a conversation between Ray Richardson and Hanif Kureishi
Hanif Kureishi: At what age were you when you started drawing?
Ray Richardson: From as far back as I can remember really. I used to just draw people that I saw, that lived on my estate or down my street. There wasn’t any kind of artistic thing going on in the family. But it’s just ended up that I’ve become a painter and my brother’s a musician, so I don’t quite know it’s come from! I’d grown up just looking at art books and I’d look at Rubens and think it was all really fine but, when you actually got to see it, there were certain parts of it painted really roughly, and there were certain parts where the ground colour that had been put down was just sort of left to suggest a shadow, or something like that. I’d get close to it and it was all falling apart and then I’d get back fifteen feet and look at it again. What would amaze me was the confidence of being able to do that, you know when less is more? You just have to develop the kind of confidence to make some sort of crude mark and I does the job, and when you’re three inches away form it, it’s just a mark, but when you’re fifteen feet back it sits in the right space.
HK: So you’d go off to the National Gallery and you’d look quite seriously, and then what would you do? You’d go home and think, “How did he do that?” I mean when I used to read books, and I thought I’d be a writer, I’d read them and think, “Can I do that?”
RR: I think it was more about the technical side of things where I’d think, “Could I do that?” But in a really weird way the images I was more interested in looking at were from films. I was always really in to cinematography and the way things were framed. So I wanted to almost combine the traditional stuff of painting with cinematic ways of looking at things, you know, the way things were cropped and edited down? There’s all that stuff in Film Noir where there’s use of mirrors to reflect things; there would someone looking in a mirror and there’d be the two people behind them, and the way that light and shadow were used, and space and void being played off against each other.
HK: You mentioned shadows earlier.
RR: I guess it’s just because I like the drama that you can create with shadow. At college I was really into Edward Hopper. It’s like the obvious thing of the painting of the café scene, ‘Nighthawks’, and how he’d been inspired to do that, through a short story by Hemingway. It’s all about three sources of lighting going on in that painting, and shadows being chucked all over the place. It’s a really simple painting, but it just is so dramatic, and you wonder about the relationship between the bloke and the woman who are sitting at the counter. I guess that it’s probably unfashionable to be into making narrative work, but I am into trying to tell little stories and vignettes of life.
HK: What is interesting is that there is a lot of emptiness in those pictures. There’s a lot of space, isn’t there, where there’s nothing really going on? Like in the Hemingway story, where there isn’t much going on either, but actually, underneath it all, there’s a lot going on with these people trying to communicate with one another but not quite being able at all. They’re lost in that space, there’s a little figure over there and lots of shadow.
RR: I guess it’s like the painting of the guy and the girl in the back of the car.
HK: That’s a very American picture actually, isn’t it? It looks sort of Fifties.
RR: Yeah, it’s a very significant painting for me because I did it a couple of years ago and it’s called ‘Driving Nowhere’. I guess it’s a loaded thing about a relationship, and what happens with people who are in relationships, who are going along but they’re not actually together.
RR: We’ve spoken about it before, but for me, I can only make work that’s actually got something to do with me, and it’s like I have to once remove it from myself. In a weird way it’s probably like therapy.!
HK: Well, Picasso said that if people wanted to understand his work they should see his diary. It’s interesting the people in your pictures, they’re not speaking to one another, and they’re quite deliberately not speaking. It’s not as if they haven’t got anything to say, they’ve got too much to say, haven’t they?
RR: Yeah, I think that’s actually something that’s been levelled at me before, that I’m not the best communicator in the world – verbally.
HK: The people in your pictures are thinking about things. He’s not talking is he? He’s looking away, he’s thinking about something else. There’s quite clearly stuff going on in their heads, they’re not vacant are they? You found another way though, didn’t you?
RR: Yeah, that is it, I can do it through painting. You know, loads of stuff I’m doing at the moment is about trying to find myself, well, kind of find out who I used to be.
HK: I mean, that man and woman are not thinking about nothing, actually, they’re boiling with something unspoken.
RR: No, no, they’re thinking about where they’re going together, and they should stay together, and they almost don’t want to be together, but they sort of do want to be together…it’s almost like it’s a necessity to be together.
HK: So it must have been difficult for you, if you wanted to speak? Was there some kind of visual culture there? I mean, there wasn’t at my school, that’s why I presume there wasn’t at yours.
RR: I think that actually we were really fortunate, because our art teacher was this really brilliant bloke and he saw that, if you were into art, all he could do was give you all the materials you wanted and just let you get on with it. He would encourage you, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do and how to do it, he would just make sure you had everything to hand.
HK: So you got quite a lot of encouragement actually, you’ve got this art teacher who really believes in you and who will help and encourage you.
RR: Yeah, yeah…..but I guess it was like a weird thing for somebody from where I grew up to go to, let alone university or college, but an art school was just unheard of, because everybody just did a trade.
HK: Who else had you admired? When I was a kid, there were lots of writers who I wanted to be like, and I watched the telly. You know, in Bromley there was nothing. You know, I watched the telly and occasionally on a Sunday night we’d see a writer, or a film would be on the telly, and you’d think “I can do this, I want to be like that.” Who did you look at, I mean did you look at Warhol and Peter Blake and the Sixties stuff, did you look at Expressionism?
RR: I just used to look at everything. I’d look at Picasso, Rubens, Rembrandt. I was into things like Abstract Expressionism and stuff like that. I was into Franz Kline and Peter Blake. Basically for me, it’s like if it’s good then it sticks, and if it’s bullshit then it can fuck off.
HK: So were you looking at a lot of stuff at that age were you? Were you going down to the library and trawling through stuff?
RR: Yeah, yeah. I used to nick books from the school library!
HK: Well, you obviously wanted it very much. I mean all kids nick things, but they don’t nick books on Franz Kline, you know? So, you just were going your own way, you thought I want to do this, I want to go to St Martins?
HK: And how did you know that St Martins was a good place, and that there were good teachers there, and all that stuff?
RR: When I turned up there I knew it was the wrong place, actually, almost the first day I went, because it was so fashion orientated. I didn’t think the painting teachers on the Foundation Course were any good. They all seemed bitter and twisted, and told you on the first day that only one percent of us would still be pursuing the arts in ten years time. When you are eighteen that was like…..actually, it made me even more determined. I just thought “Fuck you! I’m going to be that one percent.”
HK: You’ve got a lot of strength of will, that’s quite a big thing. You weren’t shaking and going “My God! These other kids are so clever, I’ve got no chance”, which is what I felt when I went to university, I was really intimidated and frightened by the whole thing.
RR: The thing I was intimidated by when I was at college was the wordy people. When I started at St Martins there were a couple of fellas there who could talk the talk, and walk the walk, and then you got about six months down the line and you’d realise that was all they could do, they couldn’t actually fucking do anything! Then it happened to me again when I went to Goldsmiths, when I did my degree. I went for lunch on the first day and there were all these people coming out with cryptic jokes about Man Ray’s left ear and there’s me thinking “Fucking Hell! There’s something I ma missing out here.” I was more concerned about who Charlton (Athletic) were playing on Saturday! You know, I guess it’s like once you get to a certain point down the line, and you’ve been doing something for long enough, you can work out who the bullshitters are and who the people who are really doing it here.
HK: And was St Martins a waste of time or was it interesting?
RR: It was a waste of time, literally, until about the last few weeks when I had to transpose a painting from the National Gallery. Basically, you had to go and make a drawing an then repaint it in your own style. That was really liberating, it really freed me up. I remember the Head of foundation said to me “Where are you going to after to do your degree?” and I went “Goldsmiths”, and he said it was the most difficult painting college to get into and, again, it just made me think “That’s where I’m going to apply.” That was just at the time, when I was a first year at Goldsmiths, that it was just beginning to change into all that conceptual stuff.
HK: And you weren’t doing work like that? What was your work like, what were you doing back then?
RR: It was figurative painting. I just used to paint my friends and again it was to do with my life.
HK: Was your work different to the conceptual stuff the other kids were doing there, or were they doing that as well?
RR: What is interesting is, some of the conceptual painters were doing, not exactly figurative, but subjective work. But I think there’s been a certain amount of ‘reinvention’ in some people’s work since they were at college.
HK: What was Goldsmiths like compared to St Martins, then?
RR: At Goldsmiths it was really, really good. It was a really good place to be because you did have some of the old school painters there, you know, these sort of old school British abstract painters.
HK: And did your work change, or your idea about what you wanted to do?
RR: No. I remember when it came to doing your degree show, I thought you had come up with this big final statement about where you were, and I remember Basil Beattie came in one day and said “You seem stuck in a rut!” I said that I couldn’t think of what the big full stop was going to be when I got to my degree show, and he said, “Well you’re looking at it the wrong way!”
HK: You were doing it already?
RR: Yeah, and like you’re going to carry on afterwards so it’s just part of the process, you’re just developing over time.
HK: Was that the time of Brit Art and Damien Hirst? When did art start becoming fashionable, and all that stuff started to happen? Was that the Nineties?
RR: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s really weird because all of those people, well I was at college with them, and it was all just fucking weird.
HK: Did you feel part of that? Were you interested in al that?
RR: No, no, not at all.
HK: You weren’t hanging around with all those people?
RR: No, I knew some of them on a social level, but things that were going on with their work were just nothing to do with me.
HK: Didn’t interest you?
RR: No, I remember I did a little show when I was at Goldsmiths; they had a common room and they encouraged you to put on a show there once a month, and you had to go there and talk about your work, and everyone form the college would come along, and it would be a question and answer thing. I remember I actually called my show ‘I’ve got a bag of my own’, which is after a James Brown song, because basically I just wasn’t following any agendas. You knew what kind of galleries were the trendy galleries that you were supposed to be trying to go with, but it just never, ever bothered me. I just thought people will either like it or they won’t.
HK: You weren’t trying to be fashionable and you were quite aware, in fact, that you didn’t want to be fashionable?
RR: Well, I just always believed that you’ve either got to go with whether they like it or they hate it. You’ve got to take a positive out of the thing that they hate it, because at least they’re making a firm decision on what you’re doing.
HK: People didn’t hate your work, nobody hated your work, did they? I mean, they bought it and you were doing well straight away.
RR: Yeah, but the thing for me now is that the art world has really changed a lot, because it seems more about the social side of things. If you want to go out to parties every night, and brown nose people, then that’s a certain way of getting on, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. I was just not interested in that at all, I couldn’t be arsed, I’d rather go down the pub with my brother!
HK: And did you feel that you didn’t like that world, and it wasn’t a good world?
RR: No, It just didn’t interest me, all that going to the fucking Groucho Club.
RR: Sorry, it’s just me, it’s just fucking boring. It’s just people on the make.
HK: Did you feel quite isolated then, in terms of what you were doing, compared to these other people who were making this world which became quite fashionable?
RR: I guess you do feel a little bit isolated, but the thing is I made a decision; that’s what I wanted to do. I just don’t believe in playing games, you have to have a certain amount of honesty and respect for yourself. Al right, you’re kind of swimming one way and everyone else is swimming the other way, but you’ve got to keep swimming the way you want to swim, you know?
HK: Yeah, and you were still seeing your parents, you had your mates from school and you were going down the same pubs. That’s obviously fed you work in some way, just like my father being Indian feeds my work to this day. The fact that I come from an Indian/Pakistani background is the most important thing in my work, which I had to stick with, because that’s the source of my ideas.
RR: I think the thing is that, as you get older, you become more reflective, and so you start looking at why or how your past is making you be now. Especially with having kids, you start reflecting on your childhood, and what could have been, and what could not have been. That kind of stuff has come into my work a lot more.
HK: How? How has it shown itself?
RR: Well, the painting ‘Sweet Thing’, that’s a painting about my youngest son, who is just absolutely fucking blinding.
HK: I can now see, when I became a father my work completely changed because I wasn’t writing from the point of view of a son anymore. I started to write from the point of view of a father. I was thirty and my whole perspective changed and, as you say, I became very aware of my childhood, and my own father and what it meant for him to have kids. Everything really tipped at that point.
RR: You get into your thirties, and then you start realising your responsibilities more, and then suddenly you have friends who are dying and it’s…..
HK: Reality really hits you when that happens, doesn’t it? I remember that happening to me, because I started to write about that period, because it’s a very traumatic period. You’re not the kid on the street playing football any more, you’ve got these children, you’ve got to support them, and your life has become very serious. You’ve got to change, actually you’ve got to become an adult, I’m afraid you’ve just got to grow up and face the fact that people are dying. The world suddenly becomes very tragic doesn’t it?
RR: Yeah. That’s what this picture is about, ‘The Place I Love’. Its about the memory of a friend who died at forty one, and you’re thinking “Fucking Hell! That could be me in a couple of years if I don’t start behaving myself a little bit”, and it’s not about being morbid, it’d just about being serious about things.
HK: It’s the isolation, isn’t it? There is a sense of isolation in those pictures.
RR: Yes, definitely. It’s been about my state of mind because I’ve split up with my wife, and I’ve ended up living on my own. You’re living on your own and you’re going to work in the studio, on your own all day, and it’s a totally isolated situation to be in.
HK: The world has really hit you hard, but actually your work is quite insistent. You’ve stuck with the images of the dogs and the men looking away, it seems to me, all the way through. You become aware when you get older, and you look back at your work, you’ve written ten books and you go “Well actually there are these ideas which follow through and were in all of them.”
RR: Yeah, that’s true. It’s really funny because I re-read some of your short stories recently, and I gave a copy of them to my sister-in-law as well, and we were talking about it and saying “I’ve been there, I’ve been there”, and there is that consistent thing of discovery and loss going on. As you get older you start recognising discovery, and you really try and enjoy those moments, but you know there’s going to be some kind of loss thing down the line.
HK: You really wise up to tragedy in some kind of sense.
RR: You accept shit! You know that people are going to get the wrong end of the stick about things, but you have to go “Well, fuck it!”
HK: You feel that people have misunderstood you?
RR: Yeah, I think that, especially in the art world, they hear me open my mouth and this south East London/cockney accent comes out, and they think “Oh, he’s a bit of a fucking good time Charlie. Yeah, he paints geezers and dogs” and it’s not what it’s all about.
HK: I had all that! They’d go “My God, he’s an Asian kid and he can write as well!” You know, “A writing Paki”, and you find yourself put into a lot of bags by people. Like you, I don’t give a shit now, and jus carry on with what I do. You think, “Oh, I didn’t know I was a Paki. I just thought I was a writer!”
RR: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny because you get it from art world people that they think “Oh cheeky, chirpy cockney”, and then you get it from people you just see around and about. They ask you what you do and it’s like “Oh yeah, what, a painter and decorator? And you just go “Yeah, that’s it!”
HK: That’s that old joke, isn’t it? That’s quite hard when people have an idea of you, like being a Paki, it’s quite hard because you just want to adjust their vision, as it were.
RR: Yeah, but the thing I’ve really learnt is that however hard you try, people still maintain this initial impression and they can’t shake it off. You do just have to stick two fingers up to it and go “Right, well, if that’s what you think I am, and if that’s what you think my work’s about, then carry on and think it, because I know it’s about something else, and you’re not ready to embrace that then fuck it!”
HK: Do you find more of that in England than in Europe?
RR: Yeah, I show in Brussels and Paris, and I’ve shown in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and they just have a different attitude from your man on the street. I’ve found that when you have shows, a real ‘Joe Soap’ comes in and sometimes they’ll buy work and they are actually more interested. There’s a painting called ‘Kyoto’, about the Kyoto Agreement and how the Americans fucked it all up. It’s a painting of a Cadillac, going through some kind of small town shit-hole in America, and you’ve got the liquor store, and a figure holding a crucifix up with the Bible under one arm. I showed that painting to somebody in England, and they went “Oh, that’s a nice painting of a Cadillac, innit?” It’s about hypocrisy that goes on in America, where you’ve got religion and…….
RR: Yeah, and Capitalism. All that stuff of drinking beers out of brown paper bags, but then having real ghetto areas where’s there’s no buildings for miles, but then there’s a big liquor store there! Then all I get is “Oh, that’s a nice Cadillac!” It’s all about hypocrisy.
HK: Well, it’s quite hard to find people who actually can see what you’re doing. You’ve got to find the right people and it takes a while. It’s bloody awful, and it’s rather depressing. But you have to seek out the people who can see what you’re doing, and understand you. It’s hard because you get a lot of discouragement; you get a lot of knock backs from people.
RR: I guess now, that because what’s happened in my life, art’s really important.
HK: It is important, I’m glad you think that, I believe it is important.
RR: Paintings, music, books and film…….it makes life worth it. I don’t know if you’ve read the James Elroy book ‘The Cold Six Thousand’?
HK: I haven’t read that one, but I love his stuff.
RR: It’s about conspiracy theories. It’s superb, but you have to read it three times to work it out. You’re basically seeing the same story from three different people and perspectives, and it’s really brilliant. It all starts falling into place. Going back to what I said earlier, I know what I’m trying to say with what I’m doing. If people don’t get it maybe I’m not putting the message across well enough, but maybe their perception is just fucking wrong at the same time.
HK: Yeah, I agree with that. When I saw your last show, the pictures I liked the most were the pictures of the children, and I was really moved by those pictures. Most people don’t draw children anymore; I found them really moving and beautiful.
RR: It’s funny because I’ve got one of those pictures in my kitchen, and it’s one of the best paintings I’ve ever done. It’s just a little six inch square painting, and I said it wasn’t for sale because I wanted to keep it for myself.
HK: When you worry about what other people think about your stuff, or you feel that they’re patronising you, it links in with your own doubts, doesn’t it? I mean, if you didn’t have any doubts you wouldn’t give shit, it wouldn’t bother you.
RR: Yeah. It’s like with writing, isn’t it? It’s a very solitary thing, and you’re thinking “What the fuck am I doing this for? What kind of relevance has this got to anybody?” Then when you’re at an exhibition, you’ve got people coming up to you and going “Fucking Hell! I love that painting, it really makes me think about this”, or “That reminds me of something that happened in my life.” That’s when it becomes really worth it.
HK: You know, there’s somebody in your head going “Ray, look this isn’t very good” all the time, and you’re going “Well actually, I’ve got to do it.” There’s this constant struggle with you own terrors, isn’t there? To me it’s a personal drama. I mean there I was, ten years ago, sitting in a room writing that story, and you send it to your sister-in-law. She and you go “I quite like this story, it says something to me”, and I think “Fuck it! That’s why I sat in that room ten years ago!” I think that’s amazing, that’s fantastic, because that’s what I was trying to do. But you don’t know what other people are going to like, you can’t predict that, and actually when you’re younger you don’t believe other people, because your own voices of doubt are so great. It’s very destructive al that, you know. Do you want to stop?
RR: I think so, yeah.
HK: Great, we can go for a pint now!