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Interview with Bronwen Vaughan-Evans – Memento Mori

By December 11, 2008No Comments

On a visit to Bronwen Vaughan-Evans studio earlier this year I found her paused in the post-coital catharsis of her last exhibition home is where the heart is. She was sitting alone, in a now desolate studio, free of the imposing portraits and figures that had crowded the studio walls for the past eighteen-months. After so much time spent in their company, the sight of her, abandoned in that that Spartan white space, reminded me of a mother having just sent her grown kids off into the big wide world. Yet I recall how excited I felt at that moment, to catch the artist in that rare moment of solace, poised, catching breathe before commencing with her next journey/body of work which was to become Memento Mori (now on at Bank Gallery).
A handful of Vaughan-Evans’ portraits in home is where the heart is re-emerge in Memento Mori and wandering between the two, both their synergy and difference is striking. The portraits from the former exhibition–contained in separate room within the gallery– are far warmer in tone and temperament, at times intimidating in their scale and presence. Here we find each subject’s essence exquisitely distilled, lovingly etched out: eyes alive with strength, weakness, curiosity, fear, insecurity and fragility.

home is where the heart is (Michael)
Gesso and Oil on Board
“Each piece in this series” explains Vaughan-Evans, “is the exact dimension of the individual portrayed and therefore represents the physical space we occupy. Each work includes a portrait of the individual as well as an image of ‘home’, thus representing the emotional and geographic spaces we inhabit.” In Vaughan-Evans’ new show, Memento Mori, a different sort of contemplation is allowed for, focusing on notions of loss and death and the manner in which every day events begin to be archived in memory. ‘Home’ once again provides a motif, only this time as an intimate investigation of the artists’ own sense of time and place.
It has obviously been an intense and prolific year. So let’s begin by chatting about the evolution between the two shows. How did this new body of work come into being? You mentioned in your opening night speech that the seeds from the last show (home is where the heart is) found a way in Memento Mori.
A: In the home is where the heart is body of work I included occasional inserts that geographically located the subjects. It was from these inserts that many of the Memento Mori pieces developed. When contemplating memory I realised that place / location plays an enormous part in how we remember an event, it can be as evocative as smell in conjuring a memory of a human interaction. So with the new body of work I focused on this idea of place (sans figure) to convey memory and loss.
In the home is where the heart is portraits these inserts were often the only horizontal aspects in the vertical formats. Horizontality alludes to narrative (due to our ‘reading’ of texts from left to right) so the inserts could be seen as the narrative backdrop to our reading of the figure. This idea of narrative and the idea that horizontality can indicate the death or repose of a figure was what inspired the move from the vertical formats in the portraits to the horizontal emphasis in the Memento Mori works.
The Title of the show Memento Mori came to my attention when listening to an album by The Bastard Fairies with the same title. At first I translated the phrase as a souvenir / remembrance of death, which is exactly what I wanted the new works to be. Later I learned that it is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as “remember that you are mortal” So in essence the new work is about our mortality, and our need to archive experience as memory in the face of this mortality.

home is where the heart is (Christine)
Gesso and Oil on Board
How did the intensity of having four-months over eighteen to create a new body of work inform, shape, shift your process?
A: It was a bit of a shock having only four months to produce a new body of work, after working on the home is where the heart is portraits for over 18 months. Generally I would have a much longer gestation period for ideas. What it did allow me to realise is that just making, is a good way of processing ideas, and that often an ‘unresolved’ aspect of a work can be beautiful in its own right. I realised that the notion (that may come from lecturing in the fine art field) that an artist works through concepts by experimenting until that idea is refined, and what we present to the world is the “finished” selected product, is only one way of working.
Was it liberating to move away from portraiture into a more abstract set of paintings. I imagine painting subjects you know so well comes with a certain pressure/obligation that objects and landscapes simply don’t carry with them? Or do they?
A: Yes it was a relief; there is so much expectation from both myself and the sitter when doing a portrait. For me painting a portrait is like having a very intense relationship with that person for the duration of making of the painting, and while this was really quite lovely, one very intense period after another was very draining. This is not to say that objects or landscapes do not carry a similar weight, it is just that the expectation placed on those objects came only from me and not from another involved human being as well. Also the intensity of the surface shifted between the portraits and the ‘landscapes’, there is a much more even sense of surface in the ‘landscapes’. The making of the new works required repetitive (and often quite cathartic) mark-making.

back where I started
Gesso and Oil on Board
In contrast to the previous show there is a noted absence of human- figures (bar the self- portrait in the work titled back where I started) in Memento Mori. I’m imagining dealing extensively with notions of loss, death, grief, the absence (in the wake of the last show) of a tangible flesh and bone figure/presence is crucial to our understanding of the work? By this I mean there is a strong sense that something or someone is missing from the paintings. Where the first show was weighted with presence, the second (and most recent) is notably marked by absence?
A: Yes, this was the intension, and the juxtaposition of figure and absence of figure was one of the reasons I decided to include some of the portraits from the home is where the heart is body of work into the new show.

the distance between us (i)
Gesso and Oil on Board
It’s a body of work that feels intimate yet at the same time encapsulates something bigger, something for the want of a better word– ‘universal’. When I revisited the show last week, it clicked, “That’s it” I thought, “That’s what ‘loss’ feels, looks, hurts like.” The bareness, unmade beds, fuzzy borders, stark quality of light. I overheard someone on the opening of your show comparing the feeling that your work evokes to Edward Hopper’s painting, which is interesting because you achieved this level of atmosphere/meditation in the abstract-not aided by a human figure, expression or posture.
A: The person that said that my works evoke a similar sense that Edward Hopper’s paintings do, was too kind, but that was exactly what I wanted to achieve, so I thank them. I think it is the aim of most artists to create something universal out of specific and personal experience. The difficulty comes when trying to transcend the everyday experience, without using cliché.

the bed we made
Gesso and Oil on Board
The unmade beds, open windows, birds cluttering a telephone wire in your paintings– the seemingly insignificant details and close-ups that surround and often inform the grieving process. There’s a strong sense of time having stopped in these works. A restlessness, insomnia, sleep-walking through days/nights. At the same time they demonstrate the rawness of perception or heightening of the senses that occurs during such a time. An open window, its curtain heaving in the breeze, a bare winter tree; strange omens, objects or moments that suddenly seem to carry meaning, memory or relevance for the individual. Moments/glimpses that may or may not have a direct bearing on the person lost. Is this show (particularly the works in the main gallery) perhaps a reflection on a world indifferent to ones passing or rather one more geared at exploring the interior emotional- landscape experienced by a person in mourning?
A: A little bit of both I suppose. With the advent of a death of someone close to you, the contrast between the fast functioning world and the slow incomprehensibility of loss that has become your reality is huge, and ordinary objects do take on new meaning, everything around you seems to look different. So in that way the objects / landscapes do become an exploration of an interior emotional landscape.
Often, to me, a “(person) is in the details” and a memory of an emotional connection can take the form of an object or landscape.
Also these objects can be symbolic of the fast functioning world from which you seem to be suddenly removed at the advent of a significant loss. Everyday objects and activities seem to become nonsensical and without purpose.

the distance between us (iii)
Gesso and Oil on Board
In connection to the last question, you talked of memory becoming an accumulation of ideas and moments. In the main gallery there are paintings hung horizontally alongside one another, often echoing one another on opposite walls (a bed unmade on the one side, gives way to a close up of its bare mattress on the other). Can you talk about the hanging of this show? The selection and juxtaposition of these images and ideas? Were they painted as a combination or set with an idea of how they would collaborate, even form a narrative of sorts, or do you allow for certain discoveries to be made once you move into the gallery space?
A: The repetition of images such as the bed (unmade and then stripped to the bare mattress) and the tree (a summer shady tree and a bare winter tree) was an intentional dissection of the composite way memories can form. That is, a memory of a tree can be both shady (the actuality of the tree) and bare (the emotional / symbolic memory the tree carries). Obviously when making the works the intention was to set up a dialogue between these same yet contrasting repetitive images, the exact form that the dialogue would take was only resolved when the works were in the actual space.

the distance between us (ii)
Gesso and Oil on Board
The upper and lower levels that the eye is made to travel when walking around the main gallery cause our sense of distance and space to continually shift. With the upper generally focusing on bird’s eye view of a city corner, and in one painting, a distorted Google- earth map of your neighbourhood (lurking somewhere in the labyrinth-your own home). I experienced this on two levels: the one being that the effect achieved is that it tends to pull the viewer out of the smaller more intimate ‘moments’ (a cinematic long shot if you will), out of the plaintive domestic scenes of loss, and in the process, intensifying the isolation, insignificance even indifference issued by a broader context which goes about its day to day unchanged.
At the same time from such an elevation, I wondered whether this vantage point is perhaps occurring from/by something not confined to the shackles of the human body, quite possibly a bird (which feature strongly in your work and in many cultures are regarded as either omens of death or couriers of the departed) or even soul. Have I lost the plot entirely or is there a suggestion of such metaphysical optimism in your work? A suggestion of a release or catharsis/transcendence through death?
A: The contrast between the ’emotional’ close-ups of our environment and the more distant bird’s eye views was an intentional construct used to heighten the dichotomy of feeling incredibly detached and simultaneously unbearably present in the face of death / loss.
However, as you suggest, the contrast between the worldly environs and the removed, otherworldly bird’s eye views do allude to transcendence from physicality to a different state of being, through death.
The initial decision to hang the paintings on two levels was a purely formal one. The Bank Gallery is an extremely horizontal space and this coupled with the horizontality of the works would have lead to a very flat reading of the show. I consulted Vaughn Sadie for curatorial help with the placement of the works in the space. We both decided that by hanging the work on two levels, this formal problem would be overcome and that the split-level would also aid in the intended conceptual reading of the work. So thanks go to Vaughn for his contribution in that discussion.

Installation view
Certainly your intensive sanded- gesso technique (sanding, erasing and what you term ‘degrading’ the image) brings further layers of meaning and intent to the work. In what way is this ‘excavating’ able to bring you closer to the themes/ideas you had set out to explore?
A: I think the formal materiality of all works of art should in some way reflect the conceptual underpinnings of the piece, so yes, the actual excavation of the surface by sanding down to layers below, does mirror my ‘conceptual excavation’.
At times certain paintings seem to vary in focus (in this way, I again refer to this body of work as cinematic) from the crispness or fuzziness of the line work. Its feels at times as if we are looking at an object or image through teary or sleep deprived eyes, like having just woken up or trying to focus on something. Was this a conscious choice? I’m imagining it has much to do with what you termed: “The moment where the memory starts to degrade, the whole never survives and memory becomes an accumulation of details or moments.”
A: The contrast between the blurred views and the crisp edges was created as an intentional exploration of the dichotomy of memory (being both unclear and in sharp focus simultaneously). The nature of a memory is a really difficult thing to communicate visually, and this was one device I was hoping would convey this duality.

trying to remember
Gesso and Oil on Board
Could you discuss your use of the colour pink in the new show? I think Peter Machen nailed it in his review in ‘The Witness’ where he wrote: “This is the pink of a dying dusk””not dawn””which will shortly give way to darkness.” As a colour, it’s a congruous and subtle addition to your muted palate, never coming across as gaudy or garish. Was it an intimidating hue to work with? In fact, I think you may just be the first artist I have encountered who is able to extract from this colour, its melancholic properties.
A: Thank you, that is such a nice thing to say. I felt I needed to shift ever so slightly from the monochromatic use of ‘colour’ in my previous show, so I experimented with the introduction of subtly coloured Gessos. Somehow it was the pink experiments that resonated with the subject matter the best. I love what Peter said about my pink being the colour of dusk not dawn, he managed to verbalise what I would like to think was my subconscious intent.
I have been having an ongoing battle with my four year old son surrounding the stereotypes of pink; according to him pink is a girl’s colour. In a way the pink I use does have a certain femininity to it, but I like the contrast between my ‘feminine’ pink and the more stark, ‘masculine’ black and white.
I really enjoy the playful pink lettering outside the gallery that announces the fairly moribund title of Memento Mori.

a still life (filled with death and possibility)
Gesso and Oil on Board
Bronwen Vaughan-Evans – Memento Mori
The two smaller works in the vault titled a still life (filled with possibility and death). Can you talk about the Mexican ritual influences and European allegorical still lives of the 16th and 17th century and how they came to shape or influence these works and how they might (as you suggested in your speech) go on to inform your next body of work?
A: Can I answer this question when I have explored these themes in more depth? These works ARE however a precursor to what is next, in the scale, subject matter, colour and the use of inlayed gesso. Suffice to say I am fascinated with the genre of still life and intend to research and explore it in much more detail in works to come. What I like most about the concept of a still life ”“ is that it refers to a whole genre / type of painting but it also refers to a life that still or in repose”¦
Lastly, I was amused to see a wishbone from a chicken carcass painted in one of these paintings in the vault at Bank. It made me recall the framed wishbone on your wall at home, with a sign below that reads ‘break in case of an emergency’. Have you broken it yet?
A: God no, I have this idea that emergency is relative and I never feel that the emergency of the minute is biggest and most worthy of emergencies. Besides I don’t think I can ever bring myself to destroy the whimsy of that little piece that was made by a friend of mine Alistair Mclachlan.
Neil Coppen

031 : ART

Stimulating critical and relevant dialogue around art practice in Durban.

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