Go Figure: An Interview with Three Contemporary Figurative Painters

While for much of the 20th century it was the status quo to move away from figuration in order to boldly plunge into the depths of abstraction, contemporary painting in the 21st century has proven that the figure—be it human or animal—offers boundless opportunities for ingenuity, narrative, and expression. At London’s Paul Stolper Gallery, figurative subject matter corrals together three contemporary artists—Susie Hamilton, Mit Senoj, and Georgia Hayes—who share the impulse to represent living beings. In this new exhibition, juxtapositions of vibrant, playful creatures, alongside goddess-like females wrapped in elements of nature, and lone figures isolated within bold swathes of paint, shed light on the seduction of figurative painting, and the fruits of its bold manipulations. In anticipation of the show, Artsy reached out to each artist for insights on process, the figure, inspirations, and the interplay between their works and those of their fellow artists.

Artsy: In a few lines, can you describe your process from start to finish?

Susie Hamilton: I draw figures from life—in supermarkets, shopping malls, recently on the streets of Marrakech and Fez—and because these works are done so quickly, the figures and the shapes around them are distilled and abbreviated. I value this abbreviation because it can get to the essence of a pose, mood, or character and I use it in the subsequent paintings, which are done back in my studio. It can also push the figure towards simplification, flatness, and abstraction.

Mit Senoj: I work on 80gsm Xerox paper. I use a gillot nib with India ink to draw directly onto the paper without preparatory drawing; this is essential as it maintains the fidelity of line. I use watercolor paint, which I then coat with a layer of shellac varnish and remove immediately so as to only absorb the stain. This gives the color depths and unites the composition.

Georgia Hayes: I choose a color to start the painting and the rest of the paint has to work with or against this overall ground color. I work from memory, drawings, and photographs of whatever subject has come to the fore…with as much speed and energy as I can, in order to subvert prior skill and knowledge. With luck something original and surprising will result. The considered part comes afterwards from judging what has been done. This usually results in scraping out and changing parts that don’t work or are clichéd. I am happy for the history of this editing to remain in the work as ‘ghosts.’

Artsy: What does the figure mean in your work?

SH: The figure in my work is a vulnerable creature seen in a wilderness (either an impersonal metropolitan wilderness like a supermarket or a natural one like the Antarctic). The figure is often alone and depicted in glaring (natural or artificial) light by which it is demolished, transfigured, exposed. In my work, light is an agent of metamorphosis that can destroy as well as illuminate, eating away at contours of bodies and objects, or obliterating their detail.

MS: Human physiology is reconstituted into something more vulnerable and less belligerent, giving equality to all living things.

GH: The figure is embodied with a concentration of meaning as it is invested with the feelings shared by living beings. I think this, combined with the formal qualities of the work, makes figurative paintings more interesting than pure abstraction or landscape.

Artsy: What are your inspirations? Which artists working with the figure—historic or contemporary—are you inspired by?

SH: I have been influenced by the small figures in flattened, empty, or minimal landscapes in Japanese art (Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji) and in Chinese paintings such as those of Wen Zhengming or Ma Yuan...the misshapen and grotesque figures in Northern Gothic art such as those of Bosch, Grünewald, and Cranach. I have also been influenced by the way in which Picasso takes apart the figure, turns it inside out, or reduces it to essentials (this last quality especially in his “Las Meninas” series).

MS: [Inspirations:] Human physiology & natural biology; [artists]: Anna Maria Garthwaite, Hans Bellmer.

GH: Most of my inspirations have come from unknown and often untrained artists, including votive paintings and the Hadj house paintings, Egyptian and Roman frescoes, and a lot of Pre-Renaissance art. Matisse has been an influence in showing the joy of using color boldly.

Artsy: Can you share any insights about how your work might resonate with or respond to the works of the other artists in the show?

SH: I think that Mit Senoj and I may share a concern with flattened space and with the single figure in light. We also seem to use sharp tonal contrasts and bright color. Georgia Hayes and I both seem to use bright color and flattened space.

MS: I think we connect because we place the figure at the center of our practice, underpinned with observation. Whether it be an internal vision or environmental, drawing is at the foundation of its immediate recollection and is the very thing that is attractive in its telling.

GH: I believe we have a common interest in finding a way to paint somewhere between representation and abstraction. We also use bright colors. There may be a common aim in finding a way to present the familiar in a new and unknown way. For some years I veered toward abstraction but later on I wanted to get away from a generalized approach and find ways to show the particular without cliché. We all use the human figure in our work but in my case my subjects have been interaction between people, the act of looking, people and things in museums, and animals. Since the resulting work from these artists is unalike, it will be interesting to see the differences in this show.

Susie Hamilton / Georgia Hayes / Mit Senoj” is on view at Paul Stolper Gallery, London, May 21st–June 20th, 2014.

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