In Conversation with Christian Furr
For the entire month of December, Cubitts Fitzrovia is home to a rather special artwork by the renowned British painter, Christian Furr.
Here, we talk to Christian about his new piece, his fight for the rights to the world’s blackest black paint, and his love of painting utterly ordinary things.
Tell us about your piece, Black Eye - Third Sight.
It's a new neon artwork that incorporates a new nanoblack material, or a 'super black', that I initiated. This black absorbs 96% of light. If you shine your phone torch on it you won't see any difference on the surface as the light gets sucked up.
You hit the headlines in 2016 with your response to Anish Kapoor gaining the exclusive rights to Vantablack - the first ‘blackest black’ paint. Now, you’re working with 7Black, which you initiated the creation of. How did that come about? And what makes it different from Kapoor’s monopolised material?
In 2016 I saw a short film by Marty Jopson on the BBC’s One Show about Vantablack. My reaction after seeing this short film and then viewing the material in the Science Museum was a bit like a light bulb moment - a black light bulb maybe, but a light bulb nevertheless.
I emailed the director of Surrey Nanosystems, Ben Jensen, and I asked him if it was possible to use this material for a series of art pieces that I was doing called ‘The Animals’. I got an email back quite quickly which said that unfortunately they were not able to supply the coating for artistic applications as they already had an exclusive agreement with Anish Kapoor.
I was displeased that an artist was apparently monopolizing a material. A journalist working at the Daily Mail at the time talked to me, and I said ‘This black is like dynamite in the art world’. I talked about why black was an important colour in art. The article that was published created a bit of a stir. The idea of someone owning something like this black triggered a lot of interest. On a metaphysical level you could say it was like someone owning death. I resolved to myself that if I could ever help create a nanoblack that would be freely available to whoever wanted to use it I would try and do that, but my challenge then was how to do it.
Help initially came in the form of Brad Pietras, who had contacted me and told me that he could help me get my hands on some black nano molecules. Then he introduced me to Imperial College’s deputy director Deeph Chana and scientists Francois de Luca and Hin Chun Yau. I went in to Imperial College with a rolled-up life size sketch and asked Hin Chun and Francois if they could create a black that I could use for it.
It was a great challenge, and we had many ups and downs, but I finally did it with a little help from my friends.
A fair few of our spectacles, particularly those in our made-to-measure collections, are inspired by eminent and eccentric figures from London’s past. You’ve said that the inspiration behind Black Eye - Third Sight comes, in part, from the musical luminaries who not only wore round-eye glasses, but experienced the sort of duality of emotions that your work expresses. Do you always find inspiration in people, or does the muse come to you in other forms?
Inspiration comes from many places. The subject of vision or sight has been a valid subject matter for artists for some time.
One of the inspirations actually came from seeing an Asian opticians glasses sign. It made me think about a pair of glasses that would give me better inner vision. Spectacles help us see more clearly. They give us vision. Glasses alter the perception of a short sighted person. And ‘short sighted’ has two meanings, so what if they gave us inner vision too? What would they look like if they could alter your perception of the world and yourself? A pair of spectacles that would help me see everything at the same time - past, present and future, light and dark. That's what 'Black Eye- Third Sight' is about.
As you mention, I wanted the glasses to have extreme contrasts - the picturesque vs the void. Meaning vs non meaning. Life vs death. One eye radiating and one eye absorbing.
‘Black Eye’ refers to getting a knock and then learning from it and becoming stronger and wiser. ‘Third Sight’ refers to the concept of the ‘Third Eye’. The third eye is also called the mind’s eye or the inner eye, and it is a mystical and esoteric concept of a speculative invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight.
My glasses have two contrasting sides. For the dark side I was interested in 'block time' and 'prisoner’s cinema'. Block time sees time as an unchanging four dimensional block, and it reminded me of the theory of the black hole, which is if you fell into a black hole you see the entire future of the universe unfold in front of you in a matter of moments. The followers of Pythagoras used to retreat into pitch black caves to receive wisdom through their visions and this was known as the prisoner’s cinema.
For the bright side of the glasses I thought of the phrase ‘Looking at the world through rose coloured glasses’.
I wanted the pink side of the glasses to be about positivity and sensory overload almost. I also wanted it to be about communication, so I thought about how communication happens now and it's usually through a cable. I thought about a cross section of a cable, and I wanted it to look a bit atomic, then I combined this with a colourful pattern drawing my daughter did as a child. It’s a bit kaleidoscopic too and reminds me of the fun of being a kid. The nanotubes in the 7black are also only an atom in width, so it references them too. I wanted to create an image about perception that was about hope and wonder, mystery and humour, and about both high and low, as I believe that is what makes real beauty.
From painting the Queen to creating a Robinsons Wimbledon Championships-themed piece to celebrate their 70th anniversary, your oeuvre is multifarious to say the least. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to paint?
I wasn't asked to, but I painted a single blueberry once. I like painting everyday things as well as extraordinary ones.
Black Eye - Third Sight will be on display in the window of Cubitts Fitzrovia until Thursday, 3rd January 2019.