Luke Waller: Dancing in the Slaughterhouse

In all honestly, Luke Waller is nothing short of extraordinary. Viewing his work is impressive, but talking to him about his work is mind-boggling. We hope this brief interview we had with Luke will help open your eyes even wider into the complexities and impressions that Luke somewhat effortlessly creates.
How would you define ‘artwork’?
LUKE: Something aesthetic that has a meaning and concept behind it as well. There’s a thought process behind everything I do which makes my work able to be in a gallery rather than in a newspaper or a leaflet. It gives it a reason and evokes a reaction. It makes it emotional rather than informational.
HESTER: Your work is so intricate, bordering almost on photo-realism and this is curious because certain components which you would expect to be painted in a photo-realistic way are actually very loose and other parts that you wouldn’t think to give the time of day, such as the little chocolates in Bar on Site of Folies-Bergère, are given so much detail. There is no specific focus or priority in terms of what is given more time or value. Everything is given the same precedence and it is down to the viewer to choose what they pick out as the most important bit.
LUKE: That is a real desire for me. To make the whole image as important as each aspect of it: they are portraits because they are off people but the purpose isn’t making a portrait. The purpose is to tell a story and create a snapshot of what that image is about. It’s a painting about a time, an emotion, a feeling, a relationship. In that way, it is less of a portrait and more of an art piece. A portrait is intended to create a reference, a likeness to someone. My paintings are intended to create a snapshot of me.
HESTER: That separates you from a lot of artists. It is very difficult to sell paintings of people with whom you don’t have a personal connection. I would personally hang every single painting you have on your wall because I can place myself into each scene.
LUKE: That is why I use images of other people. In using images of dudes with black hair, it makes it less about me which, I hope enables the viewer to put themselves in it and create a reference of their own rather than it being so obviously a painting of the artist.
For example, Dancing in the Slaughterhouse is based on infidelity. It is about still doing that one thing which is so frivolous, so dangerous: dancing, in a hazardous and risky place; a slaughterhouse. It is reminiscent of an aggressive pop and an LA film scene, and I wanted it to have the same level of ambiguity, that fine line between beauty and control, and death and disaster, like Warhol’s Car Crash series.
I think one of the reasons it is a haunting piece is because it is not visually graphic despite the narrative being violent but because people will fill in from their own experiences of this kind of theme. It is a conversation piece. Isn’t that what art should be? A platform from which people can discuss the theme of domestic violence. I wanted it to be ambiguous because it looks like they could be dancing but when you look at it closely it is obvious that she is pretty unhappy. I was thinking about old leaflets from dance halls in the 1940s where there were illustrations of people doing the foxtrot step-by-step and that is why I have presented it in a similar ‘cinematic contact sheet’ kind of way.
For me, with all of this added information and understanding about the piece, it takes the artworks from being not just accomplished but narrative as well. I hope it makes it an artwork and not just a painting.
Bar on Site of Folies-Bergère 2021. Acrylic Paint. 38 x 57 cm.
What influences your work?
LUKE: I am constantly looking for good images and by good images, I mean the compositions. A photograph of a room can be as beautiful the right way up as it can be upside down. In that respect, the colours, the framing, the combination of shapes that makes up a room, make the image beautiful either upside down or the right way down. If I was to break that image down into block colours, it would still be a beautiful abstract piece. So I am just looking for beautiful photographs and that’s my
HESTER: It is about creating forms and compositions.
LUKE: Yes, I blur my eyes a lot so that I can see if the piece is becoming a beautiful combination of colour and forms.
What artist/creative do you take most inspiration from?
LUKE: Egon Schiele, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Martin Scorsese. Tom Waits, I need to give him a mention as well. My first painted series was called ‘Frank’s Wild Years’, based on that one song by Waits. Then I found out he had released a whole album called Frank’s Wild Years and I’ve taken each one of those songs and applied them to various scenarios in my life. So, if I were to have a huge exhibition, a retrospective, then I’d love a room for each song.
What components from each artist do you pull?
LUKE: Hockney, the pop colours. Schiele, the aggression. Richter, the technique. Tarantino, the graphic novel style characters. The characters in my paintings could almost be characters in a play: they are over characterised. They are characters or actors, and I am setting the scene. I am directing rather than composing. I want to direct in a creative way, almost like a play rather than a TV programme.
What is integral to your work?
LUKE: The idea that anyone, whether they have an appreciation of art or not, can look at my work and understand it is a beautiful piece. I would love one of my paintings to be a perfume commercial. I like beautiful things, I like beautiful people and I like producing beautiful artwork. This is relevant to my compositions, the images that I use, and my style of painting. So, I suppose, I like people to think it’s beautiful, I like them to appreciate the technique, the number of hours I put into it. I enjoy having conversations such as this one when people get to know the story behind the painting.
Do you prefer painting people, scenes or objects or is it important to have all of them together?
LUKE: It is important to have all of them together. I think I enjoy painting objects and clothes more. The detail of a dress or wallpaper; that’s my time to shine. A long gradient fade of a white wall, or the fog for instance, I find bloody difficult. Big space which isn’t just one block colour, which is actually why Dancing in the Slaughterhouse is so Pop-y, because I can’t shade. A blue sky is my worst nightmare. And I think about that when I’m picking a painting.
Dancing In The Slaughterhouse 2011. Acrylic Paint Nine Panel Polyptych. 18 x 29 cm.
When you fnish a piece, are you satisfied or disappointed?
LUKE: I am so satisfied. It tends to look how I anticipated it to look. I plan it and it works so that’s why it’s so difficult starting a painting. Masking tape is always a good first step. The reason it’s difficult is that I know what is ahead of me. I tend to do the longest and hardest bits first. That first 10 hours is a long, slow progress and I don’t really enjoy it that much. This does mean that because I am doing those long slow bits at the start, the last few hours are awesome because everything starts to come together and it’s a really nice surprise.
Which thing inspires you the most? What is a piece you are constantly drawn back to?
LUKE: I can’t stop thinking about a book called The Big Sleep by Raymon Chandler. I don’t read much but when I do I like 50s detective novels again, going back to the over characterised style of it. I could look at Guy Bourdain’s photographs all day. The mystery in them.
Do you think ‘mystery’ is a big element of your work?
LUKE: Yes, It makes it interesting. This element pulling you in. The mystery of how you did it. Something’s going on there but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
HESTER: Looking at some the scenes depicted in your paintings, I feels like there’s a sense of a parabolic story. I find myself self-identifying with the characters. Some of the scenes are really heart-wrenching, horrible or it’s violent and in those moments Luke, do you stand back and have to accept that this too is a part of you?
LUKE: Completely! For instance, in That’s The Way The Delinquent Doze. The guy being woken up by the trumpet, somewhat worse for wear, two hours late for work. That’s been me unfortunately.
If you could live in any piece of art, which piece would you live in?
LUKE: My initial way to answer this question is to live in a specific moment rather than the aesthetics of a place. I would live in the moment of my painting Diamonds There Want To Stay Cold. This is one of my favourite moments in life, when I finish a painting, pour myself a drink and just look and the painting. It’s a great moment.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
LUKE: Guy Bourdain, the photographer. I’ve never used any of his photographs in my paintings because I feel that I hold him in such high regard that if I did I would feel like I am just replicating his photograph. I have such respect for his photography that even spending 50 hours painting one I would still feel like it was his. With all my paintings, yes they are photographs taken by other people, however, I feel like I make them my own because I spend so long painting them. With Guy Bourdain, they would still be his.
Collaboration is in general something I’m not really that interested in. The piece I did for Jamie T’s album cover was a collaboration with Jamie and the photographer and I was on set and directing and that was a fun process actually. It was a great team and brilliant experience for me; to completely curate, to find the location, choose the model, work on the set which came about really well so it was a really fun experience. This also sparks the idea of me directing. Again, another reason why I do what I do is because I can make anything possible, I can create any scene by superimposing it.
That’s The Way The Delinquent Doze 2015. Acrylic Paint. 33 x 20 cm.
How do you think your work has changed/evolved?
LUKE: I think my technique is sharper. My first paintings were, in comparison, almost impressionist. I feel like I understand when enough is enough: when I’ve pushed the concept, the idea to it’s limit. Alternatively, I know when I haven’t pushed an idea enough, the painting is not yet an artwork, and needs more thought. I feel I have developed that understanding. Those are the two main things.
Do you think having moments away from painting are beneficial for your creativity? Do you think it painting was all you did it would become so consuming that it would become miserable.
LUKE: No, absolutely not. I am so jealous when I go to an exhibition and I look at the dates on the paintings and see the artist doesn’t have breaks. I would love to paint without breaks.
If you could have one person come and visit the show, who would it be?
LUKE: To get a nod from David Hockney would be pretty cool, or Tom Waits.
What would you want Hockney to know?
LUKE: That he plays a massive part in what I do. I feel like he’s the competition. I don’t feel like I’m up there but he gives me a goal. He inspires me to push myself.
Luke has possibly one of the most humble natures of any artist we have ever met. His work requires effort to look at and to understand, but the results are exquisite. Few artists are able to challenge the perceptions and emotions of the viewer in the same way that Luke can. We hope you will all be able to learn something about yourself after visiting the show.
Luke’s exhibition will be held from 5–12 October 2021. Please join us at his private view on 7th October 2021, 6.30–8.30PM. We hope many of you will be able to visit this us over the duration of the show and look forward to seeing you there.
Diamonds There Want To Stay Cold, 2010. Acrylic Paint.