Interview with Phoebe Unwin

Untitled, 2007, acrylic on linen, 80,5 x 70 cm,collection of Stavros Merjos and Honor Fraser, Los Angeles

 

Phoebe Unwin, born in Cambridge 1979, lives and works in London. She is represented by Wilkinson Gallery, London. Unwin’s work has recently been exhibited at Wilkinson Gallery, London (solo) and British Art Show 7, Nottingham, Hayward Gallery London, Glasgow, Plymouth. She has had previous solo shows in Los Angeles, London and Iceland, and has participated in numerous group exhibitions in Europe. She is also a Lecturer in Painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, London.

This interview took place at the Whitechapel Gallery, on September 18th 2012.

J: (…) so about what you were saying before, maybe it is important to start feeling things again instead of just thinking them coldly. One of the things I like in painting is that it can take all of the hard thinking from it and start the hard feeling. My painting comes in the middle of the process, so I don’t have many preconceived ideas, they are born within the process. I think this is a good thing about painting, to start acting this way. What do you think? How important is the process of painting (when you are inside painting), compared to thinking or preparing for a painting?

P: I would say there are a variety of ways in which I’m thinking about my painting in terms of the kinds of responses I have whilst making a work. Sometimes I begin with a quite clear idea of a kind of atmosphere or a mood – I’m trying to find the right words for it… Yes, it’s more of a sensation or feeling. So when I’m thinking of that particular feeling from the beginning of the work I am trying to respond to it and refer to it, and it’s those first instincts that create the framework for making… I’ll start to think… respond to it in the sense that I will look at the painting and might think it’s wrong in some way – that it doesn´t have this sense or idea I was beginning with. I’m not expecting an particular image though, so I don´t know what a painting will end up looking like – there might be a sort of tension, a sense of space or the materials… I always want to bring a feeling out of the colors I’m working with – the materiality of colour… Also when I say an image, I mean more of an overall sensation, maybe of a space or a place…

J: So it’s not a memory of an object or…

P: No, because it’s not just about reproducing an image, but also about the space around a subject. Or about the sense you experience…

J: So memory is always through the process, as long as the process of painting works, memory is always there, not as reference but as a way of working…

P: I want to be very clear on this: when I’m using memory it is more about describing something of the world or what that thing or situation might feel like, explaining it visually – explaining the relation which that experience has with color, or with scale or a certain materiality.. What it’s not about is any kind of diary making or a personal story telling. Nothing like that. But what I would say about this hard thinking and hard feeling you were talking about, is that in some instances I create a kind of physical and visual framework to work with. For example, sometimes, when I’m working with a pattern, I’m responding to that pattern, I’m creating a painting space to work within… With Brick Wall I did that… The pattern there is leading the image, so sometimes I’m swapping around expected working sequences. In that way it’s almost like beginning with an abstract painting, rather than the other way around…

J: I think that working with memory is different to working without an exterior object, but you were speaking about a certain feeling that you are pursuing… Do you think that painting in itself has some kind of memory? You can relate with painting and find in painting…

P: Do you mean like using the memory of other paintings?

J: Maybe. Or the materiality of it brings with it its own memory…

P: Absolutely. But I think for me, that is a very natural aspect of color because particular combinations will bring to my mind certain things. For instance, the expanse of a color: whether it’s filling a canvas entirely or whether it’s a tiny dot…. It’s a whole relationship …. and when I say whole relationship, I mean when colour and content merge: the colour being an integral part of the subject itself…they are indistinguishable…

J: Do you mean the background, the way it can form a circle?

P: No, not necessarily the background. The color will be significant to me, not only in how I first see it as a tube of paint, but also how that color appears to change its presence once it becomes a particular shape on the canvas….For example, I might be making, say, a small circle of orange and I’ll be inspired by both that shape and the colour together… So it’s not just finding inspiration from the colour itself but also the form, the shape or scale it takes… These sound like very simple, obvious things to speak of, but they’re really important – they have a big effect on the way I’m finding my subjects or creating…

J: But your subjects they can come from the canvas then?

P: It’s always both… I need to feel attached to an idea, I need to have experienced something…

J: I find in your painting many modernistic traits, I don’t want to connect your painting to modernism, I find it absolutely contemporary, but I find some traits of it like in the “girl on the phone”, it has an arch shape which reminds me of some Matisse paintings…

P: I think that’s a really good example and I love hearing about the detail that you’ve noticed… I think it ranges, but there’s a moment when I judge whether a picture is working or not, if it’s communicating my idea, if it is visually working, if it has some kind of clarity… So all of those thoughts come up while working, and at that moment, it is very important to have knowledge of great paintings – knowledge or experience of looking at great paintings. For instance remembering Matisse, I suppose some of these things are about working out a clarity, of learning, I suppose, how to do it or how something might be pushed forwards. Also, I think in my paintings there’s a lot of echoing going on, of formed color…

J: Echoing?

P: Yes, there might be something happening on one side of a picture and then there’s something that visually echoes, is somehow repeated, on the other side. It’s about – I think – somehow embracing the pictorial space, making it as powerful as possible. Also this ‘visual echoing’ applies to exploring a subject’s relation to its environment – a blurring of those boundaries.

J: I would like to talk about the environment of painting when you are painting, and how far does the painting come out of the painting and how far does it involve body and space around. But first, Matisse connected some of his paintings as elements of a story, like Dance and Music…. So this is a simple question: does the “girl on the phone” have any connection in some way to Orange Room? Because you use the same patterns…. And the material is the same, the canvas, I mean…

P: It’s linen…

J: They might have been painted at the same time…

P: Yes, they were.

J: Are they elements of the same story then?

P: I would say they come from getting curious about the same thing, about a figure infecting and affecting its surrounding space, about a relationship to one’s self, to one’s environment, painting something you can’t see but instead feel… With both those paintings the figures are thinking or waiting… I’m choosing subjects where it’s not just about what something looks like…

J: I mean that this is a possibility in painting, that you might be making all these kinds of relationships, but you might as well not do this… Another question: rhythm: what is rhythm to you? Is it only when the painting is working, as you say?

P: Visual rhythm…

J: Yes.

P: I think there’s rhythm in a painting through repetition of a color or a form…

J: But within one single painting or…

P: Yes, within one painting. But how these ‘rhythms’ might be constructed differ. For instance, one aspect is that I work with different speeds of mark: some of my paintings are made very quickly, while others are made over a very long period of time. Those are different rhythms for me too – not just pattern. I find it fascinating that with painting the attitude with which a painting was made is captured in the finished work…

J: So the painting demands some rhythm…

P: Yes, and I want to emphasize that and I’m interested in many different types of visual ‘rhythm’.

J: So you force yourself to work in different rhythms…

P: No, it’s not forcing…

J: …or is it the painting demanding that?

P: For me it’s a curiosity about painting. I find it exciting to see what happens, for instance, if I use a color on a particular scale or think how might I deal with a particular subject… For me, all this investigation is a great joy and challenge…I’m interested too in how a painting communicates. I will also think about the experience someone might have of a painting: I might want a painting to feel big, or very small and intimate, so that’s how I decide the scale… So changes in the visual rhythm come totally from my self… my own ideas of how to challenge myself: often my instinctive interests, responses and curiosities rather than any kind of purely conceptual framework or plan…

J: This reminds me that in the fifties the art critic Harold Rosenberg, talking about Abstract Expressionism, said that the painter must enter into the studio like if he was entering into an arena, so this connects painting to an event… Do you give importance to difference, to a painting being different from another? In my work I try to do something that is always quite different from whatever I did before. Do you also work in this way?

P: …yes…

J: …or does this just come out naturally in your work?

P: In some ways it comes naturally, because it’s what I’m feeling… Sometimes I’m going on instinct to do that…

J: My question is if you force yourself to be different…

P: It’s instinct… But there is also a kind of control in another sense, because it’s not totally whimsical, of doing whatever I feel like. I will work up to something I feel is worth doing, and when I say ‘worth doing’ I might not always get it right, but I hope for the paintings to go deeper, to some kind of investigation into what I’m interested in. Also, I’m not actually changing my subjects dramatically, I’m not one day painting a completely fantastical thing that doesn’t exist – familiar and real experience is very important to my work. And, so in a way all the paintings I make, although they appear different, are all very related. In a way they are all about the same thing but from different angles.

J: One thing I noticed when looking at your book (A Short Walk from a Shout to a Whisper) is that you have this kind of tone or hue. Your backgrounds… They are not in the same color, but they have this kind of same tonality in them. This reminds me of Cézanne’s bluish perception of things or Van Gogh’s yellow, his “high yellow note”, for Bonnard was a red-pink. Do you provoke this? Is this some kind of feeling that you are pursuing while painting, this kind of atmosphere?

P: Can you give me an example? What do you mean about the backgrounds being the same?

J: I mean in Fall… A certain darkish color for the backgrounds…

P: Well, these decisions are very difficult to describe at the time of making – for instance, to give an explanation as to why a particular background colour was chosen.. But talking about those decisions afterwards makes the process seem seamless in a way that it’s not… I think my choice of a background colour is about an instinctive unification of pictorial space – for that colour to visually support the different forms in a painting – making a place for all these different colors and elements to exist in. Backgrounds, in a way, hold an image together – it won’t dominate unless I want it to. Generally, I would say my backgrounds tend to be relatively monochromatic. For instance with Brick Wall I built up many different reds- beginning with a red and white geometric pattern. Or in another painting I might work, for example, with different blacks: very shiny blacks, very matte blacks, all within one painting. I think I tend to keep colour relationships quite close… sometimes it’s about unifying the whole painted space but then also finding contrasts between works when they’re exhibited together…I aim for my paintings to have distinct identities…

J: This is not to be a negative thing…

P: No.

J: …it´s a kind of a gloomy atmosphere.

P: Oh! (laughs)

J: And for me this is very positive…

P: I think that gloominess…I hope that the gloominess is part of a whole combination, really, of different attitudes to different subjects. I know what you mean about that feeling, but I think that my work is joyful too.

J: Yes…

P: Some of the maybe more controlled tone or form comes from wanting to embrace, in a way, a variety of rhythm, of sensation and of feeling, and also sometimes about… embracing a particular tension… I am interested in being, sometimes, quite uncomfortable, as well…

J: Because I connect your work to all these atmospheres that painters like Cézanne or Van Gogh had in their minds… How far is it important to make a painting perceptible to other people? Because I almost never think about the spectator. So…

P: I do think about it…

J: You do? You think it’s important to be perceptible?

P: Not for all artists, not necessarily. But for me, I do want the painting to do its own job in the world. Visual communication is an important aspect.… And that is why my work is not just about personal story telling – when people look at my paintings I want it to be something about them… I can´t help but also think… It’s important for me to think about the paintings in terms of an experience, a visual experience for people looking at them. I don´t plan how an exhibition might look, but I do think about creating contrasts between works. Like I was saying about Brick Wall, I wanted that to feel big, so I am thinking about communicating in that way. There is something about visual communication in painting I find very exciting… because there are often things in a painting I couldn´t put into words….I can put something together in color and then something is translated, communicated. It might be very open ended, but there is something that communicates and I find that exciting.

J: Because you were saying that you sometimes try to be uncomfortable to people. For me, when it results, when the painting is complete and it results, then I’m happy with it, so I’m not thinking about the person visualizing it. And that would be the difference between my painting and the person which receives it. Because if I arrange things in a certain order and if it works for me, then maybe the other person will think it’s strange and that would be the singularity of my own painting… What about figuration? What do you call figuration?

P: I think that sometimes the figuration in my work might only register to a very small degree… it might be as something just becomes recognizable, or might be almost more in the title…

J: In the title?

P: Yes, in a sense… Because I think that to some degree it might not be a completely abstract painting if it’s got a title and sort of encourages you to look for something in the imagery.

J: So the title sort of leads the person to read the content?

P: In some ways I think it does..

J: For me the whole power of painting is that it can get this strangeness, can present things in a different way but in a strange way as well, not quite clear or defined. It can present a certain ambiguity… My next question is about reality and abstraction and how far do you think it is possible to dismiss a certain tendency towards realism and enter a true abstract realm…

P: What do you mean by realism?

J: I mean you can bring life into a painting or you can bring painting into life…

P: Do you mean in terms of whether you are bringing an image of something recognizable into a painting or whether you are making a painting part of…something in life?

J: I mean something bigger in life… How far can painting make part of your living. Because I do enter in a true abstract realm, it´s sort of another world and this world overcomes the normal reality or normal perception. How far does your work go in this way?

P: Do you mean when I’m making it or…?

J: While making it and after making it…

P: …..

J: Whatever painting you might have made.

P:… the relation between realism and… being in life or bringing life into it? Well both are very important to me … That’s a really good question because that’s one aspect I see as fundamental…. I hope to do both, I aim to do both in my work, which is why the paintings are often something recognizable – I hope that people might recognize something in a painting that relates to their own experiences of the world… But also the physicality of the painting… that’s important because I do want it to have some kind of presence or some kind of… part of an experience. Because I feel that paintings are not just precious objects, I feel that very, very strongly… I remember, as an older teenager, the impact of experiencing painting exhibitions, somehow when moving around a gallery, from a large painting to a smaller painting, resonated with me… the physicality, just standing in front of a painting, looking up or peering closely, is such a physical experience. It’s something to think of and see as significant when choosing what size a painting should be or deciding what materials it should be made with…

J: Because I can live of a presence of a painting, I can complete a painting and just leave it there and just sit in front of its presence during whole afternoons, looking at it or reading a book. So… I really try to change my perception of things through painting, making painting the way of changing my perception of the world, I try not to live so much in the reality. I was wondering how far… I call this abstraction… how far do you go in this kind of behavior? Because everything is implicit in it, the rhythm…

P: Yes…

J: The scale, the real presence of the painting, everything is implicit, it’s the way of living the painting. But is it not important for a painting to pass to life instead of life passing into a painting?

P: I see it as both, because a painting retains a record of that moment of making…the performance of making… It also might be about remembering something, for instance, what a clock was like or a table was like, how they were in a room. Inevitably that moment passes but the interpretation of the thing or place stays present in the painting. But of course it’s only ever the perception of something that a painting is able to hold. Also the act choosing what it is you want to pay attention to … That’s the importance I see of capturing something…

J: I’m distinguishing two different kinds of behaviors: you can paint the table as the table looks to you or you can paint the table as you want the table to be…

P: I’m not doing either. I’m not painting it as I want it to be, but explaining how it felt like… When I say “feels like”… of course, in the end, I hope for it to go beyond that table, and then it goes on to something…

J: Because you are not talking about that real table, it’s a transformed table… You are giving new information into the world and you are painting a new thing into the world so you are increasing reality…

P: Yes, I can see what you mean.

J: I think that is what Cézanne made with painting, not only receiving but also projecting what he wanted the world to be. He was painting a landscape and it just so happened that a canvas was between him and the world. He was not representing the landscape but the world and just having the canvas in the middle. Well, for me abstraction is very important… So the “Brick Wall”… I think that Brick Wall ends with the dialectics of the inside and the outside, it seems that everything in this painting is inside and outside, it’s all atmosphere. Can you explain to me how did you work on this painting?

P: Well that was a painting made in a way I often work… The first idea was a combination of a large scale canvas with the pattern of a brick wall… And so I wanted it to be quite close to somehow looking at a section of a wall in a real-scale… so the size of those bricks could be a little bit smaller than real life, and when people are looking at it, their bodies somehow relate to it. There was also a lot in it about red…

J: …it was always a very scary color to me…

P: Well it can be quite a difficult color to work with, in a way, because it’s very…it can be so dominant.

J: A bit violent.

P: Yes. But getting involved, I suppose, in these different reds but also this idea of the red brick and in the way bricks might not always be red but this first idea of… I’m also interested in how color can sometimes creep into language and can sort of become…

J: Like a grammar?

P: Yes. Also there can be difficulty in working with something so familiar… it might seem a bad idea because it is so familiar that there’s nothing that…

J: Well, you transformed it.

P: …there’s nothing left to be said. Yes. I’m interested in that challenge. And the other reason why I wanted to do it is because of an idea to make a very flat painting, a picture of something flat. So was it that I wanted to make an abstract painting? Or was it that I was painting in a way that is essentially abstract anyway? And then I was interested in these ideas of the painting surface… Whether it was about either going into something, or being outside of something. And these two, moving inside and outside, is kind of how I think of the painting space itself.

J: So it is a painting about painting?

P: Yes, it is, definitely.

J: And about your painting, your way of painting…

P: It´s about me making the painting.

J: I remember this phrase of Merleau-Ponty. He says that form is the identity between the outside and the inside. This is a painting, I think, which escapes a certain scenario, it escapes the stage or the setting… The observer will be the actual actor of the painting. The spectator is the real figure of this painting…

P: The spectator the real figure…? Yes, very much in terms of what I was saying of how the size relates to people and their bodies. It´s an ergonomic scale.

J: And how was it to work in this painting in your studio? Do you think that the painting just overflows from the inside into the whole atmosphere?

P: Yes. It’s funny you ask that because that painting… well, when I was working for my last show at Wilkinson, and I was working for the show for over a year, I began Brick Wall right from the beginning, so I worked on it for nearly a year…

J: Really?

P: Yes. Not constantly but it was in my studio for that whole time, and I found I was having all kinds of thoughts as I worked… Is there going to be a picture in there? Is there a window? Is there… I mean all of these ideas I’m talking about now, they developed in the making, very, very much and… Yes, working out why would that be wrong.. Why wouldn’t I be interested… I mean I had all of these different ideas, and with time, I became more interested in the way all these reds were working…

J: And what about the brushwork? Was it difficult for you to find a certain…characterization of a certain feeling by the brushwork? Were you thinking about this as well? Because there are parts that are more surfaced, more plain, and it feels that you are trying to find out certain feelings, to paint a certain feeling through a certain type of brushwork. It seems a bit of hard work.

P: Yes. I think that I… It’s something that takes me a long time.. to find out how a painting should be. I know the idea, those first ideas, but then, I don’t necessarily know how it should be – for instance, I had to work out why there shouldn’t be a chair in the painting …

J: Did you think about putting a chair there?

P: I would think about all options! Whenever you make a painting you can potentially go further… take it many different directions.. I mean these… I didn’t add a chair but I would think about what it happened if I did? – In the way of why would that be wrong.

J: Is the painting so potential to you in this way, that you can put whatever you want?

P: No, no. It’s not that I put whatever I want, I am trying to get to the thing I wanted in the first place. Do you see what I mean? It’s not that… I was interested in these ideas in terms of painting something flat in terms of the scale of it. Now, it could be: “how do I choose those things, and I then need to think about…”…I need to think about all the possibilities that occur to me in order to find out if whatever I do choose to put in the painting is the right thing. You know, it would be wrong, for instance, for me to have a figure – an outline of a figure in that painting – and I realized why that would be wrong – it’s because, no!, the scale does the job itself and someone standing in front of the painting is better than a painted, pictured figure.. This why, as I said, it can be a very long process because there’s a lot of looking and thinking time involved in making a painting and…

J: Searching?

P: Yes, exactly.

J: That’s probably not very easy…

P: It can be difficult.

J: Well, your backgrounds work for me also in this way, but then you have this figuration, it seems always like an exiled figure, in a no-man’s land…

P: (laughs) Yes.

J: …it serves as a reference point but still a not very clear reference point because it’s involving, you can really get inside the character… Because it does not reflect… I don’t know if this is an objective sometimes…

P: I think they’re there for the painting… it’s not about… They’re there to communicate what I want the subject of the painting to be. So there are no rules on what the background should be. There is not like a… I think I can get rid of a lot of stuff that doesn’t have to be there – like the painting I made with the falling sunglasses… It wouldn’t make any sense to have a lot of other people on the beach, or to have lots of other things, because it was about the falling of the glasses. And getting that clarity is again part of the challenge for me. Clarity in terms of choosing what should stay and what should go. And that can be difficult. Sometimes it can be fun to make different marks but they might not be helping the image… and then they have to go. It’s kind of like writing in a way, you might just have to lose a whole paragraph – you like the sound of it but it doesn’t help you. But I think also the background is there to support the subject and to be part of the… Oh! And the other thing is that I should also say that I’m not painting a place, in the sense that the paintings are not windows into somewhere else, so that’s why the background is there, in a way, to be supportive and also affect what the painting is. So it’s not… I’m not painting a landscape in which the figure is standing…

J: Yes, I understand. For me you have these impossible colors I can never achieve. I was thinking about this when I saw your paintings. Another question, is about intentions, because recent phenomenology is trying to get rid of intentions out of the process of thinking or out of the process of painting, it’s sort of an openness to the world, into what they call a certain “more radical experience of the world”, or of feeling the world. So I think that it’s a bit unpleasant when people put intentions in their own painting like when you want to revenge the loss of a friend you paint a monster or…

P: …very symbolic, you mean…

J: Yes. Do you think it’s important to have these intentions or do you go beyond the intention process, of creating painting through intentions or does it relate more to a process of becoming, of being born in painting, from painting itself rather than putting things that are outside the painting. How much does it come from the painting, it is born from the painting?

P: Oh, a lot is born in painting. And I think that is what I mean when I say I don’t know how the painting will look like until I’ve done it, and also what I mean that there is the intention but that there are all those options that you reject over time. And thinking about why those options are not right. Yes.

J: Well, just a last question. It’s about…well, the way you work in your studio, the way you relate to the canvas, whatever canvas is in front of you. I’m thinking that the canvas is not the only medium in painting but that space is also a medium. It’s sort of an extension: body connects with space, space connects with painting. There is a point when you are painting in which everything is sort of a texture. Do you feel this way, do you forget about the surroundings sometimes when you are painting?

P: Yes.

J: Because many people think that when you are painting, the studio is just a studio, a closed space, four walls… For me sometimes these four walls disappear and I’m in a different reality.

P: Definitely. I think there’s that kind of engagement you can have with making a painting. And also freedom, as well, because it’s very engaging to remember that there is so much freedom- the way you can create and destroy and…Yes.

J: Do you connect the word “texture” with your work?

P: Very much in terms of the subject-matter and working out the identity of a painting.

J: And outside the painting as well… What I mean is uniting world and painting, the unity of whatever surroundings have with painting.

P: What exactly do you mean by texture? You mean the relation between things? And then the relation between things and painting?

J: Yes. As well, yes.

P: Yes, I do, yes. I mean that’s all part of the… You mean the part of the physicality?

J: Yes. With body and the sense of…

P: Touch? Yes.

J: Moving, rhythm…

P: Yes. Touch, but also space. Again I wouldn’t say that touch is isolated, but is also about space or about… even the time of day or all these other things that come into play.

Orange Room, 2007, acrylic on linen, 183 x 152,5 cm, courtesy Wlikinson Gallery, London

 

Peak, 2006, acrylic on linen, 120,5 x 170 cm, collection of the Saatchi  Gallery

 

Brick Wall, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 220 × 184.5 cm, courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery

 

Bibliography: Phoebe Unwin, A Short Walk from a shout to a Whisper, ed. Milton Keynes Galley, 2007; Phoebe Unwined. Wilkinson Gallery, London, 2008

Author(s)
Year 2012
Type Unpublished Text