I first properly got to know Tom De Freston and his art when I hosted a poetry reading at his studio, part of the creative hub that is the Magdalen Road Studios in Oxford. It was like walking into a glorious guignol version of hell, a compendium of the grandest iconographers Dali, Bosch, Goya, Matisse, Picasso, garishly coloured the hue of eviscerated genitalia by Jeff Koons. His work is all modern surfaces and timeless subject matter, a heady, medieval-didactic mix that gives the spaces that strain to contain his canvases a cathedral like quality. These are spaces that become porous to an afterlife of both spiritual torment and the seething, inescapable dissolution of the flesh.
How fitting that De Freston’s latest project, to be staged at The Globe from 4 November- 20 December, is a response to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream – plays in which hallucination and madness act as similar portals to free the messy, complex viscera of the human soul from the prison of conventionality. The exhibition is a response “to the Shakespearean presentation of humanity as a ‘poor forked animal’.” Many of the pieces seem to freeze the moment of decision. They are full of motion, stopped rather than still, waiting for us to press the play button. But it is never clear what will happen when we do hit play. This is motion that could fly off in any direction – it is up to us to construct whatever narrative we choose, informed of course by Shakespeare, but also having some of the author’s most enduring questions – what is it that we do when we act? What forces conspire to determine the outcome? Are we pawns of fate or victims of our own hubris and lust? – act themselves out in our reflections. Those crucial dilemmas about what makes us human are made real for us through De Freston’s art.
As someone whose writing is overshadowed in every way by art, it is always fascinating to speak to artists, but in particular an artist working so closely from a written starting point
- Often, as in pictures like “The Catch” we can’t tell whether a figure is caught in the act of rising or falling. How did you go about creating the sense of ambiguity in these pieces?
I have always been interested in the falling figure, or more broadly the sense of a form shifting across a canvas. There is passage in Professor Stephen Bann’s book on Delaroche which talks about how we achieve this in painting. He talks about repetitive structural devices in the history of painting, with the Deposition and Annunciation being archetypal forms. In the later the composition tends to landscape, with the staging split into two distinct halves, left and right. On the left we have the arriving figure delivering a message to the figure on the right. In the former the images tend to be portrait, with two distinct halves, bottom and top. The central figure is then positioned to give the sense of the narrative and symbolic shift from top to bottom, talking of the literal fall and the figurative fall from life to death. This same format is then used and inverted for images such as transfigurations and the Assumption of the Virgin, with the placing of the body across the central divide focused on giving a sense of a dramatic shift from bottom to top, of the actual rise and the shift from flesh to spirit.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule and variants, but it is incredible how such compositional devices underpin such a vast majority of images, using these Christian compositional strategies for new ends. I am interested in both but particularly in the fall, or the tension between the rise and fall. In the figure like the catch the character gives a heavy nod to Capa’s falling solider, dropping backwards into the picture plane, but here the dynamic is not just across and back, but inevitably down, as he sits carefully positioned on both the horizontal and vertical axis, as if attempting to play with both the devices mentioned above, but also a third of the space through the picture plane. The exact positioning in images like this is key, because placing a figure exactly on an axis will tend to create a static image, like many crucifixions. This can be obviously desirable. If a figure shifts too far across an axis all tension can be lost and the figure can be lost in no man’s land, with no tension on its play with the axis and clearly not located fundamentally in one half of the image or the other. If the balance is right then the sense of a figure’s shift can be very powerful, offering either a subtle shift in one direction or a very dramatic one.
I think this is something painting, or any still flat image, can does very well. It is the tension of a stilled moment, of the moment in flux. Actual action can’t take place, of course, but a sense of a moment permanently held between two states, as if the desire for a shift from something to something else is constantly happening. I think these devices can be used in an especially interesting way when the imagined space of the picture (let’s call it the architectural space) is at odds with the compositional devices described about. So for instance- a number of the paintings I have done of figures in beds or baths are seen from above. The image will be composed with the figure positioned carefully across the imagined line splitting the vertical plane into two. As such all the structures desired above, giving a tension or a sense of a figure falling, are used, even though in narrative terms the figure is clearly not falling, so a contradiction can be set up between the opposing state of their position in the imagined three dimensional space and the placing across the surface. I think this makes more sense when explained in front of one of the images.
2.This is a very coherent collection. Did it feel surprisingly easy or fiendishly hard to distill the plays you were looking at?
I always seem to work on bodies of works which draw from a central source and look to come together as a coherent collection, but that tendency has become more focused. I consciously made all the paintings from the series (about thirty) 2m x 1.5 metres. The aim was for each to be autonomous but to also function as a part in the whole, as if each image is a fragment of a narrative, a scene from an unknown play, all piecing together to construct a world. This means certain characters (the horse headed figures being the chief protagonists) form a cast which repeats itself, or perhaps rather than repeats keep reforming itself in shifting guises. Stage sets, chess boards, Penrose tiled lights, a filter of Cyan blue and sock and boxers are amongst the recurring iconography, as if there is an attempt to form relationships with symbols which become familiar while remaining strange.
3. Much of your work is big, and this is no exception. To what extent did you feel aware of engaging with the art of set creation? Do you think set creation is fundamentally different from art designed to be seen on its own?
Linked to this project I was also collaborating with Max Barton who was devising of a play based on Gustav Meyrink’s ‘The Golem’. Amongst other things I took on the role of Artistic Director of design, with an aim of the world of the play having a feel connected to the world of the paintings I had made.
Outside of this very practical consideration the works are very clearly staged, as if the whole world is a piece of theatre, an acting out of something. I borrow techniques from theatre. I will get others, or myself, to perform roles or develop poses which I will then document through photography. These images are then the basis for a series of drawings. I will then often cut out the drawings and make small cardboard stage sets, on which I will play about with various possibilities. These sets and figures are then photographed and drawn from. I will then also use collage and Photoshop to further experiment with a range of figures, poses, settings and props. As such I see many of the improvisations I use to develop ideas as more akin to those used by a Director.
I do think a painting and a set are fundamentally different. The painting, or the group of paintings, are the theatre, they contain the full world. A stage set is a far more practical thing, it needs to serve the purposes of the script, the action and the actors. More broadly the difference between paintings (or certainly my paintings) and theatre, is that one is the product of an individual and the other is fundamentally collaborative. Whilst I use collaboration as an essential tool in my work it is always to feed an end which I am in total control of. Theatre is not like this.
4. Would you say that freezing these key points in characters’ journeys is an attempt to capture moments of decision, or moments of indecision?
Painting is naturally ambiguous. It is not narrative in that it can only point at a before and after and never offer it up. This does not mean it can deal with narrative in the sense of telling stories, just that narrative as a term to indicate a linear shift from a to b does not take place. It is brilliant, however, at the dramatic moment in flux, at picking the dramatic crux of a story and focusing our attention on it. Painting naturally abstracts action, due to this removal of temporal context. This and many other factors will tend to show me that moments are more about indecision than decision, about uncertainty ahead of certainty.
5. I am reminded a little of a mystery play by the format of this project, with its deeply rooted sense of structure. Did trying to find the images to use help you to find any kind of underlying structure in the plays? Do you think that reflects a structure in our lives?
It is perhaps worth making a note about one small thing from the piece. In November there are two solo shows, one at Breese Little and the other at The Globe. Both shows will focus on the body of work outlined above. Whilst the Globe show paintings retain an attachment to Shakespeare they are not explicitly borrowing from his plays, whereas the body of paintings I made in 2011 were. It is a case of the themes which emerged in those previous paintings have been carried on through to these new canvases, so certain connections to Shakespeare’s plays can still be made. We have picked ones where this dialogue is clear. They are certainly not illustrative though, and neither were the original ones, and the connections are at a step removed. The wider relationship to theatre is more central to these works.
That said the structures of Shakespeare’s plays, ahead of the specifics of the narratives, was what started to interest me, particularly in Macbeth and King Lear. I was interested in the play between external and internal spaces, and how these were set up as oppositions. The external space of nature being a force of chaos vs the internal architecture of the home being a symbol of safety, certainty (absolute values) and ideology. As the plays move on it is the relationship between these oppositions that is at the centre of the Tragedy. I have always been interested, at a few levels, of bringing these oppositions into the singular (spatial and temporal) space of painting. It is most obvious in the play between the strict, sharp edged geometry of the architecture vs the weather, storms of the surface which sit under, over or invade. It is something which increasingly happens within the figures themselves, a cartoonish, strongly delineated outline vs an expressive, worked up layer of flesh within these confines.
6. These plays are particularly focused on dreams, madness, and hallucination – do you think there’s a sense in which we see the truth more easily through the strange?
I have already waffled on so much and think this is perhaps the question which I could most easily find myself going off on all kinds of tangents. In short, yes, I do think we can see the truth more easily through the strange, although I am uncomfortable with the word truth. I am interested in the uncanny, in something which is both strange and familiar, both other and a mirror of ourselves. I think we are so often forced to read everything in binary terms, which encourages us to be absolute in terms of whether we relate to it or are opposed to it. The reality is always a far more complex network of values and associations. So when we are confronted with something our identity, values, beliefs and politics are rarely in direct alignment or opposition but lie somewhere within a complex multi dimensional matrix which is almost impossible to map, let alone confidently locate or navigate.
Thanks, Tom. You can find Tom’s forthcoming shows here:
Tom de Freston: Paintings After Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, SE1 9DT, 4th Nov – 20th Dec 2013
Tom de Freston: The Charnel House, 30b Great Sutton St, London, EC1V 0DU, 13th Nov 2013– 11th Jan 2014