On the occasion of her solo show at Kevin Kavanagh in Dublin, Diana Copperwhite, born in Dublin in 1969, had the following conversation with Irish artist Helen O’Leary. They discuss Ireland’s literary and visual traditions, the importance of scale, optics, and how technology has taken hold in Copperwhite’s work. “Painting is so physical but has the potential to do something very different to other media,” she tells O’Leary. “Aspects of technology are almost hypnotic and trance-like and this creates a space in my paintings that gives rise to what you might consider the psychedelic.”
[Image at top: Diana Copperwhite, Human Architecture, 2015, oil on canvas, 91 x 87 cm]
How do you survive as a artist painter growing up on an island; how important is the local and the international support system and acknowledgement?
Growing up in rural Ireland I looked at art books, album covers, television, and they created an impression in my head of things that were always brighter and more illuminated in my head than they were when I eventually got to see them in reality.
How do your cultural roots inform your practice?
I grew up in rural Ireland with its constantly changing weather and encroaching urbanity. This gave rise to a kind of grey low-light vision as if I was looking at the world through a visor. On a minor note I was fascinated by the extreme weather of other areas of the world. I remember visits to the national art gallery in Dublin and looking closely at the surface of paintings realizing that they were fragile and made by the human hand, and not as I thought, made by some mythical mechanical being.
How is it growing up in country with such a strong literary tradition, how do you compete with and not be muted by it?
Ireland’s literary tradition is so strong that being a painter, I was resigned early on to the role of spectator. It’s interesting how the written word almost prevents the true expression of form, or so it seems sometimes, then at others times it seems as if the weight of meaning of the written word can reactivate a stagnant thought. I feel my work hovers in-between autonomous form and literary form. I see my work as visual sentences so I suppose in that sense, it helps me deal with the almost overpowering literary tradition that I come from.
What is the visual history in Ireland ?
The Irish visual history its hard to completely define. Ireland is not somewhere with a strong visual history. So much was neglected or was redeveloped in a slipshod way loosing its potential in the process. As a child I first became aware of the Irish art of Yeats, Lavery, Osbourne and Sarah Purser; they were my first touchstones alongside Georgian Limerick and the new wave of bungalow bliss of my seventies childhood that created a new rural vista and are all part of my visual history.
Scale; why such a large scale? What informs that scale?
I love the large scale of paintings, they make me feel like a director of my own movie. Its also a way of creating forms that release and contract, so different languages can co exist in the one space. I create chaos and then tidy it all up again, but I don’t just work on a large scale. Its more about how one piece reacts with another creating a conversation so they all become part of a system. I see the small ones as punctuation in a sentence but the sentence is visual, sonic and to some degree graphic.
The psychedelic in your work; what informs the colour, the trippiness of it?
I set out to make flat paintings, but the structure keeps coming back in, insisting on carving out a reliable place. In this reliability the colour reemerges to dominate and creates free flowing forms that for me are the unseen world, which relies on lenses to become apparent. Visually, I think back to album covers and book covers that expanded my thoughts. I’ve always been fascinated by colour and fascinated by how images look when they are put through different processes like scanning, and the effects of technology. I take photos on my phone and iPad and look at them over and over again looking for a thought entry point, things that stick in my the corner of my consciousness in an almost psychedelic way. I’m not a child of the 60s, but at the same time TV programs that touched on the 60s were interesting – this seemed to contrast with me growing up in a rather drab grey 70s and 80s Ireland. But I’m also very interested in optics and the eye, how the eye works and is aware of what is potentially there, that you can’t see in your present circumstance.
What interests you in relation to the visuality of painting in the digital era?
Painting is so physical but has the potential to do something very different to other media. To go back to the psychedelic I think that aspects of technology are almost hypnotic and trance-like and this creates a space in my paintings that gives rise to what you might consider the psychedelic.
Is the subversion of closure am important element in your work?
Yes I think it is as I see the paintings as interrelated; forming a dialogue between them is important. When I am working, the ability to keep it open ended makes for some of my better decisions as I don’t finalize my actions. I let it flow and allow the rhythm to find its own end point. Of course this has all sorts of other implications for the content as well. The work is both about the history of its own making and a mirror of a particular time and space in the world.
What are the paradoxes in your work or in the practice of painting?
Paintings ability to solidify a thought or capture the transient to make possible the mentally impossible and yet do nothing other then self reference its own making. I think about what I think the paintings can’t do and then try to do it. For me the content in my head and the painting seem to lack a real tangible connection but it exists all the same.
“Diana Copperwhite: A Million and One Things Under the Sun,” Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, Dublin, Ireland. Through April 25, 2015.
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