastest, most popular and effective form of communication. With billions of photographs uploaded each week to Facebook alone, the volume of images being taken and shared is truly unfathomable.
Of course the vast majority of these photos are made by regular people sharing their daily snaps, the things they observe around them.
Although it’s easy to understand why this deluge of images leads others to believe that images are now disposable and worthless, I would argue that any one of these pictures can still be worth the proverbial thousands of words, depending on how one looks at it, how openly or deeply one allows oneself to absorb it.
Of course for the most part, people look at photos simply for enjoyment, not for education. Yet most of these photos, banal as they are, can still reveal some aspect of their maker’s culture or place within it. We can learn an immense amount about a culture from looking at such pictures and answering the questions they might provoke.
Far smaller in number than the happy snappers are the “intentional” photographers, whose work may be more engaging, beautiful, striking, artistic, cool or surprising – more carefully constructed as it is with a specific message, subject or viewpoint to express.
But despite these photographers having an immense amount of control over their images with digital and other tools, photographs nevertheless remain grounded in physical reality.
A painter however has no such limits, and thereby what we see can be any reality he or she chooses to put down on the canvas.
How to Paint a Culture
Painters have a freedom to bring ideas and images together, creating hybrid worlds which reflect reality but can reveal deeper or more subtle aspects of their subject in ways a photograph may not.
Similarly to photography, many painters can produce banal pictures while others are possessed with an uncanny ability to create images both intensely engaging and also deeply reflective of their subject matter. Images which “get in” more effectively.
British painter Carl Randall is such an artist, and Japanese culture is his subject.
For artists whose aim is to reflect a culture they observe, their success could be seen as a function of their ability to translate myriad observations into a single image which is concise yet contains within it multiple levels of reading. Randall manages exactly this.
He is in the fortunate position of having lived in Japan for ten years, immersed within the culture, yet as a foreigner has the benefit of distance from it. He is not blinded from the forest by the trees.
If we backtrack a couple of years, Randall was in his Tokyo studio, creating large-scale canvases often derived from numerous sketches he would make during explorations of the city. Many can be seen in this video, including Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, which would later be awarded the prestigious 2012 BP Travel Award by The National Portrait Gallery, London.
For these paintings he decided to travel the ancient route of the Tokaido Road between Tokyo and Kyoto, the same path taken by Utagawa Hiroshige, the renowned Japanese ukiyo-e (woodcut print) artist who documented places and people along the route in his series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. Randall, following in Hiroshige’s footsteps, would produce a new series documenting contemporary Japan.
I recently spoke to Randall about these new paintings, about living in Japan, and how this immersion in the culture has guided and been reflected in his work.
Carl Randall – in depth
In this latest series of work, some of your paintings feature stereotypical Japanese subjects (sumo or sushi for example) while others are less familiar, perhaps even unknown to foreigners as aspects of Japan, such as tetrapods and fireflies.
What determined your choice of subjects, and are there other subjects you plan to add to the series?
Well, the recent paintings were based on The Tokaido Highway, which was commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery in London; to travel the route documented by the Japanese woodblock print artist Ando Hiroshige, a route connecting Tokyo and Kyoto…Rather than produce exact documents of the places Hiroshige actually stood at and based his images upon (which has already been done by photographers and historians anyway), I decided that, as a painter, I had license to edit the journey into a more creative, personal response to the route.
There is a Sumo stable in Nagoya (a place along the route) so I decided to make a painting of Sumo, which was subject matter that interested me anyway. There are many Kaiten Sushi shops along the route, so I decided to make a painting of Sushi (again subject matter that interested me anyway), and ‘Shoe Shop’ is based on department stores in Yokohama, which is also on the route, but I did like the idea of painting women shopping anyway.
The subject matter of all these scenes interested me to start with, irrespective of The Tokaido Highway, and this project was a good excuse to paint these things. Hiroshige’s journey and The Tokaido Highway was used as a loose framework for me to respond creatively to modern Japan in general. Saying that, I did certainly limit myself to things that do exist on the route – I wouldn’t for example make a painting specific to places in Hokkaido or Okinawa – that would be silly as they are not on the route at all.
Some paintings are based on small, intimate observations. For example, I remember seeing a group of about 5 or 6 kids in a field with a jar of fireflies inside it. This stayed in my memory, and I later in the studio I changed it to two girls, one showing the other a firefly in her cupped hands, illuminating their faces. It’s the same with the two girls whispering to each other in ‘The Rice Farmers Daughters’ – I saw this not in a rice field but near the sea, but I placed it within a different setting for this work. So some ideas do spring from memory and small observations made in everyday life.
That’s the beauty of painting – one can combine memory with fact with fiction, and it doesn’t matter, as long as the final painting is interesting and communicates with the audience.
Hiroshige himself often exaggerates or distorts reality to suit his pictures. For example, he invents mountainous islands to add compositional interest, and in others geographical features are exaggerated for dramatic effect. A similar spirit can be found in my work, taking advantage of the distortions of scale, space and colour afforded by the painter. These paintings provide a view of Japan as seen through the eyes of a visiting European painter – the distortions created by painting through a foreign lens being an important factor in shaping them.
All the recent works have a flattened perspective and use strong compositional structures – lines and layers in some cases, dominating circular forms in others.
Is this just for visual continuity in the series, or do those forms have specific significance, or help to communicate something deeper about the subject?
I think that ones visual language is built up gradually, with designs and motifs just starting to appear naturally after time. They weren’t made to give the images continuity; they just seemed to fit best the designs and subject matter I had in mind. In these Tokaido Highway paintings I was interested in flat, almost tapestry-like abstract patterns set against figures.
For example, in ‘The Rice Farmers Daughters’ and ‘Fireflies’, this interest resulted in flat, green textured stripes set against portraits; in ‘Tetrapods’, lines of white wave breakers set against blue water; and in ‘Zen Garden, Kyoto’ white horizontal lines set against a portrait, punctuated by rocks.
As you can see, I am thinking in abstract way in order to show my subject matter – not just illustrating the things, but am thinking how the patterns and colours work together as an overall design. This recurring strong horizontal stripes format just makes sense to me, as it allows for space to be divided and distorted where necessary.
And the large circles in paintings such as ‘Sumo’, ‘Onsen’ and ‘Kyoto’ just worked well to show the motifs I was depicting, and rather than showing the circle in perspective, I showed a full circle, to flatten the space.
I sometimes slightly distort space, perspective, form and proportion, recreating reality to communicate a slightly disconcerting feeling. In many of these images, a tension can be found in the treatment of space. The space the figures occupy seems different to that of the flattened space of their environments. This contrast is intended to slightly dislocate the figures from their environment, as if they are not quite part of the world around them, increasing the feeling that the figures are alienated from their surroundings.
This idea of distorting reality, and creating a personal, non-naturalistic interpretation of the world, is also reflected in the process of making these images. In paintings based on existing actual places, I began by using sketchbooks or photography to go out and record motifs I will need to refer to in the images (for example, rice fields, red trees, shoes, tetrapods). The photographs and sketches are then used to make the composition, achieved by using a collage technique, gradually assembling images until an overall design is formed – often resulted in images that only partially resemble the places they were originally inspired by.
For example, in ‘Shinjuku’, the image is based on the area surrounding the train station of the same name, but the street depicted in the background of the painting does not actually exist – consisting of a selection of buildings found in the general area, collaged together to form a line of buildings that I felt captured the character of Shinjuku.
The aim of this working method was not to create exact photographic reproductions or objective illustrations of a place, but evocations of places, symbolic representations; achieving a balance between depicting actual existing characteristics, whilst also considering the patterns, shapes, and formal design of the picture.
This aspect of my work represents an attempt to portray the visual and emotional impact the city has on me, to respond creatively to modern Japanese culture; an effort to try to visualize certain aspects of Japanese culture I find interesting.
I wouldn’t recommend artists to make shortcuts and import in a cosmetic way the visual language of other artists, otherwise it often just looks like a pastiche, and they don’t fully understand what they are doing. All they are doing in the end is paying homage to other people, whilst weakening their own work. One has to find ones own way doing things.
I can confidently look at my Japan work without instantly being reminded of other artist’s work, which I am pleased about, as it means I have arrived at something like my own language, which does take time and persistence to build.
In your paintings there’s a sense of disconnection between the people, even in crowded scenes. Yet most subjects were painted from life in your studio.
How does “distance” from your subjects relate to making your work?
The comment about ‘distance’ is interesting, as one of the recurring themes in much of my work is that of isolation. The depiction of strangers in crowded public spaces is related to my ongoing interest in urban alienation – the idea of people sharing the same close physical space, but mentally existing in separate worlds – a phenomenon that can be seen in large cities such as Tokyo. So there is distance that exists between people in large cities, which contrasts with the fact that people are living on top of each other in cities like Tokyo. You can see this in images such as ‘Shinjuku’ and ‘Tokyo Subway’ (but perhaps not so much in my Tokaido Highway paintings).
In terms of how my process relates to the idea of distance, actually one of the reason I always like to work directly from life rather then photographs is that I like to feel connected with people, and painting portraits is for me one way of doing this. I feel little emotional connection with a photograph of a person, but person sitting close in front of me, there is naturally a much stronger human presence and therefore an emotional connection.
The feeling that results from my portraits is then incidental – I don’t try to make people look emotionally distant from the viewer, I just try to paint them exactly as they are, and they just naturally turn out that way. It’s often said that a portrait is usually a combination of both the artist’s personality and the sitters, so I am not sure what my portraits then say about me. I guess that’s for others to read into it.
What initially drew you to Japan as a focus for your work?
What is it about Japan that continues to attract you here, and why more so than England (or anywhere else)?
There is an interesting quote by David Hockney, which captures some of the feeling behind my motivation to leave London for Tokyo:
In London, I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts; there were no paintings of Los Angeles. People then didn’t even know what it looked like…and I suddenly thought: “My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!”
‘David Hockney: Portraits’. David Hockney. p.39. Yale University Press, 2006.
Similarly, the appeal of depicting a place that had not previously been popular with Western painters influenced my choice of Japan. I think the feeling that you are doing something different and new is quite important. If Japan was overrun by Western figurative painters doing what I have been doing, it would lose its appeal for me, but as it is, its not.
There was a nice quote from Donald Richie about my work when I met him:
Carl Randall’s vision of Tokyo and its people is unique and valuable. He is the only Western artist in Tokyo who uses non-Japanese techniques to produce works about modern urban Japan.
…and I think this is true. I met many Western photographers, but I didn’t meet any other Western painters that were really focusing on creating interesting images of everyday Tokyo and Japan, and so I felt like I had a strong purpose.
As for why I am interested in Japan more than the UK as subject matter, it probably again comes back to this idea of being an outsider. The UK is my culture, its where I grew up, its strongly connected with who I am whether I like it or not, and for some reason that makes it difficult for me to see and paint it.
Its not that there isn’t fascinating subject matter in the UK, as there is – the hierarchy system and the English obsession with class for example, the stereotype of the English gent as seen from some culture abroad – playing cricket, sipping afternoon tea and being polite, compared to the reality of certain aspects of modern UK that is dominated by a culture of rather laddish behaviour, where football and drinking are the main pastimes. And then there are riots, racial tensions, and the recession.
These things could provide the basis for really fascinating figurative paintings, but I am not sure I am the right man to do it – again I think it would perhaps take an outsider to look at these things and do it well. In fact many great artists and writers have been non-natives to the land upon which they based their art – the list is very long.
But these things don’t explain why I specifically chose Japan instead of, for example, Iceland or Brazil. Perhaps there is something about the Japanese mindset and culture that is more in tune with who I am than other cultures. I wouldn’t say I feel 100% comfortable with either UK or Japanese culture to be honest, but there are many things about the Japanese nature which appeal to me – an emphasis on respect towards others, politeness, harmony and modesty, the strong work ethic, and generally less of an emphasis on ego than the UK.
I think these things do result in a culture that is a little calmer and harmonious (also with a very low crime rate compared to the UK), but I guess the downside is less personal freedom, a heightened self consciousness regarding ones behavior towards others, and a necessity to always follow rules, even if they sometimes don’t quite make sense.
Do you feel your work will become stronger (or weaker, or different) if you live here longer, feel more strongly connected with a Japanese community, have a more Japanese “mindset”?
Or do you feel being an independent observer helps your work more?
If the latter, could this mean you have a limited window of time here, or have to intentionally maintain a sense of distance?
I would say having a more independent mindset definitely helps. It’s the whole thing of the artist as outsider – I think it sometimes takes someone from the outside to see things with a fresh eye, and throw light onto things that the insider either finds it difficult to see because it is too close to the bone, and therefore either uninteresting or uncomfortable to deal with. Also, as an outsider, little things are of constant interest because they are different, and this helps with the creative process.
Its interesting think what kind of work I would produce if I did stay in Japan forever – would I then become apathetic and stop seeing Japan with fresh eyes, would I then start to produce more critical work, or would I gradually start to have new levels of insight that would then create stronger more truthful work? I don’t know the answer to that question.
Perhaps its important for long, long term residents to keep leaving for a month or more each year, to keep that sense of distance, and to compare another reality with that of Japan, in order to maintain a sense of freshness.
How has living in Japan changed your work over the course of time?
As you’ve learned/observed more about the place/society/people, do you feel more understanding or insight is revealed in the work?
Yes, I feel as though my paintings got better the more time I spent there. There is a naivety when one first arrives in Japan – you kind of think you have worked things out, but observations are often quite shallow and based on surface. I think Japan requires time to try to get under the surface, and that helps to avoid cliché and strengthen the work.
Saying that though, even after 10 years in Japan, I still would never claim to be an expert on Japan at all. I think people like Donald Richie who spent 70 years or so in the country earned the right to talk with great authority about Japanese culture, but I feel neither myself nor other expats who had only been there a decade or so are in that position.
As for insight about Japan being revealed in my work, that’s not really for me to say. I would hope so, but I will let other people decide upon that.
More about the 53 Stations of the Tokaido here.
Ando Hiroshige’s original woodblocks of the route: view all the different editions here.
Bio and details of Randall’s past exhibitions and numerous awards here.
exhibitions and publications:
– ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan’.
The National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 June – 15 September 2013
– ‘Tokyo Portraits’
The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, Japan House, Regents Park, London, January 16 to March 12, 2014.
A future JapanGasm article will feature more about this show.
– Works exhibited alongside Ando Hiroshige’s original woodblock prints.
The Ando Hiroshige Tokaido Museum, Shizuoka, Japan, June 25 – September 15, 2014.
– ‘Tokyo Subway’ exhibited at the 2013 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
The Royal Academy of Arts, London. June 10 – August 18, 2013.
Artist Carl Randall stands with his painting Tokyo Subway.
To coincide with the above exhibitions, ‘Japan Portraits’, a limited edition hardback catalogue has been produced. Available from the Hayward Gallery shop (the Southbank Centre, London) or from Carl Randall’s homepage.
2014/01/20: Read a second interview with Carl Randall, to mark the opening of his solo exhibition at The Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation, London.