Laura Bushell: An Interview with Phoebe Unwin

Phoebe Unwin is an artist who revels in the use of paint, in all its tones, textures and applications. Her paintings take as their subjects the everyday familiar (bananas, a key, a man holding flowers) which she chooses to depict from recollection and imagination rather than observation from life or photographs. Then what happens when she hits the canvas is the conjuring of a world of expressive colour and mark marking, a remembered reality swathed in magical colour combinations, shapes, patterns and textures that render the world we know afresh. Such is the appeal of her work that Unwin has recently featured in both the Saatchi Gallery’s Newspeak and the Hayward Gallery’s British Art Show as well as staging a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery. In July Unwin hosts a talk at Core Gallery in Deptford, but in the meantime she took some time out to talk about her practice and the process behind her continually evolving, highly regarded body of work.

You have some sketchbooks here, how do you use them?

PU: They’re somewhere where I start to work out particular combinations of form, colour, mark. Some of the images are completely abstract, although they never are completely abstract in my paintings. Then some of them are much more recognizable images. They all live together here. There might be an element of say a page of an idea that I then develop into a painting, and that might be a week later or two years later. The basis of the work is a combined approach in a way, it’s very intuitive at the beginning and then the formal qualities, especially in the process of making the painting become very important.

It’s a reference tool, storage for your ideas.

PU: Yes, it’s very much a reference tool in that it’s somewhere to refer to that feels really close to first instinct. But it’s a longer process until it becomes a painting, there are other things that come into play, because the paintings for instance are all different scales, whereas these books are always the same size.

Another thing about working in the books is that I use a lot of different papers and a lot of different materials and those elements also get translated into the paintings in the sense that I use many different types of materials, I’m not working just with oil or acrylic, there’s a whole range. One of the main reasons for this is really the qualities of colour, because I feel that a colour in a particular paint will be different in another paint, the difference between a spray-paint mark and the colour and maybe the opaqueness of that colour in spray-paint is different to oil paint.

It varies even between brands

PU: Exactly. So whether it’s matt or it’s shiny, or it’s got an industrial mark to it like a spray-paint, or something softer in oil, that’s the reason for using a range of materials.

Do you refer back to your sketchbook once you have a concept for a painting, or are you inspired by a part of one of the sketches that leads to a concept?

It’s a combination.

It’s a bit of a chick and egg question.

It is! It’s good in a way that I think it’s really true, I don’t think anyone’s really asked me if I get the concept and then look back in the books, but actually that’s true, I do do that. But then equally I might have an idea for a painting from something I’ve done in the book. But yes there is definitely, they are a reference in terms of working backwards in a way.

You don’t work from photographs of observation do you? So are these ideas generated from memory?

Yes, just about. When I’m working from memory it’s not really about personal experience, it’s about the essence of an object, the physicality of it, or maybe the temperature of it, or the space around it.

How do you start to generate this idea of an essence in a sketchbook?

It’s based on the feeling of something rather than the appearance of it. Actually when I begin the work I’m beginning with a colour or a pattern or something, I’ll put different bits of coloured paper throughout the sketchbook. That’s how in a way the paint and the colours it makes and the image are all really interrelated. I’m not really thinking of an image and how I paint it, I’m thinking more of a concept and that concept might be about a particular green and the subject and somehow that green is that subject and the two are really close in my mind.

Do you refer to the sketchbook when you start to make the painting?

When I’m making a painting it’s usually really important not to even have the sketchbook open because the painting has to have its own life and I have to be surprised by the painting, in a way, I want to not know what it will look like in the end. That’s an important process for me in terms of capturing a certain energy in the work and also for me to engage with it in making it. It’s all trial and error, you just find these things out through them working or not working, but I’ve found that if I have a page open it’s too easy to be looking at it and scaling it up in a way- which is what I don’t want…

You become a slave to it.

Exactly.

So you like that element of surprise, but that could be quite dangerous I imagine. If you get stuck or dislike where it’s going do you always persevere?

I have are all kinds of different approaches to move that situation on, it might be hiding it from myself for a while, having a break from looking at it. Some of the paintings are made over a long period of time and that’s not necessarily making time but thinking time, then doing something to the painting. I might need quite long gap in between making some decisions on a painting. Sometimes I’m working on small groups of paintings, but then other times it’s very important to just be with one painting for a few days or weeks and not be working on any other ones.

Then there might be some paintings that I begin and I might get to an end point in the painting but it just looks wrong to me, so that painting then becomes not a painting that will go out in the world but it becomes just about exploring that idea. It becomes almost a maquette for another painting because I feel materially it’s not working, or the scale is not working, or something in the composition is not working.

If you don’t have an idea of what the finished product is going to be, technically how can it be wrong?

Well that’s the thing, that’s what’s really important, to make it so that I can see it and see if the might be elements in the idea that have been lost. It’s often easier to know what’s wrong than to know what’s right. I might not be able to imagine what the end result is but maybe if I get so far with the painting I might feel that there is a lot of extra information that I don’t want to be there or it’s not the right scale. I might think actually it was a bad idea in the first place and so I might abandon that idea, maybe for a year, then I might find myself going back to it again. I’m probably making it sound more confusing than it is!

I guess it’s hard to explain because it’s such an intuitive approach.

It is, but I suppose what I’m trying to describe is that it’s also a formal approach and there’s this rigor that comes into play that is looking at the painting very physically and seeing how that is working or not working, and that’s part of exploring that beginning concept. It’s done in working through the process rather than having a plan and realizing it.

You never go fully abstract though do you?

No. There are fully abstract pages in my sketchbooks but that’s because anything’s allowed to be in here and that can almost be a kind of note taking, about colour combinations, materials. But with the paintings it’s important to me that they’re never completely abstract because there’s a tension there between the materiality and the image which I need to make my paintings. If they weren’t figurative at all there wouldn’t be that tension for me, I need that relationship to be there.

Key, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 70.5 x 80.5 cm

 

You’re very experimental with your materials, you mix them up quite a lot and get different effects with the colours. How is your choice in paint application guided?

Colour for me is as much the subject of the paintings as the subject itself. What I aim to achieve in the paintings is that the two are in a way indistinguishable, that a colour might provide a tension or a particular mood or has a particular connotation, as I was saying about spray paint marks having an industrial connotation. For me there are all kinds of languages that come into play. So choosing the paint is guided by colour but it’s also guided by the subject, say for example the painting I did of an aeroplane meal, it was really important to me that the background was thick, impasto oil paint and then that the aeroplane tray was a contrasting thin layer of spray-paint. Here paint is part of me exploring a relationship between confined space and open space, between lightness and weight, between cleanliness and something grubby.

It must have taken a while to build up this knowledge about the colour in relation to types of paint, to be able to know exactly what you want to use.

It comes from having made a lot of paintings and spending a long time with different materials. I suppose it comes with a fascination with colours and what the forms of them are in paint. It means there’s quite a wide palette range from one painting to the next and that range is really important to me.

How do you approach a blank canvas? Do you mess it up?

I think I do, but without meaning to, so I just begin and I end up maybe trying a few things out on a canvas, in a wash or achieving a flat area of colour to begin with, which, in a way, makes it more similar to the pieces of coloured paper that I’m using in the sketchbooks. All the paintings begin differently, that’s why they are all very distinctive from one and other.

That also must be quite challenging, going out of your comfort zone to create that difference between each work.

To me that feels the way the work has to be, that’s what I’m excited by but it’s always led I suppose by a feeling that I’m being true to the subject, true to the ideas of the painting and then I want to realise that painting in the way it should be. So I’m not working within a particular motif, or maybe not even necessarily in a very distinctive style, it’s more about the concept and realisation. So in that way everything comes into play – the colour, the scale, the surface.

So the seemingly intuitive choices have a backbone of knowledge and thinking time?

Going back to what you were saying about being familiar with different types of paint; that comes into play as well. The exciting thing about painting is that all of the thinking time (the experimental, learnt information and ideas about what painting can do) and all these experiments can come together, that’s what’s exciting for me. If I feel that there’s maybe something there or an idea worth pursuing then that’s a relationship that I find very exciting and interesting.

Three Bananas, 2010, Acrylic on linen 70.5 x 80.5 cm

Would it work to talk about maybe something in your sketchbooks which relates to one of your paintings?
It’s not that direct. I don’t know if I want to explain that in an interview, I want the paintings to have their own life rather than restrict possible links because that can cloud perception.

It’s a long time between the sketchbook and the painting, there’s quite a lot that happens in between in terms of getting rid of information and working out the composition. There might be some isolated elements in the finished paintings that you can find in the drawings but it’s not scaling up, that’s not what I do. Because otherwise then it goes back to something that is about reproducing an image rather than getting that combination of the scale and the colour and everything in the painting just right. That’s why I keep emphasising that they really have their own life and their own energy and that’s vital.

Would you every display your works on paper as works in their own right? Or are they purely for you?

At the moment I think about them just as purely for me. They’re not the only source for my paintings, it might be making a small painting and thinking about colours for a larger painting, working out certain elements. At the moment, the books are just a very functional part of working in the studio. Whether you’re working in a sketchbook or with materials, I find it useful to be as gentle with ideas in the beginning and to then to give them a hard time as you move forward with them. I think at a beginning stage you just need to put things down somewhere and see where they might go.

And not pressure yourself too much with ‘why?’

Not at the beginning no. Otherwise, I think it can push ideas into being finalised before they should be. I suppose it’s just about remaining open to an idea that anything can be in a painting, anything can be developed and it’s about being as open to possibilities as you can be, and that’s about being free at the beginning. But then I find a rigorous approach when you get further with an idea is very important. That’s when I’ll be thinking what is this combination of information I have in this painting? How does it feel?

Recently your work has been exhibited in two big group shows – Newspeak at the Saatchi Gallery and The British Art Show at the Hayward – as well as a solo show at Wilkinson. How does an impending exhibition affect your working process?

Well… I just focus on making the paintings I want to make, with out exhibiting in mind. If some of my paintings are then part of shows, that’s wonderful. Of course, if it’s a large solo show and it’s all new work then of course you can’t help but get to a point when you look at the paintings you’ve made and the ones you’re making and you do start to think a little bit about how that body of work will come together when it’s exhibited. Because in that situation the paintings are made in a year or two years leading up an exhibition they can’t help but share visual relationships – even if it’s a reaction against one another- conceptually and materially.

Then the fantastic opportunity with the group shows is that it’s possible to exhibit work from over greater period of time, so in the Saatchi exhibition I had a painting from 2005 and the latest one was 2010. With the British Art Show I was involved with the curators in choosing which of my paintings would be part of the exhibition. They range from 2008 to 2011.

How do you go about that editing process?

I suppose it’s close to how I make the work because it’s a combination of being instinctive but also looking at them formally, how they work as a group of paintings. In some ways, if you’re in a group show and you have the opportunity to show more than one painting then it’s not only about the individual works but also explaining to people what you’re interested in, what the focus is in your body of work. That’s what I’ll hope to achieve when exhibiting smaller group of paintings.

Being picked for two exhibitions on cutting edge British art is no mean feat, what’s the biggest benefit for you being in these shows?

I do feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see my work in both of those contexts, especially seeing my work near sculpture, near all the other artwork that they’ve been displayed near. I find that’s something I learn from. You learn something from seeing your work in different contexts. Seeing my paintings have to work near sculpture or photography or performance, that’s exciting for me- to see them in that context.

It definitely changes a painting when it is shown with other media rather than a pure painting exhibition.

We haven’t really spoken about the aspect of the work having a physical quality, the record of them being made is really important, the feeling of them having been touched or worked with. Though I am sometimes using marks that are more graphic or create ways of removing a handmade mark, like using spray-paint for instance or sometimes simple stenciling techniques, how they are made is still evident. It’s about the materiality of the paintings and about them having a physical presence; not being windows to somewhere, that the scale is part of our space and part of the language of the subject of the painting, rather than if they were leading to another world. It’s probably why I really like seeing them with sculpture. There’s nothing about illusion in the paintings, I want the paint to still be paint and the marks to be quite clear as to how they were made. That can be quite magical when you stand in front of a painting and you can almost feel it being made.

Core Gallery Artist Talks
http://www.coregallery.co.uk/show-and-tell/

Wilkinson Gallery
www.wilkinsongallery.com

About the author

Laura Bushell
Laura Bushell is a writer and artist based in London, her work can be found at www.laurabushell.com

One Comment

  1. Dear Laura,
    I have just discovered your marvellous article on Phoebe Unwin. Intelligent questions, and investigation, digging deep into her practice and habits as a painter. Wonderful stuff!
    Thank you. I am co-ordinating the Phoebe Unwin Show & Tell talk at Core Gallery tomorrow night. I am not sure if you are free, or were thinking of attending but do come if you can.
    I will add you to our small guest list. Please confirm by email: showandtell@coregallery.co.uk
    Talk starts promptly at 6.30pm.
    With kind regards
    Annabel Tilley

    Reply

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