Interview with Louisa Buck for catalogue of exhibition at Triumph Gallery, Moscow, 2008

LB Over the past three years you’ve moved from making paintings of solitary figures to depicting hordes of bodies in busy hotel dining rooms or on crowded summer beaches. Was there anything in particular that inspired this shift from the singular to the multiple?

SH The Bible, actually. I was reading the Book of Isaiah and there was all this apocalyptic imagery and all these millions of people being destroyed and attacked by these metaphysical forces and for some reason this got inside my system. Generally speaking I am interested in figures overwhelmed by bliss or terror – that’s my continuum of feeling – and I wanted to show the figure overwhelmed by forces outside its control or outside its consciousness. But in these beach and dining room paintings the ambiance is more terrifying, although the figures for some reason don’t seem to know what’s hit them…

LB Your densely-populated beaches remind me of vast colonies of seals packed onto the seashore in a way that is quite repellently congested.

SH Yes, there was this idea of too many and a chaotic multiplicity and things breaking down. When you see the figures from a distance they break into fragments and pixellate: there was the biological idea of things mutating into nuclei or cells, or there being some sort of weather system descending, or just some sort of unknown terror or threat…

LB One usually associates a busy beach in high season with pleasure and relaxation, but in works like White Beach 3 you present them as unstable, uncomfortable places with more than a whiff of menace.

SH They should be pleasant places but I’ve just done something to make them slightly queasy- I suppose it’s to do with the light against the dark skies. Beaches are also on the edge of things. And though I’m interested in the sublime, I’m also interested in the ridiculous – some of my figures are really grotesque.

LB The beach is Berck-Plage, in Northern France near where you have a house and also the subject of one of Sylvia Plath’s great poems. Plath’s bleak fragmented view of the bodies on Berck-Plage with their “obscene bikinis” and her description of the sea which “creeps away, many snaked, with a long hiss of distress” while above “the sun’s poultice draws on my inflammation” all seems to chime with your paintings.

SH Yes, Plath writes about the vast sands and distant figures with their “shrunk voices” and this dwarfing of the human is very much there in my Beaches. Also she is good on the bleakness of bright light, wheelchairs glittering in the sunlight and so on, and that is something I respond to. Lastly Berck is dominated by a huge hospital and her images of illness have their equivalents in my figures with their distorted, scorched bodies.

LB Your dining rooms are not exactly welcoming either, with their dark cavernous spaces and tables packed with rather predatory looking figures.

SH I’m not terribly keen on conviviality. I grew up as a solitary child and it’s always been very unwelcome, this idea of fun-loving dinner parties or even just general social life– I can do it, but I tend to withdraw from it all. The idea of the dining room is a way of showing human beings on the one hand conforming to the structure of the tables and the manners and things like that, but also showing them disintegrating into mess or unconscious and threatening processes, erupting through the surface. In Eliot’s early poems– which are so discordant and full of suffering and unassimilable mental processes – he writes about these drawing rooms where he feels like an ape “mounting on my hands and knees ” in the presence of these sophisticated and sleek women. And Proust also writes of these effete and delicate gatherings at which something horrible happens. So Proust and Eliot feed into these dining rooms which are filled with this rather revolting undertow of human emotions.

LB In both series of works these massed figures seem to be morphing into abstraction, sometimes they melt, sometimes, as in some of the restaurant paintings, they become part of a more structured overall pattern.

SH Fifteen years after I first went to St Martin’s I went back to art school, to Byam Shaw, where in the life room it was all precise measuring as in the work of Ewan Uglow and at first I didn’t dare do anything other than that. But then I got this growing sense of wanting to make a mess and I created a kind of messy abstraction to get away from all the measuring. Then I was told that I had to decide whether I wanted to be an abstract or a figurative painter but in fact it’s precisely that interface which is interesting and which complicates most of the painting I’m interested in. What really interests me is using the means of abstract art to suggest things going on within the figure and around the figure and attacking the figure and metamorphosing the figure and I think the teachers were completely wrong: they made it sound like I was on the fence and was neither abstract nor figurative whereas I wanted to be both abstract and figurative but it took me a while to get the confidence to be able to say this is what I want to do.

LB But nonetheless it always seems crucial that your paintings are rooted in recognisable reality, they never tip over into complete abstraction.

SH I feel that if I’ve got one toe in reality and observation from all my drawings then in my paintings I can afford hopefully to be fairly free and, quoting Matisse, “exaggerate in the direction of truth.” My figures have forms that are human but I also push it and make them grotesquely animal or mechanical. What really gets me going is the ambiguity and the mystery and the thing being both a shape and an object; being in the process of losing its name, of being without a name: I like that bit in Macbeth when Macbeth asks the witches what they are doing, and they reply, “A deed without a name.” Isn’t that sinister!

LB What do you mean when you talk about your figures “suffering the indignity” of being made abstract?

SH Indignity is very important to my work. In my painting called “Mess” I identify with both the murderer and the victim and in the Dining Room paintings there’s a feeling that in a sense I am doing aggression to the figures, subjecting them to this mechanised notation, where they become just a cipher or a dot or a mark.

LB Your use of light is also central to this abstracting process)

SH I’m interested in the way that light dissolves boundaries and makes things mutate into abstraction, it makes them into shapes rather than nouns or named things so they become mysterious and unstable.

LB Overall light plays a crucial role in all your paintings, it seems to have multiple roles, whether positive or malign, symbolic or formal, atmospheric or psychological.

SH For me light means energy and something overwhelming, something to worship as Hindus do, a sort of spiritual idea of something beyond, something outside the utilitarian or mundane. then visually it is this extraordinary force that creates this agonising drama of light and dark or this dynamism of shadow and glow. then there’s the negative feeling of light being like a nuclear burst… the way that light can frizzle things and dry them up and eat into their contours, the idea of light as a destroyer as much as a light the life giver.

LB On your oddly dark-skied beaches the light shimmers off the white sand and fries the sunbather’s bodies until they are scorched and pink: you can almost smell the suntan oil and see the melanomas forming. But in your paintings of dining rooms light takes on an almost tangible form as strange circles and bubbles float in the dark voids above the tables.

SH I was thinking of the movement from the naturalistic representation of light which I did more in the past to making a sign for light. The circle in all its various resonances and implications has always been important to me: the circle as a symbol of wholeness, or a target, or a cell. A lot of things I do have a sort of burr around them, a vibration, a halo. For me it’s also like a wound, a point of intensity –

LB Circles have no starting point, they go round and round – they seem to fit with your fondness for flux.

SH It reminds me of that saying, “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere…” Richard Davey, a critic who is also a vicar has talked about the interconnectedness between things in these dining room paintings, the tables and chairs and people and planets and cells and bodies and circles and triangles. His view is that there is a kind of unity behind things and beyond all this chaos there’s a unified whole. I’m quite interested in that ambivalence, the idea of complete chaos and on the other hand interconnectedness.

LB Do you have faith? Are you religious?

SH I have a religious temperament although I don’t have any organised religious practice. As you can see, I am very into biology, its wonder and its horror – but I’ve also got this metaphysical streak of liking things that are other and a romantic interest in being taken up into something that is completely out of this world. Many of the people I like are religious and the literature I like is religious, it’s just a matter of temperament and inclination, really.

LB So on the one hand your work is intensely material and physical on the other you are attracted by the transcendent.

SH I’m very taken with the idea of going outside one’s comfort zone – to use a terrible cliché – of being overwhelmed, being overtaken and experiencing things that you can’t immediately assimilate or control. The existence of this beautiful or threatening or challenging sphere outside the known is for me associated with the abstract, the unconscious, the unnameable – all that can’t be put into words.

LB Why do you choose to work in acrylic rather than oil? Have you always done so?

SH No I did work in oil before – but I use acrylic partly because I am impatient and I like things to dry quickly and also I like to add another layer and if you are doing oil it’s just impossible because you have to wait around for ever. I have had some disasters with oil where the under oil would suck the life out of the upper oil and it just became a horrible dead mattress of leathery dead sort of surface. With acrylic I like to pour these thin veils and then they dry and then I add another layer and then when I want to make the cells I drop Fairy Liquid in and it blurs out nicely – then I add layers of acrylic varnish.

LB There is one canvas lying flat on the floor of your studio and others that are hanging on the walls, where are they when you are working on them, horizontal or vertical?

SH Both on the floor and up on the wall, it keeps me fit! I’m constantly rotating. Sometimes on the floor I pour some fluid and then guide the tendrils with a hairdryer, then I let pools of fluid congeal for a few hours on the floor and then I may make another pool and then paint into it to refine it. Then I will put it up on the wall and work on it some more. I’m constantly putting them up and down and also turning them round, painting them upside down to see what is or is not working.

LB So it’s important to leave some things to chance.)

SH It’s exciting. I came from a rather staid and orderly childhood but I was a very naughty little girl while I was at boarding school and for me there is an enormous feeling of energy and bliss to get a bit of spontaneity and this is the place where I can be spontaneous. While I admire a lot of conceptual art that is very detached and considered and all to do with parodies and jokes, temperamentally I can’t do it because I’m interested in this gut reaction.

LB And the multitude of pencil drawings that you make every day are done so quickly that you don’t even look at your hands while you are making them.

SH I can’t! There’s no time because I want to get the movement – so I just take pot luck and hope! I tend to draw anywhere and everywhere and I always have to have a sketch book about me even if I go out to a restaurant – or on the steamer going to France and on the beach. Especially on the beach speed is important as I don’t want to be seen drawing these women: I like that quote by Yeats that if something “does not seem a moment’s thought our stitching and unstitching has been naught” – I like that idea.

LB Do you ever work from photographs?

SH No, I don’t copy photographs but I use the inspiration of the subject matter and also the technique: all the things that happen in photography all the mis-registered shapes, the blurrings and the mess. You expect the background to dissolve into incoherence but also I like the fact that there are struggling forms and abstract messes in the foreground as well. All my work is a kind of meditation on mess and how things leak out or people are emotionally incontinent and things transgress their boundaries and shapes and forms lose their structure and descend into mess. It’s a psychological, emotional and phenomenal condition, this mess.

LB How do you know when you’ve finished a painting?

SH Well, you think you know and then when you come back the next day you think, how could I leave it looking like that?