Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
In Conversation with artist Joy Gregory
[ Artist Interview )
We recently caught up with our very first Artist in Residence, artist and photographer Joy Gregory, to find out what she’s working on all these years later. We also take a look back at her time at the Gallery and the legacy of the Amberley Queens series she created here.
Joy Gregory is an artist who is known for exploring issues of identity in her work, through explorations of race, gender and sexuality.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about your current exhibition?
The Invisible Life Force of Plants is an exhibition of photographic works focusing on medicinal and food plants. The inspiration for the work is to focus on the essential role that plants play in our survival. The work is a series of cyanotype and lumen prints, the latter of which record the breath of the plants through creating an aura around each object.
The work developed out of my daily walks during the lockdown and was a way of recording time through bringing back a single item of plant material which appealed to me that I found on the ground each day. Lockdown gave us all a lot of empty time and I decided to experiment with odd boxes of photographic paper I had lying around the darkroom.
When Sigrid Kirk invited me to participate in the project ‘Breath is Invisible’, I decided it was important for the local community to be involved in the development of the work. I was very lucky to work with children from Harrow Club who are exhibiting their images from the workshop in the same space
‘The Invisible Life Force of Plants’ is the third iteration of a larger project which includes work from Khadija Saye as well as a video and sound work resulting from a collaboration between Martin Ware and Zachary Eastwood Bloom.
The public art project ‘Breath is Invisible’ addresses issue of social inequality and injustice – to your mind, what are the most pressing issues facing us today, and does this impact your art?
I feel the most pressing issues facing us today are inequality due to accident of birth. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this into sharp relief and things that we have known but have often ignored have become much more apparent.
I’ve always been concerned with social justice and although this may not be immediately apparent in my work, it is very much central to my practice. This is especially true of work which is presented in the public domain. Starting with my days in the late 1980s at North Paddington Community Darkroom, which aimed to create a space for people to have control over how they were represented through making photography and the tools of image-making accessible. If a project is to be placed in a public context, I prefer to work very closely within the local community in a context which feels appropriate. This is often a shared journey of creativity through workshops, discussions and making. At the end of the day, the work must belong to them.
You’ve mentioned that collecting plant matter during lockdown became “a visual diary of a strange and surreal period”. How important was it for you to make time to be creative during this period?
I think it’s really important for everyone to make time for creativity throughout their lives, full-stop. Our complete fear and ignorance of the coronavirus made us all hold onto things that we felt we could control. Many people took to obsessively baking, cleaning, shopping and latterly, making masks. It was a way to control a world out of control.
What became important for me was creating a routine and through that routine came the making of new work continuously every day. So yes, creativity during this period is for me essential.
The aura around the plant that you can see on the print is from the plant breathing, because we always forget that plants breathe just the same as we do.
Some of our favourite works in your current exhibition are the ‘lumen prints’, can you explain the process behind this?
Lumen prints are made by placing an object (in my case plant material) onto silver-gelatin photographic paper and exposing it to sunlight. I have chosen to use both resin-coated and fibre-based paper each giving different results.
The paper would normally be used for making black-and-white prints in the darkroom going through the process of developer stop and fit. In the case of lumen prints it is possible to fix the prints after exposure but there is a loss vibrancy and a colour shift. I chose not to fix most of the prints. I scanned them so that they could be made into the images you see in the exhibition. The original unfixed prints have to be protected from light and humidity and can only be viewed openly under certain conditions using specialised materials. There will be one on show in ‘Unearthed: Photography’s Roots’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery opening in November.
Cyanotype is a printing process developed in the 1800s, what is it that appeals to you about this historic process more than modern printing methods?
I love the simple process of cyanotype as well as its predictability – although the blue colour is dependent on how you mix up the chemicals and the intensity of light. It is a wonderful process to share with children when it’s sunny – it’s non-toxic and the results are magically immediate. I first became hooked while at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s as part of our exposure to photochemistry and then later fell in love with the cyanotype’s of Anna Atkins. It’s a material I’ve been working with for over 30 years and I like to experiment with different ways of using the medium.
You were our Artist in Residence all the way back in 1999-2000, and created the Amberley Queens. Can you tell us what inspired this series?
I clearly remember Stefan van Raay [the Gallery’s then-director] and Frances Guy [former curator] coming to to my studio as my first ever visitors at Gasworks. The possibility of coming to Pallant House Gallery as an artist in residence was so exciting. It was the first time I’d been invited to anything of that kind.
Almost every week I would drive down to Chichester to study the collection and think about how I was going to respond to the works. One day I looked up from the small objects in the glass cabinets and was astonished by these enormous panels (The Amberley Panels)*. I discovered they were originally from Amberley Castle and had been commissioned by the Bishop of Chichester to dissuade Henry VIII from divorcing his first wife. Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me is their celebration of the power and virtues of women which became the inspiration for the Amberley Queens.
The Nine Worthies, or the Nine Ladies Worthy were a common theme in literature of the time which made me realise that there were nine paintings originally despite only 7 or 8 present in the gallery. I decided to reinterpret the paintings as photographs and for each of the women to have physical characteristics common to the geographical region from which they were thought to originate. It is great to know that the original panels are back at Bishop’s Palace and I hope to return to Chichester one day soon.
(*The original Nine Worthies, chosen as representations of Christian virtues, were all men – the Nine Ladies Worthy were developed later in the 14th century. The women represented in the 16th century Amberley Panels, chosen by the Bishop of Chichester himself, were three Amazon Queens, (Lampedo, Hippolyta, Menalippe), three Middle Eastern Queens (Sinope, Thomyris, Semiramis), the prophetess-princess Cassandra and one other, now unknown, figure; the ninth is sadly, now lost.)
Why did you choose to photograph women that you knew for these portraits?
This question is really interesting because I actually didn’t know all of the women in the portraits. It is very important for me that the work has some resonance with the place in which it is made. Therefore two of the women in the portraits were very closely associated with Pallant House Gallery – namely Collette Coakley and Anne Kureen. Anne was a volunteer and a trustee, while Colette was the cleaner at the time. Most of the others I got to know as part of making the work, for example, Elsa Dax I met at someone’s wedding, Cheryl Finlay was a visiting academic from New York, and Joanne Moore helped me on a previous project. Rita Keegan and Tara Jang I knew very well as fellow artists but each person was primarily chosen because they resembled people from the regions they were supposed to represent, unlike the original panels where all of the women had European features.
I also made a little book from the research carried out during the residency which was supposed to be an edition of 20 but I think I only made six, in the end, one of which was a prototype. I do believe there is one in the collection at Pallant House Gallery.
Which contemporary artists, and which artists from the past are you most inspired by?
I am inspired by lots of different artists for lots of different reasons. The ones that really come to mind today are Gwen John, Luc Tuymans, Lorna Simpson and Ming Smith. Anna Atkins is also great influence in terms of my cyanotype work with flowers.
In my early still life work Peter Ruting, Zubaran, Matisse and Sandy Skogland. Eva Arnold for her encouragement and tenacity and Agnes Martin for her pursuit of perfection. I think I am influenced by every artist and every work that I see.
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
I’m working on a collaboration with a composer – it’s based on the relationship between Jamaican plant medicine and the observations found in Hans Sloane’s journal documenting his journey to Jamaica in the 1700s.
I’m also working on a commission for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter making connections between their collection and the transatlantic slave trade with particular reference to Devon, and a commission for Autograph gallery documenting my response to the coronavirus pandemic over a period of four months through my relationship with Burgess Park and the people that I met each day.
Alongside this I am continuing my long-term project in the Kalahari which I hope to bring to fruition in the next couple of years. For the last 15 years I’ve been documenting the demise of the language which is reputed to be one of the oldest on the planet. I first encountered this story at a conference in Broome Australia in 2003. Since that time I have been documenting the language through two of its speakers and then latterly the descendants of the two sisters I first met in 2005 who spent their lives trying to preserve the language while keeping it hidden from view.
You can read more about Lambert Barnard paintings, the artist behind the panels upon which Joy’s ‘Amberley Queens’ series is based, here. Some of the artist’s works are displayed in Bishop’s Palace, Chichester Cathedral.
Read more about the original Amberley Panels here.
The Invisible Life Force of Plants, 236 Westbourne Grove, until 16 October 2020.
Unearthed: Photography’s Roots, Dulwich Picture Gallery 21 November 2020 – 9 May 2021.