Departing from a safe zone

I am currently preparing for a joint exhibition with Oxford-based painter Andris Wood at the Gasoline Rooms gallery in March 2014. The body of work I am preparing moves me away from previous painting ventures into a more experimental territory where fine arts meets the graphic novel. This is exciting and terrifying at the same time, and the experience of pushing myself in a new direction inspired me to write down some of my thoughts on departing from a safe zone.

For my birthday this year, my boyfriend gave me a beautiful book called Little Big Books. Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books, published by Gestalten. It is a large, beautifully compiled book showcasing many established illustrators, some of which aren’t necessarily children’s books-oriented (despite the title). I spent a good few hours looking at the vast amount of artwork inside the book when I caught myself thinking that a lot of the styles are very similar. After a few read-throughs, there was only a small number of artists I was able to immediately distinguish. Two of them I knew (and fell in love with) long before I got the book: Lorenzo Mattotti and Einar Turkowski are both phenomenal artists with a very unique style. Despite not knowing a word in German, I love looking at amazing pencil drawings in Turkowski’s debut book, Es war finster und merkwürdig still (translation: “It was dark and eerily quiet”), which he submitted as his degree thesis at the University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, in 1998. Turkowski limits himself to the pencil, “the boringly normal HB-hardness,” because he likes concentrating on one tool, and doing “everything possible with it, from the finest stroke to the darkest shadowing.” (You can read more about him at the Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin website.)

Mattotti, on the other hand, is all about the colour (although he’s also an author of two great black and white comics: semi-autobiographical The Man at the Window and Chimera.) His unique picture novels such as Fires (on which he worked 6 years), Murmur, or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde have very distinct palettes and resemble galleries of paintings, some of which could easily work outside of the book. Mattotti is someone who, having experimented with a few traditional comic stories, decided he wanted to tell different kinds of stories using a different style. This is one of the reasons I like his work so much. To be honest, I actually don’t read many comic books because I find a lot of them very similar and dull. What I look for in art is a very personal approach and interpretation, playing with the genre, crossing disciplines to create something new. And not just for the sake of it being different but for one’s own satisfaction with finding their own voice.

A few other names I fished out from that big red book are: Emmanuelle Houdart with her bold, disturbing images and defined colours; Kaatje Vermeire with her enchanting visual poetry and subtle lines; Alicia Baladan’s quirky and mysterious figures in fantastical landscapes and David Sala‘s decorative images with a hint of retro-nostalgia.

I was wondering what it was about these people that their work immediately spoke to me, while many other images, however nice to look at, I found so easily forgettable. I realized that there is a certain style in today’s world of illustration (both in the UK and Poland) that seems very popular and safe, hence a lot of artists pick it up. Images resembling a child’s drawings, figures and objects as cutouts or silhouettes, with very particular compositions of not-too-many objects on a page. I have seen so many images adhering to this style that even though I did find a lot of it charming initially, now it leaves me cold.

Two days ago I went to the Cockpit Arts open studios in Deptford and left with very similar feelings. While all the different artwork (ceramics, jewellery, textiles, illustrations) in studios spreading across three floors was pleasant to look at, there were only a few artists there who I thought were really offering something personal and different. Those were: Katharine Morling with her fantastic black-and-white sculptures of both ordinary objects and more imaginary characters and places; very quirky mugs and pots with body parts and Madonnas by Anja Lubach, striking biomorphic headdresses by Emma Yeo, and enchanting hand-embroidered illustrations of people in intimate everyday situations by Naomi Ryder.

Developing one’s own artistic language is not a quick and easy process, and it requires the ability to both challenge oneself and to stay immune to whatever trends are popular and catchy. Paradoxically, finding recipients for one’s work at an early stage, despite financial reward, might become an obstacle in the development of one’s career. The temptation to stay on the safe side and keep doing what the client seems to like most must be very strong, as well as the fear that one’s new artistic venture might not be met with applause. Therefore I really do admire artists who are able to resist that fear and keep working their way towards a very unique personal expression.