Can you tell me about your practice? How do you get started on a piece of work?
I usually begin a series by making scaled drawings in graph paper sketchbooks. Sometimes I transfer the drawings to my computer and experiment by changing the proportions. The drawings determine the composition but from when the sections have been drawn onto the canvas the play of the materials determine the finished work. The divisions and spatial outlay in the canvases are informed (sometimes subverted) by the formulae of the golden section.
The strain between the prescriptive geometry and the prolonged drying of the layered paint means there is always a potential uncertainty. As the tension builds between wet and dry areas the process provokes the varying degrees of cracking in the gesso. They are honest breaks through to the base of the canvas and usually held in suspension following the rubbing and polishing processes.
The regimented geometry marries defiantly against the spontaneous, free flowing fissures that appear tenuously embedded in the surface, sometimes spilling over the strict linear divisions - they refuse to be contained. When a painting is completed; whilst there is an
undeniable fragility there is also a strength, the broken surfaces are held together in suspension. I see the coming into being of the work presents as trauma played out, and a struggle come to rest.
The sense of opposition and struggle between these two aspects of my practice excites me; I imagine the lines and marks in my work as a kind of metaphorical meditation on the fragility of life.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
I am drawn to the work of Alberto Burri: I am interested in his journey as a former combat medic and how his life experience fed into his art practice. I feel a real connection with the voluptuous materiality in his work and his association with the matterism of the European informal art movement which ran parallel to that of the American abstract expressionist movement. He had connections with other influences of mine, Lucio Fontana and Antoni Tàpies.
I admire the work and meticulous abstraction of Callum Innes and was fortunate to visit him in his studio during a mentorship when I was supported for a year after graduation by the East of England, Arts Council Escalator Project.
There is an emotional subtlety to your work, which through the use of traditional materials and techniques explore tension, reaction, spirit, vulnerability and survival, can you discuss this further?
The physical act of making, is related emotionally to my memory and ‘motherly’ acts of nurturing, cleansing and caring. A friend and curator, Robert Priseman said in an essay on the subject of my work that my paintings “appear to represent an innate desire to protect.”
The absence of imagery allows a pure meditation of the surface and material as a poesis*, in the fundamental sense, a movement of coming into thought of the process of making.
* derived from the ancient Greek term ποιέω, which means "to make". This word, the root of our modern “poetry” was first a verb, an action that transforms and continues the world. Neither technical production nor creation in the romantic sense, poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world
My paintings are created using a natural gesso so the materials are an intrinsic aspect of my work. The specialised paint is made by combining a whiting or chalk with a gelatin binder, I also add natural earth and mineral pigments. The making of a gesso ‘ground’ involves many stages, from soaking, mixing, heating, straining, painting, and sanding, through to polishing and waxing.
(Real gesso is a natural material and bears no resemblance to the many acrylic gesso’s, pre-made and bought in modern day art suppliers.)
When I was at art school I explored the use of gesso as a ground to paint on; it was a source of excitement that I was using the same materials and recipes as some of the great masters of the Renaissance such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. For centuries, gesso has been used as a formative ground on which to paint but I fell in love with the surface and the potential element of surprise inherent with medium.
I discovered that I could vary the temperature, the consistency and the tension in the canvas, to create landscapes of cracked surfaces, incidental nuances and fissures appear in the work that are beyond my control and this is what excites me. My Tutor referenced Ralph Mayer , an art historian who declares that cracks appearing in newly made gesso 1 are “highly undesirable” - he told me I was doing it wrong!
The love of the medium, the excitement I get from creating something I cannot control and the insubordinate idea of provoking imperfection and celebrating the beauty of the flawed are some of the reasons I have been besotted and continued to work with gesso.
Apart from the obvious paraphernalia of art tools in the studio I would say my hands are my most precious tool.
My work is very hands on, a sense of touch and feel for the materials feeds the necessarily intuitive aspect to my work. The hands and fingers wrap around the cracks to create the final outcome of the, once rough when initially dry, to the smooth, marblesque surfaces. Mechanical sanding and rubbing tools are just not malleable and sensitive enough to complete the job of managing an imperfect surface that is raised and nuanced in places. The fingers wrap around a tiny fissure to calm a jagged edge and soothe it back into the surface with a little spray of water the pigment recoils back into the paint leaving a more stable broken surface that is arrested in time.
Finally, is there anything new coming up that you would like to tell us about?
This year marks the 10 year anniversary of Contemporary British Painting. I was an inaugural member of the group founded by Robert Priseman and Simon Carter; it began in East Anglia and now has a prestigious reputation nationally and worldwide. I am delighted to be showing work in the exhibition, ‘X’ Exhibition Contemporary British Painting curated by Dr. Narbi Price. It opens at Newcastle Contemporary Art Gallery and features over 100 paintings by 84 artists. The show is a celebration of CBP’s development over the past decade.
I am honoured to be one of the four selectors for the 2023 Contemporary British Painting Prize open to artists working in the UK but not CBP members.
I am currently working on a new body of work; my intention is to hold a solo exhibition in 2024 to celebrate 20 years as a professional artist.
1. Susan Gunn artist portrait photograph by Andey Sapey
2. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery Solo Exhibition 2008-9 | Installation
3. Divided Ground: Lamp Black
Size: 122 x 91 x 4 cm
Material: Encaustic wax, beeswax, natural earth pigment (ground coal) & gesso on canvas museum grade aluminium stretcher
Selected and exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2018 Curated by Grayson Perry
Photography: Peter Huggins
4. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery Solo Exhibition 2008-9 | Installation
5. Divided Ground: Bombay Orange
Size: 153 x 153 x 4 cm
Material: Wax, natural earth pigment & gesso on canvas & aluminium stretcher
Exhibited at the RA Summer Exhibition 2018 curated by Grayson Perry & David Mach Status: Private Collection
Photography: Peter Huggins
6. Ground: Sacro Terra
Size: 61 x 61 x 4.5 cm
Material: Natural earth pigment & gesso on canvas & board Date: 2017
Status: ‘X’ Contemporary British Painting Exhibition 2023 Photography: Daniel Walmsley
7. Aurum I-II-III
A site specific work commissioned by the North Norfolk Exhibition Project for Salthouse Church
Size: 273 x 122 x 4 cm
Material: Genuine 22 carat gold leaf, natural earth pigment & gesso on canvas & aluminium support
Status: Private Collection
Photography: Peter Huggins
8. White Spiritus
Size: 91.5 x 91.5 x 4 cm
Materials: Beeswax, natural earth pigment, calcium carbonate & gesso on canvas & museum grade aluminium support
Photography: Daniel Walmsley