Letter From London: Nature Morte

To my left are various exercise weights and elasticated stretch cords. These on top of three transparent storage boxes. As the artist visits her parents a hundred miles to the west, I am seeing all this while standing by the heavy door to her empty white-walled studio. She knows I am writing about it by the way. Inside the boxes are notebooks, containing other observations. I can see an accompanying Polaroid photograph. It is of the artist with our daughter. Our daughter is on her lap and the picture was taken when she was a mere two weeks old. (She looks remarkably at peace with the world.) We are not really a house of photographs — memory seems enshrined in the work more —which is probably why this image feels so potent.

The artist understands that I see this place as a symbol of creativity but is probably less tinselly about it, seeing it more as a simple place of work. She has a point. But I’ve been privileged to visit many studios on both sides of the Atlantic, including Francis Bacon’s on Reece Mews here in London, and none were so vigorous — or admittedly close to home — as this.

Presently, it is strange peering in without the presence of its usual kernel of energy — the artist herself. It is like your favorite novel with the plot ripped out, though strangely still packed with energy and intrigue.

The artist doesn’t really like things on the wall. There is nothing in any of the other rooms down here. The only thing she can cope with is out of necessity — and that is her latest work-in-progress. This is no act of pomp on her part. It is really far closer to need. The artist has always been like this, just as she has always been consistent. It would likely pain her to have what she considers superfluous imagery around the place. Upstairs, however, where the kids record their music, the walls are more dressed.

In the bottom storage box, identifiable through the strong transparent plastic, are lots of envelopes and even larger notebooks. I can even see my father-in-law‘s distinctive handwriting in there. This is on a package I know containing printed images of some of the artist’s earlier pieces, her father being such a great archivist of her work, indeed of all eight children and grandchildren. On the studio floor meanwhile are the latest works. The treasure. The metaphorical gold. Nor is it there on the floor, perish the thought, to be stepped on — that would be like bad luck. All this work is inside two protective sheaths of thick brown cardboard, the artist’s name and address taped on top, as this was the packaging in which the heavy good-quality paper came in.

Like many creative people, the artist knows chaos well, though only harmony and momentum are truly welcome in this room. Take those dozen mentioned brand new pieces inside the thick strong cardboard on the floor. They are in a holding pattern awaiting exhibition following the completion of further works in the same ilk. Until then, they remain parked like precious manuscripts in a freshly constructed library, representing some of the artist’s bravest work to date. I also admire the fact these larger pieces came out of an entirely original series of up to 1000 smaller images done during the pandemic. Which is to say, one image per day, as I say each unique, shown daily on social media, with lots and lots of people following their evolution, like therapy, at a time when their own lives were so up in the air, and, to be frank, none of us really knew what was going on.

I stand up straight and take a few deep breaths. I am well aware of the fact some people struggle to understand the importance of art. I feel lucky not to have this affliction. It is also fair to say people are struggling generally right now as the world blisters with war. But this does not diminish the significance of art. Far from it. Surrender art and we surrender freedom. With precisely that in mind, my eyes travel to the artist’s chair and her bright red cushion, as red as any lipstick. The chair faces the latest work on the wall, a piece with the power already to lift one into its zone. It is approximately 5 feet high by 4 feet wide. While some of the artist’s previous work was even larger, with each piece taking several months, these new works are even more exacting. It is work not dissimilar to that from the pandemic, but consciously more abstract, passionate, and unexpected. The extreme detail, if such a thing is possible, is actually part of its freedom. I also accept it strange to write about art that you cannot see by an artist I do not name.

The artist likes paper precisely because it is fragile. You can easily make mistakes with paper. It is like vulnerability and power in one room. A single rip, or tear, and a work of art can be destroyed. Misplaced paint or ink and you are conceivably doomed. Turning to my right now, I look at some of the aforementioned older figurative pieces leaning against the wall. One of them is only in blue and essentially a rendition, or interpretation, of a vast and leafy entwinement of branches, that originated on a small Mediterranean island. It includes our children — representing all children — leaning against a tree. We do not see them immediately as they are lost in the overall blueness of the piece but we do find them in the end, standing there: accepting. There are only a few other works, most having already found good homes during the artist’s last major exhibition. The artist of course is really only interested in her latest work.

Not everything in the studio is art-oriented. There is a rack of clothes. On it hangs a large blue overcoat, one lighter blue, some clothes by Weekday, some carefully covered ones by Agnes b, two raincoats, a pinstripe women’s jacket, two men’s jackets, jumpers, colorful shirts, anoraks for extreme weather conditions. On the table nearby are approximately 60 upright pots of acrylic inks — any color from sap green to Indian yellow to permanent red to cerulean blue to fluorescent yellow. (The list goes on.) There are a number of plastic take-out containers that the artist now uses to mix paint. It is like a factory shop floor. This is where the union of one holds its meetings.

Just as art is considered by some to be war’s most forthright witness — look at the work of Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash — so is the artist describable as an enemy of war. Like many women, she is crystal clear on non-violence. Her new work can be passionate, fierce, troubled, at times embattled, but the studio itself commands peace. I move in this spirit towards the large wide window overlooking the busy London street, until standing by the large black metal sideboard. Because it is metal, it is cold. It is also sharp-edged and seemingly unfriendly, even as a loyal repository of goods. On top of this sideboard with an image problem are yet more notebooks. There is some make-up, an old black mask from the pandemic, plenty more paint-mixing vessels, cookie tins, heel balm, and notes on how to get started with TRX. There is a Maria Lassnig biography translated by Jeff Crowder. There is ‘Paradais’ by Fernanda Melchor, published by local success story Fitzcarraldo Editions, who also publish the celebrated likes of ‘SURRENDER’ by Joanna Pocock, as well as Jon Fosse and Annie Ernaux. Next to this is a daily — unused — planner and ‘The Creative Act’ by Rick Rubin, which I notice the artist recommending on a regular basis to other artists. There is a shiny copy of Vogue. There is also Akala’s ‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’.

True artists are like islands. Nor do they seek to rule. When they do, they know they look ridiculous. I can understand perfectly that some people will struggle to understand why an artist has no choice but to do their work. But this really is so. This studio for me testifies to this fact.

Finally, to my right, is the glass-fronted sideboard containing artist books on Anselm Kiefer, Lubana Himid, Van Gogh, the artist’s own book, Stanley Spencer, Louise Bourgeois, John Currin. One or two novels, including Doris Lessing’s ‘The Golden Notebook’, ‘Andy Pandy’s tea party’ from the artist’s childhood. There is ‘Men Who Hate Women’ by Laura Bates, ‘Forty-One False Starts’ by Janet Malcolm, Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’. A postcard of Lee Krasner. Looking at all this, I bow to all committed artists.

Peter Bach lives in London.