Interview with Kirsty Whiten

by JL SchnabelPosted on

UK based artist Kirsty Whiten is a star on the rise, impressing audiences with her photo realistic, large scale drawings and paintings. She has won numerous awards and a residency in Paris for her delicately rendered animal drawings and brightly painted portraits of people within odd circumstances of capture and heroics. Hi-Fructose recently had a chance to catch up with the artist to talk to her about her new work.

Can you describe some of your current inspirations?

I first drew an unconscious monkey to have a look at the vulnerable and pathetic dead body, hoping that it’s closeness to a human would increase the impact, draw people in. When I hit on the addition of the ribbons, flowers and other offerings, it grew into an obsession for a while. I had to take a break after three days solid drawing the shrivelled skin of ‘leg monkey’. I felt like I’d been living in the corpse, it wasn’t healthy. My new work is really personal. It’s been brewing in me for several years now, during which time I’ve had two babies, and been through the raw and brilliant process of forming a family. It has taken me a long time to get to it, and to know what I wanted to describe, but all along I’ve been collecting material from friends and co-mothers and slowly gathering. Now I am beginning a series of post-apocalyptic, naked families in psychedelic woodlands. Of course.

 What is your process like? Do you work on many pieces at once, or one at a time? 

All my work seems to fall into series, I need to explore the idea in multifaceted way. For practical reasons I work on more than one; perhaps something will need time to dry, or I am frustrated and can turn to the next.It does mean that images affect each other, as each evolves it brings something to the forefront. That’s what I love about a series, and naming a run of images to play off one another.

 It appears you alternate between drawings and photo realistic oil paintings. How does this influences your process?

Each of these techniques has a pull for me. With drawing, I can work through ideas and images more quickly, sharply pick out detail and texture, and make very delicate and intimate objects. With my paintings comes a scale – often life-size – which has a physical effect on the viewer, and the paint and varnish surfaces are lush and tactile. It is usually clear to me which of these ways will suit the image I want to make.

You also alternate between portraits of human figures and more recently, portraits of animals. Can you talk about why these subjects interest you?

There is a certain zeal in the way that humans set themselves apart from the rest of nature. To me there is just a continuation, we are animal, we have drives and instincts that always flow just under the surface of civilization.I am really interested in this line drawn between human and beast; language, culture, and tool-making were all once held up as examples of what makes us unique, and have all been shown to exist in other animals.Sometimes my work has examined humans expressing this animalistic part of themselves, and at other times, as with the monkeys, animals are anthropomorphised in order to take a step to the side of a direct idea, like illuminated death.

How do you choose your models? 

They are friends of mine, as a rule. They know my work, and support me. Often the reason I’ve chosen them will help to push the ideas along – say with the couples in Horsebreaker and Hostage, who had very interesting power-play in their relationships, and gave a lot to the poses and stories that came out of their photoshoots.

 What would you consider to be the heart of your work?

Explaining my experience of being human.I’m working my way towards it, driven. I feel I get closer, I distill certain ideas over again, I pick over them, refine, but it is very hard for me to try to put it into words. All of my best images will be views onto it.

I’ve noticed that some of your figures are depicted wearing designer shoes and clothing. How important is popular culture to your work?

It has always been extremely important. For a long time, I found fashion photography to be the most stimulating image making, often full of contemporary sexuality and discomfort, which I also sought to depict. I really strive to make images of people now, and also of something longer lasting and elemental in them.

 Your newer work seems to exude religious symbology, although masked by the unexpected subjects of monkeys, especially in the illuminated state of death seen in many works of saints and martyrs. Is this a conscious influence?

Yes, I think of these monkey relics as Darwinian saints and sacrifices, adorned with the futile beauty of trying to reach across the veil. The ribbons and prayers and beading and reliquaries are all absorbed from various religious scenarios, all foreign to me.Death to me is a state of non-being. All of the hopes and prayers lavished on these monkeys are the desire of the living to create meaning and continuation, just as with religion. I have none, and I am totally intrigued and touched by this need in people. Also, I have often said that my technique, the level of detail and time spent on rendering surfaces has always been a kind of reverence. It shows due consideration of my peculiar subjects.

 What do you imagine the ideal place for your work to be displayed is?

I find this question really hard, it’s interesting. Work often leaves me quite soon after it’s done, and I don’t get to live with the finished object for long. Once I went to visit a painting of mine that had sold four or five years before, in the house of the owner. It was so moving to see it again, simply because it was so intimate, I had touched every part of it’s surface over and over as I painted it, and yet here it hung in a strange place. I loved that. The best place to exhibit would be somewhere people would stumble upon it unexpectedly, that’s when you’re most open.

Editor’s Note: Kirsty Whiten’s works are now available through our friends over at We Occupy.

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