Kelly Sweeney’s painterly practice encompasses works on paper, film, paintings, and sculpture. The otherworldly figures that occupy her work are carnivalesque, existing somewhere between sinister and playful. In the lead up to her solo exhibition, ’Transient’, at BSMT SPACE, London, the artist talks to Susie Pentelow about her recent work and plans for the show.
When we last spoke, you were midway through your three-person exhibition ’Strobe Maneuvre’, which showcased work by you, Abigail Box, Rebecca Molloy and was unusual in that it took place in the dark. What has happened in your practice since then?
‘Strobe Maneuvre’ was a really interesting show for me in terms of the curation and the environmental factors. I felt that the strobe lighting amplified certain elements of my work; the party depicted in ‘Full Moon’ partied harder and the menace of ‘Folly’ seemed more sinister and threatening. The fluorescence came alive and danced around the room. It was as if the work returned to a place of familiarity albeit a harsh one to be in as a viewer. It is certainly something I would explore again in the future.
Shortly after ‘Strobe Maneuvre’ I had a painting selected for the Hix Award at CNB Gallery which inhabits a lower-ground space, a sculpture in Zeitgeist which had a bleak dystopian curatorial theme, and a piece in ‘Painted Surfaces’ at Surface Gallery, Nottingham which explored boundaries of painting as a discipline. This succession of group shows proved really insightful as each exhibition was completely different and this allowed me to gain some clarity and objectivity with regards to recurring concerns with my own practice. It’s so important to get it out of the bubble of the studio and hand work over to curators who will make connections and decisions that are at times removed from your own agenda as an artist.
I was fortunate to be able to spend time at a residency in Switzerland and returned early this year with the beginnings of a new body of work. Having uninterrupted time to focus on my practice, out of my studio, and in fresh surroundings proved incredibly fruitful. The body of work I plan to show in ‘Transient’ next month has developed from what started there.
BSMT SPACE, where you will be showing, is an underground space, which seems pertinent to some of the themes in your practice - ideas around fetish and voodoo, for instance. Is this something you considered when putting the show together?
Yes, absolutely. What excites me about the space is that architecturally it’s designed to be out of sight and underground. Historically spaces that occupy underground territory are where things are hidden; objects, activities, and people, which draws a host of connections with the history of esoteric practices. I like the notion of concealment that comes with it. By association, basements are often presented as places that incite fear and anxiety. They are notorious for being the place where bad things happen; people venture downstairs into the unknown. I am more attracted by the potential of an alternative sphere, one that is removed and separated from reality. Less horror, more Alice. I continue to be drawn to any object, place or image that hints at the idea of transcendence.
There is an inaccessibility for me that surrounds the space that I like, as if you leave the outside world above ground to enter a different domain. There are no windows that access the bustling reality of East London and I like that. BSMT is going to be an interesting space to work with as it has remnants of domesticity, through to bare brick alcoves that are evocative of a place of worship, and crypt-like in nature. For me, it is a location that invites the otherworldly and I am looking forward to installing a show there.
The figures that occupy your work hint at the sinister, but there is also something disarmingly eager and innocent about them. Is this something that interests you?
Very much so. For me there is a grappling with polarities within a carnivalesque subjectivity; dream and nightmare, macabre and innocence, deterioration and transformation, darkness and light, animate and inanimate, threatening and enticing. The pairings are important and I think of them as alchemical in nature; as if the existence of one goes some way in excluding the other but in this struggle there the presence of something else. Something new.
The exact nature of this ‘substance’ that sits between malevolence and innocence is difficult to pin down in its entirety. When something possesses a familiarity that reinforces that everything is okay yet simultaneously doesn’t quite fulfill that role it makes room for an unsettling feeling and this is territory that just feels relevant.
Sometimes I think of paint as badly applied make-up or a loaded face at the end of a long and messy night. There is often an ugliness to it, a nod to the grotesque. The fluorescence is nasty, obnoxious and artificial yet paired with a bubblegum palette the whole piece can become sugar-coated and appealing. There is, at times, a deliberate disparity between the subject matter and the palette but I try to use the two facets in a way that creates an overriding feeling of uncertainty - if it feels right for a particular piece of work. As if it falls short of meeting all of the ‘familiar’ criteria for any particular thing yet is suggestive of many. That said, I try to let each painting be what it needs to be rather than attack it with this in mind. This is an on-going battle in itself.
With the sculptural pieces, the figures are often adorned with home-made, thrown- together costumes reminiscent of the esoteric origins of indigenous ritualistic belief systems. The notion that the uncanny activity of inert objects reinforces the invisible, the supernatural, the otherworldly and the unknown is something that really fascinates me as an artist. I think their doll-like scale adds to the consideration of their potential to stir yet in their stillness they somehow remain strangely innocent. I like to imagine them behaving mischievously in the studio in my absence. I really hope that they do. The notion that the uncanny activity of inert objects for me reinforces the invisible, the supernatural, the otherworldly, and the unknown and this is something that really fascinates me as an artist.
You speak of your sculptural and video work as ‘interventions for painting’ - as if your work in other mediums is an extension of your painterly practice. Would you say this was the case?
Yes. I consider it all to be part of one painterly practice where the works on paper, film, paintings and sculptural pieces all fuel one another in various ways. I think of all of it as one holistic painting practice that centers around paint. Making actual paintings dominates my studio time but when I think about painting, I think not only in terms of actual painting, but in terms of sculpture, drawing, and film. Filmic experiences are really important part of my research as is working from and looking at objects and so these disciplines make up the vocabulary of my reference material when I start to consider painting.
Recently I have started to change the way that I consider drawing within my wider practice as this has always been an important facet of my work that I have until now been fairly secretive about. I am starting to view them as pieces of work in their own right rather than as preparatory pieces. I am exhibiting a series of works on paper in the forthcoming show for the first time. I am slightly terrified.
The sculptures are never planned and literally just happen in quite a spontaneous way, hence they are always made up off whatever is lying around, a fresh body of paintings usually follow this ‘sculptural intervention’. I like the way that one discipline punctuates another changing and influencing it, questioning what has been and what will be. It keeps things fresh and in a state of questioning. I have started to become more fluid with how I approach a multi-disciplinary painting practice. It is something I have to be mindful of as I can be a total control freak and this never seems to end well.
‘Transient’ will take place between the 4 and 6 November at BSMT in Dalston. Do you have plans following the show?
I am really looking forward to spending some time with this new body of work installed in BSMT space. It will be the first time that I have exhibited as a solo artist in London and it will be a great opportunity to reflect on the last twelve months and consider avenues for future development. It has been pretty intense in the lead up so I think a little break will be timely ready for getting back into the studio ready for what 2017 has to bring.
‘Transient’ will run between 4 and 6 November 2016 at BSMT Space, London N16 8BH, with a preview on Thursday 3 November, 6 - 10 pm.
For more information, visit http://www.bsmt.co.uk, or go to http://www.kellysweeney.co.uk for more on Kelly Sweeney’s work.