Retrospective essay, for the Houghton Retrospective at the Ashmolean

Essay in the catalogue accompanying 10 Year Retrospective, an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Broadway, Worcestershire, 2014

Intervals, Ruptures and a Consciousness of Place.

An initial perception of Houghton’s paintings is that of a gestalt of negative and positive space; his aesthetic founded on the juxtaposition of similar shapes to areas that separate them. Within this arrangement, and before our eyes, figurative forms appear to transform into abstract marks, or transmogrify into cryptic codes. Upon further inspection, the visual material often escapes an identifiable, or single, narrative interpretation: fundamental relationships between a painting’s ground layer, surface, and identifiable forms become increasingly ambiguous; the darker-toned shapes or marks start to read like blots on the landscape, or ruptures in an otherwise continuous surface.

Motion is implied through lyrical dexterity, a deftness of touch and marks that present a varying expression of speed; and closely nuanced, tonal progressions that orchestrate the relationship between details and the whole. This relationship, and the different ways in which it is envisaged, is of central concern to the work in this retrospective, and testament to the scope and magnitude of Houghton’s audacious invention. A deeper sense of this prevailing concern is vested in a Japanese word that he uses to describe intervals that give shape to the whole. ‘The Eastern consciousness of place acknowledges and respects the concept of space, pause or interval with the word ‘ma’. This could be between musical notes, brush strokes, or, even, footsteps. It is when the silence can be heard. It is the emptiness that touches the edges. It is not regarded possible to make: only when the walls and chimes have been created can ma exist, to consequently provoke its awareness. While pictorially it may be seen, at face-value, as negative space, the intense feeling of ma is a much greater enhanced vision of what exists within the form.’

Since Lucio Fontana first made cuts to his monochrome canvases in 1948, abstract or semi-abstract paintings that celebrate broad tonal contrasts posit the idea of rupture and put into question the relationship between a painting’s surface and the painted mark. In Houghton’s work, equilibrium is often achieved though the tension between dark-toned marks, which suggest rupture, and the painted field that contains them. This idea is key to paintings made on surfaces of torn paper such as Time Travel, with the paper edges supplying a rich variation in texture and light, and an object presence that characterizes much of his work. Painted, cardboard panels construct an image of intervals and fragments in ‘Flight Study on Sections’: our eyes picking through correspondences across the gaps; making sense of overlays, broken forms, and half-hidden connections. Even within the context of two-dimensional restraint, Houghton hints at the three-dimensional, and the staging of a diorama. His arrangements occasionally invite comparisons to man’s first conception of the moving image: to magic lanterns; Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of animal and human motion; and, more recently, David Hockney’s idea of the unique copy.

Many canvases explore the physicality of air and space, asserting form in lighter-toned areas as much as the more figurative, darker-toned marks that they circumscribe. Instances of a melding of difference between space and form, and the many permutations between these apparent opposites, resolve into a state of contrapuntal harmony. In ‘Dizzy Heights’, retinal excitement activates an experience of motion through the use of simultaneously contrasting red, pink and green slabs of colour of varying intensities. Lighter-toned areas work in a similar way to Jasper Johns’ 1958 ‘Flagpainting’ in that they objectify the painted surface. A clear distinction between ground and figure, and between ground and surface, collapses, along with the idea of negative space. A visceral surface of contrasting colour, into which the hieroglyphs of birds in flight are inserted, or discovered through the painting process, manifests a picture space imbued with optical vibrations.

In Houghton’s watercolours, our senses are mobilised with a shifting perception of form. Rather than the complementary colours featured in the oil paintings, an optical flicker is achieved through the two tone structuring of images. Negative spaces of unblemished paper abut positive spaces of tonal variation. With the contrast turned up, the viewer is bedazzled with light, ushered into an imaginary perception of motion. Though the eye may be steadfastly locked on the image, a fluctuating, sensory experience of the figure-ground relationship is elicited.

Transcending time and the fixity of closure

A technique of masking-off enables Houghton to control the image without limiting the dispersal of water and colour, or the motion of the brush across the surface. If masking-off equates to the cultivation of artifice, his handling of pigment and water exploits the aleatory interventions of nature, combining chance procedures as a means of representing its energy and vital forces. Stains, the seepage of colour, and the indirect modulation of paint across the surface evince a material discourse with nature. The impression is of the permeability of objects by the space that surrounds them, and by the light that renders them visible. There is a sense of dematerialisation in which the vestiges of other images and indeterminate layers hover between highlights engendered by the unblemished paper. Coloured shards of unfettered light seem to emerge from this darker layer and drift to the surface, linking them to other similarly treated and equally amorphous areas.

Although an immediate recognition of the image’s signifying function dominates our experience of these paintings, further engagement with them immerses the viewer in a contemplative and unfolding awareness of their incipient construction. In ‘Inbetween Dreamers’, form is in a state of becoming, existing in a self-contained field in which matter, light and space are fundamental to the making of the image. Like the framing of time and space in the philosophical conundrum of Zeno’s arrow, these works capture a fixed moment in time, while also being inscribed by processes that transcend time. If in the Zeno model the fixed moment of time occurs when the arrow is implanted in the target, such an event cannot be understood unless its back story of motion is also referenced; an analogy that is both immediately relevant to Houghton’s processes, and redolent of the phenomenology of perception.

In Houghton’s paintings, the image substantiates the ebb and flow of the artist’s processes; a transformation which he utilizes to reflect upon his observations and experiences of daily life and human activity. The different contexts of work, sport and war foreground his perception of the specific human gestures and actions which disclose them. If the disappearance of the moment is common to all these theatres of life, so is the idea of completion, not only of an event, but of every action towards its end. Similarly, Houghton’s paintings describe images of closure, but this fixed moment is also traceable to the motion of the hand and brush, and the formulation of paint and surface that individuate them. Gravity, and the encouragement of conditions in which nature collaborates with chance, support the artist’s intention to imprint the final image with the processes of its making.

In discovering an equivalence between the painter’s actions and the shape of human action in motion, Houghton’s work stages a reconciliation between continuity and change that recalls the philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of duration. According to Bergson, a real temporal experience of human motion is durational and indivisible, but there is a tendency to collapse our perception of movement by only considering the measurable space in which actions occur.

Houghton’s residencies, which have included Highgrove and the London 2012 Olympics, have enveloped him in places and events that are often determined by fixed durations and measurable space, and yet are experienced through an appreciation of nature’s seasonal changes the circularity of time. His paintings of Olympians are like time capsules that are always pervaded by the past, by the legacy and shared narratives of former Olympic events, whilst being implicitly wedded to the unpredictability of the present moment and a qualitative sense of time and space. Informed by photographic images that commemorate the disappearing reality that sporting events naturally affirm, the paintings transform this sense of transience through the medium in which it is newly represented. But conclusively, we are experiencing images, rather than the event itself. Against the ephemeral, Houghton pits a sense of James Joyce’s ineluctable modality of the visible'(1), discovering parallels between the unfolding event and his painting process. Is Houghton, like Luc Tuymans, concerned with the need ‘to see that the search for an encounter with the real should end in failure?'(2). The impossibility of representing reality runs counter to the necessity expressed by John Berger that ‘even today, we need pictures to make a picture of the world’ (3). And yet, as Georgia O’Keeffe noted: ‘Nothing is less real than realism.’

Houghton’s questions are ours: how does the real work, and, in creating pictures, does playing a game with the real invigorate our experience of life? His paintings are part of reality, but distance us from it in a seductive play of illusion and artifice. By emphasizing the dynamic forces of motion and light, he invites us to speculate upon the condition of looking, our changing perception of reality, the different ways in which we represent the visual world, and how the compulsion to represent shapes our grasp of reality.

Sources of the Real

A stock of photographs of local history, people, family, and the minute self-chronicling of everyday life often provides a starting point for Houghton’s creativity. This collection, much of which was handed down by the artist’s grandfather, also refers to an artistic lineage which includes such luminaries as John Singer Sargent and Francis Davis Millet, and the local history of this American colony of artists rubbing shoulders with the Arts and Craft movement. But, as with the American artists who, along with Houghton, made Broadway their home, a localised or parochial understanding of Houghton’s art falls short of accurately contextualizing it, or doing justice to its evolution. It is in the wider context of his journeys and specific commissions that a broad variety of experiences have influenced his artistic development.

During residencies, he collects fragments of reality in the form of photographs and drawings made in situ: evidence of the locale, its buildings, land, animals and people. Significantly, photographs are often at the source of his work and broker the universal themes that he seeks to illuminate. They also abundantly capture the immediacy of the present moment. But as photographs of a place accumulate, and are viewed retrospectively, photography’s trait of documenting reality predominates and, by evidencing the past, commemorates the passing moment. This characteristic seeps into Houghton’s finished paintings, acting as a counterpoint to a painting process that is analogous to the present, and to nature’s rhythmic and intervallic diversity. The motion of the brush, the to and fro of the hand, and the flow of the paint leave traces on the surface which engender a renewal, retrieving an instant of time embedded in the image, and returning it to an experience of time that is durational – experiential.

During the passage from source to completion, a medial transformation of reality is staged. And in the process, visual information is selected, omitted, emphasized and augmented by procedural manipulations in tone and colour. The visual evidence provided by the photograph is both informative and mnemonic; attributes that are entangled in a process so immersive that a wide array of associated images are intimated.

In Gilles Deleuze’s idea of a time-image, the past, present, and future are lodged is a single image that conveys the effect of time on a body or landscape. The vicissitudes of time in much of Houghton’s paintings are not only apparent, but inextricably linked to the shadowy semblance of potential images and hallucinatory forms that act as a palimpsest, particularly in his watercolours. Paintings such as Greener Pastures work like repositories of related narratives, evoking a sense of continuity and change in nature, and within a community at work on the land. Is this why the painted image transcends the banality of the photographic source? And does this happen because Houghton, like other artists such as Gerhard Richter, is entranced by the intertwining of different modes of representation and our perception of the real?

Houghton’s fascination with the ironic play between the real and its representation, including the way it shapes our different versions of the real, is a fundamental trope in many of his commissioned watercolours. Richter’s explanation of this relationship might be applied to many of these works: ‘the photograph is not an aid to painting, rather painting is an aid to creating a photograph using the methods of painting.’ Houghton makes a painted image of a photograph as a further translation of reality: a medial shift in which one form of representation replaces another; the reproducible is re-envisaged as a unique object. While this is true, the final image carries with it an underlying sense of other modes of representation to which it refers.

Rather than a human or natural presence, a photograph or sketch provides the starting situation of art making for Houghton. With this impetus comes a lack of presumption: the artist’s detachment or distancing through the intermediary of the photograph or sketch, and, at times, the lack of a specific intention leaves the door open for the viewer; the artist’s discovery and the viewer’s interpretation of the image are linked, but also relate to independent ventures in which different experiences mingle through the assiduity of shared memories and associations.

A Narrative of Memory

With the works in this retrospective, Houghton continually stages a dilemma that rests on a choice of whether to explore a progression from figuration to abstraction, or from abstraction to figuration. In this hinterland between states, his images carry the idea that abstract and representational modes are not antithetical. Correspondingly, the seemingly contradictory poles of tradition and innovation are enveloped by methods that encompass the strictures of craft and the sanctity of the fine art image. Consequently, his abstract and figurative paths evolve concurrently, often arriving in similar territory. Doorways to that which represents, suggests or symbolizes, are inherent to the narratives that he transcribes through colour, tone, shape, space and texture. Central to their meanings is the palpable interpenetration of anthropomorphic and object forms with the air that surrounds them. In that space, the air is thick with memories.


  1. James Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 1972 (first published, 1922), p.42.
  2. Kerstin Stremmel, Realism, Cologne: Taschen, 2006, p.25.
  3. Ibid, p.25.
  4. Ibid, p.72.
  5. Ibid, p.42.

By Dr Jim Brook. 6/14.