Tess Williams

Tess Williams in dialogue with Steven Cox

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

Tess Williams: I was born and grew up in central London, and have lived here all my life, apart from the three years during my BA when I lived in Leicester.

Between my BA and MA I worked full-time for four years at a big commercial photographic studio and as a picture researcher at a national magazine. Both of which were in very visual environments that allowed me to still use my aesthetic sensibilities. I used to love the buzz of being on big scale photo shoots, and seeing how advertising and editorial campaigns are made from start to finish. These jobs taught me really good self-discipline and work ethic, which I think are very important to have as an artist. I think people sometimes underestimate the transferable skills you can gain from working in other jobs – the skills that I learnt during that time I am very grateful for now.

I finished my two year Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in June 2015 and then after graduating I moved straight into my current studio building.

For the first six months I was splitting my week by working 2-3 days in my studio, and the other 2-3 days as a painting assistant for the artist Rasheed Araeen. I was making 5ftx5ft geometric abstract paintings for him that will be displayed at this year’s Documenta. It was a really great experience for me - but after six months I found that I had too much work to do in the studio for myself so I had to give it up.  Since January 2016 I have just been working on my own paintings.

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?

TW: I’m lucky that my studio building is only a five-minute bus ride from where I live in North London, so I don’t have to travel far which makes a difference to my day. I am an early riser and am usually in the studio by about 9.30am. I am most fresh and productive in the mornings; it’s my favourite time of day.

Once I get there I am generally on my computer for the first hour or so, checking emails etc. And then deciding what I’m going to do that day, thinking about current pieces that I’m working on, and looking at what I did the day before. If I have a deadline coming up then I will probably be in the studio until late evening, taking a break during the day with some of the other artists to have lunch or dinner together.

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

TW: Well I have just finished an intense period of making work for a few shows. Mostly for ‘Time & Materials’ at Unit 1 Galley, London and ‘Groundwork’ at Galeria Kernel in Caceres, Spain. I also had a small solo show at the gallery space in my studio building, and had a couple of paintings in a great show in Paris at Galerie L’Inassable called ‘Micro Salon’ which brought together small scale works by over 70 international artists.

I have currently sublet my studio in London for two months in order to complete a residency in Berlin, which I am really excited about. I have many artist friends in the city and it is one of my favourite places, so to be able to spend two months there is ideal. I am interested to see how the city can influence my work. And it will be a much welcome break from London, because as much as I love it, it’s great to have some fresh scenery…

SC: Can you please tell me about your studio set up? Would you say that your current studio is ideal, or are you seeking a new/better workspace?

TW: My studio building The Bomb Factory Art Foundation is a great place. It’s an old Victorian ammunitions factory that was derelict up until a couple of years ago. There are about 35 artists making all types of work and at all stages of their careers. We have more well known artists such as Mark Wallinger, Oliver Beer and Barry Reigate, all the way through to people who have just finished their BA’s. So it’s a really good mix, and I am always learning things from the other artists. I would get lonely if I was working in a place where you never saw anyone, so it’s great that there are always people around and we are all quite close.

The building also backs on to my old Central Saint Martins MA studios which is a bonus. It means that I still get to see my old tutors, and have interactions with the current students on the course, which I love.

My studio space itself isn’t that big, so eventually I would like to move into a larger space in the building, but central London studios are so expensive!  We have a large bookable project/gallery space in the building that I currently use when I need more space to make the large-scale works.

SC: I am interested to know how you plan your works. Do you begin with preparatory sketches of some form, or do you prefer to work in an improvised manner?

TW: I don’t plan my works as such but I often have an idea in my head of what I want to do before starting. I like my paintings to have a natural progression – each one leads to the next. They kind of feed on from one to another, and I work in quite an organic way. I always have research work around me, (my photography or small scale collages, for example) which constantly influence my practice. And often the smaller paintings become the starting point for the bigger pieces. It’s a constant process of trial and error. I bring elements of past work through to the new works when I think something has been successful or interesting. And then drop elements that I think have been less successful or that have run their course.

I am continually looking and thinking of new ways to make work, so there is always a restless element to my practice. I am never settled into one way of making – and I need that variation to keep me stimulated and engaged.  Paintings are constantly being ripped up and sewn back together in different ways, or pieces from one discarded painting will end up being used in another. I like this side to my practice as it means that many of the works have quite a story behind them. Ultimately, the final pieces become the eventual success of many failures.

SC: I am aware that you have incorporated various types of materials into the making of your work, using acrylic, bleach, emulsion, inks, spray paint as well as traditional oil paints. Can you discuss some of your processes and your interest in exploring materiality? Do you have any material preferences?

TW: As with all my work, I like to keep things fresh and interesting for myself. I am a very tactile person when it comes to materials and can become a bit of a magpie - collecting things that I see to maybe use at a later date. Pieces of wood, fabrics, bottles of solvents… I shy away from using anything synthetic, plastic or shiny, as I like to be able to see the grain of a surface. The natural qualities of a material are very important to me – hence my constant use of linens, cottons, hessians and wood. I have tested working on surfaces like aluminum and Perspex, but always find them too rigid with no room for absorption of the paint.

For much of my work, in particular the large wall installations, I use many layers of watered down paint and inks. Using them almost as a dye. Building up the surfaces slowly, allowing each thin layer to dry. I like to contrast the more delicate ways of painting with the robust and sometimes crude use of thick oil sticks or dense oil paint.

Although some of my paintings have sculptural qualities, I in no way think like a sculptor. My mind doesn’t compute into making work in 3D. During my MA my tutors would sometimes encourage me to bring my work on the floor and into a space more but it just wasn’t me. I recently tried out some large sculptural hanging 3D paintings again but they just don’t feel right to me. I would like to think that I have some shared sensibilities as a sculptor when it comes to thinking about materials. But I am definitely a wall-based painter… for now.

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 have a love or hate relationship with Instagram, or other online social media platforms?

TW: In my opinion Instagram can be a really helpful tool for artists, if used in the right way. I think of mine as an extension of my website, but with a more personal feel. For example, I include work in progress images, studio shots and also the work of other artists– none of which I would put on my actual website.

It’s a good way to connect with other artists and to see what’s going on elsewhere in the art world. The social side of it means it’s easier to make contacts in other cities or countries, especially useful if you are traveling to a new place to do a show. I have met up and become friends with artists in other places who I initially connected with through Instagram. And I have also had quite a few artists contact me for advice, or to meet when they come to London.

SC: To you, what are the pros and cons of Instagram? Do you consider Instagram important for artists working today?

TW: It is important to some extent as it can give you a platform to show your work to a wide audience, but I would never want to rely on it. I think it can give people a false sense of achievement. Getting a lot of Instagram likes on a photo of your work doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere in your career. I would always want the emphasis to be on the shows that I’m doing, and people seeing and engaging with my work in real life rather than online. It’s a great tool to document what you are doing and to promote shows etc – but it should never replace those physical aspects of getting your work out there. Ultimately, art should be seen and experienced in the flesh – not through a screen

SC: To what extent do you consider London 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?

TW: Yes, my city is a big influence on my work in many ways. Much of my research work is photography of the London landscape, its flaws and its faults - I feed off my visual surroundings daily. The industrial and rugged aesthetic that much of my work possesses is derived from my urban life.

It is a dream of mine to live in the countryside one day, and I have wondered how my work would change or suffer if I was to do this. I think I need that raw city life to filter into my work - If the landscape was too idyllic then I don’t know how I would feed my practice.

In a more general sense, London is a constant source of inspiration, overflowing with culture in all its forms. For any artist this can only be a good thing – you are never short of visual stimulation or an amazing exhibition to go and see.

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

TW: My solo show ‘Groundwork’ is currently open at Galeria Kernel in Caceres, Spain, and I am about to start making work for my upcoming solo show at Nir Altman Galerie in Munich, which opens at the beginning of September.

Also, in the pipeline is a show that I will be co-curating in London later this year. It will bring together a few artists who are all using sewing and textiles within their painting practice – questioning domesticity, gender and manual labor within painting.

SC: This sounds exciting, what are your thoughts on sewing and textiles in relation to the history of painting? Also, what specifically are you wishing to highlight through this process of making works?

TW: Even before I started making paintings of this type I had always been drawn to artists who used materials in a more textiles based way. A prime example being Antonio Tapies. And until artists like Fontana, for example, and Support/Surfaces later, the textile of the canvas itself was just a hidden support for a painted surface. What became exciting for me was the material deconstruction of the painting itself, and thinking of a painting as a whole object.

I am interested in what the use of sewing and textiles within painting can allude to with regards to gender, the female and male qualities in materiality, the handmade, and the touch. And how tapestry can be used as a way of collaging within painting.

Tapestries have been being made for such a long time but were never initially seen as ‘art’. Similarly with weaving, which is currently featuring a lot in contemporary painting – with artists like Brent Wadden and Margo Wolowiec. These craft based skills seem to be feeding into contemporary art more and more, and are bringing time old traditions into the present day.

Also, the reappropriation and re-use of household or mass production fabrics within painting and art is something that has been done for a long time, but there are many interesting artists making work now who are continuing this conversation. Ibrahim Mahama, Oscar Murillo, El Anutsui…. The connotations of daily domestic life, recycling and human usage are elements I gravitate towards within painting. I enjoy being drawn back to what the original function of that material was before it became a piece of art.

SC: What are some of the difficulties you encounter through making work in this manner?

TW: I actually only learnt to use a sewing machine in the last couple of months of my MA, so it’s still a relatively new way of making work for me. Initially it was a way of holding larger pieces of canvas together.  I was having difficulty in remaking the large wall installations exactly the same as I had done for the initial piece/photograph. When it came to re-installing them for a show for example, they would always be slightly different to the original work. Sewing gave me the freedom to permanently attach big pieces of canvas whilst still allowing them to be free hanging directly onto the wall without a stretcher.

Much of the work I was making at that time was too dependent on me being able to create it exactly the same in a different location. I didn’t like the way that this basically meant that I had to copy the work I had already created. It took the fun out of it for me, and the re-installed piece would never satisfy me as much as the original because there would always be slight details that would differ - details of the folds, the creases, the weight of the hang…

I soon found that sewing became an integral part of my work. I use it a lot now for mark making, texture, seams, and layers. And the stitch line is a way of drawing.

Many of my works are made in quite a rough and rugged way – staples, nails, wood, heavy industrial materials. And I like the contrast and conversation these materials can have with the lighter more feminine dialogue of sewing and the stitch.

SC: You are currently in residence in Berlin, perhaps you can tell me about your residency and time there so far?

TW: Much of the work that I have been doing while in Berlin is research work before I start making the final works for my show at Nir Altman gallery in Munich. I have been working mainly with paper and print. I make a lot of small paper collages and paintings at my studio in London, but it is never usually a focus for me. It’s been interesting to switch the focus from canvas paintings for a while, and I have noticed how I become quickly frustrated with paper as a medium because of its fragility. I can’t handle it in the way I can linen or canvas, and it has highlighted how important that strong physical part of my practice is for me. To be able to really manipulate the materials without a sense of them breaking is key. I have also been doing a lot of photography while I’ve been here which may work its way into my paintings in a bigger way soon.

Whilst here I have also travelled down to Munich to spend some time at the gallery so that I can have the physical space in mind when I’m making the body of work. This is really important to me – especially for the larger pieces.

SC: Focusing on the titles of your paintings, I am interested in how you choose these: ‘Still Remain’ 2017, ‘100 Ways’ 2017, ‘Torn Tacks’ 2017, and ‘Fault Line’ 2016. For you, what is the central role of an artworks title? Is it important that the title has the potential to alter a works reading?

TW: Titles are an interesting thing for me. I never want a piece to be determined or described by its title. I went through a phase of just initialing my paintings (L.H.A, for example), as I never wanted to just call them ‘Untitled’. But now I mostly title them by a couple of token words from what I have been thinking about at the time of making, or little suggestive detail from the painting. I want the titles to be personal, but not descriptive. As ultimately I want the paintings to exist on their own without words.

SC: Are there any key artists that have inspired or influenced you?

TW: So many. And all for different reasons.

The first artists that I really loved before I even started making paintings were Clyfford Still, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko and Yves Klein. And they are still up there for me.

But probably the most influential and inspiring artist for me overall is Robert Rauschenberg – his scope of thinking, experimentation and inventiveness always amazes me. And also always reminds me to keep having fun and to be playful with it.

Two artists that I have a lot of respect for, both for their work and determination are Rose Wiley and Phylida Barlow. And I’m so happy that they are both finally getting the recognition that they deserve.

Some of the current artists that I love to watch include Sterling Ruby, Marie Lund, N.Dash, David Hammons, Theaster Gates… the list goes on.

SC: Generally, can you tell me your views on painting today? What do you feel still needs to be explored?

TW: There is so much of it, everywhere! And I think for many people (me included), the physicality is a much needed respite from our technological and screen-based lives.

Now there are more strands/types of painting than ever, reflecting the current pluralism.  And many people are concerned that nothing new is happening in painting, that nostalgia is prevalent and everything is a re-hash of something else.

I think that if some painters can still try to push it forwards exploring it as a medium and cover new ground, creating more conversations, then it is fine that many others are still working within long established traditions.

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

TW: Just to say, thank you for having me!

Tess Williams

Images courtesy of Tess Williams, William Webster, Max Colson, Galeria Kernel, Unit 1 Gallery.