18.09.15 --- 09.10.15
8-Part Set (Spaced Diptych - Orange, Red, Pink, Blue, White)
Oil on gesso on wooden panels
6-Part (Whites, Gesso, Orange, Yellow)
Oil on gesso on wooden panel
6-Part Diamond (Black, Yellow, Red, White, Gesso)
Oil on gesso on linen
Details taken from 8-Part Set, 2015
Details taken from 6-Part, 2015
Details taken from 6-Part Diamond, 2015
Sharon Hall with Chris Shaw
CS: Can you talk about the materials you use?
SH: I use oil paints, sometimes with an acrylic tinted or washed ground, sometimes leaving the sized linen and sometimes leaving gesso grounds as a colour (greys and whites). In the last year I have been using gesso sottile grounds on wooden panels. This keeps the edges much more precise than linen and also the absorbency means that the colour becomes part of the surface of the painting.
CS: You've recently been working on paper, too. How did you find that?
SH: I will be exhibiting some drawings in a group show in Paris next spring and so I have been working towards this. I use the drawings as a way of exploring variations in colour and structure. The heavy watercolour papers and rag papers - where the natural weave and ‘imperfections’ of the sheets become part of the image - emphasize their materiality in much the same way as the acrylic and oil glazes do when they soak into the surfaces of the gesso.
CS: There is variation in the grids and diagonals found in your oeuvre - from the tondo paintings to the diagonals etc. How did you settle on these particular designs? Can I call them designs?
SH: The variations (are there that many?) are generally differentiated by the different weights of colour or its contrasts. They are all nonetheless derived from the starting shape and a simple set of permutations on its subsequent division. I did a group of works where I used templates from these divisions which were then freely moved around within the rectangle, such as In Part (Blue/Black, Blue, Terre Verde), 2015 (see above) and I may return to these at some future point when I can work out where I am going with them! The tondos naturally lent themselves to radiate out from the centre and I liked their correlation with the idea of beams of light.
You can call them designs but I think of them as a kind of provisional scaffold which supports the colour and is open to change. The relationship of the parts which unfold as the work is made, are found when the colour is 'poured' into these divisions. When I think of design it implies a predetermination whereas my paintings are more organic where things might change, i.e. a band or section might be added during the painting.
CS: Do you begin by pencilling in the geometric structures that underpin your drawings/paintings?
SH: They are sometimes lightly pencilled in - a guide for the initial thinking, but they often get rearranged or the boundaries ignored as the painting progresses.
CS: This underlying geometry, these grids will be seen by some as restrictive and constraining - as drawing alone they would be rather austere exercises; and yet colour somehow opens them up, unlocks them, gives them experiential qualities. But it's not just about colour is it? It's the way you position colour and the different methods with which you treat it that gives it a subtle depth and light?
SH: I find working with a restricted vocabulary, not really grids but geometric divisions, liberating. It allows me to work with the organising of the colour and its nuance without the clutter of compositional decisions, or more complex graphic invention. Over the last few years the work has become more and more pared down to a very simple set of structural devices or sequences. The relative anonymity of this armature becomes secondary to the activity of the colour, which is then lived through in the looking - perhaps this is what you mean by ‘experiential qualities'.
The paintings are in fact mostly about colour and its interaction with the other colours. I like to set up a kind of dynamic or an optical instability (although I avoid too obvious optical illusions). Also the very recent works use a sequence of 'manoeuvres' which are numerically described in the titles (2-Part, 6-Part etc.) and these produce a set of structures which are activated by the colour decisions which are often taken quite intuitively at each of these stages, so in this way the constraining parameters enable and work with elements which then become singular through the choices made.
As I mentioned earlier, the fact that colour is sometimes soaked into the surfaces (or is inflected by the weave of the canvas or linen left its natural colour or thinly primed) also means that the different parts next to each other have a physical quality, and relationships which although controlled, are also shifting between transparency and light; material and real surface. The different areas are often left marked by the stroke of the brush or its trace, and this can disrupt the overall unity and flatness and make the juxtapositions less predictable. Blinky Palermo’s use of dyed fabrics does something similar with both the materiality and the retinal. I have also been looking at Korean wrapping covers where the individual patchworks are made of silks and woven textiles.
CS: In Weymouth after we installed your works in the Three Works space, we went for a small celebratory drink before it got dark and walking about the harbour I noticed you were very keen on looking up at the buildings. In Tuscany, where you live (some of the time), you photograph buildings and these photographs are sometimes exhibited next to your paintings. What is the connection between the photographs and the paintings do you think?
SH: Location and place are important both in terms of the visual impact of particular architecture and also as a source of changing types of light - photography can record these things very efficiently. Some of the photographs, which I have exhibited alongside my paintings, record my interest in trompe l’oeil and different perspectival traditions and these in turn can have a more direct relation to the optical and shifting pictorial spaces which I employ in the paintings. I hope that the grouping of the paintings with the photographs initiates a kind of dialogue between the two, and how there might be a seeping of one into the other.
CS: In his essay The Gravity of Colour, Stuart Bradshaw posits the idea that had you not moved your studio to Italy, your preoccupations "may have been similar but the paintings would have been different and the photographs probably wouldn't have existed". Do you agree with him?
SH: Yes I do. The different qualities of light and the place I make the paintings has had a significant impact on the way I use colour both as light, and as 'weighted' substance (as he goes on to talk about further in that essay). Also my first hand experience of Italian painting and fresco has informed a great deal of the choices I make when selecting a particular range or palette. So although the formal development of the painting may have developed along a similar trajectory, the results would indeed be very different to paintings made in Manchester or London.
And Stuart is probably right - I would never have been compelled to make photographs.
CS: In another essay I read about your work by David Ryan (Colour in Place), it is suggested that your paintings "seem to thrive in the proximity with the more 'hand-made' and physical interior spaces of Italian architecture". Your Three Works show, at your behest, was more 'white cube' than anything else. What sort of surroundings do you think best showcase your paintings?
SH: In planning the show we had talked about my doing some kind of installed paintings, possibly with coloured walls or something which I have done in the past. However, the remoteness of the gallery from me, and my unfamiliarity with the space, made this impossible to visualise or pre-plan. I like to explore the way the work might interact with a given architectural setting, and a great deal of Renaissance Italian architecture near where I live, between Florence and Lucca, has this kind of lived in physicality - sometimes an almost sculptural-like intrusion into the spaces with vaulted ceilings and frescoed walls which emphasise their physical construction and are part of the building's fabric. I think this is what David is alluding to - as was the case with the one-person show I did in a 15C Italian palazzo in 2013 where the work was very much placed in relation to the architecture of its space which was also strewn with previous histories and fragments of earlier frescos. In this sense the paintings are ‘sited' as opposed to installed. The handmadeness is a reference to the physical traces of labour and history embedded within many Italian buildings.
CS: I really enjoyed hanging the work with you but there aren't many options in a space with three good walls built to hold three works - and rather than kick against that, we went for a 'classic' hang, centralised and balanced. What were your initial impressions of the space?
SH: Well I didn’t know what to expect from the plan you had sent me but my first impression was that it was very ‘compact’, but nonetheless perfectly prepared and carpentered thanks to your considerable technical skills! I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough space to allow the paintings to breathe but, in fact, the pure whiteness of the space and the fantastic light (that I noticed was coincidentally the same aspect as my studio and so perfect for the colour relations) really worked magnificently when the paintings were up on the wall. It would have appeared just plain perverse to go against this white cube and its symmetry and so in this instance I was happy to go for a 'traditional' balanced hang to foreground the paintings, not their display.
CS: I also found out during the install that you have quite a disdain for paintings hung too high.
SH: I like paintings to be looked into and encountered as things which occupy the same space and time as the viewer and hanging them higher up on a wall always seems to work against this and to my mind is too reminiscent of how paintings are often seen in churches.
CS: The grids, triangles, diamonds and diagonals bring to mind a whole host of modernist painters from Mondrian to Ellsworth Kelly, and while some of your colour choices appear Pop-inspired, the real inspiration for your approach to colour, and even composition, goes back much further, doesn't it?
SH: Colour as a physical thing I encountered in Pompeii and Herculaneum when I was a Rome scholar in 1990. My interest in Italian painting, from fresco to Baroque and Mannerism, has particular inferences in the paintings now. I’m not sure what you mean by Pop-inspired or which colours or paintings you are referring to but I read something recently where David Reed was talking about Mary Heilman’s use of colour as being “social colour” and by that I took him to mean it reflected the experience of the everyday and not the aesthetics of high modernism - maybe this is what you mean?
The very high key and saturated colours working together can have an instability and optical buzz and sometimes the blocks of transparent washes and their overlays can appear a bit like the intangibility of screen colour or appear almost printed, so if there is any Pop inference it may be there, I don't know.
Conversely, some of the most zingy and digitally enhanced-looking colours are to be found in paintings such as those by Pontormo for example, and in particular in such a painting as Jacob sold to Potiphar, 1515, which is in the National Gallery, London and which I also saw on loan in the Palazzo Strozzi last year in Florence along with his Visitazione, 1528-1530. My encounter with these and many other painters from that period (Rosso Fiorentino is another) have all had an impact and caused me to rethink my colour usage. I have actually used a direct colour sequence, quoted from a predella I saw in the Uffizi by Filippo Lippi in a recent painting - 6-Part (FFL). 2015.
CS: Looking at Pontormo's Joseph sold to Potiphar, more thoroughly, a busy scene separates into its constituent parts: pink overlaps blue, green collides with orange - and the whole composition seems to sit on top of a just discernible X-shaped guide. This underlying guide or structure is even more pronounced in Fra Angelico's Coronation of the Virgin, 1434. It seems the narratives change but the artist's eye remains the same. Is this how you can be in communion with Filippo Lippi despite producing work that at first glance appears very different?
SH: There are basic shared forms that are above different temporal moments and there is always a tension between the narratives of particular periods and the underlying formal issues that might appear as constants for painters - composition, form, colour. We don't have to get involved in the narratives but they are closely intertwined.
That X-shape frequently underlies quite a few of my earlier paintings as a very simple compositional device upon which the pure colour relationships are activated and played out. I am interested in the way in which colour itself might initiate a kind of open-ended narrative, not necessarily connected to representation but as itself and unfolding in the time of the painting. I think in this way there is a direct connection to all of the painters we have mentioned.
CS: Are there any artists working today you think are absolutely amazing?
SH: Marlene Dumas, Helmut Federle, Pierre Soulages and of course, many more.