In The Studio is a series of occasional interviews with emerging artists talking about their studio processes and the things that motivate, frustrate and inspire them. For the second In The Studio I spoke to artist Sean Penlington about his work.
Image: Something II, Acrylic with pumice, thread, and fabric on wood, 20 x 31 x 10cm, 2016
Robbie O´Halloran – When did you start painting?
Sean Penlington – I was always drawing when I was young without any interest in making paintings – until I was around 17 and my teacher told me that painting was like drawing with a brush. Then I became really interested in two London School painters, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – as well as the German artist Max Beckmann. Since then and throughout all of my art school education, I have chosen to paint and learn more about painters.
Do you think of yourself exclusively as a painter?
Painter as a noun suggests a separation from everything else. For me, my work is firmly within the discussion of painting – everything I make is ‘painting’ but I don’t want that to suggest how my work will look or behave. I’m interested in boundaries and baggage, so in a sense I need an ‘idea of painting’ in order to yield to it or dismiss it.
You graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013 with an MA in Fine Art. What did you take from that experience?
At its best I found Chelsea to be about encouraging students to find honesty in their work. The course director, Brian Dawn Chalkley, said that he didn’t want us to make Art… that there was enough of that stuff already. He wanted to encourage something else. For me, this was interesting because painting in 2013 was very popular but it wasn’t all necessarily very good. Zombie formalist painting was everywhere, so to make an abstract painting was to risk making art which is market driven; somehow inauthentic. I wanted to think about what painting is for me, or what it can be for me. At Chelsea we had limited space and I worked in close proximity to other artists, boundaries were quite fluid in some respects and for some people quite rigid. I found it really interesting to think about overlapping spaces. I think my paintings are influenced in part by this.
Image: Something III, Acrylic with linen, wadding and thread on wood, 34 x 62 x 7cm, 2016
You’re currently working in the North West of England. After studying in London, and choosing not to stay in the capital, how much importance does location have to you and the kind of work you are making?
I really enjoyed my time in the capital. For the most part I felt uprooted in London. I lived in an area that was fast paced and culturally very different to what I’d been used to. That city buzz is partly unsettling and partly exciting – it’s easy to submit to its edginess. That feeling was so important to me in re-addressing what my paintings are, how they should feel and why I want to make them.
Moving away from London coincided with working toward my first solo show with International 3 gallery – the work was mostly created in a studio in Salford but my thoughts and energy were very much still in London. It felt like a culmination of what I was working through at Chelsea, or maybe a performance of those things.
After that show I stopped painting for almost 2 years, I didn’t look at or read about art. I think that was mostly a coming down period from the intensity of the previous year or so. I was then invited to do a solo show at Three Works in Weymouth, which I thought was a timely opportunity to come back to what I’d put on ice. That 2 year period felt so necessary, I think that the Three Works show is better for that period of abandonment. Since my show at International 3, I had relocated my studio to a spare room in my home, which is dramatically different to traveling into the city to a rented space. The Three Works paintings were made in an odd environment, thwarted by competing domestic/studio boundaries. I am encouraged by thinking about edges and boundaries, so perhaps that was fruitful. I do find that location has quite an impact on the vision of my work; the reality of one place and the memory of another.
Can you describe your typical studio routine?
This depends on how much time I can dedicate to the studio. If I have been going consistently for a number of hours a day then the studio process is much slicker, picking up from the previous day’s activity. On the more frequent occurrence where I get in when I can, it takes a lot of time sitting and looking at the work – I usually have 2, 3 or 4 things all on the go. I sit and look at them together, look at 2 together, look at one by itself. Unless I want a particular instinctual way of working to be apparent, I usually let my mind move a number of stages ahead in each painting – imagining what will open up or shut down with certain moves. I tend to want to keep a painting from being too restricted until I can find the character or voice of each painting. Sitting and looking can take most of my studio time, with the actual painting bit taking as long as it physically takes – sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes hours.
As I work on a painting, I want to discover, or realise the work through physically doing and looking. I tend to only make sketches initially when deciding what shape or size to begin with. Everything else is either done intuitively on canvas or realised through imagining it – based on experience. I probably write a lot more than I sketch now. I find it useful to sit and write down my experience of the work, what I may want from it or what direction it seems to be going in. I find that the process of writing solidifies often whimsical thoughts; it encourages clarity and exposes uncertainty. Sometimes writing about not knowing is also great.
I usually listen to music in the studio, this really affects the way I approach a painting, so it has to have the right feel for me. When I was working toward my show at International 3 I was listening a lot to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. For Three Works I needed something softer and got into the album The Way We Play by Marquis Hill. It’s not always instrumental jazz, but I find a lot of music brings too many associations for me which would be a distraction.
Sometimes clutter from the floor is useful and it influences my surface decisions – I buy random materials that I don’t have a particular use for at the time, but one day it may be on the floor at the right time. Usually the walls are a clean white to help the viewing and everything around my palette is clean and ready. I often use extremities in my paintings – such as moments of too-thick impasto made by my own mix of beeswax with oil paint. I have used this through piping bags in the past and getting the right consistency can take a lot of prep, it can look at bit like I imagine a patisserie chef’s kitchen can look at times.
Image: Something I, Acrylic, plastic balls and fabric on wood, 31.5 x 19.5 x 6.5cm, 2016
You once mentioned the ‘complexities of making a painting’, and spoke about your work as ‘perceptual games or puzzles’ and of the ‘idea of difficulty’. Does this mean that making work for you is a difficult process, one which you intellectualize, and that you expect the viewer to perhaps engage with the work in the same way? And the complexities that you mention; is it important for you that the work not just potentially demands a lot of the viewer, but that it also ‘looks’ difficult, opaque even?
I think that making a painting is a difficult thing, because of baggage – both historical and personal. It’s a challenge to work this out in the studio, but it is also a difficulty for a viewer, who will have different baggage to me.
In many ways all paintings are perceptual games, but I was highlighting that I think of my paintings as being about the notion of reading painting as a thing of language. You can read a painting in the same way that you might read a short story or a poem. The meaning may be different for people but the language holds that narrative. Some of my painting is about using or playing with this device but in search of meaning rather than empty pastiche or a type of simulacrum. These aspects of my work are only activated if one chooses to enter the game. A viewer will bring their own baggage to a painting – particularly a ‘difficult’ painting – and their level of communication with it will hold a different meaning. I don’t always feel that a painting should look difficult, but I do think about a painting’s character and its ability to give or retain information; to be penetrated. Some paintings can be quite open and maybe even eager to please; others are quieter or more austere and impenetrable. I like to try to engage the psychology of a viewer. A painting has the ability to please, irritate or bore a person and I quite often think that ‘irritate’ is an interesting space.
You also mentioned that humour is something you allow into your work, but that it is also something that you might remove if you consider it undesirable. How do you decide what stays and what goes as you are making a piece, and how much of your working method is instinctual and how much premeditated?
I decide on what to keep after living with it for a while, sometimes it is just obvious to me to either keep or remove, but often I have to spend a long time sitting with it, coming back another day for it to be fresh and sometimes leaving it for a period and working on something else. I am quite conscious of baggage in painting. Sometimes baggage can be what you think of as desirable in a painting or things to avoid – so if something is uncomfortable or doesn’t sit quite right with me I want to give it chance. It can sometimes be an opportunity for growth so I do try to give myself time to come to terms with it. I hardly ever have a painting predetermined – I aim to discover the painting through doing.
Humour is something I am open to in painting, but I also don’t want a painting to be limited by a gag. I am interested in ideas of mockery in the carnivaleseque, something that Catherine Ferguson touched on in her essay which accompanied my show with International 3. I’m not interested in my paintings always containing jokes, the idea of looking for the pun or the punch line doesn’t appeal to me, but something that is multifaceted is interesting to me. Humour is a side of a coin; if it is intermingled in a murky soup of ideas then that can be quite desirable for me. Of course, one has to think of the body of one`s work as a conversation – a single painting cannot and should not contain everything.
Image: Hmhm, Haha, International 3, 2014
How much do you look around you at what other artists are producing?
When I lived in London I went out a lot looking at what was being done. Now that I don’t live in the capital it is harder to get the same sort of engagement. I look at what I can, sometimes I look online, which I know is awful but it does serve a purpose in terms of getting a picture of what’s happening, overseas especially. I tend to look more at other people’s work when I am in a less busy studio period. I don’t want to be too influenced by what I can see happening. The downside to not living on the doorstep of the international art scene is that I am more likely only to visit things that I know will interest me – rather than taking a chance and being surprised.
What influences your work?
It’s always an amalgamation of seemingly unconnected things that influence me; sometimes it could be walking around an exhibition and feeling disappointed or unmoved, somehow wanting to do something about it. I remember walking around a Michael krebber show and feeling a strange sense of awe and disappointment at the same time – it took reflection in the studio to understand it was because I had been pushed to a level of ‘what painting can be’. Some of the work I made at Chelsea was influenced by walking through Deptford High Street in the morning and then reading art theory in the studio later that day. Each thing leaves a memory and adds to a person’s baggage. Most recently, the work I do in a school for children and young people with complex learning disabilities is undoubtedly affecting my studio practice, which is exciting to me.
Image: Problem painting #4,2014, Acrylic with oil and beeswax and acrylic on paper with tape on mdf and timber, 49.4 x 58 x 5.8cm.
What’s getting you excited at the moment?
Watching the whole Trump saga has been quite sad. Social media comments surrounding the news stories are interesting because of the immediacy of it. I read things that are upsetting and things that I disagree with and then things that you put down to trolling – which is fascinating in itself. People’s baggage and the psychology of the viewer is quite powerful in this context, more important than painting. Seeing the energy of the protests is exciting. It’s one of those things that makes a painter feel daft, but maybe excites a performance artist or activist. Grayson Perry made a comment in a speech at Central Saint Martins about how it will be good for the arts, because it will force the arts to engage with a different audience. I kind of read his comment as an excitement over potential fuel to the creative fire, which is a bit world-upside-down, but I am interested in seeing the movement against.
You work with students who have severe learning disabilities such as autism and multi-sensory impairments. Does this feed into what you produce in the studio in any way?
Up until recently I have tried to keep that experience separate from the studio, perhaps for fear of it becoming too literal or somehow disingenuous. However in working on the paintings for Three Works, I found myself reflecting a lot more about working with students with complex needs. I have found that, as with most interests that feed into the studio, there is no clear outcome from these reflections; more that it adds to the soup that is the studio and somehow has an impact on the work itself or even on the process of creating. I communicate with a lot of students through sign language; the relationship of sign-to-meaning has a great interest to me as a painter. I also work with students who have multi-sensory-impairments and who will use objects, touch and smell as a means of communication and of understanding their surroundings. My paintings have always relied quite heavily on material and difference, but when I think about it in the context of my day job it suddenly unlocks other meanings, which excites me. I am still keeping the two worlds slightly at arm’s length. I am enjoying slow-thinking about this relationship and wouldn’t want to jeopardise a truth with hurried clumsiness. Painting is magnificent in its ability to cohere body and thought, only to then collapse in literalness.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well the work really just carries on regardless of planned exhibitions, so the pieces that I last showed at Three Works in September have now fuelled developments in the studio. It’s a constant process of thinking and making – but then careful editing too. I have been invited to show in a group exhibition in Manchester this May, which will require a specific work to be made in response to a particular historical painting or image. I’m excited about this because my work is usually born out of itself, with broader associations to painting’s history. So it will be interesting for me to see how the work alters when in direct response to what is a rather sensual image.
Sean Penlington in the studio, 2017