Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and the atmospheres that you were surrounded by.
I grew up in Essex; the countryside, but not far from the end of the Central line – the city was always a pull. The atmosphere was not unsympathetic to the arts – my mother would take me to exhibitions, and on the maternal side of the family certainly there was a tradition of painting and artistic proficiency. I read a lot. The house was surrounded by woods, very much the stuff of fairytales, in equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
Which artists influenced you the most when you were younger?
Perhaps paradoxically, when I started painting in France I was very much looking back to the school of London. If there’s one painter who really at the time gave me a sense of the ongoing relevance of painting as a medium, and introduced me to the idea of meta-painting, it was Frank Auerbach. I was studying art history at university, and was very enamoured of late Titian, Manet, Soutine, Giacometti. I would go and see Rembrandt’s beef carcass in the Louvre regularly, before going to the studio. It was very much about the paint, and still is.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a painter?
I always drew and painted, and wrote. So there was clearly a fairly constant compulsion to express and/or create from an early age. I left for Paris straight out of school and ended up living in France for the next 26 years. Painting came quite quickly to the fore once I was there – no doubt partly through a sense of being in-between languages. Painting was both more universal and more implicit. Oil paint was a fairly immediate fascination, and gave me a sense of something inexhaustible, that I could imagine engaging with over a lifetime. But it took me some years of painting full time before I felt justified in saying that I was a painter.
What is your current workspace like?
The first few years after my move back to London were complicated in terms of studios – there was a series of sublets initially. I was in the same studio in Paris for 17 years, and leaving it was a profound upheaval, much more so than any living space. I’ve been working in a studio in Hackney Wick since 2016, in the old peanut factory on Dace Road. It’s on the ground floor, and very high ceilinged … cold! It has less charm than some others I’ve worked in, but it is quite large, at least for London, and has a grittiness I like, or that feels right for now; great windows, and light.
What are you presently inspired by – are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’ve always looked at a lot of painting from over the centuries – after a trip to Rome last year I realised Caravaggio had been creeping into the studio; it’s often subconscious. The range of visual stimulus is infinite, and varied, both organic and contrived. In terms of reading, there are constants. My studio-side go-to pile: Bachelard’s Water and Dreams, David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order; anything by Georges Didi-Huberman, Per Kirkeby’s Manual; books of poetry, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes’ Crow – quite visual poets, I suppose. I’ve recently been reading Hans Hofmann’s Search for the Real, a selection of his essays. In the studio, I usually have the radio on as background noise, very low brow, but it’s part of the white noise that helps me to get into a painting mindset.
What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
The main risk is no risk. The thing I fear above all perhaps in the studio is complacency. It would be easy to end up ‘making doughnuts’, going through the motions of the familiar. I feel a need to upset things, surprise myself. As for what’s at stake – everything. And yes, there is an awareness of how absurd that is.
Which piece of art from history would you choose to have on your wall right now, if you could pick any one?
Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Still. A work that has always fascinated me. Paint as skin.
Do you ever paint from dreams?
No. I tend to stay away from the overtly narrative in my work. I do often dream about painting though, particularly when I’m in an intense spate of work in the studio. I dream of brush-marks.
The full interview with Erin Lawlor is in Free Spirits, available to purchase here: