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Phoebe Unwin Sketchbook Assignments

AS: You’ve been busy this year with a solo show at Wilkinson and the British Art Show 7. Do deadlines affect how you work?

PU: I find that it’s important to put deadlines out of my mind. I mean they’re there, but I don’t make work specifically for a show because I make what I make. But, as it gets nearer, you can’t help looking at what you have and what would go where and those kinds of decisions.

AS: I imagine the way you work can be unpredictable. You don’t use images. It’s all coming from your own experiences, from what’s in your mind, looking at things and seeing opportunities for paintings.

PU: That’s true, and because I don’t know what any of the paintings will look like when they’re finished, that’s part of it. I like that working process of being surprised by how something might look but that also means that it’s important to be comfortable with failure in the work in terms of making something, looking at it and then thinking it’s not quite right. It might be an interesting idea but the size is wrong or something, I really respond to how it looks in the studio.

AS: What do you do if you see something failing, do you try to make it work or do you scrap it and try something else?

PU: Sometimes I try to make it work. Sometimes I try for months, and then it’s scrapped. Or I try for months and it works. I might think at the time that it was a bad idea in the first place, so it’s never going to work. But then I find I might be drawn to the idea again and have another go at it a year later. There’s enough tension to get an image to work so if you’re getting too self-conscious and wound up, then that’s not helpful.

AS: The painting ends up looking too fraught or contrived?

PU: I think there’s an element of tension in all of them. They’re not completely relaxed paintings but if there’s too much tension then I think a painting can look nervous. And then it’s not doing the job of communicating something. I mean it might be interesting to make a painting about being nervous but then it has to communicate that well, rather than be apologetic of itself. That’s when they get scrapped; if I feel they’re like that.

AS: I’m looking at the girl figure in your earlier work, is it you or is that too obvious?

PU: It’s not meant to be, none of the people I paint are portraits. I think of them as being portraits for feelings rather than portraits of a particular person. But all of my paintings and subjects end up being things that I’ve experienced in some way. They’re not personal stories, but in order for me to explain what something might have felt like or a relationship to an object, in terms of space or colour or scale, then I need to have experienced it. There’s nothing fantastical about them.

AS: Are you losing the figure more, moving in an abstract direction?

PU: I can’t imagine ever being completely abstract because the aspect I’m most interested in is the relationship between a visual world that everyone experiences and how that is explored through materials and marks.

AS: You need something recognisable?

PU: In order to communicate this subject, yes. So the subject is actually really important. For me, it’s not a pure interest in paint and colour and painting. It’s also about these relationships. For me it’s a springboard into different atmospheres or moods or tensions.

AS: And they are invisible things.

PU: Yes, Self Consciousness is very much about painting a feeling. Or the subject of Brick Wall was the everyday but also the formal qualities of painting because it’s a flat painting about something flat. So I’m interested in these subjects that explore a visual everyday world but also the world of the painting and the object itself.

AS: How do you keep your ideas for paintings? Do you have a sketchbook?

PU: This is one book. It’s falling apart. When I work here I put in lots of different coloured papers and respond to marks and colours and so on in an intuitive way. I’m not working in the book from beginning to end. It’s developed as a whole. I have to feel excited or engaged with the page and if I don’t then I just move on. I’ve worked on these for a while and the only rule I have is that anything can go in them. It can be an insignificant thing like a note of a couple of colours that I like or it can be something about an actual place or an image that has been layered and built up. I describe this as somewhere to be really gentle with ideas so they don’t have to stand up for themselves yet. They might never be used for a painting. I like working with this size. I’ve tried working in smaller or larger books but this size is just right. I also like that they’re quite thick because they start to build up a rich body of images. This is where I begin with all the different types of materials. I use acrylic, graphite, pastel, ink, and printed papers. And using coloured papers gets away from that feeling of a white, empty, blank page.

AS: When it comes to a painting, is there a white blank canvas or do you have to mess it up first?

PU: I think I need to mess it up but I’m not intentionally messing it up. I’ll think I’m just starting a painting but at every stage I’m looking at that and responding to the scale and the way the colours are because they’re not planned. Whatever I feel the subject demands will change my approach. Brick Wall started in a relatively controlled way by making a background of bricks, almost like creating a space to work within and respond to. So I knew I was making a painting of a brick wall and I knew how I was going to begin, but I didn’t know what it would end up looking like or how it would feel working within that pattern or that scale or combination of colours. Something like Self-Consciousness was started by putting colours and textures together, especially the oil paint which was quite impasto, and seeing and feeling where the painting would go. So building up to the image, rather than beginning with an image and working within that. They each have different approaches.

AS: You’ve used patterned papers in your sketchbooks, like the chequerboard. What does pattern do for you in a painting?

PU: I used a lot of pattern in the last show. The printed chequerboard and brickwork papers in the sketchbook, is where I first thought of it for painting. The pattern I have been using recently is about exploring a certain sort of rhythm in the paintings. I describe it as a constant hum or drumbeat. It’s a space to work within, which then gets interrupted or, like in Three Bananas, it’s reversed because the background is stronger than the subject on it. The banana shapes are like stains, almost like something has been taken away. So the movement and the focus of the painting is the chequerboard which is also a hand made mark, it’s not really a neat chequerboard so that was important. And then with Brick Wall there are elements where I’ve masked off the pattern which is much more graphic and controlled but then that pattern is echoed and mimicked in handmade brick marks using the different reds. So sometimes its about interrupting something and also an echo or reverberation of a mark or colour.

AS: Do the same motifs crop up?

PU: They do but in the sketchbook they’re not judged too much, they just live there. Elements of them are used when I’m ready to use them but very rarely are they scaled up from here. There might be an element of a composition that I take from the book but usually it’s a material element.

AS: There doesn’t seem to be any hierarchy with the different materials.

PU: That’s really important. One of my main reasons for using different materials is colour, because I feel that a colour is different in say an oil paint, spray paint, acrylic or pastel because they have really different surfaces, qualities and connotations. An oil paint mark might seem more controlled than a spray paint mark. It’s got a different speed to it. A spray paint mark, especially with the fuzzy edge, records what it was like to make it, which is quite magical. You press the top of the can and you can just keep going. It’s fast and it covers everything in an opaque way. Whereas there is a very different relationship with making, in that sense, to then being with a brush and a more gentle type of mark making. So I like using both of those languages, and all different types of languages with marks. With this page, there are so many elements in it. I’ve got this table from above and the carpet. There might be just one element of this that becomes a painting. And different viewpoints are important in the work.

AS: I’m surprised you said that was a table, it’s looking down from above.

PU: That’s like Sponge Palette in a way, it’s a palette with the thumbhole, and so you’re looking at it from above. Again, there’s pattern, and the sort of echoing of that background pattern and also a combination of colours about painting itself. I called it Sponge Palette because one aspect is that colour and form, for me, are indistinguishable from the subject when they are worked up. That’s my aim in a painting, to achieve, if I feel that I can, the colours and forms to be just those ones necessary for the painting, not to have any that don’t need to be there. So in a sense, the subject of the painting is as inspired by the colour and form. I almost see a subject in a colour combination in a painting in the way that it almost feels like a sponge or something, that the painting becomes saturated with these feelings or atmospheres.

AS: It’s an interesting way to describe a painting, like a sponge, like it sucks in all this stuff, ideas and materials, and becomes visible.

PU: I’m making it sound quite mystical. There are definitely a lot of felt qualities that are really important to me. And it is that thing about a sponge of sucking things up, the subject becoming really imbedded and saturated in the painting itself and in the colours and shapes, but there’s another element. The rigorous editing and appraisal of the work is really important to me. There are real formal aspects that come into play, especially as the painting gets further on, where I’ll be really thinking is it working in terms of subject, is it working in terms of scale and in terms of the painting itself.

AS: It sounds like you’re very controlled about what goes in.

PU: I am but when you speak about paintings in retrospect, because you’re talking about all the ideas, you can’t help but make it sound like ‘when I got to this point I was thinking this …’. But, when I’m actually working on a painting, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to put into words why I chose to get rid of a whole section or decided a painting failed, because I’m working really close to it, and working very quickly, but also so close to instinct and response.

AS: Can you describe the process for making Sponge Palette?

PU: The ground of Sponge Palette is made with an acrylic medium called crackle paste so it’s breaking up the surface. It’s meant to and it makes the surface very spongy. It feels absorbent. Because of the little cracks, the paints run into each other. Different surfaces in paintings are as important as marks because it completely changes the marks on top. I find that quite fascinating. Again, the pattern was made first so I’m working on something that is already visually dense. This palette shape, almost like a picture frame, is translucent so that the pattern is visible almost all the way through it. There would have been, in this painting especially, a real interest in layering and communicating the kind of time and visual conversation that happened in the painting. Some of my other paintings are more sparse and economical in line so they don’t have that sense of layered time. They would be about some other atmospheres or moods or tensions that I’m interested in exploring.

Sponge Palette, 2010 can be seen at Fade Away, Gallery North, Newcastle, 5-24 May 2011

Images courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery


Sponge Palette, 2010

Girl, 2009

studio photograph, 2011

Self Consciousness, 2010

Three Bananas, 2010

Brick Wall, 2011

studio photograph, 2011

Sponge Palette, 2010

Los Angeles, Jan. 2011 - Phoebe Unwin's solo show, Man made, is currently on view at Wilkinson Gallery, London (January 13 - March 6, 2011. Her work is also included in British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet (February 16 - April 17, 2011). The British Art show is recognized as one of the most influential exhibitions of contemporary British art. I has been taking place every five years since 1979. Curated by Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, British Art Show 7 opened in Nottingham, and after its London showing at the Hayward Gallery, will travel to venues in Glasgow and Plymouth.

The following interview with Phoebe Unwin was conducted in Los Angeles by Catherine Wagley just before the opening of Phoebe's exhibition at Honor Fraser, Making An Outside Space Theirs (May 23 - July 3, 2009).

Phoebe Unwin, Self-Consciousness, 2010, Acrylic, oil, thixotropic alkyd medium and spray paint on canvas, 145 × 120.5 cm.;  Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London

Catherine Wagley: You said that hanging a show is like composing music. What was it like to see your finished composition, your whole show, hung at Honor Fraser?

Phoebe Unwin: It was fantastic to see the body of work I had been working on, out of the studio and on the wall at Honor Fraser-it is only at that moment I can really have a complete sense of what the show feels like.

CW: The show's title-Making An Outside Space Theirs-sounds pleasantly democratic. Where did it come from?

PU: With this title I was thinking about describing a relationship between the psychological and the physical: how paintings are made, how we look at them and the moment when we feel a painting takes on its own presence.

CW: You talked about wanting your paintings to resonate with the visual world people live in. Is this part of the reason you reference bodies so often?

PU: Yes, I reference bodies in varying levels of directness-for example, sometimes an upper body is contained within the painting and other times human things or moments are hinted at: knees seen just creeping into a painting; a place setting, the inside of an empty refrigerator; sunglasses falling; a t-shirt being folded.

CW: Are your canvases ever proportionate to your own figure?

PU: My canvases are proportionate to my own figure in so far as they are human in scale- even the largest of my paintings are not truly monumental. I think this is a contributing factor in my work having a feel of being made by an individual rather than any kind of industrial team-scale. Also, I often move my paintings. I sometimes work on the floor, other times I want to hide a painting from myself, responding to it at a later date, and I think that because of this very physical relationship I have with the paintings it feels natural to me that they correspond in some ways to my own size.

CW: Your paintings are rarely pure abstractions. Why does figuration matter to you?

Phoebe Unwin, Interior Man, 2010, Oil and acrylic on linen, 140 × 128.5 cm; Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London

PU: I think this relates very much to what I have said earlier about wanting the title of the show to be focused on where a painting takes you rather than paint or color in isolation. I do make purely abstract images in my sketchbooks but I tend to use these as starting points-a kind of note taking of materials and marks. My paintings are never totally abstract. There is always a hint or link to something recognizable-I think this is important to me because my paintings are not purely about painting. I am interested in a moment when the paint is at once still itself (I never use it in an illusionary way) and just becoming something recognizable. Figuration matters to me because of the relationship and tension it creates with materials.

CW: The paintings you put together for this show seem like a strange family. Why didn't you make a tidier posse?

PU: My work is playful and curious about materials, subjects and painting itself-there are great differences between paintings, but I think a lot of similarities too. When selecting work for this show, it was important to use the differences to create a kind of rhythm - some of the paintings I would describe as noisy, others quiet.

CW: What sorts of visual memories move through your head as you paint?

PU: Memories are useful for painting because they are never just isolated images-they have strange specifics and large areas of vagueness. This works as an important editing tool for me-I find photographs too much visual information, often too rooted in a particular place or time. Many visual memories move through my head as I gather ideas but they actually tend to then be quite specific combinations once I have decided to use a memory or thought as the basis of a painting.

CW: When you said that painting doesn't have a sophisticated veneer, and that it is unforgiving, I thought it sounded like a metaphor for daily life. Do you think of painting as metaphoric?

Phoebe Unwin, Table, 2010, Acrylic, oil, spray paint and graphite on canvas,140 × 128.5 cm; Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London

PU: I don't think of painting as a metaphor for life, more that life inevitably appears in paintings-it is part of it. Painting is in a way an unforgiving medium-I find it such a curious thing that a painting could have extremely sophisticated ideas behind it but if its relationship to its materials or image is disjointed it can very easily fail.

CW: I was intrigued by our conversation about mood. Your work never seems apocalyptic or melodramatic. And, although you've used ordinary subjects like empty refrigerators, your work doesn't glory in triviality. Do you have any adjectives or nouns to describe that in-between space your paintings occupy?

PU: I really like what you say about the work not glorifying triviality. This is very much what I aim for. My everyday subjects are never intended to be dead-ends. For me, it's important that a painting resonates further than its subject or materials-I think that's the best way I can describe it. It's a feeling that I often find through the process of making the work, seeing what does and doesn't work, thinking about why, keeping the work at the in-between space you describe.

CW: Now that Making An Outside Space Theirs has opened and you're back in the UK, what are your plans?

PU: It was really wonderful to be in Los Angeles-the whole experience was incredibly energizing and I found it such an inspiring environment. Back in the studio here, I have started to work on paper, thinking about what form my new paintings might take.

Artslant would like to thank Phoebe Unwin and Honor Fraser for their assistance in making this interview possible.

- Catherine Wagley