The Face Before You Were Born

A solo show debut in London marked a tangible moment of inflection for Nigel Howlett and his faceless figures. In parallel, we collaborated to archive works from the show with a series of limited edition books and hand-finished prints.

March 23, 2022

Faceless subjects and greyscale pallettes act as paramaters for Howlett's distinctive futuristic style. Surreal and meditative, his artworks offer reflections on the complexities of human existence. The recurring figure is a faceless cartoon character whose body language is highly expressive despite their anonymity. Many of Howlett’s recent works have been inspired by the strangeness of life under pandemic, as well as the evolution of wider social and political issues in recent years.

Nigel Howlett's Studio, London

Howlett formed the body of work for his solo show at his studio in East London, just down the road from Ojiri gallery. Experimental graphite development drawings cover the walls, showing cartoonish vignettes of daily life. Works start as rough scribbles before being refined into their final smoothly rendered form.

Nigel Howlett sketches in studio
sketch on paper at Nigel Howlett's studio
I'm always having a conversation with the past but really, my work is about looking to the future.
Nigel Howlett sat at a desk with his back to the camera

Nigel Howlett at his studio in East London

Ojiri Gallery, London

Howlett's major solo debut show took place at Ojiri gallery during Winter 2021. The title The Face Before You Were Born references a concept from Zen Buddhism - 'Show me your original face' - which resonated with both authenticity and mystery to Howlett.

In this latest series of work, the faceless character appears alone, sometimes visited by animals, yet is unsettled and balancing on the edge between chaos and control, entrapment and liberation. Howlett notably began experimenting with oils for the first time, bringing in a deep sepia undertone into his work.

Nigel Howlett at Ojiri Gallery
Nigel Howlett bronze sculpture mounted on plinth
installation view of a series of monochrome paintings hung on white walls

The Face Before You Were Born, Ojiri Gallery, 2021

Archiving Process

We worked closely with Howlett to catalogue his body of work from The Face Before You Were Born, making his practice more widely available in the form of two limited edition art books and a uniquely hand finished print edition.

How was the process of creating the catalogue?

NH: "The book design team had some fantastic ideas right from the start and it was great to meet with the printer and brainstorm how all the elements could come together in a truly unique way. I’m so pleased with the variety of paper types within the book and the layout which really showcases the beautiful photography of my work. We worked with a writer to capture some keys ideas which resulted in a great forward and three wonderful mini essays."

Nigel Howlett inspecting book production

Generation Press, UK

Behind the scenes of Nigel Howlett's sketches

The print is based on your original work Submission, why did you choose it for the edition?

NH: "The print Submission is based on the original painting of the same name from my solo show with Ojiri gallery, the simplicity and energy in the piece not only satisfied me from a technical standpoint but it also sums up the period of time in which it was made, particularly in relation to the pandemic. We sometimes have to surrender to superior forces whether we like it or not. The tension of the piece lies in a paradox though - the character is both captive and in a state of release. Submission really captures the essence of my work at this period in time."

Nigel Howlett Hand finishing prints
Nigel Howlett hand signing 'submission'

Hand signing and hand finishing Submission

What are your thoughts on the medium, materials and production process?

NH: "I’m thrilled to be able to hand finish each print. My process for this involves layering in carbon and compressed charcoal over the entire image. I’m adding contrast and detail which mimics my slow and meticulous drawing process when working on an original."

Photography and videography by Tim Craig.

All artworks courtesy of the artist.

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