Catherine: Jacqueline, Can you explain how it was that you shifted from working figuratively in the last few years to exploring more abstract themes in your sea/bed paintings, 'Fold Upon Fold'?
Jacqueline: I started the water pictures after noticing that the bed in the painting 'Psyche and Eros' told the story better by itself than did the figures. I had noticed this but did not pursue the idea until I went to California in the summer of 1993, after having been much impressed with the Magritte exhibition at the Hayward that year. Suddenly I saw in the Californian landscape the possibilities of combining forms of the landscape and the analogous forms of the bedclothes in a much more lucid, abstract way so that, in a sense, viewers could see one thing or the other, and then combine the two in their minds - although in fact some people only see one or the other set of forms, bed or seashore. I realised that this was a richer way of expressing ideas of sexuality than my 'Disclosing Eros' paintings and the series of prints I had only just completed. I was now bringing water and the seashore, landscape and the drapery of the bed together in a rhythmic and sensual way. It also freed me from the tyranny of the figure which, although I think it is the most potent form of expression, has its own insistent demands within a picture, not really allowing the exploration of colour, movement, and composition, that I now found in the water series.
Catherine: Why then did you choose to re-introduce the figure in your more recent work?
Jacqueline: I went back to the figure because in a sense I'd gone as far as I could for the time being with the beds, the traces of the body, traces of water. I wanted to explore the idea of identity again, which I couldn't very well do with the more abstract way I'd been working for three years. So, one day I saw, out of the corner of my eye, two girls clowning around on the street, looking as if they were both struggling to get into the same coat. That impression stimulated a whole set of ideas connected with my earlier pictures about identity; the coat became a sort of a mantle of identity. I began to explore, with a couple of acrobats from Circus Space, the idea of two people trying to get into the same coat, struggling over it, sharing it, playing tug-of war with it, perhaps in the end dividing it, each ending up with her own coat. I connected it with the idea of mother-daughter cells and then lots of ideas sprang up which I am still exploring.
Catherine: My observation of the recent work is that you're now combining abstract elements, folds of the drapery with figures, so that there is a sense in which the story line is the formal play of abstraction and figuration. There are two figures - a daughter separating from her mother, or a sister pulling away from another sister, and figuration is in some form of conflict with the abstraction of the mantle which is being pulled between the two figures. Is that the case? You have said to me before that you have always tried to find a form which in some sense encapsulates the theme of the work. Would that be a fair description of what your work is concerned with at the moment?
Jacqueline: I think that's right. The coat is identity, or flesh, and I think that the coat is the theme of the work now. The coat is very basically about identity. If you think about two artists, trying to keep out of each other's way in one sense, but always getting into exploring the same themes, even without knowing what the other is up to. That is where some of these ideas came from - how do you keep your own identity when someone close to you has a similar identity,, Tins, sisters, mother and daughter, friends. I worked on this idea with the two brothers who modelled for me in 1989- 90 for the 'Paradise Now' series. They were the sons of a friend, and I had known them since they were children. I tried to explore similar themes at that time, conflict between love and need for separation, but working from the point of view of an observer.
Catherine: Yes, but what I was trying to get at was the ways in which the formal problems in the work reflect the thematic concerns. You talk about a struggle between two closely related people, and I suppose that what I'm picking up on is the struggle within the painting, for instance between line and colour. My feeling about your work has always been that you began as somebody who worked with line rather than with colour, so that in your paintings, I always see a struggle between the colour and the line. There's a kind of collision between the solidity that's suggested by the colour and the flow of the line which is particularly dominant in the water paintings. I see some of the formal struggles in the work reflecting the kinds of struggle that you're describing between the two women who, in a sense, are symbiotically united through blood and through identification - both being female.
Jacqueline: Line delineates form and keeps it in its place, usually. It isolates one object from another in a picture. The colour within the form is trying to get out and relate to the other colours outside of the line. Many artists other than myself, who are interested in the expressive quality of objects, have had to employ various strategies to move across and around the picture space. The forms in the sea/bed paintings were made with layers and layers of line which moved back and forth and flowed into each other, and did not have to stop at the edge. That liberation allowed me to use colour in a much more exhilarating way. Returning to the figure, and to a complex set of idea-based work, I was again confronted with the problem of colour being contained, and the problem of composing the whole picture around the knots of form and colour working so strongly together, in fact doing just the opposite from the sea/bed Paintings. I don't want to claim too much for myself and say that I knew in advance that the struggles in the pictures would be reflected that way, but it is certainly a problem which exists in my work. I think I have this in common with artists like Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Picasso and many others who have been, as I have said, primarily interested in form rather than colour or composition.
Catherine: You say that the drapery carried some of the emotion and the tension in the struggle between the two figures, but it's also the area in which the two figures have become confused, where they join, where they are fused...
Jacqueline: . That's very true. You know that sometimes the drapery can act almost as an umbilical cord so that there is that underlying kind of reference to umbilical cords, to meshes, to deep physical and psychological connections
Catherine: You also use red which has both sexual and procreative connotations.
Jacqueline: Yes, deliberately, but red also refers to flesh. Some of the drapery in the pictures will eventually be coloured, some of it red. It could resemble the layering I used to see in the operating theatre, the flesh colour, the underlying layer of fat, bright yellow and the more muted colours of the organs seen through their membranes, the blueish veins, etc. But, I originally used red in the coat in the 'Divided Self' pictures and it also harks back the 'Shirt of Flame' series within the 'Psyche and Eros' work I did around desire. Red not only stands for warmth, but it is also fire, and sexuality and it's threatening, angry. There are a lot of connotations for red.
Catherine: Can that anger be directed back to the mother? Do you think that we have to free ourselves from the identities that our mothers wore in order to be whoever it is that we want to be? Do you see that as something that's a product of the way in which identity is imposed upon us by social conditioning and social position, or do you see this as a sort of natural process which everybody has to go through whether they exist in a patriarchal system or a matriarchal system?
Jacqueline: I think that one of the major projects of a girl's adolescence is to differentiate herself from her mother. This can be a deeply painful process which by some curious logic makes us very angry with the mother we loved only yesterday Perhaps we see her as less able to stride out into the world as some men do, and as we ourselves hope to do. We want to liberate ourselves from her, not to resemble her in any way during this period of rebellion, but we are also full of fear of the adult world. We can a
Catherine: omplish the separation through a growing confidence in our own abilities. We can become friends with out mothers again after we have established our own identity and territory. Interestingly, in the process of making this work, I have realised that it is very difficult, if not impossible to identify myself in the picture as mother and daughter simultaneously (which was one of my original intentions). It requires the same difficult shift of focus which the 'Fold' paintings demanded from sea to bed. As a mother you can not really see that your child is having the same struggle for liberation from you that you had with your own mother.
Catherine: Do you think that its essential for the survival of the mother's identity that a daughter splits from her?
Jacqueline: Absolutely, especially as an artist, she must recover and nourish her own more self-centred identity which she had to put into cold storage when her children were small, and must gradually resurrect it in the studio. She may find to her amazement, as I did, that she has become a new, much more mature artist; that her understanding of the world had grown while she was doing all the maternal things. All the time that she was paying that incredible kind of attention to the growing child, she was, in fact, privileged to relive her own childhood and remember so many things that otherwise might be lost. And of course, all that time as a mother she was still observing the world and thinking, although she may have done little finished work at that time. The return to work requires time alone, and the shedding of the all the exterior identities and masks which she uses to manoeuvre through her daily life.
Catherine: Do you think that figurative painting still has a role to play in art today given the prominence of electronic media and other more immediate forms of communication? Is there something about painting which satisfies some aspect of a human need which video, for instance, fails to provide? What do you feel the role of figurative painting is today?
Jacqueline: Well, electronic media can do some of the things now that painting could do uniquely before, that is create new forms, combine forms, but I think that the tactile quality is what's missing. Even when you use a programme like 'paint brush' it still doesn't feel like a paint stroke. I think we need the tactile quality because it's like flesh. We react to the surface of the canvas the way we react to the flesh of the 'other'. A painting is always something you can come back to and it's always there to look at again and again. In a way still photography does that, too, old black and white photography particularly. It's something you can dream yourself into, which you can't do with a moving image. The moving image has its own, different, spell. One might say that a painting should have a melody which is easily grasped, a kind of lure to bring the viewers in. Then, depending on the skill of the artist, there can be layers and layers of complexities, harmonies, dissonances and so forth. I don't think that painting can ever reach the sublime quality of music but this complexity is what brings us back to paintings again and again.
Catherine: For me your pictures have a kind of presence, a sort of permanence which is very close to that sense of the mother's presence which is there even when she is absent, even when she's dead, and that's something which is very difficult to produce in an ephemeral medium or a medium that's dependent on the presence of electricity, while, in effect, your paintings are only dependent on the presence of light . They remain objects to which we can relate, and in that sense reflect the theme of the work which to me, at any rate, has always been about relationships, whether its relationships to a mother, to another human being or a relationship with oneself. For me that's been the most powerful and enduring quality in the work..
Jacqueline: I think there will always be paintings and always be people who love to experience them in the flesh. I think we both share that passion for those paintings which have many resonances, whatever the style. Painting is an enduring medium - in a way that certain interpersonal dynamics seem to be a constant in every era. I think that our social conditioning in our present patriarchy or in some idyllic matriarchy would nor obviate the need for mother-daughter separation. We have plenty of evidence of this from literature and from anthropological studies. Even within small communal societies, where women associate principally with each other, as soon as the hormones start flowing, the conflict between mothers and daughters begin, usually only to be resolved by the daughter establishing her own area of influence.
Catherine: How can you sum up your work in relation to your life?
Jacqueline: You speak about the conflicts within my work - perhaps this represents the basic conflict in my life which I have tried to express in the subject matter, delving into the dark and celebrating the light. I was born into the knowledge of evil of the 1 930s, which no one of my generation could escape. That shadow often oppresses me, at the same time, I have had a love affair with nature, which sustains me. I see the world as full of intricacies, complexities and wonders and surprises, yet in spite of that, most things are constant. Because of the legacy of violence, much art of this century focuses on the dark, the distorted, the ugly, and has found its strength there. However, that has meant that the light, the beautiful and the joyful are seen as weak. In fact, it is much harder to depict such feelings. As I grow older, I am much more interested in the light, and the 'Fold Upon Fold' (sea/bed) paintings were my attempt to make exhilarating work. The coat drawings and paintings are attempts to bring my earlier dark work into a new arena, perhaps chiaroscuro? I think I just keep going, trying to make sense of my life as a woman artist and to make meaningful work out of the experiences and observations of that life.
Catherine Elwes is a video artist. She writes regularly for Art Monthly and is Senior Lecturer at Camberwell School of Art.