Acrylic, plastic balls and
fabric on wood 31.5 x
19.5 x 6.5cm / 2016
Acrylic with linen, wadding
and thread on wood
34 x 62 x 7cm / 2016
Acrylic with pumice,
thread and fabric on wood
20 x 31 x 10cm / 2016
Chris Shaw: We went to The Red Lion in Weymouth for a pre-show drink on the day of your Three Works PV and it was an occasion to get to know each other a bit. You told me about your work with disabled people and how you help the hard of hearing and the visually impaired communicate. Do you think your career dealing with the sensory challenges people face is having an impact on your own experiences in the world?
Sean Penlington: I work at a special educational needs school with children and young people that have a range of complex needs and disabilities, such as autism and multi-sensory impairments. I teach two days a week and spend the rest of the time supporting students with transitions.
Transition work can be anything that we may think of as small, such as moving from one room to another room, to ‘big’ changes like moving school. A lot of the young people I work with will find breaks in a routine challenging and I try and help them understand and cope with transition in the best way possible.
Some of the students with multi-sensory impairments use objects, touch and smell to make sense of their surroundings, or have sensory diets to help regulate themselves. This tactility is interesting to me, as part of my work is about desire, touch and language. I communicate to most students through sign language and the link to painting is obvious to me.
I find that working in this kind of environment opens up a new way of thinking about interaction - it really is fascinating. At first I tried not to mix thoughts about my day job and what I do in the studio. I worried that there would be a danger of being too literal. However, through not thinking too much about it I found my unconscious sorting through some things which became manifest in the studio. It is still a bit fragile and shining too harsh a light on it may risk dissolving it.
You graduated with an MA in art from Chelsea College in 2013. Where do you make your work now and how does it compare to working at Chelsea?
I often talk about baggage in painting and studying at Chelsea was partly about assessing boundaries and baggage. The course director Brian Dawn Chalkley told us they didn’t make art at Chelsea… that there was enough of that stuff already and that he wanted to encourage something else. So the idea of questioning your own preconceptions was very much embedded in the programme. Space was a premium, which was either an issue or something to be flexible with. I worked for the most part in close proximity to other artists of all disciplines. People and their things were always on top of you. Boundaries and overlapping space was something I thought of as interesting.
Since then I’ve had studios in East London and Salford. At the moment I'm using a spare room in my house which is problematic with regard to managing the division between work and personal/ studio and domestic space. I do miss the external studio because it holds something that you can feel instantly when you walk through the door. It takes a while to get into the right head space when the studio is within your home, but there are other benefits to working where you live.
During the show when speaking about you to visitors, I tended to avoid referring to you as a painter, although I often described the work as 'painting'. I haven't thought much about why this is. Do you describe yourself as a painter?
I do think of myself as a painter. However, it says a lot to me that even I felt hesitant in saying that. I am not one of those painters that coo over everything paint. Painters always have a hard time, maybe partly because painting is the classic objet d’art. Maybe I feel a bit uncomfortable with that. Maybe you could tell me a bit more as to your hesitation?
I'm not sure to be honest and whatever I say will just be a wandering and perhaps obvious thought… but following on from what you said about being encouraged to assess boundaries and baggage at Chelsea… to me, it's as if you are actively and consciously excavating around the idea of painting, working in a quarry of previous activity by other painters. Picking up and poring over leftover, half-buried fragments in a peripatetic fashion… and while engaged in this it's like you've become aware of your own footprints as they disturb and add to all this previous activity.
Many artists reading my thoughts will recognise this as prime territory for a painter after modernism - this is what painting can be these days - but many people that visit Three Works are not from an art background and I suppose I was trying to help people transition from their idea of what painting is (still rooted in C.19th realism for some) to what they were faced with when entering your exhibition.
Your work shows to me that many of us, including painters, are still processing painting's recent history, still getting to grips with the quick turnover of movements that have shaped painting in the past 150 years. Your work is filled with clues to that past but it also feels beyond it as if you're aiming for… something else… as your old Chelsea tutor Brian Dawn Chalkey might have put it. The sensuousness is still there… but there's something of the archivist or the archaeologist or the anthropologist in your approach, too, I think.
I think it’s probably quite natural to want your work to have roots firmly in the historical, but to be growing outward into other territory. There is a certain level of detachment I feel when thinking about some painterly traditions, so ‘excavation’ and ‘footprints’ is a nice way of wording it.
The fact that anything can be a painting - but not everything is a painting is quite interesting to me. I think that particularly in painting, there are a lot of trapdoors and it is easy to make white noise - and equally hard to make something good.
I was a little surprised - pleasantly so - when you arrived in the Three Works space and unwrapped your work. It seemed different to what I'd come to expect on your website. When did you start making the work that went into your Three Works exhibition and what did you want from the process?
Well I told you that I would love to show, but only if I could be the last one in the year. I felt that I needed that time to make new work. It came at a point for me where I had just finished my MA in 2013 with a few projects following. I then, soon after, started working on new stuff for my solo with International 3 in 2014… and after that I was wiped out. The MA is a tough, fast-paced year at Chelsea, and I worked solidly 8 hours a day for a month in the lead up to my show at International 3, so I needed time off to reflect a little. I stopped painting for just under 2 years. I started sketching ideas around April 2016 and then began physically making stuff in June, working right up to the end of August.
For me, the two years of not painting is still time spent on Three Works. I think that’s what I wanted from the process, to see what the work would look like after a bit of time reflecting on it. It maybe looks a little different to the other stuff I have done, but I don’t think that is particularly conscious on my part. Maybe I am less concerned with ‘difficulty’, or maybe I’m just trying to explore my ideas in a different way. Maybe it’s not as good, maybe it’s better - I don’t know.
Something III reminds me of a scene in filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up where the photographer, played by David Hemmings, stumbles into a club where Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds has just smashed his guitar and thrown the neck into the audience. Seen as a prized souvenir, the audience fight over the fragment but the photographer triumphs and takes it outside. There he loses interest and casually throws it away. A passer-by then picks the neck up, scrutinises it for a second and throws it down not realising it's a part of Jeff Beck's guitar. I think the scene is asking us to think about value and how context gives value to objects.
Coming back to your work but maybe with the above scene in mind, where do you think the value lies in a work like Something III and what do you want visitors to take from it?
I think that Something III is seemingly very quiet while having a rather strong characteristic about it. Upon closer inspection, it actually has quite a lot happening in the context of quiet. It’s hard to say where the value in a work like this is. I like to think about different speeds of looking so for me the painting gives a lot in its own way. Something that I always like to think about with painting is that if it is doing nothing for you, you can leave and carry on with your life. The painting will just sit there. If you come across the painting a few months or years later, it will still be the same, but you will have changed. It’s to do with baggage.
Catherine Ferguson wrote about your work a couple of years ago for your solo show at International 3, and in her essay she spoke about your paintings as grotesque bodies variously 'fragmented, masked, ridiculed'. I can see what she's getting at. Something I literally bulges out as if in the process of fostering some sort of growth… and despite its sweet and innocuous blend of colours, Something II seems almost too rigorously contained or tied up. The word bondage springs to mind. What did you think of Catherine Ferguson's essay?
I enjoyed reading her essay and I am glad that she talked about it through discussing the idea of the carnivalesque. This was something that I was thinking about a while back in earlier work and something I was keen to develop with my time at Chelsea. Cath was also interested in thinking about how these ideas could be used as a framework to approach looking at and experiencing abstract painting. Before Cath began writing she came over to my studio to look at some work and talk. I found this really exciting - she was able to talk about possibility in a really subtle and open way. We also talked about the idea of never quite reaching clarity - and how clarity can sometimes disrupt animation within the painting. This is the most frustratingly exciting thing for me in painting - when material and thought slightly overlap and begin to cohere - but then dissolve a little as one gets closer.
You told me you had some difficulty settling on titles for your pieces in the Three Works exhibition. You had a few ideas but in the end you settled on Something I, Something II and Something III. Do you think titles matter?
I think whatever you decide upon as a title, it is a choice… like a surface decision. It can add to the experience of the work and, similar to a surface decision, it can be muted, distracting, harmonious, revealing or confusing.
I spent a while settling on these particular titles because I wanted to find something that spoke of their character and energy. Through conversations about the work, the words “something about…” kept popping up: “something about edges… something about the body… something about restraint”. As elusive as the narrative seemed, the word 'something' became quite appropriate. They deserved a flexible title to set the stage on how to view them.
In your 2014 Q&A with Paulette Terry Brien you said that you mostly want to create a feeling of doubt and annoyance in a viewer. Is this something you still aim for and, if so, how do you feel about this idea with regard to your Three Works exhibition?
It was certainly on my mind for Hmhm, Haha. What I meant by that had to do with baggage. As well as painting being the most baggage-ridden medium, each person also brings their own baggage when viewing art works. This affects how they experience something. One of the things I sometimes want to happen is to do something wrong, or do something that nags a little. There is nothing better than a painting that is knowingly prodding you from the corner of a room in terms of getting into the psychology of a viewer - ideas of taste, ability, preconceptions, history, mockery, humour, language. I always think of a painting coming out to meet a viewer part of the way and the viewer making up the other 55% in the dialogue. But what happens then when a painting’s character is rude or shut off, giving 30% or 20%? Maybe with the Three Works show I wasn’t thinking about making too much of a point about all that this time around, but there is still something about how much a painting reveals and over how long it reveals it.
Your Three Works paintings seem to be the result of shifting whims, thoughts and reflections that have coalesced over time into hard forms that nevertheless remain difficult to pin down. It's like they're a portrait or summation of you in your studio sitting, thinking, mixing blue, sipping tea, thinking about the day job, adding red to block out the blue - a culmination of subtle shifts in mood and attitude. They make me think of time passing slowly where nothing much changes, then a flurry of activity... followed by time passing slowly where nothing much changes. I wonder if you can tell us the back story of at least one of the paintings in your Three Works show?
Well that is the process to a degree. I spend a lot of time sat looking at one or two paintings in progress. I try to imagine a number of moves ahead in each painting because I don’t want to do an ‘exit move’ too soon if I can help it. I find that I want to learn or experience something with each one, so if I can see an early exit, which would make a nice looking painting, I always avoid taking it and do something that I know will extend my time with the painting - that is unless there is a particular desire to get somewhere, like with Something I. I knew it was unlikely I'd carry on with it after I'd painted the black shape. I think of it as driving down a motorway when you’re lost... do you take the next exit you can see or risk carrying on? Sometimes you can trick yourself into thinking you’re invested in something, which can make it all too tempting to exit - but then you remember that a potential failure is more interesting than a safe exit.
Sitting with a painting and allowing thoughts to drift in and out is part of the process. It isn’t that a bit of blue represents anything about my life, but I am a deep believer in the power of unconscious thought shaping a painting. I have been thinking about my day job more with the Three Works paintings, and in a sense this has influenced the period of looking at the work in-between the physical painting. It’s very hard to unpick these things and to paraphrase Phillip Guston, I don’t want to understand it analytically.
I go through periods of listening to different music when working on paintings, but it usually has to have a certain kind of flow, anything with too specific an association for me is a distraction. For Hmhm, Haha I was listening a lot to Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, which wouldn’t have been useful to me for Three Works - for the latter, I wanted something a bit softer. I got quite into the album The Way We Play by Marquis Hill for the Three Works paintings. There is a long history of jazz and painting, it’s a bit of a cliché, but I find making painting is absolutely a multi-sensory experience, and what I listen to really does affect what and how I make my work. I sometimes find with jazz that you have to enter the reality of the instruments and believe it before you can accept the rhythm… and this can be really useful when you are trying to find the character of a painting, because you have to create the same amount of clarity if a viewer is going to believe in its reality.
You mentioned how the work summons up a feeling of time passing followed by a flurry of activity and so on, which is funny because there are, absolutely, moments in the studio of boredom, crossed with moments of joy and occasional frenzy - and I'm wondering if all of that is ever really distinguishable? Fatigue is an experience that some may feel undesirable in their work but, really, how great to be able to see moments of occasional boredom in a painting!
You are represented by International 3 in Salford and had your first solo exhibition in 2014. How did that relationship begin and when is your next solo exhibition with them?
Laurence and Paulette are the co-directors of International 3. They visited Manchester Metropolitan University in 2010 when I was in my final year of my BA, so I signed up for a tutorial with them. I remember the conversations around the work seemed to flow really well. After I graduated they put my work in an exhibition of recent graduates in 2010 called How it All Worked Out. Since then they have taken my work to many different art fairs in places like Basel, Cologne and Manchester and helped me with other shows. We had discussed doing a solo show for a while, so over a period of 4 years the relationship moved toward planning for that. I can’t emphasise enough how great they are in terms of development - giving space when it is needed... and encouragement too. For my first solo, which was the first exhibition in their new Salford location, they really encouraged me to allow the show to flow the way I felt it needed to, which I think was important for my development. I’m not sure when my next show will be, but following Three Works, there are a few things I’d like to explore further.
Do you know any good books or essays you can recommend?
I’ve been reading on and off The Sight of Death by T J Clark, which is a diary of observations and poetry on two paintings by Poussin that were hung together for a short period of time at the Getty Museum. I enjoy it because it’s quite messy and rather a brave thing for an academic to publish. He is writing about fleeting thoughts and tries to unpick the unpickable. I’m not aware of another book which literally records the process of sitting down in front of a painting slowly unravelling (or not) - i.e. the change of daylight altering the reading, subtleties becoming bigger over time. It may be a slightly indulgent book - but I kind of like that too.
Talking Painting - Dialogues with 12 Contemporary Abstract Artists is a book by David Ryan I remember borrowing from Chelsea College library. It’s well worth having that on your bookshelf. I even put the library receipt into one of my paintings as a camp way of forcing my work to be in direct dialogue with those conversations.
Painting as Model by Yve Alain Bois is a really great book for me. It was written in the 1980s but I first read it in 2012 and found it to be relevant and useful. I remember being particularly affected by one of the final chapters which shares the same title as the book. Bois talks about some of the things you mentioned earlier about painting after modernism. He talks about a period of necessary mourning over the death of the modern - an awkward grieving. He also questions what it is that has actually died... is it painting or is it an idea of painting? If it is an idea, then it is up to another generation to find a ‘new match within the game of painting’ - which is quite a modernist idea too, actually.