Monday, October 08, 2007

Art Space Talk: Julian Hatton

Julian Hatton is an interesting painter in that he is not concerned with contemporary hype. In my opinion, he is a painters painter-- meaning that he focuses on his work instead of trends or what is going on in the art world today. This individualism is obvious when viewing Julian's paintings-- many of which are relatively small compared to what we normally view in the contemporary art world. Julian is an artist who will not allow himself to be defined by dictated standards or painterly 'rules of engagement', so to speak. He does not seek press or prizes, but that has not stopped him from receiving both.

Run Off . 24" x 24" . oil on canvas on panel . 2005-2006

Brian Sherwin: Julian, you studied at Harvard College and the New York Studio School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. Can you recall any of your experiences from that time? Who were your mentors?

Julian Hatton: I got the idea to pursue a career in the visual arts while taking time off from college. I had been drawing cartoons for the newspaper and trying to get on the Lampoon, but I was far from funny enough so I never made it. School, my sophomore year was a bummer, for various reasons, so I decided to bail for a while. I was invited to spend time in Spain with a painter, Fernando Zobel. I had a great time for a couple of months and decided to change my major to art history. Fernando advised me not to pursue painting until after college, if, by then , I still wanted to.

Obviously, I did. I painted my first oil painting a few months before I finagled my way into the New York Studio School. The school gave me a paradigm of studio mores, working from observation, some good studio habits and some bad ones. The funny thing about the Studio School during the early 80’s is that I attended for a couple of years, yet I still feel self-taught as a painter. Perhaps it’s because you really are on your own in the arts, for better or worse.
Woody V. . 24" x 24" . oil on canvas on panel . 2005-2006
BS: Julian, your art has been featured or reviewed in several publications- The New York Times, Art in America, The Villager... you have also won several major awards, like the Pollock-Krasner Grant. How do you feel when your art gains exposure like that? Do you get excited? Nervous? Does it 'keep you on your toes' or do you try to keep it in the back of your mind... and just focus on painting?

JH: I’ve always felt like an outsider. My friends didn’t attend MFA programs. We worked odd jobs and made ends meet while we made art. My sense of myself as a painter didn’t change until I attended the MacDowell Colony in 1992.For the first time I started to believe that maybe I really was an artist. Then a gallery took me on. Those were big changes, compared to the string of grants and awards that I’ve garnered since then. Yet big awards reaffirm your status, in case you were in doubt. And that never fails to be significant. Just this spring the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded me a prize in art for outstanding accomplishment. John Updike gave a short speech, along with Garrison Keillor and other blue chip culture heroes. That type of experience makes you feel like you’re at the very least no longer an outsider.

Persian Miniature . 24" x 24" . oil on canvas on panel . 2005-2006

BS: Julian, you are known for creating paintings that are a mix of discipline and play. How did you learn to control your surfaces in order to experiment playfully while remaining serious and true to desired goals for each piece? Would you say that it is important for a painter experiment in this manner?

JH: Some call me a "process painter". Translation: I am an improvisational painter. I respond to what’s on the canvas. Some call that playing. Nature, either observed, remembered or copied from another source, starts the ball rolling. Because my work grew out of a decade of en plien air nature studies, and because I find that subject infinitely flexible, I continue, in the studio paintings, to use the vocabulary of landscape but strive to freely respond to what’s happening on the surface. Soon after my starting point, often an en plien air sketch or old en plien air painting, I need to get lost, to not know where I am going, so to speak, in order to be fully engaged in the painting process. That is a recipe for failure and success, and lots of stress, frustration and hard work, but ultimately thrilling when one succeeds. Because I don’t have a plan, it takes a lot of effort and discipline to succeed when painting the way I do. Every painting is an experiment, in the sense that each composition and color scheme strives to be different. An exaggerated sensitivity to "already been there" seems to drive this habit.
Bean Bag. 60" x 60". oil on canvas. 2001-1

BS: Julian, your paintings often depict the bare essence of nature. This vivid distortions often capture this in manner that is both whimsical and mysterious. Your work is often organic... full of life... yet there is a somberness about them at times. Can you discuss the motives behind these images? How has nature influenced your work. Also, are there any social implications behind your work?

JH: I have been painting and drawing en plien air in nature for more than 30 years. I spent eight year painting in Prospect Park almost every day, except when it was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I have a bad case of biophilia—a love of nature. It is rejuvenating, while painting is draining. Since 1995 I have done a lot of work in the studio, where now most of the work happens. I spent about ten years becoming somewhat fluent in the language of painting while also memorizing, unintentionally, an idiosyncratic vocabulary of forms and shapes based on direct observation of nature. Because mimesis doesn’t interest me, and because now I like to re-work the imagery so much, I have to avoid over-complicating the forms. Hence things tend to drift toward exaggerations, simplification and distortion. Yet I am not interested in simplification. I would like to be as inclusive as possible, to have as wide a range of colors, forms, textures as possible. Naturally (pun intended), my abstractions reflect their source.

Regarding social implications, let me say that in the context of 9/11, paintings about nature seemed out of touch. But, in the context of global warming, painting that responds to nature is an important place to be. One could site the American Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreaux as related influences. The work touches on ideas of the individual in nature, pantheism, the purely aesthetic response to nature relative to the socially activist response to nature. It touches on the idea wilderness relative to man-manipulated nature. It connects with Cezanne’s attitudes relative to working from and abstracting from nature, formalism, academic tradition, etc. and especially "modernism", which arguably started with Cezanne.
Pass. oil on canvas and panel. 24" x 24. 2005-06

BS: Julian, who has influenced you? Your work is often compared to early American modernist works- Georgia O' Keefe, Arthur Dove... there are also traces of Gauguin and the Fauves. Are you influenced by any of these artists or movements?

JH: I am most influenced by the New York School and the improvisational way of painting (process). So, the late Gorky, de Kooning, Joan Mitchell guide me. When thinking of the connection drawn by critics between my work and early American modernists, I don’t emulate their style, although I do like their painting, but I do emulate their sense of trying to figure out things on their own.

My fearless use of color often aligns me with the Fauves, in the eyes of critics. What most critics fail to write about is artists who use primarily color to compose a painting. They also fail to distinguish between painting in which color depends on interaction and interdependency versus paintings in which colors stand alone independently and do not make a difference relative to each other, such that substitutions would seem to have little adverse effect on the work.
K.I.S.S. oil on canvas and panel. 24" x 24". 2005-06

BS: Julian, you often stay away from creating large abstractions- your works are often no more than 24 inches square. Why did you choose to work in a smaller manner than your peers? When one thinks of abstract painting he or she thinks of large, heroic, paintings. Why did you decide to 'go against the grain', so to speak?

JH: "Improv" painting on a large scale is very difficult. I have painted large, some more successful than others. Given my time constraints, like having to run a small business to "buy" painting time and pay rent, I have been more successful painting on a smaller scale. It’s really just pragmatism. You need to find a creative method that keeps you engaged and advances your project, a method that lasts decades if not forever. Small, as part of my method, has consistently worked better than large.

BS: Julian, critics have stated that you are giving new life to traditional methods of modern art... that you are exploring techniques and methods that many observe as already mapped out. Do you think it is foolish when people decide that certain manners of painting are 'outdated' or should be 'left behind'. It seems you are an advocate for exploring the roots of contemporary art in order to show that fresh art can be created from those anti-traditional traditional methods and themes, is that so?

JH: Given my background and opportunities, my inclinations were somewhat pre-determined. I connected with painting from observation. I found a subject that kept me engaged. I love oil paint. I love objects, artifacts, art, in nature, in museums, in flea markets. I like what the hand does after the brain processes the information. I like idea plus material, the brain responding to the outside world then using oil paint to reify the response. So, it’s no wonder that my work grows out of earlier oil painters. That was their idea, too. I also love to incorporate all the art I love, past, present, foreign and folk. So I am interested in all painters from whom I can steal a good image, idea, technique, etc..I like to think oil painting can still make an all inclusive, responsive metaphor for contemporary life.

Channelling. oil on canvas and panel. 24" x 24". 2005-06

BS: Julian, where do you paint? What is it like to be in your studio? Do you have certain conditions that must be met in order to start painting? Also, can you go into detail about how you start a painting? When do you know a painting is done?

JH: I paint en plien air and in my studio. Sometimes I’m in Manhattan, or Brooklyn, sometimes in upstate New York. I start a painting many different ways: from an on-site sketch, from a watercolor, from an older successful painting. I choose a ground, sometimes cotton duck glued to wood, sometimes gessoed canvas on stretcher with a solid wood backing. I start thin and often set aside a successful start in order not to bury it’s all too important and all too subtle nuances. Then I’ll a start another oil painting the exact same size, either a fresh canvas or an old canvas the same size with the old painted images knocked back by wet-sanding (never dry sand, the dust is toxic) If this doesn’t succeed, I’ll do it a third time. Usually this will get me to a point where I leave behind the original idea and dive into unexplored territory. At some point I either succeed or declare it a failure.
It’s usually pretty clear when the idea of the paintings achieves a clarity of form, color and composition such that I can call it a successful statement of a visual idea. Or, a painting is done when my wife comes into the studio and orders me to back away from the canvas and put my brushes down. She has saved many visual ideas from over painting, which is a big problem when you’re in uncharted territory, making it up as you go, while keeping one foot in naturalism, the other in abstraction, painting improvisationally and struggling to sort out the overwhelming formal choices that every painter has to deal with—color, form, space, etc..

If it’s a failure, I’ll recycle the unsuccessful painting and use it as background for a new painting. Almost all of my paintings are many paintings on top of each other. I use the old shapes to help solve problems in the current painting.

BS: Julian, do you have an suggestions or advice for young painters who are seeking gallery representation or simply trying to put their 'foot in the door'?

JH: Try the newest galleries who are still gathering a group of artists for regular shows. It’s the work that counts. But who you know often counts as much as the successfulness of the work when trying to get shown.
When the Beech Trees Dance. oil on canvas and panel. 24" x 24". 2005-06

BS: Julian, where can our readers view more of your art?

JH: At Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea, Kathryn Markel Gallery in Chelsea for monoprints, Hidell Brooks Gallery in Charlotte, N.C. for more monoprints, the Ober Gallery in Kent, Connecticut for a couple more paintings. Or, try my website: or

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the artworld?

JH: An under-emphasized point in painting is mastering the syntax of visual language, as in the illusionistic space of the 2-D surface, where most painting happens. There are rules to any language, as in syntax. Some parts of languages you can invent, some you have to borrow. There is no adequate pedagogy in art classes that successfully explains how the most successful abstract paintings work in terms of creating an orderly spacial illusion, as used by Jackson Pollock to Julie Mehretu. The art world rewards those who invent their own language. We all have to invent our own visual language, to some extent, not only to succeed in the art world but to have fun. The trick is inventing a visual language that others can understand and enjoy. There is more to be said about this but I’ve probably gone on long enough.
You can learn more about Julian Hatton by visiting his You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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