Ashley Hanson is an award-winning abstract painter inspired by the city and the sea. Mixing exotic colours with expressive compositions, Ashley tackles the tightrope between freedom and control and the space between abstraction and figuration. Finding balance through shape and colour is the essence of his practice.
How has 2023 been for you so far?
It’s been pretty hectic, both showing and making, which is what you wish for as an artist. I’ve been focusing on my Porthleven series, now up to 66 paintings, with a new ‘tree’ motif and a concept of ‘hanging-harbour’. In terms of exhibiting, I seem to be clocking up the miles. I was in Visions of Sugarplums at AKA contemporary, in Cambridge, where I also gave a talk about my work, also the Winter Group Show at Linden Hall Studio, Deal. I exhibited for the first time in the Associates Exhibition at the Penwith Gallery and my Beach Huts series is currently on show at The Rutland Gallery, Uppingham.
What does an average day at the studio look like for you at the moment?
There is a good momentum in the studio at the moment, with exciting things happening and blue starting to dominate again. There is a particular pressure, trying to resolve a new Porthleven painting for an exhibition in a couple of weeks.
My studio-day and process is well established. I bring to the studio ideas, drawings, studies, words, possibilities but with no fixed concept of where the painting might go. Preliminary visions and the visual, what is actually happening in the painting, don’t always coincide. I work exclusively in oils, both for the vibrancy of the colour and the slow-drying time, which allows for incessant manipulation and time for reflection.
I start with colour, laying down a ground, then find a second colour that resonates with the first. Ideas/drawing/line are introduced. What is in front of me, provokes the next move. Lots of change, lots of layering of colour and redrawing, lots of coffee until finally, over time, the painting emerges that is both about the subject and the experience of painting, with an elusive difference.
How do you view the link between literature and painting in your practice?
All my work is a fusion of information and imagination, and working from the novel is an extension of this. Words provoke images, and it’s fascinating how everyone’s vision is different, including the author’s. As a painter, I can make my interpretations visual, in a variety of ways. In ‘City of Glass’, sometimes I followed the narrative, but also character, journeys, incident, locations. There were paintings sparked by a sentence, a word, even single-letters, responding to the language of literature.
Something magical happened with ‘City of Glass 63’: after painting the island-shape of Manhattan numerous times in the series, I noticed that the spine of my paint-spattered copy of ‘The New York Trilogy’ was the same shape and proportions as Central Park, so I painted it in, as a kind of tribute to the source that continually challenged and inspired me and also led to my longest title…
With '20 Books = 20 Paintings’, I decided to do something different, with a single painting from each book. With this series, my focus was on finding the distinctive palette of each novel, with the twin-canvas format referencing the physicality of books and the act of reading. The series is sourced in crime-fiction, which I read obsessively, and I found I was seeking source novels from places that interested me around the world, including, Lebanon, Japan and Namibia.
There is of course an overlap between ‘City of Glass’ and my ’20 Books’ series: ‘BOOK 20 (colour-coded)’ is sourced in ‘Ghosts’, the second story in ‘The New York Trilogy’. In a fascinating device, all the characters are named after colours, and in this painting, I follow the sequence of colours as they appear in the first few pages. This painting was selected for Wells Art Contemporary last year.
The literary associations preceded City of Glass: an early series ‘The Fear and Thrill of the Chase’ was influenced by John Fowles' The Magus and also the Joy Division album Closer while ‘Arizona’ took its inspiration from a fictitious art piece being created in the desert in Don de Lillo’s epic novel Underworld.
More recently, my painting 'Out-With (from 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' by John Boyne)' tackled the horrors of history and the duality of friendship in the worst of places.
Your series City of Glass is based on a story of the same name by Paul Auster. What drew you to this story and writer in particular?
For years I had struggled with the impossibility of painting New York – without cliché – the place I knew best in the US. Then I found my way in with City of Glass from Paul Auster’s novel The New York Trilogy. I found it visually stunning and inventive: I was hooked by the idea of an imagined new Babel in New York, there but not there, which I translated in the award-winning ‘City of Glass 1’ by disguising a tower in the map-view of Manhattan, linking the grids of architecture and the street. Then I investigated the shape and staggering scale of this new Babel – everyone in North America would have their own room! – by placing Manhattan inside skyscraper shaped canvases. I also followed Paul Auster’s explorations of identity and chance: one painting came from simply choosing a page at random and responding to the text.
One never knows how an artist will react to another interpreting their work, but after sending a catalogue of 'City of Glass’ to Paul Auster in New York, I was thrilled to receive the following response:
Dear Mr. Hanson,
Incredibly moved by your magnificent paintings. They are strong and beautiful – and haunting. To think that my book could have inspired such vivid colours. I am very happy.
All best thoughts to you,
I love the concept of the fluidity of ideas across the genres…'City of Glass' was also put on the stage, where I got to meet Paul Auster at the opening night in Manchester.
Representations of place come up repeatedly in your work. Has this always been the case?
Place (and colour) – always. I’m fascinated by how each place has a unique shape, and a characteristic of my work is to position this ‘shape of place’ alongside an image, to define a ‘wholeness’ of place. Plan-view and elevation, if you like, my architectural training didn’t go to waste but also a nod towards Peter Lanyon ‘experiential’ landscapes. I was studying Architecture in Manchester when I saw a Peter Lanyon exhibition and decided to be a painter. Place, of course, was paramount in Lanyon’s work and it is his Porthleven painting from 1951, that led me to ‘Porthleven’ and sparked off my largest series.
Would you describe yourself as an abstract or figurative painter, or something else?
I was at Canterbury College of Art in the early eighties, a time when figurative painting was making a comeback and a guess my work emerged as a hybrid of both but I’m not really one for labels. My work is often perceived as abstract, as the colour tends to dominate, with the ‘image’ abstracted, fragmented, but it’s always there and necessary, contributing to the painting. I never paint directly from the subject, I don’t paint ‘things’ or ‘views’, but my paintings are all based on the experience of something, with memory, drawings, words, as catalyst, context, structure.
I like the phrase ‘Colourscapes’ to describe my work, which I’ve used for my solo-exhibitions in Cornwall.
Were there any moments or people that you feel shaped the way you paint today?
A tutor, Tom Watt, making magic with his paintbox on the beach in Deal. Stass Paraskos for introducing me to work of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard and the lineage of colour. A Terry Frost lecture on the yellows of Cornwall. The perceptive writing of critic Robert Hughes. Diebenkorn at the Whitechapel, Munch in Oslo, Matisse and Chaïm Soutine in New York. Frank Auerbach. The award of a Boise Travel Scholarship from the Slade, which inspired my ‘Americascapes’ series. As artists, we all have influences, with the whole of art history as a resource…as long as we don’t look for answers. We must find our answers in our inner and outer worlds and in that rectangle in front of us.
When someone experiences your work for the first time, what impression do you hope it might leave on them?
A visual experience that provokes pleasures and questions, working both on the senses and the intellect… To find something joyous, enigmatic, different, with colour that grips the eyes.
What are you looking forward to – making, seeing or showing – this year?
I’m very much looking forward to showing my new work in 'REVEALED’, a collaboration with Sophie Capron at the Crypt Gallery St. Ives in 22 – 28 April.
In May, I’m hosting two Painting courses in Porthleven and Port Isaac. As part of my teaching, I always work on a new painting so soon we’ll be seeing ‘Porthleven 68’.
I love the concept of ‘20 Books = 20 Paintings’, and as I would like there to always be 20 paintings in the series, a couple of recent sales will have to be replaced. Strong candidates are Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra – what is the palette of Bombay? – and the Laidlaw series by William McIlvanney. I am also looking to take on the iconic figure of George Smiley from John le Carré novels, which I can see ending up as a new series.
Must see exhibitions for me are ‘Soutine | Kossoff’ in Hastings, Peter Doig at the Courtauld Gallery, and of course, ‘After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art’ at the National Gallery.