OUTRAGE, SADNESS, ISOLATION, DISGUST -
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN ARTISTS
BENJAMIN MURPHY AND RHIANNON SALISBURY
Benjamin Murphy, September 2019
Rhiannon Salisbury is an artist whose work sits somewhere between degradation and deification, often subverting images of airbrushed models from advertisements through the haptic process of applying paint to canvas. Her work appears chaotic, but behind this entropy sits a well-considered exploration of both the psychology of how advertising hijacks our brains, and the theory of how art can affect us in a similar way.
She was the winner of the Delphian Open Call, as well as being my personal ‘Judges Pick’, and I am very privileged to be co-curating her upcoming solo show Habitual Submission at Delphian Gallery - opening on the 26th of September.
Rhiannon Salisbury in her studio. Courtesy of Delphian Gallery
“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” - Guy Debord
Benjamin Murphy: What is it that drives you to paint?
Rhiannon Salisbury: I’ve had a strong impulse for mark making since childhood, when I would always be doodling away. The physical process of creating materially has become part of who I am and how I function. I’ve always found that painting is a way to help with thought processing. When I don’t paint, my head becomes incredibly chaotic and muddy. Apart from an actual need to paint to keep myself sane, I am also driven to paint by a desire to communicate and express myself. I feel paintings are a tool for sharing experiences.
I am in awe of the historical importance and cultural significance that painting holds. It is a mind blowing dialogue of images that spans the time human existence. I aspire to engage with this dialogue and it makes me feel connected to something essential in the human condition.
BM: That’s interesting, for me it’s the same with the intense need to create, but I have no real impulse to communicate anything in particular. What is it that you are communicating?
RS: Frustration, outrage, sadness, isolation, disgust. Beauty. Chaos. The Uncanny. To be honest, what I am communicating is different for every painting or each body of work, and as I get older my opinions change - the constant within all my art is that content is always emotional. Or driven by an emotional impulse towards an idea or feeling that is manifested through the work.
For Habitual Submission, I am exploring the problems that exist within the framework of female representation in the mass-media. The idealised and unrealistic versions of femininity and beauty, that are constantly communicated to us as consumers through the use of advertising, is what I am trying to deconstruct. I am trying to explore the all-too-familiar tropes presented as the 'perfect woman', and to reassert some kind of human emotion into the void.
"when I don't paint, my head becomes incredibly chaotic and muddy"
Rhiannon Salisbury, Left: Scarlet Crush, Right: Back of an Uber.
Courtesy of the Artist & Delphian Gallery
"I am obsessed with the 'in-between'. I am trying to uncover a surface beneath a surface."
BM: How are you deconstructing and re-presenting these images?
RS: I try to play with them primarily. I keep my attitude towards the making of the paintings as light as possible, to counterbalance a heavier and more sinister message. I think the work is most effective when it has a hint of humour in its mix. I reinterpret the composition through drawing, deciding which bits I will highlight, and what information I want to loose from the source material. I think about what stands out to me in the initial image, and try to heighten its impact through the process of the painting. In doing this I am refocusing the viewers’ attention on the aspect of the advertisement I have chosen to exaggerate, i.e the blankness of the woman's expression vs the desire for the handbag she is wearing.
BM: So your work sits somewhere in between satire and subversion?
RS: In between satire and subversion yes. In between abstraction and figuration. In between alluring and repulsive, in between beautiful and grotesque. In between structure and chaos. I am obsessed with the 'in-between'. I am trying to uncover a surface beneath a surface. I’m playing with borders and boundaries consistently throughout my painterly practice. You know when you have a dream and you didn’t realise it was a dream? That happens to me too often; it can take me many years to distinguish memories from dreams, and this is a recurrent theme in my life, so I love exploring a slightly hallucinatory space in the paintings too.
But back to sitting in between satire and subversion, the current work intends to subvert messages thrown up through advertising, whilst satirising the political and social state of society that fuels the content of the messages - which are omnipresent.
BM: So in these works, what are you doing to the models by your distortion of them?
RS: I am imbuing them with an unsettling sense of disquiet. I am removing the airbrushed mask of perfection and replacing it with something more messy and more human. I’m seeking to reveal an emotion that the viewer can engage with and empathise with, rather than aspire to emulate or feel inferior to. The goal of adverts is to fuel a machine that is always ongoing and therefore never fully attainable; the images that sell the products present a vision that is always slightly out of reach for the consumer, and to fuel the idea that there will always be more products we need to buy to attain this dream or ideal. I’m trying to take the models out of this unreachable place and put them into the realm of daily experience.
Rhiannon Salisbury, Swine Time. Courtesy of the Artist & Delphian Gallery
Rhiannon Salisbury, Faded Belle. Courtesy of the Artist & Delphian Gallery
BM: So do you think that the people in these glossy adverts are people we should empathise with as individuals, or is it a more universal empathy that is directed at humankind in general?
RS: I guess it is a more universal form of empathy I am seeking out. When I was growing up my aunt used to own a fashion boutique in Cardiff and the target-market was teenage girls and young women. As a teenager I was always trying on the clothes before she decided what to stock, and on weekends we would often go on buying expeditions. I was constantly being handed fashion magazines to look through. From this point in time I would sketch from the magazines and the models would always look more relatable to me in the drawings.
It is not that I think we should empathise with the women in the adverts necessarily but that we should realise that the representation of these women is somewhat fake. The adverts are actually already disfiguring and altering the bodies and skin of the models to create an ideal version of what women should be, and I am re-altering it again when I paint; it is a reclamation of the subject. Fashion imagery is boring and monotonous to me, it is glossy and superficial, I see my tackling of the subject as a mini-rebellion, or a way to take the women out of one world and bring them into my world.
BM: Do you think artists have a responsibility to try and change societal paradigms in this way?
RS: No I don’t believe artists have a responsibility to do this. If all artists tried to do this the art produced would be far less varied and interesting than it is. Artists should be like sponges soaking in what’s around them them squeezing it out through the lens of their own experiences. My work is political because I am uneasy with the way I have experienced gender based inequality. I am reflecting the things which have moulded me. Art gives me a way to vocalise my feelings and this is what I choose to engage with. But artists should be free to choose what they make work about, it’s an entirely subjective pursuit.
BM: So in terms of Habitual Submission, how have the works of thinkers like Guy Debord and Charlotte Perkins Gilman influenced the work?
RS: In terms of the show, I have used the writing of these authors to help give a voice to the way I feel about the work I have made. The Yellow Wallpaper by Gilman charts the mental breakdown of a woman brought about through repressive constraints of a patriarchal society. We are informed about her deteriorating state of mind in a highly visual and psychedelic analogy of her descriptions of the wallpaper in the room she inhabits. The evocative descriptions of the wallpaper are at once hallucinatory and revealing, and I felt like the story was the perfect parallel for what I am trying to express through the paintings.
Rhiannon Salisbury, Elizabeth. Courtesy of the Artist & Delphian Gallery
I have been using Instagram, and the adverts of luxury brands as source-material for my paintings. In Debord’s writing I believe we have a perfect description of the effects Instagram has upon its users. Even though his writing predates social media, I believe the way he discusses the ‘image” as spectacle and its importance is even more topical today than at the time of writing. I am interested in how the adverts affect our relationship with ourselves and others. I will leave you with my favourite quote from the text below:
“The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.”