Behind The Canvas: Interview With Laura Bushell


I Could have been a contender (detail) by wendy elia


When Wendy Elia paints a person they don’t look away. They don’t exist as an object for artistic consumption but as a being, or at least a likeness, who looks the viewer in the eye and raises more questions about her or himself than they would appear to have answered by posing for Elia in her studio. Large scale, crafted in detail and laden with clues and comments, Elia’s portraits register all the enigma and contradiction of a real sitter, not an idealized muse, especially if they’re female. In her smaller, looser and portable paintings that are produced concurrently with these works, she looks to photography or moving image stills as a kind of imprint of a person or persons to then be re-interpreted by the swift stroke of the paintbrush. They may not necessarily be addressing the viewer directly, but these people have already infiltrated our minds through mass media and by painting them Elia makes us view them afresh too. With a painting currently in the BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery and a joint show opening at WW Gallery in July, she spoke to Laura Bushell about her work and the pleasures and pitfalls of painting people.

LB: You’ve got two shows with works that are quite distinct from each other, how would you describe your practice?

WE: I seem to work in different painting languages, so there’s the series I do that are my friends and family in my studio with the boarded up fireplace and the laminate floor that are very intense. Within those images that are painted mostly from observation there are lots of small images, which is almost like the outside world coming in. All of these are private, this is the inner world, this is the world that we’re reduced to in a way, shut in the studio coming up with painting. Last year I got a painting into the BP Portrait Award called The Visit V which was a painting of my mother in the studio with the boarded up fireplace and the laminate floor. The laminate floor represents painting really, as it’s a flooring that is supposed to stand for wood flooring, it’s made to look like wood flooring but it isn’t. So in a way it stands as a metaphor for painting that’s supposed to look like the real world but is not. That’s one strand of work and that’s the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, this year’s one being I Could Have Been A Contender.

The other strand of work that I do is a series that I’ve been working on for some years now called It Will Happen When You Least Expect It and it’s a series of film stills, CCTV stills, photographs, from the outside world where I am an observer, we’re all observers. How I negotiate with the outside words is how a lot of people do, which is just through television screens and imagery. I’m a witness but I’m not really, I’m only a witness to the imagery I receive through the internet, television, CCTV footage and the images that I received through filmmaking, fiction and non-fiction. So I’m not a witness to the events, I’m only a witness to the image. So that strand of my work results in lots of tiny paintings and repeats of images and it questions iconography, at what point does an image become an icon? So that’s another strand of my work and that’s the show at the WW Gallery; The MacGuffin.

In both instances you’re always interested in painting people. So would you call yourself a painter or a portrait artist?

No, I’m not a portrait artist, people pay me not to paint their portraits, despite being in the National Portrait Gallery for the BP. I paint people and most of them are my friends, my family, they get very little for posing But I paint people who I choose to paint. I think I’ve only been commissioned once to paint somebody and it went very badly!

So it’s the commissioning that makes someone a portraitist, not the concentration of the face or figure.

Oh I would think so and you have to be in the milieu where there’s going to be people who can afford portraits and I certainly don’t move in that sort of society, I just don’t and it doesn’t really interest me. Though that isn’t to say I’m not interested in painting people. The trouble is, nobody really wants to see paintings of people unless they’re famous or incredibly beautiful, or incredibly ugly I suppose, whereas I choose to paint people I know.

Orson by wendy elia

In I Could Have Been A Contender you’re a model too.

As I told you earlier, recently I was standing in the NPG next to the naked self-portrait of myself as an old woman when this big fat bloke walked by and said ‘That’s horrible!’ to the painting. Well yeah, because it is very uncomfortable, because as women we’re not allowed to accept that we age, we’ve got to have the botox and eat less. It’s just meant to be as is, I haven’t made myself look particularly uglier, I’m a middle aged woman, I have grandchildren. There is that scar on my stomach that’s from an operation to do with childbirth.

From the way you described it when you first told me about what that man said, I thought it would be pretty bad, but I don’t think it is, you’re in good shape!

Thank you very much! The Ruben-esque knees and the saggy tits! When you see the real thing, close up it’s more confrontational. But it wasn’t meant to be, it was just meant to be a presentation, slightly tongue in cheek. It’s a comment on how we might feel as older women, how many of us might feel at a certain time in life when you look back and think well, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody… as the line from the film goes.

I know people who feel like that approaching 30.

Well that’s silly really but maybe it’s part of the human condition. I would hope that the painting does relate to a broader audience. How did you respond to the painting?

Well my first reaction was to the way you’d described it and I thought differently, I thought it was a bit of a harsh judgment! I like the fact that I recognized things from your previous work, like the space…

That’s my Studio.

And I recognized one of your paintings in the background which I’d seen. I recognized the CCTV camera as well and the tape on the floor. I also liked the set up with the mirror – when you look at the painting you’re drawn into this reflection but you don’t appear yourself, you align yourself with the Wendy in the painting.

Which is what a self portrait is to a certain extent, isn’t it – you’re seeing me through my eyes and the world through my eyes, and my world is quite bizarre I would say. So yes, all of those elements I’ve built up over the years, this bag of signifiers that I continually use. The CCTV camera I was putting in paintings in the 1980s, always as the watcher, we are being watched, everything’s witnessed. Now we accept it but then it was just the beginning, but now we’re ever alone, everything is witnessed. The masking tape, which is again about painting, the idea of putting tape on things to cover them up and then the idea that you put tape in a certain format and it reads as a letter, a symbol or a sign. All of these elements are signifiers. The gaffer tape which holds the chair together with all the stuffing coming out.

It’s your lived-in space.

But these things are not supposed to be just about my personal history, they’re supposed to be a broader, more universal set of signifiers that we can relate to that do infiltrate our lives. How we feel trapped as women, either in our bodies or through financial circumstances or in our role in society or as mothers, carers and providers, etc etc. So all of those signifiers are a continual theme in the work.

I like the fact the tape on the floor is the markers for the models you’ve used. Normally they’re painted out of the portrait, the artist pretends they were never there because they’re just technical, practical things that help get your model to pose. It’s the same in life, the little markers and things that help you out get forgotten or covered over like they’re not really there.

Totally. But it can be seen as tape as holds thing together, it can be seen as markers and again if you put it in a cross format it’s almost become a signature for someone who cannot write, it also becomes a negative marking the opposite of a tick, it also marks the spot, the x-factor – there are many meanings. I think this is what happens often in painting, particularly in observational painting or any kind of artwork, there’s something that’s there that you want to gloss over and then you think it shouldn’t be glossed over, it should go in because it’s a part of it. Psychologically we do that with rather a lot of things, gloss over them, deny that they exist. There’s another painting I’ve done of Maxime which is all about identity and gender identity and the masking tape of where her feet were is there left and in the next painting the masking tape’s there and the person isn’t there. It’s an interesting device that can represent so many different things.

So what’s the process leading up to the model actually sitting. How do you set these signifiers up, do you plan them in the space or do you add them to the painting as it evolves?

The fireplace, the laminate floor, they’re there. The smaller pieces are more to do with the actual painting that I’m painting. In I Could Have Been a Contender, there’s the painting of my eldest son and his children, my grandchildren. They’re in that typical family photo, they’re a very happy family and there’s lots of love there and I’m very pleased that he’s found happiness and this family unit. The comment there is within my family, the heritage of my family and my history, often within the fantasy of the happy family there is quite a lot of dysfunction going on so the comment is bound within the painting. Usually the images on the wall or on the floor are particular to the actual painting, it’s the outside world or the past coming into the present. But the studio is my studio, it’s my space, I am trapped in this box so yes it’s recurring but it is also there. I manipulate it a bit, it’s not as tidy, I always empty it out for the painting, I mean not literally!

Elasewhere by wendy elia

In The Visit V you painted you mother, now you’ve painted yourself as a mother.

My son is in I Could Have Been a Contender, my youngest, and my eldest is in the photo. My youngest is coming in covering his eyes. It’s that whole thing about seeing your mother naked in a way, it’s like thinking about you parents having sex isn’t it, people just can’t quite get to terms with it. I remember my youngest son when he was small, about 4, and I was lying in the bath and he said ‘Your nipple is beautiful, it’s like a bud.’ Then he walked in on me in the bathroom when he was about 15 and said ‘How could you? You’ve ruined my life!’ So this is really interesting how things change! It’s perfectly natural how a 15 year old would react. He’s in the picture covering his eyes and it’s kind of jokey as well, there is a certain amount of humour in my paintings, they’re not all dark and personal, there is supposed to be a sense of humour going on.

Your daughter is in the painting too.

Yes, then of course there’s all the very traditional games of an old woman and a young woman all feeding in but I wasn’t really so interested in that. I was just trying to represent and look at my own body as it is now and almost celebrate it in a way rather than always looking sad, because the fruits of my womb are in the painting.

I find it really hard to draw people I’m close to or members of my family, it’s so tricky and almost impossible to see them properly.

I think it is hard, it’s very hard, that picture doesn’t look that much like me around the face, it’s very hard to paint yourself. With close family I think what gets in the way is that you don’t want to offend them, it’s very hard to detach yourself. But this is what I say to students all the time – I truly believe you never truly look at something until you draw it and, taking that one step further, you never really understand how something works until you draw it. So you only have to look at something very basic like a doorknob or a hinge, you don’t understand really how that works until you draw it. So when you get to a face that’s a lot of complexities.

That’s true, but I find it much easier to draw people that I don’t know.

Well actually I find the opposite, I have to say, that… It is a challenge because you could be worried about offending them. Then also what gets in the way is your vision of them, so when you’re actually drawing them you’re almost scientifically seeing how the parts fit together and how they really look. Maybe that’s a problem. It all gets confused within your memory and how you want them to look.

I think it also affects the way that they engage with the viewer, because they’re engaging with you in the first instance as someone they know and have a history with.

They’re looking at me and in a way they’re exposing themselves to me, it’s quite hard for them and quite a gift they’re giving to me. I see it as a gift and I respect it as that. Often they’re just doing it for a meal and a glass of wine! If you’re not paying the money they’re not going to work to your time schedule though but I get around it and I use a combination of photographs and the real thing. Those are the things you have to negotiate around. I don’t think I’d want to pay for models really, I haven’t really got anything to say about people I don’t know, I don’t have any desire really. I’ll see a beautiful woman or man and think I want to paint them but not really, there’s nothing to say about them. If I don’t know them there’s no relationship, I don’t know how they feel, I don’t know how they think. You might build a relationship, you get very close to the people you paint.

In some of the other paintings in The Visit series, like the image of Marianne in The Visit III, the poses are very vulnerable, the model must trust you.

Do you see that as she’s lying there waiting for someone? Because the other way to see that is that someone could be about to have sex with her or they could be about to murder her, she’s very vulnerable in that position. I was always a bit worried about that image because I wanted to think about passivity and power and how it works for female sexuality. I put the Samson and Delilah in the back and after I though I shouldn’t because it implies something, you have to be so careful what images you produce. It wasn’t me saying that Marianne was a contemporary Delilah, it wasn’t that at all. It was trying to recreate this moment of tension when you’re leaning over someone who’s so vulnerable, so you could make love to them but you could murder them. With her it was the sharpness of her nails that I thought was the element of protection somehow, because she looks vulnerable in her pose but in her eyes she’s challenging you.

And they’re very engaged, they’re not passive subjects.

Unlike other paintings where the subjects look away and don’t gaze at you from the canvas, mine do engage. They stare at you so they re more confrontational, they’re uncomfortable. Somebody did say ‘Wendy you’ve got to stop letting your models look out at the viewer because they’ll never sell, people think it’s weird, they don’t like paintings that stare at them.’ But every time I’ve shifted the eyes I’ve always had to bring them back, so the viewer is experiencing my experience and that’s what it becomes about. I want the viewer to experience the world through my eyes and meet this person so that they engage with the human being and not just the abject flesh, because I don’t think my work is about that.

Your other joint show, The MacGuffin, has a great title. It made me think of the way one reads all the signifiers and clues across your bigger paintings, searching for the story or meaning.

It’s almost a renaissance device that I’ve turned into a contemporary thing, these objects turned into signifiers. I have to say it was the curators who decided on that title to link my work to Marguerite Horner’s. The title of my work that’s in that show is It Will Happen When you Least Expect It, which again is a nod to film, which is what people say when you split up with someone and want to move on. It refers to the equal likelihood of murder or death as well as love.

They’re a much looser style.

Yes, because they’re secondary, they’re not a primary source, they’re all from photographs and they’re images that do invade my consciousness, I don’t know if they invade anyone else’s. They’re really tiny, most of them are seven by five inches and they’re all the same size. They’re very painterly. I try to make them like photographs, for instance I’ve done one which is called Just Another Genocide which is skeletons being dug up, then I’ve done another one of those and another. So it’s just how I hang those because even though they’re supposed to behave like photographs in that you print another one, you paint another one, they don’t quite because of the nature of painting, one is never the same as another, they’re handmade so there’s always nuances. Although it’s from a photograph and it attempt to behave like a photograph it can’t because once it becomes a painting it has another meaning.

But lots of paintings, and I’ve noticed this a lot in the BP Portrait Award, aim to look exactly like a photograph to the point where they look like a print.

It’s not real, it’s photographic realist but people look at it and think it’s really good as it looks just like a photograph. People are confused with the realism of a photograph and the real world. Technically this kind of painting is very clever and there’s a lot of post-modern painting that’s about photographic realism and it’s ironic that you should try and paint something like a photograph. Just think how ironic that is in comparison to Cubism, which is all about truth and how we see the facets of the world all at the same time. It’s an attempt at the truth revealing what we know rather than just what we see from one position at one time. Photographic realism is another attempt at the truth which relies on the viewer accepting that a photograph represents or is the real world. It’s a deliberate way of presenting the work, whereas I hover between making the viewer aware they are looking at paint and accepting the illusion of the image. You have your language and your box of colours, but you are still looking as if you have never seen a face before, ever, or a hand or a foot. You’ve never seen it before ever so you’ve got to paint it that way, and that’s the only way. By doing that you’re reinventing it, creating it anew.

See more work by Wendy Elia here….

BP Portrait Award
Unit 18 September, National Portrait Gallery

The MacGuffin – Wendy Elia & Marguerite Horner
1 – 17 July 2011, WW Gallery

About the author

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


  1. simon low says:

    wendy your a true inspiration! fab art can’t wait to see more……

  2. Matthew says:

    Great interview and a very interesting take on the significance and power of painting people (even if it’s not portraiture!).

  3. Linda Ingham says:

    A really insightful interview to work that is relevant on so many interesting levels. I have lots of questions :-)

    Look forward to seeing you soon, Wendy


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