In one of our previous posts, we (briefly) discussed with curator Tom Morton, the layered works by Catherine Story and Sonja Weissmann, two artists whom he included in his show ‘Recent British Painting’, currently showing at Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam. We spoke with these two London-based artists in more detail about their work.

In her work, Catherine Story is usually aiming to establish a mood. “I want it to be contradictory, like life, maybe funny and sad, or simple and complicated at the same time,” says the 44 year old artist. With ‘Lowland (I)’, a statuesque image of an angular shaped dog painted in terracotta colours, she was consciously trying to make a peaceful painting. “The title of the work refers to the quiet flat space around the animal, rather than the shape itself”. 

Like Picasso, Story works in sculpture and in painting. She alternates between the two mediums in random order. There isn’t a set process as she would like the two mediums to inform each other. Using different dimensions fuels her interest with dimensionality. 

This interest was prominent in Story’s intellectually stimulating show ‘Angeles’ (2011) at the Carl Freedman Gallery in London. A source of inspiration for this show was a mime conversation between Charlie Chaplin and Picasso when they first met in Paris in 1952. The title makes reference to Los Angeles, the city of film. Story, who is obsessed with old films, such as Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ (1931) or William Wyler’s ‘Dead End’ (1937), presented a mixture of oil on wood paintings of old film cameras and comical sculptures.

‘Limelight’ (2011), is a sculpture based on Picasso’s famous painting ‘Still life with Pitcher and Apples’ (1919). It’s a suggestive, eroticised, still life of a sensual shaped jug on which apples are positioned reminiscent of breasts. Story made a 3D transformation from Picasso’s painting into a sculpture made of plaster, cement and wood. The humour in Story’s version is not erotic as the form of her sculpture suggests a clown on a stage (although, to me, it looks like a happy frog) that makes a link with the film ‘Limelight’ wherein Chaplin plays Calvero, a clown at the end of his days.

The links Story makes in her work, in this case between Cubism and cinema, are not immediately apparent in her work, but those who take the time to invest in these works will be generously rewarded to discover fascinating storylines and inspiring takes on historic events.

200%: The sources of inspiration behind your works are quite diverse, such as a mime conversation between Chaplin and Picasso, the novelist William Faulkner, the poet Allen Ginsberg or Cubism and cinema. These sources don’t present themselves immediately in your work, but will become clear when people read the texts that accompany your shows. They stimulate people to look at your work again from a new perspective. Is this how you would like people to perceive your work?

Catherine Story: Yes. My language is a picture language and if it doesn’t work that way first, then it’s failed. Maybe if someone is interested in a piece they can read something I’ve written, and that might lead them to new stories. Some people walk in [the gallery] and get all the references immediately, so that’s very comforting and funny!

200%: What draws you to Cubism?

CS: It’s mainly a historical interest, the fact that both investigations into dimensionality, Cinema and Cubism, developed during the same period. I concentrated on this more in my last two shows, when I was thinking a lot about Chaplin’s “City Lights” (1931), and how he and Picasso eventually met, in 1952, but communicated in mime as they didn’t speak the same language.

200%: ‘Limelight’ is based on Picasso’s ‘Still life with Pitcher and Apples’. What dimension did you want to bring to Picasso’s work by transforming it from a 2D painting into a 3D sculpture?

CS: I used the painting because when I was going through my box of postcards, which go back 30 years, I realised I had more copies of this picture than any other. So over the years I had repeatedly loved it in the Picasso Museum but forgotten that I already loved it. This time it made me laugh a lot. It must have looked like a clown on stage and maybe it fitted into the thoughts I was having about the vaudeville performers who, a hundred years ago, tried a new thing called ‘film’.

The name ‘Limelight’ (1952) links Chaplin to the painting, as that’s the film he was touring when he met Picasso in Paris. It’s a homage to his childhood in the music halls, and probably also his father, a singer who died young from cirrhosis. [John Edgar] Hoover banned Chaplin from the US when he left New York on this tour, so the background to this film (as well as the film itself) is very poignant as those reactionary forces are still active today. The meeting between the two artists was kept quiet, partly because of the divisive political atmosphere of the time.

200%: Why do you have such an obsession with old films and what defines an old film for you – films before World War II?

CS: When I was 13, the TV channel ‘Channel 4’ started and every day it showed black and white films. One day I saw ‘Dead End’ (1937), and I just got hooked. Studying cinema became as important to me as painting, and some of these memories are very intense, like I can still feel the rough carpet I was sitting on when I saw Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ (1927) on a tiny portable set. I used to write to the head of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs, asking for specific genres and he sent me nice letters about what was coming up. At the same time I collected the artwork around early cinema, and walked miles to buy old postcards. That’s why some of my recent paintings are flat on the wall, like film posters.

200%: In your work you use a distinct colour palette of off-whites, bricks and terracotta? Why these colours?

CS: I often use colours that are related to building materials, or the desert, so perhaps there are underlying themes about shelter and silence. Where I live the colours are muted and the light is low, so that is what I see – that is the nature around me.

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Sonja Weissmann is the youngest artist who is included in the show. She is a recent graduate of the Royal Academy in London who works in egg-tempera. Her work is a fascinating mixture of illustration and painting that is reminiscent of a series of illustrations David Hockney made for 14 poems by C.P. Cavafy. The Koblenz-born artist says that Hockney has not been an influence on her (“it would be too much to say I have critically dealt with him in the studio”) but she can understand why the ‘touch and delicateness’ of her work reminds one of Hockney’s Cavafy Series.

Weissmann depicts familiar people whom she paints from memory, not from photographs. The show includes  three portraits of self-aware, elderly people, painted waist-up standing in front of sparse exterior backgrounds. In a strange way there seems something stereotypical of Germany that is seeping into these paintings; the expressions on the people’s faces are congenial, but there is something private and reserved in how Weissmann paints them. They have a powerful penetrating gaze that keeps the viewer a bit at a distance. A mystery surrounds them, also emphasized as one woman holds her hand on an object with a symbolic meaning: an orb. (‘Strings in the Earth and Air’).

As Morton has previously commented on these layered works “they have extraordinary poise from someone whom has recently left college”.

200%: The people you paint are familiar people whom you know that and are painted from memory and not from photographs. Could you explain why you don’t work from photographs but from memory?

Sonja Weissmann: I consider my work a reflection on an ancient philosophical issue: how does each self exist in the world? Give the information one perceives evidence of ‘the world’ or are they components of a reconstruction? If so: how is the world then?

I guess the reason why I like the choice of the portrait is the fact that this question applies to the portrayed, the maker and the viewer. In this constellation each participant does both: bouncing the question back and forth at the same time entailing the possibility of an answer.

The portrayed are people I know. This means the interaction with them generates images, memories, sensations, history etc. which then, according to the principle of ‘cause and effect’, contribute to the status quo of my ‘self’. It is this repertoire I make use of whilst constructing a piece of work. As it is a painting, though, I need to take the history, the “memory” of that medium as it were, into consideration as well as what is: Art history in general; image-making in particular (including the time that is engorged in photography); the intangible scenarios evoked by literature (hence the titles).

To narrow the operating field down to the circumstance of photography would in my opinion be a redundant limitation.

200%: What can you tell about the orb in ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’?

SW: On one hand it draws upon various appearances it has made in art: It represents the globe being the cosmos (e.g. in ‘Salvator Mundi’ depictions in Christianity or as an insignia in monarchs’ portraits); the circle as a sign of infinity and entirety (Zen-Buddhism) or vanity (as a soap bubble in still lives and genre paintings).

On the other hand it refers to what I mentioned earlier: Do the systems man develops – in this case the mathematical one – offer a tool to describe the world outside of him? Furthermore, it simply reflects the self-awareness of the painter, his challenge to draw a perfect circle that can be understood as a two-dimensional object and the fun of doing it.

200%: You work in egg-tempera. A lot of your work is about taking pigment off the canvas as much as putting it on. Can you tell me something about that process?

SW: The material of the egg-tempera is handled with water and pigment. It allows a very flexible process of adding and subtracting the paint. This means two things. First of all, once there is paint applied to the canvas it is not definite. I like to experiment directly on the canvas and there is no need for preparatory drawings. Secondly, I am able to wash off layers of paint, which makes previous ones visible again, revealing the history of decision making. Thus, the process of making a painting gives evidence of itself. The finished image is a transient one: one of many that have been and could have been.

200%: On what are you working at the moment and do you have any upcoming shows planned?

SW:Right now I’m working on a painting of a painting.

The depicted painting is invented by me; it is not one that exists already somewhere. In this way the medium reflects itself, as if it was looking into the mirror thinking: what is it that I see? It discusses the doubt that pushes my practice further in the search for knowledge and cognition: “Why make another painting?” or more precisely: “What is the purpose of adding one more image to the uncountable number that exists already?” Currently, there are no shows lined up which means I really can think things through.

Interviews written and conducted by Thierry Somers. Images Catherine Story: ‘Lowland (I)’, 2012, oil on wood, 92 x 64 cm; ‘Limelight’, 2011,
plaster, cement and wood
120 x 60 x 41 cm. Sonja Weissmann ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’, 2012, Egg tempera on canvas, 90 x 80 cm, ‘One Sub Marine Herbal’ 2012, Egg tempera on canvas, 90 x 85 cm.

‘Recent British Painting’ at Grimm Gallery Amsterdam, until November 24, 2012.

Read here the interview with curator Tom Morton on the show: