Sunday, 25 April 2010

Emma Talbot talking to Alli Sharma at her studio, Walthamstow E17.

ET: Drawing is really important. I have no fixed plan of what I’m going to do, so it’s a really open way of working. Something comes about which is a different mode of thinking. It’s like when you’re doing something and you might think of something else completely random and you don’t know why you’re thinking of that, but you are. It’s that kind of space and it gets interesting when I’m trying to articulate that kind of space.

AS: Is text a recent addition to your work?

ET: I think the first time I used text might have been in the Nieves zine. They’re either in bad capitals with a dot over the ‘i’ and things that you’re not supposed to do if you’re being very formal or they’re in a European font, from the 1930s, which was used for advertising or cinema posters; that type of information giving. It’s not my handwriting. It’s like painting words rather than writing.

AS: You’ve used both in ‘The Beautiful North’.

ET: I’ve been going to Sheffield a lot recently, because I’m going out with someone who lives there. A lot of my family is from the North. So we go to Sheffield and then get the train to Manchester, or Liverpool, and do things and it’s like falling in love with the North again after being in the South for such a long time. That painting includes the names of all the men from the North that I have loved, so there’s him and my brother, my dad, my uncle and my husband, who died and was also from the North.

AS: You lived in Jesmond, Newcastle?

ET: Yes. And at the top are images drawn from childhood memories. Every summer I used to go and stay with my grandparents in Wigan and I was remembering things like learning to make toast on the fire and my Grandad buying me my Olivetti typewriter and going round to relatives’ houses.

AS: And sitting very politely on the sofa.

ET: Yes, while a dog eats your biscuit and you’re too scared to tell it to get off. The bit in the middle is about a romantic weekend when I went to Newcastle, Sheffield and then Liverpool in one weekend.

AS: Is that a brooch in the centre?

ET: No, it’s like if you looked at the thing as a whole, it could be a mirror, or some mirrored thing or a pub window, something like that. It’s like a really decorative container that’s broken. I think cities in the North are like that, there is a lot of Victorian decoration, it’s very beautiful but it’s also a bit ugly and broken. The mirror is one of the motifs I use. They provide a duality between something glamorous (reflective mirror, cut glass, diamonds or lace that could be a keepsake or embellishment) and something vulnerable to breakage and damage (for instance, the smashed mirrors or cracked pavements that superstitions can be based on). Within them, there is the idea that things can be lasting and/or broken.

AS: The painted text here gives the look of an advertising hoarding.

ET: Well that one does in particular because it’s the idea of a promise, something that you wish for, that you have a desire for, and it’s offered to you. It’s about that kind of relationship between things. Someone saying that they’ll do something and you want to believe them or you wish this would happen. It’s the space of advertising, in a way.

AS: Is that a Smiths lyric in 'Your Words are Like Honey, My Promise is as Good as Gold'.

ET: Yes, and another from John Dowland, a 17th century poet and songwriter. All his songs are about sadness and death and they’re very beautiful. He says, ‘if only I could go to sleep then it would be like I could die,’ notions like that. I’ve used his words quite a lot. The music’s amazing but the words are just lovely. Romantic.

AS: Are you looking at any other particular artists?

ET: I took my boys to The Lowry last week. I was absolutely obsessed by it. The collection is amazing. There are paintings that you recognise with the figures and city scenes and there are others that are incredible. There’s a really funny one that was painted in the 1970s with two teenage girls standing over a teenage boy and he’s wearing an argyle sweater and the girls are really tall and they’ve got beatnik hair and really long legs and little white boots and it’s like they’re bullying him, or trying to impress him and he’s looking totally overshadowed. It’s just really economical and I thought ‘this is exactly what I want to look at right now’. It’s unfortunate that someone made that awful song about him because it detracts from his work, but I think he was always a bit outside.

AS: Is that because he was very popular?

ET: Very popular and his rudimentary drawing. I think people thought that was because he was self taught, rather than making a choice about language. There’s a painting called ‘The Spire’ and it’s just a triangle. It’s not quite black, more charcoal grey, and the sky is not quite white, you know, a really northern sky, where it’s like a piece of paper. It’s like looking at a church spire in the sky but it’s also like looking at an abstract form and it’s very modern. I could relate his early work to the social concerns of painters like George Grosz and later, the compositional structures seem to borrow from modernism, like early Mondrian, breaking up space. That’s how I see him understanding the context. He did have a gallery and it’s pretty obvious that he knew more or less what he was looking at. But he said things like, ‘I’m a simple man. I just use blue, black and yellow.’ But simplicity is somehow rather brilliant. That matchstick figure is the least interesting thing about his work, to me. He was quite bleak and existential. There are quotes of him asking, ‘what’s the purpose of life? What’s it all for?’ and all the kinds of things that you think, ‘yeah, that’s what everybody wants to know.’

AS: Who else are you looking at?

ET: I’ve been looking at him and Annette Messager quite a lot and I suppose someone like Louise Bourgeois. Her drawings are really interesting, the directness in things. And then there are people like Rosa Loy where I don’t really like the look of the work so much but I quite like what it represents in terms of a contemporary re-engagement with narrative painting and what it suggests painting might deal with or do with personal, psychological space. And I really like things like Tal R’s drawings, but I don’t like his paintings.

AS: I love the details, the tiny feet and cuffs and collars but you’ve left the faces blank so you don’t get involved in the detail of that.

ET: If they had faces then they might be expressive in an illustrative way and also, this telling of things, they’re in my mind or they’re memories or whatever, but they’re not unique. It’s not like this only happens to me. It happens to everybody all of the time. I like the idea that you might see something acted out by someone in a film and then you might see another version with a different actor but it’s the same role; it’s like that.

AS: You really allow yourself to do anything in these don’t you? Some of them are quite rude.

ET: Yes, I include really personal things all the time. But I should say that those two are not to do with my personal life. One is based on a Moravia novel and the other is called ‘Shades of Black, Everything Bad, Everything Wrong’. It’s a catalogue of things on TV screens that I haven’t experienced first hand; things I only know from TV or film so there’s film noir, where a woman murders a man; people are gambling for high stakes; two lovers are in a motel room, she leaves him and he kills himself; a biker gang kidnap a rocker and a woman buying guns. I suppose the thing that you could say about all of them is that they are about things I think about, so it doesn’t matter if I’m considering something that I’ve seen or if I’m thinking about what I did last night. They all come through this space, which is my mind. They could be anything. I don’t think ‘oh I’d be ashamed to put that in’. It’s exactly like writing a diary and you write whatever you want.

Emma Talbot is currently exhibiting 'Pictures From My Heart' at Transition Gallery, E8 until 16 May 2010, gallery open Fri-Sun, 12-6 pm.

Her new Tranzine 'Between the Shadow and the Soul' is available here for £3, limited edition of 100.

Images courtesy the artist and Transition Gallery.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Phillip Allen talking to Alli Sharma at his studio in Dalston, E8

AS: You've just come back from The British School at Rome.

PA: I’ve been there since the start of this year. I made some paintings, which have gone to a show in Bologna, and I did piles of drawings.

AS: There are familiar shapes and objects that crop up in the drawings.

PA: Yes, sometimes things appear, sometimes I make something out of something I’ve made before. How these worked is that I was out and about in Rome with a small book. I hadn’t worked like that before.

AS: It looks like a comic book; the way you’ve framed them.

PA: It was just a way of getting them down on a page. That framing has existed in the work one way or another; it’s an instinctive thing. Then, I quite literally work my way through these into felt tips. When you first move into your studio there’s that horrible thing about being in a white empty space. I didn’t do much work for the first three or four weeks. I thought I needed to fill the space up to feel a bit more at home and so this process evolved. I put things up and thought ok, this is mine, I can relax.

AS: Do you get a room to yourself.

PA: It’s an old place that looks like the British Museum. There’s a courtyard, then 8/9 artists are down one wing with your bed upstairs. Then there’s the library where the academics are. It felt like an open prison and a retirement home. You feel imprisoned, but you can go out and see Rome and do whatever and talk to the academics. That was fantastic. I spent a lot of time asking them things

AS: Did the trip have an impact on your practice?

PA: Maybe the things I did there had a superficial impact. I was out with my book because, in a sense, I had to; that’s what I was there for. Maybe the point is that there is no impact. I’m sure you’re affected by the experience but it wasn’t a hunt for something. It’s the people you meet which is the real thing; to meet others and to see what they’re up to and all of those things.

AS: Have you been productive since you got back?

PA: I’ve just started these prints. I came back and didn’t really want to paint. A few years ago I did some etchings and making prints has always been at the back of my mind. I was wondering what to do with the drawings and whether they were for printing or whether they were things for other ways of making work. So I’m in a real ‘I don’t know’ phase. But it’s nice to make and produce things and then, once you’ve got all the things in front of you, begin to think ‘right what am I doing’.

AS: The paintings you showed at Transition recently looked like something was being worked out on the canvas.

PA: They were made over a long period of time; that extra bit of whatever that I do alongside the main body of work.

AS: Do you go back and add or alter them over time?

PA: No, I make them in one go. I think once you begin to go back then it turns into something else. They’re things that can’t be re-done. They’re outside of the other bit of my practice. But then, once they’re seen, they get absorbed as part of your practice.

AS: Were you easy about showing them; if you put them to one side then is that because you don’t want people to see them.

PA: I think they were put to one side because I hadn’t worked out what they were. Jake Clark came round years ago and we were talking about them. Then I began to think about them. But it’s one of those things, as soon as you begin to think ‘I’m going to make one more’ then you can’t because, once you begin to conceptualise them as your work in that way, then all this other stuff comes in and it begins to turn into your work. In a way they were always detached or a different aspect. I began to think that I needed the main work, say The Approach show, to make sure that these other things exist in the way that they are surplus to the main body. But as soon as the surplus becomes the work then it alters. So I don’t know what I’ll do now. Once it turns into a work then it changes, it loses something at the same time.

AS: Your drawings; they’re something else too.

PA: For me, the drawings have to earn their keep. They’re things for me to use rather than making something. When I’m making paintings I know that I’m making something. The drawings are there to work for me; my nuts and bolts. Usually, this wall would be full of drawings. I think ‘this drawing works’ and then I make it into a painting. So you can look at the drawings and the paintings and say yes, that’s that one.

AS: That happened at your show at The Approach, you reached the end of the paintings and arrived at a wall of drawings. And you could match them up. So I was wondering about the process and I was a bit disappointed that the paintings had come directly from the drawings.

PA: Why?

AS: Because I wanted your approach to the paintings to be more like your approach to the drawings and not so planned and worked out.

PA: Why?

AS: I don’t know.

PA: I came into painting at art school doing that hard won image thing where you have a blank surface and then you’re painting and, through the process, something appears. I worked like that for a long time but I found it a frustrating process because nothing ever did happen. The mythological, hard won image never appeared. I was also questioning the whole notion of painting being this autonomous thing. And so the way I solved this problem was to know what to paint. The drawings came from that; from thinking that I needed to know what to do because, for my own personal state of mind, I can’t just approach a blank canvas. For a long time I felt that I didn’t want to show the drawings alongside the paintings, because once you show them you begin to demystify the whole process, and then I thought, well so what.

AS: I like that.

PA: Painting isn’t a mystery. It can be quite a pragmatic thing. You can still approach a painting in the same way, but it’s come from this; this is its real source. The paintings aren’t made in a kind of Jonathan Lasker way where I photocopy and blow it up. They’re drawn then painted. Other things happen, slight variations, but I need the drawing in front of me.

AS: Your combination of colours, with gold and silver can be quite, well, I love the word vulgar, but I’m hesitant about using it.

PA: I like the word; you won’t offend me. I guess they come from the felt tips. I’ve used a lot of silver. It’s enamel paint. I think I like it because it’s not oil paint.

AS: Did you see Paul Nash at Dulwich Picture Gallery?

PA: Yes, awesome. That last room. One of my favourite paintings he did when he was 29. That’s quite depressing.

AS: Which painting?

PA: We are Making a New World’ (1918).

Studio images courtesy of the artist.

Images of paintings courtesy of Transition Gallery, London (photography by Damian Griffiths).