The Shape of Thought


JL: Your paintings seem to combine abstract, diagrammatic and figurative approaches. Are you conscious of having a particular aesthetic in mind, when you embark on a painting?

AP: My aesthetic approach or painting style has evolved a lot over the last ten years or so, particularly since embarking on a practice-based PhD at NCAD, which I started in 2009 and completed in 2015. During this time, I made quite a deliberate break from gestural abstract painting. I think I felt the need to free myself up from a particular style of painting. It is ironic that gestural abstract painting – which is considered such a free and intuitive way of handling paint – was becoming restrictive and stifling for me. By making these deliberate changes, I felt I could explore the medium of painting as an active research process that could have a range of possible outcomes. I wanted to concentrate more on personal narratives and to explore how I might express these narratives through the medium of painting. I also wanted to explore figurative possibilities within the work. This was when I started exploring collage and maquettes as creative prompters for paintings. The work of certain artists, who paved the way for more fluid approaches to painting, have been greatly influential for me in this respect. These include German artist, Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997), and more contemporary artists such as New York-based abstract painter, Charline Von Heyl, and American painter, Amy Sillman.

JL: Can you briefly outline your PhD inquiry and how this research may have altered your approaches to painting?

AP: As anyone who has undertaken a doctorate will tell you, PhD research is a durational and complex journey. For me, there was a lot of discovery about the ‘why’ more than the ‘how’ of painting – a reflective process that included a rigorous exploration of the medium’s relevance or validity as a research method. There are other avenues related to the research that I would now like to explore further, such as framing the creative process as a radical space for artistic agency – something that relates to my new body of work.

JL: Perhaps you could outline some of your research methods?

AP: My work tends to start with sketches, drawings and watercolour studies. I keep notes, thoughts and ideas in my journals. I love the freedom of drawing in sketchbooks and journals, and I tend to have two or three on the go at any one time. I try to make connections between what I am thinking and writing about in my journals and the images that emerge in the notebooks. Ultimately, the paintings are an extension of this investigative process – an approach that helps me to retain a looseness within my paintings. Rather than making direct painterly copies of my maquettes and collages, I use them as references that can be transformed through the process of painting.

JL: Can you outline some of your art historical influences?

AP: References to painting from different periods of art history frequently come through in my work. Sometimes these associations are made unconsciously, and it is only at some later stage that I might recognise their significance. However, there are some explicit and recurrent references to individual paintings that I consistently find compelling, curious or strange, both in terms of the artist’s approaches to composition, or to the work’s narrative content. A painting by Pietro Longhi, titled Clara the Rhinoceros (1751), has interested me for some time. I have made several paintings that express my fascination with its strangeness and my preoccupation with interpreting its meaning. This was something that I explored at length during my PhD research. Magritte is another important touchstone for my work, based on the artist’s life-long exploration of painting as something ‘inherently mysterious’. Magritte’s oeuvre rendered everyday objects within strange, unfamiliar or uncanny scenes and this is something that has frequently inspired me. I also love paintings from the early seventeenth-century Baroque period, including work by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens and Poussin. I try to recreate a bit of their drama in my paintings, through the use of strong light sources, experimentations with scale, and through the suggestion of underlying narratives.

JL: Much of your work displays a preoccupation with depth of field. Can you discuss your paintings in terms of trompe l’oeil and your treatment of surfaces?

AP: I think this grew out of my preoccupation with the specifics of the medium of painting. Such inquiries included an exploration of how the introduction of light often creates shadows and highlights. I’m also interested in how scale and composition can create visual tension within a painting or across an entire body of work. These are the more formal elements of composition, but I try to consider them in tandem with the narratives that that I am developing in the paintings. Making paper maquettes and collages using ‘flat colour’ challenged me to consider the types of brushwork and paint coverage that create impressions of ‘flatness’. Cutting through the paper and folding it back to reveal another layer of colour underneath works on a formal level, while also having symbolic meaning relating to the self – to concealing and revealing parts of the self. It is me attempting to give shape to these thoughts. Much of this exploration started with the maquettes and thinking about the three-dimensional aspect of an object in space. Flaps, holes, tentacles and shadows occurring within these sculptural objects gradually evolved and were transformed through painting.

JL: In your current solo exhibition, ‘How We Roam’, there is a sense that the characters in your paintings are embarking on curious or speculative journeys. Is this a metaphor for the creative process?

AP: It is, yes. There are references to classical portraiture, landscape paintings and the sublime in art history. Many of my paintings depict figures in the wilderness, perhaps conquering the terrain, or having reached the summit of a mountain, as in the painting Wanderer. For me, the idea of a figure roaming the wilderness is undoubtedly a metaphor for the creative process, which can push an artist out of their comfort-zone. It can make us feel vulnerable, as we test out new things, but ultimately the process rewards and re-energises the human spirit. This simple motif is developed across this new series of paintings, which I hope prompts the viewer to ask questions about the work and to be curious.

Alison Pilkington is an artist who lives and works in Dublin. ‘How We Roam’ is currently showing at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon until 2 June and will subsequently be presented at the Ashford Gallery, RHA in September 2018.

Image credits:
View of Alison Pilkington’s notebook sketches
Alison Pilkington, Wanderer, 2017, oil on canvas
Alison Pilkington, Nature, 2017, oil on canvas



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