Art in Action

Essay in the catalogue accompanying ‘Good Sport’, a 2016 solo exhibition at Diehl Gallery, Jackson Hole, USA

Fifty years after the invention of the camera, the American photographer Eadweard Muybridge succeeded in stopping time. It was 1893, and Muybridge had been experimenting with ways to use photographic technology to give us a new understanding of the world. He did this in his now-iconic series of photos, The Horse in Motion, where he used a close succession of freeze-frames to deconstruct the run of a galloping horse. For the first time, rapid movement had been seized, slowed down and forever stabilised.

Fast forward a century or so, and the camera’s ability to capture permanently a fleeting moment still holds a mesmeric power. Even in our age of ubiquitous film and video, there is something uniquely compelling about a moment of kinetic frenzy caught, timelessly, on paper. This explains the enigmatic power behind Jeremy Houghton’s latest art. His equestrian works pay tribute to Muybridge in their depiction of the breakneck action of leaping horses, and the rest of his oeuvre is replete with all things dynamic. To look at these works is to acknowledge that neither life, nor art, ever stands still.

Whether it is a sailor, caught in a split-second as he leans precariously back out of his boat with perfected skill, or a snow-boarder delineated by an arc of glowing powder, Houghton’s latest series of works catalogues a fascination with the art of sport. Art and sport may not immediately strike us as the most complementary of categories, but in fact, the two have been intertwined throughout history. The figure of the athlete has left an indelible imprint on Western cultural history, the very origins of art – prehistoric markings on cave walls – were, after all, concerned with depicting huntsmen. And arguably the most influential art works ever produced were the archaic sculptures of the Greco-Roman tradition, which pursued perfection by rendering the athletic body in stone. But if art and sport have always shared a kinship, Houghton’s work will take on another dimension, as we enter the countdown to Bermuda 2017.

Houghton is the official artist for Sir Ben Ainslie, and the British challenge to win the 35th America’s Cup, thereby contributing directly to the cultural credibility of the world’s oldest sporting trophy. The question of how best to creatively respond to this competition has been looming in the air since Houghton was the official Olympic artist for London 2012. With such a historical event, a trans-global competition and world-renowned brand, the question is; how does one even begin to respond  and represent this through art? Maintaining a cohesive dialogue with art history is a crucial aspect of this task, and one which Houghton’s work naturally responds to. His sailing paintings such as Flotilla bear a striking resemblance to the famous painting by the great American artist Winslow Homer, Sailing by Moonlight. Both artists depict sailing scenes, and through simple compositions reflect the charm of evening sailing. The simplicity of both images calls attention to the light on the water, as the boats work in gentle tandem with nature.

Other works from Houghton’s portfolio, however, adopt an even more dynamic aesthetic. With their cut-off viewpoints, oblique angles and picture planes shrouded in splashes of water, works such as Graceful truly capture the chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled nature of competitive sailing. Houghton has been training directly with sailors from all disciplines as research for his America’s Cup project, and the palpable vigour of his images is the result of this direct engagement with these nautical athletes. He has been on excursions with the British team, where, amidst the frenetic conditions of training, he takes a series of photographs, relying on a digital camera and a ‘machine-gun’ rapid-fire approach, snapping continually and then only using a fraction of the resulting images. To create his high-contrast, sparse images, he shoots into the light, letting the camera naturally obliterate great parts of the image, leaving the bare outlines which he then replicates into minimal drawings of figures, which pass through the moment like shadows. He then sketches and paints liberally by hand, using masking fluid, watercolour and oil paints to focus on the areas of white space which are so important within his paintings. “To paint movement”, he says, “You have to eliminate detail. I have pushed this concept further by also reducing my palette. This is how I portray the story rather than the person”.

This effect in Houghton’s work is figure painting with much more than just the figure – it’s about their dissolution into the environment. The advantage of images like this is, by only offering you half of the information, Houghton leaves space for the observers’ imagination to discern the rest, to fill in the gaps. They succeed in telling, in other words, a much wider narrative. Indeed, in Houghton’s work, the figure is only ever half the story. Never the central point of the action, the characters who people his work are semi-concealed, caught mid-movement, drawing into focus in scattered paint-marks, like iron shavings around a magnet. The figure is merely a smaller part of a greater whole, and in this case, the ‘whole’ which encompasses them is as elemental as the theme of water.

Water, as a motif, initially appealed to Houghton for the aesthetic challenge of rendering its translucent beauty. It is easy to see why, many of his images delight in the sparkling refractions and changing colour scopes of rivers and lakes. His loose, scattered brushstrokes always linger on the threshold between accident and intention. Painting water like this is, in essence, painting light, and this throws up a peculiar paradox; whilst it illuminates the image, light simultaneously threatens to over-expose it. Houghton’s images of skiers, for instance are almost eclipsed entirely by light as they glide over the snow, and a haze of ocean spray obliterates all his scenes of maritime competition.

As well as pathways over ground and water, birds in flight also feature in Houghton’s repertoire. This has enabled the contemplation of light and space, between objects, that in other works are actually the focus of his attention. This knowledge in the depiction of flight is one of the reasons that led to Houghton’s America’s Cup appointment. These multi-hulled  boats are in fact designed to be airborne with only a foil preventing complete lift off. In design, hydrodynamics and aerodynamics merit equal consideration. Likewise,  Houghton captures progress both through and over the sea, which can be as relentless as the artist striving to capture efforts to co-opt the environment’s power in pursuit of success.