Dr Davina Kirkpatrick: You’ve been working with images of hair for some time. I’m interested in why.
Esmé Clutterbuck: There are so many reasons. I think I always wanted to say something about being human. A long time ago I painted a series of pigs’ heads. The heads were very much dead but, in the paintings, they somehow turned into portraits and seemed alive. I’m thinking of Goya’s paintings of dead animals and fish. In some ways they are still-lives but he manages in an incredible way to say something about human life as well. Hair can also have that quality of dead and aliveness and it’s particularly evident once it’s detached from the body.
Hair is a remnant of our very early history and connected to our animal nature. It can signal something disturbing about us that we’d like to keep controlled but that can break out into wildness and chaos. We can give strong emotional importance to our hair. The phrase ‘bad hair day’ conveys a lot. It underlines the feeling that one’s hair looking ‘wrong’ might affect the way an entire day plays itself out. Here we are almost in the realm of magical beliefs.
I agree, there’s a dead and aliveness to hair; a duality.
Yes, it’s also associated with loss, with memorialising. If you present hair separated from the body you inevitably create an absence; a sense of loss. That feeling resonates with me and makes me want to explore it.
I can see the qualities hair might have but why do you want to make drawings of it?
I love its abstract qualities. Hair is drawing-like already in some way. I like complexity, tangle; being analytical; bringing order to something potentially chaotic and out of control. Hair has the ability to quickly take on new forms; to change its shape; to appear to be something else. That reminds me of some of Leonardo’s drawings. He draws water and tempests and the drawings look like hair and plant matter. I like that sense of mutability; of one thing appearing to be another; of not being sure what one is looking at.
I see a relationship in your drawings between what is beautiful and what is unsettling, even abject.
Yes, that duality is part of the fascination for me. Disembodied hair particularly, has that strange quality. Once it’s left the body it can take on an otherness which is often uncanny and disturbing. We can certainly be revolted by finding it in the wrong place; in the shower or in our food. It’s also desirable – I want to touch it, but it can trigger really conflicting sensations and reactions in me.
Does beauty matter to you? Is it something that you consciously pursue?
I am motivated by searching for it yes. I also wonder about what it is. In popular culture and advertising it’s all packaged up for us; made available in clichés. Advertising presents certain images of a recognisable and available beauty but is that really beauty? Those ideas are too pervasive. Perhaps that manipulation has changed our ideas about what beauty is. I’m interested in something that has another side to it – where beauty sits close to its opposite, to disgust and somehow gains depth by that.
I know you look a lot at the art of the past how does that inform what you do?
I remember pouring over my mother’s art books as a child. I must have been 6 or 7 when I discovered Bosch’s painting of the Damned Falling into Hell. I was fascinated. I think I sensed even then that something could be both beautiful and deeply disturbing.
Now I use images from the past in various ways. I’ve been drawing directly from fragments of paintings or using the memory of an image as a starting point. I’m also using photographs of surfaces I come across around me; the studio floor, a wall or from my computer screen. I set them in a new context by drawing on top of them. An image may have travelled from, say, the Prado in Madrid through a film camera, up to a satellite, down onto my laptop, into my camera, through a computer and printer and onto the paper. I love the idea of that long journey; of how the image has been changed from oil paint into printing ink via disembodiment and starlight. It has been all the way to the stars, over extreme distances; then there it is in my hands ready to have bits of charcoal and pastel smeared onto it. The smallness of a human action and vastness of space; there’s something exciting and moving in that.
So the print of a fragment of a painting from the past is reduced to the background for one of your drawings. Or equally you might use a bit of wall or studio floor as something to draw on. Isn’t that a bit reductive, in some way?
I see it as a bit like sampling in music. These images are so readily available. The internet can reduce a lot of very different things to the same level; mix them all up like a soup and take away their distinct meanings but it can be positive too. It’s such a huge pleasure to have such easy access to fantastic images from the past. In using them I feel I am paying a kind of homage to them.
How do you chose which photographs you will use?
I don’t know. I try things out….some of them fail…..but I like the unease between the underlying surface and the imposition of something drawn onto it. I have to oblige the two surfaces to talk to each other. I’ve always been interested in one surface being behind another; of looking through one thing to another and the space that implies. It also means I’ve got something to react to from the start and that gives me a number of things – colour, surface and any chance associations that the image brings with it.
‘Hair Cuts’ was drawn over a fragment from a painting by Velasquez wasn’t it?
Yes a tiny fragment. It’s not really recognisable any more. I used the rhythm of the brush marks as a way of scattering pieces of hair across a surface. It’s also a kind of homage to the Roman mosaic ‘The Unswept Floor’ where little objects are arranged on a surface in a flat decorative way, which I love.
Are you showing your art historical knowledge by using these fragments? Like playfully hiding some deeper knowledge in the images. A bit like coding something. You know they are there. You show them but in an oblique way and another viewer who had that knowledge would sense it. Layers are hidden there.
I’m not consciously trying to do that and, while I do like the idea of layers of meaning, I’m much more interested in how things look visually. I photograph surfaces and images that appeal to me and when I think there is something about them that I want to spend time with and digest. Those connections are there, I suppose and I would hope that people could sense that or at least have an intimation of depth or possibilities. I think it’s really about loving those images myself and wanting to spend time looking at them; trying to somehow possess them.
When I look at your drawings my experience is of being stilled by them. I suppose I could call it a spiritual experience. I feel something numinous. I wonder what your response is to that.
Yes, that’s important to me. I started life with a Roman Catholic background and although I never really had religious beliefs, some residue remains. I’m aware of searching after and experiencing a sense of otherness. I’m interested in the way human beings do this; that experiencing matter can suggest to us that there is more to life than matter.
Are titles important? I notice that some drawings are titled and some are not?
A title can give a way in for the viewer but there’s a downside – it can be too suggestive and therefore limiting. I only give drawings titles if something comes to me. I wait until a title comes and sometimes that’s later on, sometime after the drawing is finished and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Some titles may hint at fairy tales or myths but I’m not consciously trying to tell stories. Some of the titles may have stories attached to them. But that’s what myths are like – they tie things together under the surface and let us go more deeply into images and ideas.