Our preoccupation with nostalgia is something that interests Iranian-Australian artist Henry Curchod. Reflecting on the etymology of the word, Henry is interested in developing a rich visual language borrowing from myths and archetypal symbols that respond to the problematic nature of memory and our desire to return to an idealised—and often fictionalised—past. In each composition, Henry develops a complex narrative that plays out between an ambiguously identified protagonist and antagonist. The scenes resist moralistic readings and instead explore the space between comedy and tragedy and the secular and spiritual.
The symbolic subject matter of Henry’s paintings belies his serious approach to painting. He says: “It’s important to be conscious of every single stroke. Every gesture or stroke should be scrutinised and questioned. Paint’s application should not be too cavalier, as people are looking for meaning in the stroke.” To test the mettle of his painting, Henry dedicated two years to only painting water—typically one of the most difficult things to render in pigment on canvas. The outcome of this undertaking is less important than the deep understanding of paint and surface and light that Henry gained through the process and which he brings to bear in his current work. This is balanced with an equal acknowledgement of the need for spontaneity to maintain life and an element of surprise within a painting. Using fluid but precise brushstrokes, Henry’s paintings convey a sense of movement and poised tension. His colour palette is similarly emotive and deliberate adding textural layers to his symbolic language.
Today Henry lives and works in Sydney. He was the recipient of the Fortyfive Emerging Art Award and the Belle Magazine Art Prize amongst other achievements, and has presented his work nationally in both solo and group shows.
AMM: Hi Henry! Have you always painted or did you find your way to painting via other mediums? What have been some of the defining points that have shaped you as an artist?
HC: I wanted to become an architect, so I went to do a few weeks of work for a prominent Australian architect, who sat me down after two days and said that I should probably go to art school.
I was taught to draw technically by my uncle and grandmother. Their relationship with art continues to have a profound impact on me. They take it very seriously. The rest of my family are engineers, so I had a healthy obsession with Lego and building things. I think most children do. Most children stop and move on, and instead I think I just kept going. The obvious next step was painting. These two inherent but conflicting sides of me, the engineer and the romantic, are key to what has shaped me as an artist. I cherish this process of the imagination being respectfully crushed by the unforgiving starkness of manifestation.
AMM: Your paintings depict mythical or dreamlike scenes that suggest complex narratives. Please tell us about the subject matter in your art.
HC: Yes, the narrative allows me to conspicuously communicate with the audience, which I really like. They are very social paintings. But also I guess they are kind of disastrous fantasies. There’s often an antagonist and a protagonist, but like any traditional myth or story it’s often unclear as to who is what. Often the antagonist is a personified object. It’s more useful to personify an object than to objectify a person.
These dream-like fantastical elements allow the works to be disarming and invite a sense of curiosity. The narratives generally explore this space between comedy and tragedy, or the secular and the spiritual, where all good things sit. There are these situations in life that the more you know, the less you know; the great irony in everything; and these things make me smile, and they are worth painting about.
AMM: Is each painting a standalone narrative, or do you develop themes across a body of work?
HC: Each painting is its own story. I do develop broader themes and that’s entirely incidental. But in a way each image is more a rebuttal to the image that was made before it. In that sense, they stand alone, and are in a sense more interesting on their own, and the larger body of work is one continuous argument.
I may experience a situation in the day to day that I find to be so perplexing or morally ambiguous, that it causes me to conjure up narratives around it. Small details of the before and after. Then I draw every outcome of that situation, and I may get attached to a certain gesture or feeling in one of those drawings, and so I try to build up the image around that.
The initial thought becomes a distant overarching theme, and as each chapter or painting comes to the surface, it reveals smaller things which are far more important than the moral of the story. And that’s the beauty of the process: I let the contrivance of theme or subject go out the window and give way to something more honest and organic. And that’s when things actually get interesting for me.
AMM: Who are the figures in your work?
HC: I guess they are sort of ghosts of people in my life. There’s this thing whereby I will draw someone over and over again from memory. Slowly, their likeness is lost in this repetitive process of linear abstraction, until only what I see as their quiddity remains. Then by transferring this onto canvas and rebuilding onto this linear foundation with colour and form, I get a chance to reinvent this person. I really like that. I have painted my girlfriend as a demon and she has been very understanding.
AMM: What themes or ideas are you currently exploring in your work?
HC: At the moment I’m really interested in the way we experience nostalgia. Traditionally, nostalgia is this escapist affection for memory and the past; generally positive. The word nostalgia originally comes from the Greek words ‘nostos’ (homecoming) and ‘algos’ (sickening), which is actually more a sentiment of loss. We have this tendency to actively seek nostalgia when looking at images and often it’s a very confused experience. It becomes a sort of hunger for uncomfortable sentimentality.
I do this all the time when looking at paintings. So, I’m really exploring this in my construction of images. Both technically and conceptually, I am trying to find symbols and cues that engage this idea of a confused familiarity. I think that by illuminating the visual triggers of this ‘paradoxical nostalgia’, there is a valuable opportunity to confront what we fear and what we’ve left behind or tried to conceal.
AMM: What is your process of working? Do you sketch and plan out your compositions or follow a more fluid and spontaneous process?
HC: The way I work is kind of similar to baking in that I produce work in clear stages and batches. Initially, I sketch from my imagination, without any tangible reference, for a month or so. No painting. I then flesh out, or collage the drawings into a series of images. I then slowly start to build the images up with paint. I develop this dialogue with each individual work, where I’m forced to abandon whatever plans I had for it and let it become its own thing, and I work hard to justify that process to myself and to the work.
AMM: What does a typical day in studio look like for you?
HC: Physically it’s sporadic. I’d say it’s 50% just sitting there and staring at the works, forcing myself to have difficult internal conversations about minor decisions. Each decision leads to a new challenge and I must face that as it comes. The more finished a work becomes, the more challenging, complex and intense these internal conversations become. That can be quite a difficult time. When I’ve finished having these initial ‘morning’ conversations, I am ready to paint. Then I’ll paint for hours and hours. At some point I stop and kick myself out of the studio, before I ruin everything. But when I’m in the studio, it’s all about painting. There’s no recreation or procrastination. It’s strict.
AMM: Your use of colour and fluid brush stokes creates a very emotive quality in your paintings. Can you tell us more about this?
HC: I’m glad they seem emotive, but they are very considered. Which I think is the opposite of emotional? It’s important to be conscious of every single stroke. Every gesture or stroke should be scrutinised and questioned. Paint’s application should not be too cavalier, as people are looking for meaning in the stroke, so we must give every stroke as much meaning and purpose as possible. If you are vacant whilst painting, it shows. But that thinking can also give way to tight and emotionless painting, so often it’s an intense battle between the civilised and the primal. I know every serious painter has a different relationship to this idea.
AMM: The titles of your paintings are very descriptive without actually giving anything away. How do you go about titling your work?
HC: Naming works is fun. I’m not in the market for misleading people for the sake of it, but I’m generally against pure reiteration. It’s a chance to be poetic, or a chance to make a joke or it’s a chance to finally finish the painting.
AMM: You spent two years painting water. What was your intention for this and what did you gain from the process?
HC: I was trying to make the perfect painting of water, as the sublime subject of all subjects. It’s a long time to undertake an impossible task, and of course I consider it a failure. But in that time I learnt more about the materiality of paint and the process of dilution and restraint than I could have done doing anything else. Layering and patience and gesture. I studied paint’s strengths and boundaries. I still think they are good paintings, but I’m not as hard on myself as I was then.
AMM: How does your personal history influence you artistically? Does this come through in your work?
HC: For a long time I was reluctant to explore my Persian heritage. Iran has a lot of problems, and I am not qualified to get politically involved. But the rich history of the aesthetic, and carrying it through to modernity is something I am interested in. The Persian side of my family were all thrown out during the revolution, so there is this embarrassment and shame that went along with that. The aesthetic has started to come through a lot, which I’m really exploring. I used to make drawings from the Disney film Aladdin when I was really young. I loved Aladdin. It was this safe, mainstream, Americanised connection to my culture. Pop-exoticism. Of course now I realise that it had nothing to do with Iran. It was just blanket Middle-Eastern references. It’s riddled with cultural misappropriation, which I tend to find more amusing than offensive. But looking back, Disney films had a huge impact on me.
AMM: Besides art, what are some of your interests?
HC: I am very passionate about cooking. Cooking a meal is the precursor to sharing a meal, which is life’s simplest primal pleasure. It’s like this wonderful alchemy born of survival. The amount of time I spend thinking about cooking might be considered unhealthy.
AMM: What is the Australian art scene like? How do you feel like you fit in (or not)?
HC: Australia is beautiful island in the Pacific that has been blessed with the internet. It’s also an amazing place to live. The art world here is just like anywhere else now, because of the internet. There are many fantastic artists who are constantly pushing the boundaries. I think a lot of people here are working hard to bring the Australian public up to speed. Sport is big here and people are very comfortable. And comfort can make people complacent. The void here between the decorative and the academic is huge. It’s a bit of a tug of war in a way, or two opposing sides. It’s come from underfunding in the arts and no respect for arts education. It creates a divide. But it will even out with a bit more internet.
AMM: What inspires and influences you artistically?
HC: What inspires me and what influences me are two very different things. In terms of influence, I’m influenced by everything: the people in my life, the internet, other artists, books, myths, anything. Painting is a sort of digestion for me. I take everything in my life and churn it through this grinder and try to come out the other end with some pictures. The more interesting my life becomes, the more interesting my work becomes. Then there’s inspiration. Inspiration is a hard one as I don’t really get inspired until I’m deep into the process or act of painting. What motivates me to get to that point is so difficult to say. It’s very hard to describe the feeling. It’s more of a frustration or internal swelling. For example, once I saw this man crying on the bus. I couldn’t wait to draw it. I drew it in my head over and over. Then, when I finally got a piece of paper I started to play with it and manipulate elements of the image until the drawings were nothing like what I experienced. I drew ‘crying men’ for months until I finally made a painting. Anyway, there’s no feeling like having a gesture or image in your head and not having materials around to invent it. That’s what drives me. That’s inspiration. I still love drawing ‘crying men’.
AMM: What have been some of the high points or learning curves of your career thus far. Do you have any advice to share with other young artists?
HC: The entire thing is a giant high/low. Being an artist is equal parts terrifying and thrilling. What a thing to just take these very personal and important things and show them to everyone and wait for a response. And many people don’t like your work and that’s hard. It has been difficult understanding that you’re never finished learning. There is no finish line and you’re only as good as your last painting. So there’s this infinite mountain ahead, and it gets higher and higher and it’s there forever.
My only real advice is to always assume everyone else around you knows something that you don’t.
AMM: Do you have any new projects coming up that we should know about? What’s next for you?
HC: Yes, there are some things developing around Europe and locally. A few great things in the oven. I can’t really talk much about them yet but really I’m trying to stay focused in the studio, just make good work. That’s all that matters. I’ve got this one black book of drawings that are going to be paintings soon. I’m very excited.
Find out more about the artist: www.henrycurchod.com
Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.