Hester Finch, Marcy, 2014. Watercolor and masking fluid on pergamenta paper; 4.25 x 3.75″.
An interview with London-based artist Hester Finch on the eve of her solo exhibition ‘Alone in Berlin’ at Kinnerton Street, London.
Your solo exhibition will see you present a new body of work. What new threads have you uncovered in the process of realizing these pieces?
The work that I am showing in my forthcoming exhibition is made up of three series, all in small format: ‘The Hospice’, ‘The Accused’ and the ‘Atrocity’ series. All three deal with similar issues of a loss of individual freedom and control, either through illness or imprisonment or war. However, the processes behind them are each quite different, which not only allows me a more comprehensive examination of the ideas but also the pleasure of a variety of painting techniques.
'The Hospice' are painted from life, in oils, on 8 x 6 in linen boards. They are based on my experience of working at a local hospice for 18 months up until autumn 2013. In the patient’s place, there is simply a twisted piece of cloth set in a box, pinned in space by the coloured triangular shadows cast by the walls of the spare hospice room. The folds of the cloth represent the wasted body and the absence.
Hester Finch, The Hospice (Green), 2014. Oil on linen laid on board; 10 x 8″.
The 'Atrocity' paintings are also in oil and the same size. They are based on photographs of places where atrocities have or are taking place and they span the twentieth century from the Russian gulags to a North Korean prison camp. Their dimensions call to mind that of a postcard, and they play with the disconnect of history and the passing of time, as well as lived reality versus the second-hand global reportage that shapes our understandings of a country and a place. They are intended as the holiday brochure snapshot, just slightly off-key.
And finally, there are the miniature portraits, 'The Accused'. The starting point for all of these are police mugshots and they focus on individuals who either would never have expected to find themselves in that situation or indeed should never have been there in the first place and are suffering a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. The photographs capture that moment of judgment from which I have then eliminated elements of their physical identity, either through distortion, or a Magritte-inspired absurdist juxtaposition. They are domestic objects, keepsakes of absent loved ones. These are painted in watercolor, using a bastardization of traditional miniaturist techniques. Painting in this way is much closer to drawing than painting in oils.
These series have all developed alongside each other in the last five months and are a distillation of my various preoccupations over the last few years. The lightbulb moment that triggered at least two of these series and which unites all three was reading Hans Fallada’s book 'Alone in Berlin'.
Hester Finch, Foca, Serbia, 2014. Oil on linen laid on board; 8 x 10″.
Much of your work focuses on the depiction of people. Do you consider your work to be anthropological?
My work is figurative and has often dealt with Biblical (and therefore Art Historical) themes of, for example, judgment and death. I am therefore dealing with the human condition and the psychology of those extremes. Titles are integral to the understanding of my work and my paintings are to some extent narrative. The watercolors that make up 'The Accused' are all titled after the first name of the subject and are intimate reflections of their traumatic experience. All three series are intended to be empathetic and examine the fragile degree of separation between being in control and having that control taken away from you against your will. It is specifically the fear of the threat of violence and the threat of submission.
Over the past couple of years, you have produced several series of paintings, such as your twelve 'Naturist’ compositions and three 'Hospice’ pieces. Do you always work in series? What is it about this way of working that appeals to you?
Working in series is actually a relatively new element of my practice and I feel is probably a natural progression as my ideas have found clarity and purpose. They also provide a structure that tackles the problem of too many ideas, too many starting points and too many technical approaches. By working in series, you are obliged to see an idea through, and through repetition, you create meaning and progression. Each series has its own set of rules which, just like for delinquent children, are very useful in painting – they free you up to experiment within that set framework. They place controls on the arbitrary madness of it all.
Hester Finch, Amber-Nicole, 2014. Watercolur on pergamenta paper; 6.25 x 4.25″.
What part of your working process do you most enjoy?
My experience of painting is that it a balance of extreme pain and delirious joy. Much like anything in life, the element that is the most challenging and difficult often provides the greatest end pleasure. My most pressing aim is it to resist saccharine prettiness. As I touched on earlier, I choose to paint in three distinctly different ways partly for the pure pleasure that each technique provides me: whether it is drawing the detail of the face in ‘The Accused’, or setting geometric shapes of colour against each other in ‘The Hospice’, or painting a bruised and swollen sky in ‘The Atrocity’. But in each case, I also try to destroy in order to complete. In ‘The Accused’ I will lop off the scalp, or I will reduce the foreground of a landscape in ‘The Atrocity’ to a Gertler-inspired simplicity, set incongruously against a photographic rendering of a tree, and in ‘The Hospice’ I slice and chop at the fabric. That conflict is the most satisfying moment.
Where do you see your work going next?
To be confirmed – first the exhibition, then a drink and then a sleep.
'Alone in Berlin’ is curated by Jessica Carlisle and runs from Tuesday 8 to Sunday 13 April at 83 Kinnerton Street, London SW1X 8ED.