ROOMS MAGAZINE - THE RENAISSANCE REVIVAL
10-page feature on Emma Tooth (what follows are extracts from the full interview that appeared in shortened-form in ROOMS Magazine issue 12, 2013)
(RM:) While away your days in Derbyshire, and revisit the modern day renaissance master… In our fast sprawling world, there are so many forms of communication; our visual language has extended from time immemorial, and yet even today, many signifiers of the past are as relevant now as then. Regardless of lifestyle, the figure of Christ is a tough one to forget. How then do we extend our message across the rural plains of the countryside, amidst the clucking of hens, to the city streets, transcending individual histories? Through Art of course.
Hello Emma, we’ve previously discussed your agricultural heritage; penchant for petting chickens and more. Take us for a stroll around the yard.
(ET:) I work from my home in the Derbyshire countryside, my studio overlooks rolling hills, ancient trees and many different animals. I live in a very secluded little world with just my birds and my dear husband Owen, I rarely venture outside of it. My paintings really are the only way I communicate with the outside world. And in my spare time I like to read or sew and cuddle chickens.
(RM:) All much esteemed pastimes, requiring a degree of dexterity. If your dress is much to go by, it’d appear you’re a talented seamstress. Would you see it as being too familiar an element to be art, or just a very different one to the 'art' that you otherwise create?
(ET:) Artists often speak about "expressing themselves", and my clothes I think are the most natural, the most literal way that I do this. It's not a deliberate act, it just happens. As you say, I'm probably too close to the subject to be able to step back and think of the clothes I make in those terms. When I dress it's a selfish act, a solitary act - I create them just for me, and to speak only to me really, whereas the paintings I create to send out into the world and speak to everyone, it's a different language and a very different purpose.
(RM:) As with these talents, you’re a self-confessedly self-taught painter. I don’t imagine there’s much time for that in the busy world of pig farming…
(ET:) Haha, well, it is actually my ancestors who were the Pig Farmers and Showgirls to whom the title of my book alludes. I've not actually indulged in any pig farming myself though to what extent I can deny having indulged in any showgirl activities is debatable… It was when I was about 17 my wonderful A-Level tutor handed me a box of gnarled old oil paint tubes and a filthy jam-jar of turps, and with the words "have a play!" my career had begun.
(RM:) You haven’t yet stopped playing with people’s perceptions of your work. The gilt frames, as I understand it, are more than just a fashion statement; much as the references to certain works in your composition aren’t accidental.
(ET:) Much of my work refers heavily to the renaissance and European art history in general, and the framing underlines that fact. People sometimes come to a piece with a preconception of it being an old painting because of the framing, lighting and pose, and thus dull and irrelevant to them, but on closer inspection they realise the figure in the painting is anything but traditional and is actually someone they can relate to. I play with that idea a lot.
A couple of years ago Derby Museum and Art Gallery mixed my Concilium Plebis work up with their famous collection of Joseph Wright of Derby paintings. The framing was essential to that momentary illusion/confusion I was creating.
(RM:) Your work focuses a lot on the people and less on the background. I do this to be lazy, while the claims are that you’re keeping with a particular aestheticism. Can you convince me that you’re not lying?
(ET:) Though it's true I do get through an awful lot of black paint, I don't think I have ever claimed that. Recently when I saw my Evolution show in Liverpool, it really struck me just how dark it all was! But also how luminescent the skin tones seemed by contrast, rising out of the shadows. And actually it confirmed to me why I have done it such a lot - I love the effect! I like how it focuses the viewer's attention where I want it, it's the features of that person that I'm interested in; everything else is just a distraction. I love Zurbaran's haunting paintings of monks emerging from blackness with little or no apparent background. They're spine-tingling. I'm into tenebrism rather than just chiaroscuro. That's just the kind of girl I am!
(RM:) How do you feel, or attempt, to make your work relevant and pique the interests of the society you represent, when commercial art typically caters to an inducted audience?
(ET:) I think as a portrait painter I have a head start, because my audience will on some level relate to the images of fellow humans in the paintings. People can see themselves in the work. Additionally, there's a lot there for the 'inducted audience' to unpick too; references to specific renaissance paintings for example, references to Caravaggio or Bernini or to Tudor portraiture (rather than the general *Old Masterliness* that almost everyone will pick up on), I'm fortunate because many people can enjoy and relate to my work on many levels.
(RM:) In lieu of the above comment, how do you feel a magazine like Rooms fits in with your motif?
(ET:) The magazine sounds fun. It's interesting how a lot of "street art" people are into my work. I suppose it has a street art feel in a way, because of what is depicted within the paintings, but the paintings are very removed from the sort of immediacy and impermanence of graffiti and a lot of contemporary art. But I love that marrying of old and new, the anachronisms, the borrowing and crossover. That's me all over. Would you like to send me a copy?
(RM:) We most certainly would; as an exchange, you could paint my picture. Along which lines, have you ever had to reject a model for your Concilium Plebis project on the grounds that they aren’t ordinary enough?
(ET:) Many of the models for Concilium Plebis were people I plucked from the city streets of Derby where I was living in sorry circumstances at the time. I've never had to reject someone for not looking ordinary enough, but I have rejected some people who emailed me because they just weren't normal...A mature female nude model contacted me not long ago, she seemed nice enough and told me she had 'a lovely smile'... but actually I think the naked, unadorned human form is boring at best, and more usually just ghastly.
Ah, perhaps you could have been my muse, Jez, but alas I'm afraid I have finished work on Concilium Plebis for now.
(RM:) In favour of breakdancing, correct?
(ET:) The new work is indeed the breakdance-inspired project Breaking Art which is coming along slowly. I wanted to see if I could capture some of that movement and attitude that I saw in the dancers I met. It's the first time I have tried to paint movement, usually my paintings are very still and peaceful almost, but I think in some ways these frozen moments I have captured are even more eerily still and peaceful, because of their impossibility.
(RM:) Your work’s utilisation of classicism is somewhat subversive when the world of contemporary art has become very, if not overtly, conceptual. How does it feel to find success as a rebel?
(ET:) I think that perhaps conceptual art needs reclassifying. Rather than being discussed and displayed alongside other art forms, it should be thought of as a rather untidy branch of beginner's philosophy. If the end result is so unimportant, beauty is worthless and your art is of no intrinsic value outside the hallowed space of an art gallery, and it is only the explanatory piece of writing on the wall that bestows any value upon the pile of bricks or whatever you are displaying... To paraphrase Ad Reinhardt, I feel conceptual art is something you step in when you back up to look at a painting… But I am biased.
(RM:) If life has taught me anything, it is that so are we all… but that’s just my opinion! Final question, you’re within the frames of your own picture, set the scene and story:
(ET:) It is my husband Owen and I in our wedding clothes. We have been together 17 years now, and when we originally got married at Hedingham Castle in 2004 we didn't have any "formal" photos taken, so recently we had some taken at a ruin not far away. It was a tough time when we had these done, and I love this one because we look strong as a couple, holding each other up like the archway has survived for centuries. A friend told me he felt the photograph showed how we have grown together and how much more space we have to grow above us.
(RM:) Simply beautiful!