Contributed by Jon Lutz / This summer I had the good fortune to do a four-week residency at Villa Lena, an international program located in the hills of Tuscany. A small, well-chosen group of very talented writers, actors, photographers, performers, and visual artists was in residence during my stay. Of these, London-based Scarlett Bowman seemed to present work that was most akin to that emerging from artists’ studios in Greenpoint, Gowanus, and Bushwick. Yet, as I watched her work evolve over the course of the month, I realized that although her paintings may have seemed similar, her approach and attitude towards making them was quite different. She arrived with no preconceived plan and very few art materials, but still managed to fill the empty studio space with dynamic, new canvases by the end of the residency. The following interview, conducted after the residency ended, grew out of a series of impromptu studio visits, lunches, dinners, and late-night art conversations with the group.
Jon Lutz: Talk about your process. What do you do?
Scarlett Bowman: I take inspiration from my immediate surroundings through shape, colour and form to build up a narrative. The process starts on the floor with the selected objects arranged and rearranged until I’m happy with the composition. The objects are then reworked and translated into a painting. Canvas is cut to shape and scale and layered with thick swathes of acrylic paint. These are then hung up to dry before being arranged onto the surface. Once I am satisfied with the composition these various fragments are playfully stitched together in an effort to make them as sculptural as possible.
JL: How has your work progressed in the last 5 years? What have you learned?
SB: The early stages were very minimal and restricted in terms of material use. Now I have expanded those boundaries to incorporate any number of ephemera I find along the way. Using textiles as medium was a large part of my early work. I took the same approach to the wall and floor sculptures using industrially produced materials like latex, removal blankets, ratchet straps, and post mail bags. I’ve learned to be more playful in my approach and not to think too much.
JL: Could you describe the various physical forms your work has evolved through (painting, sculpture, floor, wall etc.)? Are you drawn to some objects and not to others?
SB: When I started I was very much inspired by the post-Minimalist work of the Bauhaus along with artists like Eva Hesse and this lent itself to using materials I was working with in their immediate form. It’s only recently that my approach has changed somewhat. Space has always been integral to the process of making my work, and with that comes gravity. For my MA show I exhibited large tapestries that were hung on the wall but draped onto the floor due to their weight. During my residency at Villa Lena I was incorporating large slabs of discarded marble which were extraordinarily heavy. Thus the only way I could incorporate them was on the floor, which consequently directed the rest of the work to be made and shown on the floor. The paintings were a result of this process. The material directs me as to where it can and can’t go. Going back to the space issue – in London studio space is so restricted in terms of size which often lends itself to working with soft materials, enabling me to fold them up and store them. Urbanization is having a direct impact on work production.
Color too plays a huge part. It’s all part of the appeal. For example, objects like a coffee pot or a fan are very literal objects with very specific uses as opposed to bits of wood which have been cut up with remnants of left over paint. The more ambiguous they are, the more exciting.
JL: How has your back ground in art and acting come into play with the objects and paintings/assemblages?
SB: As far back as I can remember – collage has been my go-to process for making work. If I look back at my A-Level grade photography, textiles and art – it was all assembling parts to make a whole. Even for my written exams from History of Art I would memorize mind maps which looked essentially like tiny collages. I am super dyslexic so this was a way of visually remembering information. The paintings I make now are essentially a way of recording information to make a whole. The hardest part of putting them together is the arrangement – it always takes me the longest as I like them to sit almost awkwardly. For example, if a part fits perfectly in a landscape formation, I will turn it upside down and place it portrait – so it has to squeeze into the gap. It can’t look too perfect as that would not be an accurate reflection on real life or more literally – the placement of how I found the object in the first place.
At school I majored in Art, Photography, Textiles and History of Art. I then went on to study Classics for 3 years at University, after which I graduated and went to work in a big art gallery. After some time working there, I figured that I wanted to be the other side of the desk – making the work not selling it. I wanted to take it seriously, and I enrolled at Slade School of Art, but then I was given the opportunity to join a successful TV show. This wasn’t totally random – my brother who now lives in LA is an actor and had introduced me to various producers. They reached out and offered me an incredible opportunity. Anyway, I took the show and spent the next two years doing it. I had transformed my flat into a studio and actually at the time due to it being a shared flat I couldn’t make a complete mess so I remember making hundreds of paper collages out of magazines and old newspapers. I think I still have them somewhere! But finally, when I quit the show, I enrolled into art school for my MA.
JL: What are your rules?
SB: No rules. When it looks right or feels right then it is right. Intuitive. Less thinking more making.
JL: Who are some artists/thinkers who influenced you? Could you describe an example of how any of these influences could come out in the work?
SB: Phyllida Barlow, Sterling Ruby, Richard Tuttle, Judith Scott, Franz West, Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hesse, Matisse, Arte Povera, Post-Minimalism, Bauhaus. Barlow’s approach to making and thinking through material, Ruby’s multi-disciplinary use of material, colour and form along with his process to draw on everyday life and turn it into art. Tuttle’s wonderfully subtle ability to let the material speak for itself, and Rauschenberg’s incorporation of the ready-made into his life and work.
JL: What did you learn at Villa Lena?
SB: I had no plan as to what I would produce there – I left it to chance and what I would find along the way. I guess I learnt that the items found in different parts of the world would lend themselves to a totally different narrative and aesthetic, like copious slabs of marble – only in Italy! Totally different to the “fragments” I locate in London. I’m interested in discovering the previous life of various objects and materials. I enjoy questioning the history behind their previous use and owner and whether I would be allowed to take them or if their prior owners had not quite finished using them. Objects in London very much lend themselves to a one-time use as there is so much available, whereas Villa Lena being so remote – objects are more “sacred” and get much more use and probably a more varied use over the course of their life span. An inflatable unicorn or pizza float in the pool could be used to teach kids to swim on one weekend and then at a debauched wedding the next! I think the point that interests me is how people incorporate things into their everyday life.
JL: What materials did you bring to Villa Lena?
SB: I made a conscious effort not to bring anything apart from sketch books, paint and canvas. I wanted to feel anxious as to what I would find and how I would develop a body of work out there. Its easy to depend on your usual approach and materials and part of the point for me was to really be inspired by the location. So yeah literally those three items, and a sewing machine.
JL: When / how did you really get rolling at Villa Lena?
SB: I got going pretty quickly. Before I left I was making these paintings out of found materials all stitched together and I think this lent itself very much to the work I ended up making there. I started exploring and being nosy looking in all the workshops and studios from the gardener’s store house to the ceramic and wood barns. I started to collect bits and pieces and bring them back to the studio where I laid them out on the floor as a working collage. I would add to this over the course of the four weeks and gradually began to draw inspiration from these objects. I would draw their shapes and forms and see what I found inspiring. From there I began to play with the scale and shape and cut them out of the canvas before applying large areas of thick acrylic paint. They are bold, colorful and full of texture and shape.
JL: Could you please describe the experience of doing an artists presentation at the residency?
SB: Well, initially I wanted to host a sort of “studio visit” as all the work was out and I thought it more interesting than showing slides on a computer – always better to see something in the flesh. Then I thought actually – let me physically take people through my process so they can playfully engage with the materials in their own way. Touch, see, smell, and create for themselves. Thinking through making. I think if I do this again I will take it one step further and let people source objects themselves. You could make something enormous – think if you had a hundred people, say, and each person is attracted to different objects for their own reasons.
I spent the day before collecting objects from the surrounding area of the Villa, then placed these objects in different places: up a tree, on the floor in another studio, behind the ceramics studio. I then numbered them and wrote all these various places down giving instructions where to find the various ephemera, along with specific instructions on marking the items, like “paint purple spots using only your fingers.” On arrival – people were issued with these instructions and had to become scavengers on a hunt! Once they had found all the fragments they then had to work together to assemble the parts into a whole. This ended up being a sort of totem pole structure including everything from plant pots, a chair, hose pipes, discarded cotton fabric, polystyrene, and swimming pool rings.
JL: How do you feel that your talk/ demonstration went?
SB: It did what I wanted it to achieve – people were left to create something on their own following in similar steps that I follow to make the work, scavenging for objects and materials – looking and selecting, editing, mark making, building – all with their hands. It demonstrated that acquisition of the objects is just as important as the assembling. Everyone enjoyed it and that was also important.
JL: How do you feel that your peers respond to your work?
SB: This past weekend I had two people down to the studio, one totally embedded in “the art world” and one not. I had the new paintings created at Villa Lena up and both visits ended up in discussions about whether or not to include the objects from the source of the inspiration in and amongst the paintings on the floor or collaged onto the wall. An art world person said she felt it unnecessary and to leave it ambiguous/open to interpretation. A non-art world person said they felt it was important to show this process as would help them in understanding it further.
JL: Is there a difference between those in and not in the art world? What are some varied responses?
SB: I think in a way this sums it up and answers the question. Those with a stronger visual understanding require less hand-holding and those not accustomed to contemporary art perhaps need more. For me personally – the more ambiguous and abstract the work, the more I am intrigued, so I think I enjoy leaving it a bit of mystery.
JL: Many people in NY are getting priced out of neighborhoods and studios, working multiple jobs. I am curious if you are seeing any of the same things happening in London? Do you think that is effecting the art being made?
SB: 100% YES. That is why my time spent at Villa Lena was so precious. To be given such a vast studio to work in each and every day for four weeks whilst being surrounded by like-minded creatives was integral to that experience. London like NY is becoming so darn expensive that to be a creative in a city such is, increasingly, incredibly difficult. For example, I have moved studios four times in the past two years due to real estate issues. They make it hard to be a creative and you really have to work hard if that is what you want to do financially in order to pay for your studio costs, materials, and time. I have also recently been given until October in my current studio before I have to move out again. It’s madness (but I’m still here). ###
About the artist: Scarlett Bowman was born in Windsor, UK, and is now based in London. She completed a BA in Classics at Newcastle University before undertaking an MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Her work will be included in “Stuff,” opening Nov. 3, at Lubomirov / Angus-Hughes. Recent exhibitions include “BFAMI 70th Gala,” Christies, London; “Polymer,” Fold gallery, London; “Sunny Side Up!” Rook and Raven, London; “Dysfunctional Alterations,”Balzer Projects, Switzerland; “Rubber Soul,” Soho Revue Gallery, London.
About the interviewer: Jon Lutz is the founder of Daily Operation, an independent curatorial project that organized stunning exhibitions around the New York area from 2005 to 2013. From 2013 to 2016 he directed Sardine, and is now the director at 106 Green in Greenpoint.