IN CONVERSATION WITH
SARAH GRAHAM &
This is the second feature from the Afridi Gallery’s ‘in conversation’ programme, an ongoing series that explores our encounters with art. Shahbaz Afridi invites figures from the world of art & design to visit the gallery for a discussion prompted by the unique arrangements of furniture and objects found there.The Afridi Gallery is an exhibition space for ‘objects to inspire’, and these conversations arise when we pause and reflect on the aesthetic forms that surround us.
Arts journalist and critic Jo Lawson-Tancred sits down with artist Sarah Graham, to discuss architectural forms from nature and the surreal. Sarah spent many years working for the antiques dealer John Hobbs in New York before she became an artist. She is now known for her enigmatic and abstracted depictions of plants and insects. She lives in London with husband James Holland-Hibbert and two daughters, and works from her studio in Chelsea.
JL-T: Could you speak to me a bit about how you came to depict nature and specifically plants and insects? Was it a lifelong interest?
SG:Yes lifelong, since I was a child. I was brought up in France where we had aquariums full of toads and grass snakes. My mother had a huge, slightly-dated collection of botanical pieces which gave me a taste for very strong architectural forms like those found in magnolia sunflowers and artichokes. I suppose a child is influenced by their immediate environment, but it was never consciously so.
JL-T: Did you draw plants then?
SG: I did actually, I’ve got a magnolia that I drew aged 11 which is tiny but still has a Düreresque hyperrealism to it. Now I use graphite and enlarged scale to abstract my work, but there’s still a bit of my character in it.
JL-T: You visit entomology archives at the Natural History Museum, is that purely a practice of looking and later remembering or do you make direct sketches of the specimens?
SG: No, I can only really draw back in the studio but the Natural History Museum lend me specimens and they have the best Goliath beetles, huge black and white African beetles, and the biggest scorpion. Occasionally I buy specimens from Deyrolle in Paris, where they are stored in box frames. I continue this look when framing my pieces, keeping the depth so that the work appears positioned in a box. I’m also always looking, my eyes are always open.
JL-T: When you are in your studio, to what extent are you drawing from life or your imagination?
SG:All from life.The imagination takes over when I put the object down, when some part of me has gleaned enough information, and then I just draw or ink colour and I leave out some of the narrative.That’s when the process of abstraction occurs. I use very dense graphite, four or five layers, which I rub back to erase the pencil line and in doing so I take away the descriptive qualities and leave a soft sfumato.
JL-T: And I suppose that emphasises form.
SG: Exactly, it’s the form that I’m interested in.The detail is irrelevant.
JL-T: Do you think that the organic forms from nature can be successfully subsumed into the world of art & design?
SG: It’s everywhere. I found the work of Karl Blossfeldt, a German photographer who would blow up studies of the natural world to teach his students in botany. In the photographs, which are all black and white, the plants become the most amazing architectural forms.The world of nature runs through the city, every finial on Victorian railing, every Corinthian capital - it’s everywhere.
JL-T: He really emphasises the stems which heightens the architectural aspect. The scale also adds something quite sculptural.
SG:Yes, hugely sculptural.There’s also deep shading, monochrome and a textural fuzziness.
JL-T: In your personal statement you talk about finding a ‘universal language of form’ through distilling the basic forms of the natural world. Do you think that that universal language applies to all objects, however man-made or mundane?
SG:Well, I think it must be the case deep down, because everything in our visual world came at one time from the natural world. I suppose it’s somehow ingrained in us, which is why I think things can be over-designed. Here at the Afridi Gallery the lines all take something from nature, it’s just been reconfigured.
JL-T: With this carpet (a rare 19th century Khorrassan), Shahbaz told me that the makers liked to refer to the elements, in this case water. Once he’d said it, I could completely see how this could be the surface ripples on water. I suppose you can take an essential form and abstract it to varying extents.
SG:Yes, I don’t think things have to come from nature, but for me it’s a definite must.
JL-T: We are thinking a lot about form and function at the moment at the Afridi Gallery. When you collect objects, is form the greater concern for you?
SG:Yes, my studio is full of bones, stones, driftwood, dried insects and skeletons.Anything I can find that speaks to me. Every surface is covered with objects.Their functions are purely emotional and inspirational, but I think you’d kill it if you looked too much for that.
JL-T: One could collect a shell, which used to have a particular function, purely for it’s beautiful form, but then reimagine that same form for a completely different function, like a bookend or a vase.
SG:Yes, so it metamorphoses.And there are some things that you wouldn’t use now because their original function has been given up, but the form is still appealing. Over thousands of years objects have a totally different value and become works of art.What I think makes good furniture is very clean lines, but beautiful patinas and beautiful detailing.
JL-T: Here at the gallery the carpets have such a strong presence that Shahbaz offsets them with furniture and objects that won’t be too visually overwhelming. For every ornately patterned item on display you want a certain number that have been chosen only for their sculptural form.
SG: Oh, there’s definitely a language running through the gallery rooms.
JL-T: Turning back to your practice specifically. Do you find that your art relates to a wider contemporary art movement or is independent?
SG: Not at all.You can’t help being aware of what’s happening with contemporary art but people buy my art because it’s different. Even if I’m made to feel old fashioned or Dickensian, people still like it. Contemporary art will continue to be treated as a commodity but when we consider people’s final decision when they’re at home, I think they’d rather live with something that they can understand.
JL-T: What have been other enduring influences on your art?
SG: Nature, the natural world. In terms of art, my chief guru is Graham Sutherland, who would walk in the country or collect debris off the shore and find oak stumps and other forms in nature. Entrance to a Lane (1939) is the most amazing painting because of the use of black, he’s abstracted the shadow and created a mood that captures that crepuscular time of day when all the forms of nature take on something slightly eerie. I am always searching for that black so in a way he’s my nemesis, because he reminds me that I’ve got a long way to go. I’d love to see more exhibitions of Old Master drawings, I find line fascinating because you’ve got to be economical whereas paintings have much more narrative. My drawings are always more cerebral and less likely to please. But I love going to galleries like this one, where there is a nod in both directions towards distilled line but beautiful, complex design.
JL-T: Do you edit your work?
SG:Yes, when I find the object I’m already editing it. I’m editing out the decorative qualities and finding the force, the message, the Graham Sutherland blackness. Often the object I’m drawing is an inch squared but I’m making a five foot drawing, so it’s got to have a very powerful form to translate. I do that by abstracting and focusing on the strong shapes.
JL-T: You work with both coloured ink and monochrome graphite drawings. Could you tell me a bit more about the other materials you use?
SG: For the drawings I use a Nepalese handmade paper that is made from hemp and then dried in stretchers. It’s filled with flotsam and that highly textured quality becomes part of the drawing. Unfortunately it’s also incredibly unforgiving, so every mark shows and my first act is to get the outline just right.When working in ink I use bright white paper.
JL-T: I’ve seen your Tailess Whipscorpion drawing and it is particularly gristly and unnerving, but many of the insects might cause more sensitive viewers to recoil. Do you think about the reactions your art might provoke in people?
SG:Yes, that’s part of my nature.With the insects I’m definitely bringing something sinister to the picture but ideally executing it in a way that is more enticing than frightening.You could also read a human aspect into the plants, when I paint plants I first put down a purpley pink skin which I then draw over, because I want there to be a flesh-like quality. I’m about to start a drawing of a medinilla, they’ve got really strong viscous leaves and almost scrotum-like pink sacks beneath and the combination of human flesh with such spooky leaves is mesmerising. Also, I hate pink but I can’t resist it.
JL-T: I suppose the interesting thing is that your plants are in fact drawn from life, it’s the insects that are dead. Following from their unexpected anthropomorphism, your works have been said to have a surreal presence. What do you think causes the work to be uncanny or mysterious?
SG:The lack of narrative is important, it should be suggestive and largely left to the imagination. I want a dubious quality. I think my art also has a deep Gothic quality.The gargoyles on Notre Dame or even ‘The Descent into Hell’, after Hieronymus Bosch, are works that have so much power over me. Some of my plants don’t even have a stem, they are unattached and decontextualised. Being off-centre is equally unnerving.
JL-T: While you’re working, are you aware of how the artwork will be hung and recontextualised into a domestic or gallery setting?
SG: I find you can’t think too much about that because if you start you’ll kill the spirit. I don’t want to think about the work’s future, what’s important is the here and now.
JL-T: How have you chosen to furnish your studio?
SG: Shahbaz and Chester Jones’s pieces form the backbone, the surfaces for my specimens. I moved into a new studio a few months ago and I hadn’t realised before what an effect making my studio redolent of me and my work would have. I just chose objects I liked, which organically linked up with each other and the space has become a homogenous unit. It’s absolutely a reflection of my visual language. In fact it’s almost a distraction.