Gillian Jason Gallery presents Heart of the Matter on International Women’s Day

TO MARK this year’s International Women’s Day, Gillian Jason Gallery present Heart of the Matter, an exhibition that provides, in the words of its curator, Mollie Barnes, “a snapshot of female artists from, or working in, Britain today”. The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge. Barnes notes that “the very nature of the show is choosing to challenge gender disparity in the art world”. For, the very nature of choosing to make art as a woman is a challenge to the art world itself.

The show is a composite of familiar female artists, like Bridget Riley and Chantal Joffe, and painters who are at the beginning of their artistic careers. When Millie Foster, Elli Jason Foster and Barnes began work on a show envisaged as a celebration of International Women’s Day and all that it represents, Barnes was committed to drawing a spectrum of works and artists together. Upon entering the gallery, Barnes tells me, one is greeted by Tracey Emin’s works, “flanked by Layla Andrews and Sahara Longe”.

Immediately, Emin, widely recognised as one of the greatest artists of her generation, is presented in conjunction with women whose work will be introduced to many via this exhibition. These pairings are both radical and necessary, and perfectly embody the exhibition’s dual mission of celebration and challenge. 

Tracey Emin, Blue Madonna, two colour lithography on Somerset paper, 2020

Glass spoke to two of the artists whose work populates Heart of the Matter: Emma Prempeh and Eleanor Johnson. 

Barnes describes Prempeh’s works as “dynamic, nostalgic and striking”. Her paintings’ figures emerge from hazily layered visible brushstrokes, and are accented with gold. Her subjects are often members of her family. Winner of The Ingram Young Contemporary Talent Purchase Prize, Prempeh is currently attending an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art under the LeverHulme Trust Arts Scholarship. 

Could you tell us about your inspirations?
My inspirations have always centred around artists who create dreamlike or eerie atmospheres. I have always been inspired by Lynette Yaidom Boakye, I love that her subjects seem to be suspended in ambiguous spaces, causing me to create scenarios for them.

Another big influence has always been Caravaggio, particularly due to his use of dark colours. I have always tried to develop my practice to enable figures to be complimented by dark backgrounds and not submerged in it.

Could you tell us about your process of creating a piece?
My process starts with either an emotion that I want to convey or a scenario I want to explore. In The Arrival, I thought about time travel and being between two places, especially as someone with parents from two different cultures.

It is something I want to explore more in the future. I always think about what might compliment an idea after the scenario is decided upon, which is where experimentation with materials begins.

Emma Prempeh, Home Studio Shot, 2020

How/ is it significant to you to have your work exhibited by Gillian Jason Gallery on International Women’s Day, and among this group of women artists?
I am absolutely thrilled to be a part of the exhibition!  When Gillian Jason Gallery reached out to me the first thing I thought about was the relationship I have with my mum and my grandma. The matrilineal line is an aspect I like to focus on within my practice and I was particularly reminded of my graduation piece ‘Matrilineality 2019’ when I thought about Elli, Millie and the late Gillian.

I love that the Gallery operates through the bond and connection between three generation’s of women. It eerily felt like I had to be a part of this and it is truly a blessing to show along side artists that I had learnt about whilst studying, as well as emerging artists like myself. 

Could you tell us about rendering members of your family, and how you go about capturing your subjects on the canvas?
Recently I have been discovering old images of my family, mostly my mum and my grandma, I like to focus on my thoughts through my family members. I have been fascinated with the idea of my mum at a point where she was not a mother.

In these images I am reminded of myself. The Arrival tries to reflect that, like a cross over between two different times. I am looking at her, she is looking at me and we are the same age but in two different realities.

How did you develop such a distinctive style?
A lot of practice and experimentation. It took me a long time to realise what worked well. I think developing a style happens naturally and it might change frequently however a little advice I could give to someone who is trying to develop a distinctive style is to think about what really interests you. In my case it was memory and intangibility.

Find something that will reflect that, or a method that will express that, experiment with it until it clicks. I know many artists with practices that change frequently who lack distinctive styles, as long as the work is yours there will always be that connection.

Eleanor Johnson, Brigid and Duir, 2021

Eleanor Johnson, currently undertaking an MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School, deals with figures at once arrestingly fleshy and dreamily abstracted. In Barnes’ words, Eleanor Johnson’s work is “ethereal, hopeful and romantic”.

Are there specific artists who inspire you, or more general inspirations for your work in this show?
I’m really inspired by many Old Master artists – and the list is pretty endless! I love the intricate and abundant compositions in Peter Paul Rubens paintings, and I’m particularly drawn to the content of his work… The way that he uses paint to render flesh has also formed a large portion of my education in painting! I would say he’s my biggest inspiration. 

I regularly also find myself coming back to particular collections of Michaelangelo and Raphael’s drawings. The examples I’m interested in show scenes teeming with people in perpetual motion and it’s their use of line that intrigues me so much… It’s as if a series of moments have all been captured in one image. I find them hypnotic and dream-like – and those are feelings I’m constantly trying to create in my own work.

Could you tell us about your process?
At the moment my paintings originate in Celtic Myth and Folklore. I’ll make a work in response to visual excerpts from these stories, which are brimming with unusual and uncanny imagery. I want my paintings to appear visually ungrounded and otherworldly… I also incorporate practices of witchcraft into my work …

I have an altar in my studio where all of this is carried out, and I think of my studio as a kind of sacred space. It’s part of my bigger ambition to challenge peoples thinking in relation to [witchcraft]. In short, the historical persecution of witches was in fact a hysterical patriarchal quelling of the agency of women in general. 

[My] smallest pieces are very much based on an exploration of colour and atmosphere…My larger paintings start with a very small drawing, in which I plan the main composition. I take many photographs of found images and also elements of old paintings, and map them out on the floor to try and visualise the composition. I sort of think of it like doing a puzzle – the composition is there but you just have to find the right elements and sections to complete it. 

Once I’ve got a feeling for the composition I’ll paint it as quickly as possible onto the canvas in diluted oil paint on top of the chosen background colour. Then I’ll work on it, bit by bit, as fast as I can so that the oil paint stays wet for as long as possible. I love the fluidity of oil paint, and the propensity it has for manipulation.

It also lends itself well to creating a dreamlike atmosphere, as oil paint can be blended and softened beautifully if you know the right techniques. Lastly, I’ll work on the painting for as long as is needed – sometimes weeks – until I feel the composition is balanced and there is enough going on for it to be its own micro-world, hopefully with intrigue and wonder.

How/ is it significant to you to have your work exhibited on International Women’s Day, and among this group of women artists?
Absolutely – I feel so privileged to be included in this exhibition, amongst these wonderful artists, falling on such a significant day. So much work is still to be done on building up and supporting women in a myriad of ways. We’ve been down-trodden for too long – and the mission for equality is very much a work in progress, but with galleries and exhibitions like this, there is a lot of hope that we’re moving in the right direction. 

I think any opportunity, too, where people are encouraged to think about societal discrepancies, is a massive positive – as it will broaden people’s minds to think about other pressing areas we should also be working on improving.

Layla Andrews, Tolouse, 2021

Cecily Brown, Untitled, monotype, 2010

by Connie de Pelet

Heart of the Matter is open  March 8 – April 15, 2021 in the gallery’s 3D Virtual Viewing Room.