Francesco Nevola: In conversation with Sharon Thomas: painter, thinker and jester, 2009

In conversation with Sharon Thomas: painter, thinker and jester,
Francesco Nevola, Apotropaic, 2009

Francesco Nevola: Throughout your work – from the earliest pieces, to those you are making now – issues of gender politics form a central theme that support your work through various stylistic transitions and developments like a back bone, allowing your work to be viewed as a single unified body: what is your objective in pursuing this theme and how have you gone about achieving it?

Sharon Thomas: A lot of my earlier work was about controlling the gaze – or at least trying to control it, which can seem to be an impossibility – (you can get all Barthian here). But when I made the porn series (the Girl Next Door series) years ago I was all about taking it and limiting it: not letting the viewer have it all.  As a female image-maker I am in control and I am set on strengthening the female role within art and society with the intention to be listened to and taken very seriously.  Loss of power in images of women herald loss of power of women in everyday life.  I think it is that simple.  If you disrespect a woman by visual means (showing her with her breasts on display looking like ‘she wants it’) you disrespect them in every real way regarding their participation in civilised society.  The characters in my work aren’t academic musings in fact a lot of them are based on real people that offer actual stories – many of them authentic – and personally experienced.  In Apotropaic the men skulking in the woods are an embodiment of ‘Stephen Finnegan’ –the local sexual deviant in my town, who I would find everywhere I went when playing [as a child] in the woodland behind my house.  My best friend and I even stumbled across him on ‘our’ fairy hill with penis out hoping we would find him.  As I talk more about these experiences you would be amazed at the other stories that come out from other people’s histories – that people have never talked about in public before: almost as if their histories have been hijacked by the strangers in the shadows who render them too embarrassed or uncomfortable to ever talk about it. This work opens the door to many hidden truths.

FN: I agree with what you say concerning representation and power. How would you say your early works, like the Girl Next Door series relate to Apotropaic, particularly with regard to the issue of controlling or limiting the viewer’s gaze?

ST: Both of these series of work are different in their objectives as art works and were made in different periods of my life, with Apotropaic being later and more mature. Both bodies of work are concerned with empowerment of the female image but go about it differently.  The Girl Next Door series are about taking direct use of the photographic image of women and girls in magazines and re-dressing them.  The images are flat and there is a vacant smugness in their smiles.  The charade being played is supposed to be obvious: the females are part of a game of seduction and know they are playing it.  The women are taken from all kinds of sources such as porn magazines to clothing catalogues for over-50’s etc, with their titles hailing from the back pages of the self same porn magazines that advertise sex: “Get it on with Barbara from Bognor who is waiting for your call” etc.  These ads have to be seen-to-be-believed!

By re-appropriating them I am exposing them, I am ridiculing them but I am also giving nothing away within the picture frame about these women.  My work isn’t about taking advantage and using these women again for their sexuality with their breasts on display etc.  They have parts to play in the seduction game and in my work they keep their cards hidden, rather than have everything on display, so as to avoid being continually rummied.

Apotropaic goes somewhere else.  Here the characters have become more defined and take on a more historic role – the characters are more rounded fuller people on the stage, with a history and opinion, where the early work was more symbolic in a formal sense and a little more closed.  Essentially this work is about re-creating a landscape for the viewer to believe and relate to where there are more games of allurement at play. In terms of gaze the female figure standing defiantly before the kneeling crow man is defiant, the composition revolves around her and she is off on a journey somewhere, soon to leave the picture plane, regardless of the dark characters that lope in the shadows of the tree boughs.  But the peacock is there also which is a talisman and vision of hope –there is a future.

In later work where it is male characters that predominantly frequent the wood – the female figure is still there but you just cant see her.  The gaze rests upon the male characters and we have a chance for pure observation, rather like watching fighting boar in mating season, to see some interesting male rituals in practice.  Indeed they are ripe to be observed and studied, as examination of these rituals will make us understand them just that little bit better.

FN: You have talked in the past about taking your painterly responsibilities very seriously; could you explain what you mean by this?

ST: I am a member of a generation of female artists greatly indebted to the struggle of our female forebears that fought and endangered their own lives for the furthering and liberation of our own.I look to people like Mary Kelly, Cindy Sherman and Paula Rego in the art world and characters like Angela Carter and Kate Bush in other fields that are prolific hard workers with vision to make work and make sure it is taken seriously.

As a woman and a painter I see vulnerable young girls looking around for role models and lifestyles and attitudes to aspire to.  My responsibility as a woman is to practice what I preach: to say what I want to say as a woman about the female experience and do this with a conviction that promotes confidence and resolution within the younger generation.   This in turn proves that ambitions can be realised and that opinions and philosophies are needed by both men and women to make society a fairer and accountable reality.    

My responsibility is to be direct, unflinching and honest within my work and not intimidated by prevailing sexist structures, to make work that challenges and questions society about the depiction (or lack of it historically) of female experience and be a witness accountant to my own! My voice is heard and so can that of any other female who wants to talk, has something they want to express and have recorded for posterity.

Essentially my more recent work is getting more specific and subsequentlymore dangerous in terms of what I am really saying and what my stance is.  Idon’t have to have a stance though necessarily, as an artist I don’t pretend tohave the answers or then I’d be a prophet!  I am the pea under the mattress intrue fairy-tale style where I provoke subjects and scenarios that aren’teasily or quickly consumable into a situation where they are discovered and laid bare. I want to talk about subjects that aren’t easily banded about over coffee and mints – or Good Morning TV.

FN: Could you be more specific about the dangers concerning what you are really saying? I love the pea under the mattress analogy – you’re clearly entering the grubby area of issues being swept under the carpet… would you like to elaborate?

ST: The second you broach the subject of sexual politics it gets dangerous in general – as the art world is about art market and investment where all these games are very much at play.  When you are questioning sexual politics and power play it becomes awkward as the artist’s ultimate goal is to speak to all viewers and offer a unique and personal insight for all to share – to ostracize and shut out half of the population is not only self destructive as an artist, it is also not conducive to change.

The danger is ultimately to cut people out – to give the wrong message and de-stabilise the power and meaning of the work.  My work is not one-sided and is not arrogant enough to say it knows all the answers, but what the work allows is the opportunity to pose various scenarios where various situations can happen and the outcome is unpredictable.  

My work is about empowerment and exploration: freedom.  If that is lost it renders the work defunct.  The danger of making work is that though you are the maker – the work makes itself.  I trust my intuition and urgency to make my newer work – sometimes you don’t at the time know why you are making it.  Later it makes sense and you learn a lot more about your self.  This is a journey that men historically have taken by way of routes such as painting, that women generally did not, their mental landscapes stayed private or at least small scale! I am sure that many women talked about their experiences in other ways of which I sadly am not aware – beyond that of the restrained worlds of Austen or Bronte. As a painter I am working in a medium that all can see, that is accountable and a testament to the visions that exist in my head.

FN: Many feminist works seem to show women in some fairly degrading roles – I’m thinking of Yuskavage here for example, who you have cited as an important influence – some of these works are really shocking – to what end, do you think? What relation would you say your work has to works such as these?

ST: Yuskavage’s more recent stuff has become more porn referential (well before Currin). His new work is hard-core porn that is hilarious in its painterly beauty but ugly and unhelpful in content. – I have been showing it to people in my studio and they are shocked by it.  John can get away with it because he is a smart boy from Yale in a tweed jacket looking like butter wouldn’t melt.

But in answer to the first question here – to avoid use of the female figure because of gaze issues and mis-representation is cowardice.  To use the female figure and battle out a new approach to look at it, depict and empower it, as a female artist is of paramount importance.  To exclude it and shirk away from it is essentially to shirk away responsibility as a female artist to deal with topics of sexism and the understanding of the concept of woman as subject and maker of art.

A lot of this shock factor behaviour in feminist art is about reclaiming the female form and showing what it can do.  Carolee Schneeman- who I met and worked with at PPOW Gallery in New York, is a prime example here.  She is most famous for Interior Scroll, 1975 where on stage she slowly unfurls a scroll of paper from her vagina with a long monologue that she reads out to the audience [fig.1].  Orlan is another huge character that has had radical surgery on her face over many years giving herself horns etc. These surgical episodes are filmed as pat of her ‘performance’ that makes for grizzly and fascinating viewing.  A lot of this kind of work stems from anger – anger at how the female body is packaged and sold back to them as being the way their body should be viewed and understood; when in truth every woman has a very personal and unique relationship with their own body.  Mutilation and sensationalism are more obvious ways to claim back the body.  But there are a million other ways to make art and every female artist has their own path to take – either looking at this subject or steering away from it completely.  

In terms of my recent work there are many ideas at play.  I like to make work that challenges me and puts me on the spot conceptually and formally.  You pose the idea that the degrading roles being played by women in the work of Yuskavage for example is similar to the men in my work at the moment.  In a way this is probably true – but my work has a very definite narrative of its own and is not influenced by the current feminist debate.

Feminism is a stance that cannot be defined.  Just as there are a thousand branches of the Church so it goes for Feminism also.  There are umpteen readings I am sure of my current work under the umbrella of Feminism.  These men in my work are actual characters. Physically they relate to people and images around me.  This can be accidental when a certain character within in my work will take on particular traits of a man I know – same for women in my work too. I have serious issues with the lack of powers that women have in current society to earn equal pay, be taken seriously for the work they do and be seen as an individual as opposed to a vagina and pair of tits, which unfortunately in reality is how they are openly referred to.  Political Correctness is a tidy cover for a lot of opinions – sexist opinions that still prevail regarding the rights and opinions of women.  You need only turn off the microphone, the video camera, or talk to someone in a bar ‘ off the record’ to hear to truth about the standing of women in contemporary society.

My work is a stage to play out these scenarios and propose questions about who does what and why in society today.  My references are wide ranging but culminate in work that is made and shown today about subjects that effect every viewer in some way, shape or form.  I don’t only paint women now – my confidence has grown and I feel freer as time goes on to tackle different issues and paint things that put me to the test.  This is when the most interesting work is made.  To make a truly moving work is where the intuitive and well-researched idea comes together with an image that expresses exactly the right sentiment and message.  This rarely happens – and I admit freely that some of my work hits the mark and sometimes misses the target completely!  But the work has to be made, the uncomfortable questions have to be asked and the viewer/witness made to see it and consider it for themselves.

FN: Your body of work, particularly since your last paintings made in New York, is held together by a narrative thread that seems to tread a fine line between the real and the imaginary – could you explain how you perceive the act of image making?

ST: I am interested in the suspension of belief – essentially I am aware that making art is not to play politician – but I believe in the power of influence in art.  Art for me is an ‘uncontrolled’ area where theories (visual-cultural etc) are played out.  You can get into discussions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t – but for me art making is a very physical thing – and through it realities posed by myself are created. Within the picture frame you do what ever you want – the freedom of that is exhilarating.  But only after you have left art school!  Art school is supposed to be a place of experimentation – it actually isn’t, it is a means of formalising what you make and think.  It is a very important place – it has a conditioning element to it – but you need to see the mould and hold it before you break it.

FN: I’m particularly interested in the notion of art as an influential and uncontrolled area, could you elaborate on these points further?

ST: In order to win a game you need to know the rules in the first place before you even get in the team. The breaking of the mould is a similar but more static expression with the same meaning. There are languages within art (visual media) just as there are in written language and it is these learned and recognisable vocabularies that have to be employed when making an art piece, so that the work has a chance of being understood. My work is not about alienating people, it is about enticing them in, giving them a good time and having faith in them to work out that something is not right; and in doing so making them curious enough to find out why.  I hope that the discoveries the viewer then makes will inspire a little caution around the subjects that I broach such as men in power, idealism and promiscuity of surface, to perhaps warn them of potential traps that they can fall into in everyday life today.  Indeed there is much caution in my work made light with jollity and dark humour, which is the British condition I guess!

FN: You have described the narrative thread that holds your work together as a ‘path’ that winds its way through fairy-tale landscapes complete with ‘shady knolls’ and ‘perils’ lurking beyond: Does your ‘shady knoll’ correspond to the self-defined world of the individual and does the fable-esque ‘winding path’ correspond to the ‘acceptable’ available routes within an institutionalised world?

ST: Yes – I think this is a fair understanding.

FN: Could you tell me more about ‘the path’?

ST: Yes – I am on that path. Reality. The path is truth, conviction, life with its various destinations and destinies…it is a real and metaphysical route.

FN: The question, which you may not agree with is I think interesting because it touches on an interesting grey area of ambiguity inherent within your pictures– where does the safe zone end and where does the dark or sinister begin – the idea is cast within the context of the private mythology that animates your images but extends to the way we look at life, through the lens of your paintings. Do you agree with this? In which case how is ‘the path’ to be understood?

ST: Yes – you are very eloquent here: images animating private mythologies and artwork created as a lens to look through.  The idea of a ‘lens’ is an interesting idea but a little complicated because that prompts ideas of mechanical vision – which my eyes and imagination aren’t … The path is the ‘way forward’. In order to take someone on a journey with you the route has to be defined and believable: if the landscape exists to look at, it makes the job of the narrator easier. In short the path is a sublime passageway – it is dangerous yet beautiful and it is ultimately inevitable.  The path to female enlightenment is still as yet an un-plotted one.

FN: Changing angle a little now, to look at some of the more material aspects of your work. Scale in your work is very important – do you view the laying out and execution of large figurative canvases as a challenge – particularly a challenge to the male artist, in the present and in the history of art? – as a means of gaining on andsurpassing men in what has traditionally been their own territory?

ST: I certainly think so yes.  Ultimately I had never been able to paint so large until I moved to Rome where I was given the opportunity to do so in the vein of grand narrative history paintings that I was seeing all around me in Italy’s bounteous art collections!

The way you paint when doing large-scale work is very different to small scale. Large-scale work is physically demanding and though you feel exhausted after a day’s endeavours you feel like you have done a real days work!  When you make images similar to your own scale you feel you are involved in pseudo-creation! – which as an artist gives you a real kick.  More than taking men on in what is historically their domain, working large-scale is about trying to understand the macho idea that goes with it: a practice women historically are not so famous for.  

FN: You’ve talked about only referencing the classical when you are ‘jocularly jostling’ with male masters within art history. I’m curious about what you mean by this. It seems to me that stylistically your work is deeply rooted in various streams of art-historical tradition, particularly with regard to landscape – do you mean then that such stylistic citation is always and only to be understood as a means to ‘tease’ the past? If so, what ends would you say these means intend to reach?

ST: Well this is a very good question – The feeling I want to convey in terms of message from my work is more a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’.  Teasing is too light a word that I would use in reference to dangling a ball of wool in front of a kitten.  The classical referencing is about putting the viewer on the same page.  I am not making private jokes in my work only discernible to the seasoned art viewer. I am keen to use recognisable references – almost clichéd references and twisting them slightly, with the effect that an oddness or un-sureness is created.  This process is about providing clues about the establishment that I have problems with and am keen on addressing in relation to gender and class codification within the contemporary art world.

The characters I create do harp back to the golden ages of figurative painting in Europe and America but in essence one can only reference what has gone before. The paintings I am currently making literally reference my forefathers. I am speaking within a language framework that I am fluent in (paint), that they are the ‘masters’ of and where women are almost non-existent. This can make me feel rather lonely.  The work I am making is very loaded and there is always the risk of over-loading and becoming convoluted but these risks have to be taken in order that the work gets made and hopefully the message gets through. Some paintings work and some don’t but that is the journey that I as an artist am making, that the viewer shares with me.

FN: You’ve mentioned that a more complicated composition requires a more complicated technique? – Do you find that style and content also necessitate such an escalation?

ST: To be honest this is mostly a formal issue – it has its place in the conceptual content of the work but it has a lot to do with basic practicalities of making the right depth and richness to the painting so that it doesn’t look two-dimensional and ‘modern’ – I don’t make colour plane pictures.  In my work I am harping back to the old masters – the richness and texture of Titian or the layering of glazes and gradual layering of details like in a Constable painting.  I do want the complexity of the finish to be reminiscent of the fussy, fustiness of an ‘old’ painting.  I want there to be an air of lost grandeur and slight irrelevance to the work.  I can make bright dynamic paintings – but that is not the point I am making – I want my images to be read slowly.  I want the pace in my work to be similar to that of say a Gainsborough in its formal reading, with the dynamic stab of the contemporary experience (of that of a stroppy female painter!) striking through.

FN: Landscape plays an active ingredient in your work as a narrative element: it often parodies the actual English landscape or the pictorial landscape traditions established by early Gainsborough and particularly Constable whose achievements were continued in the USA by Thomas Cole. What effect have these artist’s works had on you?

ST: I only started to look at British landscape characters like Constable when living in the USA – looking back and questioning the patriotic viewpoint – outside looking in – these early American scenic painters like Cole were British!  They created thisAmerican ‘look’ [fig.2].
FN: Before we follow up this interesting notion of the ‘patriotic point of view’ could you say a little more about Constable and Gainsborough, and the other old masters that have been particularly significant for you?

ST: I hated Constable from a young age (though loved Gainsborough).  My family had this reproduction print in the hall of a shire horse by him that I wanted to destroy (it was a wedding gift I think).  Later we had this silver foil style Constable work – probably The Haywain or something on the wall.  Constable was no-go.  I didn’t understand any of this work until I moved to the US and saw what a lot of the artists I respected there were looking at. This prompted me to see the history of British painting differently.  I saw it for its historical value and also as a ripe catalogue/resource for motifs etc for my own work, that was talking directly about British-ness and its visual identity conveyed about it through its own art.

I [now] love Constable’s early paintings of Dedham Wood/Vale [fig. 3]. I was amused by Constable’s finished works that were slaved over using plein-air sources, but his final paintings were real stoic masterpieces embodying an earnestness and desperation to portray a real English scene complete with rain laden clouds and scrubby British flora and fauna!  I love his muted palette and Classical approach – every thing about Constable’s work screams earnest-ness bordering on the obsessive about the English landscape – his very own Arcadia with prophetic rainbow dazzling in the pregnant skies about to piss all over boggy middle England.

I’ll also mention my love more so of the landscape paintings of Gainsborough – the painting of 1747: Cornard’s Wood (Gainsborough’s Forest) [fig. 4].  This was pretty much done from memory and embodies all the nostalgia and romanticism to recreate this idyllic setting.  This painting is in the back of my head a lot when I am making my work.  Gainsborough moved away from the countryside, as he got more famous to make work in the city where the rich patrons were. Apparently he enjoyed these landscapes more when he left: in this painting he portrays an immaculate almost Garden of Eden-style English paradise!

This fecundity and grandiose splendour was a great inspiration and source of fun: my work is referential, reverent and slightly mocking such as is ‘the British’ way!

Hogarth is another key influence: his parlour paintings of depravity are so naughty and real food for thought for the modern day artist! My favourite works by him are: Before and After (1730) which is of a robed, then dis-robed gentile couple out in the woods! It is wonderfully petulant! [figs. 5, 6]What I love about this work by Hogarth is that he is having fun and putting aside personal moral obligation that some people feel should be integral to the making of art: piety and truth, to show it how it is.  Hogarth employs blatant sexual content to share a joke with the viewer.  The important thing about this work is that it is a so-called witness account.  This is an event that is supposed to be private and probably clandestine which is shared by the large viewing public.  A private event becomes history and public knowledge.  I am interested in this aspect of making paintings: images don’t die in the deteriorating brain of the human; they are exposed in visual media and aired to a wider witnessing body.

FN: Returning now to what you mentioned earlier: how would you define the ‘patriotic viewpoint’? and how would you say that being in NY helped you to get the necessary distance to recognise what that was?

ST: It is difficult to understand how you are defined (by others around you) until you leave that set up.  When I moved to Scotland to study I suddenly became ‘English’ not ‘Sharon’. When I moved to America I was then ‘British’ and assumed to be upper class and friends with the Queen.  A frustrating fact that kept cropping up was the idea that I was a subject within the UK to the Queen. In America the people are citizens – supposedly equal and free.  In all situations however, I was female and in all countries and classes the treatment of a woman is uniform.

What struck me as time went on is that at every stage of my career, the invisible web of societal control caught the light more and more and I began to realise the binds that people in reality face.  There was a growing realisation that other peoples’ structures exist to ensnare and that in order to succeed the parameters within this matrix have to be adhered to. This simultaneously frightening and claustrophobic concept is fuel to fire my work: painting only what confuses or scares me. To paint without danger or know what the outcome will be is pointless, for painting (Art) is a means to provoke change and talk about difficult subjects. If painting couldn’t do that I would become a politician instead and then God help us all! Ha…

In terms of the distance that moving to the US gave to the content of my work: class and nationality became bigger subjects, as suddenly I was British with all of its baggage. The September 11th terrorist attack on New York was an horrific incident, but also uncanny in terms of my focus on national identity and its impact on culture and societal control within my work. I stood in real time witnessing the attack that day, apparently. Then saw what happened next. This is all material for the work that was and is still to come.

Constable and Cole became more and more relevant during my time in New York: There was a big show of The Hudson River School at the Metropolitan Museum in 2003: Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford which was amazing.  These images of sublime American landscapes and ways of life reinforced an ideal that was worth fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan [figs. 7, 8]. In my own work the shimmering Silver Birch trees, rambling English roses and ever-changing skies are the embodiment of a beauteous England that must be defended at all cost!  
This Romanticism greatly encouraged by societal powers is a convenient and potent propaganda used to make the average Jim Bob lament and fight for a way of life that doesn’t currently exist for them now and never did in the past either!  ‘British-ness’, peddled in this way in the form of porcelain mugs with the Queen on or fridge magnets of red telephone boxes is a fallacy, an Arcadia that as its name implies is fabricated.  To fight to defend an ideal that never existed in the first place is futile and painfully sad and furthermore the people that tend to lose out the most in this way are the poorer, less educated populace desperate to achieve and make life better for themselves, essentially like lambs to slaughter.

It is the use of romantic idyllic settings (based on my own Cheshire homeland idyll) that is a direct comment about this abuse of romantic gesturing for political gain: exposing its dangers but also taking the opportunity to revel in the beauty of such a subject and have fun with the viewer.  I think the viewer picks up the carnival feeling of the scenes I make and finds it amusing, but on further viewing notes the darker more sinister side to the proceedings.  This is exactly the nature of the Crow dance that goes on in my mother’s town.  The festival is all very entertaining – but it is essentially a male-only event that re-enforces a societal structure women have never been involved in or invited to join.  I do find in British humour that it tends to be a laugh or cry situation.  The British have a dark humour and don’t take themselves too seriously –, which I don’t necessarily think is a good thing.  The inclusion of the smirk, the wee joke within my work is certainly a victim of this British humour – but it is vital to encourage the viewer to let down their guard to enjoy the joke and look deeper to discover other meanings that may mean something important to them.

I have to admit that I have always empathised with the Court jester character, who was generally the only one in the Royal Court that could speak their mind and not be executed for it!  Things must be farcical when it is The Fool that generally turns out to be the most sensible person around.