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New York
Interview with Phoebe Unwin
by Catherine Wagley


Los Angeles, Jan. 2011 - Phoebe Unwin's solo show, Man made, is currently on view at Wilkinson Gallery, London (January 13 - March 6, 2011. Her work is also included in British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet (February 16 - April 17, 2011). The British Art show is recognized as one of the most influential exhibitions of contemporary British art. I has been taking place every five years since 1979. Curated by Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, British Art Show 7 opened in Nottingham, and after its London showing at the Hayward Gallery, will travel to venues in Glasgow and Plymouth.

The following interview with Phoebe Unwin was conducted in Los Angeles by Catherine Wagley just before the opening of Phoebe's exhibition at Honor Fraser, Making An Outside Space Theirs (May 23 - July 3, 2009).

Phoebe Unwin, Self-Consciousness, 2010, Acrylic, oil, thixotropic alkyd medium and spray paint on canvas, 145 × 120.5 cm.;  Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London


Catherine Wagley: You said that hanging a show is like composing music. What was it like to see your finished composition, your whole show, hung at Honor Fraser?

Phoebe Unwin: It was fantastic to see the body of work I had been working on, out of the studio and on the wall at Honor Fraser-it is only at that moment I can really have a complete sense of what the show feels like.

CW: The show's title-Making An Outside Space Theirs-sounds pleasantly democratic. Where did it come from?

PU: With this title I was thinking about describing a relationship between the psychological and the physical: how paintings are made, how we look at them and the moment when we feel a painting takes on its own presence.

CW: You talked about wanting your paintings to resonate with the visual world people live in. Is this part of the reason you reference bodies so often?

PU: Yes, I reference bodies in varying levels of directness-for example, sometimes an upper body is contained within the painting and other times human things or moments are hinted at: knees seen just creeping into a painting; a place setting, the inside of an empty refrigerator; sunglasses falling; a t-shirt being folded.

CW: Are your canvases ever proportionate to your own figure?

PU: My canvases are proportionate to my own figure in so far as they are human in scale- even the largest of my paintings are not truly monumental. I think this is a contributing factor in my work having a feel of being made by an individual rather than any kind of industrial team-scale. Also, I often move my paintings. I sometimes work on the floor, other times I want to hide a painting from myself, responding to it at a later date, and I think that because of this very physical relationship I have with the paintings it feels natural to me that they correspond in some ways to my own size.

CW: Your paintings are rarely pure abstractions. Why does figuration matter to you?

Phoebe Unwin, Interior Man, 2010, Oil and acrylic on linen, 140 × 128.5 cm; Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London


PU: I think this relates very much to what I have said earlier about wanting the title of the show to be focused on where a painting takes you rather than paint or color in isolation. I do make purely abstract images in my sketchbooks but I tend to use these as starting points-a kind of note taking of materials and marks. My paintings are never totally abstract. There is always a hint or link to something recognizable-I think this is important to me because my paintings are not purely about painting. I am interested in a moment when the paint is at once still itself (I never use it in an illusionary way) and just becoming something recognizable. Figuration matters to me because of the relationship and tension it creates with materials.

CW: The paintings you put together for this show seem like a strange family. Why didn't you make a tidier posse?

PU: My work is playful and curious about materials, subjects and painting itself-there are great differences between paintings, but I think a lot of similarities too. When selecting work for this show, it was important to use the differences to create a kind of rhythm - some of the paintings I would describe as noisy, others quiet.

CW: What sorts of visual memories move through your head as you paint?

PU: Memories are useful for painting because they are never just isolated images-they have strange specifics and large areas of vagueness. This works as an important editing tool for me-I find photographs too much visual information, often too rooted in a particular place or time. Many visual memories move through my head as I gather ideas but they actually tend to then be quite specific combinations once I have decided to use a memory or thought as the basis of a painting.

CW: When you said that painting doesn't have a sophisticated veneer, and that it is unforgiving, I thought it sounded like a metaphor for daily life. Do you think of painting as metaphoric?

Phoebe Unwin, Table, 2010, Acrylic, oil, spray paint and graphite on canvas,140 × 128.5 cm; Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London


PU: I don't think of painting as a metaphor for life, more that life inevitably appears in paintings-it is part of it. Painting is in a way an unforgiving medium-I find it such a curious thing that a painting could have extremely sophisticated ideas behind it but if its relationship to its materials or image is disjointed it can very easily fail.

CW: I was intrigued by our conversation about mood. Your work never seems apocalyptic or melodramatic. And, although you've used ordinary subjects like empty refrigerators, your work doesn't glory in triviality. Do you have any adjectives or nouns to describe that in-between space your paintings occupy?

PU: I really like what you say about the work not glorifying triviality. This is very much what I aim for. My everyday subjects are never intended to be dead-ends. For me, it's important that a painting resonates further than its subject or materials-I think that's the best way I can describe it. It's a feeling that I often find through the process of making the work, seeing what does and doesn't work, thinking about why, keeping the work at the in-between space you describe.

CW: Now that Making An Outside Space Theirs has opened and you're back in the UK, what are your plans?

PU: It was really wonderful to be in Los Angeles-the whole experience was incredibly energizing and I found it such an inspiring environment. Back in the studio here, I have started to work on paper, thinking about what form my new paintings might take.


Artslant would like to thank Phoebe Unwin and Honor Fraser for their assistance in making this interview possible.

- Catherine Wagley





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