INTERVIEW WITH ALICE IRWIN
Megan Preston Elliott, June 2019
Alice Irwin graduated from Print at the Royal College of Art in 2018 after completing her BA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School in 2016. Irwin has since presented solo exhibitions at 539 Battersea Park Road, London and Bothy Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Recent selected exhibitions include: Model Room, ANAGRA gallery, Tokyo; Trevor Smith Art Programme, London; Facevalue 3, Jealous Gallery, London; RAW: In the making, Newington Gallery, London; and Small is Beautiful, Flowers Cork Street Gallery, London.
The playground is a crucial space in Irwin’s practice, which investigates different memories, social skills, imagination and psychological trauma felt in such sites of activity and social interaction. When I visited Irwin’s East London studio earlier this year, I was confronted by walls plastered with sketches; blank eyes staring out at me, three-fingered hands and a variety of anthropomorphic shapes. At once playful and dark, Irwin uses intricate layers and ambiguous symbols to lure viewers into an endless game of hide and seek. You’re not quite sure what you’re looking for, so it will never be found.
Megan Elliott: Can you talk a bit about your background? As the childhood playground is quite integral in your work, I’d be interested to hear about the games you played as a child?
Alice Irwin: I always enjoyed playtime as a child because it meant I wasn’t in the classroom. I didn’t want to be in there. One of our games was ‘Cheezer Club’, which was a Beanie Baby club where we played imaginary games. We also pretended to be chemists and would sell creams we had made to other children in the playground. My favourite was dock leaf cream. Our shop was under the Assembly hut– we weren’t actually allowed there. All the playground equipment at the school I went to needed imagination. It was often simply drawn on the ground – that’s where I first came across Snakes and Ladders.
ME: How would you describe your experiences at City & Guilds of London Art School & the Royal College of Art? How do you think your work changed and developed on your MA after your BA?
AI: I enjoyed both City & Guilds and the RCA for very different reasons. The first is a very small art school, where there is a lot of one-to-one teaching. I focused on print from the beginning, with most of it being monochrome, although I started introducing colour just before I left. I was interested in the face for most of my time there, but I began to include more abstract shapes towards the end. The RCA is a bigger institution; you have to be a lot more independent, but you are constantly being questioned about your work. You are really pushed to think critically about your work, which is when I began to understand what my practice was about.
Portrait taken by Leia Morrison.
ME: When I visited your studio, the walls were covered in drawings – could you talk a bit more about your drawing process & how that feeds into your work?
AI: Drawing is a very important part of my practice; I draw almost every day. Whether it's a quick doodle or a whole drawing for a new work, I'm always drawing. I find drawing the quickest way to get a thought or idea out. I go through phases of doing all my drawing in a sketchbook and then ripping them out and sticking them on the wall. I never start a work without drawing first.
ME: Where did the three-fingered motif arise from? What does it mean for you & how do you think this motif has developed through repeated use?
AI: I don’t remember exactly when the three-fingered motif first appeared, but it has become increasingly more important to my work and it's always changing to make my audience question it. I am also constantly changing how it appears, whether it is in a larger-scale sculpture or hidden in a complex print. People can relate to the motif, but never really know what it is exactly. For example, it may appear as a balloon, a person, or something else, but it almost always appears in a playful way, whilst raising questions.
Telltale Rumour( monochrome), 2018, etching on Somerset, 20x10cm, edition of 10
Cheeky Dip...Night Room, 2019, etching on Somerset, 10x12cm
ME: Do you see these recurring elements in your work as your own language? It's almost like a code with a different meaning to everyone. It reminds me of the secret languages I came up with as a child with my friends.
AI: The different elements in my work are definitely my own kind of language; my own visual language that I play with and push around. Through repetition and layers this then creates my work. I would say I use the elements as a visual language. As a dyslexic, I have never got on with written language. I guess it is a kind of code. I would say there aren’t many rules to my secret language, you learn it how you like.
ME: Your work seems to seem playful at first glance, but after spending more time with it, it feels like there’s often a darker undercurrent – could you talk a bit more about this?
AI: In my work, there is always an underlying darkness. I like to play with the viewer’s feelings, never allowing them to feel completely comfortable. I feel as though it's a bit like how we all are as humans. You are never too sure what is going to happen next and I want my work to feel like that. An element of surprise is always healthy to include. I'm never sure what feelings the darker element of my works will provoke in the audience. Whether it will surface a memory or an emotion; I want viewers to enjoy the playful and comical elements of my work, whilst being aware of the darker aspects hidden within.
ME: Your work also seems to be able to capture the naivety and innocence of childhood, whilst recognising the psychological impact childhood experience can have on the mind – do you read a lot about child psychology or play?
AI: I find reading very difficult because of my dyslexia, but I really enjoy engaging in discussions with people about these ideas. I talk a lot about play, and I think people underestimate its power and the effect it has on our development. I have recently been talking about liquid modernity, the marshmallow test, and the snowflake generation, all of which I find extremely interesting.
"there aren't many rules to my secret language, you learn it how you like"
Solo exhibition Play on Repeat at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2018, installation view
"I also want my audience to learn from the visual language I give them and imagine something new"
ME: Do you think about the differences in how children might play games now (on a screen, for example) as opposed to when you were growing up? Does this influence your work at all?
AI: Children do still play in the playground and it’s a crucial part of growing up, so scientists say. I want adults to remember their experiences in the playground and revisit them, even if they are dark. The busyness of everyday life can cause us to get caught up in issues such as climate change and technological advances and we forget the importance of playing games. I think the games I used to play outside as a child with my friends sparked my imagination. However, I believe the increase in the use of screens and technology today affects the imaginations of children as they don’t have to interact with each other and make up their own games. I want my work to keep in touch with the play I experienced and spark the imagination of my audience, rather than inhibit it.
ME: Many of the forms you use in your work can be interpreted as multiple references; for example, the three-pronged symbol was immediately a hand to me – however, it could also bring up memories of childhood balloons, forks or even a trident. A lot of them feel anthropomorphic.
AI: The forms I use do have particular meanings and reference specific things, but I make them appear in a way that means my interpretation may not be the same as the other people viewing my work. I want viewers to be able to relate to the work in a way that is personal to them, however that may be. I also want my audience to learn from the visual language I give them and imagine something new.
BR...Telltale Rumour, 2018, etching on Somerset, 20x15cm
Pick and Choose, 2019, screenprint on paper, 30x50cm
Memory Play, 2018, engraved perspex, dimensions variable
Go To Bed: Balloon Swing, 2018, etching on Somerset, 10x15cm, edition of 10
ME: The eye has also become a frequent symbol in your work; could you talk a bit more about this? It sometimes serves to give human traits to otherwise quite abstract forms, but it can also be detached and seems quite empty.
AI: The eye has always been a crucial part of my work, as have the lips, since they are such prominent facial features. Every human has them, and we are subconsciously drawn to look at these specific features. These elements in my work tend to be more figurative. As Shakespeare says, ‘The eyes are the window to the soul.’ For instance, my recent work Need Good, uses the eye repeatedly. It appears as part of a person and also in a different way. The intention is to play on your mind, making figurative associations to other things.
ME: How would you describe the relationship between your etchings, screen prints and sculptures? What conversation is happening between the different mediums?
AI: I find I use the three mediums to help convey my thoughts and conversations to my audience. I’ve always thought of things in terms of printing, even my sculptures. I engrave them, bringing a mind to the plate. The engravings come from my drawings. Some of my sculptures are also made in layers, which is a crucial component of printmaking. It can all appear multidisciplinary, but everything has its basis in print. I’ve always thought of myself as the “deviant printmaker”. My pieces are more like paintings because they’re all one-offs. I don’t tend to do editions; my works are more like series.
"I've always thought of things in terms of printing, even my sculptures. I engrave them, bringing a mind to the plate"
Solo exhibition Play on Repeat at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2018, installation view
ME: What are you working on now?
AI: I always work on lots of things at the same time, otherwise I overwork things. I do work prolifically. Currently, I'm working on a few new series - a screen print that is 2.5 meters long, some smaller etchings and a new ladder, which is exciting. I have been working on drawings for some larger sculptures, but I'm sourcing funding to make these. I’m also working on a few collaborations and shows that will be launching later this year. Next is a group exhibition that opens on 11th July at Flowers Gallery East.
ME: How have you found navigating the art world after several years of being in education? What works for you?
AI: I think I'm still finding what works for me. Like I said, I'm a prolific maker and find it hard to balance what is the right amount of making to do and what is too much. I find the best way for me to work changes every week, and that is what keeps it interesting.
ME: Do you have any advice for recent graduates?
AI: I think the main thing is to keep making work. It can be quite daunting the first few months after graduating, but you just have to keep going and be committed to your work.