Clive Head is a British artist born in Kent in 1965.
Head is predominantly concerned with the challenge of being a painter in the modern world. His explorations in the studio, curiosity and critical engagement are marked by a constantly evolving practice. Against an evident playfulness in this experimentation, these shifts in how he should paint are best attributed to the relentless quest for an optimum resolution of all that he has experienced.
He first gained prominence in the 1990s for his hyper-real urban landscapes which were laced with the pictorial aesthetics from art history. They were distinctly unlike the cool banality of photorealist painting and evolved from an earlier project that was more overt in its reference to Western Art. Head’s solo exhibition with Paton Gallery, London in 1996 consisted of large classical tableaux. In 1999 he had his first exhibition with Harry Blain (now Blain/Southern Gallery) and quickly became recognised not only as Britain’s leading realist painter but as a major figure within the international contemporary realist field. He began showing regularly in New York.
Head has never conceived his work as a documentary realism. Even the most exacting paintings from this period do not directly record a scene from real life. They are always fictive, they are always coloured and they are always layered. Nor did Head follow the conventional methods of photorealist painting or capitulate to the machine-made image. Ironically perhaps, it was precisely for this difference that he was championed by Louis Meisel, the founder of the Photorealist Movement, who regarded him as the most important realist painter to come out of Europe in the 1990s. His work from this period has been exhibited at numerous museum exhibitions dedicated to Photorealist Art. Notable examples are exhibitions at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemsza, Madrid, Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels, Tampa Museum of Art, Florida and Kunsthal, Rotterdam.
In 2005, Head joined Marlborough Fine Art in London and over the next few years, made ever more complex paintings founded on his own experiments with spatial mathematics. Rejecting the conventions of perspective, the resulting panoramas seamlessly merged different spaces into plausible but impossible totalities. These became the theme of Head’s solo exhibition at the National Gallery, “Modern Perspectives” in 2010. Whilst Head addressed the Mathematical Society in London with his findings, his work also proved enormously popular with the general public as his exhibition broke attendance records. These apparently trouble free urban vistas were built from a spatial framework which embraced mathematics, chaos theory and fuzzy logic.
In this year, Lund Humphries published a major monograph on Head’s paintings, written by the art historian Michael Paraskos and the musician Jools Holland.
Head’s life-long fascination with the work of Nicholas Poussin became the subject of an installation at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2013. Head made a vast, impossible landscape of the subterranean halls of Victoria Underground Station to echo the structures of Poussin’s classical arcadia. This became the subject of a film documentary by Bill Cran (From Victoria to Arcadia, Invision).
Also at this time, Head returned to an earlier interest with print-making. Head’s drawing skills have always been formidable. Working directly on to the plate, the resulting etchings from this period are not only the largest to be made in the UK, but are extraordinary in their complexity. Examples are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Minneapolis Art Museum.
In 2014, Head began a new investigation that began to break the seamless space of the paintings from the previous few years. He abandoned his enquiries into mathematics for an entirely free-fall and intuitive response to painting. He has described this period as re-connecting with the spirit of his student days in the 1980s where he painted instinctively under the tutelage of the abstract painter David Tinker.
The paintings from this period to the present day have evolved into an overt palimpsest of spaces and colliding time-frames which might superficially recall futurist and cubist painting. But their defining feature is an abundance of unfolding metamorphic imagery, discovered through the act of painting itself. Not only are these paintings a more comprehensive resolution of Head’s life experiences and his dreams, fears and fantasies, the outcomes seem to have limitless possibilities for those willing to give them time. In 2015, Head was filmed for TEDx in which he posited that the purpose of making a painting wasn’t to assemble a configuration of signifiers but to create a subject that has the potential of generating its own meanings.
Wherever Head’s paintings may take him, they often begin with very familiar events, people and places. Between 2014 and 2017 he made a series of large paintings based on a café in South Kensington, London, which had previously gained some notoriety as the subject of the centre piece for his National Gallery exhibition. Each painting in this series takes ever more extravagant risks with the space and its occupants, and several of these paintings featured in the Reality Exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Norwich, touring to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool in 2016. This exhibition surveyed the highlights of British figurative art since Sickert, and cited Head’s work alongside his contemporaries such as Peter Doig, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown.
Also at this time, Head began to collaborate with the Canadian art dealer Robert Landau who had previously been a collector of his work. Head’s experiments with Modernist fragmentation became a regular feature of Landau’s astonishing exhibitions of classic painting from the 20th Century, in which Head struck up dialogues with Picasso, Marini, Ernst and Matisse.
Head lives in a quiet village in rural Yorkshire. He works every day and every day is different. He has always made many drawings and works on paper that never leave the studio but in recent years he has been more willing to exhibit his drawings, some of which feature on this site. Head’s current work is seeking a much closer relationship between his drawings and paintings and a method of painting that eschews all reference material. These new paintings are the consequence of Head working in an empty space with only his oil paints and blank canvas. The imagery is the consequence of Head’s memories and imaginings coupled to his manipulation of paint. Head seems now to be more concerned with alchemy than mathematics.
Alongside the selection of paintings and drawings on this site is a section dedicated to some of Head’s writings. Beyond the ruminative speculations on his own work, Head has written extensively on painting with numerous published essays. He has curated several exhibitions and continues to welcome artists to his studio to discuss their work. In the 1990s he founded and chaired the Fine Art department at U.C.Scarbrough for York University. He left teaching in 2000.