Susie Pentelow interviews artist Tamsin Relly following on from her Autumn solo exhibition ‘Jungle Snow’ at The Place Downstairs, London.
Some of the pieces included in your recent solo exhibition 'Snow Jungle’ were inspired by your experiences in Nevada and Utah as part of the Gerson Zevi Land Art Road Trip. How did you work, collect and research whilst on this residency?
My camera is always at hand for gathering images to work from back in the studio. But I also like to make what I can on the move, as it can bring a quality to your mark, that doesn’t quite happen in the studio. I enjoy working with the things that disrupt or shift a creative process in this way. Drawing in a moving car on a gravel road - lines become angular and broken. With no electricity, you can work by the light of the night sky; there is still so much to see when the moon is full - but the forms in the landscape are reduced to shadows that make new shapes and there is a limit to what you can make out on your page as you work. I carried etching plates with me that I had prepared in advance with a thin coat of wax. Inevitably they scratch and wear on the journey. Later, when the plates are processed in the studio, both my deliberate lines and the accidental ‘travel noise’ form part of the final image.
Looking for Unicorns, 2014. (Etching).
Conversations with locals about resources and observing contrasts in the landscape got me thinking. The Southwest holds the wonder of the wilderness and desert and at the same time mind-boggling examples of excessive human consumptions and its’ effects. Between the vast and seeming emptiness, you find the scars of industry - mines, depleted river beds, toxic disposal units - and a culture driving these things: oversized billboards standing out-of-place in the desert landscape, casinos towns and cities – and everything in XXL portions. We visited The Center for Land Use and Interpretation (CLUI) in Wendover, Utah and I found it a very interesting resource around consumption and ecology.
Tamsin Relly at Bonneville Salt Flats.
For Jungle Snow, I was exploring ideas around climate change and constructed or displaced wilderness. I was struck by Las Vegas as a fabricated oasis in the desert – so I made a point of investigating and documenting The Strip when we were there.
Your work deals with the modern culture and lifestyle in terms of its detriment to the environment. How did this agenda play out on your recent residency in Svalbard, an area increasingly threatened by our ecosystem’s imbalance?
The landscape feels so timeless and infinite when you’re there - but the reality of its vulnerability was with me constantly. We saw glaciers calving - which is what ice and glaciers do…and some seasonal fluctuation in growth and shrink is normal. But studying the maps of the coastline the acceleration of their overall retreat is staggering. And you feel it, standing on land only exposed in the last ten or twenty years - some not even mapped yet. The impact that we’ve had on our environment is such a brief moment of relative time is beyond comprehension and so disproportionate to the length of our civilizations’ existence.
Into the White, 2014. (Water-Soluble Oil on Aluminium; 50 x 60 cm).
When a glacier calves the ice that falls is spellbinding; it impressed an image in my mind that I’m not sure I’ll ever really get over. Resting on the water-surface, the fragments looked like giant and ancient crystals. They would stream past our boat for hours, to land on another shoreline and stand like ice or glass sculptures - for days or weeks I guess - slowly shifting shape. Up close, you can see rivers of dust and tiny flecks of rocks caught within the ice for hundreds or thousands of years.
In your paintings for 'Jungle Snow’, you have worked on gesso-primed aluminum sheets - an unusual surface to paint onto, and one which suggests a curious link with your etching (printmaking). What brought this material decision about?
I was working on a project and needed a flat and shallow surface to paint on. My wizardly London framers, John Jones, who help me with artist surfaces, suggested the combination. Previously hooked on linen, I was surprised by what came out of the experiment and how much I liked the qualities it offered. The gesso is opaque, extremely matt and intimidatingly pristine. It makes me think of freshly fallen snow. It has a papery porcelain quality that makes it very receptive to paint and it stains with the lightest touch. This sensitivity makes it a little unforgiving and challenging to work on, yet properly addictive as when it works the subtlest impression stands out in high contrast.
Mirror Pool, 2014. (Water-soluble oil on gesso and aluminum; 46 x 56 cm).
I was excited to find both the process and results shared qualities with my water-based monotypes. As with the work on gesso, the printing process also creates a very crisp and articulated mark. Both call for a very direct and fluid paint application and as I tend to leave a lot of surface untouched, the marks seem to pop off the respective surfaces: the gesso panel or the printed image on paper.
I used both these mediums in Jungle Snow, and both lent themselves to the lush yet frosty images I was making.
Titles such as 'Water is the new gold’ and 'Illusions of Permanence’ contextualize your work in terms of its environmental agenda. How big a part do you want your titles to play?
Images can be read in so many ways. And while I would always equally encourage the viewer to draw their own conclusions from a direct experience of the work, at times titles do play an important role for me in contributing to the narrative and offering direction to my motivations behind the work.
And my approach varies, depending on the needs of the work. Some hint at the political agenda or give specificity to my reference material; some don’t offer much more than a description of the composition or palette I’ve used and others are just playful nonsense - that may have a personal association for me. Maybe the best are the playful political ones.
Jungle Snow, Installation view, 2014. The Place Downstairs, London.
I picked up the phrase ‘Water is the new gold’ from a conversation I had with a local farmer I sat next to on my flight to Las Vegas for the Land Art Road Trip. While the region is going through a severe water shortage, it takes a considerable amount of it to sustain the city; and the lawns are green and the pools are full. I was thinking about this a lot while working with the Vegas imagery.
Where can we see your work in the coming months?
I’ve been invited to take part in Painter Printmakers - the launch exhibition of RA Art Sales - a new initiative at the Royal Academy where limited editions and unique works are available for sale onsite or online. Showcased in the Keeper’s House, the exhibition includes work by twelve artists and demonstrates how printmaking feeds into painting, and vice versa. It runs until April 2015.
I have work in Time To Hit The Road - a group show of work by previous participants of The Gerson Zevi Land Art Road Trip at Leila Heller Gallery, 568 West 25th Street, Chelsea NYC from 18th December - Jan 10th (closed for holidays Dec 24th - Jan 3rd) with an opening party on18th Dec 6-9pm.
For more information on Tamsin Relly’s practice, visit http://www.tamsinrelly.com.