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.
Artist in Focus: Abigail Reynolds
[ Artist in Focus, Artist Interview )
We caught up with Abigail Reynolds to chat about what inspires her, her focus on time and how why she uses different mediums in her work. Abigail Reynolds Sightlines: Devil’s Dyke was on display in our exhibition Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water.
How does it feel to be included in this exhibition?
I loved my visit to see the exhibition – it surveys a significant reach of time, focussing on the Sussex landscape, but in doing so it speaks of England and of attempts that English artists have made to describe the English landscape. English counties are all very different, yet Sussex, maybe because it faces France and Europe, seems quintessentially English to me. I am delighted to be included, with a work that is unusual for me, because it really focuses on landscape by which I mean an art-historical sense of the land as a vista, and looked at through the lens of a painterly tradition that extends back to works like ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ by Gainsborough.
What has been your journey as an artist?
My first degree was in English Literature at Oxford. My sense of Englishness is very influenced by reading from Anglo Saxon through to the present day. At Oxford the Literature course really embraces the cannon – I’ve read ‘Paradise Lost’ as well as Blake; Miltonic grandeur and Romanticism stays with me. I think Literature taught me a way of reading visually which is very concise, and also taught me how culture is layered.
Which other artists inspire you?
There are too many to say. My studio is in St Ives, on Porthmeor beach, where Ben Nicholson had a studio. I am partly here because I visited St Ives from the Midlands as a teenager. Seeing Barbara Hepworth’s studio at that time I realised that’s what I wanted – my own visual world to live inside of – and that if Hepworth could make that for herself then so could I. It was such a revelation. The 17-year-old me thought myself a feminist but hadn’t realised what my ambition could stretch to. Now there are so many fantastic women artists, and I am glad to know them through their work and sometimes in person.
Much of your work explores time. Where did this fascination come from?
My literature degree taught me to consider culture as a passing forward of books and texts as touchstones each embedded in their own time, but also traversing time. England is so vertical in relation to time. Time is just stacked here. That’s something I didn’t fully realise until I spent a good while in Albuquerque, USA, where there is only the un-rusting present – not a palimpsest of overwriting from the Bronze age onwards.
You reuse books and images from within them in your work. How do you find your materials and where did the idea to use them come from?
Books are very much bound up with time. There is a democracy in the books I use that’s also important to me. These books were meant for wide distribution – meant for everyone. So the images and narratives contained inside them convey our cultural history. The pages of a book come from a specific moment in print technology and book design, which you can feel immediately. The materiality of the book also interests me; paper is a very resilient and flexible material. All materials have their own narratives whether marble or plywood, but paper is a material I always love to work with. That and glass!
You work across different mediums, including print, sculpture, film and events. Why have you chosen to do this and how to you bring these mediums together in one work?
There are so many ways to explore the landscape or rather, the term I would usually use to describe my interest is ‘ecology’. In ‘The Three Ecologies’ the philosopher Felix Guattari notes that we have a mental ecology, a social ecology and a natural ecology – and our habits in one affect the others. We are in the process of destroying the natural ecology because we haven’t been careful to nurture our mental ecology. My works look at the interstices between the social and natural ecologies. Many great landscape works consider the social ecology. The painting I mentioned earlier by Gainsborough is a good example of a narrative of a social class newly possessing the landscape.
In terms of a medium, I let myself be prompted by what I feel I need to say. Some emotions and ideas are best prompted by a sculpture or even a simple object. Sometimes I want to say something in layers, which collage can do, or text. I like both a feeling of strong control – so for example a collage where the cut line has to be exact, but I also like setting off rather chaotic systems like a reading group or a brass band. Also, I find the relation between text and image endlessly interesting and that can be explored through film, or a book. It depends on what my focus is.
In our Sussex Landscape exhibition, we are displaying your ‘Sightlines: Devil’s Dyke’. Could you tell me a bit about that work?
I made this work after staying near Devil’s Dyke. The image I have overprinted is from The Face of England. It is a beautiful 1952 book that I was drawn to precisely because the colour reproduction reminded me of the palette Ravilious used.
As I said, I usually consider ecologies, but on this occasion, I let myself be swept up with the sense of English Landscape – by which I mean the way the great landscape architects, such as Capability Brown considered how the eye would sweep across a vista and dispose trees, lakes and hills accordingly (and amazingly without more machinery than a shovel). So, looking at the image, I considered the angles that exist between the elements (as I would do if I were cutting a collage together) and simply drew them out. Sightlines describes a survey of the land. We look at landscape differently depending on what we are doing: walkers ‘look’ at a hill differently to hang gliders. In this work I am trying to look with the eye of a landscape architect, like a painter.
Are there any sort of particular parts of Sussex that you particularly like and find inspiring?
In my teens I stayed at Laughton Place. It’s a terracotta tower with a moat, inland and east of Lewes. The landscape there is chalk pale and flat, almost featureless. The ground sloughs off curiously nobbled flints. It’s as though the bones of the land are coming out slowly through the skin and feels inherently surrealist. On that holiday it was baking hot, and I slept on the flat roof of the tower listening to the frogs croaking in the moat. It was like sleeping on top of a chess piece as the tower is crenelated like a rook.
What are your plans for the future? What are you working on at the moment?
I always have so many works in my head that I want to make, and I am an inveterate multi-tasker. I work on many projects simultaneously, and often in chains of works – by which I mean I will make something, which then means I need to make something else, continuing the conversation. For example, in the summer of 2019 I set about to make a single beach into glass – which itself is a surreal kind of idea but can actually be done. It was a revelation prompted by stumbling across a kelp-burning pit on the isles of Scilly in 2018. So – I made this incredible glass, and I am still working with the glass, and with the idea at the moment. But when I can, I relax back into the collage and the book plates from the incredible range of books I have amassed. Going back to the books is my foundation.