Ahead of our forthcoming exhibition TRANSCEND we caught up with the artist Tom French to discuss the evolution of his practice, the multiple meanings behind the show’s title and how important intuition has been in this latest body of work.
Your last show at Lawrence Alkin Gallery was 2014's sell out Flux. How have the last two years been for you and your art?
Tom French: These last couple of years have without doubt been the busiest yet. My daughter was born a few days after Flux opened so that was the perfect time to take a small break away from the studio. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the work and come back to it with a new perspective. I get so absorbed in the work when preparing for an exhibition so it was really useful to be able to return after a break and see it all with new eyes. After that my working practice has transformed and has needed to be more structured, fitting studio time in with family time. It’s taken quite a bit of adjustment from being able to paint as and when I liked.
Initially I started on a new series of work which had been bouncing around in my head for a long time, I needed to get a load of new ideas down on canvas and try some things which I’d not seen before - for me this is one of the most interesting parts of the process. For the TRANSCEND exhibition it’s almost come full circle, my love for the illusion / double image paintings has been rekindled (despite their technical difficulty) and a lot of new elements and techniques have been applied which I’d had the time to experiment with, which I feel has created much more interesting visual and conceptual results.
What are the main themes/ideas/narratives you’ve explored in this new collection of paintings?
This new body of work is an evolution of my Duality series, so builds on the similar themes and narratives, which have been present throughout the last few years. These illusion works are, on one level, an exploration of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious. The figurative elements of his work represent the conscious, with characters absorbed in their own actions. The abstracted portraits in which they sit representing the subconscious, the instinctual yet hidden human drives that shape and determine the blissfully unaware subjects and make up the bigger picture.
Much of this latest work takes a more abstract approach, so some elements are less obvious, and the characters aren’t fully shown, or are distorted and fractured so their actions can’t be definitively identified. This opens up the pieces to more interpretations from the viewer, different people seem to see very different things when viewing the images, making it more of a personal experience. To me the actions of the characters are more psychological than physical - metaphors for mental processes rather than being representative of actual tasks.
Having the figures broken up / fractured / partially visible, reflects the way we see things and the way our brains process what is seen. We don’t look at a person or an object as a whole, our eyes move from one point to another building an overall picture from many different snapshots. During this process many things are left out of the mental image we’ve created, only focussing on whichever parts are relevant to us.
How would you describe your style of painting?
My painting practice is much more immediate and intuitive than it used to be, letting the image naturally evolve, working out placement and composition as the images progress. Often a lot of unexpected and unplanned elements turn out to be the strength of an image. There’s still structure in there, it’s needed for the images to work, so you end up with a great contrast of tightly rendered sections submerged within the free flowing immediacy of abstraction.
When creating the paintings for an exhibition do you work on individual canvases or multiple at once?
I always have multiple canvases on the go at one time. This is mostly due to the drying times with oil paints - you need to let one layer dry for a few days before working on the next. This way of working is beneficial to the overall process, it always helps to take a small break from one image while working on another, then you see things in a different light when retuning to a piece. I find it helps particularly when working on a whole body of work, if a particular element works well on one piece you can apply something similar across many others during the process rather than after.
How did you settle on the show’s title?
The title works on various levels - it reflects the fluid viewing experience of the artworks, the word TRANSCEND summarising an important part of the illusionary experience. As the nature of the image becomes apparent, what is viewed changes and evolves. The doubled up use of imagery creates an experience greater than the sum of its individual parts. The interpretations of the characters and their actions within the paintings - particularly if these actions are psychological rather than physical - transcend upon realisation of the bigger picture, and vice versa.
What are some of the effects of working in monochrome that appeal to you?
On one hand it removes from the equation the unavoidably subjectivity of colour, helping bring some level of consistency and clarity to the concepts.
Also, the paintings are very technically and compositionally complex, although it isn’t important to me for the images to feel overly complicated when viewed, which is something that the use of colour could well lead into with this particular series. The use of black & white in painting, and as more commonly documented in photography, appears more raw, stripped back, pure and to the point. I enjoy the timeless quality of monochrome images, and also for whatever reason we seem to associate black and white imagery with memory and to some degree mental processes.
If you could have dinner with any three artists, alive or dead, who would you choose?
Well my partner is also an artist, and I have dinner with her most days, does that count? Other than that I find it best not to meet your heroes.
Do you plan your paintings?
There’s quite a lot of mental planning for each piece, both with what I’d like to achieve, and technically how to go about this, but in terms of physically working out compositions and such I find keeping the planning to a minimum ends up with a much greater sense of immediacy in the finished piece.
I used to extensively plan my compositions with the placement of every element being clearly worked out, but nowadays my compositional studies are very loose experiments with space and mark making. More detailed working studies are used for the more rendered figurative elements, which I particularly like as artworks in their own right.
Roughly how long does each work take to complete?
It really is impossible to say, with working on many pieces at the same time. A lot longer than you’d think when viewing the finished paintings. A good deal of the time is spent adjusting or re-working small sections, lightening or darkening areas to get the overall composition pulled together. Often the same face or hand will be re-painted many times until it achieves what’s needed. So although the images appear immediate and the initial stages are, most of the work put in isn’t initially obvious when viewing the works.
Of course there’s the argument that it takes an artists entire life to create a piece, that every experience has lead to that point. There’s a lot of truth in that, I wouldn’t have been able to create these newest works at any stage before it happened.
The image of skulls often appears in your paintings, what is it about the motif that appeals to you?
The symbolism of the skull is a rather large subject, but for me it represents the fragility of life, a reminder that we’re just flesh & bone carrying around a bit of consciousness for a relatively tiny amount of time.
How did your collaboration with Tom Delonge of Blink 182 come about?
I received an email along the lines of - 'Hi, its Tom here from Blink 182, I’ve an idea I’d like to discuss' -and that was that.
What’s your favourite part of the artist process – generating ideas, creating the work or exhibiting?
For me it’s the initial stages - the working out ideas and making a start on a new piece is definitely the most exciting, it’s all new and fresh and has huge potential.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in regards to being an artist?
Get out of bed. Push through the hard parts without giving up.
Do you have a favourite piece from TRANSCEND?
My favourites change daily, I’m particularly fond of this body of work as a whole, probably because it was created as a whole, so my own interpretation of a piece works in interaction with all of the others.
Finally, what do you want people viewing the show to take away with them?
Hopefully people relate to the work on a personal level, I’d like to think that everyone who takes the time to absorb the work will walk away with their own individual interpretation.
The private view for TRANSCEND will take place on Thursday 21st April from 6pm. If you'd like to attend please RSVP with your name plus the names of any guests. The exhibition will be open to the public from 22nd April - 21st May. Not to be missed.