Róisín Power Hackett: Interdisciplinary

Róisín Power Hackett, A Consideration For All Bodies

Life recently has got in the way, so there has been a little gap between interviews that will probably continue for the back half of 2021, but I plan to make up for the gaps with quality interviews. First of which is the interview you are reading today. For this interview, I sat down with Róisín Power Hackett, an artist where the descriptor interdisciplinary is quite apt. We discuss her many, many practices and how she has managed to combine elements from each into different works. I met Róisín through the ARC programme we were both on between 2019 and 2021. She is someone who I have great admiration for, and her knowledge of art and wit makes any conversation a joy, and that was especially the case with this interview.

Let’s start with your work, The Tent. That piece was part of the cohost exhibition for our masters in Art + Research Collaboration from IADT.

The Tent was a video piece I made reflecting on my experience trying to find work with a disability. But it was also about times when you don’t have things in general, when you have a lack, when you’ve loads of time on your hands. That can be a great time to come up with ideas and reflect. The Tent is based on when my boyfriend and I were living in a tent while we were travelling. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have friends or family with me, my boyfriend was working during the day, and everything I owned could be stored in a rucksack. In some ways, this piece was quite timely, because it was about having the space to actually think creatively. Surprisingly, the pandemic does not give you that space.  

The Tent, (2020), film still

There was this assumption that artists would be really creative because we’d have loads of extra time. But in fact, you don’t, because you’re distracted by the news. Or you’re working, and you’re sitting in front of your screen. Even if you’re not working, you’re always looking at your phone, emails, or social media. So, your brain isn’t free to be creative a lot of the time, and you have to force yourself to leave the house or force yourself to do an activity that’s creative.

As you know, I made The Tent for an exhibition called cohost that was the culmination of the ARC Masters that I was working toward at the time. Video was a completely new thing for me. I started exploring it because COVID-19 meant that while we were working toward cohost being a physical exhibition, it then pivoted to an online show. Hence, the work had to be made to suit that online platform.

The background noise in The Tent is really fascinating.

While I was staying with my parents during one of the lockdowns, I got interested in birdsong because while I was recording for other works, I could hear birds in the background. I’ve noticed birdsong a lot more during the pandemic. And that got me thinking about my experience in the tent, like the sound when it rained. In the Alps, the rain comes in cycles. It would lash rain like a monsoon for two or three days minimum, sometimes a whole week. When you’re in a tent, it’s kind of difficult to do anything for the sound of that rain. All you could hear was the rain, and it was very distracting. So, I felt like that had to be part of the work. So, I put up a tent in my garden and recorded the rain falling on the tent and the incidental noises that happened simultaneously.

The Tent, (2020), film still

I wanted that kind of lo-fi aesthetic of home video. Sometimes, you do hear things like the rain or the birds. With that home footage element, you can imagine yourself in that space a lot easier, exactly because it’s not cinematic.

Typically, live performance is a common element of your practice. How does that compare with video for you?

I really prefer live stuff, because when I record, I’m much more conscious of how the finished piece will sound. I love to perform. If I make a mistake, I get the sense that nobody in the audience knows I’ve made a mistake because they don’t know the script. Originally, I had wanted to perform The Tent live. COVID pushed me into film and recordings, and I think actually it’s not a bad thing. It’s not something I want to work on exclusively, but it’s a really good skill to have, and it’s really good to have the confidence to do it, you know?

There is something about performance, I think. Whether it’s in theatre, or live art, or any sort of performance, or music, it’s quite a direct way of trying to make people feel something. Of course, visual art tries to make people feel something as well. But the thing about performance is its duration. You can grab a person’s attention more directly in performance; people have to listen for that half hour or however long the performance is. Whereas the thing about going to an exhibition of paintings or sculptures is, it’s easy to just walk past them and go, “Oh, I saw that,” even if it’s not sinking in.

I still try to combine my other practices with performance. There are definitely visual elements to my performance; whether that be in the costumes or setting, it allows me to tap into my visual art background.

‘Feile An Buile Suibhne’, (Sept 2018), Performance Lecture at ‘Ad Infinitum Smart Talk’, MART, Dublin,

Yes, you’re working in several mediums now. Is that important to you?

I like not sticking to one medium. You have to think about your concept and what medium fits. Some of my concepts don’t fit my art practice, but they fit my curatorial practice. That’s why I curate, because I often feel that an idea will work with my curating, or an idea works as writing, or my visual practice, and for me, it’s important to have the tools to realise these ideas in the best format.

 I did my undergraduate degree in painting, so that’s probably the thing I’m most skilled in. I might not be painting currently, but I spent a huge amount of time painting during the first lockdown. I’m slowly working on a series. I’m not keen on doing anything fast; I could spend years working on one piece.

In the end, it depends on the space I have. I think it’s like that for a lot of artists, the art depends on the space you have. I like the slowness oil painting. Maybe you spend a day painting one layer, and then you have to wait another week or two before you can paint the next layer, but I don’t always have the space to paint.

‘Fold over simple fold, binding her head’, (2020), oil paint and gold leaf on wallpaper, 33×22.5cm

What artists would you consider to influence your work?

For me, it’s always books and writers that come to mind first—the likes of Flann O’Brian, and recently Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghost in the Throat. And there’s Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The way I write my texts is by breaking down language, and these texts break down the idea of narrative, or in the case of Doireann’s book, it’s breaking down history and looking at the history of a woman poet that has been neglected for years in Ireland. Not to go into too much detail, but it was such an interesting read for me.

I like to know the artists whose work I curate, and to have seen their work myself or talk to them. For instance, Emma Haugh was somebody who initially influenced me. I went to see their performance in The Joinery years ago. As part of an NCAD Gallery exhibition, they did this reading troupe. One person read the text, and then another person had another text, and they could read that other text whenever they felt like it, interrupting the first person. It was this weird hybrid of two different texts. And what was interesting to me was that they were two academic texts that were completely opposed to each other politically. I really loved that on so many levels.

There are a couple of curators whose work I enjoy like Rosie Lynch. She co-founded Callan Workhouse Union with Hollie Kearns. The Workhouse Union is a project that works with artists, designers, architects and craftspeople to develop projects examining housing, civic infrastructure in Callan. My mother is from Callan, so it resonates personally for me. I’ve also had a brief residency down there.

Callan used to be a busy town due to the traffic that would pass through it from Cork to Dublin, but it has struggled since the development of a bypass. Callan Workhouse Union revitalised the town and it came up with so many new ideas to involve the community in the projects that they curated, and the performances and theatre they helped organise. They have worked with a studio in Callan that is very supportive of people with disabilities, called KCAT. They and other organisations turned Bridge Street in Callan into a set to create a big performance as part of The Bridge Street Project. Their work has a tangible impact on the community, and I admire that. It really shows the impact art can have.

Since writers were first to mind among your influences, let’s discuss the importance of the written word in your work.

cut-up text method,

For a long time, I was trying to figure out ways of incorporating writing in my practice, combining the written word with visuals. It wasn’t until second year in NCAD when a classmate, Anthony Keigher, did a performance that incorporated a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”. It flipped a switch for me. I loved the performance, and I loved that he was using a poem in his performance. That made me realise how I could incorporate poetry into practice.

Since then, I’ve been using this practice called “uncreative writing” or “cut-up writing”. I take old novels, cut up the text, and stick them down to create something very visual – and a little bit random – because you can’t always find the correct word you want. So this text is coming from a world that already exists, and the characters that I become when I’m performing are characters that generally already exist somewhere. I’m reappropriating those characters for these works.

I see my practice as this in-between space between literature and visual art. Even though it’s performance, I try to avoid making the work theatrical, for the same reason I avoid making my video cinematic. I love performing and acting in front of others, and what is great about live art is that I am almost myself in those performances. I almost become some other character; in a way, I’m not acting, so it’s a great space to occupy, the fact that I’m engaging with characters that aren’t necessarily my creation.

We have touched on it in parts, but let’s talk a bit about your curatorial practice.

Sometimes I have ideas that I don’t want to be an artist for, I want to give other artists a platform instead. I think it’s an important concept that I want to flesh out more academically, and more like my own personal ethics to give other artists the space to make their work; I do think about it conceptually as working with people. It’s not being too precious with my idea, not closing opportunities to expand on it with input from others. And for me, it’s about wanting to share artists’ work with other people and give artists as many opportunities as possible.

One of my focuses with my curating is mixing the arts and performance in a way that is not pure visual art, which is difficult. What I’m aiming for is giving a voice to a variety of different art forms. This year I worked with a band called Banríon, and I had never worked with music before. I enjoy the aspect of merging scenes.

Interestingly, your curatorial practice mirrors your art practice.

I’ve always been interested in experimenting, so in a way, it was inevitable that it would lead to combining different practices. Being interdisciplinary is so important to me, both in my artistic practice and curatorial practice.

If someone was to ask, what type of curator are you, I’d instantly say interdisciplinary. I want to open people up to the possibilities of mixing disciplines, and I am using different avenues to do that.  

You can find out more about Róisín Power Hackett work through her website, link below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Organic Alchemy: Kari Cahill

Kari Cahill

Kari Cahill is an artist based out of Sligo. She is a painter who has presented work throughout Ireland, and abroad in countries such as France and Brazil. Kari is also Co-Director and Co-Founder of Lay of the Land (LOTL) – a site-responsive arts organisation producing residencies and exhibitions in remote locations around Ireland, and participates as both artist and curator. In the last year or so Kari started working out of the Model Art Centre’s Artist Studios, and that is how I came across her work initially. It was fascinating finding out about her approach to creating pigments. It really adds an extra layer to her paintings. It’s important to share practices like Kari’s because some might not be aware that it is possible to creat pigments this way. It was an eye opening experience for me and really broadened my knowledge.

What does an average day in the studio look like for you?

I have a pretty healthy work routine. I always paint at least two days a week, and the other two or three days are made up of admin, pigment making, shipping, and all the other parts of my business. On my two days of practice I’m pretty loose and don’t plan too much. I like to explore the materials and let that inform what happens; I usually don’t have a specific idea in mind. If I’m working on a commission I know it will occupy that particular day. I’m a true believer in just turning up over and over again – allowing space for the work to emerge through you.

I often work on a large scale and there are constantly things lying on the floor, tacked to walls and spread all over all the surfaces. The experimental nature of my painting calls for a lot of pigments and inks at hand. I pour water onto surfaces and let it dry over time, then add more materials on top.  All of my paintings are built up with various layers. I work on horizontal planes, never upright. Having a big studio has been a game changer for me in terms of working at a larger scale. I’m generally working on about 30 or 40 paintings all at once, in varied scales.  I may be developing one painting while doing the finishing touches on another, and these works move around the studio a lot. They go up on the walls, then come back down and join the other pieces. I really like to have a visual of the overall series. 

Studio 2021

I also usually commit around one day of the week to creating pigments from materials that I forage from the natural landscape. There is a lot of work that goes into that. All of the different processes in extracting pigments take time and energy. There are oxidation processes happening throughout the studio.I have different barks that have been stewing in buckets of water for a couple of months and jars of questionable materials – rusty nails, vinegar, plants, rocks and soils.It feels like a kind of lab to me, which I really enjoy.  My favourite thing about working with pigments is how they interact with each other on the page so I spend time modifying the colours using a range of other processes. I oxidize them or tweak the pH levels. In these moments, the process unfolding on the canvas is kind of alive. There are these alchemic processes happening that are outside of my control. I combine and layer the materials but after that, they take on their own life and movement. I love the energy that comes from that because eventually, as they dry, they’re frozen in this moment of interaction.

Materials used for making colour

My practice follows the seasons, both logistically and conceptually. This allows me to spend more time outdoors in the warmer months, whereas the winter months sees me inside more.  I collect materials at different times of the year, and they feed directly into the paintings. I am spending a lot of time outdoors at the moment searching for pigments; I’ve started to do a bit more research into earth pigments specifically in areas with water and try to almost read the land with the hope of stumbling across something buried beneath it. 

That’s a really interesting aspect of your process. Where does the preference for foraged-material pigments come from?

It happened very organically. To give a brief history…alongside my painting practice, I’m one half of a project called Lay of the Land, which is part collaborative duo, part arts organization which curates and produces outdoor art exhibitions in wild landscapes. I was spending a lot of time working with the land and the elements in that role, and at the beginning I felt a separation between that outdoor sculpture work and my painting practice. Of course, over time these started to come together. In 2018 I created a couple of massive stretched canvases with acrylic paint that were strung up in a forest overlooking Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve and I remember during that  time I kept coming back to questions about how a petroleum-based material fitted into the landscape. I was working primarily in acrylics (which were able to stand up to the elements) but there was this feeling that it didn’t really work. 

When I went on a residency in Brazil and met an Uruguayan artis Diego De Los Campos. Even though I only spoke a little bit of Portuguese, we had some great conversations about colour and materials. He gave me this little jar of ‘nogalina’, which is a beautiful brown lustrous colour extracted from dehydrated walnuts. I started using the nogalina but it just wouldn’t work with the acrylic; I couldn’t layer the two. I love when materials do not bend to my whims. And from here I started looking into more waterbased natural colours and then began making my own.The acrylic and bio colour coexisted for a while in my painting, but, over time the process of making pigment just fed into what it was that I wanted to express. Especially how I felt about the land. Everything kind of clicked into place since then. 

You mentioned site-specific sculptural works – paintings on canopy. 

That particular Lay of the Land project was a turning point for me, as I mentioned before, this was the first piece that I felt represented the two sides of my practcie – outdoor sculpture and painting. This work was challenging.  I had imagined these large green paintings stretched out between trees, at one with the lush forest. But if you place a green painting in a green landscape, you find out pretty quickly that the colours never stand up to the natural chlorophyll hue that happens when the light shines through the canopy! Nature has its own story to tell; you can’t decide to build a fragile sculpture in strong wind, you can’t ask the skies not to rain. Lay of the Land taught me to listen to the landscape and the elements, and work with what is in front of me. I discovered through observing the site that red completely complimented and contrasted with the green. I learned a lot about being responsive to the landscape in making these works which could only really exist in a forest.

Installation shot Ceannbhrat Dearg, Red Canopy – Silva, by Lay of the Land, (2018), Stretched Canvas, Acrylic Paint, Spray Paint, Eyelets, Builders Twine, Rebar.- Photo Lay of the Land

 You’ve said before that there is a more muted aesthetic to your sculptural works. 

I guess these different parts of my practice just developed at different times. I focused on three-dimensional work in college and my sculptural aesthetic had always been quite minimal and monochromatic. When I travelled to India for a residency, I put my painting practice to the fore for the first time. I don’t think I could have possibly had a muted palette in India. Now the lines are more blurred between my 2d and 3d work, and my pallets are dictated heavily by the land and the materials I find in each. Later in the year I’ll be painting directly onto rock formations creating site-rsponsive works along the coast, I think colour will feature heavily but perhaps the marks will be more minimal. 

Land Flutes, Collaborative Piece, (2016), Steel Piping

Does painting continue to be the focus? 

My buzz is applying colour to surfaces. This doesn’t necessarily need to be as ‘paintings’ in the traditional “work-on-paper” sense. I am interested in exploring colour, and surface and bringing these ideas into larger scales and three dimensions, as well as continuing to explore on a two dimensional scale. 

Kari Cahill Hazel McCague – Directors of Lay of the Land – Installing during Silva 2019 – West Cork – Photo by Fellipe Lopes

This past year myself and Hazel Mc Cague, who is the other half of Lay of the Land, decided to take a step back from the project and assess where it was going, and to focus in on our individual practices. For me, this meant a deepening of my approach to painting and colour.  The time away has allowed us to regain our energy. Lay of the Land projects were massive productions requiring so much time, energy and creative input. For four years we were constantly moving forward. We created over 60 sculptures and collaborated with almost 30 artists, not to mention the crews, volunteers, locals and audiences we engaged with. My role was curator, artist, administrator, director and producer. It was amazing but very labour intensive. It didn’t necessarily allow for the space I needed to pursue painting. So since taking a break we have been able to identify which elements we want to bring forward and which ones we are happy to leave behind, both in terms of LOTL and our own personal development. This has been super empowering! Lay of the Land will still exist, but it will be different, and it will be more aligned with both of our individual practices. 

Are your pigments directly influenced by your given environment? 

My work is completely site-responsive. Even before I worked with natural pigments I always responded to site.For instance,  I made a series of work in the depths winter while living in West Cork. The colour schemes were dark and gloomy. I wanted to capture the essence of how the light suddenly burst through the clouds and hit the mountains on a dark day. Even though my work isn’t formally representational, it does aim to capture the essence and emotional of the experience of different landscapes. Colour has always been a means for that. 

Dugheaimhreadh – Depths of Winter, 100x100cm, Mixed media on canvas

Now, the pigments that make up my paintings come from things I’ve gathered in that space and the processes that follow. Let’s say I gather walnut husks in a specific spot; the colour produced will be different from the husks I collect elsewhere. So, those paintings will have totally different qualities. This creates an additional dimension to the resposnsiviity of the pieces and informs the visual quality of the finished piece. I allow the colour to direct the work. 

Materials used for making ink, Calafort 2019, photo by Fellipe Lopes

You work in a range of scales. Could you talk a bit about that?

The pigments I use are made up of tiny particles; I can’t just scale up in the way I could with acrylics or printmaking. When I go bigger with bio-pigments, I’m zooming in on those tiny bits of plant matter which morph the colour. I think of my work as maps, visually they often look like aerial photographs, and they trace the colour of a specific landscape.  My smaller paintings tend to be more minimal than my larger paintings; the lines and marks are somehow more delicate even when not applied in that way.

‘By Equinox Drenched, (2021), Earth pigment,Kelp,Shell,Berries,Sloes,Lichen,Oak Gall,Liquid Iron,Copper Scraps, 200x140cm
Flattened Out Site, Copper, Walnut, Dandelion, Soda, Bog Myrtle, 17.5 x 26cm

I am constantly looking for anything that will give me an interesting texture and experiment with the scale of how I present the marks. I pour, drip, soak and spray colour onto paper or canvas. I might then sprinkle pigment on top or use salt. It can all seem a bit haphazard to an outsider looking in. There are jars, pots, pipettes, syringes – all sorts of crazy stuff that might encourage the colours to interact in different ways.

I intuitively know how these colours can potentially work together because I created them. There is definitely a state of flow in how I respond to whatever is happening on the page. Experiences feed into the gestures. I often think of my paintings as drawings because they’re not really complete. Often I’ll do a drawing that feels more like painting.

Are you interested in exploring the fluidity between these two mediums?

For sure. I was first introduced to that idea by the artist Kiera O’Toole, my studio neighbour. She also works with pigments and it’s brilliant to be able to bounce ideas off of eachother. In my mind, the drawing had always come before the painting. Those conversations with Kiera kind of allowed me to be less concerned about the labelling of my works as paintings or drawings.  Now there is more of a blurred line; a work in paint can be a drawing, and a work made up of drawn elements can be a painting. Regardless of how people refer to my work, I am more interested in the process than the end result.

You can find out more about Kari Cahill’s work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Somewhere Between Now and Then: Shane Berkery

Shane Berkery

Shane Berkery is a Dublin based painter, Shane won both the Hennessy-Craig and Whyte’s awards at the RHA Annual Exhibition in 2016 and was one of the shortlisted artists for the Zurich Portrait Prize in 2019. I first came across Shane’s work around 2018 when I visited Dublin and conducted one of my regular treks of the galleries. I came across his work Somewhere between now and then as part of a group show that was in the Molesworth Gallery and it stuck with me ever since. I knew straight away that I wanted to talk him on his practice. One thing that struck me when talking to him is his drive to keep improving and keep pushing himself. In a way you could draw parallels to how athletes talk about their skills. He has such enthusiasm to explore the medium, and it was fascinating conversation with him.

I think the best place to start would be to describe a day in the studio.

Studio shot

I have a studio in my back garden, so I can wake up, walk the dog and then head into the studio. I get started around 9:00, and then I just paint. Right now, for instance, I have between eight and nine paintings at various stages of completion.

So you work on a few at a time?

Yeah, I’ve started doing that since my previous exhibition, (Cave Paintings). Before that, I’d work on maybe two paintings at the same time, max. But I’ve started a whole bunch at the same time because I find that when working on one painting the whole time, you stop seeing the painting. For lack of a better word, you become blind to it. So it’s good to just refresh by working on something else and then revisiting when it’s dry.

Cave Paintings, install shot, Molesworth Gallery, 2020

You describe your paintings as being a result of the process, rather than a goal that you reach.

Yeah. I don’t really approach each painting as a final product. Each painting isn’t the final product in my eyes. I approach each of them as practice. My final product is what I’ll eventually be able to paint, the artist I can become by getting better and better. The goal for me is to improve. Each painting I try to do something new. I try to start each painting a little bit differently from the last.

Eventually, I want to improve in all the components of painting. I view it as a form of visual problem solving. For example, I like finding colour combinations that I haven’t used before; I like to explore colour relations when painting. Obviously, composition is something I’m always working on.

I try different working styles as well. When I walk into an exhibition, I personally like to see different kinds of paintings. I like to see how far a painter can push their style in different directions.  One thing I do want to do is get better at the representation side of things. That’s why my paintings a lot of the time have rendered representational elements to them. I still feel I haven’t mastered that.

Is there an element of challenging yourself?

I want to make something that I haven’t seen before. I think representation in the painting is a really strong tool. It draws the viewer in, and it gives a strong reference point for the viewer to place themselves within the painting. I like paintings that can do that, and that’s kind of what I want to do.  

Flower and hoop, (2020), oil on canvas, 50x50cm

I think it’s just a continuation from when I was little. I’d just think about the figure in a painting, as an anchor almost. You can relate on a personal level. I find figures more engaging and interesting.

I think I’d feel pretty upset with myself if I stopped trying new things in my painting, so maybe it does circle back to challenging myself.

How important is scale for you in your work? I got to see A Light (2019) when it was in the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition, and the scale really stood out to me.

I think there is a direct relation between scale and the impact it can have on the viewer, it obviously has to be done right though. Previously I worked quite big almost all the time, but with my recent round of paintings I have done quite a few small paintings where I can concentrate on specific elements and take a more targeted approach. I’m experimenting with that as well. I do enjoy making the big paintings though.  And when I successfully do that, they feel way more fun to finish, and more of an accomplishment.

There definitely is a big difference between just seeing A Light on the screen and seeing it in real life scale, which it is. Tactility and all that disappears as well, when it’s on the screen.

A light, (2019), oil on canvas, 130x150cm

And a lot of your paintings are from your grandfather’s photography. How did you approach that?

Yeah, I came across a whole bunch of them. I don’t know how many there are, maybe two or three hundred of them? I’ve scanned so many of them onto my iPad for when I’m working.

A lot of them are candid photos. The pictures themselves look like film noir stills. They were taken at a time when Japan was Westernising like America, and everyone’s wearing the suits like in the films. You see this juxtaposed against the Japanese landscape and the old traditional Japanese clothes that are still there. So, you see this unique mix of cultures that was fascinating for me.

It’s really interesting because there’s such a filmic quality looking at the paintings.

The process with black and white photos is usually, I go through all the photos that I’ve scanned until I see which photo jumps out at me, I then make a painting based on the photo – how it feels, how it looks. Once I pick the photo that I want to work from, it’s kind of like, OK, off to the races. And then I might have an idea beforehand that I want to try out, like a combination of colours, say really saturated red and green. Those colours are going to be kind of the starting point. You make decisions on the canvas, you take a colour, you go for it. And then from there it is a matter of problem solving.

photo taken by Shane Berkery’s grandfather

Do you approach your grandfather’s photos differently, compared to the photography that you take yourself?

Yeah, I think there is definitely a different feel to it. And I think one of the things is that I tend to render lifelike colour in the photos that I take, because the colour is there, and when I have the colour in the photo I want to keep improving on that as well.

Bright Light, (2019), oil on canvas, 81 x 115 cm

A lot of the pictures I take are of my friends, people that I know. My granddad would have taken photos of his colleagues from his company, candid scenes of them interacting. There are more formal family photos as well. A recent painting, the yellow painting (A Light) was inspired by one of the photos that my granddad took with the guy and the lighter, which I had already painted. It’s basically the same action with different figures. So I think I’m trying in a way to emulate what he’s done.

Match II, (2019), oil on canvas 105x90cm

What camera do you use?

I actually have my granddad’s old Nikon camera that he used to take the pictures. I use that sometimes. And then I also have another 35mm camera and a Pentax 67 as well. It’s from the 70s or 60s. Medium format, big old camera. I enjoy taking pictures with film more than digital. With analog cameras, there’s distance between when you take the photo and when you see it, which I think is an interesting quality to that dynamic.

I know you grew up in both Japan and America. Do you think there is an element of representing those different cultures?

I think there is a different visual sensibility between Eastern and Western countries, and I think there might be something unique in borrowing from each side. But I don’t really care too much about representing culture in my work. I mean, when I paint my granddad’s photos, I don’t see it as painting Japan. I feel an affinity to my granddad, I feel a connection to the photographs.

Somewhere between now and then, (2018), oil on canvas 127x114cm

At the end of the day, I’m going to draw from as much as I can. If something is part of my experience and the imagery is accessible to me, that will filter into my work.

You can find out more about Shane Berkery work through his Instagram page and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


The Human Subject and Painting:Tajh Rust

Tajh Rust

Tajh Rust is a Brooklyn based painter. He graduated from The Cooper Union in 2011 with a BFA in Painting and Film and from Yale University in 2019 with an MFA in Painting. Who has exhibited in New York, LA, Frankfurt and Brussels. Tajh was an artist that I came across while I was doing research online and the way he approached gaze in his portraits caught me instantly, I knew I had to interview him. I sat down ar with Tajh late last ye to discuss his painting over a Zoom call. In that call, we discussed many elements of his practice like his approach to portraiture, specifically the relationship with the sitter in his work, and how gaze plays a role in his paintings. It was a great experience talking to Tajh about his work, he is so considered with his answers that you gain so much in discussion with him. It a great conversation with a fantastic artist.

I’ve heard that you feel a sense of collaboration between yourself and the sitters you paint.

I usually paint people who I know personally: friends, family and people who I’ve met. And having spent time with each person, you get a sense of what’s important to them. You get a sense of their personality. I don’t want to represent people through my own prism of subjectivity. I try to approach each one individually. So that entails having conversations, asking questions like what we’re doing now. And I see if I can bring some of that into the painting itself. I had a body of work about three or four years ago, and it was strictly about looking at environments as an extension of our identities. Those paintings were set in places that each individual chose themselves, so there was a personal significance. And that then became part of the portrait; my observations of the body occupying that space.

Duneska, (2017), oil and acrylic on canvas, 152.40cm x 193.04cm

I mostly work from photographs I take of the sitter in the space. I take lots of photos of the sitters because I paint very slowly. It’s tough to get people to agree to sit for that long! I tend to work from a lot of photographs, as source imagery, and then cobble together from there.

Early on, I would try to find one photograph that I could paint from directly. Then when I started grad school, I was challenged on that approach. So, now I take more liberty in the source material. I collage different moments, kind of like a Cubist approach where you can see around things, and the perspectives may not always align, but it tends to be more faithful to a feeling of that person or that environment.

Is history an important aspect to your work?

Yeah, painting has a very long history, and it’s hard to distinguish yourself from it. If you don’t know about it, are you making some of the same decisions, the same mistakes, as your predecessors? I’ve been looking more at history in the last few years and trying to interpret it in my own way, with my own experiences.

One interesting aspect of your portraits is the use of gaze.

Subject V (Jeannette), (2018), oil and acrylic on canvas, 81.28cm x 81.28cm

It’s something that I have to really think about when I approach a painting. I have a series of paintings where the figures are all looking away. And with those paintings, I’m trying to think about visibility in a challenging way, where the figures aren’t turned away completely; you still get enough of their likeness. But they’re withholding quite a bit. With those paintings, I usually start with a colour, often the complexion of their skin, and then build the painting from there. I wanted the figures to disappear into the atmosphere of the painting as a whole, but it’s hard to do that when they’re fully turned away, so I do a three-quarter turn.

With other paintings, the larger ones, I tried to have at least one figure confront the viewer, because I think it’s almost too easy to be a voyeur. But when the figure looks back at you or meets your gaze, it transforms this from a neutral act of looking to something more active. I like to play with that. I think it’s a completely different experience when you feel that you’re being looked at as well.

When you spend enough time looking at a painting, you can see how that painting was made. A big part of it is seeing. The recorded history that you can see by the edge of a painting, you know, how many layers; but it’s not like you’re going to crack the code or anything.

How has your practice been affected in the last year?

I didn’t travel much growing up, so it’s something I’ve prioritized as an adult, and I try to travel every year. It’s been challenging, because I haven’t been able to do that in 2020. I was fortunate enough to do a residency in Dakar (Senegal) back in 2019. I connect with people on my travels and incorporate them into my work. I love to go to museums everywhere I go. If it’s a vacation, I’ll find the nearest museum and see a show there. I think travel is a big part of my work, because I’m always trying to draw connections between people and locate myself within a larger community.

Rückenfigur II, (2019), oil on canvas, 121.92cm x 182.88cm

My exhibition Where We Meet came about from reflecting on some of my travels. I’d been thinking about the connections between the people I’ve met and the African and Black diaspora because they make up the majority of the subjects that I paint. So, thinking about what a shared culture amongst those people might be like. In that particular body of work, I was pulling from the residency in Dakar in 2019. It was my first time in Africa. So that’s a jumping-off point, radiating from that residency as a source. And I have also gotten to travel to Cuba, as well as the US. I was thinking about those three regions, West Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, and trying to find connections between the people that I’ve come into contact with.

Where We Meet install shot, Mathew Brown Gallery, 2020

My practice has had to adapt a bit this year. I usually paint people that I know, people I get to meet in person. That’s not possible lately, because of the lockdowns. So, I’ve had to work in different ways. I have an extensive collection of images that I’ve taken on my travels and in my neighbourhood, and I’ll use those, but I’m working from drawings mostly now.

I’ve had to get creative with source materials; for instance, using film stills. I’ll watch a film, and pause at a specific moment that I think is interesting. And then I lay out an array of images and see if I can make a composition out of those references. I’ve been inspired by black and white films. For example, with Like Sunday I wanted to interpret what that setting might feel like, use it as a way to play with colour.

Like Sunday, (2019), oil on canvas, 101.60cm x 101.60cm
Untitled (Shadow Painting), (2020), acrylic on canvas, 71.12cm x 71.12cm

I made a couple of paintings while I was at home during the initial lockdowns. I was mostly working with drawing and thinking about what I wanted to paint, stuff that I would see around the house. I made one painting that was just shadows. I had some plants in the window, and the light was coming in through the window, and that made this pattern of shadows on the wall. And I just painted that. It was unlike anything I’d painted recently, but it was kind of therapeutic for me. It was just like, “Okay, I don’t have to worry about honouring someone’s likeness or thinking about the body in this regimented way,” so it was freeing. But it was also very difficult, because shadows are this fleeting thing that you can’t really grasp. When I paint shadows in paintings, they’re kind of made up, because they aren’t one true colour. They’re this thing that happens with light, and it’s always changing as you look at it. How do you represent that in colour? I was using acrylic paints at home, which is different from the oil paints I get to use in the studio. I don’t know if it’s a good painting, but it’s important for me because it has made me look at my environment in a different way. And it made me look at the time and paint in a different way.

I’ve noticed that in some of your works, there are older paintings within them.

It was something that evolved quite naturally over time. A few years ago, I was painting a lot of my friends as my subjects, and a lot of them are artists themselves. They would pick domestic spaces where they’d have art that they’ve collected, or their own art in the back. And I would have references to other paintings in the back as a kind of a tribute to them. It was appreciating their work by including it in mine, and it became this recurring theme. And since then, as I make more paintings, I think of how they would fit into others. Sometimes I’ll put an old painting of mine in the background of a new one, and have a dialogue. They speak to each other, which is why I try to allude to them, because they’re not separate.

Osaretin, (2016), oil and acrylic on canvas, 182.88cm x 137.16cm

So, interpretation is something that you play with a lot in your work?

I would say so, because I am very influenced by everything that I see. I consider myself pretty sensitive to my surroundings and my environment and everything I consume visually. I used to go to museums quite often, pretty much weekly, just to see exhibitions. Not just to look at paintings, but also sculptures and film and video, and I studied film in undergraduate school. I think I watch films in a different way now, having studied them and having made a few short films. When I watch films, I think of how people are represented in film and how I can learn from that to approach the subject, the human subject and painting.

My exhibition Where We Meet was kind of influenced by a quote from Arthur Jafa, at a talk that he was giving at the Hammer Museum in LA. He was talking about the way he works, and he’s a person who collects lots of images as well. He just scours the internet. I think he used to do it manually, before the advent of the internet, where you just collect images over time, making folders and books. That’s something that I have been very interested in, because I have lots of disparate interests that may not always readily make sense together, or the connections might not always be clear between them. But the way he spoke about his interest in images from all over – he said that the justification was his interest alone, and those things make sense because he is the connector. Where the ideas meet is within each of us, and our various interests. I was always interested in that as an idea.

Is this element of representing the individual, and culture, within your abstract work as well?

I don’t work abstractly all that often. It’s when I’m faced with something I can’t quite express with the body or the figures, and it’s usually in response to something happening socially, or something we experience in the real world. Instead of a figure, I’ll use maybe colour as a stand-in for people. I’ve used a spectrum of skin tones to talk about migration, or the ways that neighbourhoods and cities are built, or representation in countries and nations. So yeah, I think skin tones as colour can provide a lot of meaning. And then it found its way back into the figurative work. With the subject paintings, I often started with the skin tone.

Neighborhood, (2017), acrylic on canvas, 76.2cm x 76.2cm

With some of your works, water seems to be a recurring theme.

Surpassing Water’s Coolness, (2020), oil on canvas, 182.88cm x 137.16cm

That’s a new thing that I’m thinking through. I think water is really, really magical. And it’s hard to paint, so it’s a challenge for me. Water is such a weird, crazy thing to tackle, but I think what it immediately does for paintings like Heavenly Peace and Surpassing Water’s Coolness, is it disrupts the ideas of interior and exterior. I like that, because it immediately becomes dreamlike, or ominous, by bringing water into the domestic space. It can be surreal, but it can also allude to meaning. I think of floods – quite a literal problem that has disrupted so much. Water is a clear liquid, obviously, but I use it as a colour. I tend to paint water blue, and I think blue is such an emotive colour. It immediately sets a tone, and we all have associations with blue; I love combining it with water.

Heavenly Peace, (2019), oil on yupo paper, 121.92cm x 182.88cm

How is your work developing, going forward?

I have been interested in dreams recently, as subject matter. I have painted figures lying and sleeping in the past, and I feel that I’d like to explore what’s going on in their heads. This might help plug in a few holes in my work. I’m excited about that.

I’m painting a lot. I’m trying to get myself ready for the future. But at the moment, I just want to make some paintings that I really enjoy. And now that I have all the time in the world, I’ve got to slow down and try different things, try different challenges, and we’ll see what comes of it.

You can find out more about Tajh Rust work through his Instagram page and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Dialogs: Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera, photo by Elana Snow

Pablo Helguera (Mexico City, 1971) is a New York based artist working across disciplines including installation, drawing, socially engaged art and performance. Helguera’s practice covers diverse ground from ethnography and sociolinguistics to humour and music. He has exhibited or performed at venues such as the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; ICA Boston; RCA London and the 8th Havana Biennial, PERFORMA 05. This interview is really important to me. Pablo Helguera’s practice has been a huge influence on how I view art, especially the importance of dialog in his practice has stuck with me over the years. In this interview we talked about how he considers the viewer in his work and the role language plays. It’s really exciting to share this interview with others because I genuinely feel anyone can benefit from hearing how he approaches his practice the considerations he makes when making works.

During the April lockdown, you did a project called Pablo Helguera: The Grand Central Singing Telegram Co. Singing seems to be a recurring motif in your work. Could you talk about that?

I come from a musical family. My sisters and many of my relatives are classical musicians. It’s interesting growing up in a place like Mexico and hearing Mozart and Bach being played from different rooms of the house. I was always interested in music; I wanted to be a singer at one point when I was a teenager. Although my interest in painting and visual arts eventually took over, music never left me. I feel that is why I gravitated towards live performance art. I also realised later on that the notion of scoring was very important within my practice. The idea of sequentiality, whether in narrative format or a concatenation of experiences. From the standpoint of being an educator, an artist and a writer, everything you produce needs to follow some kind of structure or score. And that has manifested in many different ways in my work. Music is present in everything I do.

As an artist that has been involved in socially engaged practice from very early on, one of the issues that I face is the challenge of creating socially engaged art in the context of a pandemic where social distance and isolation is essential. I was discussing this with John Spiak, an old friend and curator at Grand Central Art Center in California, and we decided to do something that would help people connect. Everyone feels isolated in this moment, and the initial lockdown was particularly severe. I decided to revive my old project, The Singing Telegram. It’s a format that was invented in the 1930s during the Great Depression by Western Union, the telegraph service. I had already done one performance, and we thought it would be interesting to update the format and do it over Zoom.

Singing telegram collage, (2020)

I offered to become a messenger for people. They could pick from a selection of songs that I knew, and I would sing to the recipient of the message on Zoom. There were roughly 60 songs to choose from, ranging from Broadway tunes and Frank Sinatra to opera and Mexican folk songs. It was a really powerful experience; we had no idea how people were going to react. I ended up singing to dozens of people in different countries as far as New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey… People of all ages from all walks of life.

I was a complete stranger sharing these very personal messages from someone who may have been a significant other or a mother. The basic message behind the songs were, “I really miss you. I love you, and this song makes me think of you.” Often the recipient would start shedding tears and become really emotional. I felt so grateful for being able to facilitate that. It was a very simple way for people to connect. As artists, we need to think about ways of creating closer communication through the power of art.

There is a very particular archival aesthetic to your work. Could you talk a bit about that?

There is an aspect of me that I cannot escape, which is my obsession with the past. This fascination is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting and, in many ways, problematic concept. In contemporary art in particular, it is seen almost as a weakness; you are afraid of looking forward and so, you aim for an imaginary past. But psychologists who study nostalgia have claimed that it’s a process of establishing relationships with things that have happened which can in turn, restore your identity and shape your outlook on the future.

It’s also very connected with the immigrant experience. I’m an immigrant to the US. This process of reconstructing your reality through memories and finding some way of actualising this dual reality in the present – it’s a creative process that parallels immigrant experience. This is why immigrant versions of the foods or traditions from the motherland differ slightly from the originals. Italian-American food or Mexican-American food, for example, becomes something else in that process of recreation which is like an artistic process. I’m interested in that.

That process plays into Librería Donceles, the socially-engaged project where you created Spanish language bookstores in gallery spaces. Can you tell us about the impetus behind that project?

I grew up in Mexico City in a family that was literary as well as musical. When I was a kid, there was no internet. Books were my internet. I would go to my dad’s library in the house to do my homework and look at these huge encyclopaedias. Now everyone has Wikipedia. Books were like friends to me. They calmed me. By the time that project premiered in 2013, we had already witnessed the global dominance of Amazon and e-books, and brick-and-mortar bookstores were closing at an alarming rate. At the same time, I also noticed the lack of availability of Spanish books in New York City, a city home to two million Latinos. So, I proposed this eccentric idea of turning the Kent Fine Art LLC gallery into a bookstore. I went to Mexico to campaign for used book donations. Though the plight of Mexican immigrants in the US is painful, it’s something that Mexicans at home don’t really know what to do about it. On the other hand, middle-class and working-class people in Mexico usually live in the same house across generations, and accumulate stuff like old books, trashy novels and textbooks. As a result, we end up with a 20,000-volume inventory and customers were invited to pay what they wished. It was less about the money than the experience and the recognition of the value of literature in Spanish.

Libreria Donceles,Installation shot (2013)

In Librería Donceles, we had 70 different categories, from anatomy and agriculture to horror and children’s books. Anything you could imagine. It was a great entrance to a different culture for people. I modelled the design after second-hand bookstores that I loved, especially those I experienced as a student in Chicago. I find it fascinating that bookstores can resemble their owners’ personalities, and sometimes look like someone’s living room. It’s not a typical person that decides to run a used bookstore. Many of these people are hoarders. I’ve lived near a bookstore that you could barely walk through. If you pulled a book from the shelf, the whole arrangement would fall apart. Librería Donceles was supposed to last two months but it has been running now for seven years. The project has travelled to 14 different cities in the US. I always think that each iteration will be the last but someone new inevitably shows an interest. It’s just such a wonderful experience to deliver this project throughout the US.

Many of my works are inspired by stories. I made a work in Milan in 2013 called Vita Vel Regula [Rules of Life]. It takes the form of a game involving 50 other participants that will last for the rest of my life. 25 strangers who had attended the project’s opening and 25 close friends and family, all of which are younger than me. Everyone receives 16 sealed envelopes labelled with specific opening dates and instructions. On the first day, the first envelope is opened. Two days later, the second is opened. The third is opened on the fourth day. Then eight, 16, 32 – the waiting time doubles between participants until years and ultimately decades pass between each opened envelope. The project will conclude in 2097, when I will definitely not be alive. My daughter, who was three at the time, will be in her 90s. She’s the youngest participant.

Vita Vel Regula, Installation shot (2013)

The piece is inspired by a short story by Dino Buzzati called “The Seven Messengers” about a king who explores the confines of his kingdom only to realise that it has no end. He has seven messengers to keep him abreast of what’s happening back at the palace. The further he travels, the longer it takes the messengers to make the trip and deliver the message, to the extent that he might never see them again. It’s a story about how we communicate with one another over time. This relates to my interest in merging the experimental and the exhibitionary. The work becomes a record of those relationships in those particular instances. It’s about creating a collective experience.

This connection of language and documentation is evident in other projects like Dead Languages Conservatory

Dead Languages Conservatory directly ties into my interest in ancestry and living history. There are close to 60 languages still spoken in Mexico. It’s a country with a rich history, and there are millions of people speaking dominant indigenous languages like the many Mayan languages, but numerous languages are dying out. This is important because it relates to the changing environment of our world. Biodiversity facilitates diversity of language. People who lived in the mountains spoke one language, and those in the valley would speak another. The way we settle in a particular environment influences the culture that develops there. What is really wonderful about countries like China, India or Mexico is that they have different climates that give rise to different languages. That is also changing very fast because of migration to cities, which results in the homogenisation of language. The homogenisation of language influences the homogenisation of culture, creating greater cultural centres.

Dead Languages Conservatory, (2004)
Installation shot Dead Languages Conservatory,Installation shot (2004)

We’re looking at a future where only four languages will be in use. This project reflects on those places and people that have managed to retain a particular culture. Instead of using the typical digitisation approach, I documented this research using the earliest recording technology which is the wax cylinder. The wax phonograph cylinder is a really attractive object invented by Thomas Edison in the 1870s which picks up sound with a diamond needle. The idea of giving a 3D presence to these immaterial voices was very meaningful to me. The interviews with some of the last speakers have made their way into various installations including an interview with a woman in her 80s called Marie Smith Jones who was the last speaker of Eyak. Eyak, is a language that was spoken in Alaska. I also interviewed Cristina Calderón, a woman who lives in Puerto Williams – the world’s southernmost town, located on Navarino Island in Chile. She is the last speaker of Yaghan, the language of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.

Does your work as an educator influence your artistic practice?

There is an educational element to it. I try to really caution art students to be careful that their practice doesn’t become an illustration of someone else’s theories. The worst thing we can do as artists is to open a book by Deleuze or Derrida and try to make a piece of art solely from that. You become a poor illustrator of an idea that you might not have understood to begin with. Don’t get me wrong. It’s very important to engage in the discourse of a period and understand the history but your practice is something separate. It will naturally seep into your practice anyway. As an educator, I am trained to think about the audience. That is the number one question I must ask myself: who is my audience? Who am I working with and how do I produce discourse with a particular group? Language must be used differently depending on an audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. You have to be open and transparent, and treat your audience with respect by tailoring the language to them. An important thing I learned was to avoid talking down to your audience. When working with a community, my process is one of listening, not dictating ideas. We are creating a dialogue – an exchange of knowledge.

You can find out more about Pablo Helguera work through his website link below

thank you Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Movement, Lines, Shapes: Karolina Albricht

Karolina Albritch at Turps Studio October 2020 (photo by Laura Wormell)

Karolina Albricht is a Polish painter based in the UK. I interviewed Karolina over Zoom in late 2020. It was actually a friend that suggested that I check out Karolina’s work, and I am very glad that he did. I really enjoyed my conversation with Karolina; it got me thinking of how space is represented on canvas. In this interview, we talk about her painting practice and how her paintings are often responses and interpretations of external factors. We talk about the effect of the studio on her work, and we even discuss her approach to scale in her painting.

Let’s start with a day in the studio. How do you approach your practice?

I like to be in the studio first thing in the morning and have the whole day ahead of me. No interruptions, just get into it. It allows me to take my time, to think and look at what’s been done the previous day. Like warming up or stretching. Drawing is one of the studio activities that can easily shift the gears of thinking, without the pressure that painting sometimes may have.

I make notes of words that I hear or read, which resonate with me and somehow might come in useful in the studio. It might be fragments of lyrics that I’ve listened to. Sometimes it’s just a single word, that I think, “I must make a note of this.” And before I start the work, I often look through my notes, look at the words, and see if anything happens, see how I react. Sometimes it can be a physical reaction, or internal reaction, it can set things in motion.

Studio February 2021

I listen to a lot of music in the studio. I find that it helps me to disconnect from all those things that might hinder the process, and to isolate things I should focus on. So, music and dancing, amongst other things, help to get into the headspace that I need when I’m painting. A dance can simply mean a basic movement of a hand or leg, nothing too elaborate, just locating yourself in the body, a kind of kinaesthetic experience. Music and dancing have the most immediacy across the arts so they interact with you physically before being then filtered by the intellect. Music opens up a lot of ‘head’ and ‘body’ doors for me. It has an innate relationship with my work, and somehow things I’m listening to can find a way out, transgress.

It’s a multi-layered game, like a domino effect with books, with music, with painting: it’s all intertwined: the word, the sound, the line. But the music is the core layer, it is underneath the painting.

It’s interesting that you mention dancing as an influence on your work.

I’ve generally been thinking about the physicality in my work, and why it is that physicality such an important aspect of my work. It is a combination of things, of course. In a way, it might be a reaction to where we are now, as a society, and how we interact with one another, and with the world, or what these interactions have been reduced to. With digital media, the physicality is essentially wiped out so that must have a degree of influence.

Knuckle Rotation, (2020),oil on panel, 23x16cm

The shapes, the line and the movement, it’s all a constant exchange, in relation to the body. During first lockdown my attention shifted to how the body moves within the studio, and how/if that is linked and translated in the work. The series of paintings I then started developed a titling system: combining specific types of movement or direction, and body parts. All that was to do with mapping my movements within the studio and then transferring them from the floor to the wall- flipping them. The way you move about the studio floor, the way your arm might move to draw a line or how your foot might step on the ground— that creates a pattern, a repetition: a rhythm. I read that rhythm might have developed in humans as a way to unite collectively during wars and battles- a ‘battle trance’.  And I’m thinking what the rhythm is, what its function is and how it surfaces in my studio. I think my work, in many ways, is relying on this heavy, intrinsic thing of rhythm/ multi-rhythm/ syncopation. Especially syncopation. (Syncopation is the combining of rhythms)

There’s a very textural element to the way you lay on paint. Is that tied to physicality, with the use of materials like burlap?

Yes, that’s yet another layer of that physicality, which, over the years, gradually became more and more prominent in my work. I’ve started using different mediums and thinking about alternative substances that I can mix with the paint. I got my first Lukas Painting Butter maybe four years ago, and it’s become one of my go-to medium. What it does is it gives the paint a heavy body and speeds up drying. It gives it more flexibility as well.

Soft Dock, (2020), oil & other stuff on jute, 220x180cm
Soft Dock detail

It allows me to add what I want, from hair to volcanic rock. I have a box of sawdust that I’m looking forward to experimenting with. I can really play with the surface of the paintings with these materials.

Knee Cap North, (2020), oil & other stuff on panel, 30x24cm

How did that interest in materiality spawn for you?

I guess the explanation for it is more of a bodily reaction to looking; looking and thinking and processing everything that is happening around you and within you.

You experience the world through your body, through the entirety of your senses, named and unnamed, and my painting hugely relies on those experiences. The body can often act as a filter, it constantly processes the space around it.

We have talked about physicality in your work, but you also work in very different scales with certain paintings. How important is scale for you?

Yes, playing with scale is important. I recently finished Turps Studio Programme. While I was there, I had more space- larger walls, and I could experiment with larger paintings.

I’ve started painting on 220cm by 180cm canvases. Before Turps, the largest I had worked on was around 150cm. So it was a significant change. And I’m still learning to find myself on that scale. I also continue working on the smaller ones, small paintings, which are around 30 centimeters high — and trying to shift things between large and small, often simultaneously.

Studio February 2021

The small paintings are a kind of compression. It’s as if they demand more intensity, in terms of layering and in terms of detail, like snippets of something much larger.

Whereas the bigger paintings are a space you can physically enter. That space, you know, you can walk around. That scale means it’s already an object that you can spatially interact with and perceive in a very direct way, you can’t help it. It’s a different kind of an ‘entry point’.

There is this constant interaction in painting, how the body behaves when approaching these different scales, you know? From entering a painting which is taller than yourself, and then going back to something that is the length of your forearm.

These changes teach flexibility. There is an element of contraction and expansion, which continues to exist on all scales in various ways. You have to be alert at all times. I think of it as a way to challenge myself, and I like a challenge. The gesture or mark cannot be the same on such differences in scale. It’s a completely different approach.

I’ve found it very interesting the way that you name exhibitions and certain selections of works, like The baddies, the goodies & the sheriff (2020).

The baddies, the goodies & the sheriff is a group of paintings that I started working on during the initial lockdown. I had started painting some smaller works in Turps’ studios, but then they had to temporarily close because of Covid-19 restrictions. So I picked up my works, and I moved back into my old space in ASC. Something shifted when I put them up in a different space, on a different wall, in a space occupied by myself only. Divisions came about whereby some became “the good paintings, the nice paintings, the polite paintings,” the paintings that I knew how to make, and I felt comfortable making — and the other paintings, which were the opposite of those. They felt like the opposite because they were doing something forbidden (forbidden by myself…). So, if I’d look at one of the ‘nice’ paintings, I then immediately was tempted to just pack it up, take it and destroy it. Not in a physical way, not to tear it up into pieces, but just disrupt it completely, contradict it somehow.

Small Ones [formerly The baddies, the goodies & the sheriff] (2020), Studio Wall February 2021

And so while that process started happening, that was a point of departure as well for my work, because I started to experiment more — things kind of erupted. And later on, I divided the group of paintings, or they divided themselves, into the baddies and goodies, the wild ones that would misbehave and the ones that were easier to manage. And there was a painting that sort of connected the two groups, which I called  The Sheriff. The sheriff was watching both the baddies and the goodies!

No.3 [The Sheriff], (2020), oil on canvas, 30x26cm

However, these paintings now departed from my initial attempt to identify them, getting some kind of grasp of them. I now see them as simply the ‘Small Ones’ as they continue transmuting and twisting.

Before the lockdown, I think I’d gotten to a point where I was comfortable within the parameters of where I was operating. I suppose the lockdown and moving studio were the push that led to this change. And of course my time at Turps. I think I have to be 100% engaged and preoccupied with what I’m doing, otherwise the practice and thoughts slips away. I think you have to try to remain in this state of alertness, always on your guard, always be ready to attack.

You can find out more about Karolina Albricht’s work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below

Installation, Photography, Video

Perception, and Experience: Ruth Le Gear

Ruth Le Grear remedy making

Ruth Le Gear is a multi-discipline artist based in Sligo. We sat down earlier in the year to discuss her work, and I am really grateful to Ruth for taking the time to sit down with me as it was a really great discussion. Ruth shows the unique flexibility that art has in how can approach subjects in ways other mediums would struggle with. Ruth’s blending of the scientific and the Homeopathic through her art practice to use an often overused term is distinctly unique. In this interview, Ruth discusses how she balances these different aspects to her practice and touches on the importance of research in her work. I feel safe in saying Ruth Le Gear is a one of a kind artist. hope you enjoy our discussion.

Homeopathy is a key element of your practice. How did that come to be?

I went to GMIT Cluain Mhuire thirteen years ago. At the time, I was really sick while I was studying. I have a remitting and relapsing illness, and I was in a lot of pain at the time. It was tough. It got to the point where I had a bed set up on campus while I was there. Luckily GMIT were super supportive. I don’t think I could have done it if I wasn’t for the support of Cluain Mhuire.  

I was using homeopathy at the time as a method to relieve my symptoms. I was crying a lot because I was in so much pain. I then started looking at the emotional content in a tear. That led to then looking at it in a homeopathic way. Within homeopathy, the more that you dilute something, the stronger it gets. So for my degree show, I collected tears from myself and other people. I put an ad in the paper for tear collectors and left tear collecting packages all over Galway. You could find them on buses and in toilets in places where people might find them and cry, and people sent them back to me. I then worked with a homoeopath, and I made a remedy from all the tears put together and created an installation called Teardrops In Wonderscape, which is still my favorite thing that I’ve made. It was shown in Ev+a (now known as EVA International) the same year as I graduated.

Teardrops In Wonderscape, (2008), Installation

It consisted of thousands of small vials, which held remedies made from tears. The vials had this incredible quality that when they were suspended upside down, you didn’t need to put a lid on them because the surface tension held the liquid it in. This body of water was held in four and a half thousand vials, which suspended above you. There was this sense of transition that something was waiting to happen. People were invited to lie underneath it, and there was projection through it, and underwater sounds came from the pillow. And in lots of ways, I still feel like my practice is unravelling that piece. Those little vials are the same vials I use now to give out my essences and remedies.

Teardrops In Wonderscape, detail

A lot of your work is the outcome of the residencies you have done. That is interesting. 

I really enjoy the time and space a residency creates. Early on I spent time in Iceland and it was transformative for me. I have spent time on a tall ship in the Arctic, weeks in Cill Railig in Kerry. Travelled in the high desert in New Mexico and spent time in Nowy Port in Gdansk, which was one of my favourite yet unexpected places to wind up for months over a number of years. As an artist, I am strongly attracted by methodologies of investigation of nonphysical phenomena. I explore scientific methodologies as well as the more intuitive process of understanding these phenomena, including homeopathy. I have worked with the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of the Sciences (IO PAN). The institute conducts scientific research in the Baltic and European Arctic Seas. This work contributed to a significant solo show ‘Trace” which was exhibited at the Centre of Contemporary art in Gdansk in 2015. I also worked intuitively with the waters from Gdansk and consulted with a number of homeopaths. These methodologies are polar opposites, but I feel that crucial connections are involved in perception, and a unified experience is created from differences. Hahnemann, who is now credited with creating homeopathy, refers to two different kinds of knowledge: Wissen and Kenntniss. Wissen is the kind of knowledge you get from studying or reading books, while Kenntniss is that deep personal knowledge you gain through experience. This is the difference between knowing about wetness by reading about it versus knowing wetness by immersing yourself in water.

Trace installation shot, CCA Lazina II, (2015-2016)

I find it interesting that you do most of your research on-site rather than prior to arriving at residences.

I love research. I see my work as a research-based practice. What I do, it’s a very intuitive conversation, for lack of a better word, with the water. When I do a residency, I’ll go, and I’ll sit with the water. There is no real language to the conversation, and in a way, that’s why I make the artwork; they are the results or interpretations of those conversations. When I went to Gdansk in Poland, had I known before I got there that it was where World War II started, I may not have signed up for a two-year residency there! It’s a very intense place. I was over and back a lot, and I spent three stints there for roughly two to three months apiece. It was an amazing opportunity to really engage with the place.

Another residency had me spend time in New Mexico back in 2017. For that residency, I went to some devastatingly brutal environmental situations in the Diné reservation, and it has taken me a little while to process that. Water from the San Juan area in New Mexico, and the water rights and the water pollution therefrom fracking. It’s really heavy. On the one hand, if you know all that before you go, you might have a bias or even an intention which isn’t responsive to the land. I’ll have a remedy session with the waters or the land. A lot of the time with the healing on the landscape it’s like layers of an onion, there might be one thing that’s not immediately apparent, but when you spend enough time in a space, everything starts to come up. This work in collaboration with Kaitlin Bryson was recently shown in Visual Carlow as part of Artworks.

New Mexico land arts, (2016)

Would you then consider your works landscape pieces? 

I don’t love labels, but they are beneficial for people to understand. They are also helpful for me when trying to explain what I’m up to. They are landscape interventions. I spent three years with Glenade lake while I worked from a studio at the in the Leitrim Sculpture Centre, which led to Water Senses. I did a residency there, and then I ended up living near to the lake for three years, where I explored much of the mythology and narratives around the lough from the perspective of the water. I have been working with the lake for years now. I still monitor the water levels there on the lake; it’s kind of habit to check now when there’s heavy rain. Recently it had the highest rainfall ever since records were kept back in 1865.

Water Senses, (2017)

Colour frequently comes up in your practice around the water.

When I make a water essence from a place, I always have to return it to the site before it comes into being or is birthed and ready for use with humans. Often there is a one or two-year period where it’s just for the landscape. Then when it’s deep within the landscape, people can start taking it. It’s in that time I will take them in order to bring them forth. That is when the colours, those deep sensations come through. It is a kind of meditation by ingesting the landscape. It’s a bit like having a baby, now that I think about it! You’re bringing through, bringing the essences earthside and it’s a tricky one to put language on.

An interesting part of Water Senses are the mind maps that you presented in your publication.

That’s generally the way that the remedies or the water essences will appear, through that kind of drawing or meditation. That’s how I will map them out first. As they come through, when I take them, I’ve never sat and written text, it’s more visual poetry. It’s the way I think, or even the way that I remember, maybe. I enjoyed making the publication for Water Senses, and I do wonder if that’s the way things are going to be going forward.

Ruth Le Gears studio space

It can be heartbreaking when an exhibition comes down, like what has happened to a lot of exhibitions due to Covid. You pour your heart and soul into a show, and it’s up for six weeks or three months, then you pack it up. Sometimes it moves on, and sometimes it doesn’t. I find that drop after an exhibition can be really difficult. You could be working on something for years, but there’s something about the tangibility of a publication that continues that little bit further.

Water Senses publication, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, (2017)

Video and photography are another important element of your work. Could you discuss that side of your practice?

I guess because I try and travel so much and do so many residencies, video and photography are for me easy ways to document material. I love working with video; it’s a very beautiful and tactile process. You’re telling a story to the viewer. Most of my videos are very slow meditative pieces intended to lull you into the same kind of emotion as what taking the remedy would do, because a lot of people aren’t going to take the remedy. So in a way, I get the essence of the feeling across in these pieces. I used to work in very long, and when I say long, I mean hour-long pieces, but very few people watched them in their entirety. Though saying that, I had a show in Schwandorf Germany in 2018 a while back and I showed around six or seven pieces that were 40 minutes long apiece, and they sat and watched them all! Everyone that came into the gallery. It was like, “Wow!” They took it very seriously—this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. But in general, I do try and get the sense of the place across in under twelve minutes; I think twelve minutes is very long for people these days.  

video still, Nowey Port remedy return, CCA Laznia, (2015)

I would say the gallery context is interesting; I often treat people in gallery or studio spaces. So usually, if there wasn’t the current global situation, I would have invited you into the studio. I would have done a remedy session with you because that’s probably the best way for you to experience my practice and engage. It’s a feeling; it’s hard to use language to explain. I generally get curators I’m working with to sit down in my studio and do a short session. When I’m treating people in the gallery context, I’ll also show a film in the background. It can lull people into a different atmosphere in the gallery. It’s really interesting treating people in the gallery setting because it’s taking something that would normally be done somewhere else and bringing it right into the gallery; that kind of blending of environments is very interesting for me. Whether it is a video or my water remedies, I’m very interested in seeing how people respond in a gallery setting. It’s such a flexible space that can accommodate many things.

remedy sessions SFAI New Mexico

I think work presented in online spaces has to be made specifically for an online space. For example, I can send you my video, and you can watch it on your phone or your laptop. I have very little control over how you will look at it. You might not open it full screen, or you might have crappy speakers. We’re all human, but when you watch it in the cinematic way it’s supposed to be seen, it’s such a different experience. I think when moving things online, platforms have to be designed for that; I don’t think everyone can just be firing their work up online – you have to be very aware of how people are going to interact with it.

I am currently planning a film, Sensitive Chaos, that shares the sublime through images of water bodies. This body of work was proposed to be completed at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre, but this residency is currently postponed, and now I have to develop creative ways to make this work here as it is something that I am deeply invested in.

My way of working has slowed due to having a child, but my vision and my relationship to water and my practice remains constant.

If we think of ourselves as bodies of water, it becomes clear how connected we are with nature and the environment; on becoming a body of water; I am also currently working with blown glass which is a slow, beautiful alchemical process which I am delighted to be up-skilling in. Again, this is a work in progress, but I am really enjoying returning to the sculptural element of my practice. It lends to the slow-moving meditation of the waterworks, and it is incorporated into the film works.

You can find out more about Ruth Le Gear work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Putting Them Together:Yasmine Nasser Diaz

Yasmine Nasser Diaz,

A key aim of Painting in Text has always been to get different perspectives on art practice, and with that in mind I made a concerted effort to look at artists outside of my own personal experience. It was through those efforts that I came across Yasmine Nasser Diaz, a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles, CA. The way she combines different element’s not only in her collage but in her installation work is so deftly done. It was such an enjoyable experience talking to Yasmine and I am glad I got the opportunity.

Let’s start with your recent exhibition, ‘soft powers’.

‘soft powers’ builds upon work from the last three to four years. The show itself consists of two main parts: an installation and a series of fibre etchings.

The first iteration of the installation was for the 2018 exhibition, ‘Exit Strategies’ at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. I recreated a semblance of the teenage bedroom that I shared with my sisters. The details in the room span a range of time periods as there is a large age gap between my sisters and I and my family lived in that house for close to 30 years.  The wallpaper and wood panelling were from the 70s–wood panelling being common in Chicago basements. Most of the pop culture artefacts were from the 80s and 90s when I was a child and adolescent.

soft powers‘ installation shot Arab American National Museum, 2020

The installations have always meant to be interactive. Visitors are encouraged to listen to the cassettes and spray the perfumes that were popular in the 90s. Scent is the most visceral way to conjure nostalgia and memory, it can be a kind of instant time travel. The installation for ‘soft powers’ is different in that it is not autobiographical. I created a fictional narrative to build the room that belonged to a pair of Yemeni-American sisters, Dina and Saba. I enjoyed using fiction for the first time because it allowed me to inhabit multiple voices. I was fortunate to collaborate with author Randa Jarrar who wrote the text for the sisters’ diaries. We developed storylines that spoke to the complexities of adolescence – coming of age and trying to find yourself while also navigating these seemingly disparate worlds.

‘soft powers‘ installation shot Arab American National Museum, 2020

Can you explain what you mean when you talk about disparate worlds?

This is where the title, ‘soft powers’ comes from. The term is typically used to describe a strategy in diplomatic relations,  the ability to attract or subtly persuade someone to get what you want or need. I’m nudging that interpretation a bit to refer to a skill that we begin to develop as children when we first start to learn how to adjust our behavior to achieve a desired result. You could say this starts when we identify which parent we can get we get what from. I’m honing in on the more nuanced skills of children of immigrants, specifically those of families who migrated from the Global South to the Global North. For many of us, the home and what exists outside of the home are two  very different cultural worlds. I, for example, was born and raised in Chicago, in a pretty tight-knit Yemeni community. At the same time, I was attending public schools that were extremely diverse with classmates of many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The U.S. is more of an individualistic society compared to the community that I was being raised in at home, which is very collectivist-minded – decisions are often made in the best interest of the family and the community.

These different worlds convey disparate messages to young people still forming their identities and values. I’m not advocating for one way over the other as there are pros and cons to both. There were challenges though in navigating between a society that prized individual expression versus one which valued the community and tradition more. I learned how to behave ‘appropriately’ in both worlds, like many young women do. We’ve become very adept at switching between environments. People talk about code-switching a lot these days, which usually refers to language, but I think that it can apply to so much more. There is also what we decide to share in line with the way we want to be perceived. That’s what I mean by ‘soft power’: the various and nuanced ways we refine the ways we communicate.

You mentioned that this is the third time you have installed the work…

Exit Strategies’ installation shot Women’s Center for Creative Work, 2018, photo by Jaye Meyer

That’s right. The first was ‘Exit Strategies’ in 2018 and the very next year, I installed ‘Dirty Laundry’  during a residency at Habibi House in Detroit. There are changes with each iteration. I thought that Detroit might be the last time because those first two versions were directly autobiographical and the process of creating and sharing the work was pretty taxing. I had, for the first time, shared some intensely personal details. For example, after I graduated high school, I left home with two of my sisters and we were basically estranged from our family for a very long time. We did not see the rest of our family for almost 20 years. I included references to that part of my past in those first two installations – some documentation of our name-changing process and correspondence during a period when I was trying to get legal help. In the process of sharing the work, I met with visitors and spoke about it quite a bit. To talk about these things repeatedly was emotionally exhausting but in ways also cathartic, it has been rewarding in so many ways.

‘Dirty Laundry‘ installation shot, 2019 , photo Noura Ballout

I’m aware that I am often the first person of Yemeni background that people meet, in Europe or the US, so I often feel the need to clarify that although forced arranged  marriage and honour violence does exist in our communities, they are certainly not faced by all Yemeni women. I don’t ever want my personal experience used in a way that adds to the xenophobia that exists in the world. Nevertheless, these are issues that our communities don’t talk about enough. It’s a precarious place to be.

When the Arab American National Museum saw my installation in Detroit and invited me to do a solo show, I reconsidered my stance on not creating another bedroom installation. It was extremely meaningful to have an opportunity to bring a conversation that centres Yemeni American adolescence and girlhood to an institution that is important to the community. The first two iterations were in community-oriented spaces, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, a wonderfully supportive community, and then at a grassroots residency in what was essentially someone’s home. The Arab American National Museum is in Dearborn Michigan, right next to Detroit. That area has the largest Arab American population in the United States, which is very relevant to the context of the work. My parents immigrated to nearby Chicago in the late 60s so the area is essentially an extension of home.

While this installation is not directly autobiographical, it still draws heavily from my own background. Working with fictional characters was liberating. While I feel that all work is somewhat autobiographical as you can’t help but be a part of what you create but fiction can make it a little easier. I think that almost every person holds different identities at once and I love how fiction can be a tool to mine from different parts of one’s self. There is so much freedom in it.

Before going further, it might be good to describe the process of fibre etching for those who are unfamiliar..

I like to call them fibre etchings because the effect is not like the industrial velvet burnout that people are used to seeing in clothing or drapery. This is done by hand, and it’s pretty labour intensive, especially when it comes to the larger pieces. I mostly use velvet for [the etchings] but have also used other materials like satin. Basically, the fabric has to be a composite [made of two different kinds of material], in this case I’m using mostly silk-rayon composites. It’s a reductive process wherein a chemical removes the rayon portion, so the silk backing remains. Some parts of the fabric remain opaque while others are more sheer. I use personal photographs as source material to create the images.

Thick as Thieves, (2020), silk-rayon fibre etching, 28 x 36cm

Where have you sourced the photographs?

They are mostly my own personal photos from around the time I was in high school. There’s a relationship between the fibre etchings in ‘soft powers’ and the collage pieces in ‘Exit Strategies’. Both feature images of my sisters and I in our bedroom with our faces removed, which I’ve done for several reasons. The space and context is quite vulnerable to share, as is with all of the personal details. The anonymity essentially serves as a layer of protection. In some cases, it has allowed me to use images that I might not otherwise be able to use. The scenes are intimate and the photographs were not taken for public consumption. I was also thinking of the censorship of images of women in certain parts of the world. The removal of the face is a kind of censorship but it’s a censorship within my control in support of my own intentions.

Exit Strategies’ installation shot Women’s Center for Creative Work, 2018, photo by Jaye Meyer

For ‘soft powers’, I sourced images, not only from my archives but also from other Yemeni American women, some of whom were family and friends. They allowed me the privilege of going through some of their photo archives. I was looking for snapshots of women-identifying people taken in their own spaces – casually hanging out in bedrooms or other private spaces where they didn’t have to worry about who else was around.  I think it is true for girls of all different backgrounds that our bedroom spaces are something very special to us.

Say No To Drugs!, (2020), silk-rayon fibre etching, 30 x 38cm

In my experience, Yemeni immigrant communities tend to be more insular than other Arab groups. They are generally more closely-knit and socially conservative. For young women, these spaces become even more of a sanctuary where we can let our guards down and be ourselves. These photographs are taken by us, for each other. They are seemingly mundane and affectionate scenes of girls passing the time, that is what I wanted to focus on in these etchings.

Your work plays with the idea of creating empathy through familiarity. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think there is instant familiarity in these spaces. When I was first considering talking about some of the more sensitive subjects and sharing some of my personal documents, I had a lot of anxiety. I knew the risk of being made out to be a representative of the Yemeni experience even though that has never been my intention. I wanted to talk about some of the issues that are important to me through the construction of a space that had a sense of nostalgia. Bedroom spaces invite a natural feeling of comfort but I included things that complicate that quality of comfort and nostalgia. There are memories that I recall fondly from that time and others that are very troubling.

‘soft powers’ installation shot Arab American National Museum, 2020

When people enter the space, the first things they tend to notice are the signifiers of another era – the groovy wallpaper, the fun pop-culture artefacts. Upon closer inspection, other details emerge that tell a story more specific to the room’s inhabitants. Even though the viewers know it’s a fictional space, there is still this feeling of voyeurism that makes them pause and question, “Should I be in here looking at this diary?” It triggers an instinctive feeling of empathy and can be an effective way of communicating. Nostalgia has such a wide range of associations for people, and I certainly don’t think all nostalgia is inherently good but I’m thinking about it in both a fond way and a complex way.

Has collage always played a part in your practice?

Call Waiting’, (2018), collage,

Collage is still relatively new to me. I was primarily painting before I got into collage about four years ago. I found the shift liberating. I experienced a playfulness that I hadn’t felt in a really long time. It was similar to that uninhibited feeling we experience as children when we made art without overthinking.

I see a lot of similarities between the process of collage and the experience of being an immigrant or  child of immigrants. You are often taking materials from different places and putting them together – images and source material that seemingly have no business being together forced to live in a new place. It’s an apt medium for telling some of these stories. I try to keep that feeling of playfulness in my work by doing a warm-up collage when I get to the studio. I’ve started doing a little workshop around this; it’s very simple and there is no intention, just like that feeling I had when I first started collage. It is very easy for artists, once they hone a technique, to lose that feeling of playfulness. I want to maintain that and continue to access my intuition.

There are also more overtly political collages such as The day after (2018). Could you talk about that?

The day after, (2018), collage and acetone transfer on hand-cut watercolor paper, 76.2 x 55.88cm

‘The day after’ emulates the front page of a newspaper. Stylistically, I was pulling from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. It references the day after a Saudi airstrike landed in a very busy district in Yemen and struck a school bus carrying a group of kids on a field trip. At least 40 children died, and over 50 people in total were killed. It did make some headlines but not as many as it would have had it happened elsewhere. In the U.S., the news coverage is really not proportionate to our involvement in foreign conflict. Yemen has been engaged in a war now for six years, and the US has been involved by supporting Saudi Arabia. This is huge because if we pulled out, it would have a drastic effect on the war. We are the number one supplier of arms in the world, in particular to Saudi Arabia. The bomb that landed on those kids was American-made but so many people don’t know this. There is a disconnect between our involvement and our knowledge of this war.

Averting is easy, (2018), Mixed media collage and glitter on watercolor paper, 76.2 x 55.88cm

I created this work on invitation to a show of all Yemeni artists reflecting on the war. At first, I struggled with my own identity and responsibility– born, raised, and living in the U.S., I had visited Yemen once but have never lived there. Who am I to talk about this? I felt most obligated to bring attention to our (i.e., the U.S.) role in the conflict. Most of the work I created is a critique of U.S. media coverage of the war. I’ve barely scratched the surface as there are a lot of questions we should be asking. What makes headline news? What takes priority? Who is making those decisions and why? Instead of being informed of the most vital issues, much of our news consumption is clickbait-driven.

You can find out more about Yasmine’s work through her Instagram page and website, links below

thank you, Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Impure Things: Ronnie Hughes

Ronnie Hughes

Ronnie Hughes is a Sligo based painter from Belfast. Ronnie is also a lecturer in the local IT and is a well respected figure in the Irish art scene. I met Ronnie through local exhibition openings while I’ve worked at The Model. It was great to sit down with Ronnie over Zoom to discuss his studio practice and his views on painting and drawing. Ronnie touches on his studio practice and views on painting and drawing. We also discuss the evolution of his practice. You really get a sense that Ronnie has given great thought to the development of his practice when he talks about changes in his work. We had a really thoughtful discussion, I hope you enjoy.

Talk me through a day in your studio.

When I go to the studio, I have sets of paintings to work on. I tend to focus on two to three things at any one time. This is something I have done since I was at college. I might have a family of paintings that are related to each other but like all family members, they diverge and do their own thing. And I quite enjoy that. It’s almost like spinning plates. You are always putting a fresh problem in front of yourself.

I don’t use the wall space much unless there’s a show coming up. I have a particular space where I like to work. So, I focus my attention there and sort of blank out everything else. If I am waiting for paint to dry or figuring out what to do next, I’ll just put the work aside and use that time to sit and look and think for a while. They’re usually never too far away but sometimes, I leave them and come back to them in a month or two.

The studio is quite big. It’s fantastic to work in – especially in the warm weather – but it can be a cold studio in the troughs of winter. There are certain things you can’t do in the winter months because it’s too cold. I work around those limitations now. I figured out how to dress for the studio in winter, and I use the summer months to get a lot of drawing done because you can’t be sitting down to draw in a cold studio.

Ronnie Hughes in the studio

You have said in other interviews that the surfaces you paint on dictate the outcome of the work.

Yeah, I sometimes make a feature of [the surface]. If I’m working on linen, there might be raised bumps that I can use as marker points to make some sort of lattice structure. The painting develops from there. You can get similar types of patterns from plywood. Obviously, the different textured surfaces make a difference in themselves.

I don’t see purity as an important factor in art, generally. I feel the opposite is the case. Impure things elicit responses from people, and that is what I’m interested in. If I’m making a painting that is ostensibly abstract, it creates reactions in people, and I’m not completely in control of those reactions, but I can steer people in certain directions with my own particular use of formal elements. That’s something that I think about a lot.

Order/Disorder, 1991, oil on canvas, 229 x 241 cm

I’m interested in pattern. It has always appeared in the work in different ways. In my recent work, I’m exploring the construction of a pattern. When you think about it, what is a pattern? Whether visual, musical or psychological, it’s a structure that creates expectations for certain things to happen. And when you have that kind of structure, you can play off of it; you can frustrate the structure or use it to unleash something else. Even before I went to college, I remember reading about the Golden Mean [the Ancient Greek ideal of a desirable middle between two extremes], when I was an A Level student studying art. I have read a lot about it since. For me, it’s extraordinary that there are certain types of pattern relationships that run throughout almost everything. There is a book by [lecturer and water researcher] Theodor Schwenke called Sensitive Chaos which is about that idea. I find that all fascinating. It feeds into my work.

Commute I , (2020), Acrylic co-polymer on plywood, 93.5 x 73.5 cm    

You have mentioned in the past that paintings should be viewed as objects. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The Space Between, (2015), acrylic co-polymer on cotton, 188 x 183 cm  

Well, I think it’s important to say that paintings are not just two-dimensional. I think it’s a bit reductive to talk about paintings in terms of two dimensions. And I suppose the likes of [essayist and art critic] Clement Greenberg who talked about the flatness of painting, would have set a precedent for this. That may be of interest to some people but that was never the case for me. Like a lot of painters, I’m profoundly interested in the materiality of what I’m working with. It’s not this two-dimensional surface. In fact, it’s the four-dimensional character of the work that really fascinates me. What I see is that the work holds time within itself.

Some believe that abstract art encourages people not to think. I don’t really agree with that. I think of my paintings, in cultural terms, as prompts to reflection or contemplation.

Totem, (2009), colored pencil/ paper, 158 x 141 cm [Installation shot Goethe Inst, Dublin]

The process of how a work was made is embedded in its surface in various ways. If you look closely at a Rembrandt, you can actually see the evidence of touch. You see the making of the work even though it was painted a long time ago. It’s still held within it, and I like that about painting. That kind of intuitive thinking. I’m very conscious that I’m making a thing. There is a big difference in looking at a painting and then seeing its reproduction as an image. Nowadays, most will see it on a computer screen. Even when I’m documenting, I make an effort to retain that sense of the work as an object – lighting it with a particular shadow for example. For me, it’s really important and it’s hard to even say why. I’m certainly very conscious of the depth of the structure and what happens on all the sides of a painting.

It’s interesting that you mention time captured in the object because I often perceive a sense of immediacy when I look at your paintings.

That’s funny because there really isn’t a lot of immediacy in my process. A few years ago I had to catalogue all of my work for my website. I routinely take photographs when I’m working on the different stages of the paintings, mainly for comparison’s sake.  There is a level of objectivity in seeing a painting on a camera screen that isn’t possible when standing in front of it. I’ve used other ways too, to almost sneak up on paintings and try to see them objectively. I find myself looking at them in mirrors and through windows. When I was sifting back through these images, I was horrified to discover some paintings had taken me five years to make and I hadn’t realised! They keep on mutating and there is so much going on that I don’t always notice the time frame.

How did the switch from oils to acrylics come about?

Revise, Amend, Replace, Translate, (1994) Oil, wax, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244,

My earlier paintings were very physical, and the technique I used called for bucketloads of paint and turpentine. At a certain point, I started to have problems with my breathing and contact dermatitis. My hands would continually be covered in paint and solvent. I had been working with oil paint for around eight years, so the switch to acrylics created quite different outcomes. It was challenging but there were a bunch of advantages to it – particularly the drying time. Before, I might have poured something on to a painting surface and waited two weeks for it to dry. I would have had these large paintings occupying floor space in the studio that I was paying rent for – twiddling my thumbs for two weeks. There’s a big difference between two weeks and two days.

Have acrylics become an advantage to your productivity?

Plinko I, (2020), acrylic co-polymer on plywood, 36.5 x 30 cm

I don’t know if it was an advantage or disadvantage but certainly a change. I had more control over the amount of pigment when I switched to acrylics. I could decide how opaque or translucent I wanted the paint to be. And I could control the finish – whether it was gloss, eggshell or matte. I could make a kind of textured glaze; those types of things were important to me. But at the same time, I missed the consistency of oil. Whatever your mix, the colour of oil paint doesn’t change as it’s drying. The fact that acrylic changes tone is still a pain. You could be trying to correct something and think you’re all done but when you come back in a few hours, it’s slightly too dark. Oil stays open [to reworking]. But generally, I don’t mind. I’m used to working with acrylics, and I have a grasp of them now. All mediums have their pros and cons.

Drawing is an important part of the process for you. You have said that it is more central than painting…

Hybrid Cabinet, Installation shot Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, 2010

Around 2006, I started making an awful lot of more drawing work. I’ve never been a person to keep notebooks. It was never for me. I teach now, and I know for some of my colleagues, it’s very important to maintain things like journals. I can see how it’s important – my wife is an illustrator, and she draws furiously in journals – but I have always felt that, if I have the time, I want to make things out in the world. I did a couple of residencies in New England, in Vermont and Connecticut, back in 2006 and when I was there, drawing became very important. I started to draw much more freely, not stopping myself from drawing in a representational style. Things like signs from gas stations, trees and various objects. I ended up doing this whole extended series of drawings. It became something quite freeing for me when approaching a new painting. I suffered before from the temptation to keep developing a painting. In painting, you don’t have to do things in the exact way that they should be done because you can always do something else with the work tomorrow. The drawings were a lot more precise. By their nature, they don’t give you the same license to make mistakes and revise.

Assorted New England drawings, Installation shot Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2008

That particular mentality of precision became part of my practice in the studio. When I got back again, I started fostering a more drawing-like approach to my painting – in the sense of drawing something out from the process. I have been interested in that act of expressing something that is hidden or latent throughout my entire career. Looking back at my degree show, I made figurative paintings but they were about plants and natural forms growing out from figures. This idea of nature coming from within has always been there in the work. Those theological questions of randomness and design are of interest to me.

Lull, oil on canvas, (1988) , 183 x 244 cm, [degree show]

Has your role as a lecturer influenced your work?

Around eight years ago, I had to deliver a series of design lectures about visual literacy. That helped crystallise things for me because I had a lot of vague notions about that stuff, and I realised then that you can’t really get up and share vague notions with a class of students. I had to go and read about things like Gestalt psychology, how we perceive images, formal aspects and other factors that help to construct meaning. I began looking at various modes of perception – subliminal as well as conscious. That has also caused a big shift in the work over the last few years.

I had a show in Los Angeles back in 2011, and I remember the gallerist saying that he had never shown work as formal as mine before. That really shocked me at the time. I thought, “What? You don’t get the work. It’s the opposite of that!” Having thought about it since, I realise that it is formal work in many ways. I’m using a particular, reduced set of elements to orchestrate things. It’s important to stress that that doesn’t preclude allowing various types of associative meaning, or representations of sorts to enter the work! I have always thought of my work as being more akin to poetry than to prose. Poetry involves fewer formal elements in a way that suggests more possibilities which aren’t so forensic or specific. You could say the same about painting, and that’s what I like about it.

You can find out more about Ronnie Hughes work through his Instagram page and website, links below

thank you, Meadhbh McNutt for your work editing
You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


Constructed Wilderness: Cecilia Danell

Painter Cecilia Dannell, Photo by Conor Horgan

Cecilia Danell is a Swedish painter based in Galway. Cecilia graduated from the same Honours Degree in Fine Art (Painting) in GMIT that I studied just before I started there. That is important to me because Cecilia was one of the first artists that I was aware of that had taken a similar education path to myself and was making a name for herself. Seeing her succeed was hugely motivating to me because I felt it reinforced and validated some of the choices I had made. Much like when I discover an artist has a connection to Sligo or Braintree, I get a rush when I discover an artist has studied the same course as me! Cecilia was so generous in this interview, so much so that it was extremely hard to narrow down the final text. There was a lot of deliberation of what to keep and what to take out! I have gained such insight into her practice, and I hope you find it equally illuminating

I feel the best place to start is with is a term that I have seen you use when describing your work: “Constructed wilderness.”

Yeah, because I am very interested in this idea of the romanticist trope of the wilderness as being something that we all strive for. You know? The original context of where we are from. But nowadays, what we might perceive as wilderness in a photograph or in a painting is actually just someone’s back yard! Basically, a lot of times when I am painting, I’m just searching for the different things in the landscape that can disrupt that notion, like remnants of human activity and hunters’ blinds, or just bits and pieces that can disrupt that whole idea of wilderness.

I remember I was in Norway for a residency, and I was painting the Norwegian scenery. The paintings looked as if they were right out in the wilderness, with their mountains and valleys and all that kind of stuff, but they were actually just the view from directly behind the residency centre where I was staying. It was right at the back of a little town, so it wasn’t really the wilderness, it was managed forestry. Still, depending on how you framed it or how you took the picture you worked from, you could stage it so that it looked like the wilderness. If you took the picture from the opposite direction you would have a view of the town, so I was very interested in how we construct narratives. For me, painting is not like a documentary. A painting depends on how the painter decides to frame it or how it’s presented, so I think a lot of my work is drawing on inspiration from theatre sets and constructed things in landscape and stuff like that.

This Blue is Sky Wide, (2016), oil and acrylics on canvas, 137×188 cm

I heard that you make journals as research for your paintings. Could you talk about that?

Basically, my research journal is for when I go over to Sweden. When I do research in nature that leads to the paintings, I often go on walks. While I am doing that, I make maps and write notes on how I felt that day and what the walk was like. Some painters do little studies in preparation for painting, but I don’t usually do that. I find it doesn’t help me. My preference is to work stuff out on the canvas. Because my painting scale is so big, the marks I make in the sketchbook would be a completely different gesture to what I do on the canvas anyway. My journal is mainly little thoughts, and notes. Every few months I tend to write a journal entry about how a particular work is going and concerns I have, so it’s more collecting little ideas.

Have you thought about presenting the journals with the paintings?

Because my work is so staged, I’ve always felt that I don’t think it’s that important to pinpoint exactly where something was made, because it’s not documentary. In the journal, I might have all these maps that pinpoint my walks, and different locations paintings are based on. I don’t feel that it adds that much to the viewing experience. If they have never been there and they don’t know the place, is it essential to see exactly where I was when it was made? If they don’t have the full understanding of that place and they only see the abstract map or snippets of text, are they going to get the understanding of that place? I don’t think they would. In that sense, it’s more for myself, but I tend to show it to people who might be writing about my work. Sarah Searson wrote a text about my most recent exhibition. I showed her snippets of the diary, the process, stuff like that. She referenced some of that in her text. I often talk about it, but I don’t really feel that it is necessary to show the whole thing because again, I don’t see my painting as documentary.

Example of Cecilia Danell Journal

Your paintings are predominantly of Scandinavian landscape. How did that come about?

It’s funny actually you bring that up, I had a conversation about this when I was in Paris on residency. Each morning, most of us had breakfast together, and I was talking to Olwen Fouéré, the actor/director. We were talking about the idea of landscape and place and how people can identify with different kinds of terrain, and I think what it boils down to for me is that I grew up in the countryside in Sweden and spent a lot of time in its forest landscape. I think depending on where you grew up, that place can kind of resonate with you, because when I was talking about this with Olwen, she said that she is from Connemara, and her childhood would have consisted of vast open spaces; when she is in a forest she gets claustrophobic, because she needs that space and to have a clear view of the area around her. Whereas when I am in an area that is too open, I feel put upon, I almost feel like I need that shelter of the woods. For me, forests are almost enveloping or nurturing because I have grown up with that kind of landscape. Even though it is strange in some ways, given that I have lived in Ireland for 16 years. I think it is also the fact that I live in Galway City that I don’t really get out and into the Irish landscape, and I don’t drive, so I don’t go into Irish nature that much other than what is in close proximity to Galway City. It’s like something from the forest landscape has imprinted in me somehow. It was most interesting hearing Olwen say something similar about open spaces.

I Seek the Gold of Time. (2019), Oil and acrylics on canvas, 160×130 cm

When I return to Sweden, I try to not get trapped in the idea of nostalgia because I don’t want my paintings to be nostalgic renderings. The paintings are what I walk and experience now. I’m not looking back at childhood photos and trying to paint them now. I am very aware of the fact that I am translating an experience that I am having now, but it is in a place that I am very familiar with.

Now would be a good time to talk about your approach to painting in the studio.

Cecilia Danell in the studio, Working on Make the Darkness Shine

I work with a large canvas, in the studio with a printout of a photograph that I have taken myself, of places I have been. I refer to that, but I print it relatively small, so you can’t really get the minute details. I never do grid systems or projections or anything like that. I always draw the image quite loosely, entirely freehand on the canvas first. When I paint, I allow for drips and the looseness of acrylic to create a framework for the oil paint. Even though a photograph is referenced, it is never a complete rendering. It’s not like I draw it up like a complete drawing and refer to it.

Studio July 2020. Working on Make the Darkness Shine

What do you want the viewer to get out of the work?

I set a Bait for the Unknown Installation shot Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, 2020

I think where the viewer is in a space is something that I am always conscious of when I am painting. I am standing when I work, ‘cos the paintings are so large. I’m always moving back and forth within the studio when I am painting. I always make sure that I step back to see if something properly works from a distance, making sure that I still have something I feel is exciting, both from a distance and up close. I suppose it is the same when I go to a gallery myself as a painter; I always go and scrutinize details in a painting, but I also step back and look properly, so I want people to have a similar kind of experience. Sometimes I can get disappointed by a painting I’ve previously seen online. It is great when you see it on Instagram, but when you go check it out in a gallery it is really flat or doesn’t do anything when you see it in real life. I always think a painting should work on multiple levels. There should be something interesting to see if people go up really close or step back. That is what I try and achieve, anyway.

Hinterland, (2019), oil and acrylics on canvas, 110×140 cm
Hinterland, detail

So scale ties into that?

I think for myself when I am painting in a large scale, it is interesting to me because it is almost like I am there in real life, it’s like I can step into the painting in my mind. I am interested in specific areas within the work where interesting things happen. If you look at them zoomed-in, you see something that is abstract. The painting that you see when you take a step back, it seems more almost photorealistic compared to what you see when you look up close. I like that push and pull, because a lot of people who don’t see my paintings in real life, when they see a really small photograph it can look like it is way more photorealistic than it really is. And when they come up to see it, they notice that it is quite abstracted in parts. I love being able to play with paint and not just be rendering a photo perfectly, but rather going with the different aspects of oil paint. Oil paint has distinct qualities, so that makes it interesting for me.

You don’t make many small-scale landscapes. Why is that?

I suppose I’m not someone who enjoys too much teeny, tiny detail. I love working in such a way that I have to use my whole body when painting. And being gestural, and I suppose when I’m doing the drippy kind of acrylic, because of the velocity of the acrylic paint, a drip will always be kind of the same width; even if you were doing drips on a tiny canvas, it would be really, really large in comparison to everything else. In contrast, if I work on a large canvas, I can play around a bit more with different types of paint application. Stuff like that is why the most interesting format is working large.  I find most of the time when I am working on oil paintings, specifically when I am making small works, I don’t make the landscapes. I usually make kind of close-ups of various things in the landscape.

Birch, (2018), oil on canvas, 27×35 cm

I always find with oil paints specifically that it becomes very finicky and minute for me when I try and work too small. It is an entirely different method of applying the paint, and it feels relatively restrained. I still want to make painterly gestures even on a small scale, and for that it is better to work with more zoomed-in areas. Still, they would be different now. I have been doing landscapes as the tiniest watercolours during the lockdown when I couldn’t get into the studio. It’s a different medium, with another way of painting, but I like to be able to use gestures and things like that when possible.

Notebook watercolour 10th May 2020
Giant Hogweed, (2019), mix-media

Sculptures are something I make quite continuously. Not all the time, as they tend to be made to have conversations with the paintings. They are meant to be paired with the paintings in the vicinity that are dealing with similar scope and subject matter, but the sculptures are always a bit more abstracted in a sense. They’re not made to be overly realistic. They are more like theatre props, stylized kind of gestures. To be honest, I don’t consider myself a sculptor. At least not in the typical tradition. All sculptures I make are out of very mundane materials; some of them are fabrics, dowels and bits and pieces I find in DIY shops. So, the sculptures are more ephemeral. I would say painting will always be the main thing; the other practices complement my work.

I set a Bait for the Unknown Installation shot Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, 2020

In other interviews you have mentioned that you want to draw attention to the process of creating. Could you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, it has been something I’ve been interested in. I can trace it back to third year in college. I’ve always been very interested in the process and the layering of experience and how one work leads to the next. And I often don’t know what I’m making from the get-go, but one piece informs the next. I always think in my work I’ve been trying to reference the process when I’m painting; you can often trace the process of the painting by looking at the edges. You can see the layering on the canvas, so I’ve always been interested in leaving those clues in the work.

I often use complementary colours and colours that aren’t actually there. I try and find a balance so nothing stands out too much unduly, and I think a lot of times when I work from photographs, I’m very interested in aspects of the photographic print that you don’t have in real life. For example, sometimes when you take a photo of the shadow area, that shadow can look purple almost, because of the way the camera translates it, or if you look at tree branches against sky, you might get a blue border between the branches and the sky itself, and those kinds of things only happen because of the way the photograph renders it. Those are the things that I draw inspiration from, another source for me, looking at the unreality of the photographic image while I work. I’m still always very concerned that I want them to be finished pieces, and I don’t want to show work that isn’t completed. I like the process of making to show through a completed piece.

I always like my work to function on different levels, depending on the viewer’s own experience. I think that someone should be able to come in and see my work and just take it on face value and enjoy looking at it. You can also have someone who is a little bit more clued in, who wants to go up close to the paintings and understand them more. Because I tend to read quite a lot, there is a certain theoretical underpinning to some of my work, but I don’t necessarily feel that every viewer needs to know all of that. Whereas if someone does, it adds an extra layer. I always find it interesting that people of all ages have different knowledge bases; they can take many different things from the work.

You can find out more about Cecilia Danell’s work through her Instagram page, artist page on the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery website and Cecilia’s own website, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below