Gemma Nelson, Citadel of chair legs and various upholstery, 2013. Indian ink, enamel and acrylic on canvas; 59 x 42 cm.
London-based artist Gemma Nelson treads the balance between chaos and delicacy in her obsessively constructed paintings. Her work can currently be seen in the group exhibition GROWTH at Karin Janssen Project Space, London.
The pieces in ‘Growth’ center around a very organic, spontaneous way of working. How much do you know about how you want a painting to look when you start?
A lot of reading and research goes behind each new body of work, investigating appropriate symbolism and thoughts. I have a composition in mind when I work on a new painting, but the exact structure of painting occurs within the weeks and months it takes to create. Sometimes the painting completely changes direction halfway through making the painting as my ideas alter throughout the time it is created. I am currently researching folklore relating to cults such as ancient Baalism of Mesopotamia and Osirism of Egypt, which were rich in symbology and rituals. I am also researching the practice of tattooing within ancient religions; often wrapping a person or an object in patterns and symbols would offer spiritual assistance in fertility rituals. I almost construct the work ritually; the process is rather obsessive, enfolding the paintings in various patterns and symbolic representations that are quite organic in construction.
Your work must be very labor intensive and absorbing. What is this process like for you?
My paintings are a bit like characters, I refer to them from their conception by their gender. He/she is constructed of several layers of dressage. I start with cleansing their surfaces (priming and canvas preparation)and then follow with adding their underwear (initial sketches), adding their clothes in layers until finally, I add their jewelry and accessories (sewing and adding sequins). I have quite an intense relationship with the paintings as they can take many weeks and sometimes months in construction. They act a little like a personal diary or a tapestry, some days I will be working very intensely on an area of the painting; slowing down my heartbeat and developing the landscape or constructing the hidden narratives within the patterns. Other days I will work looser and more erratically; pouring enamel onto the surface, rinsing the surface paint from the canvas to stain it and quickly blowdrying areas to create ripples in the paint.
Gemma Nelson, GROWTH, 2013. Indian ink, enamel and acrylic on circular canvas; 30 cm diameter.
Your titles suggest fantastical and surreal narratives. Are these ideas tied to the paintings from conception, or do they develop later on?
Sometimes the titles come from conception, referencing a text I have been reading or an idea that has influenced me. In the past, I have used titles from essays by Susan Sontag, (Pornographic Imagination) or Mary Daly, (Gyn/Ecology). Often the title will become much much more coherent once the painting is complete - when I am detached from living and breathing on the surface. The paintings themselves depict Trompe-l'oeil worlds, the characters, and shapes within performing silent dances.
As a child, I made friends with my bedroom curtains. Being heavily patterned, I saw creatures within the fabric, spaces, and imaginary worlds. The folds in the fabric distorting the repetition of the pattern and allowing the creatures to move almost like a storyboard. They were my protectors, I was their queen. Years later I read 'The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and could completely identify with her protagonist- as she was swallowed into the patterns of the walls, I was entrenched in my curtains. As puberty set in, the creatures also reflected the uncertainty of my changing body- they also grew breasts and I was conscious of their genitals which I found within the pattern.
Sometimes my paintings have a shorter, more direct title, like my painting 'Flaps’. 'Flaps’ denote boundaries, separating external and internal spaces. They are almost like a hermaphrodite of space, as they are essentially the gateway of both possibilities. They are both outside and inside the space at the same time. Curtains, like flaps, are like sentries; they stop the outside from coming in at the cost of not being able to see out. There is some vulnerability to the curtain or the flap; entering the flap for the first time means that you are entering a new space, you are exposed to the unknown territory.
In my painting 'Flaps’, I wanted to subvert the pattern. I wanted to create something intrinsically 'feminine’ but entwine phalluses into the work. The work is obsessively made, cellular and delicate yet also on closer inspection is gloopy, perhaps a bit grubby, quite clumsy and sexual. The work in itself is acting as a flap; it is a balance of meticulous detail and loose brush marks, the feminine combines with the masculine and also loosely depicting the 'flap’ barrier of the labia in intercourse.
Gemma Nelson, Flaps, 2013. Indian ink and enamel on canvas; 150 x 130 cm.
As a woman, are you ever afraid that making overtly feminine work will lead to you being taken less seriously in an art world still dominated by male artists?
No, I don’t particularly see the reason as to why 'the feminine’ should be taken less seriously nor am I concerned as to how it relates to my gender. If I was a man I would be making the same work, as the sensibilities would be exactly the same. The paintings themselves take on a gender by themselves, the fact they are patterned or colorful I don’t think makes them 'feminine’. The subject matter perhaps hints at female sexuality but also relates directly to the masculine. I think the nature of obsessive, delicate work traditionally has been seen as a female trait, especially incorporating sewing into the pieces but I would like to think that in today’s world this is androgenic activity.
You have several exciting projects coming up. Can you tell us a bit about them?
In January I will be taking part in a group show, 'You are not alone’ at Stoke Newington Gallery in aid of the London Icarus Project. I have an exhibition in February at Kristin Hjellegjerde/ARTECO, alongside Martine Poppe and Amy Stephens. I have recently been nominated for the Kids Of Dada (KOD) art prize which will also take place in February. KOD will be working with me in collaboration with some big fashion houses on a range of t-shirts in the New Year.
Gemma Nelson’s work can be seen at GROWTH at Karin Janssen Project Space, 213 Well Street, London E9 6QU until 17 November.
For up to date news of new exhibitions and projects, visit www.gemmanelson.co.uk.