25 Sep Featured: Paintings by Sarah Biggs | Exploring Surreal Landscapes
With a gentle yet definite touch, Sarah Biggs paints surreal landscapes of hazy colour – sometimes dotted with a faint figure or few on a private quest of searching and discovery. At other times they’re left to exist without the presence of life-like forms, and the spaces at once familiar and foreign become the subject. Only a year after graduating from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Biggs stands out as one of South Africa’s emerging contemporary artists whose work is characterized, in part, by highly unusual and often surprising colour choices. Currently, a few of her enchanting paintings are being shown alongside those of Kirsten Lilford in an exhibition at Salon 91 titled Distance. We spoke to her to learn more:
Did you grow up in a creative environment, or one where creativity was actively encouraged?
I was raised in a home filled with art and stories and where imagination and creativity were encouraged and nurtured. I’m lucky to have been taught the value of these things from so early on.
When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist?
I have dreamt of being a painter for a long time.
You studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. What was your experience there like?
I learnt an awful lot. I learnt how to manage my time and how to push myself. I learnt how to analyse and sometimes over-analyse, and how difficult it can be to separate myself from my work. I learnt the value of others’ opinions, but to trust that little voice that knows you best. There were times when I really messed up, and I grew the most from those. I learnt that a sense of humour and a little imagination should always have a place. I learnt that you get out of a situation what you put into it.
Why are you attracted to the medium of painting?
There is something about the material itself – the smell and feel of oil paint; the turpentine scent that clings to my clothes. Paint is tactile and visceral, and never allows you full control; but, on certain days, when you work together in just the right way, something slightly magical, something really satisfying, can occur.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since you first started out?
I struggle a bit with these terms, perhaps because they are historically loaded, but also because I view the process of how I paint as that which characterises the final appearance, rather than a set of principles I subscribe to. I tend to work fairly quickly and ‘thinly’, with forms evolving as much through erasure or absence as through opacity. It is often through removal or not-painting that a figure or form is described, literally highlighting the canvas itself as a point of focus. This is an aesthetic decision, but becomes conceptually relevant, too. The more I paint, the more I consider transparency and luminocity as important as brushstroke or hue.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
Listing influences and inspiration becomes difficult when I find myself as influenced by a memorable line from a book I have read too many times as by a long-distance call with a loved one who is too far away. It is often the unexpected that is most adept at altering how I make and think, but there are a few that I hold close, and return to. Currently, twitchers, Peter Doig, and geologists are pretty high up on the list.
Would you say that you paint quite intuitively, or is there a fair amount of planning involved?
Painting is primarily an intuitive process for me. I often work from images that I seek out or take myself, but these are starting points, and increasingly, are something I put away as the painting takes on its own character. I work fairly quickly, and when a work becomes too laboured, I prefer to turn it upside down and make it into something else. These are sometimes my favourite pieces.
Your colour choice is very interesting and often quite unexpected. What is your approach here?
Sometimes I use colours because they scare me or because I want to understand them better. I almost always work within a limited pallette, mainly because the possibilities are endless, and I find that setting myself restraints works not only as a coping mechanism, but as a self-induced challenge. I have always been slightly nervous of yellow, so have been working with it a lot lately, and I am happy to say we are becoming closer by the day..
How important is the physical space you create in to your process?
Having moved into a new studio this year, I am aware of how influenced I am by my physical environment. The shift into a fresh space has visibly filtered into my work – there is a sense of playfulness and invention that was missing before. It is perhaps not only a question of the physical space, but the personal or ‘peopled’ space, too. Sharing a studio with others is invaluable, and I hold close the insights and interactions I have with those around me.
What themes seem to occur or reoccur in your work?
Although there have been shifts in theme and subject matter within my work over time, the gap between the figurative and the abstract has remained a productive space to work within. I seem to keep coming back to an exploration of the ‘landscape’ – always as a constructed term, but one to be explored in different ways. My most recent paintings take ‘the field’ as a point of origin, shifting the landscape into the realm of science and fieldwork, as something to be measured or researched, but also as a painted surface.
Some of your work is currently being exhibited at Salon91 in a two-part show with Kirsten Lilford. Tell us about these paintings and how they relate to the exhibiton title, Distance.
Anyone who is close to someone involved in environmental research might identify with their repeated references to a place called ‘the field’. It is a term I have become increasingly attuned to. ‘The field’ stands as a place which people in chosen discliplines disappear off to, in search of answers to things I am unable to fully understand. A place for discovering and searching, for measuring and transporting and jotting down notes, this ‘field’ – very tangible for some – exists for me only in stories and anecdotes, in second-hand images and foreign terms. I began to make paintings in response, and the notion of ‘distance’ became increasingly useful. It spoke to my feelings of uncertainty and separation from this space of fieldwork – a place I, in turn, was beginning to make my own through painted visions and projections – but also, quite simply, to the length between two points.
What else are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
My work within this new series of paintings feels far from complete, so I am excited to get back into studio and continue my exploration…