(Above: Songs of Dumb Beasts: Fox’ Picnic, 100 x 100 cm)
Elizabeth Grant is one of the most exciting artists to appear on the scene in recent years. This 2006 graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design got off to a very strong start as a finalist in the RBC Canadian Painting Competition (2007), a participant in the Marion McCain Atlantic Art Exhibition at the Beaverbrook Gallery (2007) and with a successful solo exhibition at the Peter Buckland Gallery, also in 2007. Following this string of successes she was off to Berlin, where she maintained a successful studio practice for five years. In 2012–13 Elizabeth relocated to Glasgow, Scotland, where she completed her Masters level degree at the Glasgow School of Art.
Now she is back home in Saint John with work from both her Berlin and Glasgow series’. This week I talked to Elizabeth about her experiences in both Berlin and Glasgow, and asked her to comment on how these two important artistic communities have impacted upon her art.
Peter: Since completing your first Fine Art degree at NSCAD, you have strayed rather far from Atlantic Canada with your art, spending almost five years in Berlin. Do you feel that your experience there had an effect on your studio practice, and subsequently upon the nature of your work?
Elizabeth: Yes definitely. An artistic process is like a filter, processesing a person’s experiences, opinions, convictions, etc. I changed the ‘input’ into my filter radically, in part to see what kind of ‘output’ that would create.
Over the last 15 years or so there has been a school of work being made called the ‘New Leipzig School’—with the artist Neo Rauch being among the most prominent artists working in this style. I began looking at his work and the work of other German artists, such as Uwe Henneken, associated with a movement sometimes called the ‘New German Romanticism’. These artists’ dramatic use of colour and scale in representational imagery was hugely influential to me. No one is working in a vacuum, and it helps if you are in conscious dialogue with your references. I have images of their work on my studio wall.
(Above: image of Neo Rauch painting)
(Above: image of Uwe Henneken painting)
Shortly before going to Germany I was a visiting student at the University of Toronto, completing my art history requirements for my BFA. There, I took a course on 17th Century Dutch art, and it was a great revelation to me—seeding an interest in interiors and the depiction of animals. When I moved to Berlin a year later it was natural to take full advantage of the city’s fantastic museums, with collections of work including many Dutch still life and genre paintings, as well as (related) Spanish vanitas works.
I am also an amateur student of Russian history, and so the residual Russian influence that remains in Berlin captivates me. Getting to know the city, these traces were most evident in the architecture initially, and so I began photographing parts of the city and incorporating imagery sourced online into collages that became the paintings ‘The General Order of Anxiety’.
(Above: The General Order of Anxiety: Love, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 140.5 cm)
(Above: The General Order of Anxiety: Escape, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 210 cm, SOLD)
I also began the series of drawings ‘Fair is Fowl and Fowl is Fair’—a series of Russian historical drawings featuring chickens.
(Above: Poulet de Putin/ Bok Bok on Red Square, ink, 35.5 x 28 cm)
(Above: Trotsky the Chicken in Exile in Mexico with Diego Rivera the Rooster and Frieda Kahlo the Turkey, ink, 35.5 x 28 cm)
Peter: I am fascinated with your use of animals throughout. I see three paintings that centre on the fox.
Elizabeth: The three paintings ‘Mocking The Fox’ came about as an extension of the bird paintings, ‘I’ll Sing At Your Funeral If You’ll Sing At Mine’, which I will discuss shortly. Then you will see the connection. I was interested in continuing to produce some simpler, more spontaneous images, but wanted to change things up. You could think of these pieces as being the other side of the story: now we see the one who (may have) killed the bird. In keeping with the theme of anthropomorphisation, the fox is tormented by the ghosts of those he has killed. The birds were done using a four-colour separation screen print, giving them a different appearance to the fox—which is only natural, because these are after all, spirits.
(Above: Mocking the Fox I, acrylic with screen print on canvas, 90 x 60 cm)
Peter: In 2012 you moved from Berlin to Glasgow, Scotland in order to pursue another degree in Fine Art at a college considered to be one of the best internationally. Did you find within this new environment conditions that once again impacted on your practice?
Elizabeth: Definitely. In the UK I have been struck more by particular social practices than sweeping periods of history. The class system still determines much about a person’s life there, and (the myriad negative impacts of that fact aside) some of the persistent manifestations of that can be quite interesting to an outsider. For instance, while hunting here in Canada is considered a rough and tumble kind of pursuit that is—if anything—probably more common among middle and lower-middle classes (à la ‘Duck Dynasty’), there it’s a posh sport—camouflage and orange vests versus tweed and Barbour jackets. I guess this observation has lead me to reflect on the complex relationship people have developed to the animals with which we share a habitat. In particular, the question of what sort of context makes an animal noble versus profane? The ‘Songs of Dumb Beasts’ paintings, begun in Scotland imagine how it might look if animals interacted with some of these conventions, and began even to emulate them. Anthropomorphization is something many of us (myself included) are tempted to do, despite the fact that it’s mostly fantasy. In the ‘Songs of Dumb Beasts’ paintings, I extend this fantasy to project complex human emotions and desires onto animals—it’s almost the inversion of ‘The General Order of Anxiety’ paintings, where the animals reflected my own feeling of being placed in an animal state due to panic attacks and anxiety.
(Above: Songs of Dumb Beasts: The Kiss, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 70 cm)
(Above: Songs of Dumb Beasts: Dinner at Christchurch, acrylic, 100 x 70 cm SOLD)
Peter: You have now returned home to Saint John, bringing with you artwork from different series’, and work that was created both in Berlin and in Glasgow. In the exhibition that will open here on March 14, we will include work from these various bodies of work. What are your thoughts about the inclusion of work that would seem quite different from one another?
Elizabeth: I suppose that I view these as different conversations on the same topic. The paintings ‘I’ll Sing At Your Funeral If You’ll Sing At Mine’ are inspired in part by my interest in Dutch still life paintings—many of which feature dead birds brought back from a hunt. Once again, I am interested in the boundaries and conventions that make painting a pair of dead partridges on a wooden table with a lobster, a partially-peeled lemon, and a silver goblet a pleasant reflection on wealth and country life circa 1640 –whereas a small, dead songbird depicted alone is just death.
(Above: I’ll Sing at Your Funeral if You’ll Sing at Mine I, acrylic, 80 x 120.5 cm)
There is something beautiful about all of these birds—the ones that were shot on an estate, and the ones that were killed by your cat. I suppose in some ways these paintings are a simple attempt to repatriate the roadkill and the cat’s trophy back to the realm of high art, rather than accepting that they are profane detritus.
(Above: I’ll Sing at Your Funeral if You’ll Sing at Mine VIII, acrylic, 80 x 120.5 cm)
Stylistically, I am inclined towards complex compositions, and these paintings were also conceived as a personal challenge to have a simplified painting outlet, and to make paintings more spontaneously, rather than spending months on a single composition. In terms of my studio practice at the Glasgow School of Art, this was something that I was encouraged to do, because the things you are put in touch with by working in one way, can inform the work you make when using a different approach. You create a dialogue between the two bodies of work.
This exhibition of paintings opens at Peter Buckland Gallery on Friday, March 14, 5 – 7 pm.