Gemma Nelson Interview
by Helen Wilson on Mar 12, 2011 •
Driven by a myriad of influences, from Raqib Shaw to Helen Chadwick and from literature to French plaits, artist Gemma Nelson creates mesmerizing canvases of hyperactive patterns and vivid colour. These works have won her much praise and attention over the past few years, and seen her exhibit in shows at the likes of the Departure Gallery and Laure Genillard Gallery (in a collaboration with Matt Franks), be shortlisted for Saatchi Gallery’s Four New Sensations, selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries and nominated as a finalist for the Nationwide Mercury Art Prize.
We catch up with the artist, a week before her latest work will be unveiled at Vegas Gallery as part of their inaugural show at their newly built space on Poyser Street.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you will be showing at Roulette?
The title of my piece in the exhibition is Blanc And The Neighbours Of Zero, a painting based loosely on the theme and mythology of the roulette wheel. It is a palimpsest; consisting of many layers of Indian ink and enamel, obsessively painted and sewn into with gold threads and sequins.
I was intrigued by the cryptographic nature of the Roulette, its mysterious history involving the occult and the systematic codes and mathematical probabilities. In 1843 François and Louis Blanc introduced the single 0 style wheel, competing with other casinos offering the traditional wheel with single and double zero house pockets. Louis Blanc was said to have made a bargain with the devil in order to obtain the secrets of the wheel based on the phenomenon that all the numbers on the roulette wheel (1-36) add up to the ‘number of the beast’, 666.
My work is made up of tiny fragments of colour and pattern, although not mathematically formulaic, there are sequences and processes that intrinsically make up the painting. There is also hidden imagery within the painting, the patterns forming buds of information, organic mythological creatures and landscapes and always an element of glamour.
On your website you refer to your paintings as tapestries that you weave like cells. They seem to toe the boundaries between traditional craft and contemporary art. Which would you say your work was more rooted in, art or craft?
Often the word ‘craft’ within the contemporary art world is talked about in a derogatory way; a taboo almost conserved to be dished out to hobbyists and amateurs along with the word ‘decoration’. I remember once at art school Luc Tuymans hosting a guest seminar and suggesting a student’s work was this, much to the horror and dismay of the rest of the painting department!
This question also catechizes what ‘ fine art’ is, an issue many, many people have difficulty labeling and one that is very subjective. I do however think there has been a shift in recent times to the attitude of ‘craft’; art can incorporate elements of it and not have to stand exclusive from it. Art can be conceptual and also incorporate elements of craft, it is not just reserved for the realm of the ‘outsider artist’.
I do see my works as tapestries, not probably in a conventional sense as much a metaphorical one. The marks I make in my work do weave and look like pattern, and I do often sew into my work but I treat the thread as though it was paint. There isn’t a hierarchy in my mark making. I like to think that my paintings despite being seductively decorative can also be conceptual.
You mentioned in an interview that you connect with principles of conceptualist Helen Chadwick, have these informed your art work in any way?
Chadwick’s work involves beauty and repulsion, and questions how we view them. Chadwick’s piece, Loop My Loop combining a pig’s intestine and a lock of golden hair plated together was probably the most important piece of art for me in my development as an artist. I saw it when I was 16 and it changed everything, it was probably the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had grown up around hair, my Mum is a hair stylist and I was a guinea pig for backwards French plaits, and rather extravagantly embarrassing hairstyles for school. Hair was also scattered around our garden bedding plants in order to ‘choke slugs’ and sellotaped into valentine’s day card’s as a ‘guess who’. Hair is hugely symbolic in many religions and mythology; it is prized and is seductive, yet once cut off it disgusts people.
My early works were massively influenced by beauty and repulsion, weaving hair and human teeth into my works. I mixed paint with decayed fruit letting brightly coloured spores grow over my paintings, letting them collapse and deteriorate, almost like they were conducting their own time based performance. My current work sometimes involves hair or tightly constructed cells. It is like looking at virus’ under a microscope, very colourful yet sickly. Clusters of little circles, decorative yet obsessive.
Are there any other artists inspire or influence you?
I am like a sponge, I am influenced by many things but some things make me bubble more than other things. I read a lot so many of my influences come from literature and strange folklore. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story that massively influences me. The protagonist locked in a room with insalubrious and sickly yellow wallpaper and began to see creatures and worlds in the walls through the patterning. As a child I would make friends with the creatures in the patterns in my curtains and wallpaper, I would see faces in abstract objects. I try to incorporate this into my own work through my painting.
I can completely relate to Yayoi Kusama’s work and the obsessive nature of Raqib Shaw’s paintings.
Some of the psychedelic patterns in your work are reminiscent of the sixties, and many of the themes your works explore – female sexuality, feminism – were a lot more prominent back then. Would you have preferred to have lived and worked in the sixties?
No. Although some themes in my work were more prominent then, it was also a political and social struggle for equality that activated it. Although these themes are still very poignant today, women are still battling for equality, I quite like the notion of hindsight and how much has been achieved since then. The early c20th was a hard time for women, especially in the art world, it was difficult to be taken seriously. Although I love the aesthetic of the sixties, the furniture in particular, people attribute my work to it because of my use of pattern which was very fashionable then.
My paintings refer to the patterning and psychedelia, but they aren’t directly influenced. I am more influenced by the texts written, especially by Mary Daly in Gyn/ecology about the origin of the word ‘Glamour’, a spell ‘witches’ would use to make men into eunuchs.
What do you hope people take away from your work – an idea, a feeling or just an appreciation on an aesthetic level?
If people engage anything from my work, whether it be an aesthetic appreciation or a deeper conceptual level I am happy. The paintings are so loaded anyway as there is such a long history of mark making, using Indian inks, sewing, people are going to project their own subjective opinions on the piece. I plant ideas in the paintings that allow people to try to interpret their own meaning in the painting as well as my own.
Roulette, is on at Vegas Gallery from 10 March – 17 April 2011.
Visit Gemma Nelson’s website for more information about the artist and her works.