Susie Pentelow interviews Abigail Box, Rebecca Molloy and Kelly Sweeney about their current exhibition 'Strobe Maneuvre’, a painting exhibition in the dark.
‘Strobe Maneuvre’ is unusual in that it is staged in the dark, with the space and work illuminated by strobe lights and a blue lamp. How did this idea come about?
KS: We had a mutual interest in playing around with light and working with it in a way that instead of adding clarity and illumination to a show it would provide a level of interference that changed the viewing environment the work inhabited. We discussed different aspects of this concept at length and bounced ideas around before experimenting with various light sources and placement. Curating and hanging the show in the light within which it is seen was a challenge and being under the glare of the strobe became strangely normal for a while. Each work had to be carefully placed so that the light brought something new to the piece, in a way that both as individual artists and collectively as a group we felt worked.
RM: Myself and Kelly went to an exhibition in the Vaults at Waterloo last year. We went to find the toilets together and to get to them we had to walk through this dimly lit tunnel, which then led into this vast space with lots of brick work and stud walls, it felt big enough to be a club. Somewhere at the back were the toilets. I remember both of us being quite in awe of the space; the lighting was subdued so that you had to be careful of your movements. Kelly then mentioned how cool it would be to have a painting show in there and the beginnings of Strobe Maneuvre happened! I really like the idea that a physical experience and the sensations of navigating through a dark and new space was the starting point for this exhibition.
What brought the three of you together for this show?
KS: Strobe Maneuvre is the result of many conversations, both sane and absurd but all pretty energetic. There is a shared excitement and open-mindedness that we shared about what exactly the show would look, be and feel like.
AB I think it became important to us that we didn’t fully know what the eventual outcome of the exhibition would be. That the construction or placement of the work in the space should be an extension of the experimental nature of the original idea and reflective of all of these lively conversations.
KS: Rebecca and I shared an interest in working with light and had had conversations previously about exhibiting in a space where we could control the lighting. Abi and I were both working with fluorescence as a color palette. Working together seemed like an obvious thing to do and once we started the strobe ball rolling it gained momentum very quickly.
RM: Yes, so after our initial discussions about a painting show in the dark, I remember visiting Abi’s studio. She had these really delicate abstract paintings. On the base were layers of fluorescent marks which were then whitewashed to push the marks back. I fell in love with them, they were beautiful, quiet and distant but at the same time, there are these loud marks that are existing under the surface. It occurred to me that these paintings would work in this show, to diminish them even further with no light, it would push Abi’s process of abstracting and layering even further. So from then, we began working together as a threesome.
AB: When Rebecca and Kelly first mentioned having a show in the dark I immediately started to look forward to the possibility of working with a strobe light. In this series of paintings I’ve worked from images of explosions and had been keen to experiment with a strobe light’s explosive flashing and movement as an environment for the work to be shown in. I was drawn further into the idea after Kelly and I shared an observation for how the fluorescents in our paintings change throughout the day. In daylight the neons are muted, then, in the evening as it gets darker the colors begin to ping.
What parallels or dissonances does this exhibition highlight in your three respective practices?
KS: The interruption of the viewing experience by the strobe creates a space that feels uncomfortable. It is reminiscent of a low budget horror film. It sets a scene. A flickering light is rarely a good sign that everything is okay and I think this creates discord and an environment where all of the work wears a sinister mask which is interesting as some of the pieces are independently unassuming and delicate.
AB: Yes completely. Strobe Maneuvre’s unsympathetic environment somewhat dismantles usual expectations. Nothing has a neutral footing, instead, everything is equally tainted with a layer of pretense. Although our intentions differ I think each of us, within our work, regularly reflect on how things are presented to us.
RM: A lot of my practice is based around concealment. I use paint frequently to hide things, to decorate things and to make things look nice. I like playing with the idea of the way we present ourselves, but also what’s going on inside. So, in the video piece that I show, there’s a lot of gory sound effects with materials being used to suggest internal organs, yet the video and sculpture have a lot of playful colors, textures, and surfaces to counteract this and to give a sense of decoration. I feel that all three of us have something in our work that is hidden, whether that’s through marks being diminished in Abi’s or things lurking in Kelly’s paintings, there’s a sense of the unknown which I feel connects the work.
In Abi’s work, I feel she's fundamentally intrigued by the process of painting. So, she explores the space on the canvas; structure, color and mark making. I think although this appears in mine and Kelly’s works, Abi is driven by these things and they are the work. I think this distinction in the show is important. It allows the exhibition to explore how each of us handles and deals with paint differently.
KS: There is, of course, obvious visual language that as artists we all share… the fluorescence of the paint, the fusion of the threatening with the absurd yet our individual practices are driven by very different concerns yet the show illuminates a dialect between our work that speaks its own native tongue.
'Strobe Maneuvre’ is described as a multi-disciplinary painting exhibition that includes sculptural work, video, and painting. What is it that unites all of this work under the banner of painting?
KS: For me, the three-dimensional and video pieces serve as sculptural and filmic intervention for painting, and I continue to work with a multi-disciplinary approach that facilitates a state of questioning around what defines this medium for me as an artist. For me, it is all part of the painting process. It always comes back to painting. I guess it is about considering individual approach and perception rather than outcome. It is something we discuss often. It’s a fluid arena.
RM: My video piece sits within a pink phallic sculpture. There is no actual 'painting’ apart from the fact that I painted the sculpture with a pink gloss. Most people would probably not call it painting. I don’t think it's a painting, but it is painting.
To expand on this slightly, over the past year my work has been exploring what painting actually is. Abi and I went to the Trelex Residency in Switzerland together, and my main area of exploration was to try and make paintings without actually using any paint. So a lot of food materials such as chocolate milk and whipped cream were used in video works as an alternative to the painted mark. Over time the work developed to think about taking the values of painting and to use it within other mediums. So for example I began making mini installations which I then video, they were very stage-like and resembled tableaux. They were pictures, they just happened to be moving and on a video screen. The video on show at Strobe Maneuvre is all about paint, the idea of it being a material of play, or that it can be used to cover surfaces. I feel that whether my work is video or object-based it is always about painting.
AB: I enjoyed being around for this. During the residency, Rebecca would treat all supermarket trips as a chance to buy 'art materials’. Something like spotting the chocolate milk would be a revelatory moment and we would stand in the isle discussing at length how it could be spilled across the glass table back at the residency studio or we would be drawing comparisons between the premixed fondant icing and texture of clay. There are a whole load of unlikely antics (such as craving to work with a strobe light) which for me count towards making a painting. I find extra curricular activities help to keep it all wide open.
The nature of this exhibition gives the viewer a unique experience, but it must also be strange for you, as the artists, to see your work in a new light. What changed for you in viewing your work in this environment?
KS: My work belongs in the dark. I consider it to be its natural habitat. It’s like the work becomes animated, alive. The inanimate move. The combination of the dark and the strobe brings a life force to it. I like the opportunity for deception. What really excited me about exhibiting at Unit 3 was the lack of natural light. It is of course not always possible or desirable even to exhibit in the dark so Strobe Maneuvre has provided fertile ground for me.
RM: I was actually surprised at how much I loved all of the work in the dark, it felt so right, that each piece of work was doing its own thing with the Strobe. My piece is also situated just as you come in the door, I love that because it’s an obstruction, it’s the one thing you shouldn’t do when people can’t see very well - put something in the way. Although no one has or probably will walk into it, it plays with that sensation of feeling in close proximity to something. It’s very bodily and I love the idea that my work can activate those feelings, I think that it’s a triumph to be able to resemble that bodily experience and it’s something I’d like to develop further within my own installations.
AB: Right from the beginning, we were set to embrace the gaps between our understanding and reasoning. By no means frivolously but in a way which meant nothing was ever concrete and everything was changeable. This also meant that once the exhibition was up there was a lot for us to distill. The exhibition text is a compilation of a few sentences from our ongoing, note-like conversation regarding the show coming together. Selecting parts which highlight our openness to ambiguity and changes in direction, as well as the parts which record our attempts to sometimes pinpoint what is it that we mean or what a part of the exhibition might be about more exactly. It reads as semi-nonsense but it is what a lot of our conversation was like.. “extremely partial to general outpourings”.
What do the next few months have in store for the three of you?
KS: It has been a busy summer with Strobe Maneuvre (Unit 3, London), Hix Award (CNB Gallery, London) and Painted Surfaces (Surface Gallery, Nottingham) and so I am looking forward to spending some focused time in the studio. I have work in Zeitgeist which opens on 25 September and runs until October and then I have a residency lined up in Switzerland.
RM: I have quite a few projects coming to an end at the moment, I’ve just completed a residency at the City and Guilds of London Art School and I also had a solo show at the VITRINE Gallery during the summer. In April, I was awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Award, so I’m currently working on a series of 'paintings’ for this. I’m developing the links between sculpture and painting further, and I’m thinking about making paintings that exist on stilts. After that, who knows what will happen.
AB: Aside from avoiding strobe lights for a while, I have a bit of a clearing ahead of me so I’d like to focus on making new work. I’d like to brew over everything I’ve taken on board working on shared projects such as Strobe Maneuvre and the Trelex Residency. As well, I would like to study a piece I recently finished, a large abstract painting for use in a collaborative project with artist Iavor Lubomirov. Iavor is likely to cut it up and so I painted it with a sense of disconnect which turned out to be useful in finding 'new ways of putting paint to canvas’.
'Strobe Maneuvre’ opened on 30 July at Unit 3 Projects, ASC Studios, London E3 3LT and runs until 18 Sept, with a closing party from 6-10 pm. For more information, visit http://unit-3.tumblr.com.http://unit-3.tumblr.com.