I recently sat down with ‘Young London Painters’ artist Lydia Blakeley to discuss Goldsmiths, her former life in retail, her wide range of artistic reference points and her recent paintings. ‘Young London Painters’, featuring Lydia and seven other young artists living and working in London, opens November 22nd at Arthill Gallery, West Brompton.
Hector Campbell: You’re currently halfway through an studying for an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, having previously completed a BA(Hons) from Leeds College of Art. How are you finding the MA course? How does the work you are producing now compare and contrast with that which you did while at Leeds College of Art?
Lydia Blakeley: The MFA at Goldsmiths has been incredible, and the time has really flown by. This year has been intense, challenging and so rewarding. Being in Leeds for my BA was a brilliant experience and I do miss the city, however being based in London has been extraordinary. I’ve had the chance to discover some amazing places that have had an influence on the work I am making or planning to make. For example, I’ve been inspired by the wholesale food markets in the city and numerous visitor attractions. I have had the chance to meet such inspiring and generous people who I most probably would not have had the chance to meet had I not been in London, for examples other artists, curators and gallerists, it’s been a dream.
The work I have been producing on the course remains figurative but has shifted in direction in terms of the composition of the images. Before, the majority of my work was collaged images which were then translated on the canvas, I’ve moved away from this to concentrate on the singular images, creating networks through series of paintings, which often seem disparate but form connections. My process is still to trawl the internet looking for images that spark an interest in me. Recently I have been attempting to reclaim authorship for the images I paint, I now use my own photographs as the source and have begun to merge the two together.
H.C: It’s been said that the ten years you spent working in fashion retail has a lasting effect on your artistic output, do you agree with that? And if so, in what ways does this past life influence your work?
L.B: I really tried to distance myself from my past life when I returned to education for a number of reasons. Following the recession of 2008 and the growth of internet shopping, there were so many pressures and it was a stressful time. It was a time of increasingly unrealistic productivity targets, the team around me and I were increasingly stretched and I tried to remain optimistic even though it was tough. If it wasn’t for that experience I would’ve never have ended up here, it’s really shaped me.
Even though the retail experience was surreptitiously having an influence on my practice, it was a tutor of mine who encouraged me to draw upon it more overtly, even if the experience wasn’t always pleasant. I think what I have taken away from the experience was the seductive nature of advertising imagery. Through the visual merchandising displays in the stores I would work in, to the desirable goods and lifestyles presented in glossy magazines. I don’t think there is much of an escape from the ever-increasing bombardment of these messages.
H.C: You seem to draw from a wide range of interests, a quick scroll through your Instagram page presents such disparate pop culture references as the Kardashians clan, Crufts and even Ronnie O’Sullivan. Could you explain a few of these particular interests? How do you decide which avenues to explore in your work?
L.B: Most of the ideas I have come from out of the blue. I initially started the Kardashian series during a time when I was feeling lost and needed a distraction, I wanted to find images that I wasn’t attached to so I could practice painting. The series gained momentum through the reactions I was getting from viewers of the work.
Through the painting process layers of meaning started to find their way into the work. There is something really insidious about the way in which these reality TV personas infiltrate into everyone’s daily lives. Even people who say they haven’t watched the shows recognise where the images come from.
As for Ronnie O’Sullivan, in my opinion, he’s got a fantastic personality and is the greatest snooker player of all time, he’s kind of unassuming in my opinion. I was just on Twitter the other week and saw something about him at the English Open and decided he’d be a great subject to paint. It’s been challenging trying to capture his facial expressions.
Initially, my residual worry was that I would have these disparate images going on in my paintings at the same time, and by constantly genre shifting, I am not making my life easy. I have recently read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr which describes how the plasticity of the brain through the internet, attention is continually moved from scrolling and clicking on links, and I find my interest is peaked by seemingly unrelated things every day. With so much variety, I am enjoying going where my enthusiasm takes me. There is also a struggle between the immediacy of the image and then the slowness of the medium, so I’ll work on a number of things at the same time. If I try too hard to justify making a painting with reasoning behind it, then I probably won’t do it. Now I just go for it, thinking through the process so that while I am painting networks and connections form.
H.C: The ‘Young London Painters’ exhibition aims to shine a light on emerging artists producing work in that medium. What is it that you like about painting? Have you ever explored, or are interested in exploring, other mediums?
L.B: It’s difficult to describe, I’ve always wanted to paint, and I have been resolute in grounding my practice in painting. I feel that painting is quite a therapeutic activity, I can switch off the outside world and focus my thoughts entirely on the process. Through immersing myself in painting I have slowly gained a practical wisdom, it can be surprising and enjoyable when something unexpected happens. Although, I have been exploring other ways of making. I have always wanted to work with glass and earlier in the year I did a short course in leaded glass. I would like to try to build upon the skills I gained, so once I have all the kit and I’m set up I would really like to try out some ideas I’ve been developing. I would also really love to try my hand at ceramics and hope that at some point I can give it a go. I think from time to time it’s useful to get lost in other ways of making and then return to painting.
H.C: Finally, could you give us a little insight into the works you’re creating for the upcoming exhibition?
L.B: Recently I have been thinking about escapism and the tourist gaze. I am working on a series which presents moments from my experiences so far in London which tie into my interest in contemporary screen culture. I am looking at the way in which the image is framed on the canvas, capturing fleeting moments and suspending them in paint. I am excited to see where this will lead, as again, it is a shift in direction for me.
Opening: November 22nd, 7pm-10pm.
On View: November 23rd & 24th, 10am-5pm.