FOR ART'S SAKE visited painter Emma Fineman’s studio at the Royal Collage of Art to discuss her practice, how it relates to her choices in fashion and dress, and the fires at Grenfell and in California.
Today, Emma is wearing a navy high-neck jumper, paired with high-waisted ochre trousers. Usually, I am averse to writing about women strictly in terms of their appearance, but with Emma, the way she dresses is often in strong relation to her practice. For example, she styles our blue RAINY optical glasses with her outfit, which have a striking marbled acetate frame. They are conveniently reminiscent of the work Emma is doing with marble for a commission she is currently working on designing a chair.
Sierra and I enter Emma’s studio, and are met with canvases, both great and small, emblazoned with bold swathes of colour. Upon viewing Emma’s most recent paintings, colour is the first thing that strikes your eye. Emma leads us to one particular work that almost covers the whole of her studio wall, it is so large. I know from a previous conversation with Emma that architecture and fashion often inform her painting practice. I ask her about it in relation to the works around us. And with that, she delves into the fascinating thought processes and experiences she encounters when creating a work of art. She gestures to a sheer wash of brick-red pigment on the canvas of her work and begins:
'This is such a thin area that has such a grit to it that describes to me what it would feel like in a sun-soaked, washed terracotta wall. This is where architecture does play a big role in the paintings that I make--to evoke what that wall would feel like. The textural difference here [far left], from what it would feel like in this section, [she motions to a contrasting section in the centre of the canvas that is riddled with thick, expressive licks of paint], it allows this moment to have a much more explosive energy to it.' I notice the way Emma talks about paintings temporally, as if they do indeed have a story, a life, 'moments' to be shared or appreciated, rather than just bits of pigment in a physical space. The more we talk, the more it sinks in how important this idea is to Emma’s approach to painting. She continues: ‘Different areas of painting should have their own moment… so some things that have a narrative versus parts that are simply traces of an actual action. … I'm interested how you can create this in the same space.’
All of us present are fashion nerds, so we turn to a sartorial topic:
‘Colour relationships, for me, and the decisiveness of what a colour palette would be [in a painting] is how I think about fashion and dress. I think about how, if I'm putting together a look, for instance, what is the texture of this frame [on FROSTY Blue] that is evocative of this marble, that is a material that I'm really attracted to [she picks up a marble slab she has been mulling over for her furniture commission]. How does the texture of this relate to the colour of a bold lip, versus the proportion of colour in the entirety of a pair of trousers.
If this painting [see below] was an outfit on my body, which it originally was, this proportion of red would be where my lipstick is, in relation to my ochre-coloured trousers, on a proportional scale…’
In this painting, the red portion in the top left would be Emma's lipstick, and the ochre background is her trousers.
We return to the first, larger painting, and I ask Emma about the process:
‘I recall a specific environment or time of day straight from memory, and how by doing that you get much more out of the painting once it's finished. It's revealing almost more to me than I was to it--which is such a corny artist thing to say, but I believe it! You know, just by having this shade of viridian--I've been looking at it a lot, thinking about it a lot, it's a gorgeous shade—paired with this shade of red; the way it relates to the viridian… You put that down, and then think about how the textures of different moments interact… anyway that then leads to this entire painting and then when you step back from it, you’re like, “Oh my goodness, this painting is a relationship to all the fires and the extreme chaos that I'm experiencing both here and at home.”'
‘A repetitive drawing exercise of a building turned into an interpretation of Grenfell, to me, and this whole painting ended up being about fire because basically, my entire hometown [in California] is ablaze right now, being very close to Napa. So this painting ended up being this crazy explosion, this building in red, contrasted with these sort of narrative moments with these figures on the rooftop. This work ended up being a reflection on that, and also on this idea of… the escape. Like, you have these figures that appear to be just relaxing, sitting on a roof, looking at each other but not even engaging with everything that's happening with the fires that seemingly engulf them… We have to do that all the time. We constantly have to kind of protect ourselves, create safe spaces for ourselves, tune out everything that's in chaos around us, and enjoy the pleasurable moment of looking at… a sun-soaked terracotta building.’ I am struck by the profound thought Emma has put into this work, coming full circle. Upon her word, the red of the fire in the work, that evokes the destruction and grief I felt when Grenfell happened, dissipates and I am transported to somewhere tranquil in the Mediterranean.
Black markings depict figures interacting on the rooftop of a vermilion building.
‘We escape to that gorgeous place that reminds you of the summer time that you shared with that person you really care about--that can all exist in one painting. Which is wild to me! That's what I love about painting compared with other media, that you can invent the vastness of what you go through as a person. You know?’
I know. And I have learned so many profound and wonderful things about her practice at this point, that I just let her continue, without interruption:
‘[Grenfell] was such an impactful experience to me, going to the site itself and being there the next day to provide some form of relief aid, because that was the only way I could see myself responding. I think you can really easily get suppressed by things, and feel very much stuck--like you can't do anything, and you just freeze… The only way out of it is to actually make a change towards that thing in a positive way, so: showing up, doing something about it, actively helping, or feeling that you're doing something that does help… It doesn't necessarily change the social-political reasons for why Grenfell happened, which are super problematic, but just showing up and being there for the community, hugging the people who have been experiencing it, is such a powerful experience. And painting is my place to process that.’
Detail shot. The black marks are Emma's interpretation of the Grenfell Tower fire.
I love that notion, and I finally speak up to tell her: ‘I love how you can see the thought process and experience of a person through your work. There are loads of contrasting elements--like you said with the blazing fires versus the people who seem to be relaxing on the roof, but isn't that just like every human? Every human experiences both joy and pain in one life time.’
She finishes: ‘Exactly. You kind of look at paintings the way you should be looking at people: they have a life. There's a reason for that wrinkle, or that scar, and what's the story behind that? You never know what's going on in someone's life. That person you see on the bus--maybe their mum just died, so don't be a dick. It's the same with painting. It has a story behind it, so don't be a dick.’
Images by Sierra Pruitt.
Words by Vienna Kim.
With warmest thanks to Emma Fineman.