Corinna Spencer: ‘the unguarded emotion’

Demon-Lover-her-1-copyCorinna Spencer. ‘Demon Lover (her), 2013, oil on board. Courtesy the artist.

This is the first in a series of interviews (over time) that will think about painters working in different parts of the world today. The emphasis is on emerging and younger generations of painters. Questions consider the painter’s relationship to the geographical, cultural and historical place they occupy (whether affective, subjective, political or imaginary).

Corinna Spencer graduated with an M.A (Fine Art painting, 2006-2008) from Coventry University (United Kingdom). Her work has been shown on a number of group exhibitions, most recently, Atomic (Transition Gallery, London, 2013); Dr Who (Westgate Studios, Wakefield, 2013); and The Dream Machine (Transition Gallery at Sluice Art Fair, London, 2013). Forthcoming exhibitions are ‘Sex Shop’ (August 2014) at the Folkestone Fringe, Folkestone Triennial; and ‘Details’ (September 2014) which will take place at Transition Gallery and H Gallery, Bangkok.

‘Facial expressions and emotions are really important and the closer I can get to them while I’m painting the more satisfying the painting experience is for me. I want to paint what going on inside. It’s a bit like the idea of what we look like when we think no one is looking. That’s the emotion I like to paint. The unguarded emotion’.

What is the impetus for choosing to be a painter? It is a medium that has such a complex and rich relationship to history. Do you situate yourself within a particular history? 

I have an impulse to paint which isn’t easy to describe and paint still surprises me. There are inevitable accidents that happen when paint is applied to a surface. I don’t draw anymore or use a sketchbook because I like the immediacy of painting:  the idea of directly making changes, moving paint around, layering or erasing. My style has become more and more pronounced: sometimes I consciously push this to the limits of grotesque but I like to try and pull it back when I need to. I am currently making a large series of paintings called ‘Photo Booth Girls’. These are inspired by old photo booth pictures. The girls in them are nameless and I think I want them to feel slightly anonymous too.

I don’t consciously align myself with a particular time in art history. But I do like looking at old portraiture. I went to Tate Britain recently and walked through the 500 years of British art display. My favorite room turned out to be the one that holds the earliest paintings: I especially like ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’ (c.1600-10). But having said that I would rather go to a small gallery and see very new art than go to museums. Perhaps I like the extremes where art and the history of art is concerned. I also have small obsessions that can pass pretty quickly too.

fleeting-obsession-3Corinna Spencer. ‘Fleeting Obsession 3’, 2013, oil on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Portraiture is a consistent aspect of your practice. What draws you to the idea of the portrait? What are the sources you work from? Is the work informed by a particular research process? Do you have an archive of images that you collect, and work from, and return to? Do you draw from the media, historical miniatures and portraits? What is the scale of your portraits, and is scale something you think about? Some of the paintings remind me of the portraits you would find set into eighteenth/nineteenth century jewellery (the idea of portraits made to be worn close to the body).

Portraiture has become more important to me over the last couple of years. I wouldn’t like to restrict myself to only making portraits but I find it the most satisfying painting to make right now. My sources are film, fashion shoots and historical images (paintings/photographs/film). I amass most of them on my tumblr which anyone can look at. I like to view my work in archive form. It’s usually easy to trace the kinds of things I’m interested in at any one time as they are grouped. You can see when I get bored with one thing and interested in something else too. I tend to spend a long time looking at the images before I paint but then less time when I’m actually painting them. This has been happening more and more lately and some work like ‘Imaginary Vampires’ are just that, imaginary.

I do think about scale a great deal. It became an issue when I gave up my studio space in 2008. I had no choice but to, quite literally, scale down from the very large canvases I used to make. Now I am at the mercy of the space I work in (which turned out to be the best option for my work). Small is better for me because it’s so much more intimate. It seems obvious now that intimacy was missing from the larger scale works. Portraits are 21x30cm on a sturdy ply wood. I make a lot of them: I imagine them in large groups or grids as well as being hung individually, or in pairs with space around them.

I like miniature portraits. The series titled ‘The Collector’ was influenced by Victorian miniatures, erotic postcards and the Sarah Waters novel ‘Fingersmith’ (much of which was about a collection of rare erotic literature). These paintings are really small (15x10cm on paper). There are approximately 50 in the series. They prompted the first issue of my zine ‘The Collector’.

wallis-blue-1-copyCorinna Spencer. ‘Wallis Blue I’, 2014, oil on board. Courtesy the artist.

 ‘I do always feel that I can relate better to female faces. Sometimes I act out the emotion/expression I am aiming for as I paint it’.

You focus a great deal on female subjects and figures from history, film and celebrity culture? For example, I am thinking of the series ‘Young Lady’, ‘Fanbook’ and ‘Dollface’. The series ‘A fleeting obsession’ doesn’t depict a human figure as such but rather an empty locket? I have looked at your series on Wallis Simpson, and was wondering what intrigues you about her as a subject for your painting. Looking closely at ‘Young Lady’ there is an uneasy feeling about these works, the drips, smudged lipstick, the one closed eye, the asymmetry, the cropping, the focus on one side of the face. These assymetrical faces come up elsewhere (in the series ‘Lovesick’, for instance).

I prefer to paint the female face and body but on very special occasions I paint the male. I tend to paint men when they are related to my own personal obsessions and infatuations. I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy and the Jesse James story as told in ‘The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’. There’s a great quote by Mark Kermode about this film: ‘[…] about the idea of approaching death but also about, I think importantly, the idea, that the character who is going to kill Jesse James, is in a very modern celebrity conscious kind of way, obsessed by him.’  

Thom Yorke, Gary Lightbody and Robert Pattinson turn up in my series ‘Fanbook’ along with Florence Welch who I have been a long time fan of. I am really interested in fandoms but it took me quite a while to let that interest loose within my work. Now that I have I’m really happy: it was a relief. Fandoms in general fascinate me from all viewpoints – the fan, the famous, the film studio. ‘Fleeting Obsession’ was about the power of the audience: particularly in early cinema when studios were just starting to realize how important fan culture was (and how fleeting it could be). My empty lockets represent the fan in transition between falling in love with one movie star and then another. In the locket the movie star is very replaceable. I repeated the lockets, perhaps one painting of a locket would have been ok but I wanted them to represent multiple fans, all those fanatics. It was also the basic idea for the curated show ‘The Dream Machine’ (Sluice, 2013). I liked seeing other artist’s responses to the idea of obsessive love, which is how ‘Tainted Love’ came about in 2012. I do always feel that I can relate better to female faces. Sometimes I act out the emotion/expression I am aiming for as I paint it. So that must make me look at bit weird as I sit at my painting table!

My Wallis Simpson project came about slightly by chance. Anne Sebba was giving a talk about Wallis Simpson and her book ‘That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor’ at the British Library a couple of years ago. A friend sent me a link for tickets thinking I might be interested. The timing was perfect, I had just finished the Jesse James work which was all about an obsessive relationship. I think I was looking for another one, something that would grab me. Anyway, the talk was great, and I read the book. Wallis Simpson and her story is a complex one full of half-truths and myth. I started painting her without a very strong vision of how the paintings would turn out. And then I just kept making more and as I have gone along my focus has changed. Sometimes I paint Wallis from the perspective of Edward (or from the viewpoint of the obsessed lover so they are really close up and sometimes grotesque). Sometimes I paint her in a flat, almost featureless way. I also, at times, paint objects that might have been given to her by Edward, and these represent his obsession. Lately I have focused on one aspect of her physical appearance: her distinctive hair style (which has then found its way into other paintings, though exaggerated). I might concentrate only on one aspect, such as her hair or eyebrows (the rest seems to slip away and almost doesn’t matter). These are the paintings I find most interesting but are often the oddest looking. On one hand there is very little likeness but, at the same time, the likeness is overwhelming (it’s her but not her).

black-heart-shaped-hair-for-the-dinning-room-copyCorinna Spencer. ‘Black Heart Shaped Hair for the Dining Room, 2014, oil on board. Courtesy the artist.

You also focus closely on hair, clothing, and jewellery. You seem to refer in a very humorous way to historical paintings. For example, tell me about the series ‘Collars and Lapels’ and ‘Black Heart Shaped Hair’. Humour is such an important aspect of your work I think. Paintings like ‘Black Heart Shaped Hair’ are so funny, from the works themselves to how it is you title them. 

‘Black Heart Shaped Hair’ is funny and I’m glad you think it’s a bit funny. I liked the idea of the opulent static marble bust and I was also thinking about sex dolls and obsession (again). Alongside these works I was also making ‘Doll Face’ and so there is a cross over with these two groups of paintings. I like the idea of a sex doll in the parlor of a large country house. These paintings are the beginnings of some ideas with a more obvious sexual theme (perhaps for the future).

‘Black Heart Shaped Hair’ really took hold while I was in the early stages of painting Wallis. I was also looking at a lot of pictures of Elizabeth I and actresses who have played her. The heart shaped hair seems sad and amusing all at once. Of course, it reminds me of a heart (not an anatomical one but the ‘hearts and flowers’ type). To get the shape in Elizabeth I’s day women inserted a thing called a ‘hair rat’. I love that: it sounds a bit grubby. I like reading about how women at this time went about making themselves look pretty, often with really harmful substances. All for love, or the hope of love. I loved the 2012 exhibition ‘The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned’ at Hampton court. It dealt with a lot of these ideas and there was an excellent display of the tools and potions used in preserving women’s youthfulness.

‘Collars and Lapels’ is a special group of paintings. An artist I know (Sarah Doyle) often takes pictures of herself and her outfits and posts them online. They are already cropped in a manner which I am drawn to. The outfits she puts together are beautiful, humorous, colourful and very indicative of her personality. I asked her if I could use them as inspiration for some paintings and she agreed. I collected 12 of her self-portraits and painted them very quickly. At the same time I was reading about love sickness and came across a quote from Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (which is on my reading list): ‘It cost me a wrench but in the end I decided not to wear the simple blue frock coat I had on when I first danced with Lotte; It had become quite unpresentable. Still, I have had a new one made, exactly like the other, down to the collar and lapels and the very same buff waistcoat and breeches as well. But it does not feel quite right, I do not know, I suppose in time I shall grow to like it better’. I love this way of thinking about objects and particularly clothing: it’s a relationship we have with the ‘things’ in our life and these relate to life events, particularly those related to love or infatuation.

The idea of emotion is very present in your work. You explore facial expressions, moods and sensations that are about emotion. This is very much part of the process of looking at your work which is so much about feeling, but not in a sentimental, uncritical way. You exaggerate, for example, and in this gesture the viewer understands that something critical is going on in these works. Your work is also very literary and cinematic, and I think this relates to its affective quality (you draw a lot from cinema and literature).

It’s true that my ideas come from films and books. I work at home and so inevitably I watch a lot of telly and read a lot of books (it all feeds in). Vampires have been my longest running obsession (although this has ebbed and flowed over the years). I think ‘Love Sick Rooms I and II’ do embody a lot of cinematic and literary references. I’ve also been reading a lot about ‘love sickness’, and its representation in literature as well as (historically) in medical practice. These ideas of obsessional love, the real and the fictional come together in ‘Lovesick Rooms’. Facial expressions and emotions are really important and the closer I can get to them while I’m painting the more satisfying the painting experience is for me. I want to paint what going on inside. It’s a bit like the idea of what we look like when we think no one is looking. That’s the emotion I like to paint. The unguarded emotion.

How would you describe your painting process, and the day to day concerns of being a painter?

The process of making work for me is very simple. I have the wood cut in large batches. I have two or three ideas to work on simultaneously with the images close to hand. I sit down and I paint, pretty much daily. Painting sessions are between 4 and 8 hrs long (longer in the summer when there is more light). I am limited to how many paintings I can make/start at a time due to space but I can fit 40 small paintings on my painting wall for drying at any one time. I limit my pallet by using 5 or 6 colours and mix accordingly (economically that makes sense). When I sit down and think about it I realize that a lot of my process is closely linked to practicalities. But what’s important is that I’m making work, almost everyday and I’m really lucky to be able to do that. I paint like it could all end tomorrow, because it might.

black-heart-shaped-hair-copyCorinna Spencer. ‘Black Heart Shaped Hair’, 2014, oil on board. Courtesy the artist.


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