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“What is the reality of painting?”

5 August 2015 by Lisa

Black and white paintings hanging in a gallery

From left to right: ‘Black Star’ and ‘Hollow’ in the REALITY exhibition at the Walker.

The evocative and mysterious  ‘Black Star’ and ‘Hollow’ paintings in our REALITY exhibition, are the work of contemporary artist Alison Watt. Find out more about Alison’s work and her thoughts on painting in this guest blog:

“What is the reality of painting? I have no idea. Even though I’ve spent most of my life looking at painting, talking about painting and making paintings, as a medium it becomes more mysterious to me with the passing of time. It’s striking how one’s relationship to a particular painting can change over the years . It’s possible to look at the same work for a lifetime and still not know what it’s about. When you look at a picture intensely over a long period, ideas form which are not based on what you can see. You begin to abstract what is very keenly observed. So what you are seeing is being transformed by what you are thinking. The longer you look, the less it seems like itself.

My own paintings often come from memory. Something seen, often a painting, something read, or even of a particular person if they have had a powerful impact on me. Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about what I see when I’m with a painting and what I remember of it when I’m not. How can it be that you can look at the same piece of art again and again and yet when you’re not with it there are certain aspects which you can’t remember about it? Are there just some things about this medium that the brain cannot retain?

The act of painting itself is a solitary business and I spend almost all of my time in the studio entirely alone. Essentially, a studio is an intimate place because it brings out what lies inside oneself. A place in which to think and to imagine. I guard that space fiercely. In every studio I’ve worked in, I’ve always had a lock fitted to the inside of the door so I can lock myself in. I need to feel hidden in order to make work.

A woman painting.

Alison Watt. Image by Marcus Latham. Courtesy of the artist and Ingleby Gallery.

Although my recent paintings may appear to be devoid of a human presence, a suggestion of the body is implied in the shadows, tucks and folds represented. The images I create are difficult to describe as they are as much about what we read into to them as what we see. I no longer paint directly from the human figure but I’m still fascinated by it. When I left art school I spent a period of ten years working everyday with a life model. I needed that time to look. One of the reasons that my work takes the form that it does, is that there are certain proportions which are satisfying and make sense to me and that has come from years of studying the human form. My understanding of the geometric balance, the spatial order so necessary to the success of a painting comes form that period of study.

In 2010, I was on the jury for the John Moores Painting Prize. The great excitement of being a judge for the John Moores was to experience the paintings first hand. Painting is unique as a medium and part of that comes from its materiality. It can’t be reproduced by any other means. It’s a medium that has to be experienced; to be felt. But ultimately it will always be elusive. It is a constant battle between the eye and the mind. And above all, there are certain things that only painting can do. That is what gives it its power.”

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