Corinna Spencer, painter: “There will always be a film to open up another way of looking”

From left to right: Our Missing Finger, 2012, oil on found post card. 11.5 x 17 cm (Robert & Jesse); Back of the bus, 2013, oil on paper, 20 x 30 cm (Blue Valentine).© Corinna Spencer.

Yvette Greslé: I am drawn to the relationships between painting and the visual languages and strategies of film. In your case, I am thinking of the ways in which the themes, subject matter and visual languages, associated with film, might have entered your work as a painter. Of course, in your work, there are very clear references to histories of painting in art. But what about film?

Corinna Spencer: I have definitely used film to my own ends in the past. When I have wanted to express feelings of love and obsession I have turned to film. The Robert & Jesse series of paintings are informed by the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, directed by Andrew Dominik). Thinking about it now, it’s a film that has everything that interests me; a historical figure, obsession, love and scandal. It is a very painterly film, very beautiful. My painting Our Missing Finger refers to a scene where Robert (obsessed with Jesse) pretends that, like Jesse, he too has lost a finger. It’s a lovely moment of obsession revealed, of Roberts’s wish to be more like his hero. Back of the Bus depicts a nice moment from the film Blue Valentine (2010, directed by Derek Cianfrance). The paintings I made as part of the Blue Valentine series speak to heartbreak, young love and a certain awkwardness.

Over the last few years, I have been exploring tragedy, love, obsession, fandoms, and images of women. This is what interest me. What’s great about film is it covers everything. You name it and there will have been a film made about it, and it will have a very specific perspective on a theme. There will always be a film to open up another way of looking at your chosen interest in a really accessible way. I suppose this means that I do use film as a resource.

Clockwise from left to right: Hitched up dress, 2014, oil on paper, 20 x 20 cm; Blue and white striped dress, 2014, oil on plywood, 21 x 15 cm; Portrait Of A Lady image © Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery | John Hartley; Photo booth girl, 2014, oil on plywood 21 x 15 cm: Night Walker, 2015, oil on plywood, 21 x 15 cm. © Corinna Spencer.

YG: You are a prolific painter of female subjects and you have produced a vast collection of female characters. They are at times anonymous, not appearing to relate to a specific figure in historical or cultural life at all (although perhaps we recognise them and relate to them in some way). At other times, you return to women who are well-known figures, icons of glamour and notoriety. Cinematic worlds, as well as the genres attached to television series or documentaries, have done much to shape a vast social and cultural archive of woman as an idea (femme fatale and so forth). Wallis Simpson is a recurring subject. 

CS: I took an interest in Wallis Simpson around the same time I attended a talk by Anne Sebba author of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. I was looking for a historical female character to investigate a little. What I liked about Anne Sebba’s talk was her passion and simultaneous objectivity but also how she revealed Simpson’s complicated layers. And then there is Simpson’s appearance, which I have always found to be an incongruous one, her hairstyle in particular has found its way into many other unrelated paintings. I’ve used film here too. Madonna’s poorly received Wallis Simpson Film W.E (2011) was a great resource for images and Andrea Riseborough does a particularly good job as Wallis Simpson. My Wallis Simpson series is currently resting rather than being completely finished. A friend recently gave me a wonderful Wallis Simpson biography, one that I hadn’t managed to get hold of, containing pictures that I hadn’t seen before and talking about the series now makes me feel like there’s more to do.

The anonymous women I have painted have come from old found photographs, old photo booth pictures which circulate on-line (some of them do have a name scrawled on them, which I like), and mug shots. The Portrait of a Lady work is based on portraits found in almost every National Trust property I have visited. Alongside these paintings is the on-going series Imaginary Women, which make up Night Walkers, the dark side of the four sided Portrait of a Lady installation at Nottingham Museum and Art Gallery (2015/16). These images continue to populate my studio wall. Those currently on my studio wall are on paper and small in scale and I like to make them in a series of 100 (which fits perfectly on the wall). Making them in such large numbers exaggerates their anonymity even further but hopefully draws the viewer in to see their differences as well as their similarities.


Monster, 2015, acrylic on paper, 20 x 15 cm. © Corinna Spencer.

YG: You appear to draw on visual languages and vocabularies that have been shaped through visual mediums including film and theatre (comedy, tragedy, horror). The series titled Monster is curious in that it appears to ask what is a monster: is this to do with marginalised figures (including women) as sites for dangerous psychic projections or are these references to actual historical or cultural figures quite literally accused of monstrous acts? 

CS: I’m pleased you have asked me about Monster, these are very personal paintings (the name of a painting and a series). Through the title Monster, I was leaving things very open to interpretation, which is a good thing up to a point, but can possibly tip over into wild interpretations. Monster is genderless, just very human, and the series as a whole takes into account all of the things you have suggested, they have all crossed my mind while making the work. However, the element that runs through them is emotional and mental struggles. This is a theme that runs through my recent work but in grouping the paintings of Monster together I wanted to make a more definite connection. Perhaps it’s a starting point for further work.

From left to right: Diamonds, 2014, oil on board, 21 x 15 cm; Collar Neck Line, 2013, oil on board, 21 x 15 cm; Eleanor, 2014, acrylic on paper, 21 x15 cm (Byzantinium, 2012, Dir Neil Jordan). © Corinna Spencer.

YG: To what extent do you think your images are constructed through your own relationship to a cultural archive that includes photography and the moving image. For example, strategies such as the close-up or cropping. 

CS: I have painted the neckline many times. A vulnerable part of the body when painted will never tell the whole story but only hint at, for example, a female subject (perhaps she is anonymous) by her clothes, body language and the set of her mouth. In these cases, I am using photographs and film stills. I think my work is hugely influenced by the relationship to still and moving images and when I select images as references and starting points I am no doubt pointing towards a deeper meaning in the works.

From left to right: Mourning portrait, 2015, acrylic on paper, 20  x15 cm; The slab, 2015, acrylic on paper, 20 x  15cm. © Corinna Spencer.

YG: I am very struck by the emotional registers of your work and the relationship of this to paint. What is so compelling for you about skin? Skin is so freighted with social and political significance, particularly in relation to gender, race and conceptions of the feminine. Skin also contains the visceral, fluid, pulsing life of the body’s interior world, which is invisible to us. In one of your mourning portraits (2015) the figure’s eyes are closed as if in death and her skin is pale except for the drip of black paint that circles her neck and the greyness of her eyelids.  I am often struck by the whiteness of the skin in your paintings and then also the layering of white, pink, black and gradations of brown. 

 CS: Skin is the most interesting thing to paint, because it is rarely realistic but a pointer to the interior of the subject, clues to a state of mind. In the series of paintings directly referencing mourning photography, I was painting while thinking about the viewer as well as the subject. These photographs were made for the living, and for the living to remember the dead, their projections onto the image affects the images here.

I have a book called Beyond The Dark Veil, Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive. It’s a book I return to again and again to inspire works that are not always as morbid as I expect them to be. This book holds tiny historical documents in photographic form and many of the people within them are not famous or well known or even identified but are precious.


Eye eye eye, 2016, acrylic on linen, 24 x 30 cm. © Corinna Spencer.

YG: In your paintings, skin drips and sags, flesh wobbles, styled hair is asymmetrical, eyes and mouths are often deliberately uneven, smudgy and droopy. I imagine the smudging of lipstick that is paint or paint that is lipstick. Paint drips from eyes and over mouths, paint and bodily fluids merge so that I see paint-tears. In Eye Eye Eye (2016) the blue ribbon she wears around her neck is ambiguously washed  over with white paint so that the distinctions we assume between flesh, paint and adornment are obscured. Teeth are prominent,they might be sharply pointed or smudged with the paint-lipstick. I often find myself laughing at the exaggerated toothy grins and the sense I project of the social pressure to smile even though one might not feel like it. In Eye Eye Eye, the eyes are literally in triplicate. Who is this mythological creature? Why does she have three eyes? What does this say about the act of looking and being looked at in return? There are power relations embedded in processes of looking. How do we look at each other from our various social, political and cultural grounds? The painting, Eye Eye Eye, makes me laugh and in surprising me, and in making me laugh, I look again and I begin to think about eyes and what it means for each of us to look as gendered subjects. These questions are well-established in feminist perspectives on art and film and yet they are still so potent and deeply embedded in the practice of constructing images that have human subjects at their centre. 

 CS: Eye, Eye, Eye  is from a series called The Y. She is a strange being, her three pairs of eyes make her seem very alert and she takes up the pose of the traditional Portrait of a Lady, bare shoulders and pale skin, one pair of eyes meeting those of the viewer. The blue ribbon is there and not there at the same time, maybe it signifies her transformation into adulthood. This is very much a portrait of a ‘sitter’ and the experience of ‘sitting’ for a portrait.

From left to right: Goya’s Women, 2015, acrylic on paper, 10 x 15 cm; Goya’s Women, (Gallant Ash) 2016, acrylic on paper, 15 x 10 cm; Goya’s Women, (Mad By Mistake) 2016, acrylic on paper, 10 x 15 cm. © Corinna Spencer.

YG: Can you talk a bit about the series Goya’s Women from the perspective of how you came to these works? What is the dialogue that you, as an artist, are staging here? You have produced a series of figures with bare breasts pushed up over corset-like garments, nipples are exaggeratedly pink or red, shoulders are hunched up, eyes are hollow smudges. In one of the works, for the Goya’s Women series, I notice how a single brown eyebrow traverses a forehead. The painted figures wear black gloves and, at times, the gloves fade into the black background so that arms seem, at first glance, to have been amputated. In one of the images, in particular, it is as if the nipples have been cut away from the flesh.

CS: Goya’s Women came about after I visited the Goya Portraits show at the National Gallery during 2015/16. I didn’t visit the show with any expectations of making work about it. I just really wanted to see it. I really wasn’t expecting to make drawings of the female portraits within the show while I was there. I no longer enjoy drawing, but I had a small notebook and biro with me. It’s not a place where photographs would be appropriate so I thought I’d make a few sketches while I was there, just of the female figures. I didn’t really think much of them until I got home. Then, I started to make a few paintings from the drawings, a few became many. As time went on, the paintings I was making became far removed from the original starting point, apart from a darkness they have about them, which I saw at the Goya show.

The Goya’s Women series has been interesting in that the paintings morphed into other things. Although I retained the Goya’s Women title for individual paintings, when it came to grouping them I gave each group a title to hint at the direction they had gone (some of these have been song titles and titles related to novels). Gallant Ash refers to the novel Neverhome by Laird Hunt, set in the American civil war it tells the story of a farmer’s wife who, disguised as a man, takes her husband’s place and goes off to war. In my paintings these women have taken on personas other than their own, and they can be playful or tragic, wild or courtly.

From left to right: Heart Face, 2016, acrylic on paper, 18 x 13 cm; Heart Worn, three hearts, 2014, oil on board 21 x 15 cm.© Corinna Spencer.

YG: There is a heightened sense of the erotic and of death in many of the works. In the Goya’s Women series, I simultaneously see and feel the affects of violence. The series titled The Playful Thief works with a kind of grotesque eroticism. Again, boobs and pink and red nipples erupt from corset-like garments, black and white striped this time. The figures all wear Elizabethan-like ruffs. These ones are funny but there is also an edge. For example, one of the figures has one eye literally smudged out: It is ambiguous. The hair is hilarious and so over the top, and collectively I imagine hairstyles from Elizabethan portraiture through to the twentieth century.  Hair is in disarray or asymmetrical.  Works like Dancing Girls (2016) and Sweet Nothings (2016) are far more unambiguously playful. I am wondering what the sources are for these works: late nineteenth century/early twentieth erotic century postcards? Or paintings? They remind me of the devices of lens-based media because of the cropping and the sense of a close-up. 

CS: I think eroticism and humour go hand in hand, Dancing Girls and Sweet Nothingswere influenced by Victorian performers while The Playful Thief had a much more introspective beginning though still using imagery of the stage and circus.

From left to right: Heart Face, 2016, acrylic on paper, 18 x 13 cm; Heart Worn, three hearts, 2014, oil on board 21 x 15 cm.© Corinna Spencer.

YG: Humour is a very important factor in your work, and I am thinking here of the different kinds of humour and how it might operate in your painting: from the sense of the absurd and the offbeat to the exaggerated aesthetics of the grotesque. I am thinking here of the series titled Heart Face (2016). These are hilarious – the literal drawing of a love heart, either coloured in pink or a pink-red outline.

CS: Hearts turn up throughout my work, in hairstyles, worn on clothes or, in this case, actually on a face. These paintings are optimistic, wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is something I think of as a positive, though from experience it’s a risk, and it’s what these ladies are doing here with hearts on their faces, jumpers and in hair styles. Absurd, offbeat and grotesque are nice ways to describe my work, because I hope all of those things are coming through to the viewer.


Shadows, 2014, oil on paper, 20 x 20 cm. © Corinna Spencer.

This interview was conducted over email with Corinna Spencer, December 2016. For more about Corinna’s work see interviews published on ‘writing in relation’ here and here.

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