"I search for quiet, potentially unsettling places with a peculiar type of beauty."
Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?
I grew up in the West Country and moved to London when I was 19 to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins. This was in 1996 and apart from a year spent in New Zealand and a few months back in Devon I’ve lived in London ever since. During a five-year gap between BA and MA, alongside a lot of part-time jobs, I worked in a shed in my back garden and tried to bribe people to visit me by offering cream teas.
I studied MA sculpture at the Royal College of Art 2004-2006 and it was here that I found myself painting. It started as part of an installation focusing on the English landscape and how it is reproduced and represented. I had no intention of becoming a painter, it just slowly crept in. At first alongside sculptures and eventually as stand-alone pieces.
Looking at your landscapes there is a feeling of being on edge, as you look into the dark woods there is that fear of the unknown. Is this your intention? If so could you talk about the thoughts behind this?
It is intentional in that I search for quiet, potentially unsettling places with a peculiar type of beauty. I favour views away from the well documented vista and views that have something a little strange about them, even if it is just in their banality. In recent years the scenes I paint have become more closed in with the horizon line, and sometimes the sky, not shown.
This is partly because I’ve started depicting places in London such as Victoria Park and the areas that I want to paint are smaller because there’s so much more infrastructure. It's also because I’m drawn to scenes that have the possibility of being read in different ways. By that I mean an image that doesn’t give away its location with a landmark or by being well known. I often crop the view to produce an image that it is open enough in its references that, for example, although it may be a view taken in Devon it might look like Suffolk to one person or even Denmark to another. This ambiguity leaves space for the viewer to enter into a dialogue or begin imagining a fiction.
You only paint places where you have physically been, do you feel it’s important that you were actually there in the landscape?
I’m not sure if it’s important to the viewer but it’s important to me. As Malcolm Andrews observes in The Search for the Picturesque there is a paradoxical desire to seek the picturesque within the natural environment and then promptly alter it by creating one's own version. At the moment I can’t see myself painting from found images or even another person’s image of a place I have been. It would feel like there was information missing. Although I’m making still images, I feel that time is very important to my work. In Poetics of Space Bachelard says that space contains compressed time. The time spent in the landscape absorbing sounds, weather, seasons, terrain and the reverie that accompanies this activity stay with me when I’m making the painted version of it. In this way I feel like the paintings are compressed or distilled versions of the time spent there.
The reason to visit the places I paint is not because of the wish to make a truthful record of the topography as I remove information like buildings and roads. It probably has much more to do with my physical need to spend time alone in nature. For me nature is a refuge and when I’m painting, in part, I’m replaying the experience of being in the landscape.
Having said this, I often take screen shots as I’m watching a film or drama and occasionally use these as colour references for the quality of light. I’ve enjoyed seeing the landscapes in The Walking Dead. There are relatively long shots that just show the trees. Although you expect something to come out of the bushes at any time, it doesn’t always happen. I like the way an innocuous view can be imbued with such anticipation.
As well as painting you also make sculptures, could you talk about the process of making these and how they relate to your paintings?
After falling in love with the language of painting, it took quite a while to get back to making sculpture. As I predominately make representational work, the sculptures, which were of fences and rocks, seemed too much like props and discussions about artificiality arose. I didn't think this was helpful alongside the paintings so for a number of years I stopped making sculpture altogether.
In 2015 I started again with an exhibition for Milton Keynes Arts Centre called ‘The Winter Girls’ which was based on English ceramics from the 1930’s with kitsch motifs of nature. The sculptural processes are quite different, as are the aesthetics; I often get asked if I share my studio, as at first glance the two elements of my practice can look quite different. What connects them is the exploration of symbols of nature and how we bring these into the domestic sphere as well as the surface layer of paint present on almost all my work.
I make the sculptures using plaster and clay. I then lacquer and paint them before adding Liberty prints or curtain tassels. I’m a really messy worker; the materials get everywhere, which means I can’t make paintings and sculptures at the same time. The speed is so different, as is the physicality; they’re made quite intensely and there’s more room for gesture as I use brushes to apply the plaster.
What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?
I feel that painting is a conversation. I hope to open a dialogue about nature and the way we use it, commodify it, own it, and project emotions or identity onto it. I am deliberately exploring these concepts in predominately domestic sized objects as the notion of bringing the natural world into our homes by way of landscape painting and ceramics or fabrics with tropes of nature is well established. By doing this I am able to draw upon a familiar visual language.
The conversation doesn't have to be spoken, it can just be an exchange of thoughts. As I've mentioned, I’ve had responses that the landscapes remind people of places they've been to or know, such as a Danish friend who says they remind her of home. I think this is wonderful as it means the image in the painting has transferred from one person’s memory to another.
Visiting a place and finding a view or scene I wish to paint (and in some way collect or own) is just a starting point. I hope the work has a life beyond me and that it can become a shared experience.
I’m sharing my viewpoint: the corners of fields or riverbanks that catch my attention. I guess initially I’m saying ‘look at this’. Of course there’s so much more to the conversation about landscape painting but this is where I start. As the John Muir misquote goes ‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.’
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
I saw the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition at the Barbican on the last day. It was packed but I’m so glad I went. As I walked into the installation of The Visitors I was almost in tears, it was so emotive and such a beautiful experience.
In the summer I went to see Pablo Bronstein’s performance at Tate Britain, and in a room just off from the Duveen galleries was a display of Walter Sickert pantings. I’ve never been much of a fan of his work (not enough green or foliage) but the paint application and economy of marks stunned me and I spent a long time with the work looking at the way the painting was built up.
Earlier in the year I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for the first time and enjoyed the wonderful display of 17th, 18th and 19th Century landscape paintings that they have there, especially the smaller works displayed on the balcony that runs around the top of one of the galleries.
I loved Benjamin Senior's exhibition at Bruce Haines, Mayfair and I’m looking forward to going to Amsterdam soon to see Caroline Walker’s show at Grimm Gallery and Avery Singer at the Stedelijk Museum.
How do you go about naming your work?
With difficulty! I used to give the work more romantic titles but I was concerned I was leading the viewer too much towards a particular response. I try not to tell someone how to view the work so I now title it with the name of the place and a number for the order they were made in the series. I enjoy the names of the places I paint, particularly the Devon hamlets and villages such as Woolfardisworthy, or Columbjohn. There's a place called Zeal Monachorum that I haven't painted yet but would like to because of the name. I find naming a show easier and allow myself more poetic titles such as ‘Time Hangs Heavy’, which was a phrase used in a Robert Goddard book – a crime novel set in the West Country. I also listen to Radio 4 in the studio and write notes on my desk if I hear something I think might be useful.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine, what is your studio like?
I‘m no longer working in a shed. Since graduating 10 years ago I’ve had a studio in Hackney Wick. I’m in a really lovely studio block with artists that have become good friends. We often have coffee or lunch together and pop in and out of each other’s studios to discuss our work. It's a community and I feel really fortunate. Sadly it won’t last forever as the area is changing and a large number of new developments are being built.
I don't really have a routine as it depends on the type of work I’m making but I keep a studio diary where I log the hours that I arrive and leave with brief notes. It can feel very abstract otherwise; I like being able to look back and track what I’ve been doing.
What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I’m in a group exhibition called Landing that opens on the 28th of September with Anna Freeman Bentley and Freya Douglas-Morris. It’s organised by Kristian Day in association with the Herrick Gallery. I’m also in a group exhibition called Solid Gone curated by Mark Beldan that opens on the 29th of September at The Back Room in Holdrons Arcade in Peckham.
Next year I will be doing a project with dalla Rosa and taking part in an exhibition in Poitiers with the Arborealists.
I’m currently working on a new body of work that is much larger and I’m enjoying this change of scale. I’ve also found two new sites that I would like to paint; the field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on in the town I grew up in and sections of the River Lee that run through Hackney Marshes and the Olympic park.
Interview published: 30/09/16