In the first of a series of artist conversations around conservation, Kevin Harman discusses the fabric of his work with Hans Thompson, co-director of Orbis Conservation.
HT: What works do you want to discuss? The glass works?
HT: When you actually fabricate something, I’m just thinking back to that show [Ltd Ink Corporation], things like the truth booth and those kind of things, they were all things that were supporting the art works, which are a bit more performative and operating in a different kind of space aren’t they? But the physical things that you’re creating are the glass works at the moment, right?
HT: I know you go through a process of acquiring the paints and their colours which is kind of fortuitous. Similar to the skip sculptures. Waste materials in a way. You just go and get mistints, paints that have been miscoloured by the paint shop, don’t you?
KH: Mistints from a good quality, Johnstones, paint company.
HT: So you don’t know what colours you’re going to get?
HT: But you know they’re good quality. And do you just choose emulsions or what do you use?
KH: Oil. Gloss, oil based.
HT: And in applying the paint are you thinking at all about the longevity of the pieces?
KH: I am using a material which I feel does have a sort of architectural durability.
HT: Like the windows themselves?
KH: Aye. The metal, the timbers on the back to make the sub-frame. Using really good quality sealants and stuff that I feel, you know, it’s worth spending the extra £10 a tube to get because I do think of these as perhaps lasting a bit longer. I could use a cheaper paint brand, but I feel that I want the colour to last. You know, I know it might fade over time like things do.
HT: So the process when you’re making them is you open up the glass, you pour in the paint, then you close it back up again, and then you start manipulating it; rolling it around, flipping it and so on?
HT: And then do you add thinners? And then do you add colours again? How many times are you opening them up?
KT: So, by that point, even in the first instance I’ll have diluted it with the thinners, obviously just to get the blobby sort of gloss lumps out of the way. Smash or pad the thinners and the blobs in a tub and then pour that in. Just to get rid of those chunks.
HT: So how much paint are you using? Is it massive quantities? Is it pooling on the surface when you’re doing it?
KH: Aye, aye. Depending on the size of the work obviously; let’s take the 2 meter by 2 meter works as an example. I’ll sort of use the equivalent of a 5 litre tin, but obviously different colours. Tip them all on. Loads of thinners. Loads ‘a…do the hokey pokey – the dance! And then open it and let them drain out a little bit. See what’s going on. Let that air get to it. And put a little bit more in.
HT: You would have one layer that’s pretty much dried and then add another?
HT: And then you keep manipulating it like that until you’ve achieved what you want?
KH: Aye. And it only takes like two rotations. I’ll flip it once, flip it again, flip it another time, open it up, let some of the paint drip out, if it’s too thick I’ll let it drip out of the unit. You have to because there’ll be too much paint. Most of them move. But they find this sort of natural stop point and that’s it.
HT: Then it’s ready?
KH: Aye. But I’ve been pushing the envelope pretty recently. But yeah, I will use quite a lot of paint.
HT: When I look at these works I think about the difficulty a conservator would have in treating them. Actually, the conservation of the painted surface is pretty much impossible. What do you think?
KH: I think so. Unless you’ve got some sort of machine that you can blast through glass that brings pigment out somehow. Or peels glass!
HT: Yeah because you’re reverse painting essentially aren’t you? So you don’t have any access to the visible surface of the paint. Do you have any thoughts about how a work might be treated? If an area of paint starts to come away from the glass for example?
KH: You could cut the unit open very carefully. Maybe apply where the flecks have come off, add the same Johnstones paint, maybe add it, close the unit back up.
HT: And might you carry that out?
KH: Me? No!
HT: But that would perhaps be an acceptable way to conserve the piece? Replicate your methods very locally in areas where there is damage?
KH: But then that would just spread like wild fire. If that area goes then something else would surely go. But then again, the photographic evidence of it; you look at it, maybe even colour match it. But again, you can’t, because they’re so sort of, I mean there’s no brush strokes or anything, it almost like getting a scratch on a bit of glass.
HT: Would that treatment devalue the work in your opinion?
KH: A little bit because you’ve compromised the unit. The sealed unit.
HT: Do you make recommendations about how they should be shown, like not hanging in direct sunlight for example? Is the gallery making recommendations about that sort of thing?
KH: Well the glass has a UV filter anyway; architectural glass does. So the works are already more protected than you might think.
HT: Ah interesting. And is that UV protection on both pieces of the glass that make up the double glazing or only on one pane?
KH: Both. They get cut from the same material.
HT: So, in using the double glazing unit you’re already protecting the work? Like a vitrine? And the reflections are really important to the work aren’t they? You don’t want anything to obscure or take away from that?
KH: Yeah massively. It’s the first layer of the work. It’s so funny because everyone tries to miss it and that’s what activates the work in the first instance.
HT: Yeah. I remember in the Fitzrovia chapel they looked really good with the reflections of the stained glass. Ok. So, to summarise your conservation approach; people are expected to look after it carefully but any deterioration is part of it’s journey as well? You don’t want it to deteriorate but if it does that’s just…
KH: …just life! It is, aye, it is. Things will change. Whether people want that change to happen, you know, is it for me to sign it off or is it for them to deal with the work how they want to?
HT: But from what you’re saying you’re giving it the best chance you can give it. Is that because we’ve had discussions before about conservation that you started thinking about that a bit more? Because I don’t feel like a lot of artists would necessarily consider that in making it.
KH: It was there at the very early stages of my investigation in how to get to the back side of a painting; it was there early. When I first started putting paint on Perspex I was looking at it thinking “that’s interesting, you’re not gonna be able to do anything to it”. So it wasn’t the main consideration, but an after delight, that the glass has that quality anyway.
HT: And in choosing the materials that go around, the metal frames for example, is that because you wanted to protect it and give it the best chance, or is or just because they connect with the glazing unit that is the central part of the piece?
KH: So the frames aren’t really a frame. The frames are part of the structure of the work. A portal. It adds to giving it that portal feel.
HT: Is it a coincidence that the materials that you were choosing to do that were robust materials that were also protecting it at the same time? Is the metal there to give extra protection to the really delicate corners of the glass?
KH: Actually no. Because to protect them I would choose a different material. I would definitely not use the metal because that has such a high shock, when it impacts it would still make the unit explode. It is there like in a room where you get the beading. It’s a finish. Because otherwise you end up seeing the messy edges. And they’re not really that ugly, the edges where the paint meets the silicone, but it’s just not the vista. It would enclose the painting, where [as] those metal, I’ll no say ‘frames’, they allow your imagination to continue that filtering out and through and around. And that’s exceptionally important, because otherwise they solely become a painting.
HT: These are very much sculptures then? You’re just hanging them on a wall. They’re sculptures that you hang on a wall.
HT: Yeah, it’s interesting because in thinking about them as a whole object, not a painting and a frame, it becomes clear again that they are a sculpture. You’re thinking about them three dimensionally.
KH: They were meant to stand. They’re double sided – they were meant to free stand. That was my original design. And then I started putting them on a wall. They’re a bit more successful on the wall. Because, going back to the Fitzrovia chapel, them being on the ground, they didn’t quite read as well.
The thing was I got them thinking of them as windows right? And it was the lack of windows in the fucking places I would stay in that had no windows in - my studios and my bedroom and that. So it was a nightmare. I just fucking craved these windows or light or something. And so to have started to think about those things on the wall, it was such a natural place to have a window. You know? That’s the harmony of it! It’s actually more fitting than a canvas. Yeah you know you have a canvas on a wall and you’re like, “Yeah it’s like looking at a canvas on a wall”. You have a big fucking window hanging on the wall it’s like “[expansive gesture]”. Reflecting other things in the room that you have to see through, it’s a real….[excited gesturing]
HT: So really those frames are a lot more important than people might think?
KH: They took probably about 8 months after I finished the first work. But then even when I was doing the first works I was already like, “How do I make these a unit?”
HT: So again, what are recommendations when these things go out? Because in handling those objects you could almost be forgiven for thinking it’s fine to grab the frame because people think it’s just a decorative support. I suppose even just understanding them as sculptures rather than paintings would help in that instance.
KH: I’d put gloves on.
Kevin Harman was born in Scotland in 1982. His paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs and drawings act as trophies of the creative process, giving us cause to consider the act of making as equally as important as the end result.
Harman’s glassworks were first exhibited by Ingleby Gallery in Spring 2016. The Skip series is an ongoing project and Skip 16 was presented at Frieze New York in May 2018.
The next interview in this series of artist conversations is with Phillip King RA.