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Giles: I’m thrilled that we have Stephen Chambers, Eileen Cooper, Iris Schomaker, Emma Fineman, and Ella Walker here. And what we thought we’d do is just have a really small chat through their work - hopefully they’ll chat to each other as well – so we can better understand the pictures that we’re looking at, the way they’re made, and what the meanings are behind them. I’m going to start with you Iris I’m afraid. When I went to visit your studio in Berlin, you pointed out to me that the faces of your characters – which I assumed were completely blank – were in fact not blank; that there were details in there. You can see the ghost of a nose or an eye. So, a bit like your figures themselves, the pictures that you make sit between abstraction and figuration – to what extent do you consider your work abstract?
Iris: Well I think the abstraction comes from reduction, and from being very precise in the composition, and in emphasising the rhythmic by strong contrasts: this is emphasising the abstract aspects of the work.
Giles: So, do you agree it sits between the two?
Iris: Oh yes. Well I say I’m a straight figurative painter – I know it’s lots more drawing as well – it’s straight figurative but I do really need that abstract aspect to emphasise what I want to say.
Giles: And what is it that you want to say? What is the message you want [to get across]?
Iris: I like to transport a certain atmosphere of being with yourself; of being concentrated, of being unwatched in a way. These figures are not representative of a situation, they are very private. As a spectator, you are able to look at them, even if they don’t present themselves for you. This is one of the reasons for the reduced faces, because they are not available but, as well, are opening for the spectator to project themselves onto.
Giles: Emma, a similar question for you – your pictures are often about memory, as I understand. So, what role does abstraction and figuration play for you in that message?
Emma: I mean it’s interesting because I definitely relate with what you’re saying about compositional decision making. I think there’s a way in which painting lends itself to layering and slip. To be able to encompass this idea of memory and enact it as I’m working, you tend to drift away from direct representation, and that tends to lend itself to abstraction in a very simple way. I would say that’s why it sits in-between those two things.
Giles: Has your work always been like that?
Emma: It’s interesting because in each painting it’s more a call and response. Definitely this one leans the most into an abstract direction. Other paintings can be quite figurative, it just depends how colour and form start to layer together and different impulses lend themselves to certain moods. Sometimes you can’t lead back into them with figuration, other times, you think ‘oh this needs a home there’, and it goes more in that direction. So, they do wane between the two.
Giles: Interesting. So, Eileen and Stephen – I want to come over to your guys, because I think both your pictures lean much more towards the figurative. Eileen – to start with you. To what extent does the surface and mark making in your pictures effect the way the narrative plays out?
Eileen: I suppose you try to create a mood with a mark, and in being on the journey with the painting, you realise what the mood is. [She gestures to Stephen] Your marks are really intense and strident and shouting, in a great way, but for the subject of mine, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Its less of a deliberate decision, more instinctive. My first love, and skill, is drawing. And that underpins everything I do.
Giles: Stephen what about you?
Stephen: I mean I could write an essay on why I am an abstract artist, which is what my background was, once upon a time. I think all good painting has an element of composition and structure and taking the eye for a walk – that is orchestration and that happens regardless of whether there is something recognisable in a painting or not. I come from an era where the word narrative painting was shunned – but that’s what I am. I tell stories and I try and leave out all the bits which are unnecessary. A lot of what I’m doing is what gets left out. I am long of brevity.
Giles: Karishma’s not here, but everyone who has seen Karishma’s work downstairs can see that she draws very strongly from Indian art, to gain a kind of two dimensionality, and it’s a deliberate thing that she’s referencing it very pointedly to make a political point, and to make a personal connection to the work because she’s half Portuguese and half Goan. I’m quite interested to find out to what extent art from the past has influenced the group here. I’ll go to you first Ella because I know that’s important to you.
Ella: I draw from art all the time. That builds a lot of the intervals between painting, [and] dictates a lot of the construction of space in my painting. I’m not afraid of making quite direct references to figures and costume and compositional elements of painting – specifically Italian, fresco painting for the scale and quality of that surface, but also to do with narrative and the way I break down and build up my own compositions for sure. Even the story the work is trying to tell is interwoven with something I’ve seen in art that I find fascinating.
Eileen: I’ve looked at a lot of Italian painting. You can see in my painting I don’t pay much attention to perspective, or proportion. Formally, yes, but in terms of the logical narrative of that tree being big enough to have a small boy underneath it – in that way it’s just illogical - the way I’ve used the space. That’s what I love about medieval art, and non-western art. I don’t understand when people call old art primitive, it’s so sophisticated! But that’s where my roots are.
Giles: What about you Stephen – do you see a link to the past in your work?
Stephen: I think it’s the painting is such a… it has so much precedent in the pushing of coloured mud of stretch back cloth, that’s been going on for hundreds of years. I think any painting that denies a historical element is perhaps not telling the whole truth. It’s a two way … It’s the artists job to invent, and context is usually significant – you have to look in both directions.
Giles: Is there a deliberate nature of the references to the past in your work? I know there’s a political point to some of your pictures, there are stories and narratives and figures…?
Stephen: There are no political elements in any of the paintings here. There’s a painting downstairs which is a one way love letter to William Blake: one anniversary of William Blake[‘s death], about 15 years ago, several artists were invited to make versions of his paintings. I just carried on making them – I made my own versions of the Songs of Innocence, which I’m particularly fond of. They’re of course overtly historical. But I think it’s the artists job to invent and make decisions.
Giles: You touched on this earlier Stephen – the fact that for years, figuration wasn’t particularly critically accepted – I’m quite interested in how that’s effected all of your careers.
Stephen: My point wasn’t that figuration wasn’t accepted, it was narrative – there was for a while a pejorative association with the word narrative which is slightly different. This coincided with when I was a student. [There was a shift and a recalibration of the debate. For a while in the 1980s, it was forbidden term.
Eileen: There has been a very well received narrative painting show probably at the end of the 70s – sorry we’re going back – but maybe it was a reaction to that?
Stephen: That happened while I was a student in the beginning of the 80s.
Eileen: It was at the ICA curated by Tim Hyman.
Ella: He’s still there
Eileen: A lot of people emerged from that, including, Ken Kiff, who’s getting a fantastic resurgence now.
Giles: Where you aware of this difficulty throughout this career – you just carried on regardless…?
Eileen: I think I did – just got my head down and survived, made work. That’s a struggle - as you know.
Giles: Emma, Iris, has this affected you at all? Were you worried about this drift towards abstraction in the commercial art world?
Emma: What I think is interesting is the role social media plays and affects artists of my age, that has more to do with the amount of exposure to certain imagery, and the way in which things become homogenous because of this. Less to do with you can’t do this, and more to do with it almost seems like a mass migration towards certain ideas. We see certain shows, everything’s so readily available, and I think the paranoia kicks in when you feel like things become too similar in that sense. There’s an incredible freedom which we exist under, in what we reference, and how we think, yet there’s a constant state of awareness of what everyone else is doing basically all over the world.
Giles: Iris, has this been a concern for you – this differentiation between abstraction and figuration throughout your career?
Iris: To be honest, to be figurative was the uncoolest thing to do when I was a student. For years, I was apologising for what I did. Still I did it. Then, during my studies I went to Norway for one year. The first thing they asked was – ‘why are you apologising? You are doing good work’. I said, ‘yes, but it is figurative’. They said ‘so what’. It was at that point I understood that it’s completely ok what I’m doing. I think in Germany, it was even very special to be a woman who works figuratively, and to be not ironic.
Eileen: I was going to make that point too, and I think that’s a point really well made. When I went to college in the 70s, the women artists who were working narratively and figuratively, were really knocked by the mostly male tutors – they suggested that the work was sentimental or romantic or decorative.
Iris: I think this is a good thing about becoming old, to learn its completely ok what you do when you have found your language. It’s all good.
Giles: Ella as the youngest member of the gang, have you ever felt any pressure to conform to a certain genre or did you feel completely free?
Ella: As Emma was saying with social media, there’s a kind of mass imagery that you can see such a lot of what’s going on. You’re nourished in art school, and it takes time when you leave to truly consider all the things that you are looking at. Because there is so many people doing [a specific thing], you can put a pinpoint on it, and you think - ‘oh I hope I’m not doing the same’. So you’re looking for difference, it’s kind of bizarre.
Eileen: Do you think people are looking at contemporary art, or are they looking further back? I think that’s possibly the biggest shift – people are only looking at current work.
Emma: I think it’s absolutely a matter of artists today posting their work, and then being exposed to contemporary work. At the same time when you’re living and working in London, everyone is seeing the same shows. For example - if you’re in New York, you’re seeing the Hilma Klint show, or perhaps you’re seeing the Bonnard - there’s this way in which you’re always exposed to the same contemporary work.
Ella: I think there’s a positioning which is very different to working now potentially – your practice would still soak up all these historical references, or even within your own peer group, you’ve just got this instant contact, even if you haven’t seen someone for a long time.
Emma: Or not! That’s the craziest part – when you see something, and you see some kind of relationship, and yet you’d never realised when making your own work. It’s complicated, it’s interesting.
Giles: A huge shift from when you guys were doing it [gestures to Eileen and Stephen].
Eileen: Yes, well also, if you think about the advances in technology in our lifetimes – you had to look at paintings in books, or go to a museum.
Ella: Which is wonderful!
Giles: I want to change the subject a little bit to talk about technique. Me and Thea were in New York last week, and we nipped into John Copeland’s studio on Monday, which is extraordinary. He has this huge warehouse in Brooklyn with terrifying Pitbulls – completely mad.
John’s work is incredibly abstract: amazing amounts of paints and swirls on the canvas. So, we were both very surprised when we walked into the studio to see that he starts with very detailed, immaculate drawings of the subjects. He has photographs all around the pictures and they’re beautifully, traditionally drawn images which he turns into a glorious chaos. I was just interested in – particularly you Emma – how you work your canvases and conceive of them?
Emma: As I was mentioning a bit earlier, the idea of call and response is very important to me. The way in which I’m working lends itself quite well to encompass this idea of memory while I work, because I’m actively engaging in memory as I work. I don’t look at reference imagery while I’m working. I call upon what is most permanent in my mind’s eye as I’m painting, it means often times, the things that I’m less familiar with become more abstract, because I can’t render them exactly if it’s too distant in my memory. Things such as - I don’t know – my lips or something like that, would be rendered in much sharper detail.
Giles: So a sort of organic protest which is less calculated that someone like John turns out to be.
Emma: Exactly. It’s interesting – some works you think are completely improvised. I think my work could be misconceived as being calculated, it definitely is about really constantly being aware of what’s happening while I’m painting so I never go into autopilot as I work. I’m interested in laying something down and it usually occurs in a way that you didn’t anticipate – maybe the paint will drip off a surface in some way, or colours will lay on top of each other in a way you didn’t anticipate. Then you think - ‘what if I put a line here’ – or, ‘if I did this thing’ – etc., and the whole thing just builds from there. Then it becomes exciting when you step away from it and you think ‘oh really interesting – that is what this was about’. I think this is where I can tap into my own psyche and memory the most.
Giles: And what about you Ella, how do you build your fantastic elaborate pictures over there [gestures]?
Ella: There’s quite an intricate, drawn structure under my pieces always. So, I’ll always start with a waterproof pen, so that when I paint on stop the lines will stay. I like drawing as a way of supporting the lines I paint - I tend to use water based paints, I don’t tend to build up impasto very often. There’s an intricate ground on which I can play – drawing is a part of how my compositions are played up. I don’t tend to pre-conceive the images I’m drawing, I tend to just keep the images part of the picture, because then there’s a kind of energy to them.
Giles: One final question which I’m going to direct at you three over here [gestures to Iris, Eileen, and Stephen], who drift slightly more towards the figurative. Eileen I’ll start with you – at what point does the pattern and shape bit come into it? How do you work the design of your pictures?
Eileen: I think I’ve got quite a graphic sensibility, so it’s there from the start. If there’s any poetry to come, that happens later.
Giles: Iris what about you - how do you work your compositions up from the beginning?
Iris: I draw a lot. These drawings are with me for years, in heaps; I rearrange them and I redraw them. Hopefully, sometimes one touches me in a way that suggests I want to work with it for a painting. What happens – you can see especially in this big one [gestures] – there’s is a charcoal drawing underneath, and the figure moves until you find a perfect position. You can see the lines where the former positions were. And of course, the architectural structure of the work is defined by lines. Here, it is painted lines and tape, and so it’s three different qualities of lines in a way.
Giles: It’s very complex. Stephen what about you - how do you work your designs?
Stephen: I start every day drawing. I have a good quality watercolour paper cut in a pile. That’s the beginning of everyday and they verge on the doodle. I don’t think drawing is.. I don’t put a line around the things I’m describing… the perimeter of the table or the figure or whatever it is that comes… significant… I’ve a son who was once asked what his dad does – he said ‘my dad colours in’. There’s truth in this – from these small drawings which I make which are initially quite loose with brush and ink – which are perhaps turned into pencil drawings if they have mileage in them – if it’s a big painting they start off in the coloured ground. The painting here [gestures] which has come back into my possession recently is built off this very dark green background, and then drawn in with charcoal. They’re plotted out quite thoroughly before I apply paint, and then I colour them in. Those decisions are of course kind of big ones, but that’s how they’re made. I sort of think they’re nursed – I see them as tickling trout – you have to come hither. I don’t like the term picture by the way – I call them paintings and I describe myself as making paintings.
Giles: A great point to end it on I think. We’ll let these guys go, but of course they’re here if anyone wants to ask questions.