John Heywood-Waddington embraces the traditions and tropes of Western art history, cinematic devices such as the split-screen, poetic sensibilities and photographic references in his work. His paintings suggest narratives through their expressive movement and rhythm, yet remain open to the viewer’s interpretation. Heywood-Waddington prizes the materiality of paint equally with the subject matter of his work. Working from representational photographic references, collages and drawings, Heywood-Waddington incorporates energetic brushwork in a performative painting process to create an interplay between abstraction and figuration in his paintings.
Cafe | Field II, 2022, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm © The Artist
Kelly Foster – From your artist statement, I took away that your work has a lot to do with the technicalities and materiality of painting. Can you tell me more about your choice of subject matter and what inspired you to create this work?
John Heywood-Wadding – As I keep making work, it keeps evolving and so does my thinking about the work and my ideas. I draw a lot of my subject matter from my friends and recreational imagery. I take a lot of photo references. They can be found photos but largely, I feel that if I’ve taken the image, then I feel that I’m more directly involved in making them. They tend to be people I know, friends but sometimes there are exceptions. There’s a nostalgic quality and I think I became increasingly aware of that during the MA.
I’ve always had an interest in paint in terms of the materiality. My process has become more mediated and I manipulate the image a lot more. There’s also a cinematic analogy and a background in film. I have a big interest in film and cinema in general. I reference cinematic devices, and I’m using a technique of the split screen and montage. I use it in painting as a way to interrogate and play with different languages of painting in the same space.
High Noon, 2022, Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, © The Artist
KF – When I look at your work, High Noon, I can see the split screen when you are dividing the canvas. On the left side of the work, the technique feels more abstract and on the right it feels more grounded in figuration.
JHW – Yeah, that’s right. The right side is more figurative and much more discernible, whereas on the left it gives way to abstraction. The purpose of that is to invite the viewer to contemplate the relationship between the two. For me, when I make the work, I want to see what the painting process will bring out and how it can relate together. In that particular work, I took a photo of a friend, an everyday, holiday snapshot. I referenced that photo in the piece but then I took the same image and focused on one detail of the scene and abstracted it. I try to find comparisons between the colour palette and the forms and let them echo each other.
KF – When you paint the more abstract part of the work, do you always reference the figurative image and select parts that you want to portray?
JHW – Not always. Sometimes that can be a strategy, but sometimes I will just play a lot. I will use collage, splice up an image, photocopy it, draw over it and mess it up, or I will just use a completely unrelated image. In the work, entitled Night I depict a friend of mine in an interior scene in a figurative style, which is juxtaposed next to a kind of expressionist abstraction. There is no obvious relationship between the two of them. I hope that I can elicit some kind of emotional reaction and viewers make a connection, but it’s not necessarily an explicit connection.
Cafe, 2022, Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, © The Artist
KF – I can see how your brain kind of wants to look for associations between the two when you look at both sides of the work.
JHW – It’s great that you can take that away from it. I want to leave it open to the viewer to impose their own ideas. I’m also playing with degrees of abstraction, because one side is obviously much more abstract than the other. It’s a very expressionistic, gestural painting against a more controlled figurative side that also has gestural bits and moments. There is a looseness in it, but it’s done in a way that’s clearer.
KF – I’m really curious about this whole notion of the split screen. In cinema usually when there is a split screen, the technique is used to show different perspectives and in your work, you use the split screen to portray the same thing, but in a different way.
JHW – Yes, it’s the same thing but in a different language. I’m taking the grammar of cinema, the montage and I’ve adopted that to painting. Visually, it only really works if you’re making a statement. If there’s a clean distinction between both sides it will then make a visual impact.
KF – When you’re making the abstract parts of the work, what is guiding you? You mentioned that you make it based off of formal choices, is that always the case?
JHW – That’s a really good question. I think I’m trying to figure that out and I was discussing that in my dissertation. I think that I’m more of a figurative painter, because I need figuration. I need references to structure my ideas, but I also want to do the other aspect of my work which is the physical, performative nature to painting.
When I’m painting the abstract imagery, I start to ask myself what I should paint. Should I just paint from instinct or paint some kind of image? I find that I need some kind of image, but it’s something I’m continuing to question. If there’s nothing that the work is referencing and it’s so abstract that you can’t relate it to any figurative source, then does it matter if you’re painting from an image?
KF – Because you’re taking photos of family and friends, they’re very personal subjects to you. You also mentioned that they’re nostalgic. It could resonate with the idea of time and memory. Cinema is very narrative based, and it has a lot to do with time. It makes me think of using time in an abstract metaphorical way – like the fading of a memory – which is one way that your work could be interpreted through the use of the split screen technique.
JHW – Absolutely. The unreliability of memory could be extending into it as well. Figuration and narrative go hand in hand and gives us something to cling onto and make sense of. Abstraction is the disintegration of the recognisable image, a sort of slippage. It makes things appear less certain.
KF – I like the fact that you’re basing the abstraction equally with the figuration and that they both feed off each other. This way, abstraction is equally at the forefront of the work, instead of just becoming another background for a portrait.
JHW – That’s what I want. I regard them both as the same thing. I was talking with one our tutors, who made me question the importance of the terms abstraction and figuration. I suppose it helps us have a word ready to understand the work, but both terms are forms of representation in the end. I like the idea that we can treat them with equal prominence and see how they interact together.
I’m influenced by artists like Cecily Brown and Flora Yuchnovich. Both artists create these grand paintings that are full of energy and they are figurative and abstract at the same time. You can kind of figure things out, but they also just swim with the decipherable imagery and you’re never sure exactly what’s going on. That’s what makes them exciting for me.
KF – They’re really pushing the abstraction and you can never fully comprehend the image. They seem to construct the figures through the abstraction. Have you ever thought about creating a character study or depicting a scene that has more of a specific meaning to you, or is the context of the work left more open to interpretation?
JHW – In my later work, it became more mediated and constructed. I source material from photographs that I’ve taken at different periods of my life and then I put them together. I’m trying to create an imaginary narrative that only exists once I put the images together. Before, I was painting scenes from photographs, especially of the sea.
I really liked using the sea as a motif, because it’s unknowable and I could be quite expressive and use it as a way to explore abstraction and figuration. I didn’t think that I was constructing a specific narrative though, it just was what it was. I had a real connection to it, and I was almost trying to recapture the memory of that time. In my latest work, I don’t really have an emotional connection to it, and I’m not painting a specific scene that I’ve experienced.
KF – I like the translation that you’re doing in your work. It seems like it’s important that you’re very animated while painting. I like that you’re using this mirroring effect in the process of painting as well. It’s very right vs left brain. It’s interpreting the same idea but in opposite mentalities.
JHW – There is an interplay between the two languages. The performance of painting can be like a catharsis, it’s the the vivid brushwork and interplay between the abstract and figurative languages that are telling their own story. There is also the act of painting as a self portrait and having the brush marks tell their own story in a way.