THE PAINTING YEAR 2: Hagar Basis, Elizabeth Hilliard Selka & Athy P. - 3D virtual exhibition by The Essential School of Painting

THE PAINTING YEAR 2: Hagar Basis, Elizabeth Hilliard Selka & Athy P.

Tue, 09/07/2021 to Mon, 02/07/2022

curated by:

What moves me in painting is that which reflects my own inner journey, a creative vehicle of bringing the ‘inside’ out, my personal expression into the world.

Returning to painting after a 30-year gap has been liberating. In the late 80’s I studied fine art and painting at the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel. My recent paintings reflect an unfolding of a living process to which I have arrived over many years of working on my unconscious. The paintings evolve within the creative process itself, and often reveal a personal spiritual commentary on my experience which is continually unfolding. I have always been drawn to working with the human figure in painting, predominantly these being aspects of myself. More recently I have been merging figures within a primordial landscape setting which I want to explore further.


Here in this ESOP digital end-of-year show you’ll find five works of mine, paintings which have emerged from exercises and discussions in class with our tutors Guy Allott and Dan Coombs and with my fellow students, from whom one also learns

In December 2020 I ate at St John’s restaurant in Clerkenwell with a friend, and from the menu we chose to share a roasted half pig’s head. There is a debate to be had about eating meat, the history of animal husbandry, the design of the human gut, nutrition and so on, but in this case I was simply fascinated by the architecture of the pig’s skull. I took it home, cleaned it and admired it. I have long been in awe of the beauty and design of skeletons, skulls in particular due to their complex function and structure, and at one time had quite a collection of animal and bird skulls found on beaches and islands. Here was a form new to me, very long in the snout (it’s a pig, duh). In class, I got quite excited about the work of Mexican artist Gabriele Orozco to which Dan introduced us. A wildly versatile artist, for one project he painted lines on an entire whale’s skeleton. Concurrently with Dan’s class, Guy had set us an exercise involving painting a large grid. Out of these two classes in weeks following each other grew this painting of mine in which I try to weave the real and the representation in a game of illusion and questioning. Can you see from the photograph that just above my painting of a monumental pig’s skull, there is attached to the canvas the real pig’s skull, tiny by comparison, camouflaged by being painted first white, then black-lined, then coloured in keeping with the pattern of the rest of the canvas? This painting was also an exercise in colour for me, developing a palette more subtle and restrained than my usual. To achieve this palette and pattern I painted many squares of colour on paper and arranged them until I was satisfied, and then refined the colour further once the canvas was painted.
Separately I questioned St John about the source of their pigs and hence of the meat I had eaten off this skull. Here is their interesting response which throws light on the architecture of the bone:
Head Chef Steve says: It looks like a skull from a Tamworth pig which would have come from Paddock Farm in the Cotswolds. It’s a breed with features of a wild boar - with a long rootling snout to dig into the dirt. They have long legs, are very hairy, hearty and love cold weather. We usually get 1/2 a pig in per week and of course use the whole animal. We would typically use the offal and belly to make a terrine or faggots, the leg for ham, the shoulder and loin for roasting and all the trim for potted pork or rissoles.

I am a lockdown sceptic. It has been clear to me from the evidence, available since mid- 2020, and especially now in 2021 that we have data to compare from countries and states that have and have not used lockdowns as an NMI (non medical intervention), that they do not work. As well as being medically ineffective not to say counterproductive they are, moreover, immensely destructive and cruel, and cause greatest suffering not to those comfortably able to work from home but to the poorest, neediest and most disadvantaged in the country and in the world. I spent much of 2020 and into 2021 acting on my passionately-held views, volunteering and protesting, but felt helpless. I did not feel personally at risk from the virus – I am in every low risk category except age (leaping from one category to another in one day on my 60th birthday at the end of 2020!), probably had it in December 2019 and am consequently immune, and anyway the data reveals that the virus is low risk to everyone except specific groups, primarily the obese –and I have suffered desperately from loneliness during this past terrible 18 months, and been censored and bullied for my healthily sceptical views. I am appalled by our spineless and innumerate government daring to tell us whom we may or may not hug, infantilising us with their scaremongering propaganda, and censoring and vilifying anyone who challenges their orthodoxy. So this is protest art, positive and heartfelt in a time of negativity and insane cruelty, inviting friendship and intimacy, refusing to be bullied into fearfulness, bringing you my message: Come ever closer, breathe on me, I am not afraid...
The form of Breathe on Me grew out of a fascinating ESOP class with Dan looking at street art graffiti including different types of script, and tags. I live not far from Brick Lane where many walls are plastered with graffiti, so was already interested. Perhaps partly because of my previous career as a wordsmith. I painted words on paper in various styles, tore up the paper, stuck the bits onto more paper, but was still not satisfied. I turned the work upside down (a recalibration technique I often find helpful), and it spoke to me asking for a voice. Hence the message, delivered quietly in my own handwriting across the heart of the matter.

This is a painting of Charlotte Molesworth in her astonishing garden at Balmoral, in Benenden, Kent. You will find plenty of press stories and photographs on the internet about the garden and about Charlotte, who is the go-to topiarist and topiary garden designer in the UK, founding member of the European Boxwood and Topiary Society, and one of my oldest friends. She taught me art at school, ran art summer schools for my children, and is a wonderful painter and print-maker. Above all, she is the most inspiring person whom everyone adores, a countrywoman with boundless wealth of knowledge
and skills, exuding goodness, unworldly and loving towards all good creatures including her tortoises who sleep each night in specially-made wooden boxes under her bed. I photographed her collecting them for sleep, and this image was the foundation for this tribute to my dear friend and a loving, generous human being, the best of us in these terrible times through which we are living. This is a painting of the life-affirming.
Dan is very keen on collage, and it is indeed a useful technique for exploring composition before making a decision. There is another version of this painting, the same size but in acrylic on paper collage, in which I worked out the arrangement of the topiary elements around Charlotte’s central figure, and the colour relationships. I took this further in this painting in oil on canvas, with fluorescent pink and orange acrylic underpainting (paint kindly supplied by my studio-mate Gwen when I ran out). Charlotte and the topiary looked great against this jazzy colour! Should I leave it like this or knock back the brightness? It is always so difficult to know when to stop with a painting, and I’ve ruined many by not knowing when is enough. Often I think my ‘unfinished’ paintings are better than my ‘finished’ paintings, their being unresolved adding tension. However, here I carried on, but there are still slivers of the electric pink and orange glimpsed here and there, making the colour on top either sing or sink, it’s yours to decide now...

More than one of Dan’s classes during the Zoom months used Shardae Rose as a life model. On this day it was too cold for her to be unclothed, so our focus was on her face and hands. We took turns to pose her. Dan had us drawing her in sections, folding down the paper afterwards so we couldn’t see what we’d drawn, then drawing more, in a game of what he called ‘Exquisite Corpse’. Then we cut up the drawings and stuck them together in different ways. This painting and some drawings which fed into it, and a work in pen on pastel called Spring which I’ve been unable to include in this show due to space, were the result. I used a canvas I had lying around the studio which had a psychedelic swirl of colour on it, underpainting waiting for a subject. Dan also asked us to consider the relationship of the figure to the plane, and to place our subject in a defined and shallow space. As an exercise, he gave us an unfinished Picasso painting of Dora Maar, and asked us to reproduce it and finish it, and also to look at other of the (very many) portraits he painted of her. I chose the Buste de Femme of 12th January 1938, sold Christie’s on 11th May 2015. Here in my painting, Shardae Rose is transformed into a person of gesture, her face framed by her hat, her space defined by a target – or perhaps she is the target. Perhaps the setting is a showground, or perhaps the concentric circles are merely pattern or a manifestation of inner turmoil which belies her stern and handsome countenance, as does the contradictory fluttering of her hands.

In the spring of 2021 I had of necessity to do a huge clear-out of stuff that was stored in an attic in Lincolnshire (long story). One item that emerged was a box of pre-digital photographs and transparencies I’d taken on the trip I made to Iran in 1998 to research
the book I was then writing on Persian tribal rugs. Some of the photos had been taken of me rather than by me, and I was struck by how young and optimistic I looked. I was also reminded of the fantastic skills of the nomadic women who weave these rugs, and of how travel truly is an education. It was an amazing experience for me, plucked at very short notice from my provincial domestic existence—at that time, when I wasn’t writing books on interior decoration I was keeping house and raising our three children at home in a village in Yorkshire. I saw Persepolis, Tehran, the desert near Shiraz, spent a night in a nomad’s tent, witnessed all the stages of the making of rugs from sheep-shearing and wool dyeing through ‘colouring’ and ‘finishing’ to stacks of rugs in the bonded warehouse, and above all I was dazzled by the colours and patterns of the rugs, several of which I shipped home. This painting attempts to distil that experience and place me in that context. There I stand with my notebook in hand and camera round my neck, black headscarf covering my hair (that is a matter for discussion another time), pressed against a rug with landscape below, and the compelling drive of pattern all around.

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