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Walking a tightrope: abstracting emotion in painting 

– an interview with Lee Simmonds

Lee Simmonds lives and works in London. He received his BFA with First-Class Honours from the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in 2019. His works have been featured in numerous exhibitions, including ‘Young Black British Artists from London Galleries’, W1 Curates, London, UK (2021); 'All the Days and Nights', Kristin Hjellegjerde, London, UK, (2020); ‘Ruskin Degree Shows, Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, UK (2019); ‘Cass Art Festival’, OXO Tower Wharf, London, UK (2017); ‘Royal Society of Portrait Painters’, Mall Galleries, London (2016); 'BP Portrait Awards, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (2016), among others.  

"I’m interested in deconstructing what I believe makes a painting ‘work', and starting to focus more on the opposite: the minutiae of storytelling and narrative."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years?

I began copying a lot of other painters work when I was studying for my GCSEs. That, along with the encouragement and inspiration I got from my art teachers at the time was motivation to work harder and learn the techniques of oil paint which I eventually become obsessed with. After school, I would say the journey became about unteaching myself a lot of what I had learnt through engaging with the fundamental concepts of what constitutes a work of art. This was a time of exploring texture, colour and surface in their most pure forms. By the time I was in third year at university I started to put these different elements together and reintroduced some of the technique. And then since university I have slowly been learning the fundamentals and more advanced drawing techniques to develop the complexity that I loved when I first started to engage with oil paint - only now the imagery can all come from my imagination.

While your work is figurative, you have previously said that your process is akin to an abstract painter. Could you expand on this?

Previously I relied on a strict methodology through which I could resolve these very complex paintings. Whilst they might look simple, certainly in the early days I found it a massive struggle to find a way to visually bring the image together so it could work as a ‘painting.’ By focusing on the abstract wholeness of the image I was able to achieve a balance so as to not get too caught up in the minutiae of storytelling. However, I’m presently embarking on a body of work that is exploring the malleability of ‘abstract wholeness.’ I’m interested in deconstructing what I believe makes a painting ‘work', and starting to focus more on the opposite: the minutiae of storytelling and narrative.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, ‘The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.’’ Does that statement resonate with you and your recent body of work?

Yes absolutely! So much so I’m going to steal that quote and use it in future! Growing up I always felt as though I had to be connected to a sense of the infinite because I could easily feel claustrophobic growing up in an environment that I felt disconnected from. Therefore I took any and every chance to scuba dive into the deep recesses of my imagination in order to feel connected with an infinite sense of potential. The amount of novels and plays I’ve started since I was young and never finished is testament to this - however 99% of the time I have been able to finish a painting.

Currently the act of making paintings is less about the need to escape a sense of claustrophobia. Now I have the tools and techniques to visually express my imagination, my practice has become more of a vessel through which I can process my personal development as I learn more about myself and the wider world. Therefore, if I were to focus my attention on the specificity of a reference image, the process of making becomes representative of the external, rather than the internal.

Can you tell us about ‘Slingshot in Viridian and Cerulean’? What is the genesis of this work? Outside of painting, you have been involved in theatre in the past. Does this interest influence your approach to painting? 

It’s interesting to me that this is the choice of painting we eventually decided on for the print. I say this because it is the only composition thus far that I have attempted for the second time. The first iteration was simply titled ‘Untitled (slingshot)’ and was exhibited in a group show last year. Then, when making work for my first solo show in London I wanted to push myself to achieve more 3-dimensionality by cherry picking three compositions to paint with a very limited colour palette. One was red and pink, another apricot and purple and finally, one in viridian and cerulean. I remember thinking I wanted to explore the guy leaning on the chest of drawers to be looking towards the victim about to get shot with the slingshot, however in the first iteration he was looking away, unaware of the drama about to ensue.

So yes, in regards to the second part of the question, theatre, drama and storytelling are all major facets of my visual artistic practice as well. Sometimes I feel like a bit of an ‘anti-artist’ because I often feel my drive to make work comes more from the theatrical and emotional potential than the visual! Just like for slingshot in viridian and cerulean, whilst the name suggests a focus on the colour and therefore the visual, the actual motivation behind revising the composition was because I was too intrigued by the theatrical potential of changing the line of sight of the central character.

Lee Simmonds, Slingshot in Viridian and Cerulean, 2021

View work

Lighthouse, 2020 

Balloons in Red and Pink, 2020 

The characters depicted in your paintings often have their faces obscured to the viewer. Is there a meaning behind the act of concealment?

The visual and theatrical do oscillate and contradict each other during the process of painting. Just as I have somewhat contradicted myself in this interview by saying I like to have a focus on the abstract but feel motivated by the theatrical. Sometimes I will be labouring over a facial expression or element of body language in a character because for example it feels ‘too obvious’ and like I’m preaching to or spoon feeding the viewer. So then I engage in something I find fascinating and would like to write an essay on one day: the process of abstracting emotion. Through this process I engage in a fascinating balancing act or ‘tightrope walk’ as Barry Shwabsky coined it for the White cube show he curated in 2015, whereby the emotional content and clarity is negotiated with the visual structure of the painting. It’s interesting that there are cultural traditions of linking a colour to an emotion because emotion and expression in a painting holds a physical space, thus behaving as a colour might. So by concealing a figure it may be done to balance the physical space or the emotional space. Or both.

What does a typical day at your studio look like?

This is always changing if I’m honest. Every time I start a new batch of paintings my practice has changed in some way or another, because I have changed, meaning the daily routine finds itself through what the paintings require on that occasion. Currently, as a result of my interest in more complex drawing, I dedicate the longer evenings we currently have to do a lot of the planning and drawing elements of the painting, focusing on the more painterly aspects when there’s daylight.

During the act of painting, it can be a very methodical or very sporadic and spontaneous approach to the canvas depending on how brave I feel that day. Usually each painting starts with a decent amount of time ‘in the dark’ but then eventually a break through day or couple of days occurs - when I can see or ‘hear’ what kind of language the piece wants to be talking, and then it’s simply a case of listening to it and following through.

I like to play a mixture of podcasts and music throughout the day, usually starting with the news in the morning and devolving to singing along and dancing to my embarrassing playlists by evening.

Big Nose Horseplay, 2021

Schtum, 2020

What or who inspires you?

I’m inspired by artists of any medium that find freedom as a result of their technical fluency. To me that is the dream, because as the saying goes, you know how to break the rules once you’ve learnt them. So anyone who’s put in the hours to achieve mastery I’m inspired by, because I can see how much fun they can have.

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

I will never forget the first time I saw this painting, because it was the first time I realised the potential of theatre in painting. It was on a school trip and the piece was and is: 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' by Paul Delaroche. I’d need a bloody big house but I’d take it and hang it with pride. It’s one of those very rare things that I can sit in front of for a prolonged period of time and not get bored. It is basically cinema anyway, so that makes sense. Not only is the dramatic tension of the scene so exquisite, but the textures and lighting are so richly described in a way that also heightens and compliments the drama. I think the moment I realised it’s utter genius was looking at the contrast between the two figures on opposite sides of Jane. One the right side we have the fairly indifferent executioner who’s there to chop off a head and get paid, and on the right we have what must be a close companion of Lady Jane’s who is slumped against a pillar utterly distraught by the upcoming event. Not only is it great painting, it’s great casting, directing, lighting, design the list goes on. And that straw. Go to the national gallery and look at the dynamism of that straw.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a lot of paintings for some shows next year. The body of work I’m creating at the minute is exploring the ‘impasse.’ The content and form of the pieces explore what it feels like to have one’s mind opened up to greater potential creatively and personally. It’s requiring a lot more drawing and planning and geometry so it has been frustrating at times but I’m interested to see how long it will last and whether the paintings still hold a strong level of emotional honesty.