In his grotesque paintings, Philip Hinge touches on various motifs from art history and visual culture, in which mixed feelings of provocation and disarmament often meet. With Martina Poliačková he talks the thin line between humor and seriousness and the role of contemporary painting in the digital world.
There’s a fair amount of humor in the names of the project spaces you’ve founded: Catbox Contemporary, which takes place on cat-scratchers, and darkZone, which is located in the basement of your childhood. Is that an implicit commentary on white cube exhibition practice, or what led you to start them?
I started both spaces out of intuition, trusting that something fruitful could grow there. Both spaces have this natural humor built into their conceits, and that’s a byproduct of my own sensibility and personality. Part of me is seriously drawn to taking »dumb« or akward ideas as far as they can go. The other part of me is concerned with this idea of seriousness. In the early days of Catbox, I felt really self-conscious telling people I was going to create a space in my cat tree, and that made it exciting because I realized they weren’t expecting anything out of it. My goal after that was to make them understand how serious I was about it and how I was setting it up as a platform for artists to grow and experiment. I had that same experience saying when I opened darkZone as a 31-year-old, where I essentially rearrange stuff in my parent’s basement.
I think white cubes are good, and they are necessary. That said, Catbox, by its nature, has a little cheekier meta-commentary on these types of spaces. In the beginning, it was more about making fun at the white cube or undermining its weight. darkZone also has an implicit commentary, more because it brings art back to the domestic realm, but the focus is more on me trying to relive and dissect my childhood.
Could you talk more about this oscillation between humor and seriousness and how it manifests itself in your artworks? I have noticed recurring motifs in your paintings, such as cats, goblin-like creatures, or Van Gogh’s infamous self-portraits, which appear in various variations with pop-cultural references.
I think it’s attractive to me because those two terms, humor and seriousness, complicate the tone. Staging a painting with overt humor might distract or disarm someone from something more contemplative or serious that’s going on. The agency of the piece becomes about concealing its inner self, its emotional agenda. Almost, it’s as if »humor« and »seriousness« alternately protect and conceal each other in a strange co-depedency. The hope is that reading the work becomes more layered, so that even if you don’t understand what exactly is going on, you’ll feel that there’s something unknown or uncomfortable lurking just beyond your sight.
World building is really important in all visual media, whether it’s painting, video games, or movies. For a long time, the world in my paintings was really reductive and shallow, with only a few characters and objects popping in and out. In my practice, it became very flat and boring to paint in this world. I decided to give into my impulses, which originally led me to painting black metal figures in open landscapes. That really taught me how narrow the corridor was that I existing in, and that I had excluded a lot of my interests along the way. Either nothing is accessible, or everything is accessible; I had to level the visual hierarchy I imposed on my work. If Van Gogh is an acceptable reference by academic or traditional standards, then Garfield has to be because of its importance to me.
I believe the world you choose to depict has to be specific to you, and since I realized that it’s like casting an ongoing movie. I had to bring in different characters to convey different things to the audience. What feels right to the banana goblin from a narrative standpoint is different than what feels right to the cat-faced Balthus girl. Each character helps clarify and reinforce the actions of the others, and helps solidify the world I’m trying to create in the paintings. Bananas, cats, gremlins, goghs, corpse paint trees are just the beginning of me trying to decipher and build my pictorial index.
Do you elaborate on certain themes through these narratives? To what extent do you adapt them to the environment in which the project is conducted?
There are broad themes, but I try to not be too didactic with the narratives. Like humor, those narratives can be superficial or multi-layered. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out the psychology of domestic space and what domesticity means to me. How does art fit into this space, or how does it describe or enhance it? How does it start to talk about the tensions and unspoken aspects that exist in all our households?
If the work is malleable and has a certain character, it’s important to have projects that can mirror the same qualities. In this way, the environment helps dictate the terms of the work and vice versa. These spaces and artworks are all organisms that have lives, rituals and habits. They need caretakers to nourish them so they can grow and develop, to make sure they get enough rest and are heard when they need to be. Their reach extends to the people who can identify with their sort of humor, confusion, or anxiety. This can be a very natural process if you can manage to tune into it.
How do you understand the process of experiencing a painting, which today has a double agency, as an image that is simultaneously present in the physical and digital realm?
Considering both is really vital. Painting has a physical presence, even in its flatness, and the experience is dictated by the relational distance between the viewer and the object. The micro and macro experiences can be different and are based on proximity to the object. It is very impersonal or intimate, depending on the level at which you choose to engage with it. There’s something about getting up close with a painting. You get to see an unmediated version of how it’s assembled.
Digital viewing is unique because there’s a distancing agent, so it becomes more visually direct. The context around the painting is erased, so it’s just the painting as it exists in the sterile space. You don’t have to walk across the room to look at the painting, you just click through and build your impression of the work as a whole. The uncanny light generated by the glow of the monitor makes it oddly sentimental and spiritual.
I think that in the digital age, the image acquires a new kind of autonomy and basically takes on different forms of life. However, it has also the downside in terms of the commodification of art, where the current art system is based on the need for artists to self-promote on social media, often becoming their own PR managers.
Definitely, it’s a very thin and dangerous path. It’s very addictive and easily distracting. The digital side of things can really trigger that innate obsessive, controlling, or perfectionist side a lot of artists have. On the one hand, it’s attractive to be your own PR person because you control both the narrative and the quality of the content being distributed. On the other hand, it can become so focused and insular that it starts to hurt the tangible side of the work. I didn’t realize how unsustainable and unhealthy this model can be until I was forced to take the time to reevaluate my live work balance during the first lockdown. When the creative community co-opts these platforms that try to force the hyper-commodification of art and the self, and instead uses them to create self-sustaining platforms that can highlight all the different avenues of the art scene, it becomes a force for good.