An Interview With: Carl Randall

In 2012 British artist Carl Randall won the BP Travel Award and embarked on a once in a lifetime journey, travelling in the footsteps of one of Japan’s most important historical artists and documenting modern Japanese life through a lens of oil and canvas. The fruits of his journey were unveiled last year at the National Portrait Gallery, a shrewdly executed cross-section of modern Japan in the form of eighteen paintings crafted by rich tones, lucid detail and a tangible sense of energy. I recently caught up with this accomplished painter to talk travel, Tate solos and Tokyo 2020.

Hello and welcome to Kolekto! First off, I’d like to ask what you set out to achieve by painting the people and places along the Tokaido Highway in Japan?

My idea was to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese woodblock artist Ando Hiroshige, who in 1832 traveled along the Tokaido Highway – an old trading route that ran from Tokyo to Kyoto – producing a series of prints showing the people and landscapes he experienced along the path. The prints now serve as a valuable artistic document of life in Japan at that time and I thought it would be fascinating to produce contemporary equivalents 180 years after Hiroshige made the same journey. I set myself the rather difficult challenge of presenting the country in a fresh, personal light, avoiding hackneyed images often seen in travel photography.

I’d say you did an excellent job. What kind of an influence do you think travel has on creativity?

During my 10 years in Japan, I rarely had the equivalent of ‘writers block’. Everything is so different, from larger society to small everyday details, which is a source of inspiration. For me, travel was a catalyst for creativity, and I got a lot of work done in Japan.

I think it takes at least five years somewhere for the culture to begin to seep under ones skin and to affect work in a meaningful way. In my experience, one can’t arrive in a very different culture and produce works with substance and understanding within just a couple of months. This would result in work that at best depicts only surface; or worse, is based entirely on stereotype or preconceived notions. Though the paintings I made during my final year in Japan took only one year to make, it took the previous nine years of being there to get to the position where I could make them.

I think this comes through in the success of your recent work. We often see people and faces in your paintings, what draws you to portraiture and in particular the elderly survivors of the Hiroshima bombing?

My initial interest in the survivors began after reading John Hersey’s book ‘Hiroshima’, which uses a simple and straightforward style of writing to document the experiences of the survivors. My idea was to produce a visual equivalent of Hersey’s writing style – an objective document through observational drawing. I see them as more of a historical document than art, similar to documentary photography, filmmaking, or journalism. Being from a Western country partly responsible for the bombing, in some ways it was a sensitive position to be in but I felt that this shouldn’t prevent me from following my interest in the subject. I felt it was important to document these people as most of them are very old and will not be around for much longer.

What are the greatest influences on your work that have helped shape you into the artist you are today?

I am interested in images combining people and places with a hidden narrative. Paintings executed with a studied, analytical approach appeal to me, especially when coupled with an element of distortion or psychological tension – some examples being early Lucian Freud, Otto Dix, Christian Schad and the sculptures of Ron Mueck. Many of my favorite artists are good draughtsmen and know how to create good design, but are guided by the personal or playful rather than the academic – Stanley Spencer, Ben Shan, Edward Burra. I am also drawn to images of the everyday imbued with a feeling of the sublime or surreal, such as Edward Hopper, who has been a continued influence on me.

Describe your dream commission…

If we are talking ‘dream’ commission, no matter how fantastical, something like this would be very nice: “Go off and travel the world for the next 10 or 20 years, make lots of paintings and drawings, and they’ll then be exhibited at your solo show at the Tate or National Gallery”. Perhaps less fantastical (though by no means realistic) would be official artist in residence at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, documenting the games, athletes and spectators.

So… After Japan, where next?

I have tentatively started a series of images called ‘London Portraits’, images that combine people and places. Some of the people sitting for this project are quite well known in their respective fields. I am hoping to get at least twelve or more and exhibit them as a series. That’s all I’ll say about that project for now though. After that, who knows, I have a few ideas so I’m sure I’ll think of something.

You can see In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan at The Wolverhampton Art Gallery till 31 May 2014 as part of 2013 BP Portrait Awards Exhibition. Watch a film about the project here: