Holly Willats, Art Licks: Last year I invited you to present a solo show at ALPS (Art Licks Project Space) – situated in my flat in Camberwell, London. Can you recollect how you first felt about the invitation to make work for a domestic exhibition space, and how the environment affected your usual approach?
Nina Royle: I think my work has always centred on a latent relationship with domestic spaces. The paintings I make are generally small in scale, hold-able and moveable. The ones in-progress in my studio, line up on shelves like ceramics and finished ones are filed away like closed books, (with the exception of a few, which hang on the wall as souvenirs to lines of thought).
I remember that your invitation to make an exhibition for ALPS immediately felt exciting. Whilst ideas surrounding the domestic have constantly filtered into my practice, this opportunity pulled the subject to the fore, in a way I had not yet explored.
When making an exhibition, locating an idea to describe a body of work can sometimes feel forced. In worst-case scenarios it forever remains a tenuous link, explaining without connecting to the work on a deeper level. With Tending My Fangs, I felt a clarity from the start about what I wanted the work to be and what questions I wanted to ask through the act of exhibiting. I wanted to make something that felt intimate and dwelt on what it meant to live with artworks. I also wanted the exhibition to invite people to think about what of ourselves we choose to show to the world, and what we hide away – enclosed between four walls – what of ourselves spills out into public space and is impossible to hide?
New ideas, materials, experiences and ways of making are constantly entering into and affecting the weather of an art practise. Like belongings entering a home, new additions wait to find their place: sometimes these things stick around for a long time, and sometimes they’re quickly discarded, or forgotten about until years later.
Your question about how the environment of ALPS affected my approach to making is interesting, and I think I’m still to find out. The process of making work to fit amongst the idiosyncrasies of your home-come-project-space, was a challenge. What helped me most to understand the space, was your offer to allow me the chance to stay in it. This summer (though now postponed) a solo show of mine was due to open at Kingsgate Project Space, London. Transitioning straight from your show into making work for this public space sent me into a panic, so much so I had to ask to spend a night sleeping at Kingsgate, in order to induce a familiarity with the gallery. I wondered if this will forever-more be a rite of passage I will have to perform when creating a site-specific exhibition.
Please could you explain the meaning behind the title of the show, ‘Tending My Fangs’?
Distilling a chaos of thoughts into a title is hugely difficult! Words usually jumble around until something fits. With Tending My Fangs, I enjoyed the domestic absurdity the words implied. It rings with a care and desire to cultivate, whilst also evoking (perhaps) a type of brooding irrationality that might reside in spaces hidden away from the public sphere.
On a more personal level, images of teeth and foxes (hence fangs) seemed to serve me as strange emblems of that summer; melding with emotional changes and growing pains that resulted from different chapters in my life opening and closing. I must have been incredibly stressed at the time as I kept grinding my teeth at night, to the point where I chipped my front tooth!
Somehow this connected in thoughts to a moment sleeping in your flat, where I heard two foxes fighting in the alleyway that runs right behind your bedroom. The foxes seemed so close to my ear that their fight became a hallucinatory experience, that I was witness to yet not part of. It triggered a sudden flash of loneliness and an instinctive desire for connection within me. The residue of this weaved its way into a poem written on a long length of muslin cloth, which I hung in the exhibition by your bed. Tending My Fangs therefore, was a culmination of a summer trying to navigate surreal, unruly, animal emotions.
The exhibition presented several works across the whole flat – from the main space, through to the bedroom and bathroom. I think the centrepiece, or the focal point for visitors appeared to be the folding screen piece placed in the main room, ‘And This Is Where I Hide’. It is a beautiful work and one I know you spent much time on: the carvings must have been extremely labour-intensive, let alone the scaling-up of painting. I know we discussed the Bloomsbury Group when first thinking about the show, and in particular Charleston House. I think making such a work that has a functional element was really successful in this particular instance for the flat. What drew you to working on the screen?
I’m always fascinated in the gaps and places of overlap between definitions, or one process of making and another. I paint, I write, I make objects and all of these things seem to pick-up from the point where another tappers off. The painted folding screen interested me for this reason: it hinges between definitions. A painting, that is also an item of furniture, used to physically divide a room. A singular object-image that also splits into separate panels that fold and unfold to give different views on a narrative.
On one side of the screen I made a carved relief coated in a polished black gesso. I thought about it as dark soil furrows in a ploughed field, inspired by a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping. On the other side was a painting; a kind of mythical landscape sprouting with forms and colour in which a series of motifs were buried – foxes, teeth, lovers embracing – bulbs, scissors – things I saw as emblematic of living, growing, tending, dying. I enjoyed how the two sides related, like opposing seasons or sides of a coin.
As you said the screen was also a functional decision. I was aware that you had to live with my work for the duration of the show, so something that was free-standing and which could easily be packed away, was important. Lastly the history of folding screens as a theatrical, and more sculptural format for painting is fascinating. I think they fit into a history of triptych paintings but in a somehow less reverential way. It’s surprising how many painters have been attracted to the format; Vanessa Bell, René Daniëls, James McNeil Whistler, Silke Otto Knapp, Natalia Goncharova, to name a few.
You wrote a wonderful text to accompany the exhibition, in which you mention “a belief in the importance of living with art.” I feel this has even greater resonance now, as many of us have spent a significant amount of time at home in the last three months. During this time, have you found yourself thinking more on art-making and the home?
To be honest, no I haven’t, for the very reason that the last couple of months have felt so immediate and pressing that I’ve found it hard to reach a position of criticality, or to feel creative amongst the unfolding cataclysmic events in the world. The act of making has so much to do with imagining the future, and the future at the moment feels rocky and hard to see. That’s not to say I’ve been doing nothing though. Funnily enough, what I have been doing is much more like housekeeping on my practice. I finally edited a group of texts (essays and poems) for a book that I’ve been trying to make. Some of these have sat for years on my laptop at various stages of incompletion, and most likely would never have been finished if not for lockdown. I’ve also loved getting my watercolours out and feeling a licence to allow whatever that wants to come out – to come out.
With time, I think this moment will prompt me to reflect deeply on the relationship between art, making and the home. My studio is a long commute from where I live, which now seems problematic. My senses have been heightened, that home is a sanctuary but also a place of reckoning with yourself. The insidious proliferation of screen time via social media, online shopping, working from home, Skypes, Zooms, Teams etc. is impossible to ignore, in the way it cuts constant windows into the innards of our homes. To a greater extent than ever before, I think it problematises the boundaries of where our personal and public lives begin and end.
Where is the folding-screen piece now, and how does it feel in its new home? Do you think the work can be exhibited beyond the space it was made to be shown in, how intrinsically linked are they?
Haha, I offloaded the folding screen to my boyfriend’s flat for a while. It took such a long time to make – particularly the carving – that the thought of living with it everyday felt too traumatic! We are currently about to move house, so at present the screen is folded away. However, it could very well make a new appearance.
It’s a funny thing living with your own work. There is only one painting I have made that I’m content to live with at all times. It’s not like the rest of my work – a formal painting of a white Japanese teacup floating on a black background. There is a quiet movement in it that oscillates between the cup being a cup, and the cup being the moon. It serves as a reminder that I’d like to capture such constant oscillation or live-ness, in all of my work. Beyond this, I find other pieces of my work enter into the living space and leave again, at varying rates. Works are like mirrors on yourself, representing states of mind and lived contexts, so often it’s better that they go off into the world rather than stick around at home.
The screen was made specifically for ALPS, but I’d love to see it in another context, particularly a public space, which would shape its meaning in a very different way. In another context I’d like to re-work the image or add to the structure. I thought from the start, it should have legs.
Nina Royle graduated with an MA from Slade School of Art in 2016. She lives and works in Cornwall. Recent solo exhibitions include Tending My Fangs, ALPS, London (2019); St Ia, The Picture Room, Newlyn Art Gallery (2019); Glaucous, a performance commissioned by Tate St Ives (2018). Group exhibitions include Unbounded, Eden Project, Cornwall (2019); Listen to the Hum, Alice Black Gallery, London (2019); Lunar Gardening, Kingsgate Project Space, London (2019); Global Cows, (with Charlott Weise, Lucy Stein, Tiziana La Melia, Vanessa Disler) Damien and the Love Guru, Brussels (2019); Crying the Neck (with Lucy Stein), NICC, Brussels (2017). In 2019 Nina was commissioned by Hospital Rooms to create a wall painting for The Junipers MBU ward, Exeter.