“Selfish, sulky creatures”: The primal, childlike nature of painter Georg Wilson’s folklore-inspired goblins

With a practice grounded in art research, painter Georg Wilson draws on the folkloric histories and storytelling traditions of rural England to paint scenes that are simultaneously playful and sinister, beguiling and unsettling. At the centre of these scenes are the figures Georg refers to as her ‘goblins’. Squat and ungainly, insolent and sullen, the goblins tussle with wolves and crustaceans, argue with crows, steal vegetables and glut themselves on fruit. The world they inhabit sits somewhere in the space between the real and the fantastical – it is a world of creatures rather than humans, of animalistic carnality rather than polite, urbane civility. Despite the goblins’ humanoid appearance, their nudity and their wholly bodily being expresses an essential nature that is closer to that of wild creatures. Equally, there is a childlike aspect to their beings; in their interactions with the world they inhabit, Georg’s goblins are led by impulse and instinct, uninhibited by notions of propriety and innocent of social codes and graces. They are curious, unrestrained and clumsy, picking things up and prodding them, smearing berry juice all over their mouths and tangling themselves up in vines. They are destructive without being malicious, oblivious to the potential harm of squeezing something too hard, or of trampling vegetable patches with their too-big feet.

While the physicality of Georg’s figures is vaguely female, they exist in a pre-gendered state. By resisting any kind of reductive gaze, Georg aims to disrupt the traditional feminine roles in mythic narratives which are often projections of male fear and desire. Her fluid, exuberant brushstrokes invite the viewer to participate in narratives that feel ancient and atavistic, yet compellingly contemporary.

AMM: Hi Georg, to start off, can you tell us about your background, how you first started making visual art and when you decided to pursue a career as an artist?

GW: As an only child, creating imaginary worlds and drawing was how I kept myself entertained growing up. My parents took me to galleries when I was young and encouraged me to draw – I remember my mother bribing me to make a copy of her favourite Roger Hilton painting when I was eight, and my dad taking me sketching in the National Gallery. One of my obsessions was drawing WWII spitfires for a few months after visiting the Imperial War Museum, another was making newspapers for my toy cat. I’ve kept a sketchbook for as long as I can remember, but I hadn’t actually considered pursuing painting seriously until last year, when I began making the time to produce work that I could feel confident about.

AMM: What are the most significant ways in which your work has developed over the course of your studies? When did you begin, for example, visualising the realm and figures that dominate your paintings?

GW: I started using my own body as a reference point for the awkward poses that have developed into the ‘goblin’ characters on my foundation at The Royal Drawing School. After foundation, I studied History of Art at the University of Oxford for three years, and it was only in the last year of my degree that I started painting regularly in my bedroom, alongside my studies. My history of art research continues to inform my painting practice, and vice versa. For example, in my first year, I was researching a group of insanely kitsch 18th century Chelsea ceramic table ornaments shaped like tiny children riding dolphins and seals – I would draw them while I was thinking about an essay, and I think the qualities of humour and bizarreness that these highly-valued objects seem to hold centuries later has really influenced the tone of my work.

AMM: What materials do you use to make your work? Have you found mediums, grounds and tools that resonate particularly well with the content of what you create?

GW: I work primarily in oils, with lots of medium to create a looser brushstroke. I used to only add turpentine to my paint, but a medium preserves the gloss and texture of oil, which I prefer. It’s also important to me that my paintings have a material connection to my local natural environment, so I’ve recently been making my own ink out of oak galls and turmeric and using these inks to layer a coloured ground on top of the primed canvas. My family on both my parents’ sides have always lived in England, so I feel a particular sense of familiarity and belonging in the landscape that I want my work to be materially connected to as well. I want to strengthen this connection to my immediate natural surroundings by collecting minerals and seasonal plants to make pigments. Now, more than ever, artists have a responsibility to think about where their materials come from, and how environmentally sustainable their practice is.

‘Squeezed and squeezed him’, oil on canvas, 30 x 21 cm

AMM: How would you describe the world depicted in your images? Do your works find any allegiance with reality or are they firmly situated in the fantastical?

GW: I’m preoccupied with painting rural England and the history, folklore and ancient magic that is imprinted on the landscape. I’m obsessively reading about the particular stories and rituals of local folk traditions around the country, mainly from West Cornwall where I have spent a lot of my life. The characters that I paint exist in some imaginary part of wild England unoccupied by humans, somewhere between reality and fantasy.

AMM: We’re struck by your frequent portrayals of human figures, particularly female figures, in close bodily proximity to natural environments (forests, night time moors), organic matter (vegetables, soil, fruit, flowers) and animals (birds, foxes, wolves), often ingesting, grappling with or transforming into these other entities. Tell us about the relationship in your work between women and nature.

GW: I’m trying to confuse or destabilise common feminine roles in European fairy tales and mythology in my work. I noticed that women in these stories are often victims of a dangerous natural world, or beautiful nymph-like figures who find affinity and care in nature. Neither of these examples are particularly appealing to me – I want to create feminine-ish figures who are part of nature, competing against other wild creatures for survival. Characters who are closer to animal than human, who gorge on fruit and vegetables, ripping apart the undergrowth, who are clumsy, grumpy and resistant to traditional feminine narratives.

AMM: The awkward yet dynamic, joyous and fluid physicality of your ambiguously gendered ‘goblins’ is so compelling. How do you understand these figures? Is their nudity an important aspect of their being?

GW: The nudity of my ‘goblins’ is important – giving them any sort of clothing would immediately distance them from the wild, natural setting in which they exist. Jen Calleja’s recent text, ‘Goblins’, defines ‘goblin’ as ‘anything that behaves mischievously and in its own best interest, that is bold and all body.’ I want to continue expanding this definition with each picture I paint – my ‘goblins’ are entirely selfish, sulky creatures who express themselves entirely through body language, just as an animal does. I like to think that once I have painted them, they become independent creatures, separate from me, and look out of the canvas at their viewers with disinterest and mild disdain.

‘Blood Moon’, 50.8 x 40 cm, oil on gesso cradled panel

AMM: More specifically, how do notions and constructions of gender figure in your paintings?

GW: I don’t consider my ‘goblins’ to really have any gender, they are closer to child-like creatures. I suppose they look more feminine because it is easier to paint what I’m familiar with, and I have a mirror in my studio to try out poses, so my reflection probably subconsciously affects the anatomy of my ‘goblins’.

AMM: There seems to be a subtle enmeshing of playfulness, humour, uncanniness and discomfort in your work. Can you expand a little on these themes?

GW: My work is strongly influenced by the children’s books read to me when I was young –  books such as Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There (Maurice Sendak), Not Now Bernard (David McKee), and fairy tale collections such as the Brothers Grimm’s Juniper Tree (with amazing illustrations by Maurice Sendak). These children’s stories all encompass a strong sense of the uncanny; they seem even more sinister when reread as an adult, but they are also playful and funny. Where the Wild Things Are begins with the sinister scene of Max, sent to his room without any supper, leaving the comfort of his home for a wild foreign land, but this becomes hilarious and absurd when Max then sends the wild things to bed without their supper. I think more art should be funny, and I hope that viewers can find humour in my silly ‘goblins’.

AMM: Do you think of your pictures as self-contained artworks or as part of larger stories with histories and chronologies? How do you negotiate between the depicted moment and the extended or implied narrative?

GW: Painting is such a unique medium because it pauses time – you stand still and look at a completely still scene, as the seconds go by, and your mind then imagines the movement and sound, imbuing it with life. I think of each of my paintings as simultaneous cameos, part of a larger imagined world of many characters all living at once. When I display my ‘goblin’ pictures, I hang them together interchangeably, almost like a collage that forms a fragmented landscape, at different heights, to give a sense of multiple figures within a wider narrative.

AMM: There is a wonderful kind of luminosity and chromatic exuberance to your painted scenes, even those that take place at night. What roles do colour and light play in your practice?

GW: I paint seasonally, meaning that the quality of light in my paintings, as well as the fruit and vegetables that I paint, are informed by the current season. In the winter months I notice a distinct darkening of my palette – my colours become cooler, with more blues and browns, but they are no less rich than the summertime. I have been reading about Gaia theory recently, which proposes that all living and non-living organisms on the planet are connected, and that Earth semi-consciously regulates our environment to sustain the conditions for life. I want my attention to colour and light to be directly connected to my experience of the changing seasons. And I absolutely love the intense luminosity of Cadmium Lemon, so I use it in every painting.

AMM: Are there any other artists currently working whose practice inspires your own, or with whom you feel you have a creative rapport? Do you see yourself as part of a wider artistic community working in London?

GW: It was only earlier this year that I began to feel part of a wide artistic community in London, after finishing my history of art degree and beginning to meet other artists through studio and exhibition visits. I really admire the work of Lucile Haefflinger, Plum Cloutman and James Owens, and I’ve been having some exciting conversations about future collaborations with Abigail Hampsey who is on the MA with me. The first joint project Abigail and I are planning will be an exhibition of small pictures attached to the lining of two huge coats that we will wear to a park somewhere. I have been really inspired by everyone I have met so far at the Royal College of Art too.

AMM: What kind of things inspire your work beyond visual art, for example literature, film, philosophy? Do you seek inspiration in the everyday or do you have to occupy a particular mental space in order for the goblins to come to you?

GW: I’m thinking about painting and my ‘goblins’ for most of each day: when shopping for vegetables, walking my dog, looking out of the window and more consciously, through reading and research. I often reread random pages from my favourite texts before beginning to paint at the start of the day. Christina Rossetti’s Victorian poem of temptation and salvation, ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) was a huge inspiration when I first started drawing the ‘goblins’. My mother used to read it to me in the bath when I was a child. I was interested in eliding the two groups in the poem into one character: my ‘goblins’ embody both the sister character’s greed and the malicious, hobbling animality of the goblin men.

Two of my favourite books are Daisy Johnson’s ‘Fen’ and Max Porter’s ‘Lanny’ – the way in which these stories entangle ancient folklore with contemporary, everyday life in the English rural landscape is so absorbing to me.

‘The Allotment’, 50 x 40 cm, oil on canvas

AMM: Can you describe your working setup? Are there any conditions which are essential to you being able to create?

GW: My essentials are daylight, lots of vegetables and plants in the studio to paint from, and a huge glass palette. I find it hard to work in silence. I’m currently listening to lots of 1970s country music (including Kenny Rogers) and podcasts (The Botanical Mind, TalkArt and The Great Women Artists).

AMM: Tell us about your venture as co-founder of All Mouth Gallery. How do you envision this project developing?

GW: I co-founded All Mouth Gallery in March 2020 with my partner in crime, Jack Chauncy. During the UK lockdown and closure of all museums and galleries, we were concerned with the fast-paced, distracted condition of viewing artworks on platforms such as Instagram, so we wanted to create an online space that would focus more sustained attention onto emerging artists’ work. Jack and I are currently planning multiple upcoming physical exhibitions that will divert from the traditional ‘white cube’ style of art display, in favour of a more dynamic hang in a cosy space that encourages viewers to stay and look at the art for as long as possible.

AMM: How do you hope that studying for the MA in Painting at the RCA will help to further your creative aspirations? What’s the plan after the MA is complete?

GW: The opportunity to communicate with people from a variety of artistic disciplines at the RCA has encouraged me to think about different approaches to making my work. For example, I’ve started to incorporate fictive prose into my practice, keeping notebooks alongside my sketchbooks to imagine more details about my ‘goblins’. I’m also considering making some models or cut-outs that I could place in a little stage-set, before painting it. My one dream for after the MA would be to have the opportunity to paint a goblin mural somewhere – a troop of life-size goblins on four walls. But more importantly, I just hope to be able to continue to financially sustain my practice, and to carry on painting in ways that are exciting and new to me.

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

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Goodnight Goblin’, 18 x 13 cm, oil on paper


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