Conversation between FRANCES WOODLEY and CLAUDIA CARR
for “STILL LIFE Ambiguous Practices”
Group exhibition, Aberystwyth University, curated by Frances Woodley
to see full catalogue and images click here http://issuu.com/a1design/docs/woodley_aber_2-15_cat_all_issuu_lor
FW When I first saw photographs of your paintings I was not quite sure what I was looking at, landscape or still life. I felt suspended between these two genres, and to find a footing I had to call upon my own past experience and imaginings of spaces and places, objects and settings, to interpret them. They seemed to exist somewhere in between the two genres, crossing between one and the other as you painted them and as I looked at them.
CC I’m happy you had that experience. I’m interested in hinterlands and no mans lands and the tension in the massive little crevassess between things, between places and also between ideas. A lot of my work plays with ambiguity, and perceptions of scale, so I’m naturally interested in the slippage between all those genres especially between landscape and still life.
FW Could you tell me more about the objects that you paint and these liminal ‘landscapes’ that you situate them in?
CC Here’s a list of objects I can see as I look around me in the studio right now: twigs and rocks and bones, dead orange peel, scrumpled paper, strands of moss and green kitchen sponges, a piece of desiccated ginger root, broken coral, plasticine, some string, a tuft of pink roof insulation felt and a dead T-shirt, bits of twisted, rusting metal, some plaster crumbs and spat out chewing gum and drawers labelled ‘yellow bits’, ‘creatures’, ‘large organic objects’, ‘small white grit’, ‘small dark grit’ etc. Objects arrive here from the woods and the seashore, from road intersections or gutters and some come into being in the studio itself …… by-products of my eating and painting and pacing.
I don’t consciously make the landscapes. I experience them as ‘found landscapes’. Objects accumulate on various shelves and tabletops in the studio, and their configurations change organically as new things are put down and jostle for space, or dust gathers or things fall, and over time these accumulations ripen and turn into actual environments and situations. In terms of the scale shifts …… painting from observation for long hours is a very visually intimate, and hypnotic, experience and the spaces and forms in front of me quite naturally appear to swell and take on more epic proportions.
The inanimate objects seem very animated. Garlic skins and fragments of tissue paper are susceptible to the slightest draft or sneeze; dried orange peel continues to twist and contort while I’m painting it; and I also believe that looking itself can bring life into something.
FW Since seeing the paintings in your studio I have become even more intrigued by how they draw me in only to then obstruct and divert my viewing. Why is this I wonder? Most of the paintings I saw on that occasion were small, so that unsettling experience was one that was repeated as I moved from one painting to the next. So maybe it would be useful to think of this conversation as having some similarities to those spaces, that is, conversation as something that we might pass through with the expectation of encountering similar sorts of invitations, obstructions and diversions. What do you think?
CC Yes, I like it that the act of looking at a painting can be ‘a conversation’, a dialogue, a reciprocal experience. Unlike other art forms (music, films, books etc) that require a commitment from their audience in terms of time, a painting can be ‘seen’ and walked past in a nanosecond. So, as a painter it’s very exciting when a viewer is prepared to really immerse themselves in the experience of looking; to enter into ‘a conversation’ with the painting.
FW These three paintings that we have selected for the exhibition, I find them very moving, especially as a series (though I’m not sure they were intended to be). Looking at them as images on my laptop, I am once again made aware that my eyes, and my attention, are pulled into a space, onto an object, only to be thrown back to something else—a piece of coral for example—in the foreground. Here they might briefly remain, restless, before being caught up by something else, perhaps a reflection or a shadow behind an object that I hadn’t seen before, so I am both surprised and disappointed at my own inattention.
This visual sensation of being pulled in and thrown back seems to happen in relation to these particular paintings because I have no horizon or vanishing point to escape to. Because you withhold this escape route my sense of space and place is slightly disorientated. Instead I am thrown between the whites of disintegrating paper, the gleam on a surface, or the tendrils of dehydrated seaweed. I feel like I’m being caught up in a sort of visual drift, it feels like floating, not landing or delving. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure whether I should be searching for small objects or massive ones, real, transformed or dreamt ones. I’m getting caught up in a drama without a narrative. I’m not sure whether a scrap of tissue is behaving as a tarpaulin might in a sand storm, or whether I’m looking at tissue that has found itself blown by human breath into an overlooked corner of the studio. Or something/somewhere in-between, or both?
What your paintings manage to do is to make me suspend my disbelief, which is remarkable given that all the objects are so keenly observed.
CC Referring again to the paintings inviting you in ‘only to obstruct and divert your viewing’ you asked, Why is this I wonder? …… By ‘this’ do you mean you are wondering, Why do YOU FEEL that? or, Why do THE PAINTINGS DO that?.
FW So my wondering, that you asked me to explain, was to do with why I was responding like this and whether you paint with the intention of making me (and others) feel like this.
CC I’m definitely not painting with the intention of making anyone feel any particular thing. The only thing I would like, regarding people’s responses, is for them to experience an ambiguity of scale in the paintings, to have to ask, Is it a tiny bit of grit or a giant boulder? or to prompt the question, Where am I? …… and then, rather than feeling the need to answer those questions with a particular definition or place name, to allow their experience of the painting to be a more open ended journey. The viewer’s reactions (feeling unsettled, liberated, frightened, ecstatic or anything else) doesn’t feel like my responsibility and certainly isn’t a concern when I’m making or planning a painting.
You talked about being ‘caught up in a drama without a narrative’. I want the viewer to be able to inhabit the painting. I’d like them to be able to journey through it as a tourist, a local, or even a protagonist. For me the viewer’s imaginal or sensuous presence in the painting is an important component of the image itself.
I like what you said about not immediately knowing what kind of space you were looking at when you first saw the paintings, and needing to recall back into your own imagination and memory bank to interpret them, to get a footing, but I don’t feel there is anything to interpret. Hopefully the paintings are more like sponges than blackboards. I want them to absorb the viewer’s own narratives and imaginings rather than the painting telling anyone what to think or feel or understand. I love the idea that different people might overlay completely different narratives on the same painting. You said you feel able to suspend your disbelief when you look at them. That makes me happy. I’m always hoping the viewer will feel able to meet the work head on, leaving behind, or at least questioning, any expectations or assumptions they might bring to them, and have what you so nicely referred to as a ‘visual adventure’.
When confronted with an abstract painting I think it is easier for the viewer to feel able to have an immediate and sensuous experience of it. It’s as if we’re given permission to stop looking for meaning and to simply respond to the surface, and all its seductive formal qualities. But when we look at a representational painting that kind of response can sometimes feel less unavailable to us because of all the literal work of ‘interpretation’ that a representational image inherently demands of us.
FW Would you like to elaborate on what you mean by ‘formal’?
CC ‘Formal’, for me, means the optical activity and tensions generated through specific colour juxtapositions, compositional dynamics, spatial games, rhythmic concerns, handling of the surface itself etc., ideas around the manipulation of colour, space and rhythm, on a flat surface, within the confines of a rectangle, or square etc. The word ‘formal’ can have a dry ring to it, or feel like something exclusive to modernist abstract painting , but as far as I’m concerned its the beautiful juicy nub of what all good painting, figurative or abstract, is about.
It is the formal qualities that draw the viewer into a sensuous relationship with the painting and I believe that without that, the emotional or intellectual responses we have to a representational image would have far less depth or resonance.
In a painting like my E’s Rocks and Blue it was about constantly re-tuning the grey/brown/ blue relationships until the colours started to engage each other optically, altering each other’s chromatic identities. It’s these kinds of magical transformations that excite me about painting. A grey being electrified into a state of ‘orangeness’ by its neighbouring blue is pure alchemy, isn’t it?! Even (especially) in my ‘greyer’ paintings this kind of optical activity is a major concern. Within a narrower chromatic range the interaction between warm and cool, light and dark can become even more tense.
But whilst these colour narratives are being played out its also important for me that the ‘enter- into-able’ space of the painting and its emotional atmosphere, still have conviction. As a figurative painter I’m playing with this tipping point between the formal activity and the image itself (the three dimensional illusion). I like what James Turrell, the artist, says about needing ‘the quality of the illusion to be both convincing and dissoluble’.
FW I like the obstructions in these three paintings, they exercise my imagination, they make me curious as to what might lie behind or at an imagined point in the distance. Adam Philips writes in his chapter ‘Looking at Obstacles’ in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: ‘It is impossible to imagine desire without obstacles, and wherever we find something to be an obstacle we are at the same time desiring of it’.(1)
CC I’m finding it hard to think objectively about the painting now …… to disentangle the viewer’s experience of it from the painting itself or from my intentions!
FW I’m aware that in this conversation I am asking you to take account of my responses whilst formulating your own. This is intentional and an alternative method to the recorded interview in which an interviewer prompts or challenges an artist without fully acknowledging their own responses. I am interested in conversation as method, that is, about coming to a new understanding of something through ‘co- respondence’. I also understand that this requires the artist to reach out to a viewer/respondent in a way that they wouldn’t normally do in the course of painting.
CC I find your delving into yourself and sharing what you find by way of responses to the paintings lovely (and generous), and is certainly insightful for me.
Sometimes the conversation between the viewer and a painting operates on a very unconscious level. There seems to be an inexplicable connection between a viewer’s emotional or psychological responses to a painting and the artist’s own unconscious input while making it … … a kind of intimate communication that goes on between two separate psyches unbeknownst to their owners’ conscious minds. It’s a mystifying phenomenon.
A lot of images, sensations, memories etc. come up for me when I’m staring at an object for a long time, and I get odd glimpses of them, but mostly they jostle about just under the surface of my consciousness and I think they are probably more redolent, and motivating, for me that way. In terms of the atmosphere of the image, they are possibly the fuel that drives the painting.
Staring at the same thing for hours, weeks and sometimes months on end is very trippy experience and your imagination often takes you a million miles from what you are looking at. Paradoxically, painting directly from observation takes me further and further away from the concrete ‘reality’ in front of me, the very one I am so obsessively scrutinizing and painting all day! Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
FW For many artists the ways in which their objects are discovered, made or processed prior to being painted is crucial to their interpretation. You are generous to your objects, you allow them time to become themselves, sometimes years.
CC Yes, that’s a nice way of putting it. It’s very rare that I could bring something into the studio and paint it straight away. Generally things seem to need to hang around for a few years before they become suggestive to me.
‘Practically none of the perishable objects that have occupied my studio (as models) have ever rotted. They dry out, contort, shrink or turn to dust, but it takes a long time. I’ve got a croissant from about fifteen years ago. It is rock hard but still bleeds a little oily stain onto whatever surface it sits on. Things seem to die very slowly and un-traumatically in the studio, so even when the soggy brown husk of a fennel bulb seemed to mark the end of its life, a sudden spurt of sappy green growth rose out of the heart of it and continued to grow, right in front of me. I’m interested in the relationship between the observed object and its observer (the gaze). I’m convinced that objects sense and respond to being looked at (especially the kind of intense looking that happens over long periods of painting something).’2
It’s hard to talk about my relationship with the objects and assemblages in the studio because it isn’t a fully conscious one, but it has always been going on …… as a child rooting around in the woods, making dens, collecting owl pellets, filling empty matchboxes with mice skulls or making camps for toy creatures in the tops of cupboards etc. It’s something quite deep-rooted. Artists are lucky to have a job that allows them to keep playing out that childhood desire to create their own worlds.
Further information on the artist is available at www.claudiacarr.com
1 Philips Adam 1993 On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber and Faber. p 87.
2 Claudia Carr: The Butterfly Counts not Months but Moments, Interview, Traction Magazine, Jessica Carlisle, London. September 2014
STILL LIFE: AMBIGUOUS PRACTICES A SCHOOL OF ART PUBLICATION, ABERYSTWYTH UNIVERSITY, 2015.
© ALL ORIGINAL WORKS OF ART AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF WORKS OF ART ARE COPYRIGHT OF THE ARTISTS: EMMA BENNETT, G.L. BRIERLEY, CLAUDIA CARR, CLARE CHAPMAN, DAVID GOULD, JOHNNY GREEN, ALEX HANNA, JANICE MCNAB, PHILIP NICOL, CHRISTOPHER NURSE, FRANCES WOODLEY
© ALL ESSAYS ARE COPYRIGHT OF THE AUTHOR FRANCES WOODLEY
PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE ART WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION WERE SUPPLIED BY THE ARTISTS. OTHER IMAGES WERE SOURCED FROM RIJKSSTUDIO, RIJKSMUSEUM, AMSTERDAM, AND NATIONAL GALLERY OF DENMARK
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ISBN 978 1 899095 37 7
STILL LIFE: AMBIGUOUS PRACTICES, A BOOK OF CORRESPONDENCE IS PUBLISHED TO ACCOMPANY THE EXHIBITION STILL LIFE: AMBIGUOUS PRACTICES, 8 APRIL – 8 MAY 2015 SCHOOL OF ART GALLERY, ABERYSTWYTH UNIVERSITY, BUARTH MAWR, ABERYSTWYTH, SY23 1NG TEL: 01970 622460 YSGOL GELF, PRIFYSGOL ABERYSTWYTH, BUARTH MAWR ABERYSTWYTH, SY23 1NG TEL: 01970 622460.
THE EXHIBITION HAS RECEIVED CURATORIAL SUPPORT FROM THE SCHOOL OF ART, ABERYSTWYTH UNIVERSITY/ YSGOL GELF, PRIFYSGOL ABERYSTWYTH, BUARTH MAWR.