Hector Campbell : You recently graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Painting, having previously completed your BA in Fine art from The Slade School of Fine Art. How did the RCA compare to the Slade? How did your work develop during your MA having decided to focus on painting?
India Nielsen : They were very different stages in my education. The RCA is much bigger and because of that had more of an anonymous feeling to it - there were so many different courses and students, and the campuses were very spread out. Some students didn’t like that aspect but I found the feeling of invisibility quite powerful.
In addition, some of the best tutors I’ve ever had were at the RCA, there were a lot of lectures and seminars, but once they were over you weren’t really paid much attention and were kind of left to your own devices.
While I was at the Slade my work was very varied - I made music, did performance, painted, and created installations and sculpture. When I got to the RCA I wanted to challenge myself by limiting the materials I was working with. Painting is the most basic in terms of materials, so it felt like there was less to hide behind. After a while I naturally found myself incorporating other mediums like sculpture or printmaking back into my work, but in a way that felt more natural.
For example, for my degree show, I wanted to incorporate sculpture and text alongside my paintings, but in a way that didn’t feel forced together in the same space as an ‘installation.’ I wanted the language of the sculpture and the painting to be on an equal level. My idea was to make modular frames, so I made a template for the corners and sides of the painting which I then drew around and cut out of wood. This process led to an interaction between the two mediums that felt much more dynamic, I could swap the modules around and rearrange them with each other and the paintings.
H.C : Previous influences of yours include Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger and Saul Steinberg. Do you have a strong interest in art history? Who are some of your current artistic inspirations?
I.N : I think if you’re really interested in creating you naturally have an interest in, not necessarily just art, but visual history. The two are inseparable and you always have a relationship to it, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. If you choose not to, however, I think you inevitably wind up stuck in a rut.
Growing up, I’ve found myself drawn to artists who have worked across different disciplines or who did not allow themselves to be pinned down by a particular style. Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger and Vito Acconci were big influences on me in this respect. I find the journey that an artist’s work takes, their approach to creating and use of the cultural material of their time, much more interesting and inspiring than individual styles or works of art. Each of these artists were full of a kind of energy that generated an incredible amount of ideas, and the thing that I admire and hope to emulate is that they acted on all of them, regardless of whether they fit in with the rest of their work or not. That takes a lot of nerve as it’s easy to find your thing and stick with it, especially when you’re already an established artist. Acconci, for example, started as a poet and writer then began making performance works, interactive installations, sculpture and architecture. I think the value of these artists works for me is that they opened up possibilities for other artists. Their activity sparked more activity. There’s a real generosity there that I feel very grateful for.
Other artists I look at often and love are Oyvind Fahlstrom, Albert Oehlen, Sigmar Polke, Francis Picabia, Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Peter Saul, Tom Sachs, Adam Savage, Lee Lozano, Cady Noland, Jutta Koether, Carlo Crivelli, Sassetta, Philip Guston, Adalbert Trillhaase, Dali, Immendorff, Hito Steyerl, R. Stevie Moore, John Waters, Wilhelm Sasnal, Donald Glover…
H.C : As well as the aforementioned artistic inspirations, your work clearly takes from the world of popular culture, with reference to both The Pink Panther and The Powerpuff Girls appearing in your paintings. Why do you look to included pop culture characters such as these in your work?
I.N : I think image-making is playing off different references against each other. On that level, images can be lifted from pop, or other aspects of culture, and used in the same way as a certain kind of mark making, or a colour. Easily recognisable characters like ‘Him’ (the cross-dressing rosy-cheeked devil in the Powerpuff girls) are useful because of their recognisability. They’ve got a set of ready-made associations that you can import into a painting in the same way as a brush stroke. I think it’s important to mention though that our pop culture is not the same as pop culture in other locations or other times. The kind of cartoons and music I watched and listened to growing up is also no longer the pop culture of now. I therefore think it’s important to use my own personal history in my work, as well as the more universal and international things I look at, it roots it in a time and a place.
I grew up watching MTV and playing video games, like most people of my generation. It seemed like a bit of a thing for people to package themselves as characters, Eminem as Slim Shady for example. The Wu Tang Clan created an entire world and language - where their hometown of Staten Island, became “The Shaolin,” - based on all the Kung-Fu movies they had watched together. Taking on personas obviously brings with it a level of self-delusion, however, I think it also gives you power, it’s a rebranding of your own reality, and allows you to express yourself and navigating through that reality. When I started looking to introduce narrative into my work it seemed natural to encode the people and experiences in my own life the way I’d seen it done while growing up, they’re given masks, squeezed through filters or flattened into symbols.
H.C : Your work is often hard to categorise, combing many artistic styles, ideas and themes into each painting. Could you talk a bit about your creative process? And the effect this conglomeration of styles produces?
I.N : I usually write a lot before I start painting, that acts as a framework to begin with, becoming like architectural notes I look at when I actually start making the work. When it comes to preparation for paintings I write much more than I draw, a drawing is much too linguistically close to the painting I’m about to make as they’re both visual. However, I don’t want the starting notes to be too oppressive, something I find hard to deviate from. Verbal language is distanced, just suggestive enough to remind me roughly what I was thinking about or feeling, while also giving me the freedom to take it in other directions. I usually start with a thought (the preparatory written notes) and then end with a feeling (the finished painting). I can just feel when a painting has done that or not, it’s no longer a logical process at that point.
I really want to make things that feel new and surprise me. With each new work I usually pose myself a kind of question, for example “What if I tried to make a painting that combined text and landscape together while also being a straight up, abstractly patterned camo painting?” or “What if I tried to combine screen print and painting, both which are referentially loaded in the context of the history of painting, without it seeming to be too quotational or ironic?”
Each painting really does its own thing and has its own identity. I would say that’s why my work might be considered difficult to categorise. This seems to me to be the natural way to go about making work now. Our experience of the world and how we process cultural information is inconsistent. We’re surrounded by and absorb very different visual languages compressed together (usually through the internet). It therefore makes much more sense to me that there are inconsistencies both within and between the works too.
H.C : The ‘Young London Painters’ exhibition aims to shine a light on emerging artists producing work in that medium. Apart from the sculptural additions of the laser-cut modules to the paintings in your recent degree show, have you ever explored, or are interested in exploring, other mediums?
I.N : I’m planning on making a book when I return to London and I have lots of ideas for sculptures I really want to make soon. I’d also like to start making stickers, prints and t-shirts. I’ve started making much smaller painted works in the past couple of months also. I think painting will always stay at the core of what I do, it’s the thing that seems to be the engine for everything else.