After spending three months at the British School at Rome at the end of last year, Grant Foster returns to London in top form, presenting a solo show at Tintype Gallery (on until 3rd June 2017). Entitled Ground, Figure, Sky, this exhibition features a new series of paintings that have a mocking nostalgia for the past while sending up our current popular penchant for curated beauty. Often depicting children and executed in Neo-Classical lines, these artworks can push the viewer into uneasy terrain, suggesting narratives from Grimms’ fairy tales or a creepy fixation with child portraiture, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century in the UK with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney or Thomas Lawrence. Spanning painting, sculpture and works on paper, Foster’s practice borrows from the traditions of British Romantic painting while touching on the absurd with one fanciful brushstroke and then flitting forward to an uncertain, sinister future.
It has only been a few months since you returned from your fellowship at the British School at Rome. Do you see a marked change in your work pre-Rome vs post-Rome? For me, the new work feels more drawing-based, the brushstroke less laboured and more spontaneous and the colour palette more vibrant. Could this be the Rome effect?
I don’t know if I’d call it the Rome effect but things did change. A group of us visited the Roman Forum in our first week, and there was a discussion that came up which stayed with me. The Forum is a vast archaeological site that is thought to be the beginning of Rome. However, it was suggested that there’s actually another civilisation underneath the Forum itself which dates back to the Etruscans. We ended up having a discussion about why the Romans wouldn't want to excavate any further. It was suggested, speculatively, that perhaps the Vatican wouldn't want to contradict the narrative of Roman history. Even if this is true or not, it got me wondering — maybe time runs alongside truth and we can delineate this vertically? Imagine you’re standing at the base of an archaeological site and you look up, way above you — you’re not just looking up — you’re actually looking up at the present day from where you stand in the past. Perhaps the idea of time travel could be arranged on a vertical axis. This very simple idea really struck a chord with me and became the title for the show at Tintype; Ground, Figure, Sky.
The studio itself at the British School was massively helpful and actually facilitated these new paintings. The larger paintings were made very quickly; the image itself generally executed in one go — this is the new shift. I painted them on the floor, and my body moved over the surface in a different way. It always takes me a bit of effort to hold back. My temperament is geared towards pushing an image as far as it will go. I remember painting three large paintings in a few days, mostly at night, and feeling totally manic and alive doing so.
I guess this is what you mean by spontaneity. Yes, some of the paintings do appear like that but in my mind it was more complex than that. With hindsight, I realised I’d actually made some of these images in notation form, either through text or sketch years ago. I’d bought a few old notebooks with me, and the larger paintings originated from drawings within these. That was the spontaneous moment if you like, realising that I had direct sources with me and the paintings didn't need working out from scratch. That was liberating — here’s an old scribble from a notebook of a balding-youth-man cutting down the last remaining tree on the planet. Right, let’s make that a big painting at 2am.
The child is a central motif in this new series of painting as it has been in the past. What does the symbolic child in your work represent or stand in for? Are they naughty or nice? Instigators or angels?
Originally, I started painting children to find out if this was an okay thing to do. Was this somehow beyond the pale? But I soon came to think of the associations of the motif as more complex than the question itself — it’s almost as if children are the reason we bother to uphold our own morals and decency. You think about how adults behave when they’re around children — once the kids are sent off to bed, the booze comes out and everyone starts shouting at each other — or at least for me, that’s how it was when I was a child!! It’s as if the very presence of children forces us to behave differently as to how we act in their absence.
But then there’s this other edge to the imagery which I find terrifying. Yesterday, I was watching the news, and there’s this report about the upcoming French presidential election. The French National Front have a huge popularity with the under 25s. I found that amazing. Just visually. Imagine all these fresh-faced teenagers bouncing down the shopping mall, banging on about sovereignty and decentralisation. And then it dawns on you… what we’re witnessing over such a short space of time is a profound shift, with what I thought were accepted attitudes. I feel like that is unprecedented. I’m approaching my mid-thirties now, and I’m starting to see the fault lines develop between my generation and those who came after who don’t know life without the Internet.
I’ve actually started to think of the newer paintings as less about the idea of the child as a cipher for morality — I feel the figures now have undetermined ages. Yes, they’re youthful but they’re not children. That opens the narrative up, and the readings become less prescriptive perhaps. I feel like I’m pushing the works into something that’s akin to fable — you know the way in which fables offer fantastical things but direct you firmly back into the real world. A good friend told me about a book, The Notebook by Agata Kristof — it’s clever as the language is very stark, almost like a fairy tale and yet the most terrifyingly sickening things happen. It's as if the fairy tale, in its stark simplicity, becomes the method for you to suspend your disbelief. I’m becoming more interested in this. I mean, how else are we supposed to process the bizarre things that are happening in the world?
As an artist whose main medium is painting, it is incredibly difficult to distance yourself from the weight of art history. Is this a burden or a benefit for you? What artists inspire your own practice if I may ask?
I wouldn't say it was a burden. I find history liberating. It’s through history that we’re able to synthesise our present moments. And what I mean by this is that I'm not necessarily talking about binary information like dates and historical facts, but a sense of who we are, where we've come from and what we face - history alerts us to this and it’s often uncompromising.
Regarding who inspires me, it’s a difficult question for me to answer with any real accuracy. It's evolved as I've grown older. I used to love Hockney when I was younger but now I think he’s a bore. I have always passionately hated Howard Hodgkin but now that he’s dead, I’ll probably warm to him. It changes. I think Andreas Hofer (Andy Hope 1930) is really interesting. He messes around with time by presenting superheroes who are pitted against figures of historical evil — it makes you think about the complexity of good and evil as he questions whether they’re absolute. Picabia has stuck with me for a long time — the way he continued to shift everything, to me, showed a real lack of concern for a bigger picture. That lack of concern for the bigger picture became the bigger picture if you like — and I’m into that attitude. As an artist, I think the goal is to reach a point where you can actually make whatever you want and it makes sense — like a form of perception that intuitively links seemingly disparate ideas.
Your subjects appear steeped in the past given their mode of dress – like a character from a Neo Rauch painting but without the overlying historical narrative. Could you talk about the kinds of source material you use in your practice?
I remember around 2013 the Tories were pushing this idea of the pastoral — David Cameron was photographed feeding a baby lamb, and Iain Duncan Smith was talking about getting on your bike and riding ten miles to work. There was this insane crossover between benefit sanctions and Victorian values.
Around that time, I’d come across a book of children’s illustrations from around 1920 by a publisher called Blackie and Son — it seemed to chime with the images I was seeing in the news. These illustrations are bucolic and sometimes racist. I couldn't help connecting those images with what I was seeing in the tabloids and therefore the wider political climate. It felt and still feels like nostalgia is being used as a tool to suck us backwards. In a sense, because my paintings don't have the same overt historical narrative of Rauch, it’s because I feel like I'm dealing with the present. They just appear to be of an unspecific past — it excites me to think of how they’ll age.
I catalogue the source materials in chronological order, inside folders which are mainly newspaper cut outs, images from the internet and these stiff little children's illustrations. Recently I've been looking through the folders, and I've noticed there’s less and less photography and more drawing. This wasn't really conscious. I guess the sources evolve as the painting does. In Rome, I was working directly from drawing — the aim is to synthesise both sets of information. On the one hand, the papers keep you up to date with whatever grim perversity is happening, and then the drawing refines and personalises it somehow.
There is one painting in your current show that I would love to know more about. “Beside the Boot, the Truncheon Rests” depicts a voluptuous figure in black face, wearing tall black boots and a cobalt blue jumpsuit, with a long blonde mane braided into a noose. Pray tell…
It was originally a figure flying a kite but I felt as if that wasn’t enough. I reworked it, and the composition led to these three velvety black points in the painting — the arm, face and boots. Once the painting had settled down, I started to understand it, as if the other were taking back their power — through whatever means necessary. The painting isn't about blackness or womanhood - perhaps those ideas are hinted at. But because the painting, like all my works, is essentially an extension of allegory, I feel like that prevents the work from being understood didactically — I'm not interested in presenting one singular meaning.
I mean, I grew up in a small English seaside town within a single mother West Indian Catholic family. In that context, we were the outsiders. But the context we’re perceived in is fragile and susceptible to change. For instance, my mother holds very old school British views and yet she’s West Indian by birth — she makes me realise that context is highly nuanced and difficult to pinpoint. I think, in many respects, meaning operates in this way.
To me, that painting summarises how I felt about Rome. During the days, I would wander around and I noticed the police wore these incredibly stylish black boots. With all people who choose a position of authority, there’s this sinister-authoritarian energy — dressed in jackboots and tight trousers. Stylish violence felt very palpable. And then you come across these huge, compositionally dynamic statues; however beautiful, they seem to border on the celebration of state sanctioned violence. In many ways, I consider that painting to almost be a monument to the nuance of revenge, violence and otherness.
You also make sculptures alongside your painting practice. How does your three-dimensional practice intersect with your two-dimensional practice? Does one inform the other? In past shows that feature both paintings and sculptures, it feels like pictorial elements from your paintings literally pop out from the canvas into the space as three-dimensional objects.
I never really have felt like I was one of those easel-kisser painters — slogging out a painting for months and months. I was behaving like that for a few years but it eventually became laborious — and I felt like I could see that in the paintings. So the sculptures developed out of this fear — if I was in the studio and didn't feel like painting, making sculptures seemed like an obvious step.
Generally, I’ve always tried to keep them as low-fi as possible, partly because I want to be able to do the work myself but also because I'm interested in this idea of informality. I think of the sculptures like drawings, in that they’re of specific things. Therefore, there’s little deviation from the initial impetus, which is profoundly different to how I approach painting. Consequently, they seem to have a relationship of co-dependency.
I made a wax bust of Aubrey De Grey, who I'm slightly obsessed by. He’s a life scientist who believes ageing is a disease that can be treated. With this paradigm shift, he raises the prospect of future generations living well into their 500th year. He also looks like a depiction of God in one of those free handouts you get sometimes when you walk into the tube — with this huge beard and furrowed brow. I liked the idea of him promising the nearest thing to eternal life and then placing him alongside my paintings of children. It seemed kind of poignant to me at the time.
1 – Grant Foster, Vanity, 2016, charcoal, glue, pigment and oil on canvas, 36 x 28 cm.
2 – Grant Foster, Ground, Figure, Sky (exhibition view), Tintype Gallery, London, 2017.
3 – Grant Foster, The Prisoners’ Dilemma, 2016, glue and pigment on canvas, 70 x 50 cm.
4 – Grant Foster, Popular Insignia (exhibition view), Galleria Acappella, Naples, 2016.
5 – Grant Foster, Tomorrow’s Hero Today, 2016, charcoal, glue, pigment and oil stick on canvas, 180 x 135 cm.
6 – Grant Foster, Beside the Boot, the Truncheon Rests, 2016, charcoal, pigment, glue and oil on canvas, 180 x 135 cm.
7 – Grant Foster, Salad Days (exhibition view), Ana Cristea Gallery, New York, 2015.
Tintype Gallery: http://www.tintypegallery.com/exhibitions/ground-figure-sky/
Artist’s website: http://www.grantfoster.org/index.html
About the Artist
Grant Foster (b. 1982, Worthing, UK) lives and works in London and graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2012. Foster’s recent solo exhibitions include Ground, Figure, Sky, Tintype Gallery, London (2017); Popular Insignia, Galleria Acappella, Naples, Italy (2016); Salad Days, Ana Cristea Gallery, New York (2015); and Holy Island, Chandelier Projects, London (2014). Recent group exhibitions include Mostra, British School at Rome, Rome (2016); The Classical, Transition Gallery, London (2016); SPORE, Kennington Residency, London (2016); Carnival Glass, Block 336, London (2015); Rx for Viewing (with Jesse Wine), Ana Cristea Gallery, New York (2014); and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Spike Island, Bristol and ICA, London (2013). Grant Foster was a prizewinner in the 2008 John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool, and was awarded the Rome Fellowship in Contemporary Art at The British School at Rome in 2016.
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/05/04/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-grant-foster/
Artist Devlin Shea draws and paints everyday vignettes that she observes on the street, in the bedroom or on the net. A sideways glance here, a loving embrace there, a quick masturbatory feel... all depicted in black and white either on canvas or transparent acetate film and often with metaphorical animals layered over the human elements... two dogs fighting over the same bone, monkeys frolicking over the naked back of a a tearful woman, a cat jumping on the face of a sleeping girl. Shea depicts intimate moments in time or quick gestures that are more cathartic than visually telling, producing amorphous feelings in the viewer rather than providing clues to any sort of narrative or allegory. Her work can be seen currently as part of the group exhibition at Chapter in Cardiff entitled These Rotten Words (on until 11th June 2017). Later this year, you can see her work at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the ICA in London as she has just been chosen as one of this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries.
After seeing her work last year at the Slade’s MFA Degree Show and then visiting Shea in her studio in East London last month, I was interested in delving deeper into her artistic practice.
Given your work's monochromatic palette, how critical are the other formal qualities of painting to your practice: cropping, perspective, composition, light and shadow?
Cropping plays an important role in how I construct my compositions – I want to isolate and cut off peripheral meaning, zeroing in on parts that are important, detaching sections of gestures and bodies. Revealing the whole would be too brazen or literal. Through these narrow selections, I want to hand over the construction of the unknown fragments to the viewer, to construct through one’s own subjectivity. For me, when I see a hand being tugged, I feel a hand being tugged; when I see a whole portrait of a woman having her hand tugged, I see that woman experiencing that feeling – I am outside. When I crop, I want to focus on this moment of feeling that is pushing or pulling … grabbing or tugging. I want to capture all the layers that go into those ‘relationships’ and how there is an echoing of the past, present and future in that moment. I might go as far as saying that it is an anti-narrative gesture, but who knows.
In regards to perspective, my paintings are very flat. There isn’t a depth of field or an invitation to step into a pictorial space, which is perhaps connected to the use of a monochrome palette. I suppose with light and shadow, at least in some of my paintings, there are these negative spaces that are created by the figures’ shadow; they are ambiguous areas and could be read pictorially, creating a ‘where is it?, what is it?’ type of ambiguity - somewhat similar to the idea behind the cropping. Maybe this aspect could be a relief for the viewer? When everything is so on the surface. But really, I don’t think any of the aforementioned elements are mutually exclusive in my work; instead, light, shadow, perspective and cropping act together to assist each other.
Is narrative important to your figurative subject matter? Or is your work more metaphysical in emotion and temperament?
The loose narrative in my work is normally layered and truncated. I imagine it to be like a still from a movie you never saw but that is familiar. This ‘still’ is like the moment after exhaling when all the air is now outside the lungs and you are about to take a breath back in. Those are the moments I’m working with, more than an actual narrative: corporeal passages contained in the now, cycles that end, then start again; lungs filled with oxygen or empty. It’s a physical feeling as opposed to the logic of a whole.
Not to contradict myself, but there are also definite narrative choices to my selections - moments where there is some sort of perceived tension or gestures that reflect on the internal state of the figures. The idea of support systems, intertwined figures and intimacy are strong motifs within my work. Nevertheless, these are meant to be archetypal, perhaps even symbolic; there is an edge of the allegorical in the larger plastic works, for example. I think that’s why there has been interest in my work in Asia where there is a history, familiarity and acceptance of many different narrative times existing within one image. I think my work approximates that tradition of condensing many dimensions onto one single plane.
Perhaps I’m trying to reveal in some way the accumulation and confusion of being human. I’d say it leans toward universal ideas and perhaps that could be read as having some ‘metaphysical undertones’. Really for me, the narrative lies in the tensions that exist between the figures - tensions that also exist in the reading of the work. Strangely, I use parts of the figure in a way to avoid talking about the figurative. I mean, it is figurative… but biography is not used as a narrative tool. I guess I’m trying to forget about a dominant narrative and to just break down the body in order to see beyond it.
I adore the more recent addition of animals to your picture plane. They are often layered over the human elements and appear to be linked to the figures' subconscious or dreams. Could you talk about how you think about these animals and what sparked this development?
The first time I used animals in my work was because of a dream I had. I was in the kitchen of the apartment I lived in years ago in New York, I was on the phone, and I looked up to find a wild cat in the tree outside my window about to pounce on me. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is really convenient’. I was on the phone so I could call for help, but I was so petrified I couldn’t speak; this visceral fear had taken over. There are these visceral reactions we have because of our evolutionary presets, things layered in from long ago. So when animals make it into my painting, they could have this primordial role, or perhaps the animal is a totem that stands in for basic parts of the self.
In Emotional Giants, the monkeys came from a conversation with a friend who was talking about how hard it was to change a pattern. He used the idiom ‘monkey on my back’. My work in some respects comes from the logic of the idiom, which isn’t sequential narration; instead, it’s pieced together, and the combination of words makes new sense. So Emotional Giants was inspired by this friend wrestling with himself. I suggested he lay out a banana - it seemed a logical way to break the struggle. The monkeys are trying to hold on but also eyeing the banana presented on the belly of the woman lying and watching at the bottom of the scene.
Animals are always going to bring up symbolic readings, which I think is interesting but maybe not precisely what I intend on doing. Part of me thinks less complexly, like how people watch cat videos or follow famous Instagram dog feeds. They go to those feeds to have an emotional release or experience ironic glee; this cutesy love we get by watching funny furball videos - there is something about that in my work too. I wonder if my interest is as close to that space of catharsis as it is to the symbolic.
Your use of long sheets of transparent film for some of your paintings plays with scale and finish and references cinema as they scroll down the wall. Although each of these paintings only depicts one scene, so to speak, does cinema inspire your practice in any way?
Cinema definitely has had some influence on my practice, and the acetate I use for the larger works is very similar to celluloid in its qualities. On a personal level, I grew up going to the movies a lot. There was this movie theater across the street from where I lived. In summer, we would sneak in to see movies back to back to stay in the air conditioning for as long as possible. It is a somewhat nostalgic influence - those early experiences of losing myself and viewing intimate moments blown up larger than life. You never normally experience intimacy that way; you never experience a mouth 50-feet-tall and time slowed down so you can see minute shifts and twitches. I’d say I use scale as a device to do a similar thing with this contradictive intimacy. You have to get up close to my small paintings, get intimate; but then I blow these up to gigantic proportions (such as with the plastic works), creating a contradictory feeling of intimacy like the cinematic does. Showing them together, minute and gigantic, pulls at emotional proximity. It’s like when I was living in Iceland - how the landscapes made a figure even tinier and vulnerable but also more pronounced and perhaps braver, crossing the vast monochrome snowscapes.
You recently completed your MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art in 2016. Shortly thereafter, you set off for China to embark upon a three-month residency at (). How important do you feel residencies are for early career artists? How has your experience in China contributed to the ongoing development of your artistic practice?
Residencies can be such significant times for growth. I think, after an MFA, they can provide the time to solidify some of the development that has happened during the degree. It is such an amazing opportunity to be plunged into a new culture, and to not have to balance any freelance work to pay rent for living or studio. It is so important to keep the momentum going from the degree show and to be productive right away if possible. I was in Hong Kong for most of the time but I did go to mainland China for a week to install a show at the Wuhan Art Museum organized by the gallery that represents me there.
My studio was at the campus of the Academy of Visual Arts; I got to take part in the community of students, tutors and technicians there. It was great experimenting with and discovering totally new types of plastics and fabrics, getting knowledgeable advice and using the large facilities to try things out. I made a group of large paintings on a new plastic and worked on small works exploring color and some collage elements. I also made a small edition of artist books that I rushed to finish in the last days on a fantastic Riso printer they had there. There was a sense of ease knowing I had the time to make a body of work for my upcoming solo show in China and that I would take back with me to London the momentum and skills I had developed.
Curator George Vasey has included your work in his current group show entitled These Rotten Words at Chapter in Cardiff, alongside artists David Austen, Anna Barham and Joanna Piotrowska among others. How do you think your work fits into this show about the physicality of language, voice and gesture?
I was so pleased George included me in These Rotten Words - it is such a great group of artists. I have always been attracted to the ways people communicate and perhaps more specifically with the veils, blocks, habits or crutches that people subconsciously rely on in their communication. I think this is the ‘gesture’ that I am fascinated by. Gestures seem to be the way these pre-words and pre-verbalizations get spoken - though gesture communication is read physically rather than through the translation of language.
It was an exciting framing for the work. I will use a quote from George’s essay from the exhibition to describe how he sees my work fitting the topic. …
“….. Devlin Shea’s paintings present the body as a series of fragments. The face is often concealed and it is the body that is tasked with the job of speaking. The surface of these paintings, at once reticent and reworked, feels particularly intimate. Shea’s paintings often portray moments of tenderness between unclothed couples and the vignettes often feel simultaneously specific and nebulous.”
Artist’s website: http://devlinshea.com
Chapter, Cardiff website: https://www.chapter.org/these-rotten-words
About the Artist
Devlin Shea is an American artist who lives and works in London. She completed an MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2016 after finishing her BA in Painting and Video at Alfred University, Alfred, New York in 1998. Recent and upcoming solo shows include those in Wuhan, China (2017), Sólon, Iceland (2013), and Stockholm, Sweden (2010). Recent selected group exhibitions include: On Drawing: Apperceive of Liberation, Wuhan Art Museum, Wuhan, China (2016); Screen Time, Assembly Point, London (2016); Imagine, Londonewcastle Project Space, London (2015); Skymning, G Gallery, Houston, Texas (2014); Special Guests, Sardine, Brooklyn, US (2013). Shea has been awarded the following residencies: Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong (2017), Nes Artist Residency, Skagaströnd, Iceland (2016), Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, Canada (2009), Vermont Studio Center, Vermont, US (2009).
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/04/27/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-devlin-shea/
For her first solo show, Welsh artist Sarah Roberts travels to the Costa del Sol, creating an all-enveloping five-dimensional monochromatic installation at BLOCK 336 in London entitled Torremolinos-Tableaux-Tongue-Twister (After Sun) (on until 6th May 2017). This site-specific immersive exhibition is the second act to a 2016 day-time version of the beach in Torremolinos that was exhibited at HaHa Gallery in Southampton. As day moves into night, colours change. The pink flesh of bodies on the beach mutates into red – suggesting sun-burnt skin, red neon outside a nightclub or a spectacular sunset. In this exhibition, the viewers’ senses are completely overwhelmed with dozens of different surface textures they want to touch, atomisers spewing out the scent of sun cream, a sound piece of waves crashing on the beach and the ruddy pigmentation of the entire space. Red LED lights from above illuminate hundreds of objects that are either laying on the floor, leaning up against the wall or reclining on plinths, all of which are scarlet-tinged (including two tons of rubescent gravel poured onto the floor in the shape of a tongue). The objects include hand-cast plaster pieces, found objects, hand-printed textile pieces, glass, rubber and glitter. Living between London and Wales, Roberts writes poetry as well as makes sculptural installations that are obsessed with their surfaces and how they mirror the everyday world, recalling architecture, landscape and body in form and colour.
Congrats on your first solo show at BLOCK 336 in Brixton! As a viewer, it was a mesmerising experience for me, playfully engaging all of my senses. Instead of looking at each of the individual objects, the monochromatic aspect of the show forces you to dwell on the entirety of the installation. As the artist, how do you intend the viewer to interact with this all-consuming installation? Do you attempt to curate the viewer’s experience through the employment of excess?
Thank you! This has been my first opportunity to create something on this scale, and something that is in turn a fully encapsulated immersive experience so its nice to hear that your senses were aware of being catered for in the journey through it.
In terms of leading the viewer – I’d like to think I’m not directing their journey through the installation beyond the physical pathways that are created; maybe I’m more researcher and set designer. I want to lead the viewer to a space that’s akin to a [very present] stage set of the everyday made anew, somewhat credible and entirely real, part unfinished and very much made for a viewer to discover themselves, and in that act of discovery, to activate it.
When I’m researching for new palettes, I seek out places that show me their edges, their constructedness, facades, or ideas of underneaths. I don’t see these faces as veneers or fakes but as very real material surfaces, the actuality of things. The plastic paradise of a truly blue hotel spa, furred up purple carpet tiles, pinks plastered on walls as dripping renders, wet sand furrowed and grained, pressed into with bony fleshed out toes - all up for grabs. I’ve loved Vegas casinos, desert landscapes, Welsh hinterlands, and now here – the sun-down-lit strip of the Costa del Sol that is Torremolinos.
And about the excess, well yes, maybe if left alone with less, the viewer may have time to start making sense of things, to covet the object, to attribute the value of artwork to things; whereas here in the conversant and non-hierarchical material repeats, I hope viewers will focus on looking at the materiality of things or at best wanting to touch.
Personally, I was very drawn toward the hand-crafted objects in the installation – the screen-printed textiles and wall vinyls and the cast plaster pieces. Do you see these as able to exist on their own as individual artworks outside of the installation context? Or does your practice only allow for an installation type of presentation?
No, not at the moment. I actually find words or collage easier ways of representing ideas in smaller utterances. I use collage a lot in the preparation for a piece; it’s key in my research process.
Once I start making, the connectivity between the excess seems essential. It’s like the pieces all form an alphabet, and trying to exist alone, they are just the beginning or end of some sentence, never the core of it - they really are surfaces. Maybe this can change as my vocabulary strengthens, but for now, once things become 3D matter, it gets trickier; things gain this unwarranted value, trying to make sense and coming back senseless.
My practice as a maker has a focus on labour and production. I produce multiple repeats in a day, all different takes on a sensation, all chatting, and all growing into some overall sense of a new place. I am my own factory, and I access others who operate out there in the ‘real world’ of manufacturing to create things as well, and these are of equal stature, getting something absurd made to spec - where you can hardly notice it’s bespoke without closer inspection - is something I adopt a lot.
I have a special and fleeting relationship with each piece I make, and then each piece slips a little into the next and into the whole. I want that thing I have hand-cast to sit, with a sense of purposeful slippery belonging, alongside found plastic objects or those bespoke manufactured absurdities - all equals, all matter. I think this is what throws us into an experience of looking - me out there on the promenade in Torremolinos, and the viewer here in its Tongue-Twister counterpart at Block 336.
For this show, you wrote a free verse poem that was included in the press release. When planning an exhibition, what comes first for you – the poetry or the visual components of the show?
I use words at all stages of the process - to record places and their sensations. I write emails to myself, like material memoirs, hashtag haikus. Much like the materials of the installation, they get sculpted, become a collection of collisions, and seek to perform a function but slide into phonic performance kept together by proximity of placement and somehow making sense even at points of disjuncture. I began writing this poem in a café in Torremolinos and finished it on the tube after a site visit to Block 336.
In this poem, the opening line is “Her tongue twisted around names and melting ice pops as the dark closed in on the pinks and the sky clouded into sticky reds”. It is an incredible introduction to the show, giving the reader many clues to what they are about to encounter visually as well as aurally and olfactorily. Is it essential for the viewer to engage with your writing before or after viewing your work?
The poems are gobbets, non-narrative descriptions of the material encounters rather than a map of this new space. So no, they are not essential; they are not a precursor nor an afterthought. They are simply another thing.
In the past, your artworks had a strong tie to your own Welsh heritage, possessing titles in both Welsh and English and exploring the chroma of the Mid Wales countryside. How important is your own autobiography to your practice?
I believe Welshness runs through me and my practice like a granite seam. The older I get, the more I experience a sense of hiraeth [which translates as homesickness but more as a sense of longing for the land] when I spend too long away from Wales. The landscape back home is as tactile as it is visual. I grew up in a small town, a strip village nestled between rock and sea right in the middle, right on the coast. In the face of epic variegated terrain, tiny terraced dwellings become impotent teeth in crumbling pinks and blue hues against a backdrop of grey and green. We didn’t have iPhones in the early nineties, just skinny legs, mountain bikes and a sense of owning the rock from our bunk-beds whilst waiting for the summer season.
I now live and work between Wales and London. It’s perfect. Each place is as intense and revelatory as the other, and they keep each other blindingly visible. I think this has an undeniable effect on my practice. I will never get bored of working with Wales.
Given that words are part of your artistic metier, is the Welsh language something you wish to preserve in this world of disappearing languages?
Welsh was my first language; as a child, I barely spoke English, and now I lose words daily. My accent is unrecognisable. It’s an upsetting sensation of loss, both of belonging and of the fragility of our ability to communicate. It’s also fascinating; my words have become more material than ever as they trip and tumble from my mouth. I’m obsessed with the awkwardness of Google Translate and its limitations. I think being bilingual as a kid helped me to articulate. I chose words for their meaning, but also their phonics, their performativity. I circumnavigated them from the other tongue like one might a sculpture. I do this when I write, often using translations in texts or titles. In fact, I seem to love the imagery of tongues too!
I’m definitely interested in preserving language, and not for nostalgic reasons. I genuinely believe that multiple languages can add to our ability to perform proper attempts at articulation. I’m relearning my mother tongue to an adult grade now. It’s like my vocabulary was fixed when I left Wales at 18.
For your installations included in The London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2015 and Saatchi Art New Sensations in 2014, a single colour was not the focal point; instead, a panoply of surfaces, faux and real, barraged the viewer. From a white plastic electrical fan to a scattering of hand-cast plaster bowls in a rainbow of colours and from a roll of LED strip lights to wallpaper and swatches of silk printed with a photographic image of polystyrene, texture seems like a key driver in your practice. Do you agree? Could you talk further on this point?
‘Barraged’ is a nice way to put it. That’s how I feel when I find these places in the first place. Buffered by winds, accosted by colour. Dribbling internally at the sheer deliciousness of the surface textures.
My practice centres around this collection of the actuality of the surfaces of the world; when researching, I collect images of walls, floors, sand - all texture, colour or form. The distilling of these textures starts here. I don’t see it as a reduction to colour, texture and form – its more like a making visible of it. The images are repeated into forms, poured into plasters, smoothed into ceramics and printed on various substrates with sliding scales, sound, scents and more. For each place, the representation I create is led by the overall sensation of that place as I record it - sometimes places seep into a hue, other times their apparent colour blocks stick out shouting, and sometimes the air smells like sun cream.
AMPERSANDS (Fairbourne a& Margate a&) (2015), shown at Whitechapel, is a piece centered around excess, additions and the power of visually driven connections. This piece collides two palettes through a forced additive connection and is slightly more frenetic and unnerving as a result. It’s full of of peeled-off textures of Margate’s visible arcadia and a bleak palette from a Welsh strip village that is slowly returning to the sea. This insinuated theme park of edges and collisions of made matter, in multicolour hues with washed out rocky accents, hopefully makes us consider these created visual contexts.
ETO O Borth – Again from Borth (2014), shown at New Sensations, is from a hinterland in Mid Wales, a more direct presentation of one palette, a strip of terraced houses exposed to the land and the sea. Its flimsy curtained ‘walls’ pull at the edges, suggesting Borth’s precarious positioning on the coastline and observing our belief in those tiny multi-coloured terraced invaders of the landscape.
Here in the reds at Block 336, this heavy lidded half light is an integral part of the encasing shell of the work. I’m fascinated with the idea of our experience of colour being waves reflected off the surfaces. That we are making it red, SEEING RED. I’ve included light in many previous works as a material, a light, a bulb, a colour. This is the first time I have really considered its impact on our ways of seeing colour, its ability to shift the palette of a place depending on the time of day.
I tried to fix that moment of light into an experience of colour, and I love how its unfixable and slips away from your eyes. I’m fascinated by this idea that the objects in a place can be different visible versions of themselves at different points in the day. The red is all-encompassing when you first encounter it and then fades as your retinas adjust to the light into salmon and oranges. The lights were the first things I installed so I could get a real sense of this new space – I had to keep going back out to the white light so I could see the reds again. You are very aware of your place within it and your experience of the colours changing whilst you are in it - this apparent colour cover-up that is in fact a revelation of textures.
BLOCK 336, London: http://block336.com
Artist’s website: http://www.sarahrobertsfa.com
About the Artist
Sarah Roberts is a Welsh artist currently living and working in London and Wales. She studied Sociology at the University of Leeds (BA 2001) before finishing a second BA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London in 2014. Recent group exhibitions include SellYourSelf, East Street Arts, Leeds (2017); I’M Feeling So Virtual I’m Violent, HaHa Gallery, Southampton (2016); P A N D I C U L A T E : The Joy of Stretching, The Koppel Project, London (2016); The London Open 2015, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2015) and Saatchi Art New Sensations, Victoria House, Londn (2014). Roberts was selected for the Into The Wild Residency Programme, Chisenhale, London (2015-16) and the ACAVA/ArtQuest Lifeboat Residency (2014-15), and was awarded the Parasol Unit Exposure Award in 2014.
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/04/13/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-sarah-roberts/
‘Buzz’, ‘Snap!’, ‘Rockit’, ‘Up all night’, ‘Cheeky, cheeky. Naughty, sneaky’, ‘Dance the dance, dancing feet’ - a few of the titles of artworks Rhys Coren has made over the last year. These titles are telling glimpses into this multidisciplinary artist’s creative practice that is inspired by 80’s electronic dance music, jazz and disco as well as his own experiences as a dancefloor habitué. Coren works across animation, writing, performance and painted marquetry, each medium flaunting its affinity with rhythm and the artist’s undying love affair with drawing. Form, colour and texture are integral to the strength of Coren’s painted, wall-based panels of interlocking board. The wall works may contain cartoon-like clouds broken up by grids of spray-painted colour and texture, overlaying the works with a cheeky sense of humour.
On the occasion of Coren’s first solo show at Seventeen (10th March – 15th April 2017), Marcelle Joseph talks to Coren about life as an artist in London.
You had a big break between your BA and your postgraduate studies at the RA Schools where you graduated in 2016. Now you’re grafting away alone in your studio in Elephant & Castle. What’s life like in the real world as a working artist after your cushy three-years in Mayfair at the RA?
It was quite a big break, yes. But I was always making art and always trying to contribute to whatever community I was part of. I worked collaboratively mostly, with different independent and artist-led initiatives, even curatorially at times. But I was always working. I needed that time, though, as I was a bit of a slow-starter.
Those years after my BA, first in Bristol then in London, juggling all manner of shitty jobs and debt as I also tried to educate myself further on art… contribute to whatever… and build myself a practice… were terrifying and financially very stressful. But they allowed me to appreciate more the things I already loved, and I began to make work about those things as a result… indulging my pleasures in music, animation, design and sub-culture. I also began to lean more on skills and techniques I enjoyed most, encouraging a DIY, self-sufficiency. This was a huge breakthrough for me.
Getting into the Royal Academy came soon after this breakthrough. This was seven years after completing my BA and I was 30 years old. I’d made the first body of work that I was truly proud of, and I’d managed it whilst living in London with next to no money and no formal structure whatsoever. All I could think about was how much more I could do with the support the RA offered. So, once there, I spent every day of those three years like it was my last. I lapped up everything I possibly could - everything about the school, the library, the student-run bar, the Royal Academy itself, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the postcode. It was amazing. It blew my mind, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Despite this, leaving the RA was almost as exciting as getting in. That may sound surprising coming from someone who waxes lyrical about the place at every opportunity, but life there is about this intense introspection and analysis. Your week is heavily timetabled, and you have a responsibility to the rest of your year group to be present and engaging. That’s not always the most productive environment for outright making. That’s what I am ready for now. The Royal Academy defined who I was for a long time, but really it was just a phase, like the phase before. Now, this new phase is the Elephant and Castle phase… The Plaza Plaza phase. A phase I’m loving, working from a small, independent, artist-run studio with an exhibition space out front, tucked away off the New Kent Road. Glen Pudvine carrying on the great work of the now USA-based Jesse Wine, the artist who set it up in 2011.
I think it is important to dispel this myth that the RA or Mayfair is ‘cushy’ for everyone. As a student there, you are definitely one of the lucky few. But getting into the RA by no means ensures an easy time, either. It’s a total headfuck coming from a modest background and being surrounded by the most extreme wealth. Its location, for many, means long and overcrowded commutes and never before experienced problems getting materials. Some students really feel the pressure of the wider RA institution, and you are all different ages and at different stages in your development (though, weirdly, these were some of the things that drew me to it). But, one thing the RA can ensure is it will do everything it can to support you, and you will almost certainly be a better artist for going. How much better depends on you. The more you give it, the more it gives back.
As for the ‘real world’, even when I was doing the bare minimum of the shitty work required to pay rent, like painting a warehouse floor at 5am, or cleaning a nightclub wall at 4am, I felt lucky. To have a focus… to have the option to make and think about art… to avoid the ‘real’. I don’t think I’ve been in the real world since my first day of my Foundation Diploma at Plymouth College of Art in 2001.
Your wall-based works are feats of engineering genius with the most amazing textured colour. Could you explain your process and how music and drawing fit in?
I feel uncomfortable thinking of these things as genius. I would agree that the work has a strange eloquence once it is finished. Something I find ‘strange’ because I know about all the stages leading up to it hanging on a wall. They’re really quite modest and scrappy, even.
The process is one that, instead of trying to fight my odd, compulsive behaviour, completely embraces it through compartmentalising the picture making process. It makes a weakness a strength. To break everything down into stages, then to break the picture surface down into pieces; it’s a way of working that I find so much more productive, whilst also allowing me to care for every individual part of a picture. Every graphic component can be held in my hand, slowly textured and pigmented, allowing an intimacy with the work I hadn’t really felt before.
Music has been material, content, motivation and fuel for the work. By that, I mean that early works were about actual songs or memories experienced during specific music. Animated work often has music in it. And, even when the work is inspired by something entirely different, listening to music helps me work. Hoping that the rhythm of the music can creep into the imagery. Music has also been a handy metaphor for understanding how to make and relate to a picture, too. Thinking about tone, texture, harmony, rhythm, pitch.
I am just as much inspired by the written and spoken word, traveling around London, design and old animated films as I am music. It’s just that I listen to music, a very certain type of music, for most of the time I am in the studio. Occasionally, watching old films as I work, especially animated ones. But the music I listen to is music that has the power to cast a spell over your body and alter your mood. People who make dance music know they have made good dance music through the involuntary reactions the body makes. The same can be said for people who write comedy. Art doesn’t have anything quite so specific or exaggerated in terms of bodily response. It can be far slower burning, too. I guess I like the idea that a work can make you dance or smile before you yourself have even worked out if it interests you on a more conscious level.
Last year at the RA Schools, as part of an Open Studios evening, you presented a performance where two jazz musicians improvised an arrangement according to the rhythms of a two-screen animated video you made. Was that an important and pivotal work for you – mixing live music with your animated video work? Do you plan on continuing in this vein in the future?
Yes and yes. I actually staged that performance again with a saxophone player in the summer, and I am working on a new animated work to be scored by musicians. But, rather than it be one, continuous piece, it will be broken down into chapters with different music and musicians depending on the character of each chapter. I can see it taking a few years to do.
The musicians I worked with were Gary Crosby, Moses Boyd and Binker Golding of Tomorrow’s Warriors (amongst other projects), a huge youth jazz orchestra who are based at Southbank Centre. I sometimes stop for a wee there on the way home and had the luck to hear them one day. Working with them was one of the most inspiring and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. True magicians. Their dedication to their craft has taught me a lot.
In December 2016 at a solo show in Paris at galeriepcp, you presented a new animated video work alongside your wall-based works for the first time. At a studio visit, you mentioned to me how it was important for the two media to be presented in different spaces in the gallery. Can you talk about that and why the separation is important to you?
I can’t read a book when the TV is on or music is playing. I find that the imaginative space I enter to read is very similar to how I would look at a painting. So, by that logic, I find it hard to look at a painting whilst moving image or sound is playing close by. I feel that literal, real-time, durational work snaps me out of my own imagination. But, equally, the hypnotic, transformative qualities that moving image and sound have are something I feel very excited about. It is just that the real-time sort of bullies the imaginative. There may be room soon to deliberately butt the two together at some point, finding energy in the clash. Who knows? But, for now, I feel there is much more to gain from keeping one over here, and one over there.
How did you approach your first solo show at Seventeen entitled “Whistle Bump Super Strut”? Given that your wall-based work has a vibrating pulse of its own, is the curation of the works across the space important to you?
Very much so, but in a space this large… or ‘spaces’ plural, I should say… it is less about a rhythm created through the quick succession of works in a line or circumference. That’s something I have played with in the past, as each work is generally quite individual and a sequential reading can be interesting. But, the larger size and dividing wall at Seventeen allows each work to have a huge amount of space around it. So I have thought about the show in terms of connections between works in the two different rooms, each one sharing one or more characteristics from another work in the other room. It is like a puzzle in my head. A little like the surfaces of the individual works. It isn’t meant to be a puzzle that needs solving. It’s more of a gentle guide from my end, to help ease the work into an otherwise quite daunting space.
There’s a Dave Hickey idea that crops up in both Air Guitar and Pirates and Farmers, about how artists should ‘think in shows’. That really struck me. And, since leaving the RA, it is an idea that has really influenced my thinking. For both the recent galeriepcp show, and the Seventeen show, I made mock ups of the space, so that, at the very least, I had a subconscious blueprint guiding the individual works. This doesn’t cement the works in any sort of order, either, but creates a set of moves should something not work or need to be swapped over. There’s a balance I look for.
Your next outing is Frieze New York in May… As an artist whose work is presented to different global audiences, do you think about that when making the work? Can the history of a place where you are showing impact on the work (e.g., New York is where disco was born)?
Generally… no. I think that, whilst my practice is largely described as abstract, almost all the work is in some way rooted in something real; something inextricably British or perceived through the lens of Britishness. But, over years and years of reduction, I seem to be left with the essence of an image or sound – a sort of familiarity without being able to directly pinpoint the reference. For me, then, it is interesting to see how that is received abroad. Whether or not the work can translate. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I do think about it, but that the history of the place I am showing the work in doesn’t directly affect what I make, although I think I feel less inhibited because it isn’t in London, seen by my closest friends and mentors. I massively underestimated the effect of that pressure for Whistle Bump Super Strut. By the end, I’d lost all objectivity and developed both a Berocca addiction and nervous twitch in my left eyelid.
HOWEVER, New York is probably the one exception, as it is somewhere I think about a lot. I think it affects what I make anyway. Growing up, my favourite music was from there, my favourite artists were from there, and my favourite BMX and skate videos were all set there. I think NY is special like that, in that you can feel you know it without ever going there. So, when I finally got the chance to go in my mid-20s, instead of the Empire State or Statue of Liberty, I made little tourist trips to the sites of Warhol’s Factory, the Cedar Tavern, Brooklyn Banks, Studio 54, The Loft, Paradise Garage, CBGBs and the corner of 53rd and 3rd from The Ramones song. New York exceeded my wildest expectations, and I have been infatuated with it ever since.
We found out that we got into Frieze late last year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that infatuation added a little optimism to the work for Whistle Bump. The summery feel of disco emanating from a wintery basement in London. Maybe, then, for Frieze New York, I need to take a slice of drizzly, grey London to even the score.
Individual works and installation views from Rhys Coren’s solo exhibition, Whistle Bump Super Strut, at Seventeen, London (10th March – 15th April 2017), courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London, Photo: Damian Griffiths.
About the Artist
Rhys Coren (b. 1983, Plymouth, UK) is a London-based artist who completed a Postgraduate Diploma at the Royal Academy Schools, London in 2016. Recent solo exhibitions include those at Seventeen, London (March 2017), galeriepcp, Paris (December 2016), Jerwood Project Space, London (2014), Horatio Jr., London (2014), and SPACE, London (2013). He recently curated the group exhibition Cuts, Shapes, Breaks and Scrapes at Seventeen, London alongside Gabriel Hartley and he has co-founded curatorial projects including Opening Times and bubblebyte.org. Selected recent group exhibitions include: Walled Gardens in an Insane Eden, Z2O Sara Zanin Gallery, Rome (2017); Beyond the Cartoon, Cassina Projects with ARTUNER, New York (2016); Royal Academy Schools Degree Show, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2016); Studio Leigh, London (2015); Drawing Biennial 2015, Drawing Room, London (2015); E-Vapor-8, Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK (2014); Symbolic Logic, Identity Gallery, Hong Kong (2014); Stop / Action, Test Space, Spike Island, Bristol, UK (2013); Young London, V22, London (2013); and Magic 8 Ball, FOLD, London (2013); The Response, The Sunday Painter, London (2012); Happy Accident, Wandering Around Wandering, New York (2012); VIDEO PROGETTO, Grand Union, Birmingham and 26CC, Rome, Italy (2010). Coren is represented by Seventeen in London and will present a solo booth for Seventeen at Frieze New York in May 2017 and a special screening at Kunstall Stavanger in Norway later this year.
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/03/23/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-rhys-coren/
British artist Jessie Makinson paints exquisite multi-layered figurative compositions that drop art historical references as well as borrow patterns and motifs from other times. These flights of fancy that contain only female figures are nostalgic of the boudoir of Marie Antoinette circa 1775 with a colour palette to match the legendary cakes of the then Queen of France. In June 2016, she was named the main prize winner of the Marmite Painting Prize V shortly after finishing the two-year Turps Painting Programme in London. Her work can currently be seen in a group show organised by Hamish Pearce and Will Rees called "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour (on the Bedpost Overnight)?" at J Hammond Projects in north London (until 18th March).
Your paintings are densely populated with aesthetic stimuli – from art historical references to fashion and interior design elements. How do you start your creative process, and how do you go about structuring these layered compositions?
My practice is led by and revolves entirely around drawing. I draw at every stage of my process. I draw to think, to remember, to understand. For me, drawing is the first step in making thought physical. All the motifs, compositions and imagery originate from a kind of automatic drawing that I do. I find drawing and painting to have the ability to make sense of the information I have absorbed. When it comes to the paintings, they are not planned. I will mix up pigments and paint a large drawing all over the canvas, forming a pattern-like structure. This embeds the drawing and composition into the surface of the painting, creating a flow and relationship to the space of the surface that planning can't allow. I then look for imagery within the under drawing, referring back to my sketches, books, photos and notes. I like to work quite intuitively, allowing the narrative to be found in the act of making the painting. As each face, shape, line, colour is added, it informs the next and the narrative shifts. References to art history are also found in the painting. As I draw from and look at a lot of historical painting, I trust my experience to create associations within the work. I have always been interested in the flexibility of time within a painting, and the ease with which narratives can be non-linear. Making the paintings, I aim to find the balance between intuition and control.
The figurative elements in your paintings are always women, save for the occasional animal or bird. Why the fixation on the female body?
The figures depicted in the paintings are usually women, but there tends to be a male presence perhaps off the canvas, as a shadow figure or an animal. I feel that an absence can often suggest something indirectly and leave room for multiple narratives. Early on when I began focusing on women, I was asked 'but where are all the men?' I found that men and women ask the question differently. I often shift back and forth, considering the women as just a means to make the painting or conversely the whole purpose. I like the idea that painting could encapsulate these two ideas simultaneously. Can something be both things or neither? I like that painting accepts that things are not black and white.
Colour and motif appear to be tightly bundled together in your work. What comes first? Does the motif or pattern inspire the palette or the other way around? Do you set the work in a specific historical time period which may influence the spectrum of colour?
Currently, I am looking at Rococo palettes, but different series tend to be either held together by a colour palette or informed by it -- with palettes often borrowed from patterns or painting. My colours seem to simultaneously evoke both the past and the future, often referencing time periods or places, but they are obviously not the traditional palettes of those periods. They can have a very 'English' quality to them whilst also suggesting an 'otherness'. I am interested in the ability of painting to create a sense of a time or place that I have never been to -- a fictional place that is recognisable and known, but is conjured from memories of writing, film and stories. Recently, I have been looking at Japanese Shunga wood prints as I saw a reflection of my own work in the humorous, sexual, patterned images of couples in interiors. I am interested in pattern saying something about the character of a figure as well as the nature of the space within the painting. The relationship between clothes, pattern, women and interiors reflects my interest in the reciprocal nature of space. The idea of ‘space being the other half of us’ is something that has echoed through my work for many years.
Are the titles of your paintings revealing in terms of creating some sort of narrative in the work? I particularly like the titles, Swamp Fox, French Girls, I Never Liked You and Get Your Own Pillow.
I am a complete thief when it comes to titles. I gather them from everywhere - from conversations, books, music, anything. I recently made them impossible to read, collecting hundreds of titles from books by taking words out of context; 'Door a crack', 'Saw a strange', 'Serious crush', 'la giggles', 'King me', they start to read like a sort of poem. This is something I plan to play on a lot more in my next show. They often have double meanings, suggest narrative possibilities or are something I find funny. I see titles as an opportunity to be playful and a chance to not take the painting too seriously.
You have had a diverse fine art educational background – from Edinburgh College of Art to The Royal Drawing School and from a three month residency in Tuscany to the two-year Turps Painting Programme in London. How do you compare the different art school approaches and which training has been the most valuable experience in terms of your current artistic practice?
I had five years out before the drawing year [at the Royal Drawing School], so when I got there, I knew what I wanted to do with my work. I just had no idea how to do it. The Royal Drawing School really opened by eyes to historical painting and drawing from it. This was extremely formative for my practice as it is now. It is not as academic as it is considered to be – I still have no idea how to draw traditionally. You learn through doing. I learnt the ability to find, in the world around me, things that belong in the world of my painting. I learnt to edit the things I see, so that when I'm making an observational drawing, I am making the drawing I was always going to make. The content is not necessarily my subject matter. When I came to Turps, I didn't really know any other painters in London, and our year had so many great painters on it, so it really changed my life in that respect. Turps from the beginning felt how art school should be -- the location next to other artist studios, the tutors and the ethos. There was a huge energy to work hard, to change and to take risks.
Congratulations on winning the Marmite Painting Prize V in 2016. How important has this award been in terms of exposure and opening up doors for you?
Thank you. The Marmite Prize was a fantastic show to be a part of and a good reflection of the land of painting. It's hard to know how much it has helped me directly. I've met a lot of great people through it, particularly painters.
You are currently undertaking a six-month residency at City and Guilds in London. Is this a time of experimentation or research for you? What do you want to achieve while there?
I'm very excited about the residency as it offers a studio and access to all the workshops at the school from glass, metal, carving, ceramics and printmaking. I will still paint whilst I am there but have plans to experiment: making objects in different mediums resulting in a tactile installation that inhabits my paintings, wall drawings and the objects I have made over the residency.
Artist’s website: LINK
J Hammond Projects group show (until 18th March): LINK
About the Artist
Jessie Makinson is a British painter living and working in London. She graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2007 with a BA in Drawing and Painting, before attending The Drawing Year at The Royal Drawing School in 2011. In 2013, she was awarded the school’s fully-funded Moritz-Heyman Artists’ Residency in Tuscany, Italy and later received the Sir Denis Mahon Award 2014–15. Jessie finished the two-year Turps Painting Programme in London in 2016. Later that year, she was the winner of the Marmite Painting Prize V which also entailed exhibitions at Block 336, London and Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda in Northern Ireland. Her work has been shown in a number of solo and group exhibitions at notable galleries and museums including, among others, solo shows at Roman Road, London (2016), 9B Projects, London (2015) and The Princes Drawing School, London (2015) and a group show entitled Captain Lightfoot Presents... at The Glasshouse in Edinburgh, part of the 2014 Arts Festival.
Emma Cousin is a British artist, curator, writer and poet whose humorous and surreal works on canvas and paper have already featured in London in two group shows, a solo show and a two-person show in the first two months of 2017. Her work can currently be seen in group shows at The House of St Barnabas in Soho until 5th July 2017 and at Transition Gallery in Hackney until 4th March. Legs are the subject matter of choice of Cousin’s oeuvre that examines the human condition and the history of painting through a mixture of figurative and geometric elements rendered in a distinctively painterly style using a bold colour palette and with particular attention to the symbolic meaning of the visual forms depicted in her work.
So let’s talk about legs… You have been painting and drawing legs for the last few years. You have spoken about these body parts representing a visual vocabulary of sorts. Can you explain more about your use of this representational motif in your work?
The leg represents a stand-in for humans that we can all relate to and 'read'. Its value is its agency; it implies movement and effect. Linguistically, there are wonderful wordplays originating from it that stoke powerful imagery and humour when taken literally 'leg up, leg over, legless' and highlight the complexity and absurdities of our semiotics. As a repeatable element, the leg provides a unit in which to explore the formal concerns of paint- the ground vs the ground we stand on, the weight, the form, pattern and so on.
There is also the tension between corporeal presence and absence of a fragment. A limb/a leg. This also suggests vulnerability – perhaps fragment as representative of part or whole in a process of substitution. And something unique and multiple which nods to identity. And a part of a social engagement, society as a whole.
As such, the leg offers a structure:
- to 'build' a painting with (thinking about our brief parallel to systems painters);
- a representational device for humans and social behaviour reflection (links to how we are with one another but also how we live and fit in, in terms of space and architecture); and
- a system through which to think about paint on the support, which is the canvas/wall/frame/gallery/geometry.
Emma Cousin, Ugly contest, 2016, oil on canvas, 140 x 100 cm.
You were the artist in residence in Painting at the Wimbledon College of Arts last autumn. What did this residency entail? From your blog, it looks like you collected all sorts of photographs of, artworks related to and poems about legs as well as hosting a programme of workshops, film screenings and talks. You presented a solo show of the work and research from this residency in February at the Delta House Gallery. What did you present and do you think this residency will foster any shifts or new developments in your painting practice?
The residency involved being immersed in a studio within the student studios with an open door policy. I encouraged this by asking the students or anyone that saw the poster (staff etc.) to 'bring me a leg' which I built into a body of research alongside my own that was pinned to one wall of my 'in situ' studio. In exchange I gave them a banana -- emphasising the possibilities of liquidity and exchange that aren't based on capitalism. I also invited my peers to post or make or send me responses remotely, like writings from Louise Ashcroft and Paul Carey-Kent. I added the ballast of my existing 'language' with drawings, collages, cut outs, line sketches and found things. It grew organically and humorously, enabling me to step back and take stock of all the 'chapters' involved in order to view the complexity of the stand-in -- all the things the leg could evoke, embrace, engage and refer to or represent.
At the the same time, I put together a series of workshops that ran weekly throughout the residency to think about our messed up semiotics as humans - i.e., language, sign, symbol, image, allegory, inherited information and so on. For example, one workshop was on the body and gesture, thinking about recent politics, stances and language. I invited the brilliant artist Holly Slingsby to develop this workshop. We used contemporary dance and performance techniques to guide playful games to think about our stance as young artists and how we can use what we have around us to assert or investigate this position. We also held discussions on how to sustain artists’ practices post-study, which is a demonstrative aspect of the artist in residence.
Alongside this, I gave a few full days of tutorials, which I loved, and was one of the best aspects of the residency. These exchanges inspired a series of paintings about the balance between fear and thirst for knowledge that the students currently there seem to embody absolutely. Bananas also feature in some of them (!) and Morandi who is increasingly important to me.
The library was a real treat and a chance to explore my increasing interest in dance and the body through theory and fashion history. Access to the foundry and print facilities meant I could play myself and realise a series of bronze 'trophies', which are a very exciting development. The materiality of the foundry excited me too, and I would like to work further with silicon and shellac which I learnt how to use. Drew, the technician there, is exceptional and very patient!
Essentially, it allowed me to zoom in and then out and then in again and see the body of work as a whole in order to see where it could go next. It also provided the room and support to collate all the research (drawings, writing, painting, etc.) together, which has formed a book called Legwork, which is what I called the residency. It is a sort of visual and verbal exploration of the leg language and its evolution. The book will be launched at my solo exhibition, 'Sick Little Monkeys', featuring basic video and sound, wallpaper, paintings, the trophies and possibly a carpet of legs that I've made..!
That was a long answer but it was a very dense time!
For the group show EARS FOR THE EYES curated by Paul Carey-Kent at Transition Gallery (10 February – 4 March 2017), you are presenting a painting entitled “Falling on Deaf Ears” as well as a poem entitled “Hearing aids”. How does writing and poetry fit into or inform your practice?
They are essentially parallel forms of exploring our semiotics as human, visual and linguistic, and using both sets up the opportunity to make unexpected and often numerous connections and to explore the depth of an image, sign or idea. ‘Falling on deaf ears’ was the phrase that inspired both the work and the writing. This phrase originally came from a drawing I made ages ago with this title. Observing my grandparents fuelled the poem 'hearing aids'. That writing then gave me some missing information for the painting, such as palette and emotion, though the physicality (painting style and composition) had been drawn from the initial word play, ‘falling on deaf ears’. I often like to think of these absurd statements literally and use a visual form to see what happens. It's a fun way to start a painting. This one was slow though as it seemed like I had to write the poem to resolve the painting and then revisit and edit the poem again. It's a constant to and fro and at the time, the writing and the painting seem like two different things. I think that the brain and its inherited semiotics make the connections intuitively first. Sometimes, there are poems with no paintings, often in fact. And vice versa. The real link is that both are ways of looking, reflecting and understanding.
In 2015, you founded and organised the exhibition programme for a year-long project space in your gutted and soon to be refurbished home in Brockley called Bread and Jam, working with over 100 artists during that period. What were some of the highlights of that project and did this curatorial experience have any spill-over into your own practice?
The highlights have to be the artworks. And the social aspects - the performances, readings, workshops, the library - that all reached out to the public in an audience ranging from House and Garden magazine to our neighbours and their kids! Watching the shows evolve and trying to work organically with them to guide and gently curate something cohesive whilst remaining true to our ethos of play and experimentation was very challenging and exciting. I learnt that if you ask for help and the project is interesting, people generally say yes! The baker, Coopers Bakehouse, that I contacted sponsored every show from the start with free warm loaves of bread cycled round on the eve of the private view. So we could feed everyone that came to see a show. Again, this was an important social element. Over the course of the programme, we showed a video by a seventeen year old, showed a piece which went on to be shown at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, housed poisonous flowers in a sculptural installation that featured milk (Miriam Austin) and premiered sound pieces by established artists. It was a rollercoaster of learning and creativity and fun and chaos and collaboration. I remain indebted to Emily Austin and Rebecca Glover for supporting my initial idea and working with me to realise it. They remain good friends and Emily and I continue to collaborate. This is a precious outcome of the project. I have also gained confidence and feel less fearful. The worst that can happen is that is doesn't happen at all.
You co-curated a wonderfully researched and presented group show called “It’s Offal” in December 2016 at ArthouSE1 in London, featuring historic as well as contemporary artworks by 29 artists, from Hermann Nitsch, Piero Manzoni and Helen Chadwick to early career artists such as Nils Alix-Tabling, Jane Hayes Greenwood and Nicholas Hatfull, exploring what lies within – from excrement to innards. How did this show come about and what inspired the curatorial theme?
Well, firstly thank you! Ha! This is funny as the real answer is the food itself, offal! Emily (Austin, a brilliant collaborator) and I ate a lot of offal at Bread and Jam before the invigilating started on the weekend (the benefit of living in the show is that you can cook for and eat with everyone all the time! This became a massive part of Bread and Jam). So we just started talking about it and why we loved it so much and assessed the reaction this habit received from other artists. It raised questions on value at the beginning, what we throw away (offal comes from abfall which means throw away), which is one of my concerns in my work. Quickly, it became a discussion about the body, one of my rooted interests, and I liked the fact it made me think about the 'bodily' nature of painting, the materiality of the stuff. As a student at the Ruskin, we had fab lectures on Gina Pane and Marina Abramovic whom I became a little obsessed with so when we revisited these women and their actions in the history books and through private collections and found that the contemporary rhetoric has morphed into a new territory, it spiked our interest. We researched the show for eight months, focusing on exploring the theme as fully as possible, talking to people, visiting greasy spoons and eating liver and gravy, interviewing older people who had different notions of its value, reading about beauty and ugliness, pleasure and repulsion, innards and excrement and discussing the idea with other artists. In the end, the show was pretty expansive with 26 artists including 10 private loans, two new films and many contemporary works made for the show in response to the theme. We also commissioned two performance artists to make new work and they performed at the private view and symposium, where Patrick Brandon's commissioned poems in response to the show were showcased. It was brilliant. It also shows you how long it takes to really put on a show on that level.
What’s next for you in 2017?
After a very busy start, I am happy to be back in the studio and in my painting routine again. I am currently working on a piece about looking at painting. Which is really, just about painting. What it's for and why we do it or look at it. It's hard. I am also re-reading as much John Berger as possible. My contemporary dance education, both physical and theoretical, also continues. I love it. And Emily and I are also planning and discussing two possible shows in the future. It's going to be fun!
Artist’s website: emmacousin.com
EARS FOR THE EYES at Transition Gallery, London (until 4th March): LINK
Wimbledon College of Arts Residency: LINK
Bread and Jam Project Space: LINK
About the Artist
Emma Cousin graduated from the The Ruskin School of Art, Oxford in 2007. She was recently Artist in Residence in the BA Painting Studio at Wimbledon College of Art with a solo show of the work and research in February 2017 at the Delta House Gallery. Other recent selected shows include: Mudhook, a two-person show with Milly Peck at Tintype Gallery, London (2017); The Other Side, a group show at The House of St Barnabas, London (2017); Ears For The Eye, a group show at Transition Gallery, London (2017); The Marmite Painting Prize (in which she was runner-up), London and Ireland (2016); making the nature scene, The Tannery, London (2016); Seven Painters, a group show at Arcade Gallery, Cardiff (2016); Lucy in the Sky, Transition Gallery, London(2015); Luck and Chance and Foule Parliament, both touring group shows in 2015. Cousin was selected for the Lynn Painter Stainers Prize and shortlisted for the Anthology Prize, both in 2016. Emma Cousin and Emily Austin recently co-curated It’s Offal, at Arthouse1 Gallery, London (2016). Cousin also ran the curated project space Bread and Jam in her home in Brockley, London for a year in 2015-16.
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/03/02/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-emma-cousin-legs/
On the occasion of the opening of the group show, Parallax scrolling, at Breese Little in London on 26th January 2017, Marcelle Joseph interviews the British artist Lauren Keeley. Her work is featured in this exhibition alongside that of fellow British artists Nicholas Hatfull and Jackson Sprague. Keeley’s practice encompasses many processes of image-making including painting, photography, printmaking, digital design and rendering software, melding the hand-crafted with the digital age to create intricate, meticulously designed artworks of unadulterated beauty and reflection.
When I think of your work, the first word that springs to mind is “motif”. Your blend of cropped figure, pattern, objet d’art, furniture, interior architectural details and exterior landscape is curious as there does not appear to be any hierarchy among these pictorial elements, rendering the figure just another motif in the tableau. How do you think about “motif” in your practice?
Motifs are certainly really central to my work, I use them ornamentally, as symbols but also as a theme or idea with which to structure the imagery. So, for example, a frequent motif in my work has been the window which I’ve been drawn to because it acts as an intermediary between an interior and exterior space but is also a metaphor for the image, the framed view. I then like playing with these zones of space, shifting the emphasis between the interior and exterior across works and using cropping to give a sense of incompleteness — that there is more to see beyond the frame.
Motifs that are used in these interior and exterior spaces are mostly decorative; there is an element of needing to fill or decorate the pictorial space, whether that be furniture in a room or plants in a garden. For some of the elements, they are included to create textures and detail across the surface of the panels, through using a mixture of inlay, screenprint and coloured fabrics. Then there are often a few elements which have a role of creating points of focus in the image to interrupt the familiar interior/exterior setting. For example, figures and animals are often used to move between spaces, whether this be within the pictorial space or beyond the frame entirely. And then I might include a picture or a mirror to create further pictorial spaces. The picture opens up an extra space and the mirror is reflexive, reflecting the depicted space from beyond the frame.
You’re right in saying there appears to be no hierarchy amongst the elements. Whilst some have a stronger part to play in creating moments of focus across the composition, generally it is about creating visual patterns and textures and points of detail, and I may pay more attention to the herringbone brickwork pattern of a floor than I do to a figure. I quite like this because even though the works are very elaborate and filled with various materials and processes, there is also a real flatness, almost an emptiness that sort of nulls everything.
Lauren Keeley, Flurry (2015), acrylic, linen and wenge on board, 168 x 126 cm.
You describe yourself as a painter and a print maker on your website and your work often sits on the wall but your process is very different from a traditional painter. Could you describe your intricate process of layering laser-cut wood either painted, printed, left in its raw state or covered in linen?
Yes, the work is made up of wooden panels which are layered together to create a relief; whilst portraying imagery, they are physically very sculptural, acting as a sort of frieze on the wall. Each panel is a combination of coloured linens, hardwood elements and screenprint. The first stage of the work is digital. I design the imagery in Illustrator editing software, and from this flat illustration, I can decide how the work will be structured, how the various elements will be treated and to work out the palette. From here, I reduce the imagery to simple lines which get laser cut across various thin plywood panels to form the basic jigsaw puzzle of each work.
Once I have the laser cutting, the rest of the work is very manual. It’s a case of building the panels so initially there is a lot of woodwork involved, and once the panels are made up, they then are stretched in fabrics. On each panel, there may be a variety of fabrics, sections that are shaped instead of straight edged, hardwood inserts and some elements may have screenprints on them too, so the surface of a panel will be handled in a variety of ways. I do this by inlaying separate parts into the surface, so I can treat the various sections differently which then comes together like a big jigsaw puzzle in the end.
Your work explores many periods and styles from neo-classicism to rococo, post-war modern to contemporary style. When I visited your studio, you were in the middle of researching ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum. How do you start on a new body of work? Where do you find your period references?
The initial motivation for a new body of work often comes from a rather vague place; it might be a small detail from a film, artwork or book, or be something that I’ve seen that sparks an idea. To use the word motif again, there is often a theme or structure I am drawn to that I feel could form the basis for a body of work. From there, I am much more focussed and research histories and narratives I find that connect to the idea. I often visit places that could provide useful visual source material, so for example if I know there is going to be a garden element in the work, I will go and visit interesting gardens, taking lots of photos and looking for any elements I could extract and use. Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives formed the basis for a few previous works; I was really drawn to the connections between the forms found in her garden and those seen in her art. It really is a place where art and nature mix and merge.
Once I’m quite sure of an idea I start working on the drawings in Illustrator and do a lot of image collecting. It’s very much like sourcing props for a stage set and normally there’s a to and fro between the drawing and these props. They both inform each other. I generally don’t have a set idea for the drawings before I start them; they are quite intuitive and will change an awful lot before I settle on the final fixed idea. Because the paintings are then entirely based on a composition of laser cut panels, there's little flexibility, so the drawing stage is really important for the final result. There have certainly been instances where a drawing hasn’t been entirely resolved but I’ve gone ahead with a work anyway and had disappointing results. I’ve just had to learn that even though there's not much to physically show in this stage of the work and it can feel a little intangible, it’s a really crucial part of the process which needs to be fully resolved before the work is started physically.
Lauren Keeley, Ode on an Urn (Newcomb/Wedgewood) (2016), linen, acrylic, walnut and wenge on board, 32 x 45 cm.
At Frieze London in October 2016, you presented your first pieces of sculpture in the form of these incredibly vibrant and humorous painted tables and chairs reminiscent of those found in a traditional Italian trattoria. Was this a difficult transition or a natural progression from your flattened three-dimensional wall paintings?
It did feel like a natural progression and something I’ve been wanting to explore for some time. The group presentation and trattoria theme for the booth became the perfect occasion to try this out. If you imagine with the paintings before they are layered together, they exist as parts so there will just be lots of shapes and sections lying around the studio. It’s almost like this all gets flattened in the final stages of making the works. So there’s always been this ‘what if?’ in terms of venturing into the floor space, because in the studio the works do exist as objects until the last minute. Having said that, I definitely think in a very 2D way and so it did take me a while to understand how I would construct the tables, and I was terrified they wouldn’t balance or be level! But once it made sense, it did feel like an extension of making a painting -- just a little more deconstructed and with a few more angles.
What are you showing at the Breese Little exhibition? And what relationships do you feel your work has with that of Nick and Jackson?
I’m showing three large staircase works which are designed to be legible vertically; the imagery moves upwards. I liked the idea of the staircase as a structure used to transition between spaces, with itself becoming a liminal space. In the works, there’s little suggestion of anything beyond, rather that the staircase might just keep escalating. The imagery would be most coherent if the paintings were stacked on top of each other but of course in the gallery space they are presented in a horizontal formation. However, I really like them as a horizontal group, and there was a lot of careful designing so that they would work in this way too, the composition of the two end works are reflections of each other so there’s a sort of symmetry. I like that, when reading the sequence in this formation, your eye has to zig zag across the works, interrupting our inclined left-to-right way of reading images.
The show itself has been a really enjoyable and involved experience, and it’s been great to become more familiar with Nick and Jackson’s work. At first, there wasn’t a strict idea as to what the show would be about and how our work formally interrelates, but through meeting as a group and long email exchanges, the crossovers in our work gradually revealed themselves. I think there are connections but also a lot of differences between our practices, which I found made the process more interesting. I feel my work links with Jackson’s in terms of craft and how we make our work, with both of us often working digitally towards getting something fabricated, which then goes back to the studio to become very manual again. I think for both of us there's a lot about the translation between the hand and the machine. With Nick’s work, there’s again a huge interest in the motif; his work is full of signs and symbols, but they are more from the everyday. His work mixes and restructures the symbols we encounter in the commonplace.
Rebecca Lewin, who curated the film programme and who also wrote the essay for the show, was brilliant at joining the dots and bringing our three practices together a little more coherently. The show is titled ‘Parallax Scrolling’ which is a technique used to create the impression of distance and space, mostly used in computer graphics. It’s essentially a process that places distance between flat layers so you get an impression of depth, a bit like a stage set, so it’s about creating space in imagery in a very different way from the conventional use of perspective. I think each of us sits on a different point of the spectrum with regards to this idea. The space in Nick’s paintings often feels very compressed; there’s a coherence in the way he collages his imagery but also an abstraction and disjointedness. And Jackson’s sculptures bring this idea into the 3D. I find his large sculpture in the show particularly amazing to look at; from some angles, it really fills space and has a commanding physical presence, and from another aspect, it is very slight like it has morphed or vanished in the space somewhat. My work probably sits somewhere in the middle. Of course, it has a 3D physical aspect, but it is still very flattened with just a small distance between each layer.
Lauren Keeley, Halfway Down (2017), acrylic, linen and stained walnut on boards, 184 x 127 cm, courtesy of Breese Little, London.
Does your thought process change when making work for a group show as opposed to a solo presentation?Yes absolutely. Because I like to play with the framing and cropping in the works, often having elements that start on one piece and lead into the next, the work is suited to a series and so the opportunity of a solo presentation gives me that space. I enjoy having repetitive motifs which are approached in different ways across separate works, and so working across a group allows me to do that. I think too with larger projects, you have time to really think and let ideas develop. I’ve realised that I find it more difficult making one-off works; I think the single frame is too restrictive for me, and I am not able to research and mull over a single image as much as I do when working on a series. Instead, I’ve thought that having my own ongoing studio projects might be a solution to this problem so when you visited my studio, you saw the beginnings of a few paintings based on ceramics. There is no end goal in terms of showing these works, but I really enjoy researching and adding to the series. It feels like there’s an ongoing dialogue there, which is important for me. However, with the Breese Little show, and another group exhibition I was part of last year called GranPalazzo, I’ve been able to make a significant body of work, which has given me that time and space, so I think group shows where I’m able to have a substantial participation are really appealing and more suited to the way I work.
What’s next for you after the Breese Little show?
I’m going to have a solo presentation at LISTE in Basel with Frutta in the summer so that is my focus now and will pretty much fill up my schedule. I’m really looking forward to starting this project and being able to focus on a large body of work again.
When we last spoke in your studio in 2016, you spoke about the gentrification of New Cross and how that was going to affect you in terms of having to find another studio and most likely in a less central location. Has Brexit delayed that move? Do you think that government should get involved in some way to prevent the mass exodus of creatives from London due to sky-rocketing rents and gentrification?
Brexit is definitely delaying the process; there’s development signs all over the area but it does seem to have stalled. We’ve just had the lease at my studio building extended until the end of the year. Of course, I would like there to be more stable and reliable work-space options for creatives as I think the city is really important for a lot of artists. By its very nature, having a studio practice is very solitary so you need the city to counteract this, to keep connected and uphold a community. I will definitely have to move further out next year, most likely more south. This is OK but I do think when you are a young artist just starting out, having that one studio visit can really change things, and so if you are in an even less accessible area, is someone going to be put off from coming to see your work?
It’s fantastic that Sadiq Khan is recognising this as a problem in London and hopefully things will improve, but you also realise there is a general squeeze on the city in terms of housing and resources, and gentrification is a double edged sword. You want to see an area flourish and improve but it’s difficult when there are groups of people that get pushed out as a consequence.
Parallax scrolling runs from 27th January – 18th March 2017 at Breese Little, Unit 1, 249 – 253 Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 6JY.
About the Artist
Lauren Keeley (born 1986, Milton Keynes) lives and works in London after graduating with an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2014) and a BFA from the Ruskin School, University of Oxford (2010). Recent group exhibitions include Frieze Art Fair, London; Slate Projects, London; GRANPALAZZO, Rome (all 2016); and Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes (2013 and 2011). She has had recent solo exhibitions at Frutta, Rome and Supplement, London (both 2015). Keeley is represented by Frutta, Rome.
As seen on FAD Magazine: http://fadmagazine.com/2017/02/09/marcelle-joseph-interviews-artist-lauren-keeley/
Sara Berman’s poised and urbane figurative paintings will feature in two upcoming group shows in London this month: Young Gods at Charlie Smith London and Dark Wood curated by fellow artist Henry Hussey at the Transition Gallery. To find out more about Berman’s artistic practice and how her former career as a women’s fashion designer informs that practice, Marcelle Joseph speaks with Berman.
Congratulations on being selected for Charlie Smith Gallery’s 10th edition of Young Gods curated by Zavier Ellis! And for being the only painter in this group show featuring eight recent graduates or postgraduates from London art schools!! Ellis has described your work as recalling at once Matisse, Hockney and Katz. Does he have it right? Which artists from the past are you most inspired by?
I do look to all three of those big boys and many more besides. I love Schiele, Kitaj Beckmann, Paula Rego, Alice Neel - the list goes on and on. I didn’t have a typical art school career so when I arrived at the Slade for my masters, all my skills had been learned through copying those artists I admired. This was great in some respects but problematic in that I was simply a very good copyist. My struggle throughout my masters was to work out what my own paintings actually looked like. I was pretty surprised by what came out.
After studying fashion design in the golden era of the 90’s at Central Saint Martins, how was it going back to study painting at the Slade in 2014? How do the two types of education compare?
Poles apart! Firstly, doing a BA at CSM at 19 years old was a fairly hedonistic experience. I didn’t think so much about why I was making certain work - I just sort of went with the flow, enjoyed the scene and allowed my handwriting to develop in a very unselfconscious way. My Slade MFA at 40 felt much more considered. I had the weight of my past behind me and wanted to spend a lot of time digging around in there to understand what work I made and why I made it. Painfully self-conscious. Actually the biggest stumbling block to developing as a fine artist at art school was the total lack of boundaries. This simple given of any good art school education was for me, creatively paralysing.
Your delicate but super-stylised paintings play with pattern, design and motif in cropped compositions that include a female figure in a curated interior space. What source material do you look to for inspiration? Does your approach to painting differ from how you approached a new collection for your eponymous fashion line?
I love this question as one of the real turning points for me at Slade was when my tutor asked my why I couldn’t approach my artistic practice as I would have approached a collection. It was like a light going on in my head and allowed me to relax into the work with confidence. I realise that there are big differences between working as a designer and a fine artist, but I suppose a part of me had romantically assumed that without the constraints of a business built around commerce, I would be free to make wonderful work. However, without anything to push against, I found I didn’t have any way of going deeper into the work and developing it. This was as frustrating as a game with no rules. Once I started to use the ‘boundaries’ I had enjoyed working with as a designer and reconsidering them as a visual artist, I found some traction. I use much of the same source material I always did. Certain books, magazines, Internet sources. Photography is very important to me. I think that coming of age in the 90’s hardwired certain aesthetic values in me which are pretty evident in my compositional decisions. I have recently begun to consciously ‘merchandise’ my paintings. When designing a collection, there comes a point when you need to stop looking at each garment in itself and start considering how the collection works as a whole. When the collection goes down the catwalk or is merchandised for the buyers, it needs to hang together in a balanced and considered manner - much like a composition. I love the idea of merchandising a painting.
Your choice of furniture and domestic interior settings for your paintings could be considered ‘aspirational’. Are the aspects of desire, commerce and design important to your practice?
Absolutely. Before working as a designer, I spent a number of years earning my holiday money as a model. Whilst being the worst model in the world, I did learn a huge amount about constructed identities and how to deliver on being something someone else wanted me to be. It also made me fall in love with clothes. I realised their potential for self-invention and telling stories. When I had my own label, it was all about the stories - the constructed self. Branding and ‘lifestyle’ came into its own in the 90s and then the realisation that this constructed identity had spread to every conscious, discerning decision we made about the things we surround ourselves with. I am interested in a particular idea of lifestyle, how those ideas are delivered to us and how we absorb them. Authenticity is something we strive so hard for. No one would like to think that they are inauthentic or fake. Yet, the moment we attempt to consider our authenticity, it is negated by this self-conscious act. Ironically, it is design that seems to me to be the most honest of all our constructions. The interior spaces we occupy - in particular the domestic - become extensions of self. They contain the things we have chosen to gather around us as well as the practical mundanities of everyday life. It is like a display of the patterns of commerce and consumerism tempered by personal choice and legacy. Our own little museums of self. However lightly we touch them, our mark is somehow made and within those marks, patterns are formed. The same dress discarded on the floor, draped over a chair or on the body has different qualities. Or the same bag held, open or hung is the same but different. The same object experienced different ways becomes a sort of abstracted pattern. Our spaces absorb the regular alterations and shifts of our use. Patterns of human behaviour played out through objects.
Your colour palette is a beautiful muted one that I would describe as ‘mid-century Modern’. How do you approach colour in your paintings? Do you intentionally limit your palette to certain set of colours or is it more about your comfort zone or trying to create your ‘stamp’ on the picture?
This is a two pronged concern for me. Recently, I have enjoyed basing my palette on a pre-prescribed ‘colours for the home’ catalogue. I like this idea of following prescribed ideas of good taste (something I don’t really believe in as an authentic concept). But actually it is just another way of limiting myself. I play lots of games within my paintings. I am trying to narrow my field as much as possible in order to concentrate more on the ‘how’ and less on the ‘what’.
The female figures in your paintings are often nude with no hierarchy given to them relative to the other objects in the picture plane. Your paintings appear to focus more on the details of the furniture and flooring of the depicted interior space. In fact, often the patterns featured in the room can be seen through the translucent flesh of the figure. Is this a way to distance yourself from fashion and clothing the female body or it is a celebration of the human form?
Generally, an object designed to be used by people, such as a handbag or a chair for example, have a bodily aspect. In anticipation of serving the absent body, it can act as a stand in for the very thing it is there to service. We can read spaces in the same way that we can read clothing, as a set of signifiers that go some way to describing the bodies that exist within them - even when the body is absent.
And then this makes me wonder about the liminal spaces between us, our stuff and our places. Do they exist in equal balance, each informing the other in a continual and harmonised dance? Or is it possible that one is there necessarily for the other? And in that case, it becomes like the chicken and the egg question. As a painter, this matters. I can choose where to emphasise or hold back. Do I let the figure into the space? Or just her stuff? Or is the stuff enough? Or too much? What is the value of the figure? What is the worth of the stuff? Is the figure there as a prop to make sense of the stuff, or the space? Or is the space only existing because the figure exists in it? Or perhaps the space ceases to hold the stuff or the figure, allowing the solid base of understanding to fall away before our eyes. These are my choices, my concerns. What matters and how much.
Let’s talk about plants. Your paintings often include luscious green botanical species that become almost erotic appendages to your female nudes. What role do these house plants play for you?
Plants and leaves in particular are nature's perfect design. I enjoy inserting this indisputable truth into my curated interiors. I also, very simply love painting them. I have done it so many times that there is a real freedom in the sweep of the brush and also a risk with such strong pigment at such speed, especially in contrast to the sometimes very careful and deliberate handling of other parts of the work. It is a rush, a pleasure.
One last question - What advice would you give to jaded or struggling creatives in the fashion, architecture or design fields who wish they could back to art school and become fine artists like you have done?
I would love to merrily advise everyone to grab the bull by the horns and give it all up to go to school but actually I am aware that I was in a very privileged position to be able to do this. It wasn’t an overnight decision and took two years of planning and hard work to get the business in a place where I could make the switch. It then took me a long time to realize that the foundation of my work as a fine artist is my background in fashion. I feel incredibly lucky to have such a rich seam to mine!
About the Artist
Sara Berman (b.1975) lives and works in London. She completed her MFA at Slade School of Art, UCL, London in 2016 where she was awarded a distinction and the Audrey Wykeham Prize for Painting. Previously, Berman worked as a fashion designer and consultant. After studying fashion design at Central Saint Martins, she founded her eponymous fashion brand that operated from 1998 until 2012 and worked as a design consultant to a variety of fashion and design companies. A long and deeply held interest in the conversation between design, commerce and identity informs her artistic practice. Recent group exhibitions include Young Gods, Charlie Smith Gallery, London; Dark Wood (curated by Henry Hussey), Transition Gallery, London (both 2017); topophobophilia, Gallery 46, London; Slade Graduate Show, London; Names, Transition Gallery, London (all 2016); Imagine, Londonewcastle Project Space, London; Symposium for Drawing, BAK Museum, Utrecht; BP Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery, London (all 2015); Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Mall Galleries, London (2014).
Carla Busuttil’s third solo show at Josh Lilley in London entitled The Super-Suburb Defence Authority touches on all of the ills that have infected South Africa since its colonial era. As a South African artist growing up under apartheid but living and working outside her home country since moving to London to attend the Royal Academy Schools in 2005, Busuttil is able to look back on her native land with a dispassionate and impartial lens, picking up on all of the developments and setbacks of a country struggling to cleanse itself of its apartheid history.
Consisting of painting, sculpture, video and bespoke artist wallpaper, this exhibition actively engages the viewer, whether interested in the politics or not, as the installation is a master class in exhibition making and the politically and culturally-charged subject matter is understated, drawing the viewers in instead of slapping them on the face. In the first room of the exhibition, there is a large seemingly innocent painting of six school boys in their uniforms painted in a lurid yellow colour, with their school’s motto printed on the top left corner of the canvas: “Our motto is achieve. And success we will achieve.” Inspired by a school photo of the artist’s husband’s secondary school class in South Africa where he was forced to learn the Afrikaans language that only 13% of the South African population understands, this painting is quintessential Busuttil – revolving around the human form, painted in an abstract contemporary style, using a painterly brushstroke, and touching on the political landscape of a vibrantly coloured South Africa. In the same room, the viewer is confronted with four thickly-impastoed primitive faces reminiscent of African masks but painted on vintage cricket pads found in thrift shops in England, subtly pointing to South Africa’s colonial past. Presented on traditional gallery plinths, these sculptures are all titled Nightwatchman, alluding to the overall theme of this exhibition exploring the South African private security industry that employs more people than the police force and army combined.
In the downstairs gallery spaces, another thought-provoking painting of a car park guard intrigues the viewer as the man’s face is painted blue, matching the painting’s ground and hinting at racial tension, social unrest and the giant chasm between the rich and the poor. Continuing this leitmotif, Busuttil presents for the first time in the UK the video she produced after extensive research in Johannesburg called Mosquito Lightning, a parody advertisement of the private security firm the artist founded while on a residency there earlier this year. Presented on top of bespoke artist wallpaper, this video work is equal parts humour and terror as the entire private security industry profits from fear and its amplification in order to fulfil its corporate promise to eradicate it. This emphasis on the fear of the “other” in society has universal applications at the present moment, whether it be president-elect Trump promising to ban all Muslims from entering the United States or the British majority who voted for Brexit this summer in order to stop immigration into the UK. So through Busuttil’s window with a view of suburban South Africa, the viewer has a glimpse of its own political realities in present-day London.
All in all, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit (on until 23 December 2016) for Busuttil’s tantalising painting technique as well as for its transporting qualities – from a grey wintry day in Fitzrovia to a colour-saturated, bright day in a privileged Johannesburg suburb.
About the Artist
Carla Busuttil (b.1982, Johannesburg, South Africa, lives and works in Oxford) studied at the Royal Academy, London, and University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Solo exhibitions include Choice. Click.Bait, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 2016; A Change of Tongue, Space K, Seoul, 2014; and Generation V, Josh Lilley, London, 2013. Group exhibitions include We see (in) the Dark, Museum of Africa Design, Johannesburg, 2015; Creative London, Space K, Seoul, Gwacheon & Gwangju, 2012; and Newspeak: British Art Now, Saatchi Gallery, London, 2010.
After several other exhibitions in London this year, Glasgow-based France-Lise McGurn pulls out all the stops for her solo exhibition at Bosse & Baum in Peckham (on until 18th December 2016). Presenting her signature wall and floor paintings alongside her figurative paintings on canvas and a more experimental sound piece, McGurn titled the show Mondo Throb, referencing both the 1970’s mondo genre of exploitation filmmaking as well as excited, inflamed body parts. In stark contrast to her earlier work that fragmented the human body with a more innocent vibe, these paintings are erotically charged with the viewer treated to a parade of bodies and body parts, from one seated nude gazing upon a topless woman in repose to another nude woman masturbating. The titling of the paintings is revelatory as well (e.g., Aerobics gives you herpes, Betty batteries and Hermione Hormone).
The presentation of the paintings on canvas on top of the wall paintings brings to mind an orgy of limbs or a subtle nod toward club culture, an area of activity where McGurn is incredibly active in Glasgow. She runs a club night residency at the poetry club in Glasgow, in collaboration with Katie Shannon, called DAISIES, where they invite DJs and artists to contribute to the décor and installation. The floor paintings and artist-rigged lighting in the gallery space further contribute to that club ambience with the random squiggles of paint on the concrete floor suggestive of the stains and detritus left behind after a wild and crazy night on the dancefloor.
McGurn’s work is developed from her personal archive of collected imagery and moving image files. For this body of work, ecstasy was the focus, and the artist culled imagery from multiple sources from film, television, music and visual culture – from softcore and sexploitation films such as Emanuelle (1974) and Nine and a Half Weeks (1986) to illustrations for Happy Families decks of cards (1939). A visit to this exhibition is strongly recommended whether you are looking for carnal ecstasy or divine ecstasy. It is a visual feast for the eyes.
For those living in Glasgow, look out for McGurn’s work at the Pipe Factory in February 2017.
All photos courtesy of the artist and Bosse & Baum. Photo credit: Oskar Proctor
About the Artist
France-Lise McGurn (b. 1983, Glasgow) lives and works in Glasgow. She graduated with a BA from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in 2005 and with an MA from the Royal College of Art in 2012. Selected exhibitions include: Nomadic Vitrine, Recent Activity, Birmingham (October 2016); Felicity Black, Vertical Vulnerability, Caustic Coastal (October 2016); The Old Things, Crévecoeur, Paris (July 2016); Sexting, Kate Werble Gallery, New York (July 2016); At Home Salon: Double Acts, Marcelle Joseph Projects, Ascot (May 2016); Only with a light touch will you write well, freely and fast, Supplement, London (2016) and David Dale Gallery, Glasgow (2015); NEO-PAGAN BITCH-WITCH! Evelyn Yard, London (2016); 3am (solo), Collective Gallery, Edinburgh (2015); A collaboration with Marianne Spurr, Studio Leigh, London (2015); Nos Algae’s, a performance at Tramway, Glasgow (2014). She was part of collaborative performance Amygdala N.O.S with Kimberley O’Neill and Cara Tolmie at South London Gallery (2015), for the launch of Love your Parasites, edited by Camilla Wills, which she also contributed to. Upcoming exhibitions include France-Lise McGurn, Zoe Williams & Urara Tsuchiya at The Pipe Factory, Glasgow (February, 2017).
Artist Laurie Nye’s other-worldly paintings filled with omnipotent female cyborgs and organic geometric shapes feature at the current group show at The Dot Project in London entitled “Figure It Out” (until 13thNovember). On the occasion of her European debut, Marcelle Joseph sat down to talk to this LA-based Memphis-born artist about her painting practice and inspirations.
- Your paintings offer a vision of an alternate reality or a fantasy world ruled by women and for women. Could you talk about your subject matter? Is it utopian or feminist in focus?
I’d say my paintings are conjured from a feminine gaze and lean toward a visionary type of pictorial space. I do like to reimagine myths, turning them on their ear and offering a different perspective, flipping roles of hero vs heroine. I feel compelled to look beyond the reality I live in as a woman and a creator in a patriarchal world where I see a history strewn with cruelty, greed and environmental exploitation. I collaborate in an alternative reality with invented muses, which are powerful, intelligent, empathetic and hybrid female energies. That sounds either utopian or escapist, when you think about it.
- Are there narrative threads weaving through your paintings in general? I see for your 2015 LA solo show you transformed the myth of Andromeda, recasting it to empower female characters. Does this theme continue through the works presented at The Dot Project in London?
I was raised in the deep south in the U.S. and southerners do like narratives. I love allegorical painting so I tend to be drawn to ideas and themes. The theme of Andromeda continues to inform my latest work as I consider ways to depict a fantastic realm empowered and shaped by female hybrid beings. I see my work as an ongoing collaboration with these nature-loving muses. The idea of the cyborgian figure and the intermixing of geometric versus organic form continues to evolve in strange and surprising ways in my recent paintings.
- You paint exclusively female figures. Do you consider yourself a feminist or do you just prefer the female form for formal reasons?
My art practice is defined by a strong educational foundation in figurative drawing and painting. I love being a woman, painting women who rule in a reality I’d want to exist within. So far, the main subjects in my paintings have been female, not necessarily to the exclusion of other sexes. If envisioning a galaxy run by women is considered a feminist ideal then I’m a card carrying member.
- Do you use source material or do these female figures come from your imagination?
I enjoy looking at weird sci-fi illustration and I hoard art books and random ephemera. Over time, much of what I’ve collected and researched in the past has been internalised. I draw a lot straight out of my imagination. I’m very in tune with the internal world and I do a lot of paintings from simple pencil drawings of ideas that come to me.
- Let’s talk composition. Your picture plane is dense and crowded with imagery filling up every inch of the canvas. This convention lends an immersive quality to the work for the viewer. What are your intentions as the maker?
As for composition, I want to suck you in beyond the lateral plane of looking at a surface. It’s not enough for me to move your eyes around; I’m interested in a transformative space for the viewer to wonder about over time. The paintings have indeed become more shallow in depth which offers a more intimate space to the viewer and to my mind creates a more complex, figure/ground relationship.
- How do you approach your colour palette as the colours are vibrant and saturated? Do you believe that colour can provoke certain feelings in the viewer?
I’m very much interested in the emotive experience of colour. I think about colour a lot and my colour mood shifts. My last series was, to me, like my neon impressionist phase. Now I’ve returned to black as a marker of emphasis. I love the use of black in Manet’s paintings. I get excited and go through colour stories. I want to go dimmer, deeper, but I keep conjuring these exuberant, velvety, sort of weird palettes. Lots of yellow, pink, blue, red and black. I have ways of layering the colours to make them sing. It’s a balance and sometimes it really hits the right note. When you figure out how to make colours react to each other, a painting will draw out a visceral feeling.
- With your use of motif and pattern, your work is reminiscent of the great Swedish abstract mystic painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). At some point, do your figures become abstracted motifs/shapes/forms as well?
*Wow, thank you for the compliment, I have the highest regard for Hilma af Klint’s transcendent paintings. Her work is out of place, out of time and I definitely identify with that. She painted in a vacuum and in a way it seems like a gift to me, to have that autonomy and singularity of space in which to carve out a vision. To answer your question, the figures in my paintings are invented around the idea of hybridity, a changing body which can shift and morph. In my paintings, the figures/creatures/colours/forms are all able to meld and become indistinct from each other and their environment if they so choose.
- You attended the world famous Cal Arts, completing your MFA in 2002. How has your educational background played out into your current practice, if at all?
Cal Arts is becoming a more distant, yet idyllic memory. That place was a hotbed for boundless creative and intellectual experimentation. I was so fortunate to work with many wonderful brains, including the revered conceptual artist and thinker, Michael Asher. He was not an aesthetically minded artist, completely anti-visual and I learned a lot from those rigorous, all-day critiques. I was naive and I benefited from sheer dumb guts to speak up for myself. Many professors back then were anti-painting. That was how I began my passage of grad-school, “why painting?”. Sheesh! I made it out of there feeling I’d achieved an exclusive badge of honor alongside my fellow MFA comrades. We fondly call each other “Martians”. It changed me forever, giving me a broadened dialog outside of my painting practice.
About the Artist
Laurie Nye (b. 1972, Memphis, TN) lives and works in Los Angeles. She earned a BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 1995 and a MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 2002. Nye’s work has been featured in one- and two-person exhibitions such as Andromeda, 5 Car Garage, Los Angeles, CA (2015); The Crystal Eaters, Statler & Waldorf Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2013); Nature Diamond Figure, Parker Jones Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2011); So Forgotten, Material Gallery, Memphis TN; and Laurie Nye and Paula Cane, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2007). Her work has been included in thematic exhibitions including The White Album, Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles, CA (2014); Material Anthology, Material Gallery, Memphis, TN (2013); Unfinished Paintings, LACE, Los Angeles, CA (2011); Like a Soft Summer Rain, Post Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2010); Boo, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2007); and Sugartown, Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York, NY (2005).