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Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects


Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects


in conversation with Phoebe Unwin

How can painting express an experience beyond an appearance? four by three talks to Phoebe Unwin about her solo exhibition 'Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects' at Wilkinson Gallery, discussing painting, photography, the transitory and the human significance of distraction. 

Phoebe Unwin, Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects: Installation View, Lower Gallery, Wilkinson Gallery. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

With the sparseness of colour and its being a series, the work in this exhibition feels like a shift from what you’ve done previously. Could you begin by saying a bit about what led you to making this most recent body of work, and how you see it departing from your previous paintings?

Phoebe Unwin: Firstly, I wanted to look closely at what the core interest in my painting for the past ten years has been: the relationship between material, colour and my chosen subject matter or idea for a painting. All the paintings I’ve done in the past have been about exploring not what something looks like, but more what something might  feel like. So, for instance, I have been concerned with encompassing the space around something or someone, say how they affect or infect their environment, or the fe­­­­­­­­­elings that a particular space, place or person might evoke.

With this  body of work in the exhibition I wanted to be very minimal about the relationship between the  material qualities of a colour or mark and how that might connect with  a chosen subject matter. All of these new paintings are painted with an airbrush. I was particularly interested in the connotations that the airbrush mark has in relation to photography. Physically, the paintings have something of the feeling of a photograph in that there’s a similar sense of capture – of being ‘in’ a space, of people about to move, a limb going off the edge of a painting or a head cropped out of viewpoint. Along with this idea of capture comes in my mind an opportunity to introduce the possibility of a spatial element as well. So that’s why I chose to create landscapes, making pastoral scenes which explore how the human form might relate to that. All of these paintings are monochrome, made with just Indian ink. Eschewing colour for these paintings allowed me to focus on form, composition, shape and scale. This working process is very direct. Also, going back to the Indian ink, I like how it’s a traditional material working with the more mechanical 20th century tool of the airbrush. Finally, the mark achieved with it is one that has a quickness about it, a sense of speed, so for me that process lends itself very well to this idea of a feeling of photograph- a sense of the transitory captured. 


Phoebe Unwin, Bunch,  2015, Indian ink on acrylic sized canvas, 185 x 220 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

You’ve often spoken about your paintings attempting to capture the ‘essence’ of their subject matter rather than a personal experience. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by this? And how do you see the series as a whole functioning in this respect? Is it important that the paintings are shown together or thought about as a group, rather than taken individually? 

PU: Well it’s important that the paintings can both be in a series or stand alone, that each work has enough visual information there to provoke a richness of ideas for the viewer. But I think that seeing all the paintings together in a space does give the work both another layer and a clarity in that it underlines my interest in the idea of space, of capture, and also of scale. I think in terms of your question about “essence”, I am really interested in when paintings can communicate. That for me is a challenge, to have some  form of visual communication: I’m aiming for that really simple thing of trying to explain something visually and hopefully enabling the viewer to feel part of it, almost wanting to echo it. So the essence comes in trying to hit upon the aspect of a subject that is the constant core or essence , rather than what I might see as an unimportant  detail, the  superficial qualities that might change or be more specific.

As the paintings are about visually communicating an idea of ‘essence’, I always paint something I have experienced as I need all of the sensory information connected with it.  But then when it comes to making the painting, I really want that set of experiences to translate to other people. That’s why I focus on subjects that the viewer might have seen around them, or that they have also experienced. So in these paintings I was interested in how things like the headphones, the coffee cups, the lounging around in a park, things that are relatively ubiquitous can be capable of provoking a range of ideas about space and psychological feelings.

Phoebe Unwin, Curtains Open, Curtains Shut, 2013 Acrylic, glassine paper, pastel and Indian ink on canvas, 2 parts, 220 x 185 cm each. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

Also, the way in which I have worked with a series here stems from three paintings of curtains I made a year or so earlier. They were also made with Indian ink but with acrylic too, and so the effect was much more layered than these new paintings. I was struck by a subject matter which lends itself very well to the idea of series, in terms of the movement of the curtains – being open or closed for instance. It was a platform on which to explore ideas of flatness, representation of fabric and layers and domestic space. In a similar way I felt these new paintings demanded a sequence so that the sense of capture and space and a feeling of documentation is hit upon. 


Unlike other paintings you’ve done which rely on a diversity of materials and gestures, all the paintings in the exhibition solely use Indian ink applied with an air-brush. Why did you choose to limit yourself to this material in making these paintings?

PU: I wanted to use Indian Ink because of the spectrum of greys you can get with it, it’s a really beautiful spectrum from the palest grey, almost white, to the the deepest black. The airbrush makes it possible to  show off  this kind of sensitivity that can be achieved with the ink. Also, I was interested in the connection between them. Indian ink is also a very traditional, the most traditional, material for picture making. It's also extremely lightfast and not something particular to Europe; it’s historically found in both Asian and Western Art. With the airbrush I was interested in the combination between the very traditional and the very contemporary and also the way it’s not necessarily regarded as a fine art method.  It’s used for all kinds of things: touching up photographs, decorating t-shirts on beaches, spray tans, nails and so on. One of the aspects of painting that I find interesting is that in a way it is a very democratic medium in the sense that when working with a simple, usual brush, the equipment you need is very basic and it is something most people have at least tried at some point in their lives, say at school. So that’s something I like about painting, but with the airbrush I was interested in these other everyday or more common uses because there is something where it has been employed, to a certain degree, to remove a human touch  – the spray being a way to achieve a ‘perfect’ finish or a ‘professional’ finish or an ‘enhancement’. A mechanical distancing of the unforgiving quality and process of the human hand with a hair brush and a palette of paint.

The way in which I have chosen to work with an airbrush, for me, makes it somehow a little bit closer to printmaking. There’s some sense of removal, but there’s also a contradiction with that because I’m working very freely and there’s an invented figuration.  Also, what I should also say about the Indian Ink is that I was working with it on acrylic sized canvas, so you’ve got the colour of the canvas, and also kaolin clay boards. Again, the surfaces themselves are very traditional materials. The imagery is also a mixture of the traditional, with the pastoral landscapes, and the contemporary, with the objects. I think the airbrush enables me to create an image which has a feeling of photography and the also somehow lends itself to a combination of very contemporary imagery alongside much more timeless imagery: the pastoral. 

Phoebe Unwin, Cup, 2015, Indian ink on kaolin clay on board, 40.7 x 30.6 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

Your earlier remark about the sense of an encompassing space feels very true for the larger landscape paintings with figures. But the paintings of what you call the ‘self-soothing’ objects are a lot smaller. You’ve often said that the scale of a painting is very important for you. Why did you choose these two scales for the works? 

PU: The larger paintings have a sense of kind of wrapping around you when you look at them, with the result that you’re more part of the space, whereas the paintings of the self-soothing objects are almost head sized – you need to walk up close to see them. I like to think about people’s physical experience of looking at the paintings. For me, going to a painting exhibition is a very physical experience: I’m walking, I choose which one to walk up to, I stand back. The scale becomes a very important vehicle for communicating the idea I have for a subject. For instance, if the self-soothing objects had been part of the larger paintings, the work would have become less psychological and more like a set of images of characters. One thing that’s really important for me when I’m trying to explore an idea is that I want people to feel responsive to the images  and scale plays a strong role. 


The smaller works show the ‘self-soothing’ objects like coffee cups and headphones merging with the isolated body parts they are in contact with. What was your interest in these objects and why are these described in the title of the exhibition as ‘self-soothing’? 

PU: I think that part of my interest comes from living in London. I see people having these things with them nearly all the time. Or I notice the impatience of people to get their phones working when a plane lands or in town they’re walking around with a coffee. Of course there was a time, not so long ago, when you you’d just go into a café and sit down, rather than carry a beaker type cup with you. They’re also very sensory objects and there’s something interesting about our psychological connection to them. When they’re used, it’s more for a kind of relief. I don’t think that people always really want to listen to a piece of music or they really want the taste of coffee in that moment, for instance. It’s more of a comfort used to take your mind elsewhere and to distract you.

Also, although all of the self-soothing objects are not quite disposable, they are small things used for just a moment: the headphones are out for a short time, or the coffee cup is thrown away. They’re things that you carry round with you and use when you need them. Part of what’s interesting is what happens when the sensory possibilities connected with these objects are with you all the time, but there’s also a momentary aspect  there that I really wanted to capture.  That’s  true of the figures in the landscape paintings too. With human forms in the pastoral settings there’s a contrast between the constancy of the environment and the transience of the figure’s presence within it. Also a lot of the positions of the figures in those paintings have a sense of movement. They’re images of people about to move, whether they’re kneeling down, or have just stood up. 

I should add that one of the main things that I briefly touched on earlier about the airbrush mark is that you have a sense of quickness, a sense of immediacy, and that felt very appropriate for this subject matter because there’s a sense with the figures for instance, of the transience of life, that these people are there for a moment and then they are gone. With the the head phones and the cup, they are used and they are then put away for a short while, and for me somehow, maybe there was another way to do it, but I was interested that this technique of a ‘quick mark’, opened up a different kind of imagery for me, that I think it wouldn’t have done in another way. 

Phoebe Unwin, Aeroplane Meal, 2008, Spray paint and oil on linen, 97.5 x 107.5 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

Some of the paintings, as in earlier pieces of yours like Aeroplane Meal, evoke an experience of waiting or perhaps distraction. They’re what we might think of as elusive experiences which we don’t often attend to. I have in mind here Knees, and the painting Head With Headphone. Was this something you wanted to look at in the work?  And if so, what interested you in these and the forms of activity associated with them? 

PU: I suppose there is a sort of element of what it is to be an individual. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but ultimately you’re always on your own and with yourself. There is an acknowledgement of that quite often when you’ve been around a group of people. For instance, when people finish meetings there’s this moment when they’re suddenly back with themselves, their own thoughts or just in their own moment - whether it’s when we hold the takeaway coffee cup, or listen to headphones and are self-reflective. I think there’s something about those social moments in the work. Maybe there’s also something to do with the body and an openness to the environment in some, and then a more enclosed feeling, not one of entrapment, but a relationship that you have with yourself. What’s really important with the images is to try and take that starting point of the experience to communicate a feeling which is more important than the object or place pictured.  That is something George Vasey had  said in the catalogue essay, about creating images of the human body as a way of communicating a  set of experiences through the gestures that people make. 

Phoebe Unwin, Small Head with Headphone, 2015, Indian ink on kaolin clay on board, 40.7 x 30.6 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

States of waiting in which we often engage with the technologies and activities you depict, are often ones in which we engage in strategies of distraction to avoid that state. With your paintings however I couldn’t help but think of Michael Fried’s remarks on Chardin’s Card Castle and The Soap Bubble in his book Absorption and Theatricality.  In those passages he finds a positive form of ‘absorption’ or loss of self in the activities the figures are engaged in. Do you regard waiting and distraction as wholly negative phenomena? And why is the blurring of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ in the painting important to you? 

PU: I don’t mean to suggest anything negative about those sorts of experiences at all. It's more about exploring the complexity of those feelings, with their openness or introversion, through simple observations. The work isn’t meant to be communicating any sort of particular judgement or stress a viewpoint.

I find your connection to Fried very interesting. In terms of relating those ideas to my own thinking, it's true that I am interested in subjects which show a sensory connection between mind, body and environment- that's where the ‘blurring’ comes from. The human figures I paint tend to be unselfconsciously absorbed in their place or their thoughts- they're not looking out or separate from their place. I think subjects of waiting or distraction can access some of the strangest aspects of being alive - of being aware of time passing and yet not necessarily knowing what to do with it, being self reflective. Again,  I don't see this as negative at all - it's unavoidable. I think this sort of subject in a painting is potentially seductive because it's familiar, yet in a funny way feels part of the very private landscape of the mind, often a mixture of pleasure and tension, yet is ordinary. Maybe a visual exploration of this has the potential to encourage an intimate viewing experience.

Phoebe Unwin, Swimmer, 2010, Acrylic, pastel, pastel ground on canvas, 170 x 120.5 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

In these paintings the objects or landscape become  part of the human form, whether the ear with a headphone  or the hand on the ground. I have done it in past paintings, although with colour, where figures were sort of infecting their environment or being affected by it. Again, I think that’s something to do with a kind of relationship to the space and that’s what I find really interesting about a kind of invented figuration. By invented figuration I mean something more specific than an abstract/ figurative relationship, it's about using the figurative as an anchor from which I can invent the form to communicate. It  provides the opportunity to communicate how sometimes you do feel more part of a room and other times you feel more separate from it. Or, when you have music in your ears, for example, the way it becomes part of your ears. You forget that bit of plastic and the space around you because it’s a sensory experience. It’s something about the investment of feelings, an emotional resonance towards something that is more than the image of a place or object, and somehow trying to explore that visually. 

Phoebe Unwin, Plait, 2015, Indian ink on kaolin clay on board, 61.1 x 45.8 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

In the exhibition there are paintings with figures in landscapes and also the self-soothing objects which are generally man made things. But then there’s the painting of the plait. Where does that fit in with the body of work as a whole? 

PU: I think that was an aspect I had to explore through making the work. Once you have an idea for a show there can be a temptation to start to make paintings to ‘fill in’ that concept. But what became most important was simply evoking those feelings that we’ve been talking about. The exhibition isn’t just a series of images cataloguing objects or people, instead I had to ask what I needed to construct and explore those kinds of sensory experiences. With the plait, it was about capturing that experience tied to being with yourself and plaiting your hair. At the same time, there is something so human about a plait and also relatively universal, timeless and ordinary.

In this way the plait painting became really important in the exhibition as a way of bridging the object paintings with the larger figurative ones. 

Phoebe Unwin, Lap, 2014, Indian ink on acrylic sized canvas, 183 x 153 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

The figures in the landscape paintings evoke Henry Moore. What’s also striking is the absence of eyes in the figures. Was this to remove the primacy of looking as opposed to, say, an embodied experience within the work? 

PU: Henry Moore was on my mind when I was making the work, but with the lack of eyes it’s more that I wanted the figures to come across as obscured and not as characters, which would have prevented the viewer from identifying with them. Also, as they’re not looking at you and challenging your gaze you’re encouraged to look at them. It was a combination between trying to get that viewpoint where you’re in the space and you can have a sensory relationship to the figures and where they don’t become characters with facial features.

Again, about  the relation to Moore, although the figures that I’ve painted are quite soft looking because of the airbrush mark, there’s also a kind of sculptural element. I’m interested in the human form rather than a particular gender or individual. They’re not even necessarily naked although they’re not clothed. Going way back to the beginning of this conversation to the question about ‘essence’: what was important to me was that these images of people encourage an exploration of a feeling rather than representing a particular group of people – be it in time or gender. For instance, I think clothing or genitals would have brought an unhelpful specificity- the paintings would have become about something else entirely. 


The flecks of paint and the blurring of the image immediately made me think of pointillism and particularly the lounging figures of Seurat’s Bathers. But whereas the impressionists privileged sight as the fundamental sense, your paintings seem to do the opposite: listening, touching, tasting and the felt experience of the body seem far more important. Do you think we over privilege the visual? and what what was the role of visual experience in the making of the painting and the finished work? 

PU: Well there’s an emotional aspect to the visual, how can there not be? I think that the visual isn’t something that can be separated out from other aspects of experience, but it can be seen in that way because it’s used so often as a distinct medium of persuasion or communication. But I think, in terms of the way the visual works,  memory, ideas, feelings, and personal connotations are always involved. It’s a very complex phenomenon. Also, both with visual memory and with looking in the present there’s so much visual editing going on. That’s something that really interests me, for instance the way you can be in an area with lots of tall buildings and, if that’s not what’s on your mind, a great big building could go up and you wouldn’t really notice it and it would just blend in with all the other skyscrapers. I find that fascinating, the kinds of relationship that you have to things, whether it is repeated every day or has a particular significance. And by significance I don’t mean symbolically meaningful.

With my work, I find it interesting how daily things or ordinary objects can lodge themselves in your mind. It’s often something that you struggle to visually articulate or tell somebody about because you’re remembering the bits that are profound to you alone: it’s those aspects that you hold on to in your mind because they're important and the mass of detail you don’t remember because it isn’t emotionally significant. That’s what I’m exploring in my paintings and why it’s really important for me to not look at an image, such as a photograph, in making the work. Photographs, for me, have a lot of information that’s not perceptual and in some ways they’re more superficial. Of course photographs have their own power and that’s often down to a great photographer, but they can miss that kind of experience I’m interested in. 

Phoebe Unwin, Bulrush, 2015, Indian ink on acrylic sized canvas, 123 x 166 cm. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

Given your views about the potential limitations of photography for capturing the kinds of experiences you want to communicate, why did you want to evoke photography in the work? Could you perhaps say a bit more about the formal relationship to photography in the paintings? 

PU: Photography is such a dominant part of everyday visual culture and more so now than any other time in history. I was compelled make work which explored something of the photographic but not in terms of the visual language of the photographic image in painting- I felt that has been done and I also have always firmly felt my interests lie elsewhere. What I thought was a challenging and timely aspect to explore was the  more emotive aspect of photography - it's connotations of capturing movement, the intimacy of the selfie shot or mobile phone photo. That kind of totally informal documentation of something like a meal where you see elbows either side - for me, when people do that it's not about composing a beautiful image but instead it is about sharing something that's significant. It's more about wishing the someone else was there with you to appreciate it. I find that a very emotive and an interesting subject.

In terms of the more formal aspects of the paintings resembling a photogram: I wanted to mix up connotations of a photograph - going from the symbolic (the historical idea of the photograph- developing, contrast, documentation, focus, enlargement ) to the contemporary (the selfie 'elbows' or arms in a space, truncation, ordinary intimacy, accidental viewpoints). 


In the catalogue essay to the exhibition, George Vasey notes that part of what you’re exploring in the work is the theme of the pastoral. Historically, the pastoral has been depicted and romanticized as a space free from modernization and technology. Why the pastoral in the larger paintings? 

PU: I think that the pastoral certainly has been depicted as a space of freedom from modernization and technology throughout the history of painting. But in this work I’m not intending to make such a strong claim for it. Instead, I’m using that space to evoke a feeling of that kind of freedom. The figures are lounging around and stretching, and so of course they’re enjoying a leisure time- or in some paintings I think  it is less clear what is going on and much more open to interpretation. But, as we’ve been discussing, there’s a sense that they won’t be there for long. And, again, it's  just a feeling of being open in the landscape and that connected sense of release, or a kind of echoing between the person and the landscape and between people themselves.  There’s also a relationship between the mind and the body in those kinds of experiences, in which they seem quite united. For instance, there is a pleasure of the body depicted within the pastoral space which is quite timeless and human. Then, in contrast, I wanted to explore another, very contemporary, kind of psychological and physical connection experienced with what I call the self-soothing objects.

Questions by Bernard Hay and Maggie Stewart

Phoebe Unwin, Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects: Installation View, Wilkinson Gallery. Image courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery.

Phoebe Unwin's exhibition 'Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects' was on at Wilkinson Gallery, London, until the 18th of December 2015.

All images courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, © 2015.


Phoebe Unwin is a painter based in London and a Lecturer at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. Her interests focus on how perception can be explored through an invented figurative image and its corresponding relationship to mark, scale and colour. She has been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize (2011) and shortlisted for the Max Mara Art Prize (2015) and has exhibited in both Europe and the US. Her work is in public collections including Tate Collection, London.

Maggie Stewart is a practicing artist and Artist Educator based in London.  She studied Fine Art and History of Art at Goldsmiths, and is currently undertaking a PGCE in Secondary Art Education, also at Goldsmiths.  Her paintings have featured in publications including the Caitlin Guide 2013, and is included in the Goldsmiths Collection and BBC painting archive.