I was Googling. I was straight up pushing words like ‘purple’ and ‘skull’ and ‘metal’ into the boolean string in a concerted effort to figure out where I’d seen it before. Then the image search filled with result after result of Lord Dying’s ‘Summon the Faithless’. I quickly shot off a text to artist, professor and unrepentant metalhead Grant Hottle. “That’s the cover I kept thinking of. The one that looks like your painting,” it read. The reply came quickly: “Oh hell yeah. Love that first track.”
The first time I saw Hottle’s work was at the Portland2012 Biennial. Organized by Disjecta and curated by local art historian Prudence Roberts, that exhibition was a smorgasbord of rising stars in the Northwest art scene. Purportedly too large both conceptually and physically for its original location at the Marylhurst Art Gym, Hottle’s Facing North (at 108″ x 180″) occupied much of the back wall of Disjecta’s main gallery. A study of spatial components, the conflation of interior and exterior spaces, and a mixture of representational and abstract elements, the composition is full of formal and art historical intrigue. References to the history of painting are evident in the portrayal of curtains, still lives and a memento mori in the form of a skull and bone on a plate.
Equally prevalent alongside these tropes are swatches of pure color and brushwork that allude to more graphic representations of the painter’s practice rather than anything physical. It was these evocative anomalies that held my fascination and created a tension in the work. In the years since the biennial, Hottle’s practice has diverged from a representational mode, and has instead focused on this more earnest exploration of formal abstraction.
In his new body of work, the artist steps back from asking questions about subject matter by doing away with concrete narrative and iconography completely. By focusing on external influences, he escapes the narrative pitfalls that a discernible subject inherently conjures. And while Hottle’s compositions are informed by popular culture in palette and mood, there is something self-reflexive about these new paintings.
“I think of [them] a little bit like heavy metal, horror movies, comic books and the mythology of the end times. All of these have some of that tongue in cheek that’s in my favorite horror movies and metal bands. It’s as serious as possible without being real.”
These are not paintings that take themselves too seriously, and at the same time they are calculated and constructed in such a way that resists an easy categorization. They tread the line between visual reference and pure abstraction very carefully so as not to fall into a ready subgenre that might cause dismissal.
“I’m really comfortable with abstraction and large scale painting, but I’m also really uncomfortable with the history of machoness and confidence with which all of that High Modernism was loaded…with these sensibilities of truth and genius and all that stuff that I don’t buy into. […] I’m a formalist, but I take it seriously in terms of visuals. I don’t think I take it that seriously in terms of philosophy. [The new paintings] aren’t leading me to something.
I take it as seriously as the painting will let it go without it ever being this real thing. For example, Faces of Death isn’t as good as The Thing, because Faces of Death pretends to be real and The Thing doesn’t, and that’s where [these works exist].”
His inquiry into this relationship between between High Modernist abstraction and pop culture comes from a yearning to really complicate space. By approaching the tradition of illusionistic painting in a conceptual mode, Hottle can tease out the qualities of space, depth and volume while still remaining nonrepresentational. Layers of flat color act as censor marks in his compositions. Possible subject matter is obscured by paint spray and geometric form. This correcting and overcorrecting speaks to the artist’s need to connect with the viewer on a level other than pure visuals. Floating in a sea of blends and near-graffiti spray, the polished structural elements and graphic flats create an allusion to something beyond the picture plane.
Since our brain instinctively tries to construct three-dimensional space, Hottle’s paintings are a minefield of perception. The blending and gradation of color that our eyes equate with depth and volume give way to 2D cuts of vibrant hues. These surface areas act as a foil to the thick abstraction beyond their encapsulating plane. [“I actually think of the areas of color as vinyl stickers. They’re kind of cutouts that are meant to highlight themselves as well as the negative spaces that they’re kind of wrapping around,” says Hottle.] And indeed, they have an uncanny ability to evoke stickers, labels or tape placed on top of a photograph; the undulating illusion of depth is in stark contrast to the formal flatness of the artist’s canvas.
The real key to all of this, however, takes its cue from ordinary painter’s tape. That ubiquitous blue adhesive is a favorite of artists who wield the spray can or the loaded brush. Its masking qualities are in full force in Hottle’s sharp lines and clean edges, but it also rears its head in what the artist calls “tape drawings”. These originally cast off pieces of overpainted tape are rich with a palette of nostalgia. By placing them on a simple sheet of white paper, Hottle creates a striking graphic element that, when finessed, allows him to essentially sketch with his painting practice.
“I think of these all as drawings because they have this kind of off-the-cuff-ness to them. Yes, technically they’re collages always, but collage has something to do with painting, and drawing has to do with ‘oh it’s no big deal, it’s just a little thing I’m doodling on’.”
The tape drawings have a certain looseness to their composition. They speak in single layers while their painted counterparts stretch backward infinitely. They have an actual three-dimensionality that anchors them to the physical world while the paintings (and even his newer charcoal compositions) are rooted in illusion. Probably the most salient point, however, is that these pieces are a distillation of Hottle’s entire practice. They get at the basic sensibilities that inform all of his work without seeming preparatory or lacking.
“I feel like these are the darkest thing I make, in terms of metal, but they’re also the most formal and open, and let people see what’s going on. […] And some people have been kind of like what if you remade them, and did them with gouache, but made them look like blue tape, but that’s not the point. I feel like they’re not a step to another thing, they are the thing.”
The drawings are not about blue tape; they are blue tape.
“They’re meant to be clunky and kind of stupid. And as I’ve gotten sick of the manufacture of the blue tape which is from what’s going on [in the paintings], that’s when I’ve started doing more actual collage sections. I started realizing that when I need more stuff…I always have extra stuff. There are extra paints on the palette, or something gets painted onto a thing and then torn and cut up and put onto something else.”
From this detritus comes a new conversation about the artist’s archive. As he creates paintings, he also creates waste materials instilled with the breath of creation. The sharp edges and coherent shapes in his final compositions are the midpoint; the brushstroke begins and ends on these pieces of cardstock, tape and board. It is because of this bookending that the tape drawings (now more collage than simple tape) are the subtle arbiters of Hottle’s practice. They are the physical link to his floating abstractions.
But why become a formalist (even conceptually so)? Why the interest in the very basics of painting and method and composition? The answer lies in Hottle’s (other) profession. A tenure-track instructor at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, the artist is quick to draw corollaries between his painting and his role as professor.
“I teach 2D design, painting, and drawing. Very little of my teaching practice is with advanced students. I teach at a community college; we’re a two year school. I have literally 90 students a term and they’re all in their first or second year of the art program. And then I have two MFA students at OCAC. So 90 to 2 is my ratio this term. So by and large the conversations I’m having are really basic level ideas about form and composition and all of that kind of winds up feeding back into the practice in interesting ways.”
This constant refresher is something he takes to heart. While instructing students in color blending and value studies, Hottle is forced to reconsider the basics of his art. By consistently questioning this, he is able to open up new conversations about his practice.
The old maxim, “Those who can’t do…teach,” touted by a crew of non-educators with smirks of superiority, hearkens back to a time when many artists found it difficult to break into the sustainable earning class of their chosen profession. But we’re not in that time anymore. The MFA is de rigueur for many academic studio art positions. No longer do institutions want romanticized wild cards that operate solely on artistic genius and a bottle of Jack in their bottom left drawer. Instead, the art professors of today are often double agents who have both academic and studio practices.
With this duality, there is even more room for crossover between everyday life and the artist’s work. Student work and its constant reinvention is an excellent reminder to anyone that getting stuck in a rut is rarely beneficial to one’s practice. And even though Hottle has found a fitting outlet for his myriad influences, he is already pushing back at this foray into pure abstraction lest he stagnate, or possibly worse, get bored.
“With a couple of these, I’ve been thinking about the landscape again as a potential for space. I’ve always liked the play between depth and space, but when you stop using perspective at all and it just comes down to blend vs. flat as all that’s telling you what’s happening in a space, I like that. I like that there’re still representational moves happening in these paintings. Like, oh that looks like it glows, or that looks like it has an opening behind it. But there’s no there there! There’s no thing that that eventually becomes.”
There are no direct answers offered. These works don’t lead to a definitive place or idea. Instead the viewer is left to respond to perceived allusions. As much as Hottle draws from the palette of old Lex Luthor comics, or the dark atmosphere of a Yob album, or the seemingly incongruent track of a community college foundations professor, he has developed an amalgam practice that doesn’t privilege any of those influences over the other. Instead, he has taken the conceptual road to formalism. Personal and art historical elements blend with the darker sensibility of heavy metal leaving viewers with a seemingly familiar sense of foreboding. Grant Hottle distills this klaxon of images, icons, and sound into something palpably familiar that resonates with the denizens of this often overstimulating world.