Corinna Spencer: 1000 Portraits


Corinna Spencer’s solo exhibition Portrait Of A Lady opens at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery 19 September 2015. A previous interview with the artist was published on ‘writing in relation’ April 2014. All images reproduced here courtesy Corinna Spencer, Nottingham Castle Museum and Gallery and Coughton Court (Public Catalogue Foundation and National Trust)

Tell us about the paintings you’re working on for your forthcoming solo exhibition at the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. How did the commission come about? I am absolutely in awe of the sheer number of portraits.

Four of my Photo Booth Girls were chosen for the Nottingham Castle 2014 Open and I was subsequently awarded a solo show. The space in which I will be installing my paintings is large and so it’s a great opportunity to make a lot of work. I needed to set a target to work towards so I thought a lot about what would be a reasonable number of paintings to make in the time I had. 1000 seemed like a nice round number. I’m really open minded about the install options, and it would be great to do something a little unusual with some or all of them.

Thinking about how to approach the project I decided to build on and expand my current practice, focusing on one or two areas of interest. For this show I am concentrating on the unknown female which has emerged in my work recently. Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery has a beautiful collection including a couple of paintings titled ‘Portrait Of A Lady’. This connects to many of the art collections I have been visiting over the past year or so, which have in turn influenced a lot of my recent portraits.

Nottingham castleNottingham City Museums and Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) National Trust, Coughton Court; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

National Trust, Coughton Court; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. One of “The Uglies”.

I am interested to know more about the work in terms of your interest in portraiture, and portraits of female subjects. Can you tell us about sources and visual histories that have informed your process? Are the works oils? 

I paint with water soluble oil paint, made slippery and thin with lots of water. For a while now I have been painting portraits of women, often imaginary but sometimes inspired directly by old photographs, like photo booth pictures, mug shots, wedding photographs and Victorian mourning portraits which I tend to source on the internet.

Over the past year or so I have been visiting a lot of National Trust properties. Within individual National Trust collections there are lots of portraits, often depicting members of the family who once owned the house as well as unknown women.  Some of my favourite portraits are in the National Trust Coughton Court collection. We were told during a tour of the house that a small collection of family portraits (hung in a slightly out of the way room) were called, affectionately by the staff and current members of the family, ‘The Uglies’. A couple of things struck me about this. Firstly,  I didn’t find the women in these portraits ugly at all, but full of character and life. Secondly, they appear very ‘life-like’ in lots of ways with very little trace of an eighteenth century style airbrush to create unnaturally white translucent skin. The Uglies seemed very real to me.

Portraits of women in the National Trust houses I have visited often share a likeness across collections, a style or fashion of painting that makes the faces bleed into one ‘Portrait of a lady’ and I find this rather interesting. I have allowed these ideas to infiltrate my own work alongside a prior interest in the repetition of a face.

the chins 7 copy

night walker 1 copy

There seems to be a dialogue across your practice as an artist, the obsessive return to portraits of women, to faces, expressions, droopy features, smudged lipstick. The works suggest a narrative about paint and makeup, and speak to the construction of particular ideas about femininity within histories of art and visual culture. There is humour in the work too but this is not a benign humour.

I’m glad that you can see humour in my paintings, sometimes they can feel overwhelmingly dark and sad but there are cheeky facial expressions and mischievous glances too.  In film, literature and history I am drawn to stories of love and obsession and these themes crop up across my practice whether I am working on portraits or not.

The vast majority of the portraits I paint are imaginary and painted quickly.  I find the process of painting an imaginary face really addictive so having the opportunity to paint so many is really exciting. It is difficult to describe the compulsion to paint faces again and again. I have been getting carried away with painting eyes and folds of skin and double chins and all of that points to ideas of beauty and what we think is and isn’t perhaps. Droops, smudges and wonky facial features all point to internal emotions, turmoil, joy, sadness, loss and pain, stuff we all feel I should think, so it’s the real life in the imaginary face.

night walker (detail) 2015

I am very struck by the whiteness of the skin, can you tell us more about that, the idea of skin, whether you are thinking about it socially, culturally, politically, art historically?

The skin tones I use are far from realistic and influenced very much by paintings like those in the National Trust collections. Watery, pale, translucent and layered in a series like Night Walkers they are ghostly faces from the past, trapped in these old houses.

There is a scene in the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre that I like a lot. It’s very short. Jane is in a hallway at Thornfield Hall. It’s very dark and she pauses to look at a painting. Lifting her candle she allows the light to travel across the naked legs, stomach and breasts of the reclining nude in the painting. There are layers of significance to the scene including the idea of this image of a woman alone wandering the dark hallways of a very old house.




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