In this month’s Spotlight On we speak to local artist Nina Baxter about her work, inspirations, guilty pleasures and favourite south east London spot.
Tell us about what you do.
I make paintings and collages. My work is usually very colourful, with a basis in nature or something that I have seen, heard, or read which has inspired me. I am currently experimenting with compositions built up from simple geometric shapes, creating abstract images that are distanced from the visual reality of the thing itself. I’ve recently had a resurgence of interest in still life, which has led to painting natural objects or observations from life and using these sketches as a basis for a geometric composition. In this way, I can distil the original object into its most valuable parts and elevate those of greatest importance, such as colour (see “Opuntia” paintings). I rarely do preparatory sketches or paintings for larger works, but often plan compositions using collage instead.
I find the need to create work pretty much imperative to me feeling happy and fulfilled. If I do not have the time or ability to paint, it does not take long before I start to feel unsatisfied, frustrated and generally not myself. Aside from this, creating visual art, in particular paintings and collages, is a natural form of expression for me. I feel like I constantly have compositions, colours and shapes forming in my mind. Working in this way allows me to create a visual response to the things I experience, and hopefully to then create something which other people will respond to and have their own experience with.”
How do you like to work?
Ideally, if I’m working on a big project, I like to have an uninterrupted chunk of time so that I can work without disruption – however, this almost never happens. If I can dedicate a whole day to working on a specific painting or collage, then that’s pretty good going. There are always so many other things to do, such as keeping my website up to date, preparations for exhibitions, social media, etc. not to mention making time to see friends and family, which means that being able to have a fully practical day is a rarity. I like to work with music on, good natural lighting, my paintings and visual stimuli around me, with plenty of water, coffee and snacks. Unfortunately I had a fire a few weeks ago in the studio I was sharing at the Bussey Building in Peckham, which has resulted in my working from home at the moment. I prefer to have a separation from work and home, so I’m hoping to get a new studio space sorted soon.
What is your background and where did you grow up?
I grew up in Barnes in South West London. A train ride away from central London, but far enough to be removed from hectic city life and retain a more village community feel. I have been painting and making art for pretty much as long as I can remember. The other day I was updating my website and found on my hard drive a portrait I painted of my Dad sitting in the back garden reading a newspaper, that I completed at secondary school around 2010 or earlier! It was a bit of a toss-up for me between studying Fine Art or History at University; but as soon as I looked around The Courtauld Institute of Art my decision was made, Art History became the obvious choice. Whilst studying at The Courtauld I made time to carry on painting and organised a couple of exhibitions with friends studying at art schools and live music from our friend’s bands.
What is integral to your work?
Art History is integral to my work. I am constantly thinking about different artists, and the work that inspires me, in terms of technique, art historical movements, historical or political context, philosophical approaches etc. and how this relates to the work I am producing now. A recent influence on my work, for example, has been the seminal text ‘Abstraction and Empathy’ by Wilhelm Worringer which was written as his PhD thesis in 1906 and first published in 1908. Worringer discusses the urge to abstraction and proposes possible psychological explanations for style. I find it fascinatingly brilliant that a text written in 1906 (one year before Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and decades before artists such as Frank Stella or Clyfford Still were at the forefront of the Abstract Expressionist movement) dealt with the fundamental aesthetics and reasons for abstraction in a way that is still relevant and discussed today.
Often when painting it is not until after the work is completed, or perhaps even months or more after, that you may begin to understand more fully what the work is about – even if you had set out to create the work with solid intentions and a purpose in mind. Sometimes in hindsight you can understand an element to the work you had not been aware of before. For example, I have been working in this ‘geometric abstract’ style for over a year now, and traces of its origins can be seen in paintings of mine from as early as 2014, however it is only now that I am beginning to grasp more of an understanding of where this focus on geometric shapes came from. In ‘Abstraction and Empathy’ Worringer suggests that the will to abstraction is partly born from a need for tranquillity, creating a refuge from appearances by taking an individual thing out of the external world and eternalising it by approximation to abstract forms. The simple regularity of geometric forms provides a form of pure abstraction (which allows the viewer the greatest possibility of happiness and tranquillity) as the connection and dependence on life has been broken by the visual approximation being so far removed from its reality in the external world.
Are artists integral to communities now?
I strongly believe that artists are an integral part of any community. As well as fine artists or visual artists, this includes ALL artists, such as musicians, actors, writers, dancers, anybody who uses a creative medium as a form of expression.
What’s been a seminal / inspiring experience for you?
If I was to pick just one, I would probably have to choose visiting Mark Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas, in 2013. The Abstract Expressionist artists have had a huge influence on my work for years now, and whilst writing my dissertation on Rothko’s Chapel I was lucky enough to be able to make a sort of Art Historical pilgrimage to Houston to see and experience it for myself. I will never forget the awe and overwhelming emotions I felt in response to Rothko’s paintings, which reproductions of simply cannot do justice. One of the most incredible experiences was being invited to sit in on a rehearsal as an orchestra prepared for a concert of Mozart’s ‘A Little Night Music’. It was just me, a docent from the chapel and a fifteen-piece strings orchestra in a scene that could easily have been from a dream. Needless to say, the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston has been heart breaking. Luckily, the Rothko Chapel, which is temporarily closed, has reported very little damage as a result of the flooding.
What is your favourite art work?
My favourite artwork changes all the time, mostly depending on what I am currently working on; I don’t think I could ever choose just one favourite piece. At present I would probably pick Howard Hodgkin’s painting “Going for a walk with Andrew” (1995-8), which was recently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the brilliant and moving exhibition ‘Absent Friends’. Hodgkin’s unique approach to portraiture is so interesting; in his seemingly abstract paintings he represents people through emotive brushwork and colour. “Going for a walk with Andrew” beautifully captures an everyday, but nevertheless intimate moment between friends. With a focus on memory, Hodgkin’s paintings evoke a specific experience or event with a person or group of people, such as the way he would remember walking with his friend Andrew Allfree. By encapsulating the painting within a frame, but allowing the brushwork to exceed the limits of the frame, the viewer is reminded of the representational elements as well as the painting being a thing in itself. This is a quality I am often very interested in maintaining in my own work. The pair “You’re In Control”, for example, are composed of carefully chosen colours in a systematic arrangement. When viewed through a phone or computer screen they can often seem mechanical or computer generated, however, it is when viewed in real life that any inaccuracies and rogue paint splashes act as a reminder that these are hand-made paintings, not perfect images.
What keeps your sane / what’s your guilty pleasure?
One of my main guilty pleasures is also one of the things that keeps me sane: being able to isolate myself, ignore my phone, not make any plans, shut off any distractions for a while in order to just focus on my work. Just like most good things, a little is enough and too much can be detrimental, but once in a while, especially after a period where I’ve been particularly busy, this becomes my ultimate guilty pleasure.
What’s your favourite spot in South East London?
I would probably have to say the Bussey Building rooftop. Last year, when I would be working in my studio on the floor below, I would go and sit up there for a break and a coffee when it was quiet, and the views are fantastic. The London skyline looks particularly impressive, and in the evenings the sunsets can be truly beautiful.