Being a creative person is the best thing in times of trauma, sadness and general unhappiness. Being creative provides you with an outlet that may not otherwise exist; a space to release all the inner burdens. I had a series of panic attacks last year as a result of some emotional baggage and initially they were out of control and horrific. They are very physical events that consume your entire body. I’d never experienced anything like them before so it was something entirely new and very unpleasant. However, as usual art came to my rescue and I found refuge in it as an expressive tool. Having experienced the physicality of the panic attacks, it seemed natural to translate this kinetic experience into the art-making process. Consequently I created a series of works, what I call my ‘Panic Attack Series’.
Given the process it took in creating them, they could be considered Action Paintings. Action Painting first came into being in the late 1940s and early 50s with pioneering artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning leading the way. Action Painting is a loose and fluid mode of art making in which the paint is dripped or smeared onto the canvas. In this instance I was smearing it on, using my forearm as a brush which given the friction between the paint and paper was painful at times. Yet this pain became part of the piece. Working large scale was necessary as I required the breathing space to expel my negative energy. The works are far from perfect, but I think my vitality comes across especially given the unconscious circular motions I ended up working in. I was surprised to find I visualised my panic attacks as circles and this meant that they went from being a nightmarish experience to a visual object which I think aided my healing process. I was not surprised by the fact black felt like the only suitable colour; darkness and the heaviness of my emotions was encapsulated perfectly in this palette.
I also did some smaller charcoal renditions which looked almost like circular sound waves (top right of the above photo). I think the need to get messy was an instinctive impulse I had in these expressive works. Sitting tidily working in a sketchbook would not have had the same impact. I needed to immerse myself physically as well as mentally in the work to be truly unburdened.
And it definitely worked. The creation of these pieces was incredibly liberating and I literally felt like a weight had been lifted. My shoulders felt lighter and my head felt clearer. It was as if by creating these works I had expelled this mass of black energy from my system and I was free to start again.
Sometimes it’s really refreshing to step away from all the thinking and the books and just work with a material. I had these foam polystyrene pieces (the kind you put in packing boxes) that I decided to paper-mache into limb-like forms. I didn’t really have a plan or know what I was doing, I just wanted to get my hands dirty. I had to wrap them up in cling film first to create a more solid framework for the paper-mache to sit on and this was a very fiddly and frustrating process.
Despite this, it was great to be back in a boiler suit and sat in my studio making mess. So much of my work this year has been film, photography or performance documentation; essentially all digitally based, so it was a relief to make some physical objects and hold these items in my hands. I’ve enjoyed working in this way this year as Performance Art has been the direction my work has naturally taken. I never planned to go down the route of performance, but my will to push personal boundaries and explore the human body in ways I haven’t before has resulted in me drifting into the realm of performance.
These limb-like objects eventually ended up being used in a performance piece. Initially this was not the plan, I had no idea where or what these would become. These days I always tend to have a rough notion of where an idea is going to go or how it will work out. It’s never perfect of course but having a rough outline gives me something to work towards. So in this case it was strange just making with no outcome in mind, yet it was also quite liberating.
This liberation eventually turned into frustration however. These objects were so time consuming to make, especially with the drying time factored in, that I eventually lost interest. I think this was mostly due to the fact I had no direction and no idea to follow, so the objects became dormant. They ended up sat clustered in my studio for ages and eventually I started to develop a kind of resentful relationship towards them. Recently I had the impulse to use them as I couldn’t handle the idea of all those hours of labour going to waste. So I decided to incooperate them into a drawing-based performance. I was really glad it worked out this way, as it was interesting to go through such a journey with these objects. At first I was excited to create them, then the making process evolved from being therapeutic to a chore and finally I got fed up and found them to be useless. This period of uselessness lasted for ages, so it was incredibly satisfying to draw them back into another piece and find them to finally be useful and exciting again.
It’s amazing when you stop and think about the body; when you register the fact all of your movements are controlled by tiny little messages sent along your nerves and synapses, allowing you to move instinctively without thinking. Transmitting instructions that allow your body to function. These days we are so preoccupied with image, diet, building artificial muscle, losing weight, gaining weight that we forget to think about our core components; the things that actually matter. How our muscles stretch as we bend our arms, how the skin moves with your joints, how our bones click and slot into place as we sit down, how we blink to keep the dust out, how we breathe as our pulse rate changes. All of these small little details are so crucial to everyday life, yet how often do we stop and think about them? How often do we take it all for granted? How often do we truly contemplate the wonders that are our bodies?
I have very bad knees, so I am constantly aware of the clicks and the shoots of pain. Yet in a weird way I am grateful to this pain. It forces me to slow down to reduce impact on the kneecap, or stop shin splints. Often I can feel my knee caps clicking and sliding over each other like a machine. I am so aware of these faults in my body that I can’t help become aware of everything else. This is why I love the gym so much, as I enter that space it allows me to open up a direct dialogue with my body. In the gym my actions are entirely dictated by the balance of mind and body; how far can I push certain muscles? How long can I do certain weights? How long should I spend stretching? It is almost as if I go deeper into myself in these moments as the mind dissolves and becomes one with the body.
Balance and endurance are core components of my workouts. There’s the will to stop verses the will to continue. As well as being good for fitness and strength, I believe the gym is also very good for the mind. Going on a regular basis takes commitment; continuing on a machine for a certain amount of time takes willpower. It is all a discipline in which the mind and body are intrinsically wrapped up in each other. I often find it difficult to get this across to people, as everyone has their own reasons for gyming, or some people I know don’t gym at all. Investigating my feelings further in my artwork is helping me to better articulate myself. I feel these images and their poses are highly effective in highlighting a lot of how I feel about exercise and its necessity for me in daily life.
Talking more about getting back into painting is actually relevant to another exhibition I saw recently at Vane; Flora Whiteley’s ‘Present Continuous’. Given her cinematic background, her works have elements of film and stage-like set ups, which bring a new dimension to what are otherwise very painterly works. At present I’m not too interested in researching the background to her paintings and all of the concepts she was exploring; I’m simply wanting to look at and appreciate the paintings themselves. Particularly in terms of her use of colour. The above work is the perfect example. Through her pastel hues and soft palette, the cold of winter she’s depicting in the picture comes through to real life. You can almost feel the cold creeping into the gallery space.
It’s the same with this piece (see above) as well. The smoke from the girl’s cigarette has that wispy aesthetic of real life smoke. Although it’s a static image, you can see the cusp of energy it carries, as if the smoke could blow out of the painting and into your face as you view it. I think the lack of hard edges enhances this sense of movement. There’s a softness to the painting and a delicacy to the technique. What looks like fairly heavily applied paint is in fact an abundance of layers built up over time. The technique of the painting application varies between dry-brush and more of a solid application of colour. The contrast between the two creates a nice sense of balance within the painting. In some instances we are able to see the linen on which the paint is applied, in others we are presented with purely a build up of tonal work.
There’s a real sensitivity in her depictions of the figures as well. Their stances are not too posed, they simply hold themselves. The muted colours of their clothing allow them to almost blend into the background, not occupying too much attention within the piece. The tilted angles of the head, the slight bending of elbows, every element is thought out and all contribute to create a linear direction for the eye to travel round.
The scale Whiteley has chosen to utilise complements her figures as well. They are not quite life-size but they have that element of suggestion. You can relate your bodily proportions to the piece. They also allude more to Whiteley’s cinematic background – not quite on the scale of being a cinema screen, yet they are not far from it and have the potential to be one. There were also far smaller portrait paintings, yet I preferred the larger ones as they really allowed me to closely study her technique.
I don’t always take photographic close ups of work, as I prefer to have the entire body of the piece to contemplate as I reflect on it. However in this instance I was far more fascinated by close up studies of it all. The way Whiteley had broken up the pieces through angular lines and blocked colours. The shapes she formed through her placement of the figures. The depth created through the variation in colour. There was so much to see and absorb, that standing far back felt like I was missing out!