Erin Lawlor

Erin Lawlor in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Can you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and how/when you first began working fulltime as an artist?

Erin Lawlor: I grew up just outside London, but moved to France straight out of school – initially for a year off - and ended up staying for a very long time...I studied Art History at Uni there, but by my Masters year the impulse to draw and paint had come back to the fore. I’ve always been a visual person, and drawing and painting had always been very much a part of my life.  I didn’t go to art school – there was very little painting in French art schools at the time, and I was already very clear at that point that it was paint, and oil paint in particular, that interested me. It seemed to me more to the point to get into a studio and learn as much as I could about my chosen medium. In a sense, I have been working full-time as a painter since that point – in the periods that required me doing other jobs, I always worked free-lance, so as to fit things around the daylight hours in the studio. And there have been periods over the years of inevitably juggling between studio time and my children, particularly when they were younger. It’s been a relief in recent years not to have to take other jobs, but I always in any case used to work them in around a regular studio practice. And having children, while sometimes challenging, certainly taught me effective time-management, and the need to use what time I had to the full.

SC: There tends to be a prejudice within the art world against artists not going to art school. Personally, I find this ridiculous. What are your thoughts on this stigma against self-trained artists? Also do you have any particular views on individuals feeling that they must attend art school universities to become an artist?

EL: That stigma is certainly something that I underestimated when I was young, and I did on occasion regret not having gone to art school – not only for the teaching, but for the community and support-structure. It was hard in France to be taken seriously as a painter in the nineties in any case, and there the ‘system’ was omnipotent, so much being state-subsidized at the time. At this point in my life and with as many years of studio practice under my belt, and a fair few exhibitions, it seems a moot point now, and it is not something I feel I suffer from particularly any more. And then so many of the people I know who did go to art school ended up doing completely other things.

I think the training has very little to do with the required staying-power (not to say sheer stubbornness) involved in a long-term practice. Michael Craig-Martin apparently used to say to his students that if they could do something else, they should – in the sense that if it’s not something you’re totally driven to do come hell or high-water, pretty much anything else is a better career plan, and that’s true with or without an art school training.

Again, the word has changed in recent years, and while at the time I might have gone to art school, geographically I was in the wrong place, at least for painting; these days students tend to travel the world over for the right programme. There’s been a democratization in some ways, too, but that seems to have led to so many graduates each year with unrealistic expectations that an MA will be some kind of automatic pass to a career or market interest. We’re living in an era of saturation, and cacophony; it’s getting ever harder for a voice to be heard.

SC: Can you tell me about your current studio and working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

EL: I currently have a studio in Fish Island, East London. It’s a short journey from home, and that journey in itself is probably a helpful part of the process, the gap between home-life and getting into a head-space for working. No particular rituals, beyond a serious coffee habit…Working the way I do, in the wet, requires a build-up of thin layers before getting to the work ‘proper’; much of the preparation, of paint, canvas and those preparatory layers, form a sort of ritual in themselves I suppose, both a calming process, and one that allows a gradual engaging with both canvas and paint.

SC: Would you say that your current studio is ideal, or are you seeking a new/better space?

EL: I have worked in quite a variety of studios in the last few years – having only recently moved back to London, it was initially hard to find a space at all – I sub-let several small studios before moving to my current studio, where I have been for about nine months now. While it is not absolutely ideal, it is relatively large for London, or large enough, and on the ground floor, high ceilinged, and with good light; which is already a lot! It’s gritty rather than charming, but it’s a very functional space. It has become increasingly difficult to find good studio space in London, so to be honest I feel very lucky to have tenancy in something workable on the right side of town for home.

I’ve probably become used to being quite nomadic, which also seems to be a more general tendency with the globalization of the art world…as I said, I did a studio residency in L.A. last June, and also painted out in Latvia for a couple of weeks last September, during my time at the painting symposium at the Rothko Centre – I have been pleasantly surprised to find how easily I can settle in to working in other places these days, and adapt to whatever givens. The light in L.A. felt like an extraordinary gift, but each place and light brings something different to work with.

SC: To what extent do you consider your city as being an influential factor in the shaping of your work? Do you feel that your surroundings have influenced you in one way or another?

EL: Working in Paris for as long as I did…there I felt very isolated, in terms of my work, the period was still very anti-painting. But in many ways that also served as an incubator…it made me more stubbornly aware of who I am as a painter.  Has my work changed since the move to London? Yes, if other people are to be believed – but then I can’t help feeling the widening of chromatic range and the upping of scale have been as much to do with the stage I had reached in my work in any case, a growing confidence in my use of paint, a maturity of the visual language…which were perhaps also instrumental in my making the decision to move to what I felt was a more vibrant and bigger city, and one more engaged in an international dialogue in terms of painting. So it’s a bit chicken and egg - I have certainly found I have more interaction with other artists, and painters in particular, in London, which is stimulating. It’s a varied city, and constantly evolving. It’s good to feel in sync with a certain energy.

SC: What projects/works are currently in progress in your studio?

EL: The last few months have been almost entirely taken up with working towards my upcoming exhibition at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Center in Latvia. It’s been a busy twelve-months, from my exhibition (‘Maleri.Nu/Paint.Now’) at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen last February, a solo with Rod Barton in Brussels in June, a residency in L.A. in the summer, to a solo at Untitled, also with Rod Barton, in December. The upcoming show is in many ways a round up of the work from the past eighteen months, and while producing new works, I have also been looking back over the period to ascertain the relevant threads and dialogues throughout in order to mount the exhibition. And the accompanying catalogue has required some work and thought.

The exhibition has also been the occasion to start working for the first time on some larger pieces, both diptychs and triptychs, which will be shown in Latvia for the first time. As I work on the ground, the format has so far been dictated by my own physical reach, with the maximum size at 200x160cm, but the recent diptychs and triptychs have allowed a widening of scope without too much in the way of gymnastics, or at least physical gymnastics – it has taken some adjustment to conceive of working in several portions as a coherent whole, and to work to such a scale…the width and format implies more of a narrative than I’m used to engaging with, and physically its akin to a marathon!

SC: It is interesting that you stated your work is “dictated by your own physical reach” and that you consider the maximum workable scale of a single canvas being 200cm x 160cm. Such limitations dictate your painting process because you work with the canvas laying flat on the ground. Are there reasons why you don’t wish to paint vertically? Or, perhaps paint in both ways

EL: My painting flat on the ground came about gradually, with my using ever more liquid paint and working progressively more into the wet, so purely through technical reasons. I use a lot of solvent with the oil.  Working vertically is just not an option, I’d be constantly fighting against gravity/drips… I have also come to enjoy the immersive sense that comes through working on the ground – it’s a fully engaging process, physically, also visually.

Vertically, too, the canvas always functions as a window of sorts; on the ground, it becomes a ground, almost a territory.

SC: Traditional brush painting is central to your practice, but to what extent do you consider the boundaries of gestural mark making as being a central factor to you and your approach towards abstraction? Also, what are you wishing to further explore that you have not done so already?

EL: It is strange in some ways to me to talk of an approach to abstraction – my work was clearly figurative for the first ten years I was painting, and there was never a decision to engage with abstraction per se. And I still don’t consider myself to be a purely abstract painter.

And again, the term ‘gestural mark making’ – I can quite see that the wider brush-marks are what have become easily recognizable about my work, and yet the mark-making – gestural or otherwise - is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. There is and has been at times a temptation of how easily effective, in terms of spatiality and sheer beauty, the single sweep of a brush-mark can be, and oil is a seductive medium; but I have always been wary of going the way of the purely decorative. And I abhor the complacency of repetition.

Of course the word abstract merely implies a drawing away, a being at one remove, and what I am and have been concerned with for the last fifteen years is certainly images that are at a remove from any reproduction of tangible reality, I hope in favor of something at once more evocative and open.

But the word abstraction has become such a catch-all, and also has other connotations today.... the etymology of the word is precisely what I am about, but it is a vast and open notion.

I’m not sure I feel gestural mark making as such has boundaries, or at least I still find there is a lot of room for exploration and a huge variety of possibilities within that language…the boundary for me is perhaps that will to stay away from gratuitous gestural mark-making.

SC: Considering the physical demands of large-scale gestural mark making, what are your thoughts on the body paintings of Kazuo Shiraga or Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series? Do you feel that the future of your work may involve adopting new tools or conceptual processes

EL: I feel quite far from that. Again, for me, the mark-making is a means to an end and not the end in itself. I have become aware in recent years that there has been some interest in the performative aspect of my process – understandably so – I can quite see that it is a more photogenic way of working than traditional easel painting, and I did last year agree to a short film of my process that was included in the Glyptotek exhibition, but that was very much a glimpse into the process in order to further understanding of the work, rather than as an art-work in itself.

I do aspire to a coherence between intention, process and result, but I would hope that that coherence is sensitive in the final work, which stands on its own.

Actually I’ve always been quite chronically shy – one of the many reasons I became a painter was no doubt an attraction for the solitary and even secret nature of the work process. The work may need to ‘perform’ at some point, but I’d really rather not myself!

As to the future – I don’t see any major revolutions, either in terms of tools or concepts – the more I paint, the more I am fascinated by the endless exploration possible within my chosen parameters. That said – most of the important shifts in my work have happened gradually, without overtly conscious decision at the time, so who knows?

SC: Do you plan your works with preparatory sketches of some form? Or do you prefer to solely work in an improvised manner?

EL: I tend to work on small groups of paintings at the same time, moving from one to another, except from the largest works which are a more immersive process all round. There are no preparatory sketches – my work is so much about oil paint as a medium, and also working wet-on-wet as I do, the interaction between form and colour, not only on the surface but pulling through to the layers below, that it would be pointless to try and pre-design them too specifically. I was probably initially more naturally a draughtsman, and there was a time when I made quite a conscious decision to stay away from drawing, to try and break away from the use of line as an armature, and work increasingly with mass and colour...

Generally speaking, it’s quite an organic process, over time. There are decisions of course prior to the actual work – canvas size and format in particular; and tonal decisions that have to be taken into account from the initial background layers of paint. I’m perhaps wary of the term ‘improvisation’ – so many decisions are made on a subconscious level, yet decisions they are, and fed by twenty-five years of practice…Certainly there is a constant attentiveness and adaptation to what occurs during the actual process, that it would be impossible to predetermine entirely.

To be honest, if things were too predetermined, I’m sure I’d be bored.

SC: I am interested in the notion of preciousness and at what stage a painting becomes discarded in the studio. Do you have a tendency to destroy failed paintings? Or, do you aim to be as precise and efficient as possible to avoid destroying anything?

EL: I am certainly not precise, nor precious! Nor would I want to be – as to being efficient, I have probably become more so over the years, both through having a sense of growing confidence in my own pictorial language, and with a better knowledge of the medium.

As I have said, I work entirely in the wet, and that does mean a limited time-window for working while the paint is at the right consistency, between control and the possibility of working the layers amongst themselves. Beyond that time-frame, I do have the possibility over the coming days of wiping the whole thing out, to start again from a fresh ‘field’ of paint, and that is something I do frequently. I most definitely destroy failed paintings yes – there are sometimes works I keep for a short time if I feel there is something to be learnt from them, but I try not to let the failures out of the studio. It can sometimes take time to be sure of whether or not a work is successful – some are obvious, and immediate, others die overnight, or don’t retain my interest over the following weeks. I’m fairly constantly culling, both the current work, and older work.

SC: Focusing on the titles of your paintings, I am interested in how you choose such titles: ‘First Born Unicorn’ 2016, ‘Postcard From The Edge I’ 2016 and ‘Grinch In Love’ 2016. For you, what is the role of an artworks title? Also, do you feel that titles alter a works interpretation?

EL: Titles are often indicative of a general mood, rarely specific. It is important to me that my works be open images to a certain extent, and that there be some space for projection. And in the same way the titles are open titles. Two of those you mentioned above were works painted out at the La Brea studio residency last year, and the geographical references are clearly there (‘First born unicorn’ is from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song that seemed to be on permanent loop on the local radio). Music creeps in a lot, as does poetry, but I would hope the titles are evocative in a general way rather than too leading.

SC: I am also curious about the documentation of an artworks creation. Within my own studio I regularly take images of paintings in progress so I can note specific points in a works creation. How regularly do you document the progression of your paintings? Is it important to you to take note of the layers of each work?

EL: I used to photograph different stages, but I tend not to these days. So much of the process is about overpainting. There is a constant visual awareness in the studio, and I often take shots of light, only on occasion of an incident or moment in the work that really seems to call for it…the work is documented once finished, but not before.

The edges of my works hold in many ways their history – the different layers remain visible there, in strata.

SC: What future exhibitions/projects do you have scheduled?

EL: The work has just shipped out to the Mark Rothko Centre in Daugavpils, where the exhibition is running from April 21st through to the beginning of July – a large project, as the exhibition space spreads over six transept-like rooms, and which has required a lot of forethought as to the interaction of the works within each room, but also the rooms amongst themselves. I will also be showing a small group of works at the French Institute in Mainz in May. To be honest right now I’m not even trying to think beyond the hanging of the Rothko show, although there are gallery shows in preparation for later in the year, in Texas, also in Mexico.

SC: Onomatopoeia is the title of your solo exhibition at the Mark Rothko Centre in Daugavpils. A literal translation of the word onomatopoeia means the sound that a word makes, i.e, the sound effect of a word in itself. With this in mind, I am interested in what way you wish for your paintings to be interpreted, considering that paintings consist of a visual, not literary language. Are you interested in exploring how your gestural marks can be interpreted as the visual equivalent to sound making?

EL: It is a word I found myself making reference to a year ago when trying to describe the way in which my work lies somewhere between the abstract and figurative, in I hope a language that is proper to paint as a medium – I referred then to the notion of ‘visual onomatopoeia’.  Just as an onomatopoeia doesn’t require or rely on the usual etymological make-up of other root words, but is directly understandable through the sound of the word itself, I hope my work is communicative, without yet requiring or conforming to a very precise analysis of form, line or colour: evocative, intuitively or even organically so, while remaining deliberately open.

In the context of the Rothko Centre the title also provided an interesting counterpoint to the quote by Rothko, very present there, that ‘silence is so accurate’.  Which of course it is…Painting is a medium that seems to lend itself or lead to some level of synaesthesia almost inevitably, but I am not particularly searching for a sound equivalent. And yet you are right; perhaps due to the gesture, and the different speeds and rhythms inherent in the brush-marks, there is probably a sound or noise association.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

EL: Instagram – or other social media, in my case Facebook prior to Instagram – has for me been almost entirely a positive – initially as a way of seeing other people’s work, of connecting with other artists; subsequently – and to me somewhat surprisingly at the time, of getting the work out to a larger audience, both galleries and collectors.

It’s an extraordinary resource, both visually and as a means of engaging with the people behind the screen.  I have met so many people through it, and it has also given rise to any number of work opportunities, from more community-based projects to galleries, and even museum shows.

That said, I feel it can lead to a sense of saturation, a weariness of too many images in general, and of some work being over-exposed. And while it provides an idea of the work, it doesn’t – or shouldn’t – replace experiencing the real thing. The forms of painting that I am most drawn too, and engaged with, are so much about an aliveness and physicality of the paint.

SC: What do you feel are the pros and cons of Instagram, and do you consider Instagram important for artists working today?

EL: It is, as I said, an extraordinary resource in terms of visual discovery, interaction, and promotion… if there is a downside, I think it is for younger artists the temptation, or risk, of premature over-exposure, of being very visible before the work reaches any kind of maturity. But then, that’s very much in the image of today’s world and today’s art market – ever faster and ever younger. There are fairly obvious opportunities and advantages to be had from the potentially vast audience out there, but there are also dangers inherent in that functioning. I feel in many ways fortunate to have had time to mature in my own practice in the days before social media.

SC: Any last points or thoughts you would like to share?

EL: I don’t think so, no – just – thank you for this dialogue.

Images courtesy of Erin Lawlor, Rod Barton and Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre