Ahead of her duo-exhibition ‘Yield’ with Eliza Bennett at Gallery 163, Liz Elton sat down with art historian, writer and curator Hector Campbell to discuss fragility and impermanence in art, ecological materials and John Ruskin, as well as providing an insight into the works she’ll be exhibiting in ‘Yield’.
Hector Campbell : Vegetable dyes from kitchen waste and cornstarch recycling bag material form the basis of many of your artworks. Could you explain the conceptual underpinning behind this use of unconventional artistic mediums? How have you had to adapt your creative practice to facilitate their use?
Liz Elton : My practice starts in landscape painting, wondering how we continue and capturing fragility and impermanence. I’ve been using compostable cornstarch as a ground for some time as it embodies these qualities. It is light, translucent and floats like parachute silk as the air moves around it. It’s made from crops such as corn or potatoes yet is often used to make food waste recycling bags. My work for the John Moores Painting Prize 2018,‘One Hundred Harvests’, used 100 of these bags and referenced research indicating our farming practices may mean our land will only support a further hundred harvests. My range of materials continues to expand. Besides traditional materials such as paint and pigments, I make dyes from food waste and also use food colouring, seeds and other organic materials, embedding references to sustenance and waste in the work. As I have developed my practice it has naturally spilled beyond the studio into the kitchen and garden, and from traditional gallery spaces into gardens, fields and parks.
H.C : Many of the aforementioned ecological and natural materials incorporated within your artworks were manufactured in part for their inherent eventual decomposition, an attribute normally avoided in art-making. How do you view this creative contradiction? Does it lead to issues when trying to commercialise or maintain your practice?
L.E : Artists have been making work involving impermanence and destruction for many years and for many reasons, but for me by embracing intentional decomposition I hope the viewer will engage with time passing as well as both our own fragility and that of the landscape. The contradiction you mention is inherent to my practice and I think people can understand and embrace that. I am currently working on a commission for a large cornstarch piece which will only be exhibited for a limited time. I make archival quality prints of the works both outside and in the studio that can enter collections as a memory of the original piece and I enjoy the sense of absence captured in these prints. There are some side benefits that result from my practice, for instance the materials I use are very light and I enjoy the freedom this gives me to transport and install really large works with very limited support.
H.C : For ‘Yield’ you will be exhibiting artworks both inside and outside the 163 Herne Hill Road space, the former of which, ‘Graft’, responds to your recent reading of ‘The Book of Skin’ by Steven Connor. What attracted you to this particular subject matter? And how did you approach the process leading to ‘Graft’s creation?
L.E : It seems natural to connect the materiality of the landscape work and our own materiality. The ground I have been using for my recent paintings has a skin-like quality, and some of my dyes come from fruit and vegetable skins. The title ‘Graft’ speaks both about our fragile bodies and about our interdependence with a fragile natural world. Connor talks about our skin as the point at which we engage with the world, and as a ‘soft clock’ that is marked by experience but may also recover. This new piece has also brought in more materials beyond the food waste dyes and silk, including framing with wood, willow and grafting tape.
H.C : The second artwork on display in ‘Yield’ will involve an element of site-specificity resulting from your research into the eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and in particular his habitation of the Herne Hill area, at the bicentennial celebration of his birth. What do you feel that site-specificity can add to an artwork? And how has your research influenced or educated your practice?
L.E : Ruskin lived in Herne Hill for over 40 years, only minutes walk from where Julie’s gallery is now. The development of the railways caused him to leave this area to live in the Lake District, so I have been thinking about the rapid growth of housing in Herne Hill and the pattern of many gardens this creates. When studying the Pre-Raphaelites, I was struck by Ruskin’s advice to them to “go back to nature”. Site specificity can work in many ways, but I hope thinking about this recent history, and how the landscape has changed in a relatively short time, may make us think about how it may change in the future, how landscape shifts. Seeds from native medicinal plants such as yarrow, chamomile and feverfew are incorporated into this work, the kinds of plants that tend to establish themselves on unmanaged land (such as beside a railway line), so maybe viewers will think to the future and the possibility of new growth.
H.C : Finally, the word ‘Yield’, which gives this exhibition its title, can contain a myriad of interpretations and connotations, positive and negative, as both a verb or noun, depending on one’s disposition. How did you choose to understand the titular term? And how can it relate to either your work or research?
L.E : I love the range of meanings of ‘Yield’, referring to both the production of crops from land and also to compromise. Both seem relevant to my concerns about how we continue; the sustenance and land required, and potentially the reassessment of our relationship with the natural world.