07 Jun 1997
Greg Hilty on Pascal Hervey
For nearly five years Pascal Hervey has used the same novel means of making paintings. With the aid of a mastic gun, more commonly used by builders to fill the gaps between woodwork and walls, he injects gloss paint into the holes of a sheet of high-gauge bubble wrap. When he has covered a surface 200 x 260 cm he stretches his plastic canvas over a conventional wooden stretcher. In one sense, then, Hervey is following a meticulous routine with almost ritualistic faithfulness. Support, medium and scale all remain constant. What varies is the amount of each of the primary colours he pours into his paint gun, and the pattern of movement through which he injects the paint. Hervey moves quickly over the textured surface, from side to side, up, down or in stepped diagonals, half-filling each hole along a certain path before turning the painting and going back over it to fill the empty halves. What he sees from the back bears little relation to what will be visible from the front in terms of the mix of colours and their swirling disposition. These are beyond his control.
Soon after starting college Hervey began experimenting with different means of distancing his hand from the images he made. He sprayed through metal gauze, creating an effect of enlarged screenprinting or close-up pixellation. Bubble-wrap was first used to camouflage single small objects, both by overlaying them with a grid and by cushioning them. His first bubble-wrap paintings, in the manner of his current work, were made in 1992 when he filled row after row first vertically, then horizontally, creating a regular multicoloured weave. He then moved on to dividing the surface into irregular but roughly rectilinear blocks of colours, and from there to roving, as he does now, with absolute freedom over the surface of his chosen support.
Hervey has, in this way, turned himself into a painting machine both conscious and automatic, methodical and random. For a machine, his rejection rate of around 50% of finished paintings is quite high. This statistic is at once disturbing - what good is a process that gets it wrong so often? - and reassuring - at least there are value judgements involved. When asked what lies behind those judgements, what makes a painting a success or failure in his eyes, Hervey is evasive. He says he wants his work to be as simple as possible, but that cannot be true or he would do things differently. Nevertheless you can see how, within the complexities and idiosyncrasies of his working method, he is searching for a conceptual, if not visual, simplicity. He wants the paint to do its own work. In fact, his paintings are the intriguing product of a method carefully set up to deny both painter and paint absolute control over what the other will do.
What do these paintings look like? Their surfaces are totally, disconcertingly smooth, with all the activity and textural drama taking place behind a screen of plastic. The bubbles have been transformed into a highly formalised artificial matrix, row upon row of equal lozenges filled with paint. The lozenges themselves are reflective, while the interstices between them are not; any reflection, therefore, is broken up in the same way as the image contained within the work itself. This is not a quality Hervey stresses or particularly encourages, but the overlay of reflection and primary image can be beautiful. Other incidental but telling qualities include the imperfections in the bubble-wrap material - which mean that from time to time the smooth oval rows are punctured, or punctuated, by a gaping hole - or the occasional streak of a colour alien to the overall pattern of the work, as if the painting were out of register.
The images themselves are entirely abstract, devoid even of the familiar figurative reference of the painterly gesture. Instead the drawing has more the erratic, jerky feel of an Etch-a-Sketch machine, and Hervey indeed plans to construct a large version of one of these childhood learning tools for his own use. Of course, as with all abstract work, these pictures cry out to be read as something real, usually inviting geomorphic comparisons with natural phenomena like ice floes, or rock formations, or clouds. Sometimes they look like aerial photos of fields or towns, or cityscapes seen through a video filtering device. Though flat, they evoke texture, the grain of a surface, the structure of a cell, or by contrast vast spaces containing thousands of units which could be multiplied infinitely. They don't look like much other art: in their process origin they clearly relate to the practice of other young painters working in Britain now, but the images they put out are more inclusive and generous than many, more undefined and suggestive than most. At their softest they are reminiscent of Robert Natkin circa 1973; at their edgiest, up close, they have some of the sinister moodiness of Philip Taaffe's serial stencilling. The abstract in-filling with primary colours of predetermined units in a grid reminds you of Chuck Close, though nothing else does. Each unit is of course a microcosm, and hours of pleasure are to be had mentally enlarging each of these tiny pictures to full scale status: then you get storms at sea, shipwrecks and sunsets, lowering clouds over mountain-rimmed lakes or scudding ones over fields of green.
The anthropologist Howard Morphy once told a story about an artist from Yirrkala, in the Northwest Territory of Australia, who had given Morphy a painting composed of abstract cross-hatchings. A few months later the artist said he would give him another work, but promised that it would be the same. Morphy was astonished to find, upon presentation, that the second work was a fully figurative representation of the artist's family story. What counted was clearly what was in the artist's head: how to depict it was just a formal question. In a similar vein, Hervey has described his work as 'the same painting, just different colours'. Perhaps one reason why Hervey paints abstractly is that he is unwilling to limit himself to one subject over any another. Images flood his mind as he works - the music on his radio, the noise from outside, people in his studio, incidental visual details, his memories. As with anyone engaged in a repetitive activity, Hervey's work sucks in what's around it; it is then composed as if according to random decisions. His signature technique, however faithfully followed, is not itself the reason for the work but rather a means to map out a territory in which content can occur, albeit in a non-specific and improvised way.
First published in Issue 35