Interview | Rebecca Harper: Concrete Shadows at Huxley-Parlour Gallery
The show is a welcome one, the artist has previously exhibited in group shows at Christie’s London and New York as well as the South London Gallery as part of Bloomberg New Contemporaries last year, but this time we get a chance to engage solely with Harper’s paintings which in many ways are a reflection of the time we are living in.
Harper’s large-scale and lyrical paintings are rooted in an intense and rigorous practice of drawing from life. Harper interweaves these drawings with reconstructed scenes from memories, along with other mediated and second-hand imagery. Balancing both the particular and the universal, she seamlessly combines these many sources to produce plausible and richly detailed scenes that often feel dreamlike in their vivid and expressionistic colour palettes.
Sitting between dreamscapes and reality Harper’s new large-scale paintings engage with the feeling of alienation felt by many in contemporary society and explores how we interact with the world around us. The subjects of her recent paintings are situated in what Harper describes as ‘middling space’: camping, tree climbing or mid-road trip. Although visually referencing the aesthetic of the classic British holiday snapshot, the initial wistfulness found in these scenes is disrupted by the precarious or temporary nature of the situations and settings.
I caught up with the artist to discuss in detail her practice as well as her current exhibition.
When did you start creating art and how has your practice evolved?
I used to come home and draw everything I had seen that day. From the age of two I was obsessively and urgently recording. I remember filling sketchbooks in primary school with images of all my classmates at the school gates together with their parents. These early 90s drawings and paintings were quite close observations of people adorned with puffer Jackets, high pony tails, tracky bottoms and reebok classics. They were the particular branded clothing/trainers, expressions, the way they would wear their hair and imitated their interactions and behaviours with one another.
At the age of 10 whilst at tennis summer camp at lunch I was drawing a girl who was highly competitive, the rest of the tennis camp saw the drawing and said it looked just like her. What I was recognising at this point was that drawing was a tool and held the power to hold a conversation with an audience, that it was a communicator, and that was when it became not just necessary but a dialogue.
At university I was playing with constructing large scale installations whereby handmade sculptures and performances became a series of still images, however upon leaving university I quickly found my sketchbook was more time and space efficient. This was nurtured in my postgraduate at The Royal Drawing school and quickly my work upscaled, and I found that Painting had a real boundary in its ability to ‘frame’ and pose associations about the world around me.
More recently I have been drawing less as a voyeur from the real world and Painting more within the confines of my studio where I have been ever more reflective in drawing upon nostalgia and memories, utilizing source material from other worlds like social media, all of which has shifted the focus of my work into a more surreal space that sits somewhere between a fiction and a reality.
What is a typical day (or night) in the studio like for you?
I get to my studio in Deptford at about 10.30am and after making a coffee, I will sit on my futon either sorting through emails or looking at artist books and researching relevant material. With fresh morning eyes I will start to line up ideas from sketchbooks and studies I have worked on previously, and pop radio 4 on for background noise.
If I am starting a new work I find that I am often reconstructing ideas and drawings from life in sketchbooks, from relevant artists, events, dreams, memories, social media, Instagram etc, whereby seamless sometimes fictional fragmentations are rearranged as plausible happenings starting as A3 painted studies on paper and ending up as often very largescale paintings.
After completing a series of studies I may have one out of a bunch of 8 that feels right and is something I can take forward into a painting. I will use this study as a starting point, I may fold it up to divide up the image. I will leave the canvas opened up on the roll and draw out a composition on the wall; all of which gives a structure prior to embarking on the larger work. The canvas gets cut and the painting initially takes place on the floor. I sit, lie, walk, and drink tea, read books on the canvas treating it much like a carpet. Working on the floor feels for me much like working in a sketchbook, not only does the paint pool and absorb in a particular way on the floor but it is a space that is very intimate. I quite enjoy that I never see the entirety of the image until it goes back on the wall at the end and I try to pull it together.
I tend to work in the studio quite intensely and can solidly spend 8 hours in there happily with nibbles and coffee to keep me going! I like to retain and hold the focus where I can for long periods. I will likely wrap things up and leave the studio in the late evening after rush hour.
The title of your upcoming solo exhibition is Concrete Shadows what does this mean to you?
The Title ‘Concrete Shadows’ comes from a sentence that resonated with in Eva Hoffman’s novel ‘Lost in Translation’. Eva and I share a similar eastern European lineage and this phrase in particular conjured up so many images for me about the solidity of our factual past, and the weight that our family carry’s in its nostalgia and its roots.
What work can we expect to see on the opening night and what do you hope audiences will take from your work?
You will see five new works created this year depicting figures mostly known and close to me. These figures are situated in worlds occupying the public realm, all of which are sitting ‘in the middle of somewhere’, in a temporary space or position. These locations provide us with a series of snapshots mainly in Britain, perhaps referencing a glimpse of ‘a British weekend away camping’. But implies allegorical references of precarious structures, personally, culturally and politically.
Deep echoes of a personal displacement and narrative as much as it suggests one about the general experience of the world at play. A storm brews, siblings rooted sit fragmented up ‘family trees’, the figures journey from place to place much like some of my previous ancestors would have in exile. Whilst I have drawn upon an awareness and self-consciousness routed in the nostalgia of anti-Semitism.
I always hope that I have got it right if the works are not to comfortable, or that the eye of the viewer fixates but never really settles, yet there is a feeling of compassion or empathy for the figure.
How do you conceive the role of narrative within your paintings?
Imagery arrives as a result of a reactionary, wandering, unfolding commentary on the world that surrounds me. Normally through a culmination of thoughts, conversations, visiting places, memories, hindsight etc., I start to make sense of things together as a bigger picture as my images take shape. I want the fictional to act as plausible. So that my fictional figures fill in for or inhabit someone as would an actor in a play, where I render them until I believe in them.
There is occasionally that moment when you meet the eye of someone that perhaps you have never previously met and know nothing about; but regardless, for a couple of seconds you share a recognition, a knowing about one another’s soul. It is I think that compassion for another and that meeting and knowing and longing that I am trying to feel when I render a figure in my work.
I believe that art and life are synchronised, that we learn about life and its events by discovering ourselves and that equally we learn about ourselves after having endured life. For me the prompt for making work is normally a reactionary event to its life source, for example a reflection of the time and a desire to have an argument with it. I look for moments observed and distilled; I try to inject feeling. For example ‘the world speeds up’, so I try to slow it down, or my work does; or that I am a painter who feels out of place often, so I try to place that sense in the work to feel at home, and am lucky enough to play the contradictions out in the making.
So, I want to tell a story, but a story that doesn’t need to be explicitly told. By presenting people and place that could be read as being at once both particular and general, whereby there is the possibility of a dual reading of people and place in the imagery- where the image never quite settles because of this, I hope this highlights a diaspora position.
Could you share with us some further details regarding your recent painting named ‘The Spirit of Alienness’, (2019)?
I do often feel inclined to explore notions of settlement in dual identity and cultural assimilation in both its wonderful possibilities and in its difficulties through both the internal and external life. ‘The Spirit of Alienness’ for me brings with it connotations of propaganda, which for me is an uncomfortable nostalgia and pattern, particularly pertinent lately whereby there seems to have been an astonishing rise in current cases of Anti-Semitism.
Of course Isolation resonates not only with assimilated communities, but is reflective of society’s fragmentation generally.
People talk a lot about alienation in contemporary society, has it not always been like this, if not why do you think is it now so prevalent?
Alienation remains very much a part of modern society, my work particularly focuses on the city’s ‘concrete’ metropolis through a diaspora lens, a fragmented personal and phycological state as much as what feels like the shared political, social phycological state in general.
New technologies worldwide are estranging us from ourselves, our body’s, other people, and real life, whilst skills have been replaced. We are renegotiating the way that so much functions in our modern society today through significant changes with such speed. The ancient structure of our community’s which once would have been small and tightly knit have been replaced by vastly larger communities with large pools of access to people with much less intimate social ties and bonds, in some ways we live alone with the many.
As much as we speedily drive forward, we are also falling back, and it seems to be the result of being a major break up in relations between humans and the external world, fellow humans and society. From a Social perspective, although we have gained lots, I can’t help but feel in many respects that the rise in Anti-Semitism today for example is because we have gained a universal voice and following, but lost the ability to take the personal time to slow down, to reflect and to think about our impact on others and the world around us and to recognise how that plays out. Painting as a medium, I feel becomes a feedback loop, mirroring society; a malleable surface to slow down, playing with preconceived ideas. In a busy world painting seems necessary as a reflection to re-negotiate how we see the world today.
Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
I often reflect on the artists who came before me are (to name a few) Veronese, Velazquez, Schiele, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Soutine, Gauguin, Freud, Helen Frankenthaler, Sophie Calle, Francesca Woodman.
Really enjoyed Denzil Forester’s show recently.
Concrete Shadows is showing at Huxley-Parlour Gallery from 19 September — 12 October 2019.
Monday — Saturday: 10am — 5.30pm
3–5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE
0207 434 4319