Abi Box recently moved to a new studio in Somerset, on the Western edge of Bermuda. Surrounded by water, the studio opens directly onto a dock where she often takes the large canvases that she is drawn to outside to work on. It is a marked change from the East London studio that she used to work from, which overlooked an industrial estate.
Abi credits painting in the open air with providing her with a sense of freedom and recklessness which infuse her work with the essence of the landscape – “what it feels like” rather than “what it looks like” as she describes it. At once bold and minimalist in their approach, her paintings sit somewhere between figurative and abstract – each one an exploration of mark making rendered in bold brushwork with a distinct consideration for negative space and the impact of colour.
You’s a bone alligator, currently on display in Illusion & Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape, is part of an on-going series which Abi began when she moved to her new studio. We caught up with the former Bermuda Biennial artist to discuss the impact that her new studio has had on her practice, how she “loves to indulge in the grittiness and unpredictability of paint” and why “her best paintings happen a bit by accident.”
You’s a bone alligator, by Abi Box, 2020. Oil on canvas.
BNG: You describe your approach as ‘painting as poetry’. What do you mean by this?
AB: There’s a space in being poetic. There’s less need to be literal or exact, allowing room for the subtle and suggestive, a space to be inventive. There can be poetry in the way a line is drawn, the trace left behind by the gesture that made it, or sometimes in the way two colours sit next to one another.
BNG: Whilst studying for your BA at Camberwell College of Art you moved from Sculpture to Painting. Why did you decide to make the switch?
AB: Oh, it was an accident. I applied to do painting and Camberwell mistakenly put me in Sculpture, then wouldn’t let me change! I ended up completing the first year in Sculpture then the year after I started over in Painting. I had, however, come from a Sculpture and Environmental Design foundation course at the Glasgow School of Art, so I did at one point decide to make this switch between the two disciplines.
While I was at Glasgow and talking to the students on the painting course I was always more interested in the projects they were being set. I remember one where they were given a huge piece of paper and an extremely small brush… and that was it – go and paint something within those parameters. That really interested me. Looking back, I think this could have been one of the earliest times where I found myself interested in the fundamentals of painting, the process of it all, the countless ways in which paint as a material can be used, all the ways a mark can be made.
Abi’s studio opens directly onto a dock, where she often paints.
BNG: Does your training in sculpture affect how you approach painting? In what ways?
AB: There are paintings that have a sculptural quality to them and I don’t think I make those kinds of paintings; the paintings I make sometimes don’t even have a sense of depth to them. I’m drawn more to the painterly qualities within sculpture. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the work of Rebecca Warren, who’s bodily sculptures could almost be three dimensional paintings; raw, clunky structures, boobs and butts rather horrifically rearranged. They’re thrown together, full of finger marks, fleshy, as though the clay has been grabbed at. They have a defiantly unfinished, almost ugly quality to them, and I find that rawness gutsy, it dares me to hold on to the rough edges within my own work, to keep the clumsy lines, muddy colours, and indulge in the grittiness and unpredictability of paint.
BNG: You often paint outdoor in nature and you also have a studio practice. How do you move between the two and how does your approach change as you do so?
AB: I enjoy taking canvases outside to work on, it’s nice being outdoors in the fresh air and it becomes part of the experience of making a painting. I don’t work so much from observation ‘en plein air’ but it would be difficult not to be somehow affected by the outdoors, the difference in light, the calmness of being surrounded by water; I imagine I’m in a completely different frame of mind because of all that. I do work from life outdoors when I’m making sketches, using those sketches later to develop into paintings back in the studio. And occasionally I’ll make a preliminary sketch directly onto canvas but this tends to be because I want to disrupt an intimidatingly blank surface, knowing that most of those first marks will get painted over.
Abi at work on the series.
BNG: In your 2018 Bermuda Biennial artist statement you say “it is important to me for painting not to copy from observation but to react.” What else are you looking to capture? How does this translate on the canvas?
AB: I move between wanting to capture a sense of place and letting that place inspire a more interesting painting. Occasionally my paintings look like the place they depict, sometimes they’re impressions, inventively reinterpreted from a handful of scribbly sketches. My most recent paintings are loosely based on the harbour surrounding our dock and I’ve been using a different palette to my usual. The canvases are sun drenched, yellows pinging against milky pinks and blues. It’s not at all what the harbour looks like but when it’s midday and the sun is blinding that’s what it feels like.
BNG: When and why did you move to Bermuda? How has living here influenced your work?
AB: I moved to Bermuda around four years ago with my partner for his work. My old East London studio was on the second floor of a large warehouse and looked out on to an industrial estate. Although it had its own set of endearing qualities, it was very different to my studio here in Bermuda where I’m surrounded by water and palm trees. My studio here opens out directly on to the dock area, having that space means I’m able to work outside much more. Painting outdoors the canvases can be so drenched in sunlight I’ve found the colours sometimes come out looking more saturated than if they had been painted in the shade of the studio.
Abi’s studio set up allows her to work both inside and outside.
BNG: How and why did you settle on this piece specifically for Illusion & Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape?
AB: The exhibition, which guest curator Mitchell Klink wonderfully refers to as a “love letter to nature and Bermuda…”, explores different aspects of landscape painting spanning realism to abstraction. When Mitchell first suggested the idea for the show, he suggested that I might have some work depicting Bermuda which would explore line, shape, and form. I suggested Mitchell come by and see You’s a bone alligator, a piece I’d only recently finished. It was a piece I was excited about as it was something I had been trying to make for a while, but I also hoped that the way in which the piece captures a ‘sense of place’ would resonate with the way Mitchell described the paintings in this section of the exhibition as ‘capturing the essence of a much-larger whole’.
BNG: Could you please talk us through You’s a bone alligator,?
AB: It’s one of an on-going series of paintings I’ve made since moving to the new studio space on the harbour. I thought about the piece a lot before starting but in the end I painted it very quickly. It’s stripped back, sketch-like, spacious while a bit scribbly, absent minded. My drawings often end up being a bit rough and incomplete, and I always intend for my paintings to be just as uninhibited but I find with paint it can be easy to over think and over work a surface. It’s why I often think my best paintings happen a bit by accident, when I’m distracted enough to be reckless.
More than anything else this piece became a painting about colour. A reaction to the way the colours around the harbour are bleached out when the sun is at its highest, so sunny you have to squint. The colours in the painting are washed out, faded yellows and pinks chiming against cool blues. There is something the painter Bridget Riley said about her own use of colour, in that she “wanted the colours to sing a little”, I’ve always enjoyed the idea that paintings might be able to transcend the visual into something that is evocative of say sound, or smell, or warmth. I was super pleased to hear Mitchell refer to the piece as lyrical.
You’s a bone alligator, is part of an on going series inspired by the local landscape.
BNG: Where did the title come from?
AB: It’s taken from a phonetically written poem called ‘Born Alligator’ by David John Mowers, I like that it lends a sense of boldness to the painting. And although the scene in the painting is Bermuda through and through, if I let my imagination run wild,I can imagine myself swimming those pinky blue waters with a ‘skin made-o’ armah’.
BNG: Many of your works have unusual titles. Some are also untitled. How do you decide upon a title?
AB: I’m a magpie for words and phrases I can use for titles. I collect bits and pieces from all over: songs, books, conversations; I have something written down somewhere from a conversation I had with a taxi driver in Lima. I’m drawn to phrases that reflect the work, words that are climatic, references to light, to language and description, or state of mind. Looks Like Noise and Loud Light are two titles I especially like, turning up the volume to something visual, a noise so loud you can see it.
BNG: How important is a title and does giving an artwork a name affect it in any way?
AB: I love naming paintings, they can be atmospheric or hint towards a vague narrative… I think in my own work they act a little like the soundtrack to a movie.