Zanny Mellor, Expose, 2015. Acrylic and aluminium paint on board; 165 x 122 cm.
Zanny Mellor’s paintings and photograms explore states of flux and impermanence through the application, manipulation, and erasure of paint.
She met Susie Pentelow for an in-depth interview about her painterly practice.
Your gestures are always very present in your work – is that important?
Yes, it has become integral. During my MA the painting process became all about the now, painting in the present, rather than referring to a visual memory or a location. I realized that I had become attached to the imagery of places that I had visited, places in the past so that there was always a sense of looking back. I have always been interested in trying to make visible things which are inherently invisible, like systems, flows of information, traffic, and human movement. In earlier bodies of work this relied on drawing and photography but now I am using a personal, physical energy to understand the sensations created by a place, mediating these through the body.
On research trips to Iceland and Patagonia, I was traveling in remote landscapes and trying to make sense of how much slower things become - you’re afforded more mental space and time. But in London, you run on a different speed, like you’re running in digital time. So the paintings and photograms have become informed by the moment, in what I suppose has been a rejection of imagery and a way to access something internal and sensory through a gestural language. Traveling to those sites have meant that action, process, and material have come to the forefront on my practice and I’ve come up with this phrase that seems to fit - using your ‘body as a barometer’.
Zanny Mellor, Swipe, 2015. Acrylic and aluminum paint on board; 165 x 122 cm.
It almost sounds performative.
Yeah, it really has opened those doors. I’ve been comparing oil and acrylic as a way of exploring the speeds of mediums, attempting to find slowness through a medium and never doing so. I’ve been referring to geological history, comparing the states of paint both fluid and solid, to the processes of change we see in the landscape. In a diptych called ‘Petrify’, I flooded the canvas with black and then disrupted the surface with reductive arcs the length of my arm. They appear shell-like but also mechanical and I think this ambiguity invites associations of both urban/mechanical and natural/organic. So they are kind of ‘one hit wonders’ and with these paintings, there’s not much room for mistakes. Although that’s the wrong way of putting it, I don’t want it to be perfect or like a machine made them. I want there to be slippage and error, to communicate the fragility of gesture. The title ‘Petrify’ also refers to this moment of intense action where I have disrupted the delicately applied field of fluid black paint in order to navigate the square composition. There seemed to be a finality to it but even though this piece was in oil, I didn’t adjust the composition after the initial event.
In other works like the painting ‘Dejavu’, I am painting over a longer timescale, using a process of reductive layering and so they are less performative or momentary, but still very physical in the making. They are built by repetitively adding and erasing marks, leaving traces of past actions, working more deeply with the material of paint. It’s still a very ‘present’ way of working as you have to be totally in tune with the state of the paint and react to it at just the right moment before it dries. So it’s a slightly different process to the speed paintings.
Zanny Mellor, Petrify (diptych), 2015. Oil and aluminum paint on cotton; 110 x 110 cm each.
You mentioned you’ve taken research trips to Patagonia and Iceland - how have these fed into your work?
I’ve always been fascinated by natural sciences and I visited these places to explore their geology and hydrological systems. My earlier work focused on architecture; drawing on location, using photography and mapping for reference, visualizing the collective movement, energy and change both human and archeological. This has translated into my interest and research of the processes happening in the landscape, which are often imperceptible, happening over seasons, decades or across geological time which can be difficult to see or comprehend.
I have explored a sense of flux or instability but with traveling came the idea of trying to explore the energy of a mental space. I was trying not to rely on imagery but trying to explore something more sensory and what it feels like to be affected by a space. And process is key to this. In Iceland, everything is in flux; the weather, the tectonic plates pulling apart beneath your feet, seasonal melt, and glacial shift. So in comparison to the city, it is this understanding of climatic instability, of systems not created by man that are the dominant forces and I suppose a sense of vulnerability.
Also, the idea of remoteness has become of interest, both mental and physical. Art making is always reactive to an experience and I suppose I had been searching for something away from the saturated nature of the city. I want to explore the territory of the canvas as another place or site, a surface where you can explore something internal or emotional, which invites these ideas of measuring and using your body as a barometer to explore time, memory and energy.
Zanny Mellor, Dejavu, 2014. Acrylic on board; 50 x 40 cm.
Your photograms are really intriguing – could you say a bit about the process and when you started working with it?
The seasonal fluctuations and amount of light that countries in the northern hemisphere experience has always been of interest to me. Visiting Iceland expanded on that and got me thinking “How do you paint with light?” I always found that I used a camera to record how light falls on something but in this instance, I didn’t want to represent an object or a place but to use light as an active material or energy itself.
Back in London I also became interested in urban materials that affected or reflected light and so I wanted to explore it through both artificial and natural materials. Working in the darkroom also provides a challenging process of making without vision and without certainty. This invites comparisons of chance and control, working without a recipe in an honest way and being led by the process. You’re deprived of one of your key senses and it is exciting to challenge photography’s relationship with the creation of an image. I’m not bringing a past moment back into the present by enlarging from negatives and so visual memory associations are also questioned.
Zanny Mellor, Blind Light 25. Unique photogram; 40 x 30 cm.
They are essentially multiple exposure paintings. I am catching the shadows of paint which is being constantly moved and reworked after each exposure, so nothing is stable. I want to show a sense of instability and so the fluidity of the paint is key to this. However, there is a paradox here as photography is a language of fixity and the unique photograms I make are shadows fixed onto photographic paper. They are made quickly, a layering of moments where the paint is constantly alive, not dry. The paint used in the process is cleaned up at the end of a dark room session so there is no negative or plate and therefore no physical trace of how it was made. The uniqueness is very important here but I like the fact that in the creation of a set of photograms, the very same molecules of pigment and medium as used cyclically to create a number of works.
The temporal layering in the photograms places them centrally in my practice. They feed into and are fed by the two different speeds of paintings. They are both instantaneous and unique like the paintings ‘Expose’ or ‘Petrify’, but the marks and compositions are more varied and visually busy, as seen in the ‘Afterimage’ series and work like ‘Dejavu’. These works explore perception, inviting a viewer into an active, visual response as the marks, layering and sometimes reflectivity of the material are not so easily understood. They continue this sense of instability and the impossibility of stillness, which I would like to expand on with other mediums in the future such as light projections.
Zanny Mellor, Afterimage 2, 2015. Acrylic and aluminum paint on cotton; 100 x 100 cm.
Is there a particular book or text that has been central to your practice?
I’m researching across quite a number of areas so there isn’t one key text that I come back to. I’m cross-referencing the physicality of painting, the alchemical processes of photography, ideas of referentiality and trace both human and natural and ideas relating to perception and optics. I am still working out what the image means to me, why I kept covering up images and erasing them so it is a ripe area of research between photographic and painting practices.
Newer territories of research that have opened up more recently are looking at eastern philosophies which explore this sense of flux and transience, the directness of Japanese calligraphic brushwork and the idea of simultaneity in ancient Chinese landscape painting, where you don’t focus directly on one part of a painting but your eyes are always kept moving.
I also want to read into themes relating to psycho-geography and explore how the digitization of our lives affects our understanding of time and place, and what it is doing to us physiologically and psychologically.
Zanny Mellor, Blind Light 9. Unique photogram; 40 x 30 cm.
Where can we see your work next?
I’m in a group show called ‘Exceptional’ at Scream Gallery in April, which features a number of artists working in abstract, systematic, geometric and reductive painting practices.
I have another exhibition in April/May called ‘Aether’ at Imperial College and that will show the work of alternative photographers in discussion with an astrophysicist from the university.
Another project happening in May is an exhibition called ‘Creative Reactions’, which is part of the Pint of Science Festival happening in London, affiliated with UCL. It involves collaborations between artists, poets and scientists and I will be working with another astrophysicist here which is inviting new areas of research into energy, matter, and light in space rather than on earth. I think these will be hugely interesting projects as they invite us to explore ways of visualizing what cannot be seen with the human eye and further ideas relating to measurement and systems.
To find out more about Zanny Mellor’s work, visit http://zannymellor.com.