INTERROGATING CONTEXT: AN ESSAY ON THE WORK OF EMMA TOOTH
By Trinity Taylor
previously wrote about 17th Century Italian Baroque painter Artemisia, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi who trained her to paint in Caravaggio’s style. Orazio was of the first generation after Caravaggio’s death to continue what he had started.
Caravaggio played a part in the Counter-Reformation Church’s search for religious art that fought against Protestant Mannerism; he painted with a rebellious naturalism and his dramatic use of tenebrism* helped to see the end of Mannerism, which had dominated European art for almost a century.
Today, few contemporary artists are keeping classical high art in the spotlight; one of them is Emma Tooth who like Caravaggio and Artemisia, uses the canvas to rebel.
Reluctant to reveal when she was born, artist Emma Tooth from Cambridge is a hyperrealist figurative and portrait painter living and working in Duffield, Derbyshire. “If I don’t tell anyone too many mundane details now, in 30 years no one will have a clue where I came from – or when - and I remain in complete control of my person and persona.”
This attitude to the mundane only adds to her mystery and is very much reflected in her work. We know Emma graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in Fine Art, but her skill and style is completely self-taught. She is as skilled as a costume designer and maker as she is a painter, and her unique Victorian style of dress mixed with her jet black hair and Gothic make-up turns heads where ever she goes - especially wearing a favourite 4ft wide pannier dress. “I am a very visual person and art and decoration in all its forms are absolutely essential to me. I can’t bear the mundane, the trivial, the tawdry – I need exaggerated theatrical beauty in all aspects of my life”.
Emma is not pretentious, her persona is not for show, this is her life and she is married to film-maker Owen Tooth who completely shares her style and love of Victorian and Gothic aesthetics. She absolutely knows who she is and her art is a testament to her confidence, which was very much challenged by academics throughout her studies.
I became more intrigued by this artist while reading one of her interviews where I came across a dignified and passionate defensive statement of classical painting which struck a chord with how I feel about my own work. She said: “We are swamped with throwaway commercial photographic images, almost as quick to create as discard. A traditional oil painting in its impressive gold frame speaks of hundreds of hours of painstaking study, decades of training and lends a dignity and historical reference, perhaps reverence, to the character portrayed.”
Emma’s most recent aptly and ironically titled exhibition Concilium Plebis** is absolutely filled with Caravaggio-references, and her Renaissance chiaroscuro effect is alien amongst contemporary art other than in black and white photography, but her success shows that this style still has a place today.
The style and subject matter explored in this series of her work has built a bridge over the divide between the ‘real world’ and the exclusive, seemingly elitist world of contemporary art. Emma first opened Concilium Plebis in full at Sandford Goudie Gallery, South Shields in January 2009 with 24 oil paintings and in addition shared the evening with a live Break Intervention by Bad Taste Cru*** who performed their own interpretation of Emma’s work. Previously and since Emma has shown selections of the series at various galleries across the UK including the Liverpool Biennial International Artists show at NOVAS Contemporary Urban Centre in late 2008 and London’s Lazarides Gallery, who now represent her.
From July 3rd this year running until September 5th Emma will be pitting herself with a selection of her works from Concilium Plebis against 18th Century Master Joseph Wright of Derby at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in a very special exhibition. She is also She is also due to show the complete collection at the Lazarides Gallery this autumn, dates are to be confirmed.
With Concilium Plebis Emma has elevated the ‘ASBO generation’ to a classical Renaissance-like status just as Caravaggio and his contemporaries did themselves four centuries ago when they used street children, prostitutes and ordinary people of their time to play the parts of Angels, Saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus and other religious figures in their paintings and very often in the case of Caravaggio, painting them as they were, with dirty legs and dirty toenails. Ironically with his drinking, brawling and ultimately killing another man in a fight, Caravaggio was certainly a candidate for an ASBO at the very least in his day.
Emma states in an interview for The Journal Culture Club with Barbara Hodgson in 2009 that; “I have engaged with an audience who would probably otherwise never have their portraits painted or even set foot in a gallery, which to a hoodie, may be as intimidating as he himself might be to an elderly shopper.”
With Concilium Plebis #1 the artist has recreated a very classical religious iconic image of the ‘Madonna and Child’ which has been created in many variations throughout the centuries by numerous artists, with one pretty much looking like another, but Emma has put a contemporary spin on her version with this young, probably teenage, ‘chav’ (characterized by the hooded top and gold-hooped earrings) with her young baby. She gazes lovingly upon her child as he plays with her gold necklace in this purposely set up scene.
The rich deep red cloth hanging in the background is reminiscent of the Madonna and Child paintings by Giovanni Bellini (1485-90) and Andrea Previtali (c.1515). In nearly all versions of this image the three colours; red, white and blue are predominant, with the Virgin Mary or Madonna often painted in a habit-like attire of blue and white with a red dress underneath. Most of the paintings in this series are framed in old-worldly gilded gold adding to a feel of Renaissance revisited.
Emma felt that the type of people she wanted to paint have never been positively presented, mostly captured by CCTV, highlighted in police or news reports of vandalism and violence, or in the case of young single mothers who are publicly blamed for the state of society, she wanted to address this.
In Concilium Plebis #10, three young men gather to see a tattoo on their friend’s stomach, which reads ‘Before A Fall Comes Pride’. Painted with Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) in mind, where Thomas pokes his finger into an opening in Christ’s side to see if he really had been resurrected, the figurative composition of that painting has been said to ‘carefully unite the four heads in the quest for truth’.
What truth are the figures looking for in Emma’s contemporary version? I suggest that this is an element of readdressing preconceptions of what we see when we encounter a ‘chav’ or ‘hoodie’ and make a natural assumption that they are uneducated and have no sensibility.
On April 8th 2010 Emma Tooth gave me an interview. I wanted to find out how she feels about certain aspects of her work because I feel I can relate to her artistically with my own work. Here follows a section of that interview:
Trinity: How did your education shape your style and technique?
Emma: Not much at all really I've always felt I had to fight to go in the direction I wanted, certainly by the time I did my degree it was a total uphill struggle. Fancy traditional oil painting being the most rebellious thing you can do!
Trinity: Have you found opposition to and critique of your chiaroscuro style of painting in light of contemporary art or has it been welcomed?
Emma: Contrary to the tough critiques I received in university, out in the real art world my style of painting has really been welcomed. Immediately after university I had a solo show in London and it's gone from strength to strength, and now I'm represented by Lazarides Gallery, who also represent Banksy.
Trinity: What has it meant to you as an artist being able to reach other social classes than your own through your work?
Emma: It's been really interesting actually and there have been lots of interesting experiences. On approaching potential models in the street they have assumed I was trying to start a fight with them, but seeing how they calmed down and seeing their enthusiasm for my work when I showed them photographs; they actually really appreciate the work and the style, they can relate to it easily. Those images from Renaissance art are still in the public consciousness and people get what I am doing and enjoy it. It's been very rewarding – I know that sounds hammy - but I am more flattered by a good reaction from ‘ordinary people’ (if I can use such a hackneyed phrase) than from people who have been baptised into the art world because I think people from the latter community are actually so used to being the victims of the Emperor's New Clothes that they'll fall for anything.
When the break-dancers I painted saw their portraits they were so positive and excited and their comment that my work was "Disgustin’" (i.e. very good) meant a lot to me. '
Emma Tooth’s career is one that I will follow and I hope she gains further success in her plight to readdress the public image of misrepresented social groups. Representing the misunderstood and finding a voice for those who cannot speak is at the core of my work.