Angelina Davis was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work The Rag the Tree and the Stack. The painting reveals a nuanced relationship between the artist and her materials and an open, yet contained landscape for narrative possibility. Here, Angelina talks about the language of drawing, the act of painting, feeling and synaesthesia.
Above image: Pile of Trees with Curtain and Young Elm, 2020, Angelina Davis, Oil on canvas, 91 x 121 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Angelina: I did a foundation year at Nene College Northampton which was a real turning point in my understanding of art and its importance to me. It was challenging and thrilling, and it was where I learned to truly think for myself. My degree was in Fine Art at Coventry Polytechnic and I did feel very lucky to be there in the mid 1980’s as it was a thriving art school that pushed painters to use painting to explore ideas. “Style” was really a dirty word at art college and though I made certain choices about the way that I approached painting, to this day I feel that the way that a painting ends up looking is as much about trying to avoid things as it is about being unable to avoid things. I often feel as though I am undone by my own paintings. I did an MA in Fine Art in 1996 at what was UCE (Birmingham School of Art and Design.) That was a trickier experience as I had my first daughter part-way through and there were very few people painting on the course at that point. But it allowed me to experiment with film and return to “making”, liberating me from the idea that I couldn’t venture into other areas. I still “make” as part of my practice, often creating props and dummies that end up moving in and out of the paintings.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Angelina: Paintings usually start to form through other activities; collecting, drawing, collaging, writing, sitting and reflecting on other paintings in the studio. The making of a painting is an event, an act, and usually the only references that I work from are some quick drawings where I make some broad decisions about shapes and spatial relationships. Most paintings feel as though they have been directed by what comes before. Most paintings end in a sudden urgent feeling that something new is emerging that needs to be looked at more closely in the next painting. My approach to materials and technical considerations is that I tend to work large scale on canvas, sized with rabbit skin glue and primed with a thixotropic primer. From then on its anyone’s guess. Sometimes I begin with large gestures and flat colour blocks, at other times I draw with paint. I often feel lost at the beginning and it can take hours of putting paint on and scraping it off before something starts to happen; a conversation between me and the painting where it begins to tell me what to do. I like using mediums and varnishes and take as much time thinking about the surface of the paintings as I do about the subject matter or palette. I saw an exhibition of Picasso paintings in Genoa a couple of years ago. I wasn’t a particular fan of Picasso but there was a really large painting of an interior that I hadn’t seen before and the surface of the painting was like enamel in parts and it was really physical with a great slab of glossy paint in the middle. It was pretty rough but just had this energy and presence and it has stayed in my mind that I want the work to have a physical presence and to be dynamic. I always feel disappointed when I take photos of my work that they don’t seem to capture the physicality and the presence of the painting. They definitely work more in the flesh!
Clare: For me, there are similarities in your paintings to some of the backdrops I have seen in animated tv shows in recent years, which can be seen as works of art in their own right. Likewise, some could be set designs for theatre, especially with the suggestion of the curtain in a few. Is this something you intend with your works? Can you talk about your ideas around narrative in your paintings?
Angelina: The subjects of my paintings are the places that I know and objects, books and ephemera collected and stored over the years. I use this material to construct landscapes and sets through the act of painting itself. I replace figures with objects, humorous relationships form, motifs emerge and speculative narratives develop. By reflecting on the resulting paintings I explore my feelings towards the past and the present. I grew up with television. Cartoons and puppet shows. At a very early age I was fascinated by the idea of it being a box in which things happened. And the way that the action was captured within that space and the edges of that world all seemed incredibly mysterious. Paintings have that same mystery for me. They are self contained worlds in which there is ambiguity, artifice and the possibility of things just out of view. I find that incredibly exciting and compelling. Paintings conceal and reveal. I try to allow things to happen spontaneously and then consider what they reveal to me. The curtains have the same power to hide or reveal and they also refer to curtains hanging in the studio and the studio itself being a place where narratives play out. Like a theatre yes. I think that the stories refer to my life, but also to things that I notice about human behaviour and the ordinary and everyday. But I elevate them through painting and give them elaborate backdrops that suggest a longing for somewhere else; distant landscapes taken from old photographs in books about Switzerland (my grandmother was Swiss), or the landscapes of my childhood.
Clare: One of the recurring motifs in your paintings is this triangle shape, usually in the foreground. Can you tell us about that?
Angelina: I have many books of old photographs including one of picturesque English and Scottish landscapes from the early 20th century. There are several images of fields of haystacks and in one particular photograph they are like figures marching in line. I was aware of both Paul and John Nash’s paintings of haystacks and the stacks seemed to represent a longing and a nostalgia. Through repetition they have been absorbed into the cast of characters that move in and out of paintings and carry an idea of rural England that doesn’t really exist. A kind of distant and at times, uncomfortable past.
Clare: Can you talk about your drawing practice? Do you draw in nature? What materials do you prefer for drawing?
Angelina: Drawing is a separate activity, always from observation and always intensely concerned with finding a language to understand what I am looking at. It is connected to painting and often precedes painting but I don’t work directly from these drawings in paintings. The drawings eventually become absorbed and gestures and forms re-emerge and take on life in the paintings. I have thought about the significance of drawing over the years and have written about what it feels like to draw, as when I am absorbed by a drawing I abandon language and rational thought and disappear into another part of my brain. I know that this part of my brain has become highly developed and intuitive over the years and therefore I trust that what comes out of drawing is extremely significant in the way it allows me to develop a position from which to paint. Drawing materials can be varied. I love ink and drawing with brushes but I also have a roll of charcoal pencils, conte pencils, graphite sticks and traditional soft drawing pencils. The most important thing is that the medium is fluid, moves quickly over a surface and allows me to draw more quickly than I can think.
Clare: I really enjoy your colour palette. It feels quite playful to me. Can you tell us about your approach to colour, how you arrange your palette and what colours you could not do without?
Angelina: I have a very strong relationship with colour. I can have a visceral reaction to certain colour combinations that stir emotions. I have synaesthesia and see all numbers and words as colours; I have since I can remember. This means that colours can have strong associations with a particular person, time, place or even day of the week. It’s not that important to individual paintings but it means that I am aware of the associations that colour has and often palettes of colour will be derived from sources; films, cartoons, books that are connected to my past at different points in time. I always used to struggle with colour at art college until I realised that I could paint with colours that had some other connection and didn’t need to find other peoples reasons to use them. Colour theory always seemed to constrain decisions and once I freed myself from that colour became more intuitive and meaningful. I often have a set of colours in mind before I start a painting. I can already ‘see’ the colours that I am going to use and I mix up large amounts of those colours before I start. I use a lot of King’s Blue Light in the mix along with Indian Red, Scarlet, Sap and Emerald Green, Indian Yellow and Raw Sienna. I don’t think I could live without Alizarin Crimson either, it seems to tie things together often, particularly in the darker tones. I never use black unless I am quite literally painting in black and white and then I use Lamp Black or Paynes Grey. I always put a full palette of colours out on my trolley when I am about to start.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Angelina: Brushes. I have a collection from the past 30 years and they include stubs, bundles, flat and filbert, riggers, copper feruled, Chinese calligraphy brushes, decorating brushes collected abroad and wide flat glazing brushes. My favourite brush currently is a round decorators brush that I got from a well known budget supermarket a few years ago. When I am working at a large scale it covers a lot of ground very efficiently but I also like the way it feels to hold and the marks that I get out of it.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Angelina: I lecture in a college and although I had to continue to work I was forced to create a studio at home as my studio in Aston closed. This meant that I had everything that I needed to make work whenever I could between online teaching and it became a very productive time. I created models, sifted through lots of archive material and without many of the distractions of daily life immersed myself in thinking about the work that I had been creating up until the lockdown. In some ways as we come out of this I feel the conflict of commitments once again and have to return to a more rigid approach to the studio, fitting it in around other things and making the time that I have there count.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Angelina: I have been influenced by artists whose work feels as though it is filled with an honest and human response to the world. Artists like Philip Guston, Max Beckman, John Bellany, Gillian Ayres, Van Gogh, Leon Kossoff, and the early works of Paula Rego along with Francis Bacon and Michael Landy. I can get excited about anything that I believe is good and at a recent visit to the Elizabeth Price exhibition at the Whitworth Museum in Manchester I was utterly transfixed. I was equally moved by Micheal Landy’s Semi-Detached in Tate Britain a number of years ago, so it isn’t always painting that makes me run back to my studio to make work. But paint is seductive; for me it is the medium that allows me to work at the very edges of what I feel that I am capable of and that’s exciting and compulsive.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Angelina: Sometimes when I am in the studio I intend to work on something and before I have thought too hard about it I am working on something that I had no intention of touching. Something that I have been struggling with falls into place by taking a bold and unexpected decision. And that’s always a good feeling, when you resolve something that just hasn’t quite got off the ground, comes to life..I find that paintings that are unresolved are always in my peripheral vision, trying to attract my attention. Sometimes I just give in.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Angelina: The painting that was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize is being exhibited at the Elysium Gallery in BEEP in October which I am very excited about. I haven’t been to a gallery since before lockdown so it will be great to go and see lots of the painting that I have been following online and have some of my work there too. I am also waiting to hear about other stuff so will keep you updated.
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Jackson’s Painting Prize.
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