Ambit caught up with Claire Dorsett after her recent solo exhibition at Workplace Foundation (22 June – 27 July 2019) in Gateshead. Workplace Foundation is a contemporary arts organisation which supports emerging artists outside London, with a focus on the North of England.
Ambit: Claire, you describe your painting as a visual journal or note taking. Are you translating quick drawings that you have made on paper or are you painting a narrative directly on canvas?
CD: There’s an element of translating from drawings but the paintings are their own thing... I keep sketchbooks that are like visual journals and full of snippets and notes and whilst those themselves might suggest a narrative, it’s never my intention to give a full narrative or to prescribe a narrative, and that remains true for the paintings as well.
So the sketchbooks are a way for me to record my thoughts and observations, and they are more casual than a traditional sketchbook - more marker pen and random books that come my way than pencil and specially chosen art quality paper, so I don’t overthink it because really bad art tends to happen when I do that.
When it comes to painting, I tend to rifle through older sketchbooks rather than more recent ones, in the hope that I can look at them more objectively and pick out what still feels important.
A range of ideas and thoughts can then merge into an image - I might have drawn something in the heat of a moment but later it becomes a sign or a symbol for something, hopefully, much bigger and more universal, and perhaps completely apart from what I had initially paired it with feeling wise.
I find drawings to be open; they are the beginning of something and they record the urgency of trying to get a thought down - I hope to retain this energy in the paintings rather than lock them down to one interpretation, and I think that’s where trying to translate how I approach a drawing to how I approach a painting comes in. I want there to be enough room in them for the viewer, otherwise it’s all just a big exercise in self-indulgence.
Ambit: The titles of your work range from dry sarcasm: Cool Dude (whatever) to an emotive response: Ham-Fisted Heart on Sleeve to a straightforward description of an object: Sofa. Can you tell us about the different emotional states of your paintings?
CD: I think that all of the works, in some way, ricochet between vulnerability and confidence, false or otherwise - being terrified but having a go anyway or smarting underneath but trying hard to cover it up and carry on. Sometimes there is real confidence and clarity in opinion in them, but I hope that it doesn’t feel like it comes from a place of arrogance, more from a strength of conviction and pushing yourself on to do what you believe is right.
Embarrassment, confidence, anger, vulnerability, bravery are just some of the emotions that come into play or can fuel the work, and I think that most of the individual paintings themselves can internally bounce between these things. They definitely evolve in terms of their emotional state through the making - the initial ideas or drawings often move along to somewhere else completely, and part of that is where I’m at emotionally myself when I’m making them: how I feel, what’s going through my head, what’s happened to me on the day of making goes into the paintings even if I’m not completely conscious of it at the time. I don’t think you can avoid that.
Feelings aren’t very popular to talk about in art - they get written off as being sentimental, and yet, as people, they are the things we deal with on a daily basis. I guess trying to control our emotions is a recurrent state for us as humans and perhaps this is why the works move the way they do between confidence and doubt.
Deadpan humour is a massive ingredient of all of them: with Sofa there’s an inherent humour with just stating what something is; pointing out the obvious (which sometimes isn’t actually all that obvious).
Ambit: The show at Workplace Foundation had Sofa near to the most recent works such as Telly Painting as if the viewer was involved in the action of watching. How important is the audience’s own narrative in your work?
CD: I struggle with narrative because, whilst I acknowledge there is definitely suggested narrative in the work I would hate for the work to be easily read.
When we hung the work, I didn’t place those 2 paintings where they are for the viewer to read them that way, or, at least, not in a straight forward “Here’s your sofa, and here’s your telly”, they were hung in terms of what felt right compositionally in the space.
No Pressure, Telly Painting and Sofa were all made in the same year, and there’s definitely a connection between them (sitting on the sofa, watching telly, browsing the internet) but if the hang of the works restricts them to just that then I haven’t done my job properly and I need to learn from that.
Each painting has its own thing going on. The works need to be open enough for a viewer to interpret them in their own way, relate their own thoughts and their own stories (and when I say stories, I mean their own memories, experiences and ideas that are conjured by the image) and to reach their own conclusions.
Ambit: Another work that you painted this year was called No Pressure. The imagery is more layered than in your outline paintings. Can you tell us about the transition from simple to complex?
CD: I can’t remember who said it, or where I read it (sorry!), because it’s a phrase that many people have said in one way or another, but in a book I wrote “Be Always A Beginner” (possibly Philip Guston or Ellsworth Kelly but then it all gets mixed up in my head with David Bowie...). Many people would disagree, but I have to try and complicate things for myself in some way for me to feel that the paintings end up having fresh energy in them. If I feel like I totally know what I’m doing then I lose interest and I think a viewer would be able to feel that when looking at the work.
The most recent works, No Pressure and Telly Painting had everything thrown at them and you can visually see the battle that took place, which you normally wouldn’t in my work. I had made some previous paintings that really fought back with me and wouldn’t do as they were told, and the results were really interesting, even if they did take me a while to digest and feel comfortable with. So I wanted to explore that again, as a challenge for myself.
The internet, social media, dating apps... the online world feels like an onslaught of visual material and directions / advice which was subconsciously a reason for wanting to complicate the painting’s imagery in No Pressure. I guess a lot of recent work in the world references the internet and social media, to the point where it can feel a bit “Not this again” but it also mirrors for me the way the world in general can feel: like everyone is throwing expectations at you (including yourself) and you’re trying to wade through them to get to what you really believe in.
“No Pressure” as a phrase has become a bit of a running joke with me, starting back when I studied at The Slade. I was up a ladder on my first week and Bruce McLean came in and said “I’m expecting big things from you” and my automatic response was “No pressure” and it made him laugh. I’ve made paintings of the words themselves before, and now it’s a title of a painting. That tends to happen a lot with ideas I have - they take a while to settle into a form I’m happy with, so certain things repeat themselves through the years.
On a more formal level, what happens when you don’t just have one focal point in a painting? What if the eye has to roam all over? Laura Owen’s ‘cat’ painting Untitled (2013) was a huge reference point and source of inspiration and I feel like the individual elements of the No Pressure painting act as vignettes that work together as a whole.
Ambit: How do you envisage your paintings will develop after your solo at Workplace Foundation? What plans for 2020 can you reveal?
CD: I think it’s likely that anything I envisage won’t happen (ha!).
Reflecting on the show... that’s the first time I’ve shown that many big works together... I’m normally much more minimal than that in terms of hanging a show. So that’s given me food for thought. As has your question about narrative and the reading of the works. I’ll digest that for a bit and it will come out in future work, although I imagine being able to articulate how will be slightly out of my grasp.
I find writing applications difficult. More often than not I figure out what I’ve done and where it came from AFTER I’ve done it. So I make the work, following my instincts, then I turnaround once it’s made and wade back through it in order to decipher where it came from.
Normally when I make plans or get excited about what I’m going to make, those original ideas never really come out, they are the starting points from which I massively meander and that’s okay, it’s just not conducive to applying for things or answering your question!
There’s a book being released with Workplace Foundation in response to my exhibition with them, featuring a text from Bruce McLean and an essay from Rose Davey. Release date tbc. I don’t have any shows planned yet, but again, who knows how they happen sometimes. They tend to just turn up, but making the work and having a thread to interrogate are the most important things I think.
Right now I’m having a rest, because I find making work takes up loads of energy and I need to have energy to be able to make it, so breaks are important to rev up again and attack it.
An element of mystery is important too... so we’ll see what happens.