“I used to think you could change the world with explosive acts, now I realise you can only change people one at a time.”
We were sat on a red metal bench in a precinct in some provincial town just north of Hull. Flat day, grey but not dark, warm but you still need a jumper. Felicity Black has invited me over to her caravan park retreat for an away day. Or as she calls it “Another bubble.” After extensive time away on self imposed ‘art exile’ she’s back to kick off what she left in the dust over 7 years ago.
Black has a protracted history which wove a tangled path around her artistic practice, a swift rise, slow fall and consequent dismissal of all that had become entangled with her. In 2009 she changed her name by deed poll, a move to both confuse any previous following and remove connection to the history she may have accumulated over the years. She had a pretty stable career after leaving art school in 2001. In these pre-banking crisis years the shows racked up, the money flowed and the networks spread. Everything, as she says, “felt like a reality TV show”. 2004 saw her take part in a group show in an abandoned factory space in Brooklyn with a swathe of emerging and post-emerging artists after a friend from art school who’d moved out to America from the UK a year earlier invited her over to take part. Three years out of art school provided her with a strengthened base of stuff, stock, content…and what preceded was an acceleration into an art world she previously couldn’t have comprehend.
“Sometimes what people forget is that there isn’t an ‘art world’ but ‘art worlds’. I think I was that person for a while who thought it was all one big gloopy mess. Turns out the systems may be connected under sweeping banners, but are entirely disparate and closed. New York made me realise that what was actually happening is people playing within, between and around systems, ‘worlds’ where they’re effectively all attempting to accelerate positioning. Until you find yourself in the upper lakes with only the waterfall as your one route down. Climbing is always thought as the hard bit, but controlling your positioning after a certain point where the perception of ‘you’ becomes deeply embedded is the most difficult task. Your voice, your ideas, your work can become bastardised, utilised for other people’s agendas. There’s no lazy river down if you want to get out. Just a kamikaze ride if you slip.”
In the past Black had always been one who dissuaded conversation for the sake of filling the silence. She was in part more concerned with action and the ability to create her own myth than manufacture narratives to cushion, excuse, apologies for or extrapolate ideas which were not implicit in the production and content itself. This ethos maybe became the crux of her undoing but, as she tells me, was something that was a “necessary structure for dissuading the romanticisation of the creative producer”.
Black’s work took innumerable turns between 2001-2009, always with an engagement in fabricated scenarios or depictions which sampled moments of real life to heighten their impact and allowed them to create moments of curiosity or wonder in the viewer. “I think what I was trying to do, and still am, is to use what was already available, to play with the same factors that create wonder outside of the gallery systems and hopefully alter, focus or maybe even blur how perception in a closed and controlled environment affects this. The work ‘May all your Christmases be….. ‘ was a case in point. There was in effect little alteration from the real life scenario the idea was sampled from.” The work in point was an installation in the function room of a working mens club in Glasgow. The blazingly deep red carpet and equally hot wallpaper provided Black with the base framework which saw over 100 dead and discarded Christmas trees reimagined as an indoor forest, complete with cinematic mist and a singular light source barely spitting out an ounce of luminosity.
Her practice also straddled finely detailed renderings of these moments, a sideline to the more site specific outputs. “Something to keep me ticking over I suppose.” The interest in painterliness, patterning, subtlety, but with equal parts impact became her base activity. Quivering, wavering, ebbing colour sitting beside or behind detailed, immaculately imagined moments. From secondary characters in childhood animated films to hazy portraits. In part these became both distractions from thought and a process of practice, of technical challenges or mastery of some kind of self imposed ritual. Meditative works which in part needed no end point.
And then came the drop off. In 2009 after what she describes as a “dark but enjoyable winter” she decided to put a slow staged end to the game she’s been playing for the last several years. Not only to cut herself off from the art worlds she’d swam in, but to eventually become untraceable. It was a sliding descent out of any contexts…
“So how did the exile come about?”
“In part I hurt the people I cared about and ruined the ones I didn’t. Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends….as the story goes. There was a point where I needed to leave, not really leave a place or a city but a situation that was unravelling around me. And disappearance is the strongest statement anyone can make in other peoples lives. The removal of yourself and your persona from rituals, occasions, actions. Often the removal of oneself is tied up in the dating world. Of flittering between people and leaving a trail of ghostliness behind you. But the point is I left, cut contact, held onto the phone numbers and email addresses of people I cared about but made no mention to anyone. The name change came slightly later, but that was after a slightly miasmatic meandering around and between places. Months of hopping, months of stability. Restructuring your personality and flittering between newness all the time. And even though I was still heavily social in all these environments I began to cherish the loneliness of it. Of not performing to a crowd or acting towards a public. I began to appreciate the notion of being alive without layering a continuos narrative over your life. Without being able to respond to the question: “So what do you do?” so easily and robotically. And as such began to enjoy myself. To enjoy waking up in the morning with a slight notion of hope. Without having to become the person I had created, formulated from thing air and had to maintain. And some of the best parts was being able to say no, to turn down press who were still chasing with the reasoning that ‘I’ve said enough,’ to turn down shows with the reasoning ‘You’ve had your fill,’ and to turn down parties with the notion that they were all becoming mirages of people having a good time. The bountiful lake however, was never there.“
Black shows me a work from 2002 she made just after she graduated from art college a few months previous, a small watercolour, pigment slightly faded, showing an immaculately rendered monument of scaffold. The profile so harshly sculpted it felt razor sharp. It’s intent was to imagine a monument to nothing. The scaffold as a moment of progress to build something anew, but that in the end became more about the line between possibility, danger and emptiness. As Black drags out further works it’s immediately apparent of the broad range of ideas she’s traversed in her practice over the years, in parts it borders on looking so disconnected as to be the practice of a collective of artists. But this sweeping range also holds up as a kind of tour de force of an artist who resisted relentless and definite categorisation in the favour of doing the things she wanted to do for herself and only herself.
“I think often my work was about choreography of space, which can be highly sweeping. Using paint as a dancer within space instead of on it. But also as something to work through ideas, like it was more definite and considered than a quick sketch in pencil or a digital mockup. Painting has been a consistent line in my practice regardless of whether I have been heavily showing it or not. The work can move miles away from it or be indebted to the qualities I love in great paintings. What that is I suppose is taste actualised. I think it also allowed me to reign in theatricality. It’s hard to consistently do theatrical painting, as in where it becomes a bit to broad shouldered, head up, project to the crowd type painting. That made me consider the work exterior to painting more specifically. And to nail down moments which I wanted to replicate or draw on from real life, and smash them into some reverie I’d had or was having. I think to me site specific projects have always been something to ramp up the volume, but also to admit to the high chance of failure, which in a way is the reverse of what the art worlds often want you to do. And I think those moments are actually better made after moments of loneliness, through arduous walks or empty times in shit cafés or on the beach with a 4 pack and the sea’s tide for company or in a car with the radio off on a country lane at 3am or at a club on your own for half an hour before your date arrives. That sounds like I need an emotional background for the things, but in fact it is more concerned with giving yourself a breath in time to the work, and not necessarily in the predetermined spaces or under a prefocused mindset.”
If Black didn’t know what she was trying to do in years gone by, the exile has provided not a time for reflection, but more of a time to refill the tank. You would struggle to keep up as she reels off ideas that have been dancing round her head for too long, ideas that have needed to be dancing round her head for too long to tweak them, re-engineer them, and level them into not just ‘another idea’. Yet the years away have also provided a patience in how she works, and has allowed her to keep looking around in order to better edit her own practice. Although editing is not always the most fun as she tells me. Her upcoming solo show is a time to explode and let these ideas she’s held close for too long out to dance. Maybe it won’t be the solo show of a lifetime, but it will begin to articulate a new pathway for her towards something she can believe in.
“We’re not here for the reason you think. We’re not here to change the landscape. We’re not here to have any impact whatsoever. That we can leave to the rest. The dream chasers and safe betters, the vocalised and valorised. We’re the ‘If we feel it necessary’. And only if. We’ll do it. But after all we’re here for a good time, not a long time.“
On aspiration, and radical vulnerability. Getting drunk with nowhere to go. Felicity Black.
Felicity Black: Radical Vulnerability opens on the 24th September 6-9pm and the show runs until the 23rd October 2016.