The Artist in Lockdown: An Interview with Jenny Beard
By Emily Poole
Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions in recent weeks, for many artists, working without access to a studio and the encouraging creative buzz of their colleagues has been somewhat creatively restricting. I spoke to Leeds based artist Jenny Beard about how she has adapted her work during the height of the pandemic, how to get noticed as a graduate artist and what inspires her to stay motivated at times like these. After graduating from the Fine Art course at Leeds Arts University a few years ago, Jenny has gone on to exhibit all over the country, from the Ones to Watch graduate exhibition in 2017 to her more recent group show at Guts Gallery in London, where her work shared a wall with none other than the Guerrilla Girls. Her practice is one I have admired for a number of years, solidifying the interaction between the body of the artist and how painterly gesture becomes instilled physically within an artwork.
I understand that gesture and the relationship between the artist's body and painting is thought about in your work. Have you ever considered the idea of performance art?
Early in my practise, I focused more on action painting, which is a performance itself. The gestures created have been refined further and further through the years, and brought me to the aesthetic I'm at now. I couldn't see my work as stand alone performance art, but all of the marks I make are a subtle nod to the action painting days. The performative act of painting is still there, but it is much tighter, and more personal. What would you say is the height of your artistic career so far, and how did it feel to share a wall with the Guerrilla Girls at Guts Gallery? I'm very excited for an upcoming show at Leeds Arts University, in collaboration with Connor Shields and curated by Catriona McAra. It has been postponed due to Covid-19, but once it goes ahead, I feel it will be great opportunity to get my work out to an established audience. The Guts Gallery show was great, and yes it was a nice surprise to have my work share a space with Guerrilla Girls, as well as many amazing artists. I've found a lot of artists through this opportunity whose work I am still following closely. In light of the current crisis, how has this impacted the way you work and how are you staying motivated? For the lockdown, I decided to stay with my parents in Barnsley. In Leeds I'm in the process of moving properties, so it's a lonely place at the moment. This means I've not has any access to my studio In Leeds, which has felt very strange. I usually go to the studio every day, but now I'm limited to what I can make. I find the artistic motivation comes (and goes) in waves - and is really linked to my general mood. So I embrace it on the good days by doing some watercolours, digital sketches, and weavings. On the bad days, I don't force myself to be creative, as the extra pressure can have longer lasting effects. It's strange for me to slow down, but I'm getting the hang of it. Which artists or other inspirational people have influenced your work and in what way? I'm really inspired by the work of Jonathan Lasker, the way he constructs his paintings reminds me to work with simpler themes, and a concise message. You can go really metaphysical with his paintings, but they guide you to just look. Grayson Perry is our national art sweetheart but I feel very influenced by his outlook on art, his matter of fact attitude, and the way his work can be serious and humorous simultaneously and feel very honest. Our practices are very different, but I do feel influenced by his character. What type of mediums and processes do you use to manipulate the paint, what are your favourites and which ones haven't worked so well for your practice? I use oil paint mostly and some household/acrylic paint. I've experimented with loads of surfaces, application methods, and mediums, but I find that using Liquin and painting butter work best for me. They give me a lot of flexibility in the paint, and allow for different texture building. Both create a slight glossy finish, almost plastic. I've managed to manipulate my paint in all sorts of ways, and haven't found that any don't work for me as such - I guess after 'playing' with paint for so long, and pushing the outcomes, I know what outcome I need, and employ the tools/processes necessary. Maybe its because I'm a very formulaic person. What advice would you give to a young graduate artist in terms of getting their work noticed? I think the most important thing is to keep up the output of artwork, work consistently and often, whether that's working on physical pieces, writing about art, or updating your website. Work is noticed when it is understood, and the more you put out onto your website, Instagram, blog etc., the more that people can buy into your aesthetic, your message, your ethos. A reliable stream of work builds your following, which in turn means that more people will notice. It's also important to consistently apply for exhibitions, submit to publications, and attend exhibition openings. Every time you do this, you and your work will be noticed by new groups of people. When you have stagnant moments in your practice, what helps inspire you and keep you invested in the process? When there is a lull in my practise, I like to take step back. I think about what's important to my practise. I write lists and reduce them down to what's really essential - it's usually 7 or 8 things. This acts like a refresh moment, and gives me a good jumping off point by honing in on maybe just 1 or 2 things. It's important to feel really invested in what you're creating, not just what you think you should create. Strip away anything that feels forced or unnecessary.
The compositions of your paintings are beautiful and so well balanced, what amount of your practice is planned vs. spontaneous? Thank you! The initial sketches are very spontaneous because they involve automatic drawing. I'll often come back and edit a sketch if it feels too 'pretty', too 'balanced'. I think by making them a little 'off', they work well as a finished painting. After the sketch, the rest of the process is very planned - I think it gives me the most joy to imagine the end result, and get it there successfully. I draw up sketches onto canvas, and usually know the paint texture/finish that would suit before I actually go in with any paint. If I have any spontaneous ideas while working on a painting, I usually figure them out digitally first. On the other hand, my Small Studies, usually 19 x 19cm, are completely spontaneous. I use leftover paint and work in layers. It's a really free moment and because of the scale I don't feel any pressure. I usually end up with colour-ways and motifs that inspire larger paintings. Your work exists in two mediums, the physical and the digital. How do you translate the variation of texture in your paintings from canvas to digital format and vice versa? Digital sketches are ultimately flat, but because of the way our mind works we can sometimes see layers. I often experiment with this in paint, sometimes by reducing perceived layers to pure flat colour, or vice versa. I like to create an overall flatness in most of my paintings, but when viewed up close they have an undeniably painterly texture. This is the main comment I get when people view my work in person vs. on a computer screen. When I do create visible texture, I really go for it. I want it to feel like a separate object that has come to rest on an otherwise flat painting. It's always fun to pick out where this will happen when referring to a digital sketch, because it’s the one thing I can't really plan. Do you have any future exhibitions planned and anything we should look out for? As mentioned previously I will be exhibiting with Connor Shields at Leeds Arts University, but the date is to be confirmed. I have been creating some of my largest work yet for this show! I will also be selling work in the near future through Art Gazette, who represents artists internationally.