|night drive, Deborah Burnstone, oil on paper, 16x12", 2008|
|junction, Deborah Burnstone, oil & acrylic on canvas, 30x40", 2008|
|freeway, Deborah Burnstone, oil & acrylic on canvas, 36x48 ins, 2009|
|nightfall A279, Deborah Burnstone, oil & acrylic on canvas, 102 x 76cm, 2010|
Over the last few weeks, I have been having a continuing email dialogue with London based artist Deborah Burnstone. It's been really interesting to hear about Deborah's interest in the anonymous urban, suburban and rural sites that she works with, to create her paintings. Deborah's work has such a resonance for me; its that sense of unidentified human intervention in the landscape, which we so often take for granted. That between space, that we tend to overlook on the way from our car to the service station, or between the airport and our chosen destination.
The French Anthropologist Marc Augé, describes sites such as hotel rooms, airports, supermarkets and motorways as non-places. As in Deborah's paintings these places could be anywhere, yet have a nowhere quality to them, emptied of the human body, so common place and lacking in identity.
Do look out for Deborah's work at Inside Out, an exhibition of new paintings at West Eleven Gallery in Notting Hill Gate, from Tuesday 22 March - Saturday 27th March, the opening is on Wednesday 23 March from 6-9 pm., why not get along there and meet Deborah to find out more about her work.
Ann: Hi everyone I am interviewing artist Deborah Burnstone, to find out more about her paintings concerning roads. Deborah trained at Goldsmiths, and more recently started painting after an earlier interest in film-making and sculptural installation.
Ann: Hi Deborah what led you to painting, and the subject area of suburbia and urban roads in particular?
Deborah: Hi Ann, I started painting gradually after I left Goldsmiths. I made the commitment to concentrate on painting when I decided I needed to limit the parameters of my practice. I painted mostly abstract work for a time - it was a good way to become familiar with paint. Eventually I became frustrated with working from no reference material which is when I began to paint roads.
Ann: What made you want to limit the parameters of your practice; so many contemporary artists tend to be led by ideas more than the medium they work in? When I left art school and even before I left, I worked mainly with performance because it meant I didn’t have to buy lots of materials and then this type of practice became central to my work.
Deborah: Well I had always secretly wanted to paint, but at art school we were all discouraged from doing so – there was a sense that painting was a tired old-hat medium. After college I got a studio for a while and I thought: ‘Wow have studio, will paint.’ However I didn’t really know that much about painting and for quite a while was a bit lost and casting around really. I continued to shoot video and super 8 film but got completely stuck on a project – a film of people standing by water’s edge.
Later, quite frankly I focused on painting for pragmatic reasons. I had small children and was really limited geographically. I could no longer go wandering around estuaries and beaches or drive up and down roads at dusk and had to limit my art practice to specific times and places. Funnily enough, though, this didn’t in any way seem like a curtailment of freedom – having the chance to do a day’s painting a week (which is what I did when my older son was a toddler and later when my younger son was a baby) was a huge freedom for me – probably what kept me sane. I have found that the reduced parameters are quite liberating because with painting you focus your thinking and imagination on a relatively small area. I also have been finding increasingly that I am returning to many of my old pre-painting concerns and that there are links with many of my earlier ideas, which is quite heartening. Sometimes when you change media it’s hard to see a connection and you feel that perhaps you were a fraud all along. It’s nice to see that you are still being yourself even in a new medium!
Deborah: The subject matter is connected to my earlier practice when I was a student and in the year or two afterwards. I became very interested in light and dark and often used to film at night. For my degree show I made among other things an installation of paper boats painted in luminous paint that were installed in a dark room and momentarily lit up before fading back to darkness. Later on I filmed the Westway at dusk with a video camera attached to the car window. As you drive up onto the flyover the sky and the lights of the cars and buildings are magical. I have also filmed the movement of boats from the deck and from the shore and made a film called The Man in the Hawaiian Shirt about looking and boat journeys, which also featured cars passing on a road as the light fades.
The idea to paint suburbia came out of an exploration of the idea of series and collections. I liked the idea of suburban houses as objects that are more or less the same but which gradually over the years take on the individual stamp of their occupants: the flowers, plants, extensions, new doors. All the things we choose to express our taste and personalities.
The motorways and empty roads evoke loss, transience, the metaphors are very rich. For some strange reason I delight in their banality and yet find them glamorous. Sure that's an oxymoron...? Banal glamour!
Ann: How do you choose which site to paint, how do you find your images to work with, do you go out on field trips?
Deborah: I get a lot of my material from the internet. The pictures I choose from the internet tend to be images / views that are familiar to me from journeys I have made myself. They have a generic quality about them - we have all passed by these stretches of roads at one time or another. I do go on field trips - I particularly like the A13 and the area around Woolwich and the old docks as you get aeroplanes and the river thrown into the equation. Heaven! I also like those scenes in films or TV programmes when the characters or action is moving from one place to another and they are shown driving along a road.
Ann: Following on from this question Deborah, could you name any movies or TV programmes that have informed your work and that readers might find interesting? I guess you are referring to road movies which go back to such films as Easy Rider? It’s interesting because these movies are often quite narrative driven, where does narrative fit for you?
Deborah: I once saw a Wonderland and loved the scenes of council estates at night; I’m also thinking of all those American cop shows where driving along the highway is used as a transition between scenes or to tell the viewer where the next scene is taking place. I like the fact that these scenes are used to keep the narrative itself glued together. In some respects the scenes I paint are like a part of a film that has got separated from the narrative. We actually don’t know what came before and what will happen afterwards
Ann: Your work on roads seems to be trying to capture a moving moment in a still painting. You mention on your website Deborah that you often work from still images, can you talk about how you work?
Deborah: It's pretty straightforward really. I work from photos or print outs and literally sketch out my image onto canvas. In some of the pictures colour becomes a paramount concern and in some the pictures become greatly simplified. I like texture, which is why I often combine acrylic and oil paint in one painting.
Ann: That's interesting that you refer to colour Deborah, because roads bring up a picture in one's head of greyness. But that's perhaps the surface only, as Richard Mabey has pointed out in his book The Unofficial Countryside, roads and motorways are habitats, for animals and plants, born out of human need. Also I noticed in your night paintings of roads you focus on the dazzle of lights, which have a sort of fractured impact, as if you are half closing your eyes and looking into a light.
Deborah: They are grey aren’t they? But there’s always all sorts of other stuff that the grey sets off – fields, pylons, wind turbines, lone trees or clusters of trees, distant hills. I would really like to read the Unofficial Countryside. I love those parts of the roads between roads, which are like tiny areas of countryside, nature taking back its land - for example there’s a great little strip of nature between the M4 and the M40 close to Heathrow.
Ann: What is your interest in roads? There is something in your work about an erasure of time and any many identifying symbols, everything seems pared down?
Deborah: Goodness where do I start?! Thinking about the pictures I am painting at the moment - roads and motorways at night in which the car lights play a prominent role - these pictures seem to evoke that feeling of observing the world in your own head, a solitude you could say. There is something anonymous about these roads but yet something general and common to all of us. The cars are containers of people. There is always a sense of motion, passing through, unexpected and yet familiar and repetitious in roads. Yes I do have a tendency to simplify stuff, pare it down.
Ann: I like your comment on the "feeling of observing the world in your own head, a solitude you could say" can you say a little more about that? When I mentioned about your style of paring things down is that a conscious decision, just wondering how much we do as artists is conscious and how much intuitive or unconscious when we let go of the ego?
Deborah: I wish I could pare down even more! The only thing I know is that when you get too fussy in a piece of work it all starts to unravel. I remember once I was on a yoga holiday in Turkey and told some people I was going to try and visit all these tourist sights. This German guy said to me: ‘Less is more Deborah, less is more.’ I always say this to myself when I get in a muddle with a painting. I do think that when you’re on the move – in a train or even in a car you are in a funny unusual state: you’re dislocated from things and are able to watch and think in a different way. You have to give up moving and stop and watch and just let thoughts come in and out of your mind. Perhaps it’s a bit like meditation, which I’ve never had the discipline to practice.
Ann: There is something about the expanse and distance of roads and yet about the way you work in a way that almost brings nostalgia to the image.
Deborah: Yes I know what you mean - there is a sense of distance, detachment and perhaps of longing, of trying to grasp a passing moment in time.
Ann: Yes I know what you mean Deborah, always beyond reach. I was wondering as I look more at the work, that perhaps you are exploring a sort of dream like in-between space in your work? In addition I was thinking that the cars remind me a little of dinky cars, you know those cars you buy in little boxes, I used to play with them as a child, perhaps that where the sense of nostalgia arose for me?
Deborah: Yes I think there’s something in that. It is about in between-ness. The bit that isn’t part of the story but yet is the story. It’s quite detached but actually it encapsulates everything too. And yes I love toys – I’m not even sure I could paint stuff realistically. I always admire draughtsmen and women and painters who have a dexterity, which makes their work, look super real but at the same time it can sometimes look quite soulless – you can’t reach beneath the super-glossy surface. I saw a great piece of work the other day while trawling around on the web Dave Monaghan. This guy’s work is made using old toy cars.
Ann: I notice there is no interest in the human form in your work, there is anonymity, can you tell me about this?
Deborah: A painter friend recently suggested I try introducing people into the picture. At the moment I have no plans to. The absence of people I hope nevertheless evokes thoughts of a human presence. The car lights are transitory - each passing car denotes a loss, a mystery, an unknown story but a familiar one. I was once quite obsessed with memorials - candles lit to commemorate the dead and Buddhist lanterns and I think these images recall that preoccupation though not intentionally. Funnily enough I would like to make another film which will feature people...
Ann: The removal of people creates a powerful poignant sense of absence; I like that. The film sounds interesting Deborah, I look forward to seeing that.
Deborah: I’ll keep you posted Ann!
Ann: Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment and where we might be able to see your work in the future?
Deborah: I'm working on a series of small paintings of night-time scenes snatched from cars. I would like to make another film soon. I'll be showing the paintings at the West Eleven gallery in Blenheim Crescent London W11, 22-27 March.
Ann: Does West Eleven Gallery have a website, and can anyone interested in the work come along?
Deborah: They do but don’t think it’s up to date. We’re going to do a facebook page and I’ll attach a link.
It may change once I’ve figured out more advanced facebooking!
Ann: Finally, Deborah I wanted to ask you a slightly different question concerning the creative process? I know you have children and a busy life, how do you manage to carve out time for your creative practice and what makes it important in your life, sorry a big question! I am interested in forms of creativity and wondered about your thoughts on this?
Deborah: Good question! I am lucky – I have some time. Never enough but at least I have some. I don’t have to work full time – I just do bits and pieces of editing and writing from home – so I’m very lucky. And our house is very messy! Now both my sons are at school I manage a few hours a day at least 3 or 4 days a week. Someone picks them up from school a couple of days so I get 2 fullish days a week. I am horrible when I don’t get a chance to paint. My other half can usually tell if I’m not painting due to school holidays or domestic duties!
Do contact me if you are interested in an interview or want to comment on Deborah's work. I am very happy to have an ongoing dialogue with any artists or anyone interested in sites and overlooked between spaces.