PEER FORUM is a peer-mentoring group funded by Artquest and hosted by Camden Arts Centre, taking place over the course of a year. This year’s peer-mentoring group, established by Alicia Tsigarides, brings together a group of artists to examine the representation of femininity. Each month following their session, the group will document their findings in a series of posts.
PEER FORUM invited artist Hannah Murgatroyd to lead session 4. Following her MA at the Royal College of Art in 2006, she attended the The Royal Drawing School and now works from her studio in Spike Island, Bristol. Her paintings explore seasons, landscapes and emotions, primarily led by the body. She has a cast of protagonists that reoccur throughout her works, springing from the history of the figure as told through high art, popular culture and personal narrative. Alicia Tsigarides interviews Hannah to discover more about her work, discussing the lavish, bawdy and liberated body.
AT: When did you start painting?
HM: I started to truly paint in 2009, on a residency in Leipzig’s Spinnerei. Neo Rauch had his studio upstairs. It was the first time I had a room to myself where no-one could walk in and disturb the activity of my mind. Solitude is difficult to find, and undervalued. I began a body of work there entitled Lumpenstadt — or Rag City — which I saw as a version of the world based on the sense of myself as a gleaner picking through the rags of art history, ironic seeing as I didn’t study painting and only ventured in the National Gallery for the first time when I was 28, having thought it was full of old dead men. Which it was. What had passed me by was that I loved the works of these old dead men, was voracious for the scale of their ambition, and by drawing from their paintings, began to understand that drawing for me was really thinking about painting.
AT: Your work is constructed from a variety of references, sourced not only from art history but also autobiographical experiences and popular culture. Grow or Let Go is a great painting, featuring two women wrestling in the mud. Can you talk about what influenced this work?
HM: I began with a background I’d seen in a beautiful Gainsborough pen and ink drawing of a landscape. The original intention was to leave the surface very open and unpainted. I’d been looking at women wrestlers of the 70s and 80s and their floormat-thudding tough bodies, totally different from today’s ripped muscle women. I felt these women were so outside of the mainstream that they offered space to explore. At first the blonde was more like Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, who has always been an important artist for me. The trees got very dark, like in a fairy tale, which is not an aesthetic I’m into so I looked to 19th century Russian landscape painters like Ivan Shishkin to offer me a way with landscape. These paintings have been mined by purveyors of popular art such as the American painter Thomas Kinkade, and I became fascinated by his snow, and the light upon it. We always sought the first snowdrop in the New Year. This made it clear the painting was about renewal, which fitted, as my boyfriend and I had just emerged into the light from a very hard and rewarding few years caring for his dying parents, and I finally had time to paint again. I was looking at Katy Perry’s Instagram and she’d captioned one of her posts about growing and letting go. This Hallmark sentiment was both moving and meaningless, which suited my intentions, so the title became Grow or Let Go.
AT: The protagonists of your paintings are often strong, voluptuous women. What is the genesis of these hyper-feminine figures?
HM: I guess they have a physical strength. I was a strong child. I would beat the boys arm-wrestling. Sometimes I looked like a boy, and sometimes I looked like a girl. I paint men and women, though the assumption is when I am painting the women I am painting myself. I have a problem with the word voluptuous. It suggests the intention of the women in my work is to seduce, and my work is not about sex. At the Women Can’t Paint opening the other night, a man I didn’t know described my painting as lavish, which is a great word. I’d rather think of my men and women in that way. Lavish. These men and women come from strangers, from people I’ve known, historical and pop-cultural figures, figures in high art or cartoons — concurrent only in their lavishness. Together they form my personal lexicon of desire.
AT: Lavish is a great word, embracing the curvaceous and sumptuous body, without reducing it to sex. Lavish also implies freedom, without limitation, which suits the liberated nature of these figures. Many of the figures also have a strong connection with the landscape. Your earthy colour palettes depict Amazonian women; they hoist up logs, grasp the earth or lick the ground. It feels primal. Can you tell us more about your relationship to nature?
HM: I grew up on Dartmoor. I was always in the mud, in the water, rolling in the hay. I was granted physical space as a child, meaning my life was pursued via the body, giving me a very primal relationship to touch. When I began to look at Old Master paintings and drawings I noticed a hidden subject was the tactile relationship of humans which, I’d say, evolved in early and late Abstract Expressionism to expressing the physical experience of touch. When I see dirt I want to be lyrical about it, and stick my face in it. It’s the same when I’m painting, that felt-sense of brushes and paint willed across a surface is echoed by my depiction of figures in poses that speak of flesh-on-flesh.
AT: Throughout PEER FORUM, we have been considering the nature of the grotesque in relation to the body. What is your relationship to the grotesque?
HM: I am resistant to the word grotesque. I don’t see any of my figures as grotesque, although the paint quality might be at times. I am in love with all my characters and care for them deeply, even if I sometimes humiliate them. I’ve noticed that when women deal with the body in a non-ethereal or unconventional manner it either gets labelled ‘strong’ or ‘grotesque’, both of which negate complexity. British culture has a long history of the bawdy — we’d do better to talk of the potential of the bawd.
AT: The word grotesque is complex and has a lot of negative connotations that feel inappropriate to our discussion. I’m thinking about Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of François Rabelais’ and the grotesque more in the sense of this idea of bringing things down to a material, biological level, with its roots in the joyous lavish feast of the carnivalesque. Also, its relation to the fantastical and the unrestrained imagination that feels important to your work. In the talk you gave at PEER FORUM, you said that it is humour that gets us by as human beings in the face of everything. What is the role of humour in your work?
HM: Without humour, we have no compassion. I don’t set out to make funny work, but my impulse when painting is to topple the sacred cow, whether specific, revered artists or my own ego. Great satirists such as Gillray and Rowlandson include themselves in the satire, they are down in the pigshit with you. Someone like Hogarth is a moralist because he makes social comments on the state of the world, but he remains above it all. If something is set up as profound, I want to bring it down to my level in the dirt. You can’t be sentimental about yourself or your subject to be a satirist. You have to allow yourself to be a fool, for in fooling lies joy, a radical state of being.
AT: However, some scenes feel melancholic, featuring solitary dewy-eyed characters. How does your work deal with the sentimental?
HM: So many people cry at Disney films, and much of the reason they cry or laugh is because of the drawn line of a pack of dalmatians, the colour of Fantasia, the flip of the Little Mermaid’s tale, the blink of Mowgli’s eye, the plop of a raindrop on Bambi in the leaves — what is named in serious society manipulative or sentimental, espousing a hierarchy of who or what is allowed profound feeling. Yet there are all these people out in the world crying and laughing, and their experience is authentic. Why is the Hallmark card sentiment, the Disney scene or the large-breasted woman disallowed profundity of emotion? Something that lies here is in the essence of what I am painting, and why I use the language of the cartoon line. My work is unsentimental but is deeply concerned with the sentimental — the authentic sentimental, perhaps. Authentic Sentimental may be the title of my next show.
AT: When looking at your paintings, I enjoy trying to imagine what has happened or what is about to happen in these scenes. This liberty of mind and body we have discussed excites me. This honesty is refreshing; you manage to capture a sense of reality in the space of the imaginary. How do you hope the viewer will react?
HM: I suspect the first visceral response to my work depends entirely on a viewer’s experience of their own body in the world, making my images vulnerable to misinterpretation. But one should not want to control meaning in art, as it mutates dependent upon context and experience. Indeed, an artist needs to hold themselves open to the discomfort of this encounter. What my painting allows, I hope, is for anyone, whatever their persuasion or perversion, to enter into my world, as there is no fixed notion of identity. I place these characters onto a canvas, and see what occurs. I am optimistic that the viewer will identify with the love of humans, and of being human that essentially motivates my work.
AT: So, what are you currently working on?
HM: Small paintings, big paintings, drawings. My work is circular, forming an open narrative by association, where protagonists dip in and out over the years. As such, there are many different tempos to the materiality of the paintings, and the depiction of the subjects and spaces within them. Some are heavily painted, some light, almost instantaneous. This liberty of changing gesture is essential to the freedom of the work. I have years of unpainted paintings, from the years I couldn’t afford to paint, or wasn’t physically able to. I am fortunate to finally have a permanent space at Spike Island in Bristol to realise my work. I am only limited by how many canvases I can stretch.
Hannah Murgatroyd is currently showing work at ‘Women Can’t Paint’ at ASC and Turps Gallery, London, until May 12th, 2018. Peer Forum will meet again in May for a critique led by SALT. Magazine.