Double exposure: Tenderness and entanglement in Tahnee Lonsdale’s painting

The flowing, folding, intertwined and twisting forms in Tahnee Lonsdale’s paintings offer a dual narrative of innately personal recollections and universal symbols of tenderness, touch and connection. The loosely formed figures push against the frames of the composition and merge into one another; a knot of brightly coloured limbs and torsos. The permeability of their bodies suggesting sexual encounters; tender, humorous, human.

Tahnee’s current pared back, almost abstract gestural paintings evolved out of her work exploring domesticity and gender roles. Where the figures in her work today are often genderless, amorphous and unconstrained, previously they were characterised by their coded domestic context. Growing up and studying art in England, it was when Tahnee moved to LA with her husband and two small children that ironically her work began to find its direction as her own personal life contracted with the responsibilities of parenthood. Initially born out of frustration, Tahnee began exploring themes of motherhood, the female body and domesticity through a cast of anthropomorphic characters composed of common household furniture. In these compositions, Tahnee critiques, challenges, ridicules and finds awkward comfort in the parameters of the domestic and matrimonial space.

Over the past four years however, the figures in Tahnee’s paintings have evolved from anthropomorphic representations of the body to loosely defined but definite figures, no longer constrained by the parameters of their physical space. They have been liberated from the domestic scene, and most recently, from two-dimensional space itself and allowed to spill out of the picture frame into three-dimensional sculptural form. Tahnee’s work remains inherently feminist, but has found a visual language that is expressive, emotive and gestural.

AMM: Hi Tahnee! Please tell us about your background, education and development as an artist. Where and how did some of your most impactful learnings take place?

TL: I grew up in Sussex, south England, with my mum, dad and three sisters. Culturally it was a bit of a desert but our upbringing was very liberal, and we were allowed to pursue anything that interested us. I loved writing and honestly thought that was where my future would be, but it all changed when I was about 14 and English class at school was less about my own writing and more about the writing of other, mostly dead, authors. But I had an awesome art teacher who was very encouraging and pushed us to do large scale self-led projects. I would take refuge in the art block during the years of teenage angst, comforted by the smells of paint and turps.

There was a moment where I nearly went for Geography!! I was slightly obsessed by weather, and I still fantasize about storm chasing, but luckily the mathematical side put me off.

It wasn’t a smooth journey. I initially dropped out of my first choice of art school after about 3 months. I took myself off for a year of travel and only when I got back did I decide to return to art school, this time more successfully. I have to say though, my degree show was pretty terrible, it has taken me a long time to get to a place with my work where I am happy and able to understand what it is I am trying to say.

AMM: When and why did you first start thinking about the domestic space and gender roles in your work?

TL: I think my work really changed after having my second baby. After my first I was still holding on to some semblance of independence, perhaps a delusion that nothing had changed. But when Rudy was born I was truly stuck at home. I had just given up my studio in Great Western Studios, where I was surrounded by friends and fellow artists, and was suddenly working in my small dark loft. I felt stuck and the disparity between mine and my husband’s life was never more evident. My practice slowed down and I was unable to focus, domestic life was slightly smothering any chance of creativity. The tug between needing to be at home and spending more time with my children and being in my studio working. These dualities are realities men are not traditionally challenged with.

But then I began to use this claustrophobic atmosphere within my work, what was initially a barrier became the fuel. I realized I had a lot to work with, much more than previously. Freedom had been exchanged for something much more powerful.

AMM: How do you use colour thematically in your work?

TL: I’m not always entirely sure where my colour palettes come from. I tend to find a combination that works and go with it for an entire collection. A lot of the time it’s trial and error, or accidental, and sometimes I just steal my palette from art I see and love.

Recently I have actively been avoiding particular gender specific colours, opting for oranges, yellows and greens. Colour can be very evocative and nostalgic, it is also historically very symbolic. Purple was a very majestic colour and red expresses danger and passion. The yellow in my paintings can be very deceptive of optimism and frivolity, when in fact the subject matter is often pretty dark and profound.

I used to use a lot of pink, I had a very particular tone that was very fleshy, this was at a time when I was using pink as an expression of the female body in the most literal sense, I was trying to make sense of what it was to be a woman and a new mother. It felt visceral and tangible.

My most recent collection of works that were part of my ‘Tear Here’ show at 00 LA were described as ‘hot house’. The vibrancy and saturation of the palette was really important, I wanted to be extremely direct and candid, making the colour function almost as a material.

Tahnee Lonsdale, Big Spoon, Little Spoon, spray paint and oil on canvas, 70 x 64 inches

AMM: You play with perspective in your compositions where familiar scenes are viewed from unfamiliar or fragmented perspectives. Can you please tell us more about this?

TL: I tend to build my paintings up in layers, starting with a figure in the foreground and then adding to the background as I go along, often not taking into consideration the perspective and how it should be or might change. For me the subject matter is the important thing and not necessarily how it is delivered. I also tend to change my mind as I go along, erasing things and adding others in their place. It makes for a confusing composition, but I like the ambiguity of it, the idea that there are different planes of narrative, like parallel worlds overlapping, or a double exposure image. Storyboards created on top of one another rather than alongside. It creates movement and this idea of transition.

AMM: In your recent paintings, figures feature prominently, intertwined and filling the picture frame. What ideas are you exploring in these works?

TL: A lot of my recent paintings feature figures that are built using furniture as the initial composition. I begin with the sculptural formations I observe from furniture, often discarded and haphazardly tossed, on the sidewalks of LA. I liked the humanness of these assemblages.

I move from these objects to the canvas, anthropomorphizing these abstract shapes into representations of the body. My figures are often genderless and loosely repetitive, maintaining a balance between order and chaos. On one hand, the figures are docile, tucked in on themselves, or weaving and tying into one another. On the other, an independent body moving away from its former entanglements.

What interests me on reflection, and is not something I thought consciously about, is how the figures seem to be pushing out of their bounds, once contained within their domestic origins they are literally straining to break out. Submissive positions replaced by strong, ambitious ones. My figures are protagonists in their own narratives.

AMM: Intimacy, and the lack thereof, seem to be recurring motifs in your work. Where does this come from?

TL: Intimacy and vulnerability are key themes in my work. I initially thought sex was central to narrative but actually the act of sex isn’t what’s important, it’s intimacy, or the need for it.

I think what’s important about this is the universality of it. I am expressing my experience of being a woman but in fact this is a very human need. This search for connection, physical touch, tenderness.

There are gestures enacted by the figures in my paintings that repeat themselves over and over again. An embrace. A wrapping, folding motion. They are interwoven. An act of love and security, maybe even dominance and repression. What do we sacrifice when we love? What do we lose when we expose our true selves?

Ultimately these paintings are autobiographical and very personal, but I think they speak to everyone, as these needs are ubiquitously human.

AMM: Over the years you’ve experimented with different stylistic ways of depicting figures, from flat, almost caricatures to ephemeral, semi-abstract forms. What informs these representational decisions? How does this relate to the themes in your work?

TL: I only recently started exploring the figure. Previously the figure-like characters were just that, characters. Within a larger, vaguer storyline. I was expressing a feeling or a notion, tentatively trying to understand myself and how I fitted in the world. It was only when I moved to LA four years ago that the figure became more prevalent and central to my paintings.

My figures have also softened. Where once the figures emerged from domestic items like furniture, stiff and angular as they transmorphed from tables and chairs, they are now figure’s in their own right. Loose and embroiled. Often sharing an arm or a leg, as if they are the same person, the extra limbs just a shadow of where they once were.

As I move away from my obsession with domesticity, the figures are no longer situated within a scene, small parts of a larger narrative. They are now the main focus. They are the story. Still abstracted and ambiguous to a certain point. As they gain strength it’s like they are coming into focus.

4 In A Bed, spray paint and oil on canvas, 70 x 64 inches

AMM: In what ways does your art represent or relate to your own experiences?

TL: My art is really autobiographical. You can pretty much track my life through my paintings, like a journal or a diary. It’s not always obvious to me at the time, but on reflection it is so clear and literal, the references and nuances, the stance of a figure or the motifs of that time, they all reflect that period of my life.

AMM: How does a new painting begin? Please tell us about your process of working.

TL: I tend to work mostly on canvas, either stretch, which is a luxury, or raw and pinned to a wall. I’ll prime the canvas and then do a base coat of lemon-yellow acrylic.

The initial composition is laid down using spray paint, creating a loose line in which to work from. The action of applying it is innately physical. There is freedom to the application in that I cannot create detail.

I then work into the composition with oil paint. I like using small brushes on very large canvases. Working very fast and methodically. I like the tiny brush strokes, it creates an urgency. You can see time passing.

What happens next is always a surprise to me. From this point on I don’t really have a plan.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

TL: I just moved studio! Previously I was working from home, which was great for a while and meant I could work evenings while my kids were asleep but I started to get serious cabin fever, especially on days where I didn’t leave the house. Now I have a studio at Dalton Warehouse, south of DT LA. It’s great as there are loads of other great artists there, whose work I really admire and the energy is much more inspiring. It’s smaller than my home studio but I’m planning on using it as a chance to shrink my scale and make slightly smaller works for a while.

Generally I keep my studio pretty tidy. I work on the ground with paintings leant against the wall. My paints and brushes will collect around this area. I have a little foot stool that I sit on, or an old cushion my sister in law made for me. It kills my back though so I think I might have to rethink my technique.

AMM: Do you have any rituals or habits that feed you creatively?

TL: I often take myself on a hike, it helps to clear my head. I love Temescal canyon in the Santa Monica mountains, or Topanga. I generally hike on my own if I need to go over ideas or am having a creative block.

I recently gave myself a month off working. I came back to England for the summer and just decided not to make any work. It’s been strange as there is a big empty hole where my practice normally takes up so much space, but it’s been really good to evaluate my work and let new ideas brew. Sometimes it feels like I’m creating on empty and wringing the last few drops out, it’s nice to reboot and allow things to slowly bubble to the surface.

If I can’t take a chunk of time off then going to see museum and gallery shows also works. I recently went to a Charles White show at LACMA, he was an incredible artist and I was really affected by the way he painted hands, it gave me some fresh ideas to work with and inspired me to get back in the studio and work.

AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

TL: The figure is still very central to my work, but it is becoming less about domesticity and more about my experience of being a woman. I’m moving away from furniture as source material and have started building my figures around characters I’ve created. Tribes of women. Strong and independent. Dancing, embracing, supporting each other. I plan to rethink the backdrops and how the figures are grounded, and even if they need to be grounded.

I have also been making soft sculptures and on my art break I have been toying with the idea of combining these 3D creations with my paintings. The idea of an installation has crossed my mind.

I want to further explore these sculptures. How I can abstract them even more from their figurative origins. Will they remain soft? What other materials could I use?

AMM: How does the LA art scene differ from the London scene? What are you excited about in your art world context right now?

TL: When I moved to LA four years ago my kids were 2 and 5, so I didn’t really have much of a chance to immerse myself in the London art scene, whereas in LA I have forced myself out of my comfort zone, driving for miles to see interesting shows in tiny artist run galleries, and speaking to strangers (not my favourite thing). There is so much amazing stuff happening in LA right now, a lot of ground roots ventures and a really close artist community. You have to travel for it though, LA is massive and so spread out. I live on the westside and most of the juicy stuff is all east. I spend a lot of time in my car!

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

TL: It’s been a super busy first half of the year, I’ve had 2 solo shows and 4 group shows in London, LA and New York.

I have a few months break and then I have a solo planned in LA and in New York next year. With a potential solo in Italy at some point. I am also hoping to do a residency in California next year.

Find out more about the artist: www.tahneelonsdale.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

We Kneel, spray paint and oil on canvas, 70 x 64 inches