HEREDITY is Emma Tooth's attempt to understand her own origins.
Following the success of her breakthrough show Concilium Plebis, where Emma examined UK street culture through the prism of Rennaissence art, HEREDITY sees the artist turn the brush on herself - or rather on her heritage. While working on her 2010 book From Pigfarmers and Showgirls, she uncovered dark and sometimes violent family secrets and legends which moved her to look deeper, through dusty photo albums and forgotten family ephemera. Using these as source material she has created an evocative new body of work.
Alongside her hyper-real oil paintings which have toured all over the UK and abroad, she has developed intricate and sensitive pencil drawings, each on antique pieces of paper and card speckled and browned with age, mounted in vitrine-like frames, reminiscent of botanical specimens. In contrast to these carefully-presented elements of antiquity and authenticity she reveals that they were all created with free Ikea pencils.
"I discovered that when you are descended from Pig farmers and Showgirls you can be anything you want to be"
Much of the new work focuses on recurring subjects such as Emma's paternal grandmother (Queen Bee) or the extraordinarily time-ravaged features of her maternal grandfather, (The Man With The Fish In His Eyes) whose face is "a tribute to a lifetime of sun and cigarette abuse". Particularly moving are the sensitive portrayals of Emma's father both as a cheeky young lad (Tuppence) and later as an older man.
Howie's Hands portrays Emma's father, inspired by the character in his talented woodworking hands and her childhood memories of "helping" him saw wood on old trestles by sitting on them to stop them wobbling. The saw he holds was probably given to him by his late father, and was thought to have been lost in a fire which took thousands of pounds worth of equipment collected over a lifetime. The saw was only saved from immolation by the fact that Emma had borrowed it and forgotten for some time to return it. "Howie" was amazed and delighted when he discovered it, miraculously unharmed. Emma's sister, Jo, said of the portrait, 'It's amazing and It's quite moving; it's exactly him, all weathered from his years of working his fingers to the bone to give us a good life.'
Another, more ephermeral, figure also drifts through the series; that of Emma's great-grandfather Cyril who, unlike the other subjects of the pictures, she never got to meet because he was killed at sea by a German U-boat long before she, or even her parents were born.
Very few photographs survive of Cyril and there is little information available about him. His image appears, ghostlike, on the cover of an antique book which Emma has deliberately never read; she glued the book closed and sealed it inside a box-frame. She was inspired by the idea that when a person dies it is like a book filled with the information and experiences a person gathers in their lifetime - or rather a huge library full of such books - is irrevocably destroyed and the information is lost forever.
Another impetus for the series were recurring experiences Emma has as a working portrait painter. Often, on seeing their commissioned portrait, a client will become quite emotional because not only can they see themselves in the painting Emma has created for them, but they report that they can see their own father or their grandfather in the painting, hidden in their own features. People who have passed away long ago and whom Emma has never seen or met; yet just through those features their appearance can inadvertantly come through so clearly. Additionally, while she paints, Emma finds herself looking not just at her father as a boy, but in him she can see herself, her own sister, her cousins - all these resemblances, and she can watch how the same person's features have altered over the 50 years or more between the old tattered black and white photographs and the modern digital ones she takes herself as her source material.
With such depth of character, these 'maps of experience' engage and challenge the artist irresistably, providing an opportunity to push her formidable technique further and lend her licence to revel in the quailities of flesh, skin - and indeed the paint itself - as never before.