Friday 20 April 2012

Boo Ritson on Gaming, Americana and the Sublime

Treetop, 2012

Boo Ritson first gained fame for her unusual portraits, which saw live models covered in paint and then photographed. Her latest show at Poppy Sebire sees a radical new direction for the artist, which shifts the focus from faces to landscapes, specifically the American landscape, and eschews paint for digital collage. She explains the inspiration behind the new works here.

SoD SoA: The new series is very different from your previous work – was this a deliberate change on your part?

BR: I think inevitably, when you’ve worked in a particular way, it becomes time for change. And in working in one way, you close down a lot of opportunities, which have to be reopened at some point. So now is the point I suppose for me to reexamine the way I work, and look at some of the things I’m thinking about and make a significant shift, so that I’m not dealing with similar issues all the time. As any artist knows, that can be very important.

SoD SoA: I imagine, if something has been successful, there’s always a temptation to carry on in a similar vein? And maybe even a bit of pressure to do that?

BR: The pressure is probably internal. I mean, there are external pressures inevitably, but the pressure to make work that you’re proud of, that also people might want to look at, is really difficult. And if you’ve found something that people like to look at, obviously the internal pressure is to carry on. But at the same time that denies a lot of the things that you make work for, so the shift has to happen and those concerns and considerations just have to go, you have to annihilate them.

Kite, 2012

Avatar, 2012

SoD SoA: So how did you start with this series?

BR: There are some essential differences, but there are some similarities with the previous work. My way of looking at that work was that it was about identity, an identity of the face or a person, or what identity might mean, and the way I did that was to create some kind of mask or layer on top of the actual thing that I was painting, in this case people. In between that series and this, for my show in New York, I did a couple of pieces that were called ‘lookie-loos' which is based on an American word for those end-of-the-pier things that we have, the boards that have the faces cut out. I did a couple of background canvases, which I spent a lot of time on – they were photographed, painted and reworked and then printed on canvas. And then I stretched them, and cut a hole in them in the place where the head needed to go, and then we painted the person [to appear in the hole], documented them and reprinted it…it was a hugely convoluted process. But what it enabled me to do was locate that identity in a place. I only made two – in one of them, the head was coming out of a lake at nighttime, she was skinny-dipping, and in the second one she was leaning on a fence in the middle of a prairie. That was brilliant and it answered some of the problems, but it didn’t get away from the faces. So obviously for me the next step was, let’s just talk about the location then, and the identity of a place.

So in creating the new body of work, I wanted it to have it’s own identity, but it also wanted it to be fictional. There’s been a lot of writing about the American dream – it’s a fictional place that I imagine America could look like, or could have looked like, or a place that exists that we haven’t yet found, we haven’t yet ruined: the imaginary fictional utopia. And it’s a journey through that: in essence, it’s fairly allegorical, you’re up high, then you’re down low, then you sit a while in the wilderness, on your own in the dark, then you light a fire. Then you walk on the path and you see on the rocks the snake, so all is not perfect in utopia. Then you arrive at your final destination, which in this case instead of the River Styx, is a canoe on the ocean with a seagull.

It enabled me to bring in some of those things I love about literature, some of those references, and also things to do with the sublime and our relationship to landscape, the perfect landscape.

Foothills, 2012

Path, 2012

SoD SoA: If it’s not about reality, did you actually go to the States and do that trip, or would have been too literal?

BR: Absolutely right, I certainly didn’t go, and made it an absolute policy not to go. All of this was Chesham, end of the Met line on the West, it’s where I live. All of the photographs, the collaged elements, were either made here or photographed here. There are a couple of shots from my trips to Cornwall, because I love going to Cornwall, and I needed the rocks. Apart from that no, it’s a very English-centric view of utopia but making a utopia that takes the language from the wide open spaces that we associate with America.

SoD SoA: In some of your painted people portraits there were images of Americana – does this relate to those?

BR: Absolutely, there’s something about American cultural output, or the notion of America, whether it’s in literature or film, and the video games that come out of there, there’s something about that that we all return to. Even though we comment and pass judgement in lots of ways, there’s something about America – for example, the road trip – that seems to make people dream. I keep looking back at literature that talks about an older America: I’m very clear that this fictional place has no people in it. There are no people to displace, it’s empty. That’s really important I think, for me: for any utopia to be unpeopled in the beginning. That’s for me the primary indicator of a utopia, that it’s empty.

Librarian, 2009. Photograph: Andy Crawford

Trucker, 2009. Photograph: Andy Crawford

SoD SoA: That’s a familiar feeling for many people: the search for that emptiness.

BR: Yes, where are the last undiscovered places on this earth? I think they’re all populated. Utopia for me had to be empty. There is an avatar in the space, based on the X-box avatar, a gaming reference. I’ve been lost in gaming worlds, I love them. I feel that there’s a lot of beauty to be found in them.

SoD SoA: I can see the influence of that in the work, in the flatness of some of the landscapes. Was that something you wanted to bring in?

BR: It was, partly because you are lost in that world, there’s that first person sense that you look at it and it’s empty, it’s just you. And in a lot of these games you don’t have to kill people, you can wander around aimlessly looking at trees. I’m not massively into shooter games. Also the other thing that’s important about them is the way they’re constructed – when you walk into them, sometimes they’ve constructed them badly, so there are flat planes that jiggle up and down when you walk around. The landscape reforms itself, which is fascinating, I think. The guys that make these places are really good, and they’ve leant a lot to our culture, a lot.

SoD SoA: That’s not really acknowledged is it?

BR: I don’t think it’s ever acknowledged. There are the great disciplines of art and then there’s 3D stuff, and that’s for other people. I just can’t agree with that. I think these worlds are amazing and life would be a little less rich without them.

SoD SoA: How did you actually make the images?

BR: They’re collages, made in the traditional way. But using Photoshop, I didn’t use any 3D programmes to create anything, so any of the leaves that you see that are built from scratch are built from flat textures and then moulded and painted and lit, and then reworked and scaled and warped in order to get them to fit in the right place. So there are sections of photographs, there are bits of objects added in… I work at speed still, even though the speed of these is far slower than any of the paintings. I like to assemble a lot of things, in many, many different layers – up to 200 layers in Photoshop, and then start having relationships between things. At the end of that process, there’s some over-painting, in Photoshop, of shadows and things like that using different brushes with different weights to them and so on. So using that language of painting, but just using digital media to achieve it. I couldn’t achieve those things in paint.

Fire, 2012

SoD SoA: There are some sculptural works here too, and the mixture of sculpture, painting and photography was important in your previous series. Do you feel the need to define yourself as a painter or a sculptor or does that not really matter?

BR: No – I got asked a lot of questions about painting before and you counteract that by talking about sculpture, but I really don’t define myself in any particular way except anything’s up for grabs, all materials or all processes. But there normally ends up being some kind of sculptural element. These two pieces on the floor, I was really excited to be able to make them because it’s been a long time since I left my MA in sculpture at the Royal College, I’ve been missing it. So just being able to make them… they’re kind of two-and-a-half D, they’re semi-flat, semi-in the round. As usual, I haven’t managed to achieve in any of my sculptures a 360 view, so there’s a front and a back. But maybe that’s what I deal with, the fronts and the backs of things.

With the rock piece, I really like the idea of introducing a narrative in sculpture, a story, because sculptures so often don’t have that – for me, they don’t have that. Approaching the rock from the front, you see nothing, you come round the back and the snake’s already seen you – it had already seen you and you didn’t know it… I like that sense that we’re walking round a landscape and at any moment we could be five feet from the biggest spider in our dreams and we wouldn’t know it. I like that, because landscape, although it’s empty, it holds so many things.

Rock, 2012

Rock, 2012

SoD SoA: Is it nice not to have the pressure of working live in the way you did with the painted portraits?

BR: That was insanely pressurized, because of the costs involved. It’s got to go right, because redoing it means it’s even more calamitous. But when I say I work quickly on these, I mean a few months… But quickly in terms of putting all the information in at the beginning but having the ability to revisit them in the studio which I couldn’t do before: once you’ve made a painted person, they’ve gone into the shower, you can’t say ‘come back, I just want to have another look’. They’ve gone, it’s gone, it was there for the moment, and documented as such. Now it has the ability to be better than it was.

Ocean, 2012. All images courtesy of the artist and Poppy Sebire

SoD SoA: Is the fictional landscape you refer to based on books that you’ve read?

BR: Yeah, my first degree was English and I studied the gothics – Ann Radcliffe being the beginning of that. Those landscapes, which she didn’t visit, she formed them by looking at Italian landscape painting by Claude Lorrain and people like that. And Burke’s Treatise – A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which had little subtitles, little paragraphs – Of Light, Of Darkness, Of Beauty, Of Terror, Of Night. He kind of described the perfect conditions for feeling the sublime in any landscape at any time, by the way that it was constructed. So that was very relevant – in the Foothills piece, for example, I’m thinking about those things. I’m not just thinking, this is a place at night-time, I’m thinking how do I make this more present? So that was very important. And The Great Gatsby – the final bit… ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’. I like that: that was relevant, a lot, obviously in my final piece.

Boo Ritson: On The Way To The Ocean is on show at Poppy Sebire gallery in London until May 5. More info is at

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