Thursday, 7 June 2012

Kim Baker talks to Alli Sharma at her studio in Bow, E3

Garden 5, 2012
KB: A lot of my work is in Newcastle so what I have here are new paintings, some still in progress, for a touring exhibition, Needle’s Eye, which was at Transition, London and will open at BayArt, Cardiff in September, which is my hometown so I’m quite pleased about that.

AS: Do you work on lots of things at the same time?

KB: You have to be careful, sometimes you can spread yourself too thinly and everything gets watered down. Often I have to put things away and focus on one piece to resolve it. But I like it when you’re making works together and they leapfrog over each other. Like this one; I realised that I need to work on the background; it’s too thin and unfinished. The second one is similar but I prefer it because there is more of a sense of space.

AS: When did you start painting flowers?

KB: I started doing landscapes, and they still are landscapes actually, in 2007 with the whole dark garden idea. I showed the first painting in The Painting Room at Transition, funnily enough. It’s all part of the same series, but I’m simply trying to explore different elements. I like dark and magical things, not witchcraft, more folklore. I look at a lot of films and I have lots of different ideas and influences that I try to pull together.

Dark Garden, 2007
AS: The way you talk about dark landscape, I’m immediately thinking of forests, literally dark spaces. But when I look at the paintings, I think of roses that have been plucked and displayed, but that’s not how you want them to be seen?

KB: I don’t mind so long as people don’t see them as simple flower paintings. In my head, I have an image of a painting I want to do and quite often it doesn’t end up like that. In fact, the way I work is that they often don’t work for quite a long time. You can see I scrubbed most of that one off last week because I’m going to start again, just keeping elements of it. I think paintings tend to work when they take on their own life.

AS: Is that how some parts of the paintings look more developed and others blurred and left open?

KB: A lot of my works are painted over previous paintings so I’ll hold onto a work if I’m not too sure about it and pull it out a year later. I like that you can see the other painting coming through. What I realised is that I can keep this one-go, gestural, sweeping mark-making, and the painting underneath gives it more complexity, which is all part of the finished thing.

AS: The large gestures give a lot of energy and movement.

KB: I’m trying to link everything that makes me want to do these and again, when I was young I was going to pursue a career playing violin in an orchestra and then I had a change of heart and decided to pursue art instead and I studied Kandinsky and the colour theories and movement and all that. Kandinsky’s quite basic, the theories aren’t exactly rocket science but it made me think about rhythm and colours and often, paintings that interest me are paintings that dance with movement, rhythm and a pulse of their own.

AS: Did you move into more specific flowers from those earlier landscapes?

KB: I started looking at 17th century Dutch flower paintings. I came across a female Dutch painter called Rachel Ruysch and started some small studies. For me, art history is important and relevant. I enjoy these small paintings because whatever you do that’s more or less it.

AS: Your flowers could also be funerial, maybe that’s an intention, so it isn’t too pretty.

KB: That was exactly the intention. Although they’re paintings of flowers, they’re quite angsty to make. There are still the same concerns whether flowers, birds or whatever. To me, painting is painting. It’s not what you do, it’s what you do with it. I’ve had reservations about using flowers as a motif for painting, but I love colour, and they are just part of my exploration. It became a challenge to do something different and I thought to hell with it I’m going to make them my own and eventually it turned out that I actually enjoy doing them. I saw the Cy Twombly exhibition at Gagosian in 2009 and it reinforced my belief that you could do massive, brilliant roses. I loved it. But I was disappointed that they were quite flat in the flesh, they looked matt. He was using acrylic and I thought they could be jucier. My absolute favourite artist is Howard Hodgkin. I prefer his smaller paintings as they feel more intense and intimate. I like the way he paints the frames and incorporates them so that the whole thing is quite exciting.
Memento Mori 1, 2011
AS: I can see how big, colourful blooms have obvious appeal for a painter.

KB: The use of colour in nature and flowers provide fantastic contrasts so you’ve got a murky dark green background, then you’ve got these big flashes of colour coming through and to me that’s really exciting. I’ve also got drawings of trees with sweeping branches so I’m interested in incorporating all these different elements. Last year I made bird paintings, I’ve only got one here to show you. I’ve always liked the idea of a portal, especially with the bigger paintings. When you’ve got a big painting, the idea for me is that it pulls you in, or at least it makes you move naturally around the whole image. So the idea with the woods, which I did with the birds last year, is that they pull you in so you have the feeling of some creepiness of what the hell is that in the background.

AS: You initially focus on the bird, the colourful part, then you’re led into the painting. It’s a device.

KB: That’s exactly what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter to me what birds they are. In fact, the reason I chose the birds was for the colours.

Bird Painting 2, 2011
Bird Painting 1, 2011

AS: Is it a challenge to keep the colour fresh? You could easily end up with all that gesture, energy and colour in a sludgy mess.

KB: I admire artists who work wet on wet. I’m not so happy doing it. I work in stages, I do an initial sketch, leave it to completely dry then work on it again, let it dry and just keep going. Having said that, I’m actually quite brutal and aggressive. I think there comes a moment with painting sometimes when you need that aggression to do something drastic. You can pussyfoot about with it for a year and it can still annoy you. Then one day you come in and put everything you’ve got and just whack it and quite often that is how I get them to work. But, you need to know in your head what it is you need to do to that painting. So, although I might not be painting, I’m still thinking about how I am going to resolve things. I don’t do sketches or studies. Again, I think it dilutes what goes onto the canvas. For me, part of a successful painting is when you can actually see a struggle, it makes the painting more interesting.

AS: Because you want things to dry quickly, presumably acrylic would be ideal?

KB: It’s too flat and synthetic. It’s taken me many years to get to the point where I know how to mix my oil paints, and to make it dry quicker I use siccative. You have to be careful because if you mix too much in it will keep drying and crack your paint over time.

Memento Mori 13, 2011

AS: So what's your own relationship with landscape and nature?

KB: When I was a kid I used to do a lot of walking in Wales. Then, in my foundation year, we drove up to a quarry in the middle of some woods and you’ve got these great big craters of rocks going all the way down and its quite dramatic. I think that sparked my whole interest in shapes and rocks, landscape and trees. It felt secretive; you could disappear for a while, and quite creepy because the holes were deep. I’m not sure what it was for to be honest. All I remember are four or five different big, massive holes in the ground and then all these trees everywhere, very dramatic. I like drama. I’m not what you could describe as a quiet painter. I do love subtle quiet paintings but I accept that my paintings are more of a performance. I look at everything, landscapes, flowers, anything with shapes that suggest movement and random things like dresses. Bernini’s sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Teresa; it’s beautiful because it’s flowing but marble and there are all these folds and its quite sensual. When I paint flowers I often think of de Kooning and abstraction and even Cecily Brown. I like the idea of the flowers being fleshy because they are quite sexual in some ways. I went to Kew Gardens last year. Did you see the tropical garden exhibition?

AS: Was that in one of the glasshouses? I wish I’d seen it. I like the idea of glasshouses where things are forced and grown artificially.

KB: To be honest, I didn’t like that idea. I thought things should be natural but when I got there it was all set up and I thought, hang on, this is interesting, you’ve got a man made thing and nature working together. There were spherical bouquets and shapes with arches of flowers. Again, for me, it was movement, because a lot of my paintings have this arch going on. The thing is with nature, there is so much scope, it’s really exciting, different ideas and ways of doing things.

Memento Mori 6, 2011

AS: Have you got a garden?

KB: No I don’t and I love gardens. I think that’s because I live in such a concrete environment, it’s like a release and a way of trying to balance things and bring a little bit of life and nature into London.

Kim Baker will be exhibiting in Needle’s Eye at BayArt, Cardiff 22 Sep – 19 Oct 2012