Described on more than occasion as the enfant terriblè of the Welsh arts scene, Neale Howells has exhibited all over the world to much acclaim. Although often seen as an outsider, Howells’ work is simultaneously welcoming and forbidding. Born in Neath and based in Port Talbot, his work remains that of a distinctive voice in Welsh culture, and one that will continue to be heard by a wider and hungrier audience as time goes by.
‘I felt it went tits up but I left the MA interview at the Slade as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders… I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone any more and it was a relief…’
If you try to justify a turning point in your work then perhaps it’s the moments that lead to that work that are just as important..
It had been five years really of working in a studio/ shed in the garden that made me realise that I had actually done my MA… so this bombardment of questioning really did suit my isolated frame of mind at the time… (joke)… Yet it was soon after though that things started to happen… I got chosen for the Eisteddfod and even a symposium in Sweden… Now, that was fun… Half a dozen Welsh artists given a whirlwind tour of the arts there with other artists from various countries… Amazing… So yeah, Eisteddfod went well and I was given a show at the Mission Gallery Swansea by the late Jane Phillips… But it was on the Sweden trip though that I can remember discussing with another artist, one of whom was Catrin Webster, about my new idea about art… I was encapsulated with how important the subconscious had become in finding and exploring images… For instance, I would realise that on some occasions I had drawn doodles whilst not really thinking, perhaps while on the phone… Mmmmm… So I took this observation and went with it…
‘Let’s use the subconscious to dig and uncover what is with the new images…’
I loved that because it started opening up new ways of creating, looking and thinking, which is really what I have tried to do I guess since falling into art many years ago… So on the Sweden trip I mentioned about this new revelation of mine and that’s what I planned to get stuck into when we got back home to Wales… all those little drawings in the sketch books made while being unaware were to be put to good use… And that would be on a 8ft x 12ft three panelled work… A bright yellow structure where writing and scribbles were to dominate… there was to be a no holds back approach… Most earlier work before this was of an engineering appearance… (Draughtsmanship of lines and geometrical shapes… I used to work in a drawing office after I left school.) Perhaps all work is very much like a mathematical equation with the left x right equalling the answer…! So the new yellow work was a very exciting piece to make… I had been rejected from the Slade college I had applied to twice and the only one I had wanted to go to so I was sad yet felt a freedom to do what ever I wanted… not getting excepted into the Slade could been seen as a good thing… Mmmm… it certainly led me to feel I didn’t need to impress anyone any more… Those sentences of representational and symbolic descriptions didn’t apply either about work and became obsolete and outdated… An epiphany can come at any time I guess on an artist’s timeline and that interview was just that for me…
The work didn’t take long to do, just five years to get to that point… Ha..! I think I attacked it quite well with black paint… Pastels, crayons… Very angry and expressive no doubt in style… A lot of people used to describe the work as graffiti, this was well before popular graffiti had become a middle ground as it is today but I would disagree with their observation anyway… it was never popular graffiti… Ha! For me I was more inclined to real graffiti, if there is such a style… Graffiti that wasn’t about looking a certain way but rather making a statement by accident… When you scratched your name on the inside of a school desk for instance you didn’t do it for its style but more because you wanted to leave your mark… And this is the approach I had… well, I hoped… you got what you got… Either through accidental marks or the way paint dried or just because you wanted too… I know I am being slightly contradictory with myself (which I always have been)… I don’t know all the answers; just a few questions… so what I say can only be believed in that my intentions were accurate with myself at the time… I am quite profound, you know… I don’t just fling the paint on… Ha…! Ok, I do, but working in a very isolated place for five years will do that to you… Do what…? Well make you become the question and answer….! Anyway… The work ended up being chosen for the prestigious Mostyn Open… At the time this was the Wales arts competition, so a very big deal for me… That and the Eisteddfod, which I have shown at so many times but never won… Aaarrrrh… They could give me an honourable medal… It Doesn’t matter much these days I guess… Just Done a great collaboration recently with Welsh designer Jayne Peirson which went well… And still show world wide with the john Martin Gallery London… I know where I want to be and that’s competing on the international stage… One day yeah… Ok, so the work was seen at the north Wales Mostyn Gallery and I guess had a good presence… people liked it… It didn’t win… I think that year it went to Tim Davies… All that was left to do was name the piece… Actually I remember having a great argument/discussion there with another artist/ lecturer about titles… on how unimportant they are… I think it was Paul Beachamp… Iwan Bala helped by suggesting to me ‘Neale, you’re fucking it up for yourself..!’ (good title that) ha! Well, perhaps he was right… I didn’t get much opportunity in Wales except the ones we made for ourselves after that.
So the title of the piece was settled on ‘four zero wank’ 1996… a title that didn’t go down too well when I was doing a live phone-in discussion about art critics on radio five live once… I was politely told,
‘thanks, Neale, I think we get the picture’… then the line went dead…..
As an artist, I have always felt to be taken seriously you have to do something that grabs the viewer’s attention… So that could be saying the work is covered in semen or drugs or even faking your own death… Do my strengths or weaknesses come from this one work… Who can tell?… I like to think it played a part when things turned around… I keep that work safe because I knew someone one day would want to know about it and my incredible journey… Oops! There I go again!… When we take art up we do so because we have something to say and occasionally we discover great things and even observations like,
‘Its easier to blame than accept responsibly…’ what does that mean?… Not my problem…! X