Studio Visit: Artist Emilie Pugh – words by Claire Mitchell
States of Becoming is a solo exhibition of recent work by the British artist Emilie Pugh. It brings together over 20 works of varying scale and technique, which investigate the micro and the macro structures of life and the conflicting and confluent universal forces that govern them.
Emilie Pugh’s approach to her practice is scientific; an interest in the study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world runs through much of her work. On arrival in her East London studio, this preoccupation is clear.
From human skulls to anatomical prints and farm-acquired bee hives to contorted aquarium wood, there is something of nature and science permeating. Bones, seed pods, measuring jugs, microscopes, pipettes, a gas mask, soldering irons, orchids; the list is endless. A stack of books rest on the desk, delving into the worlds of kinetics, botany, Buddhism and the cosmos. Her work mirrors these ideas of interconnectivity and mapping that which we cannot see and a sense of this is all around her. I wanted to find out more.
Do you like showing people around your studio and the intimacy of it in comparison to an exhibition?
I rarely let people visit my studio as it’s a very private space for me where I explore my ideas without external influence. Showing work in an exhibition space is different because there is much more control over what is shown and none of the ‘works in progress’, experiments and source material are out on display. It is revealing. It shows you a unique insight into the thought processes of the artist.
Tell us a little bit more about your day to day process and how you work best
I often have a few things on the go at one time, so I switch between different methods and works through the course of the day. A lot of my processes are demanding. Their intricacy means that my hands and eyes can only do so many hours in one go and my burnt works require a gas mask, so I become limited to short bursts. This has the added advantage of getting the necessary space from each work, as it’s important to not get too close to a piece for too long. Much of what I create is time consuming and I love working into the night; it feels like I am buying back time!
I love the nocturne series you have been working on. I see elements of the cosmos in them, is this something you reference when you make them?
Thank you. Yes they do look cosmic. I have this enormous cosmos book that is always open on my studio floor and although I reference it, I try to avoid illustrating one particular aspect. I love that some people see constellations and others see something more cellular, anatomical or other-worldly. To me it acts as a reminder of the interconnectivity of things. Nature takes on the same forms from the micro to the macro.
You told me they are made using bleach, can you tell me a bit more about your process. How much control do you have over this medium?
The nocturne series are made by first dripping, flicking, painting, scrapping or folding (like a Rorschach print) various dilutions of bleach onto preprepared inked paper, then once dry, I draw into sections using a minute brush or nibbled pen with white ink or diluted bleach.
I find contours and pull out forms. The process feels a bit like what surrealists called ‘unconscious drawing’. It is as though the forms are already there you just have to let your mind discover them and then extract them with a few highlights and contours.
I really enjoy the accident and control aspect of this process. I have very little idea of what the bleach will do. Sometimes I draw marks that don’t emerge for thirty seconds or more. Other times, when I use more concentrated bleach, it feels like Im drawing with something thats actually alight. It’s a really exciting unpredictable process. I also love the paradoxical nature of the corrosiveness of bleach (it really hurts if you get some on you) and the gentle overall aesthetic.
Your light boxes are a departure for you in terms of technique. Is the use of light and technology something you are going to pursue.
These are really exciting for me. There is so much potential that I want to pursue here. The next stage will be to make the lights kinetic so the work really comes alive. I am in touch with a cardiologist and a neurologist and I plan to sync the lights to the pulse of a heart beat, the rhythm of the breath and potentially certain types of brain activity. I want to reconnect my work to these very fundamental things that are essential to life.
Apart from your obvious draw to science and nature, where else do you find inspiration in your life?
“I get inspiration from so many different places.
From listening to podcasts like ‘In our time’ or ‘Ted Talks’ to going to galleries, sitting in book shops or travelling to new places. I made a trip to Japan a few years ago and it continues to inform my work. I take snippets from the things that pass me by in a notebook, as I can guarantee they will otherwise be lost in the gallop of London life seconds later! I have handwritten sentences, quotes and poems on scraps of paper blue tacked to my studio wall.
I did a residency in Berlin where I was part of a really interesting community of artists. I think that is really important to find and its harder in London but I have friends from Art school who are still very present in my life and my studio building is full of artist studios.
Although London is inspiring to me in so many ways, the countryside has a real pull on me. I grew up in Somerset so I know that if I ever reach a hiatus, there is nothing better then a long walk and being close to nature to bring me back on track.”
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