To skin a cat: In conversation with Sophie Vallance Cantor

Sushi cat, three-eyed cat, ghost cats, tiger cat, black cat, ginger cat, striped, spotted, yellow, pink, red and blue cats. Cat’s in ruffled collars, cats in seashells, cats as steeds, cat-lions. Cats of all kinds are the perennial visual motif in Sophie Vallance Cantor’s art. She is fascinated and attracted to the classic illusiveness of this creature, their inherent mysteriousness. Sophie likens this to the process of painting itself, saying that “with painting there is a mysterious magic that is possible to tap into, but can’t always be explained.”

Sophie is an artist who’s come of age on Instagram. Her paintings are anxious and irreverent, cocky and self-referential, stylised and defiant, whimsical and edgy. They’re both, and; fraught with the wonderful contradictions of youth. Amid her move from Berlin to Glasgow, we caught up with Sophie to speak about cities, anxiety, daily painting practise and of course, cats.

AMM: Hi Sophie! Your Instagram bio reads “Berlin/London/Glasgow”. How does location and your environment influence you creatively?

SV: Hi! Berlin was the first interesting example of location being so influential on me creatively, it was actually my struggle of being in the city and the isolation I felt within it that created the perfect environment for me to focus on just making paintings. As me and my husband prepare to move to Glasgow in the next few weeks it is with a little trepidation as well as excitement of what feelings the new city will bring to our practices. I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere at this point, I don’t identify closely with any institution I’ve studied at, or feel defined by my location, but I use the term Berlin/London/Glasgow because I’ll keep working, showing and collaborating between the three cities!

AMM: As a young artist, how has Instagram helped and perhaps hindered you?

SV: For me it has been a great help in many aspects – in a personal way, before taking into account the potential visibility it gave me to show my work, I find it really helpful as a tool to release work into the world and therefore somehow make it real. When I was a bit younger I had the tendency to hold onto the idea of showing my work when it was perfect or when I felt bulletproof, but in order to grow as an artist, you have to make some shit work, and then move on from it. By posting an image of a piece of work it allows me to consider it done, and then look forward. Many of the opportunities I’ve got in the past year or so have come from being seen and contacted through Instagram, and that visibility is priceless, and incredibly powerful to take back agency over yourself as an artist.

AMM: In previous interviews you’ve spoken about struggling with anxiety. Do you explore this theme in your paintings? What are some of the ideas you’re currently preoccupied with in your work?

SV: As well as exploring anxiety in the subject matter of my work, I feel it is also explicitly tangled in the very act of making paintings in my practise. It is a physical act that allows me to be completely present, rather than distracted thinking about the past or the future. There’s a definite vulnerability in anxiety, but by having the courage to make paintings about it I often find I work through the feeling to see it clearer, and to transform it.

AMM: In what ways does your art express your own emotional and psychological state of being?

SV: I think that my navigation of my own state of being is like an ebb and flow, that moves and changes, and I think of my practise as an artist in exactly the same way. Often looking back at paintings I made some time ago, I can see them clearer than the time in which I made them, it’s amazing how charged with a meaning or feeling they can be, that I wasn’t even aware of before, and how they make sense only in retrospect. Always moving forward within the practise is vital for me, I would rather not make art at all than make repetitive or formulaic work, that isn’t searching for growth.

AMM: Can you tell us a little about your style of painting and how this has evolved over time? What are some of the influences that have informed your work stylistically?

SV: The style of my paintings dramatically changed after leaving education, finally I felt this freedom to express the truth of who I was rather than be stylistically moulded by the educational environment. When this change was taking place I was sad, and angry in my own life, and I wanted to tell the world that. As time has gone on, and as my life changes I think it is reflected in the style of the paintings, I also think if you want your language to be honest you have to let it happen – be attentive to the outside world, and soak up influences, but still, let it happen, don’t try to force it. I collect images and references from absolutely everywhere, and often the artists that mean the most to me probably don’t make work that looks like mine, but a few of my favourite painters have definitely left an impression on my visual language – Rose Wylie, John Finneran, David Shrigley, Grace Weaver and Dickon Drury.

AMM: A lot of your paintings feature cats, often quite ferocious ones. Please tell us a little about the subject matter in your work.

Cats have become the fundamental symbol within my paintings, their identity within the paintings is fluid and they can move from being the ultimate protector to being the manifestation of anxiety itself, they have become a vessel for more complex human emotions and a catharsis for dealing with them. Cats themselves will always be mysterious, and for me this is paralleled in the practise of painting itself, I always feel with painting there is a mysterious magic that is possible to tap into, but can’t always be explained, something I haven’t found with other mediums. It’s interesting that you see them as ferocious, because I don’t think I see them that way, maybe because I think of them as on my side, fighting alongside me rather than against me.

AMM: Do you generally plan your compositions out before starting on a canvas or allow the painting to evolve as you go along? What is your process of working?

SV: I usually start with some kind of idea in my head, possibly a small scribbly drawing on a piece of paper, but painting is all about decision making and problem solving, and feeling your way through that, so often the painting will turn out different than I expected it would. If it’s not feeling right I would rather paint over it completely and go a different way, than cling to something that isn’t working. I’m not precious with paintings, because they always turn out better if I just trust my gut.

AMM: What are you listening to, watching and reading right now?

SV: I’ve been listening to ‘Have You Heard George’s Podcast’ by George the Poet, Invisibilia Podcast, ‘Praise the Lord’ by ASAP Rocky and Skepta, ‘The Essence’ by Giggs, ‘Five Minutes’ by Her, and ‘Come Meh Way’ by Sudan Archives. I’m watching ‘Still Game’ and ‘The Great British Bake-Off’. I just read ‘How to be Human’ by Ruby Wax.

AMM: What keeps you awake at night and why?

SV: The future and the past, and overthinking dramatically and unnecessarily over things that may never even happen.

AMM: What is it like living with your art 24/7? How does this influence or affect the work process?

SV: It’s amazing to be able to just strike when the iron is hot, and paint without planning, but living in the space with the work can get challenging, it can be hard to be struggling with yourself and your work and have a constant visual reminder that you’re not doing anything about it, but on the flipside of that, to be able to be surrounded by the life you’ve worked so hard to create for yourself can be such a motivation to continue.

AMM: Please tell us about the thinking behind the collaborative project Herus that you’re involved in. How did the idea for this come about, and where do you see it going in the near future?

SV: Me and my husband Douglas wanted to create a show together where we could have complete agency over how we showed our work without the need for endorsement from any kind of institution, as artists we wanted the control back in our hands. We don’t want the project to be tied to any specific space, location, or format, but rather see it as something fluid that could take many different collaborative forms with many different artists in the future.

AMM: You’ve recently participated in a group show in Italy. What’s next for you?

SV: Right now me and my husband are preparing to leave Berlin after almost three years to move to Glasgow, so that is taking up a lot of life right now. Once we’re all moved I can’t wait to be making paintings in a new location and a new context. I’m also excited about having easier access to London for collaborating and showing work. Next summer I’ll be partaking in the NARS Foundation Residency in New York City.

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Text and interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

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