Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
Saturday, 10 March 2018
Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
Bjarne Melgaard: A Contradiction in Terms
‘I don’t do art to make everybody like me and I don’t have any problems with people not liking my work.’ For an artist who has more often than not courted controversy with his paintings, films and installations, this is doubtless a good thing. A lesser character might have kowtowed to criticism and given up his art-making, but not Bjarne Melgaard. ‘I believe in freedom of speech. I don’t see my work as very mainstream, so when I get reactions saying it is stupid, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I am also entitled to my opinion. As long as you know yourself what you’re doing, and you’re convinced about it, then you can handle anything.’
Melgaard’s current exhibition, which opened on 23 February at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, is by no means as controversial as many of his earlier offerings – which have seen him variously accused of racism, paraphilia and paedophilia. Showing alongside an exhibition of works by Sturtevant, Melgaard’s solo show – his first with the gallery in London – sees the 17th-century Ely Room filled with a suite of 14 new paintings, Bodyparty (Substance Paintings), each 180x180cm. Because of the age of the building, the heavy canvases could not be hung on the walls, and so they stand about, propped up on marble blocks. Melgaard, however, likes this ‘improvised’ feel, echoing the ‘casual easiness’ with which the works stand on the floor in his studio, and describes the whole coming together of the exhibition, proposed to him ‘at very short notice’ by Ropac’s new senior global director, and former director of Serpentine Galleries, Julia Peyton-Jones, as ‘very organic and very fast’.
Read the full interview on the Norwegian Arts website here
Friday, 2 March 2018
In Conversation with Alan Rankle
Art Bermondsey Project Space, London, 2016
AMc: Alan, you were trained at Goldsmiths and there was conceptual art going on but, despite that, you remained pretty much faithful to painting.
AR: I didn’t expect it would take so long to do what I wanted to do in painting. At Goldsmiths there was an emphasis on conceptual art, which was a radical, new position. There were also some tutors who were among the best abstract painters, Basil Beattie and Albert Irvin, and that was mainly what the college was all about at that time. Going to the National Gallery as a young student and seeing, for the first time, the art of the 17th and 18th century was the outstanding influence.
My initial idea was to make artworks using the subject of 17th-century art as a found object in the spirit of Arte Povera and so I was using photography, making installations with projected images, taking for example a slide of a painting by Ruisdael and making it go in and out of focus, on the wall, and things like that. I decided I’d like to learn much more about how these artists worked and to be able to quote them. In fact, there wasn’t a particular moment, but something had stuck in my mind as being relevant. At the Greenwich Theatre on a Sunday afternoon listening to some jazz, there was an avant-garde pianist with a trio and, in the middle of all the improvising, he started quoting Bach, which I recognised, and it occurred to me I would like to be able to do that, you know, to quote these painters from earlier periods and use them in my work – doing it for real. That’s how I got started.
AMc: You said quoting from the 17th century – there are lot of art historical references in your work…
AR: Well, it’s changed over the years, but that was the starting point, and in particular the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century – there’s something remarkable about them that got my attention really early on.
AMc: But there’s a very contemporary edge to your work as well – there’s sometimes a political comment, or is it a social comment?
AR: I think it’s impossible to make paintings about the environment without it being political. There have been lots of influential people, John Berger for instance, whose critiques of 18th-century paintings like Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews made a fundamental impression.
AMc: You mentioned before that you see the arts as being a kind of lightning conductor for the zeitgeist and that art-making isn’t something that you can plan. So is it something that you don’t plan in advance at all? Do you know what your painting is going to look like or do you have ideas as to what you’re going to do?
AR: I have ideas that are really quite unfocused, as if you were writing a film script and you didn’t have any dialogue or locations, but you had a sense of the feeling you want people to have when they watch the film. That’s how it starts. There’s something that I can’t easily put into words – but, in a way, I put it into colours and so I walk around for a few days – maybe a few weeks – and have an idea about an impression that appeared to me as a dark red with a flash in it and I wouldn’t really know what it was about. Then, when I start working, all the figurative elements come into focus. I’ll get ideas and there’ll be a particular place that I’ve seen and want to make a painting about. Yet it comes first as a kind of, it’s not really even a feeling, it’s just like something that hovers in the back of your mind, you know?
AMc: Do you make sketches at all or do you start directly on to the canvas?
AR: Well, I used to make a lot of sketches. This goes back to the Goldsmiths question, we weren’t really taught techniques as such – there were some life drawing classes going on but there wasn’t anything that really explained how paintings had been made over the centuries and so I had to try to figure it out. I had a couple of friends who were interested in traditional painting and we had to teach ourselves. There was quite a long period where I was drawing a lot but not exhibiting, just trying to figure things out.
AMc: Didn’t you spend some time doing painting restoring as well?
AR: Yes, that was part of the plan always. I realised that art restorers had an informed tradition and I started hanging out with them initially and then getting some work and learning how to do these things. Yes, they were a big influence, I could meet people working for Agnew’s and Sotheby’s and they were grinding pigments and they knew exactly how Rembrandt did something and why it was different to how Rubens did it, it just seemed like a whole other world, and one I needed to understand.
AMc: Do you think you learnt more from that than from college?
AR: Well, in that sense, yes – on the subject of painting as an art.
AMc: Can you tell us a bit about the process of making pictures? I saw an early film that was made of your work by Judith Burrows and you were explaining how you worked and it was really physical – you were using your hands to paint and so on.
AR: Yes, there was a lot of using hands and fingers and forearms going on.
AMc: Do you still work like that?
AR: Yes, and I’m always evolving techniques in different ways. You have to try to expand the vocabulary; to create a language to make the paintings. There’s something that Francis Bacon said, that he was always looking for new ways to put the paint on, and I think that’s quite crucial – it keeps it fresh and it keeps the vitality going as well. It’s important to me that the painting doesn’t just stop on one plane or style. What I’m trying to do is keep on undermining the concept of having a style and letting other unexpected elements in.
AMc: Recently you’ve added photographs to your work, too..
AR: Yes. I had some commissions, from an hotelier, to go to foreign cities and make paintings that reflected the city and also the art of the city. I had the idea of making photo-montages as studies from shots of the locations. The first one Serpentine was for a hotel on Hyde Park, a Rankle & Reynolds project actually, and the second one was in Paris where I asked Rebecca Youssefi, my assistant on some projects, to do the photography. So there became a random element where I’m not even aware of what she’s looked at or shot until I see the images – she makes photo-composites, like the sort of thing Surrealist photographers were doing.
If you make an image where you have two or three different layers, you get these unexpected narratives that no one has ever seen before and yet there’s an uncanny feeling that you’re looking at a subliminal reference to the subject. In the case of the Paris and Venice works, you’re getting some very interesting signals about what the city is about. We print the montages on to already painted, textured canvases and then carry on with the painting with the layers of printed imagery embedded into the paint. It’s a modern equivalent of what Warhol and Rauschenberg were doing with silkscreen. I then use this as a basis for overpainting, leaving fragments of the photomontage coming through like pentimenti. It’s a new thing, I’ve never done it before.
AMc: You’ve done other collaborations though, you said.
AR: Yes, quite a lot, and I’m very interested in doing that.
AMc: And do you see that as part of your own practice, or is it separate?
AR: It’s definitely part of what I do and, in a sense, whoever I have collaborated with, when you look back at it, I’m the common element. I like the way other people’s ideas come at you in a quite random way – it’s completely unexpected and you have to respond to it. I slightly envy musicians who are in articulate ensembles where they’re all improvising together. I’ve always been attracted to that and, yes, through collaborating with other artists on a particular project, you can get close to it.
AMc: Do you listen to music when you are working?
AR: A little bit.
AMc: What kind of music?
AR: It changes. If I do listen to music, I tend to listen to something that I choose in the morning and then play it all day – obsessively. So, if it’s an album, it could be – one of my favourites – Sibelius or maybe Bob Dylan. I’ll choose one and it gives you a mood; a particular piece of music fills the room and gives you a kind of energy and when it stops I just press the button and play it all over again – which is perhaps not so nice for anyone else in the studio! It’s like creating a tone around you, a sonic environment.
AMc: I guess it leads to the question that we sort of touched on, but how much of your painting would you say is an instinctive emotional response and how much of it is guided by rational processes?
AR: I’m not altogether sure how much a rational process comes into it; I can see what you mean and clearly I have to be quite controlled to do certain things. If we consider these paintings we are looking at today, they are all from a similar series so they have things in common, they have a certain look and they were painted to reflect the style of earlier paintings and other periods of art are referenced and I need control to do that. Yet working in this way does come out of being instinctive, and then it goes back to being instinctive quite quickly. There are artists who’ve worked in equally eclectic ways. If you think about the assemblage pieces of Rauschenberg, for instance, he would take a photograph from here or there and put on these silkscreen images and then, instinctively, paint across them. It’s not that different really, he was doing a similar thing there in just jolting you from looking at something in a particular straightforward way and, I think, if I add anything to that way of working, it’s to make it more integrated.
AMc: When you are not using the photographs, you are painting first, do you paint from photographs? Do you paint outdoors ever or is it all done in the studio?
AR: I did a lot of painting outdoors and a lot of the locations in these paintings are from particular places that I keep going back to. So this series is called River America – it’s not a title for one painting, it’s a concept. It’s about a place in New York called Sands Point on Long Island. I was just attracted to it, I started drawing there, and I went back a few months later and took photographs and made more drawings. I’ve tended to build up a sketchbook about different places but now, at this stage, I’m painting places from memory. It’s like if someone writes a song and they start playing it in a different way, they’re really playing variations on the memory of the song and I can relate to that.
AMc: You’ve mentioned that you work in series. Do you work on one series at a time? What defines a series for you?
AR: Well, it becomes a series later on, you realise that this painting is linked to these others and it hops back and forward through the years. I’ve just started again with the gold paintings, which are here in this exhibition. I began the series Further Tales from the Beach House in 1992 when I rented a modernist beach house, with a 360 degree view on the top floor, about 50 metres from the English Channel, and I wanted to make some paintings that would reference the way the elements were crashing into the cliffs and disgorging landslides, and it occurred to me I could do so using metal leaf. Working with sign writers’ gold leaf, which contains copper, I could paint on it using chemicals that would alter the metal leaf’s surface and release the copper essence as verdigris. The process became a metaphor for the way the wind and the rain and the sea were changing the cliffs. So that was in 1992 but I have just started doing some of those things again, so they are all part of a series but it’s not a logical thing really and I do lots of different things all at the same time.
AMc: Talking about gold leaf – you’ve said before that you make a painting and it becomes an object of passion…
AR: Did I say that?
AMc: You did! [laughs] I was going to ask you to explain what you meant by that but if you don’t…
AR: I think I know what I meant. Going back to some of the artists who were early influences, I was very keen on Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounnelis, Yoko Ono and then Gilbert and George came along. They did a very interesting thing to create art from their total physical presence. The idea that artists are catalysts, not only for people’s ideas, but also to show the art within people’s lives, where the art is not just about looking at the drawing on the wall but actually is the wider context. From Beuys saying ‘Everyone is an artist’ and doing very similar things with his performance lectures and then, significantly, leaving iconic traces of his performances – blackboard, felt, fat and so on – as relics of the experience. For me this is where painting comes in. I was thinking about those kind of Tantric objects, you know, from India and Tibet – objects that people used to meditate on, or via – they have a certain tangible quality, a kind of magical quality. They’re objects yet also a form of transport towards other ways that you can see things.
I like the idea that you can make an object, a painting, that’s totemic and that has some energetic power in it. If you can make an artwork that does this, it transforms perception, it’s a catalyst for the way you can just notice things in a different way. In the 1970s, when I was getting ideas like this in my 20s, there was a quite a drug influence on my generation at art school. I have to own up and say these were the days of LSD and reading about ethnic Shamen, the Hopi Indians and Sufi philosophers. So this might have been an influence on how I interpreted Beuys or the Arte Povera artists. All the same, it’s about art as magic, yet rooted in square, straightforward things you can see.
AMc: At least that’s what you are trying to achieve really to go from there.
AR: I’d like to, yes. There was an experience I had in the British Museum, there was a sculpture in one of the galleries – I think it’s in the Oriental Gallery Number 2 – of a Bodhisattva; it represents someone who’s going to become a Buddha. It was just the way the sculpted figure was sitting, it was a kind of yogic posture and it just got to me. I looked at it and instinctively began to move – there wasn’t anyone around in the gallery – and I just got into the posture the statue was showing me and the immediate effect was quite electrifying. I realised that by simply assuming that pose, energy can suddenly ripple through your body, and I thought this is real art, you know, who was this artist? Can you get your art to do this? So it’s always the goal that the art transforms things when people look at it.
AMc: You were talking yoga postures, but you’ve also studied T’ai Chi quite a lot.
AR: Yes, I was becoming familiar with T’ai Chi at the same time. It came about incidentally, I was trying to find someone who could teach me about Chinese Ch’an and Zen painting and so I just started to fall in with people who were studying Chinese art.
AMc: And did you like studying with them, the teaching process and what they were doing?
AR: Yes, enormously. I’d written my thesis at college on the history of Chinese landscape painting and the reason I wanted to find a teacher is that, after three years of being quite academic, I realised that I was ready to really learn something. So yes, that’s how it came about.
AMc: Actually in China?
AR: No, I tried to get to China, but you couldn’t easily in those days. I went for an interview at the embassy in London and I was being hopeful, you know, and I was shown into a very big room and there were two chairs, both facing the front by a little table with flowers on it. This guy came in and sat down and looked straight ahead and I was invited to sit and we didn’t really glance at each other. ‘Why do you want to go to China?’ I’m staring at the wall and I said: ‘I’ve been studying Chinese landscape painting and I want to tour around these ancient sites’. The minute I said that I could tell he realised that I didn’t know what I was doing at all. So the interview was over very fast! They weren’t letting anyone in, apart from diplomats. So I’m grateful to my teacher of Chinese art in London, Liu Hsiu Chi, who was massively important to me.
At the same time, I was studying with the art restorers, so it was all study in those days. I was watching some of my friends becoming quite established artists while I was still at the drawing board stage, but it’s what I wanted to do.
AMc: What about the scale of your work? You are known for doing quite large pieces, commissions in particular.
AR: Yes, they’ve just come about really. I mean you just sort of say ‘yes’.
AMc: That’s because you are commissioned to do it that size or because you are particularly keen to do large-scale works?
AR: For some of the commissions, I rent a temporary space, but this one here is the largest I could have in my painting room and even this size I have to take them through to my friend Oska Lappin’s studio and open these double doors then hoist them down on a rope on to a flat roof. It’s mad. But I would rather like to be able to make canvases the size of this wall – I just need the right room to do it in.
AMc: What about the title of this show, Pastoral Collateral – where does that come from?
AR: I wanted to relate ideas about historical, idealised, pastoral landscape in art to the grim reality of the environmental crisis that we are in, which isn’t just an environmental crisis anymore, it’s a totally impregnated social and political crisis heading towards disaster. Considering the historical origins of the genre in relation to my own paintings, I wanted to convey the irony implicit in how the 19th century Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the idyllic natural world of an imaginary past, was sponsored by people who, having made gigantic fortunes out of the Industrial Revolution by building their empires on the slave trade and the criminal use of the Enclosures Acts to force the poor from their traditional peasant homes to work in their factories and mills, also laid the foundations of environmental pollution on a catastrophic scale.
Turner and other artists were commissioned by the kings of the Industrial Revolution to do the Grand Tour to pick up ideas from artists such as Claude Lorrain and Poussin, who were themselves employed to evoke the fantasy of a golden age, a sort of Narnia in Ancient Greece and Rome, where people talked to animals and fucked gods.
While you can’t look at any period of history without seeing similar scenarios, where the art is created for the tyrants and oppressors, this dichotomy of the landscape of Romance is particularly and acutely about the subject that I’ve been interested and involved in. It’s impossible to work in landscape art without being politically active, and I thought let’s put this right up front. So that’s the title. The superb catalogue essay by Judy Parkinson explores these themes with some panache.
AMc: So it’s important to you for people to know this sort of back story, if you like?
AR: Well, it’s been a motivation. I’ve played around on the outskirts of this theme over several exhibitions. I’m trying to stimulate people’s ideas and precipitate a dialogue.
I’d always wanted to relate to landscape painting in the way Francis Bacon transformed portraiture by showing the violent undercurrents in the human condition and using body language to show how both wretched and exultant the inner self can be. Twisting it around in the paint until eventually he’s created something awesome and of singular beauty.
AMc: Do you think what you’re producing is beautiful? Do you want it to be beautiful?
AR: I think it might be. I’m not sure. But I like the idea that it’s a catalyst for other people’s ideas and I think that’s beautiful. I can see there’s a quality that links the paintings and that’s my idea, really, of what I like to look at.
AMc: You talk about people’s ideas, and I’ll open for questions in a minute, but can I ask just one more thing? You mentioned about figurative elements and I just wondered actually – I can’t see any in here, but, for example, take the stag painting next door – is there a particular significance in the piece?
AR: Yes, there’s a significance. I got the idea from a particular painting in my favourite museum, which is the Musée de la Chasse au Nature in Paris. It’s a museum that used to be dedicated to hunting but now also includes exhibits about the environment. There’s a fantastic collection including this grand painting by an anonymous artist of the 19th century. It’s a painting of a stag crashing into a banqueting hall and flooring the table as it collapses. The antlers are there and the tablecloth, with all the dishes flying everywhere, and the look of terror on this creature’s face. I’ve just lifted it really, I took the image and started drawing it and then copied it in, so far, about six paintings. But I moved the animal from this pantomime situation into the actual landscape. The beast is panicking because it’s running scared and then it’s fallen and doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
When I was making the early stag paintings, Sarah Lloyd was writing a piece for a book to accompany the exhibition and she asked me to explain them. I said: ‘Well, the animal is running and the title is Running from the House, and it’s a metaphor for nature itself being overrun and being hunted’. So that’s where the stag came from and these themes appear and reappear.
AMc: Does anyone have any questions? Do say ‘yes’!
Q. In terms of your process, you mentioned your interest in themes of Chinese art. Is being conscious in the present important for you in your painting?
AR: Being conscious in the present is the whole point.
Q. Is it why you paint? Is it your compulsion to paint?
AR: I think artists feel more when they’re painting – you feel more alive, and you feel more with it. Francesco Clemente once said that if he went more than a couple of days without painting, he’d feel sick, and the minute he’d pick up a pencil and start drawing, he felt more alive and healthy. I think you can increase your perception by drawing. Michael Craig-Martin, one of my tutors, thought of drawing as a way of thinking and so, if you are drawing, something unique happens in the way you perceive – we are talking about observational drawing now, where you are looking at a view or a figure or a tree or whatever, and what happens to your mind when you draw. He thought it was a way of thinking and it makes you more alert. I think it shows you how you can shift your attention from one way of looking at things to another, and I’ve found that really important.
Q. And that’s something else I wanted to ask you actually, about the meditative process and the fact that you were so inspired by sitting in front of a Buddha and doing yoga – do you still practice yoga?
AR: It wasn’t really quite like that. T’ai Chi is a martial art, you know, and yes, I practise, sure, yes.
AMc: But we won’t find you in the Oriental Gallery Number 2, striking a pose?
MB: It’s great having you here, Alan, having a conversation with Anna, it’s really wonderful – a lovely treat from the gallery’s point of view. I would like to ask you about your next projects. What are you doing in the next six months?
AR: I’ve been invited to work with an Italian interior designer, Veronica Givone, and we are going to transform six suites – so called VIP suites – at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester. So, if you are a famous footballer or a member of a rock band and you go to Manchester, you’ll get to stay in the rooms that we designed.
BH: Do you think that the average person who buys your paintings and comes across your paintings actually gets the message that you are trying to put across and how important is it actually that they do?
AR: Well, they get the message that they get. I mean, that’s it, isn’t it, really? I can’t force it. I’m not going to test them. Some people might get it completely wrong, of course, but if it’s a catalyst for a different way of looking at things, then that’s fine by me. That’s the whole point. I had this idea that there’s art that can be a gateway to a greater freedom in contrast to art as propaganda, which closes down options. It occurred to me, if you draw people’s attention to a point, the way tabloid TV does, or the kind of false political advertising, manipulating public opinion like a corrupt politician, like Goebbels for instance, it’s also drawing people’s consciousness into a point – more and more blinkered; and really great art opens wider possibilities and that’s what I’m trying to do. I think great art is a catalyst for being more aware instead of being led by the nose. If that works then it works. I can’t control what people are going to think, but I hope they will start thinking – that’s the thing.
AMc: Any other questions?
JB: I have one. I have known Alan for a long time and I love his colours and he draws you into the picture. Looking at all of the works here, they’ve all got side positioning things and you are drawn through into the distance, which kind of explodes at you, and yet you are always drawn through. There are very beautifully crafted trees in the style of a 17th-century pastoral landscape. You are drawn through to this sky with beautiful colours. I think you had that throughout and yet now, you are still using that, but they are changing and this exhibition is slightly different from the earlier ones but they have that same wonderful technique..
AR: I guess I’ve been doing things that look a bit alike for quite a time, it’s taken me a lot longer to do what I wanted to do and I thought maybe I should be a bit faster in moving on to some other subject.
JB: That’s their beauty, they are alike but different and they’re not – they are all different and yet –
AR: I like to think it’s an ongoing series, I call it Landscape Painting Project and the idea is that I can tie it up and put it in a box one day and move on and do different things. But, at the moment, it’s still relevant; I’m getting a lot of ideas and wanting to follow this route. I’m glad you’ve liked the paintings over the years.
JB: What would you want to move on to do?
AR: I’m going to make some whole room installations that use everything from painting directly on the walls, to objects I’ve made, plus projected imagery and sound. It goes back to my roots. I’ve accumulated a lot of objects, some that I’ve made, and found objects that I’ve done something with, and they’ve all gone down to the studio in France to be assembled.
I’m interested in the works of Larry Bell, the conceptual artist from Los Angeles, who, in the 1970s, made plates of glass that drift into mirrors, which I can relate to as landscape interventions, referring to the 18th-century concept of the Claude Glass.
Sculpture that can alter the environment with subtle reflections and refractions of light – that interests me a great deal.
Q: What’s your starting point when making a painting? Do you start with a drawing or do you actually start with the paint and making shapes?
AR: I’ve always thought that if you put a drawing on first and it’s wrong then it shows through, but lately these paintings are all about things that are wrong and show through. I like the idea of pentimenti, when you see something that’s already there but slightly covered up, and, by using layers of glazes, I can do that. These paintings are all started with a red imprimatura like they would have used in the Venetian School, where they would make a canvas and colour it in a dark red and draw the shapes of the composition in monochrome shades of dark and light, the idea being that – particularly if you were painting blue, a sky or the robe of the Virgin Mary or something – the blue really stands out because, if it’s on white, it tends to be chalky. So I often start with a red or an ochre background and just start painting.
Q: Yes, but would you prefer to draw, say, landscape drawings, where you have a basic idea of composition?
AR: I tend to draw when I’m travelling. I have a lot of pocket sketchbooks and I draw the shapes of canvases and sketch what I’d like to do, then I almost obsessively do repeats of the same image until it becomes just right. It’s quite a commitment to do a large painting like this, and sometimes you have to do a lot of work before you know it’s going to work. So I draw compositions, scribbles really.
AMc: I have a question relating to this series, these ones here, about the text and when you started adding written lines.
AR: The text here was suggested to me by a friend, Tom Burke, who has written about my paintings and is also an environmentalist; he’s done some amazing things like helping to found Greenpeace and running The Green Alliance. He was first of all saying we should read a lot more TS Elliot and get ideas from The Wasteland, and then he quoted a fragment of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Strange to see all that was once relation now fluttering hither and thither in the breeze’. And the minute he said that, it really struck a chord. The author was writing about a premonition of the First World War and how everything you think is real, that you can rely on and the way you think you know things, can suddenly evaporate completely into chaos. I think that’s a good metaphor for modern times. Politically, environmentally, we are standing on quicksand in every area of life that you can think of. So I’ve been writing the quote on the canvases.
Q: Of one poem?
AR: Yes, for a couple of years. Yet the writing, the calligraphy, becomes hidden, There is something magical about the power of writing, isn’t there? I have a quote in mind and, at some point while painting, I feel like writing it on the canvas, and even though it becomes abstracted and it’s sublimated and you can’t properly read it, in a strange way, it still retains the energy of the handwritten word. If you look at the really abstracted types of Oriental calligraphy, you can sense this. Within the different styles of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, there’s very formal script, and then there’s a more elegant style where the words are there, the characters are there, but it’s also kind of pictographic where the calligrapher tries to give a hint as to the subject in the way that the characters are made, like a concrete poem. Then a third style, the free or grass script, is almost completely abstract, yet for someone who is a real connoisseur, it embodies the essence of the poem or the text within it. If someone can do that, they’re elevated to be a master calligrapher.
MO’R: Alan, the painting of the deer, is there a direct link with Monarch of the Glen?
AR: I recall Monarch of the Glen as the kind of art that I’m not so interested in. The apotheosis would be Peter Blake painting a pop version for Paul McCartney – how unreal is that? I did have an experience, though, when I first began the Running from the House paintings. I was in Copenhagen and my friend Bjarne Neilsen came into the studio, took one look, and exploded into laughter – he said ‘You can’t do that here, not in Denmark, it’s only two years ago that everyone threw their antique stag paintings in the skip!’ I’d thought of my take on deer paintings as a comment on how society relates to nature, yet on reflection I should own up. I also had a commission to make an unapologetic, monumental stag painting for Marco Pierre White to hang in a restaurant. So I guess I did my own pop version, just like Peter Blake.
MO’R: What’s this stag doing for you, the other one next door?
AR: Well, it’s about everything I’ve said: the chaos and the sense of anxiety in nature… and then, I suppose, it’s about sex… [Laughter] …if I’m really answering the question. It’s a fairly esoteric thing, yet you know that energy flows out of and around your body when you’re highly aroused, and don’t you think there’s often a kind of antler effect that comes out of people at those moments – like a subtle lightning you can see flashing around the person – and it’s like antlers?
MO’R: Well, the stag was kind of Shamanic in Celtic culture.
AR: Yes, and also in stories about Herne the hunter and the stag. I think there’s a lot in those myths, these stories go back to very early times. I think they have meanings that are more fundamental than commonly thought. I’m making some works based on the Titian paintings Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon where the Greek myth seems overly simplistic to me and just not right.
The idea that there’s a young shepherd, who inadvertently comes upon Diana and her nymphs bathing and so she immediately turns him into a stag and hunts him, kills him and the dogs eat him.. it’s like a cartoon.. I think the myth was originally about deeper things than punishing an accidental voyeur, suggesting symbolic ideas about men and women that come from a much earlier time. I had the mad idea that by painting and drawing this I could somehow get an insight into the meaning of the myth. So, it’s an ongoing project.
MO’R: Well, good luck with that!
AR: Thanks! I’ll try my best.
AMc: You couldn’t say more to follow up on that. Thank you, Alan.
Audience questioners: Q Unknown SM Serenella Martufi, JB Judith Burrows, MO’R Mark O’Rourke, MB Michael Barnett, BH Ben Hamilton
Images: all © the artist
Study for River America
oil on canvas
triptych, each panel 84x60cm
Untitled Painting (de Loutherbourg)
oil on canvas
Untitled Painting XI (Herne)
oil on canvas
Also published in the International Times
Tuesday, 20 February 2018
Threesome: In Conversation. Artists Roxana Halls, Sadie Lee and Sarah Jane Moon in conversation with critic and invited curator Anna McNay at New Art Projects
Threesome: In Conversation
Artists Roxana Halls, Sadie Lee and Sarah Jane Moon in conversation with critic and invited curator Anna McNay
New Art Projects
9 February 2018
Anna McNay: Let’s look back at how this project came about. You approached me with the idea fairly well conceived. How was it initially born?
Sarah Jane Moon: In a nutshell, a couple of years ago, I organised an exhibition of 12 women painters at the Menier Gallery called ‘12 @ Menier’, which Roxana was also involved with. I thought that as independent professional artists it would be really great to pool our resources to hire a space, rather than hiring one independently, which is quite pricy. I picked artists whose work I admired and we all got together and we really just exhibited whatever we wanted to, so it wasn’t curated in any sense, it was just about pooling our networks and coming together to organise a show. I came away from that thinking it was really great. I loved that we’d made space for women to take up space. I would have loved it more, however, if it were politically more in line with what I see my work as addressing, and I wanted it to be queer particularly.
I’ve always really liked Roxana’s and Sadie’s work and so I sent them an email and asked them if they’d like to do something together, not really knowing what it might be. Then we had a few meetings, where we came up with the idea of painting ourselves and each other, and also of working somehow with the idea of the female nude.
Sadie Lee: That happened quite quickly, didn’t it? I think it was the first time we met in the pub, actually, that we just kind of threw that one out there and it happened. Quite swiftly we came up with the general theme for the show. A one-pint decision.
SJM: We didn’t labour over it for a long time. I can’t remember who came up with it exactly but…
SL: I think we wanted it to be quite structured and not just have work that we’d made before or just sort of cobble things together. We wanted it to have a very clear identity, but also to make work in response to this theme. It’s all completely brand new work just for this show, which we all found quite exciting. We didn’t know what was going to happen. For a long time we were talking about this hypothetical show, hypothetical images, and it was much more about the concept. I mean, we literally didn’t see the work until the night of the private view. We were working that much in secrecy. We obviously sat for each other, but then we had a big reveal. We came down those stairs and saw it for the first time 10 minutes before everybody else did, which was quite shocking.
Roxana Halls: The question about the nude, and what it would mean to paint a nude, as a woman who identifies as a lesbian, was something I’d been mulling over and that we had a very good chat about too. We realised that none of us had painted that many nudes, actually, certainly women in states of undress. I’d painted male nudes before, but the question about the female nude was one that we were all puzzling over.
AMc: And that became a key part of the show, and it’s something we’ll come back to later for the wider discussion.
You’ve mentioned why the exhibition came about specifically in your life right now, Sarah Jane, but also there’s a particular moment for it in the current climate. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Wolfenden Report and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and a lot was made of this in terms of exhibitions across the country. The report referred, however, to male homosexuality, and this certainly seemed to be at the centre of the majority of the shows. Was this part of what made it seem timely to step forward as three lesbian painters?
SJM: Yes, we really thought it was timely with Tate’s ‘Queer British Art’ show, and we had initially thought it would have been a bit earlier than it was, but these things always take longer to organise than you imagine. So we then had the idea that it would be a good follow-on from ‘Queer British Art’, which cut off at 1967 and, as such, had prioritised gay men and their painting, and so we wanted to have something that was very female and lesbian-centric.
AMc: You’re all very much figurative painters and you’ve all painted your friends, families, and people of varying sexualities before. How much of a factor would you say that sexuality plays in your work?
RH: I think in the way that it’s at the core of your being, it’s at the core of everything, but it may not necessarily mean it would be obvious. I think, with my models, I look more for people who are feminist over anything else. That’s really at the core of things for me. If I were looking for a criterion, I think that would be more important.
SJM: Our work is all quite different but there are these very strong similarities – there’s a sensibility there and a kind of a queerness for me. That is what I really liked about Sadie’s and Roxana’s work, and why I initially approached them was because they’re very out about who they are, and that does quite heavily influence their work, I think. That’s definitely important for me.
SL: Sexuality has always been very important in my work – my early work in particular. I started painting about 25 years ago, and I started out by making self-portraits – self-portraits of myself with lovers – and I worked in clubs so I documented the people that were coming to the clubs. It was just about people that were around me. And then I gradually moved into other areas, like older people and the representation of women in art. It was still about sexuality, but it was about the sexuality of the sitter, not necessarily in relation to me and my sexuality. But it’s always been there in the background. There’s always been some reference to it.
RH: I think the queerness and otherness is there, it’s as present in your work as it is in yourself, whether or not you are explicitly dealing with it as subject matter, it’s intrinsically part of you.
AMc: Was that a theme that you perhaps focused on more in this project than you have done in previous works, given the concept of the show, and given the sitters as well?
SJM: I think that that was something we were really aware of – the commonality of all being women, all being painters, and all being lesbians. We were definitely aware that it would be a show that would have various conversations around those themes. But thinking about my portraits particularly, they’re queer and they’re feminist and they’re lesbian, but I’m not sure how that comes across. I don’t think I heightened that specifically for the show. I was really just aiming to make a portrait of us all individually.
SL: I heightened it! I was all about the sex! Obviously we’re all painters, but the thing that I felt was really cool was that we all identify as lesbians and I really wanted that to be very, very clear in the work. I know and respect Sarah Jane and Roxana, but we’re professional colleagues, we don’t really hang out, so, for the images that I made of them, I projected quite a lot on to them. In a way, it’s about my sexuality and what I want them to be acting out for my sake. I very much directed them and decided how I wanted it to be, and then they played the part of themselves in that project, if you like. I was drawing on my own experiences in my own fields about my own sexuality and then just applying it to them. I don’t know whether it actually applies to them or not, but I wanted it to be really clear that that’s what it’s about.
RH: I’d say there was a lot of overlap with me also. This is the first time that I’ve really explicitly dealt with other people’s visual imagery of lesbians, representation of lesbians, and have used that as part of my work.
AMc: You’ve worked with theatrical stagings, narratives and mannequins before, but this time chose to examine the relationship between male film directors’ representations of lesbian characters and how this imagery is absorbed by audiences. Why was it important that the directors in this instance were male?
RH: Because it is so much more discomfiting, because of the strange disconnect that you have with the work, which is often beguiling, interesting, arousing sometimes, and yet often problematic. So many of the films that I’m drawing upon are films which have inspired me and which I greatly admire. I’m very influenced by film. I respond to film quite a lot in my work, although it’s not often explicit. But often I find that with the representation of lesbians there is a strange, disquieting sense that although the imagery can be really enticing, it often goes hand in hand with really problematic character trajectories. The narrative arc is often really difficult, and the same tropes come into play. We have suffered very similar fates over and over again, and we’re portrayed in very similar problematic ways. So it’s something about that discomfiting feeling that you have from that material. As much as you love it, often we meet dark ends, and I wanted somehow to deal with that material and deal with my own problematic feelings around it.
AMc: How did you select which films, and which characters, to give to each of you?
RH: I chose three characters for each of us, relating to the threesome theme. I wanted there to be some kind of distinct element within each of the paintings. There’s a lot of overlap with the kinds of narrative arcs that take place within these films. But I wanted to loosely put them into strands. So Sadie – lucky her – got the sexually depraved S&M characters. I got people who were involved in murder and who are mentally ill, which suits me, and Sarah Jane got some innocents. I was using us as material, you know, we are ourselves, we are physically ourselves. They’re not comments about us, we become part of them. In the imagery, in the positioning of our hands and our bodies, I rather wanted to suggest that we are somehow emulating them, but we are other. So there is this sense that we are both human and yet we are of them, and so we are either turning into mannequins or we are potentially mannequins. The use of mannequins was very deliberate. As objects, I use mannequins a lot in my work, they interest me greatly. I never reveal when I use them because I really like that sense that you don’t know what is real and what isn’t. This is the first time I’ve used them explicitly, and that was really important. Mannequins recur in male cinematic representation of lesbians. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like in Fassbinder, and then, in response to that, Peter Strickland, who made The Duke of Burgundy, which I had to give to you, Sadie, because I know it’s a particular favourite of yours. Petra von Kant is a really important film to me, it inspired me hugely, so I had to have that one. I don’t know which is your favourite, Sarah, so you got what you got and I hope you’re happy. But mannequins recur. Why? There’s been a lot of critical discussion around that, about how, by likening us to mannequins, it’s like saying we are somehow not quite yet to be, or somehow not quite fully alive. It’s no accident. To make the paintings I recreated those characters in my studio, using mannequins, and I recreated their costumes. So currently Petra von Kant and Countess Báthory are in my studio, they’re still there. I haven’t had the heart to disrobe them yet because I like their outfits.
AMc: Sarah Jane, you’ve put mannequins in your portrait of Roxana.
SJM: Exactly. We all sat for each other, and we all worked from photographs, so there was a photo session for each of the paintings. I knew that I was going to be in my pants in Sadie’s picture, but I had no idea whether she was going to do a close-up of my eye or what she was doing with those photos. But knowing that Sadie often works with people in a state of undress, and on a bed, this very intimate sort of space, and knowing that Roxana was going in a more theatrical direction, I knew we had this light on us and we were wearing a boob tube…
RH: That’s all you knew!
SJM: That’s all I knew. But knowing your work and your penchant for cabaret and theatrical motifs… My work is very much straight portraiture – well, not straight portraiture, but it’s quite blatant, I suppose. I wanted to really prioritise the fact that we’re all painters, so I wanted to set each portrait in the studio, and so the photos originally are taken in our respective studios. Obviously I’ve taken massive licence with the colours. There’s a part of me trying to get back to a more intuitive approach to colour and mark-making, as I feel my painting has recently become somewhat more controlled, and I wanted to loosen it up. So Roxana’s portrait is from her sitting in her studio. There’s a wonderful sofa and there are stretcher bars below her feet, and the mannequins, which I know she uses an awful lot in her work, were there in the background. The photo was taken the week that you thought you were going to have to leave the studio, and so there is a sort of heaviness to it perhaps. It was quite a frantic time.
RH: It was a desperate time.
SJM: I wanted the mannequins to reference something about Roxana’s work. Similarly, the paintings behind Sadie were in her studio space, the one on the left being a self-portrait, and the one in the middle being a work-in-progress. So I’ve taken licence, but it was very much about us all as painters and our having that agency. The things we’re holding, as well, point to that.
AMc: How much were you referencing the history of portraiture – specifically women’s self-portraiture – by putting the tools of the trade in each of your hands?
SJM: It happened quite accidentally. In my 20s, I thought I would be a curator and I was organising exhibitions and running galleries in Australia. I have an art theory background and when I’m painting I really try and forget that totally. So I just turned up, took the pictures quite intuitively, and then noticed that in Sadie’s she had the mahl stick and Roxana had the brushes. I thought that was quite nice, really, and so in mine, which is slightly more constructed, purely because of the pragmatic elements of making a self-portrait and having to photograph yourself, I had the palette knife. I wanted to redirect the gaze, so have the object, the objectified, the one who’s being looked at, return that gaze, while pointing to something that expressed agency and our collective ability to create and to picture and to author images.
AMc: Sadie, your subjects really seem to be objectified as well as subjectified. Is that a fair comment?
SL: Yes. I set them up. I think I should probably just explain that the one of Sarah Jane was the one that I did first of all. I went to Sarah Jane’s flat – this is her actual bed – and I said: ‘I want to do it at night, I want it to be really dark’, and I brought some little angle-poise lamps, very domestic, and put them very low down, so it’s an incredibly raking light, from underneath, which catches every single thing. It’s really, really harsh and not in any way flattering. I just said I wanted her to wear black underwear and invited Roxana to wear black underwear as well. Apart from that, I didn’t really tell them how I wanted them to be, so that was the only thing that they really got to choose. I wanted to base the paintings on Venuses and started out by thinking I’d do them on specific Venuses and call them things like Sarah Jane Moon after Botticelli. But then I thought there were so many similarities in the images of Venus that I was looking at – they all tended to have their arm raised, sometimes the other arm being across their bodies in a slightly protective way, but also exaggerating their curves, and generally they’d be looking away – so that became the continuing theme. I did the one of Sarah Jane first and I wanted the others to match, because I was aware that they were going to be a trio. The one of Sarah Jane set the template, if you like. I positioned myself quite low down, so not only is the light from underneath, but your vantage point is from underneath, so you’re not directly on top of her, you’re down somewhere between her legs. It’s the view that a lover would have – a very, very intimate view – and the words that I gave to Sarah Jane and Roxana were ‘sexy awkward’. That’s what I was going for and I wanted that intention of it being like the first time you’ve undressed in front of somebody.
When I came out to my mum, the first thing she said to me was: ‘You’re a lesbian, you know it’s a very lonely life’. I think people hear that a lot and it really stuck with me. And actually I have been quite lonely a lot of the time. When I first started going out to clubs and working clubs, I would be on my own in the corner, looking at people and, for the most part, fantasising about them, then going home on my own. That stuck with me and I now just look at people for a living. I’m a professional voyeur. But it’s that sense of looking at someone, and the thoughts that you have, and maybe the thoughts that they’ve got in their mind, and not necessarily having any kind of physical engagement, but just that whole longing and the distance between you and the connection between you… I wanted to get a sense of that into the paintings, so it’s a very, very intimate view, it’s not flattering. It’s as if from candlelight or a bedside lamp or something like that.
I’m really sick of women always looking at pictures of themselves and other women and saying: ‘Oh, it’s not very flattering’ and ‘Obviously you’re much more beautiful than that’. I hate the fact that we’re supposed to make it flattering. It’s a woman, therefore she’s attractive, so let’s make her as attractive as possible. That’s bollocks. I hate the fact that we have to be judged by the way that we look and the way that we present ourselves and whether it’s conventionally beautiful or not. It’s just so irritating. So I wasn’t interested in that at all. I was interested in the dark of the night, the whole drama of the situation, the sexual tension of the situation, the fantasy of whatever is going on in that person’s mind. That’s much, much more important to me than a flattering likeness of somebody.
AMc: What about your self-portrait?
SL: That’s a whole different kettle of fish. That one is specifically referencing an actual painting. The painting is probably not recognisable in it, but it’s Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus of 1510, which was one of the first reclining Venuses where she’s in a pastoral landscape. She’s lying in such a way, again with her arm behind her head, and her hand is supposedly covering her genitals for modesty, but actually she’s cupping her fingers in such a way that it really looks like she’s pleasuring herself. Maybe that’s just me! Originally I tried to recreate that with my hand down the front of my pants but then I thought it was much too full on, much too bawdy and funny. It just looked comical. So, I thought: ‘I wonder what would happen if I turned my back and the view of it was still clearly doing that?’ And it became much more disturbing for people because you know what’s going on but I’m not doing it for the viewer. It’s not for you. I’ve got autonomy in what I’m doing. It’s actually about the act and turning my back on you. But I still know that you’re there. So I’m performing, but for some reason not doing it in view, which makes it much more private and threatening for people. And I really wanted it to look frumpy and boring, with the little label of the bra sticking out. It’s so not glam, it’s not Agent Provocateur underwear, it is what it is. And, again, I haven’t flattered myself. I look quite porcine in it. I’ve really exaggerated all the creases on my back and my dimpled arse. It’s just about the mundane boringness of that.
AMc: The three of you have also all painted a nude portrait of the performance artist and cabaret diva Ursula Martinez, who is here in the audience somewhere. Do you want to come and join us up here? Thank you. Thanks for joining us and thanks for being part of the project as well. I want to know how it was for the three of you to be painting a nude in this context, but also it would be interesting to hear from Ursula about how it was being painted as well. The paintings obviously belong to your respective series, but they’re distinct as well. Was there anything in particular that you were trying, any of you, to catch in your nude painting, that perhaps was something that wasn’t so present for you in your other paintings?
RH: Mine was something really specific. Many years ago, I saw a photograph, an advertisement for one of Ursula’s performances, and found it incredibly striking, and it really stayed with me. I wasn’t sure, when we met, whether or not you [Ursula] would be okay for me to use it, and we had a long discussion about it, because I was really concerned that it was another artist’s work and that it would be cannibalising her work if I referred to it. But you said no, the set up was your idea, so it was okay to go with that. I had a backup plan just in case is wasn’t okay, but I really wanted to refer to that image because it had stayed with me and I found it a really potent image of agency and self-possession and a hotness. I thought it was fabulous, and so I thought it would be wonderful to paint a version of that, that was my own, using this new technique that I had developed. I’d never painted like this before, using all this neon malarkey, and I thought it would be really interesting to paint Ursula using the same palette as it was so powerful. But I thought it would be really interesting not to look at the original image before painting the picture, but just to refer to my memory of it. And, when we had our discussion, my memory of the photograph was that you were showing your sex, but you said that you weren’t in the actual photo but that your original intention for the image had been to show it.
UM: In the actual photo that was taken, I did show it, but then I decided that for the publicity shot for the show that I’d made the photo for it felt too much, so we photoshopped the curtains into cardboard theatre cut-out in the photo. But it’s interesting – and it makes sense – that in your memory it wasn’t there.
RH: Maybe I was channelling your original intention! But I thought actually there’s something really interesting about that. That this is an image I’m basing my painting on, an image that I saw many years ago, but now, at this point, your original intention is there, and mine also. I didn’t tell you, but later, once I was painting the picture, it suddenly occurred to me that that photo inspired me to paint another painting some years ago, that was in a show I did for the National Theatre, of a woman who has enormous underskirts with puppets. Her skirts are a theatre, and the small cut-out theatre that you had, that you held in that painting, is one that I used in my other painting.
Mainly I wanted to refer to Ursula in the only sense in which I know her – as a performer. You are such a powerful performer and I didn’t want to shoehorn you into some other image of my own, some other image of my devising. I wanted to refer to the image of you that you choose to project.
SJM: I suppose I was trying to go for something confident and self-assured and powerful. Unfortunately I hadn’t heard of you before the project – I’m not from this country, so that’s my defence! It’s obviously my loss and I’ve missed out on a huge amount. I was heading off to New Zealand to visit my family and it was all quite hurried. I mean, the painting of all the portraits, for all of us, was quite intense, and over a pretty short period of time. I remember I went round to your flat, took these photos, and then I had this time away, so it was quite a quick undertaking for me, less time than I would usually have. Partially because of that, and partially because I really wanted you as a figure, on the canvas, to make a bold impact, there’s no background detail. And I didn’t feel that I knew you well enough. I tried to do a bit of research and came along to your very wonderful Wild Bore show at Soho Theatre, which I loved. But, other than that, I didn’t have the same knowledge that Roxana and Sadie had of your history of performance. So I really wanted it to be about that encounter that day when I first met you and we took the photos.
UM: Yes, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah Jane.’ ‘Hi, I’m Ursula.’ Okay, and then five minutes later I’ve got my clothes off!
SJM: I think there was coffee involved as well! But my overwhelming impression from that encounter was how confident you were in your physicality, and I wanted that to come across, and I was very admiring of that, and you seemed pretty self-assured. So that’s what I was going for really.
UM: Presumably that was part of the choice in choosing me as a subject – because I am self-assured and comfortable with nudity and with my body?
SJM: I think so, definitely…
AMc: Had you posed nude for artists before?
UM: I used to do a bit of life modelling as a student just to earn some money. But, you know, nudity is very present in my stage works. It’s not obligatory, but it tends to be very present.
SL: I’m a fan, I’m a massive fan. I was so excited it was you. I think you’re the perfect person for us to respond to. I really admire you so much. I’d seen you going back a long way…
UM: 20 years…
SL: Yes, I think the first time I remember being aware of you was when you were appearing at Pride. I saw you, you were quite a long way away, but you were on stage and you were dressed in this Spanish outfit with a big round hat and you were playing, what I now know is a classical guitar, but in my mind it was a ukulele, and you were singing Guantanamera, which is a Cuban song, but you had changed the words to ‘wank on a mirror’. I just remembered that and so, when you were nude, I had that in my mind. I guess it’s quite literal. Roxana said earlier about how she was looking at male directors, who made films with lesbian plots, and I completely agree, because I’ve long been subverting images made by men, which feature lesbian couplings, for which I know I was not the target audience. But, when I was growing up, that’s all there was, so, you know, I had postcards by Helmut Newton on my wall. Anything. I was hoovering up Vita and Violet on the telly, straight actresses kissing, I find that quite thrilling, because I couldn’t find myself represented in things that were made by people like me. So I would take things…
UM: Take whatever you can get?
SL: You do. Well, I did. I find things that were not made for me and find myself within them and change them and put myself there.
RH: Isn’t that rather what we do? We repurpose what is available to us.
RH: Whatever the material may be.
RH: And it’s cinematic and televisual images that we are most exposed to, that are most readily available, that are more immediate. And we mainline these, much more readily than necessarily painted images.
SL: Completely, and I did that with the reference images that I used for the portrait of Ursula. I looked at The Origin of the World, which, if you look at the image just in the reflection of the mirror, if it were just that, it has a similarity. But obviously the main composition is based on Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, and it didn’t slip my mind, the sense of irony, that that was also the image that was hacked to bits by one of the suffragettes, who entered the National Gallery with a meat cleaver and attacked it. I quite liked that. It’s been subverted so many times, it’s almost a cliché, but I thought that by taking it, and reframing it, and Ursula recreating it, it’s not appropriation, it’s not that I’ve just taken it and re-presented it without changing it in any way. We recreated it and I wanted to know what it felt like to be the artist in that room with that person, that close, in that position, but with the sense of empathy. It was also a collaboration, it was referencing what Ursula does in her work. And I have to say what athletic prowess you have, actually getting into that position, and holding that really heavy mirror in that position so that I could see the reflection. You actually couldn’t see what was reflected in the mirror yourself. It was for me, and that’s why it’s called the Venus Effect. It was killing your wrist, wasn’t it, but you persevered… So I’ve taken those images and we’ve rephrased them, if you like, and re-presented them with a feminist twist.
AMc: You’ve touched on something else I wanted to ask about, which is how different is it when the person looking, as the artist or as the audience, but in this case the artist, is a woman looking at a woman? You said about the suffragette slashing the painting because of its representing the male gaze, but this is the female gaze, and even the queer female gaze. How different do you think this is? How much of a difference does the gender of the artist make?
SJM: I think it makes a huge difference. You mentioned empathy just now, and I think the female gaze is more than just in opposition to the male gaze. It is different, it’s not just objectifying men, not that we would anyway necessarily, but it embodies some kind of empathy with the other, whether that is your sitter, or, if it’s in a film or literature, with your protagonists.
RH: I’ve been really puzzling over this one. I think there is an inherent difference but I can’t put my finger on it, and I always think that to try to find an answer to this question could slightly do us a disservice in a way. There are so many multitudes of reflections of what the female gaze may be. It isn’t the male gaze, I know that. But all of these different reflections, they come together, and sometimes they reflect one another, but they reflect so many different perspectives. Something is very different in it, but I can’t put my finger on what that is. It’s very difficult. I mean, it’s partly what these paintings are about. It’s so hard to tease out the part that is yours. But actually what you’re doing is you’re performing a kind of alchemy using the materials that are available to you. How do you tease out what is the truth? It’s like the peeling of the onion to find your core self. All of these things that I find really problematic. It is different. I think empathy is involved, and kinship, togetherness, truth, I’d like to think. But to try to quantify it simply, I can’t do it. There are so many multitudes of reflections.
AMc: And do you think it’s complicated further by the fact that you are three women who like women? I mean, you’re looking at women in a potentially different way than a straight woman might…
RH: Yes, and do we want to ask ourselves: ‘Are we looking like men?’ I don’t even want to ask that question. I’m not, and so I’m not. We’re so steeped in existing material. What is ours? I know that we remake what we find and hopefully find something true in there and hopefully the fact that we love and respect women, that we adore women, is there in the work that we make. This respect is really crucial. The kinship is really crucial. But if I try to put my finger on what makes that different, I don’t think I want to try to find an easy answer to that.
AMc: It would be too facile?
RH: I think, maybe, yes.
AMc: Ursula, for you, as the person being looked at, did it made a difference that they were women artists?
UM: Look, if three straight white men had come to me and said: ‘We want to do a project and we want to paint you naked’, I would have absolutely said ‘no’, because I wouldn’t have understood the intention, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me. I can’t speak about the end product. Is the end product more a product from a female artist? I don’t know. But, from my point of view, yes, I wouldn’t have been interested, I wouldn’t have trusted it somehow, I wouldn’t have trusted the intention, I wouldn’t have understood why they were doing it, or why they’d chosen me. They would have had to have presented a very, very good argument.
AMc: Do you feel that that trust that you placed in them was borne out? Are you happy with the results? Are you happy that you chose to do it?
UM: Absolutely, yes. What’s not to be happy about? Definitely.
AMc: One of the things that was written in the original brief about the project was that any eroticism is deliberate. Did you seek to make your portraits – your portraits of each other, but also of Ursula – erotic in some way? Was there an erotic element that you were trying to pull out?
RH: There was in mine, absolutely, yes. You come across as being incredibly self-possessed and attractive. Why shouldn’t you be that? In your performances, you have enormous sexual power, and I wanted to try and get some of that to come across. I’d like to think some of it does. I’ve had good reports!
SJM: I think likewise I’ve emphasised the things that I appreciate in women and the things I find attractive – that confidence and self-assurance – and I’ve emphasised some of your muscular tone. To me, all of that’s quite sexy.
SL: Well, obviously Ursula uses her body in her art a lot. She puts herself in a position that could be vulnerable, but she’s in control, and it’s really interesting the way that she uses the audience and maintains control of the situation and it really provokes a lot of thought, it’s very challenging, really brave, and I just think it’s actually brilliant. But in handing over your body to someone else to do what they want with, that was really amazing that you did that, although I see it as being a collaborative piece, and we discussed it beforehand – which was excruciating. I had to explain what I wanted you to do and you said: ‘Oh, right, so you want me to look at my vagina in a mirror, that’s what you’re going paint?’ You thought about it and you said ‘okay’, but you were handing control over to me, so it was slightly different from what you do within your work.
UM: Yes, and that’s where it comes back to the trust thing. And I don’t think I would have been able to do it in the same way in the hands of a straight man. I just wouldn’t have had that level of trust.
AMc: You said earlier that some of you had painted nudes before but had felt a little uncomfortable about it. Do you feel differently now having been through this? What were some of the key feelings and thoughts that arose for you during the process?
RH: Before, I almost felt like I don’t wish to paint them unless I have a very good reason for doing it. It’s not something that I could just do because I feel like it. There had to be a clear rationale for it.
UM: I’ve not always had a very clear reason for taking my clothes off…
RH: No, but if you’re painting yourself, which I have also done, then that is different. You don’t need necessarily to indicate what your rationale is. You have it, and it’s your body, and you may use it as you wish. You don’t have to justify anything. In a sense, maybe, I don’t have to. Everything in history says this is a male domain, so just the fact of doing it yourself, maybe that’s enough. But I did feel, and this is part of what our conversation came out of, we all felt, we want to know why we’re doing this. In a way, we were waiting to have a discussion around it, and for other people to be party to that discussion, for something to grow out of that. It is odd actually. I have since then been thinking about doing more nudes, yes. I know the question of licence – the licence that you give yourself, the permission that you give yourself – is something which comes up again and again for me and I wrestle with that and encourage other people to wrestle with that. Students and so on. And I feel I give myself licence now, if I wish to do it. Maybe I posed the question and I don’t need to answer it again. I can just do it.
SL: The subject of the female nude is something you get throughout art history. Generally a nude is just a faceless, nameless, series of shapes that just is a nude woman that people can look at and enjoy and consume. I teach life drawing at the Wallace Collection and we’re just responding to the figure and getting her to move and looking at the light on her body. I think that what we were doing here was very much a portrait of someone who has a sense of their own identity and an autonomy, and that’s very different from just some decorative female shape that’s there just to be adored and exploited and appreciated for her idealised form. I think what we’ve done is a much more politically charged exercise. It’s a known person who’s in it with us on an equal billing.
RH: And the collaborative element is really key to it. We’re not just posing someone like a doll, like a mannequin, they are part of the process. That’s a crucial element.
AMc: I think this might be a good moment to open proceedings out to questions from the audience, if anyone has any…
Audience member 1: The initial discussion you had when you came up with the idea of painting each other and painting yourselves, you glossed over that quite quickly, but it seems quite central. How did you reach the decision to paint these paintings?
SL: I think Sarah Jane had decided that we should have the show, and we all thought that was a really good idea, and then we thought we need it to be something that’s really structured, so we threw a few ideas out and… I can’t remember whose idea it was…
RH: I can’t remember who said what…
SL: …but we thought maybe if we all did this, and we all did that, and then we all did this, it might actually be a really interesting concept. So we just bashed a few ideas out and eventually, through conversation, we thought, well okay, a self-portrait, a portrait of the other two, and then a portrait of somebody else is probably a nice concise idea.
RH: And then immediately on the back of that we had the conversation around the nude and how you deal with a female nude and our discomfort around that, our questioning around that. It was all part of the same conversation and it did happen very quickly.
SL: It just seemed quite neat, you know, like a nice idea for a show, and we all, when we were discussing it, got quite excited and thought: ‘Wow, actually, yeah, I can imagine it and I really want to see that now’.
RH: It’s a nice structured way to emphasise the difference between us as artists. We’re representational artists, we’re lesbians, but beyond that we are quite different.
SJM: I think it was also about making a space to investigate the female gaze. Part of the problem with defining the female gaze is that there just hasn’t been enough female representation generally, or lesbian representation specifically. Culture is saturated with male voices and male paintbrushes, images by men, that reference the world from a male standpoint. We all just really wanted to open up space to see what might happen. We didn’t know what the work would be. We didn’t know who we were painting. We didn’t know what was going to happen really, but we wanted exactly this event to happen. We wanted to make the work and then have it be discussed by other people, open it up. There’s going to be an event with some writers as well, further on, and to have the work be an impetus for these sorts of discussions, and for other work to respond to in return, was crucial to the main idea. It seemed like a nice concept, a nice number of paintings. There was enough to get to grips with – self-representation, the representation of the other, and the nude.
I had been struggling with the idea of painting a nude. As Sadie just said, we all teach, and I teach at Heatherley’s in Chelsea, and we do still life, landscape, portraiture and the nude. It’s quite traditional. And, through my teaching, I’m seeking ways to disrupt that and to do it differently and to do it with a feminist contemporary ethos. I’m not sure you can in that setting, where it’s an academic exercise, and that bothers me, and, in my own work, I’d wanted to paint the female nude and, as a lesbian, I thought: ‘This is ridiculous. I love women. I should feel celebratory about that fact.’ And yet it was complicated because of its history. The picture on the easel behind me in my self-portrait is an example of my attempting to paint a female nude, where I took a number of pictures and, in the end, the one topless with the jeans on was more powerful or interesting for me, and more queer, more ambiguous. It’s not clear whether she’s undressing or getting dressed, and there was something I liked about that, and something with agency.
Audience member 2: You said earlier on it was really stressful and intense from the moment when you were given this project until the moment you finished. How long did you actually have to do it?
RH: Not nearly long enough! It was partly our schedules. We had so many other projects. I’d just had a solo show and we are all just endlessly busy. It actually, in a way, ended up becoming part of the project. We were bolstering each other up in our studios. We knew that we were all going through the same thing. We were painting them at the same time, for the same length of time, and there’s something rather lovely about that also. I mean, had one of us finished, you know, that would have been terrible, really awful. There’s something really lovely about the fact that we made these works with the same intention and we made them together in a sense. There were lots of emails…
SL: …sent at four o’clock in the morning…
RH: It was rather lovely, actually.
SJM: I started in about October. I think we all started around then, and there was a lovely solidarity and camaraderie. Painting is a very solitary pursuit and you’re there in your studio for hours on end. Knowing that other people were creating these images of us, that we didn’t know about, was kind of exciting. And obviously the show was scheduled and I definitely work well to a deadline. It was a really productive impulse for me.
AMc: Any other questions? No? I was going to ask why it was that you decided not to reveal anything to one another until the final moment.
SL: We’re weird like that, aren’t we?
SJM: I’ve got a habit of showing things part way through though and I don’t know if it was you who came up with the idea of not doing this…?
RH: I can’t bear people seeing things before they’re finished. I’m very secretive.
AMc: You didn’t feel at any point that you wanted to ask the others which film characters they might like in their pictures?
RH: No, because it was nothing really to do with them! And I do like the element of surprise.
AMc: And how did it feel when you all came in and saw yourselves?
RH: It was exciting, it was really exciting, and shocking. And it also rather foolishly was 10 minutes before everybody else came in for the private view, so we didn’t have very long to process it. I was really excited to do it like that and, I suppose, if we’d shown each other the work in progress, we would have felt then that we were in dialogue with that person, and we might have felt obliged to change something or to gauge their response to it, and so it actually just meant that we did what we were going to do and that was it.
SL: We gave each other the freedom to use each other as material. We trusted one another and that was really crucial. There was no ego, no flattery, nothing. We placed no expectations on each other at all. We let each other do whatever we needed to do. I think part of the pleasure of it was the thrill of the reveal, actually.
SJM: It was wonderful painting other painters, because there was such a trust. I do commissions for various people, portraits and things, and I wasn’t nervous to the same extent that I usually am about revealing a picture to somebody.
RH: We’re not going to make the standard issue comments…
SJM: But I thought you’d be looking at the technical aspects and various other things and you have an appreciation anyway and a knowledge of that process of what it is to struggle with and grapple with a painting and create something.
RH: We’re going be looking very differently.
SL: I have real trouble with people seeing my work initially from reproduction, so if there’s the opportunity to see them in the flesh, then I’d much prefer that anyway.
SJM: I was just so pleased and proud of us all – proud that we had done it in the timeframe and proud of what we’d produced.
Also published here