In studio with Pippa Young: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are”

What is the position of representational painting in a photographically dominated world? This question lies at the heart of Pippa Young’s symbolic and richly psychological artwork. She is interested in the notion of surface and illusion and considers painting a metaphor for broader human experiences. Her collage-style approach to composition juxtaposes source material with richly symbolic motifs, reflecting what she perceives as our fragmented contemporary reality that is pieced together from a jumbled bombardment of media and interactions. Through the act of painting, Pippa reconfigures information to create new symbolic connections that hint at multiple perceptions of reality.

The ethereal figures that inhabit Pippa’s work are drawn from sources ranging from Renaissance art to fashion editorials. They feel at once familiar and otherworldly, creating an uncanny sense of déjà vu. Over the years she has evolved an intricate symbolic language to articulate key ideas, such as the red thread which appears in her current body of work and signifies psychological tethering. Although deeply conceptual, Pippa’s work leaves space for ambiguity and interpretation.

With her solo show ‘Through a glass darkly’ coming up at Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh this October, we were happy to get a chance to speak with this Pippa to find out more about her work.

AMM: Hi Pippa! How does drawing influence your painting and vice versa?

PY: Drawing is fundamental to my practice. It is where I work out concepts and ideas, but it is also the foundation of all my paintings – forming the first layer which often, but not always, gets obliterated by subsequent layers. Sometimes though, I might go back into a painting – drawing on top to achieve a particular effect.

AMM: There are traces of fashion, literature, classical art and symbolism in your work. How does this conceptual collage relate to the themes in your work?

PY: Contemporary experience is to be on the receiving end of a jumble of fragmented influences: mediated imagery; historical and modern art; religion and atheism; the power of nature and the fragility of human life; advertising and the media; literature and music.

Media and screen-based technology seem to be the dominant information delivery channels, but we also collect peripheral information throughout our daily activities: a glimpse of a textile pattern; a graphic shape used on a brochure; an old photo; a pose in a renaissance painting; the path taken by a falling leaf in autumn.

Originally my working process began by collaging fragments of images. I was referencing the experience of fragmentation in our lives – the way we have to make connections from the onslaught of information and images we receive. The collage of image-fragments developed into the fragmentation of a single image through a variety of visual languages.

The symbolism contained in all the source fragments can be universal or personal. When they are removed from their original context and combined, new connections and meanings emerge.

AMM: Please tell us more about your interest in representation, perception and memory. How did you become interested in these ideas and where do you see this evolving?

PY: We see the world, not as it is, but as we are. I am interested in perceived, mediated and constructed realities – what we perceive to be true, what the outer world tells us is true, and our inner constructed truths. Often, I find, none of these bear any resemblance to reality at all.

This seems particularly relevant in the current political climate where news reports are disputable, facts are meaningless, and accepted truths seem to depend on how loud you shout your message.

I am interested in surface and illusion both in a psychological sense and in a painterly sense. For me, the act of painting is a microcosm of a wider experience.

What is the position of representational painting in a photographically dominated world? This question lies at the core of what I do. A representation of a subject in a painting can communicate something quite different from a photographic representation of the same subject. I am interested in the ways that painting and photography differ and what painting can offer that photography doesn’t. I appreciate that this is a slightly contradictory assertion when it is more likely that my work will be seen in reproduced photographic form than in the flesh!

AMM: There’s a restrained minimalism to your compositions. Can you tell us more about your aesthetic and process of working?

PY: It has been said that every painting is a self-portrait and as I get older my practice is, in many ways, becoming an extension of my personality. I tend to subscribe to the idea that ‘less is more’ and I wouldn’t be true to my voice if I attempted to shout through my work!

Because my work is quite labour-intensive, I often spend long periods of time working using repetitive motions which can become quite meditative. The studio becomes a contemplative space where thoughts and ideas develop and grow. Sometimes, the meaning of the work only becomes apparent while I am working – the physical act of painting seems to reveal the connections between the fragments of visual language which find their way onto the canvas.

Who knows how the viewer will see the work, or where the paintings we make will end up? Through my painting I hope to communicate something of the fragility and transience of the human condition and, for the viewer, to provide a contemplative space which reflects the working process.

AMM: Certain motifs feature in your work, such as white bonnets, antlers and the colour red, which seem to represent an intricate symbolic language. Can you tell us more about this?

PY: The white cap is based on a Phrygian hat which was worn by emancipated Roman slaves. Something similar was adopted by the French revolutionaries – the ‘bonnet rouge’. I see the white cap as a liberty bonnet – a psychological space for free thinking. The antlers were something I explored at a particular time when I was looking at renaissance and rebirth.

The use of the graphic red lines and shapes (actually Indian Red), were originally inspired by the Carel Fabritius painting: ‘Goldfinch’. Apart from being a fabulous painting, I was struck by the idea of being psychologically tethered (the little bird was tied to its perch by a little thread). This idea manifested itself as a red line tethering the figure in my painting to the edge of the support. For me, it worked both conceptually and in a formal sense – the crisp graphic line and harsh red colour provided a counterpoint to the softer, smoother rendering of the figure. The red/graphic element has developed into other forms and doesn’t seem to want to go away at the moment!

I enjoy playing with other fragments of symbolic language some of which are familiar and others which have developed as personal metaphors. Changing the way these elements are rendered, or juxtaposing them in different ways provides a seemingly endless supply of semiotic and visual language possibility.

AMM: What are your daily art rituals?

PY: First – coffee! Then I set out my palette and line up my brushes and sit and stare at what I’m doing. I try to figure out what is right and what is wrong. I construct the final image in my mind’s eye and work out what I need to change to make it better. I keep that image in my head while I’m working so I know where I’m headed, but it changes and evolves during the day as I work. Because of the layered way I work, I need to think several steps ahead as a colour on an early layer can affect the final layers – maybe in ways that I want to avoid. Having said that, sometimes fixing errors can lead to creative solutions that are better than the original plan.

I have to have silence when I’m thinking, but when I’m working, I listen to BBC Radio 3 or 4, or audio books, or music. And I make endless cups of tea, half of which go cold because I get lost in the zone!

AMM: What do you worry about and why?

PY: I have discovered, that as an artist, self-doubt comes with the territory. While it is important to push that aside and get on with it, in many ways, anxiety and self-doubt drive you to make better work – if you were happy with what you do, you wouldn’t try out different things and you wouldn’t progress.

AMM: If you weren’t an artist what would you be?

PY: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t pursuing one form of creative pursuit or another. As a child I enjoyed craft making, I made jewellery for a while and one of my Saturday jobs was window dressing. I worked as a graphic designer, as a design consultant and I illustrated children’s books before I returned to university, as a mature student, to study fine art.

If I wasn’t a painter, I think I would like to be an architect – we’re in the process of building a house at the moment and I’m enjoying the design process, although the technical stuff is hard work!

AMM: What can’t you live without?

PY: Coffee, Radio 3 and 4, my husband, my sons, a view of the sea, the smell of turps in the morning… not necessarily in that order…

AMM: What’s next for you?

PY: I have a solo show, ‘Through a glass darkly’, with Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh in October. Everything I am currently doing is destined for that. I have been working on a small scale, exploring different ways of using my materials, but now I am longing for the freedom of bigger surfaces so I’ll probably let rip and go large afterwards. This is my fifth show in five years so I will be looking for opportunities to recharge my creative batteries – I’d like to travel a bit… maybe do a residency somewhere… Any suggestions gratefully received!

Find out more about Pippa’s work: www.pippayounggallery.co.uk