21 Aug 2020
An Interview with Janet Currier
We catch up with London-based artist Janet Currier to discuss her recent work and talk about what she has been doing in lockdown, as well as what has influenced her recently. She discusses a wide range of topics, from Dorothea Tanning to Björk, the Female Aesthetic, the Maternal Subject and embracing the imperfections of life.
Janet Currier’s work hovers on the intersection between abstraction and representation, narrative and non-narrative, thought and feeling. Her practice spans painting, sculpture and installation. These are all intricately connected.
Janet completed an MFA at Goldsmiths College in 2017, winning the coveted Warden’s Art Prize. She has won various awards, including the first Elephant Residency at Griffin Studios in 2017. Her recent shows include ‘Come to the window’ at Harts Lane, London, ‘Mothership 1’ and ‘2’ in Sawmills, Wandsworth and Bruton Arts Factory, Somerset, ‘Entitled’ At Spike Island Arts, Bristol, ‘Deptford X’ and most recently ‘Fuzzy Objects’ at San Mei Gallery.
ZF: What inspires you?
JC: There are lots of things that inspire me at the moment. Studio Ghibli is a big inspiration.
And Björk. I went back and listened to, and looked at, Utopia recently. When I started with this work, it was around the same time that Utopia came out. I was inspired by the video and ideas around eco-feminism.
I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry in lockdown, particularly Kate Clanchy’s poems. She wrote a book of poems called ‘Newborn’, which as a mother I really recommend, about having a new baby and mothering. There’s a poem in the book called ‘Plain work’. The title for the poem then became the title of the smaller stitching paintings. It seems apt because it’s about the concept of mothering as stitching and caring as stitching. It also goes back to the sewing metaphor – and the way you have to weave things together when you are a mother, which then continues as you are looking after people.
I was thinking about Dorothea Tanning as well. I think my work is really different to hers, but everyone always sees her in my work and her influence is there. Also I have been looking at other mother painters. I am drawn to the idea of thinking about painting as installation and the idea of rooms. This is making me think about the work in terms of how the three-dimensional relates to the two-dimensional. I have been thinking a lot about making wallpaper and with these new works especially, what they would be like as a repeated pattern. I’d love to make a room of it, which would be really overwhelming and quite disturbing.
ZF: Have you ever done an installation with your own wallpaper?
JC: No, I haven’t ever made wallpaper, but I have made fabric from paintings previously, and then made things out of the fabric. It’s something I want to do – to make a pattern tile.
ZF: What have you been working on over lockdown?
JC: I feel like I have jumped around a bit. I think like everybody I have had moments of real manic activity – doing a lot and being very focused – and then moments of being unmotivated and having existential angst. But I think it’s been really good as I have had to look inwards a bit more and I realise, at this end of it, that I am now into a new body of work which actually started just as lockdown started.
Just before lockdown, I had been working towards a show (Fuzzy Objects at San Mei Gallery) so right up to the opening finishing that work. Quite often my attention span can be quite short. When I come up against difficulties in the work, I jump onto other things. I often move on before I’ve really dug in. So, lockdown has made me come back round to things. It has forced me to stay with it because I have been locked in with it.
ZF: In your work though, you never just work on one thing. You frequently work on multiple things at once. Also sometimes something you do in another work will make you return to a piece which you thought finished, and it will influence it. You will go back and revisit it. So there’s a constant dialogue between the works until you are ready to say ‘that’s it’.
JC: Yes – there’s a gestation with it. I have been making three-dimensional and two-dimensional things. I think it’s meant I have gone really deeply into the drawings. Also I feel like technically I’ve come on. I’ve pushed back out into canvas again. I’ve been thinking more about size and format in a consistent way.
I have also done a lot of films. I started doing these because we needed to have something to put online. But then I came to see those pieces as works in themselves rather than documents of a process. I didn’t really like the paintings that I made during filming, but I really liked the films. I thought that they were a way to explore materiality and the paint as something with its own kind of nature. I’m keen to do some more.
I have done video work before – a couple of films. All of them are low-tech and very like paintings. I love people like Margaret Tait, a Scottish filmmaker, who made lots of films of domestic interiors from fixed camera angles. The works are very much about being a mother. She did a feature film called ‘Blue Black Permanent’ – set in the Orkneys, where he was born and raised. After seeing her work, I made films of interiors, where nothing really happens.
Little Pink Sculpture
Boiled wool and hollow fibre, 2020
Approx 26cm x 12cm
The current time
ZF: How has this time affected your practice?
JC: Initially I made some sculptures that were meant to be suggestive of soft toy versions of microbes and germs. After that, I started making some instruction sheets for kits of the soft-sculptures. I was thinking about the return to everybody doing craft as we are all at home.
However, I think in a lot of ways, I haven’t really responded to Covid. It’s really hard to process what has happened while we are in it. We are not going to realise how this has affected us for quite a while. So really, I’ve just carried on. It’s good to do something creative when you are in a crisis. My work is about the body, and in particular the lymphatic system. It is very much about bodily processes and illness. So while I don’t think I’ve really responded to Covid, I do think that the work is very much about how bodies deal with and processes illness.
The connection between 2D & 3D
ZF: There is a strong connection between the sculptures and paintings in your practice. They are often exhibited together and there is a subtle play between them. Can you discuss this, and how you view the relationship between them?
JC: I think both are very descriptive and I see both in a way as being like drawings. I make a simple pattern piece which I then adapt from sculpture to sculpture. The process of making the 3D works is very similar to the drawing process for me. Also, they are constructed with lots of seams so that there is a lot of line in them. There’s a relationship between sewing, making 3D objects and painting that has been going on for many years in my work. However, it’s something that I’ve only just recognised. Always, when I get stuck with painting, I do some sewing and then I can come back to the painting.
Although I love painting, I can get tied up in knots with it. Sometimes it feels very hard to paint – it is as if you have the whole cannon on your shoulder. I can get very stuck around the conceptual side of it and thinking it should be about more. I want my painting to cause a revolution and change the world and of course that’s not possible!
But I don’t feel this kind of pressure with the 3D work – it’s like play and is very corporeal and kinesthetic. There’s something very physical about it that goes deeper. Especially with doing the upholstery, it’s very physical and the physical engagement is very intense. For me, it’s like working with a big piece of clay. You have these really long needles and archaic tools. But it’s also all about tension and trying to get materials to do what you want them to do, which of course they never do. Something comes through in the work that’s different and that I find difficult verbalise. But I don’t care about that.
In contrast, I feel like I need to be able to talk about my paintings and to be very articulate about them. With the sculpture, something else happens, it’s at a different level – I’m not bothered that I can’t intellectualise it or contextualise it. It’s very liberating.
The freedom of sculpture
ZF: Sculpture gives you the freedom to explore everything that you need to, whereas painting has the weight of the history of painting, which is so enormous, and you get frozen by it?
JC: Absolutely. But there is definitely a relationship between them. I make the objects and then they go back into the painting. And I’ve started making paintings of proposed objects – drawings of imagined cloth toy kits. There is definitely an interplay between the two. I think what happens is, in the painting I can contextualise the sculptures. I take the things I have made, and then they go back into the paintings. Then I work on the question of where they sit in the world. And then that comes back in the making of more 3D objects. I’m really interested in the chairs I made for my last show for example. I can see how they would work in a room wallpapered with the drawings.
Found kitchen chair, boiled wool, coconut fibre, synthetic wadding, 2020
120 x 50 x 40 cm
ZF: There’s something about that immersive experience that is so committed and really forces the viewer into it. It’s a very different experience.
JC: I think there’s also another thing about it. To me, it’s the same thing as having a doll’s house, which I feel like it is very much a girl’s thing. It is the idea about having a miniature house that you have control over and can decorate and arrange.
The Female Aesthetic
ZF: Can you also discuss your engagement with the female aesthetic. Much of your work tackles this head-on.
JC: I think this is really essential. I always have this question of ‘what is the female aesthetic?’. I’m not sure what it is. And I think you have to problematize it. Especially now, when you think of there being a thousand genders and being in this time when, in theory, we have moved beyond the binary. The idea of gender is being contested. I think it’s a thing to hold lightly. What I have always been interested in is bringing competencies, that have been seen as female and undervalued, back into the fine art context. And that goes back to when I was a young art student. I made paintings about cooking and recipes. I looked at domestic routines, the everyday, pattern.
Pattern is a key element in my work – not any kind of pattern, but domestic pattern that is to do with reproductive labour and the home as a space.
Acrylic ink and gesso on printed polycotton fabric, 2020
29 x 21 cm
As an undergrad I was lucky – I was at Leeds, an institution that was very much about challenging the patriarchal institution of art. I think we did have more space to make work about female subjectivity because of that. Even still, it felt like a really big thing to make work about the experience of being a woman. The art world still felt very macho. In the studio, the teachers were all men. So it did feel like you had to fight to stake a claim to talk about the things that were relevant to you.
The personal as political
One of the most important things that I took from my undergraduate degree, was the notion that the personal is political, and that in the studio the work needed to begin with me. That’s always been the way I need to work. If something happens to me, I need to process it and that’s where the work starts. I then can go on to think about where it sits in the world. So I think then it totally follows that the work I make is about the experience of being a woman, and laterally the transformative experience of being a mother. Those are important experiences that define who I am.
Acrylic paint on canvas, 2017
140 x 100 cm
The Maternal Subject
ZF: Much of your work addresses the maternal subject. Your voice is an honest one, that looks at both the challenges and joys of being a mother, and how that affects being both an artist and a person.
JC: This is part of the same – about needing to speak about what’s going on. I did show up at college for my MFA with scraps of material from the baby clothes my son had grown out of. I knew that I wanted to explore that experience in my work. At that time, 2012, I couldn’t see any other artists making work about being a mother. I also did my theoretical research on maternal subjectivity.
The messiness of the maternal
It is great that there are now so many artists talking about their experiences as mothers and carers. There’s also much more about it in popular culture. There is great TV content about the messiness of the maternal that debunks the idea of needing to be the perfect mother and talks about the contradictions we face as mothers. I do think that now lots of people are making work about it. Crucially, they are making work in their own terms. I think that that change has been fairly recent.
Importantly, I feel like I was caught up in a zeitgeist. I was at college doing my MFA as a mother of a 10 year old and most of the part timers were either dads or mums. All the people who had children were trying to balance it all, fitting college and their art practice around parenting and part time work. I think lockdown has brought another wave of thinking about reproductive labour and how it gets done (or doesn’t).
For a lot of women, lockdown has meant trying to do work, homeschool, keep everything going and also deal with all the emotion around that. It has been women again that have carried most of the burden. And in a way it’s been a double whammy for women artists. They haven’t been able to go to the studio. Women artists have to put their creative work on hold to homeschool and care for children and family.
My studio is at home. That has a big influence on my work. Lots of people have been making work during lockdown in their homes and that will also have an impact on the kind of work that they are making. It’s organic that you then make work about your domestic experience.
Acrylic ink on paper, 2020
38 x 28 cm
ZF: Patterns are a recurring motif in your work. In your work, you use both man-made patterns, such as wallpaper motifs, stitching patterns as well as those that occur naturally in nature. Can you please tell us their importance for you, and why you are repeatedly drawn to representing them in your work.
Pattern – the conceptual
JC: Partly I think that I keep being drawn to them because of this edge between the abstract and representational and narrative and non-narrative. I think pattern is interesting because it is very conceptual – someone designs it, it has a particular use, often it’s a commodity.
So actually it’s very ideological in a way. But it is also very formal and about the surface and about formal concerns. And quite abstract. In painterly terms, I think for me, that’s interesting. I often have a struggle as I want to finish the story and have it all sewn up at one level, because I am a control freak. But I am drawn to this place where there is only one plane. It’s not a tableau. Where does the narrative come? I want a narrative, to make a story.
Pattern – narrative and history
Pattern also has a lot of narrative and a lot of history. It’s an interesting story as it has a lot to do with labour, or domestic situation – a room or a pair of curtains or a favourite shirt. There’s skill involved in it. And there’s also a lot of pleasure for me in making it.
As a teenager I wanted to be a fabric designer so I’ve always loved pattern. Although my work in the past has been more narrative, I think now I’ve returned to an interest in the potential of pattern. I think there is also something about rhythm in it. Music is an important part of my practice and there are similarities in both of those things. Repetitions is an important part of my work. Making patterns, especially on a large scale, is very hypnotic and physically engaging – like dancing.
Useless will exercise
People always ask if I print the motifs in my work, but everything I do is hand drawn or painted. There’s something for me about that process of doing the same thing over and over again, and doing it manually, that I think is really important. It’s like a useless will exercise and action that you repeat over and over in order to strengthen your will .
Acrylic ink and pencil on paper, 2020
171 x 113 cm
ZF: Although some of the works appear abstract, there is often an underlying sense of the body. Either literally or through the representation of cells. This seems to also be tied in with the idea of control and loss of control.
The body in the sculptures
JC: At the moment it is definitely about the body, which is central to me, even if you can’t always see the body. As well, it’s about containment versus loss of containment. I am drawn to stuffing the soft sculptures into things. Often the sculptures are installed so that they are being compressed or squeezed.
Also the sculptures are really stuffed to capacity. The chairs look like flesh. The seat is like dough that has risen and it is like it is being pulled back by the cording. There is a concept of always keeping these physical things contained in some way. I was looking at the smaller works today and thinking about the edges. In 2D work there is always a feeling that there is something outside the space. You are just seeing a part of something. What you are seeing isn’t containable or it is too overwhelming to see the whole.
Compression and containment
Previously there was a lot in the works about dripping, abjection, and leaking, not being able to contain body fluids or about dealing with the stains made by body fluids. Now it is about compression and containment. It comes from thinking about mammograms and medical processes. About being a soft body in a metallic world with hard surfaces. And about the psychological pressure. There is also a tension between containment and non-containment, and between wanting to be contained and not wanting to be contained.
The body as multiverse
There’s also something about the body as a multiverse, the body as a host for other organisms, which are now inside the body, like inner space. This work has morphed into being about the lymphatic system. That is an interesting metaphor for me because it’s a system that connects everything. It cleans and it takes toxins away. In cancer terms, it’s how tumours metastasize and cancer is transferred from one part of the body to another. So for me it feels like a good metaphor for the maternal subject. And I see the strange nodes that evolve in the drawings as organisms coming from the mothership.
The medium and technique
ZF: In your paintings, much of your work is on paper, rather than canvas. Can you tell us why this medium is so important for you. Also, your use of paper brings in another subject that you frequently address, that of control and loss of control. Watercolour on paper is notoriously hard to control, and this action feels like a visual representation of the loss of control that you explore in your work. Could you please tell us a little about this.
JC: The main thing about the support is to do with the medium. Paper is interesting because it is less robust and more fragile. Actually I find it problematic to work on paper as it can be tricky to hang, present and photograph – especially with larger works. That’s why I am looking at canvas again. But the most important thing is the watercolour and using transparent paint and why that feels right for me. I always painted with oil before but for the past 5 years I have painted with transparent mediums. I want a surface where the subtleties of that medium can be optimised.
The choice of watercolour is intentional in relation to the female aesthetic. There is a tradition of women making watercolours. I feel like I am subverting it’s association with bourgeois women! It also takes a lot of skill to use. You have to control it. You need to know what is going to happen and it’s not very forgiving, as it has to be done in one go. But when it goes well you have an incredible feeling of mastery over the medium – it being this virtuoso performance – which I enjoy. I enjoy the skill that is required.
Watercolour also gives up happy accidents and you have a continuous dialogue with paint. There is an intense interplay with it as a medium. I am also really drawn to drawing. Often when you use watercolour it is really like drawing.
Acrylic paint, ink and graphite on watercolour paper, 2020
77 x 57 cm
Janet Currier was interviewed by Zoe Foster – London, July 2020