Rachel Boyd interviews Henry Coombes, a Glasgow-based artist and filmmaker. Coombes' work interplays between fantasy and reality; illustrating the 'real' and 'imagined' lives of the artist with humorous flair.
Your central characters are often subjected to the pressures of expectation through society or an authority greater than their own. The way you reflect upon these kinds of anxiety - often through abstract episodes of pure delirium - seem to be inspired from the fears and doubts of most art students today. Is it fair to say the content of your films reflects upon your own experiences?
I don't really connect with much contemporary art I see, so I don't see a lot - in this philistine feed back loop I could be missing oot. I am more attracted to cinema and mostly American stand up comedy, that explores human condition with vigour. Artists that are warm and loving but are not scared of their thoughts inspire me. The art world I also find pretty baffling; it makes no real sense to me and requires a very peculiar dance - [I’ve] never really got to grips with the moves.
In my work I try to explore the hopes, desires and fears that are present in my life at the time. Worry is where the creative imagination lies for many - worry is the rumination over one thing again and again. This process is found in painting, sculpture and film. It was the creative force behind the homosapian survival as a species - for example, ruminating over two flints until a spark makes a fire. Worry is the thought; Anxiety is the feeling; and stress is the physical reaction.
If you had a lobotomy, you would never worry again but you would loose all creativity. Think of all the creativity it takes, when you have anxiety, to project into the wreckage of your future (that rarely comes true). I have learnt as an artist that there is good worry and bad worry, I try now to avoid anxiety and stress as they block creative process - and more importantly, can wreck your life. I have an OCD of intrusive thoughts (that I now can manage, with the odd relapse) that might explain your observation of my films 'abstract episodes of pure delirium.’
It's interesting that you've compared the creative processes of sculpture and painting to our own anxieties which can manifest within themselves. The two mediums really go hand-in-hand, with fine art usually being practised in very solitary, insular environments. However, filmmaking is often undertaken as a larger production which requires individuals contributing at different parts of the process. Is it always easy to articulate your ideas with other people?
I trained at London International Film School in '98' before leaving after a year. I learnt more about painting from the 'camera assistant' tutor - an old, over-weight, chain smoking cockney - than I did at Glasgow School of Art painting dept. He had been one of the camera operators on Hitchcock's Psycho. He taught us composition, depth of shadow and colour temperature through studying Velasquez and Vermeer. He was gross - unethical but an inspiration - rumour had it, he ended up in the porn industry post his Hitchcock days.
I left the film school at 20 years of age; all my colleagues were settled 30 somethings. I wanted to absorb myself in a cocktail of creative experimentation and hedonism, so headed up to Glasgow.
The grammar of narrative film making that I was taught involves working within a crew. A crew enables the creative vision of the director - it is the opposite of comprimise. If you really want to comprimise yourself when making a narrative film, then pretend that your an expert director, sound recordist, director of photography, editor, etc. You will most probably ended up with badly made boring, self indulgent, endurance test in a gallery with no chairs to sit on and no window to jump out of. The gallery absorbed and killed most of the avant garde cinemas in the US and UK.
Film and painting have always been entwined - Lynch's love of Francis Bacon; Jack Cardiff obsession with Van Gogh; Kurosawa's painting storyboards; Werner Herzog's desire to make 'Even Dwarfs Start Small' to be the closest thing made to Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights…you could on and on go back to the Lumiere Brothers. One is not more effective than the other. A number of artists have moved directly into cinema without investing in its grammar, with a certain arrogance. Just imagine if Guy Ritchie had a solo show at the Tate of large abstract paintings - [just] because it was a natural step as a big time film director(!).
I admire the juxtaposition between themes that are considered 'serious' alongside those which are infinitely more curious in their nature. You've mentioned before that this playful relationship is present between painting and film, how do the two co-exist in your practice? Are the paintings there for fun after a film project or do they function like a storyboarding exercise?
My films undergo an intensive development phase. I produce a large series drawings, collages and paintings to develop the vision, art direction and narrative of the film. These are not storyboards; a storyboard is a professional visual representation of the sequence of shots for the relevant crew members to refer to, its technical art form. When you see a professional storyboard artist’s work you realise that the craft needs respect.
If I am not developing film, I am painting which is the vast majority of my time. I use traditional techniques as it allows me to explore imagery, characters and stories that I am instinctively attracted to. Feelings and themes are trapped within momentum of a fluid medium, the paint has a power of its own, instead of trying to control or illustrate a theme or concept. I prefer to be surprised by the experience of the process, to trap something of depth, rather than research something make it, and present it as a trophy of my knowledge. In this approach you are not an agent: you are a meta agent, you skilfully regulate the interaction between fluid paint, figuration, composition and relationship to unlock a narrative, which opens the door to the all singing and dancing medium of film.
To find out more about Henry visit: www.henrycoombes.co.uk