PAINTING THE HIDDEN WITH DANIEL COVES
WALT MORTON: I first saw your painting “#11” at the L.A. Art show. It’s a human looking away from the viewer, we see the back of the neck, the odd bowl-cut hair and striped multi-colored sweater. Technically, it’s terrific, the sweater feels soft and wooly while the hair on the head offers realist precision. But what is most powerful is the choice to not show the face. When did you start doing this extensive series of “back paintings” and what does this idea mean to you?
DANIEL COVES: I think the first time I did a back portrait was in 2013. But the idea of making this kind of paintings hasn’t been a drastic decision, something like: “From today I will start to paint the back of people.” At that point, I was basically painting two kind of images. I was working with some medium-big paintings where I wanted to reach what I admired from Vermeer and his portraits of women near windows, and also I had a “system” that consisted on taking frames from movies of directors that I thought they were very close to my ideas in painting. In the process of taking these filmic frames and after painting them, I started to understand that the back of the person in the movie was often more interesting to me than the regular view. So everything came together quite naturally, the first back portrait was a big painting that basically was the union of these two kind of images I was working on at that time. Afterwards, I stopped working in two separate ways and I proceeded with this new synthesis.
WALT MORTON: The back paintings seem counter to the idea of a portrait because they can be ambiguous, unspecific. Normally a portrait identifies a person, these not so directly. It makes you realize how much you rely on the specifics of a face for cues about age, gender and condition. Are these portraits? Or something else?
DANIEL COVES: I am very interested in the “offscreen” concept. You can see what I try to make very often in cinema. In suspense movies, sometimes facts or characters are partially or totally hidden, also in horror movies where the hidden things are the scariest. There is a thesis I want to read about how Steven Spielberg uses these strategies in his movies. I also think portraiture has been always connected to power and ego in occidental painting history. Portraits of gods, of kings, after that portraits of rich people, politics, important people. But there is also a tradition of “aniconism” in the imagery of some religions in other places. This is someone that is so important that depicting him is forbidden, and maybe that taboo is even more powerful for the “receptor” of the image. I think this lack of visual information can be very powerful, because the viewer has to replace this lack of information with some of himself.
WALT MORTON: Would you call yourself a realist? Despite attention to realist technique there is a strangeness in hiding faces that feels a bit mysterious.
DANIEL COVES: I don’t like the word “realist”, I would prefer a more general word, like figurative painter. I think this realist word has some connotations that can bring up ideas of figurative painting as a merely competition with the photographic camera. I don’t like it much when someone comes to me and says something like: “Hey, it looks like a photo!” As I understand it, painting is a more serious thing than that. And it has deeper things inside its surface than just that.
WALT MORTON: There’s an obsessive interest in textures, especially in methodically capturing hair: it’s shape and flow and the light on it. You see some other artists with this kind of emphasis on other textural materials — in painting folded fabric or the roiling sea — but your interest in hair, tell me about it.
DANIEL COVES: Maybe it’s because I am interested in patterns in painting. It’s a thing I did since the very beginning. When I have to decide which things are important and the things that aren’t in a painting, I have the tendency of removing everything that isn’t essential for the picture, but the patterns always remain. And sometimes I consciously add patterns in the paintings, and the hair can be a pattern also in some way. In the painting you mentioned (Back Portrait no.11) the sweater made me feel very good to paint. I started to choose which strong colors use, thinking only about their combination. I like a lot the work of abstract painters like Mark Rothko or Richard Diebenkorn, I love the way they use the colors in their paintings.
WALT MORTON: You will occasionally paint a side profile and not from the back. What are your thoughts on that? Are you primarily resisting the idea of cliche full-frontal portraiture or is it more complicated?
DANIEL COVES: I always come back to the profile portraits. I think that’s because I love Vermeer’s paintings. And from time to time the idea comes to my mind and I decide I want to make something like he did in “Girl reading a letter at an open window”. The sad thing is that I am not reaching his level of painting. But about resisting a full-frontal portrait, maybe there is something of that. I think in these last years I haven’t found sense in making a frontal portrait, it wasn’t in my path so I needed a good reason to change. But I recently made a “frontal” portrait that will be part of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London this summer.
WALT MORTON: All these paintings seem to be about what to hide and what to show. Faces are hidden while textures are revealed. It can be quite psychological. How do people react to your work and to your choices?
DANIEL COVES: I think people have a good reaction with these paintings. The word “psychological” sounds right to me.
WALT MORTON: And the choice to put the figures in such sterile empty environments, what does that do?
DANIEL COVES: I’ve been alternating these “lacteal” environments with some figurative environments. It’s about removing useless stuff and trying to go to the essential, focusing on the most important things in the painting.
WALT MORTON: What is your working method in these? Do you use live models? Photography? Wigs? Is there anything unconventional in your toolbox for oil painting? A favorite brush or medium?
DANIEL COVES: I use photos for these paintings. I also used frames from movies of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr. About my toolbox, I think it’s quite minimal. I prefer to use a very restricted palette of color. Usually I make almost all the work with just four colors, black and white, oxide ochre and oxide red. If it’s necessary for the painting, I add more colors to these four “basic” ones: cadmium red and cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, and emerald green. And if I had to choose one medium, I would say Liquin Original.
WALT MORTON: Other artists have painted the backs of people’s heads, or people looking away. Andrew Wyeth in 1948 with “Christina's World,” and Gerhard Richter with “Betty” in 1988. Several works, including “The Ear” by Michaël Borremans in 2011. Do you see any connection between these works and your paintings?
DANIEL COVES: I know that I’m not the only one that thought to paint the back of a person. I am sure if someone does research about that he’ll find many others. Consider the self-portrait Vermeer did of himself. It was him painting a woman and you can only see his back. So the idea seems quite old, not original at all. I love the work of these three painters you mention, so for sure there is an influence in me. I saw a very extensive exhibition about Andrew Wyeth in Madrid last year, the most impressive thing was the technique, as he used egg tempera for making them. Also the work of Michael Börremans, that could be within the tradition of painters like Manet or Velázquez. I love the way these painters work, such an intelligence and economy, and this “magical” effect where colors become real at some distance from the painting.
WALT MORTON: I can imagine some portrait painters saying you are “cheating” by not showing a subject’s face. Conventional portrait painters would generally say: "get the face and hands right." What would you say to them?
DANIEL COVES: I’d say I bought the canvas so I’ll do what I want with it. Seriously, technique is a very important thing to me so I would say that I am on their side too, I love to see a great portrait with well done hands and also a face that can make me think there is a real human feeling something on the other side. I never thought someone could think I am trying to cheat anyone with my paintings, indeed it would the last thing I would try to do in painting. There is a world outside and beyond “conventional portrait painting," although it’s important to learn how to paint correctly, too.
WALT MORTON: Will you do more back paintings? What might be next?
DANIEL COVES: I don’t know what will be next. Two more back portraits at least. For NPG, I came back to “frontal” portraiture so maybe more of that in coming months, all is open for me now. But I am sure I will try different things soon.
Daniel Coves, born 1985 in Spain, currently works and lives in Madrid and Berlin. The recipient of many awards and grants for his meticulous figurative paintings which capture moments suspended in time, drawing influence from cinema. He was selected for the prestigious 2015 BP Portrait Award, with work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. He has also shown his work in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and the UK.
Painting in the header is MEDUSA.