Art Changes: Celia Hempton
Co-created with TATE to celebrate the opening of the new Tate Modern.
Celia Hempton welcomes us into her east London studio, the studio is small and filled with little paintings. The paintings depict erect penises, mainly cropped so the models face is out of view. On the wall behind are equally explicit and anonymous vaginas. The effect is strangely pretty, and in no way pornographic, hard cocks in soft colours. There is also a bed and an easel. It's been a long time since I was in a studio with a bed and an easel. There is a traditional aspect to Hemptons work that you wouldn't have expected if you had seen her guitar noise dark web performance at the Serpentine two nights previously.
Darren Flook: Have you always done different kinds of work?
Celia Hempton: Both my parents are artists and they met on a Painting MA at art school, so I was always surrounded by paintings from an early age. And that's what I always wanted to do – even though I've made sculpture and other things. When I was at art school in Glasgow I was in a lot of bands and, at one point, when I was like 24, it was going to be a choice between art and music.
What kind of music were you making?
It was kind of like punk. Then I moved to London and I was in another band with different artists; some of them went onto be musicians with bigger bands. Others ended up staying artists. I've only recently allowed music to become part of my work – even if it's doing a different thing. The music in my art is more like the wall paintings that I've made: it's abstract. I see the sound as an abstract, sonic landscape. They have space and texture and tone and line. I see it like that.
You did a two-year residency in Rome after getting your MA. How did that affect your art?
It changed my work completely. It was partly coming from a very academic and critical space in London; in Rome, I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be and make whatever I wanted to make. Also, the atmosphere of Rome: there's art in frescos surrounding you in every church, so the idea of painting coming out of the canvas and onto ceilings and walls and other types of spaces happened for me then.
Did Italy change your ideas about beauty as well? Because in Britain I feel beauty is almost seen as a negative. It's not considered intellectual to make beautiful things.
Yeah. There's definitely a flamboyance and confidence. Also, their attitude towards the body is very reverent. Even now when I paint people on ChatRandom that are from Italy, there's a difference in the way they use their bodies. They're instantly like, "Oh great, you wanna paint me?" And then they pose. They're men, though. I don't know if the women are different.
So what's the process for Chat Random, your ongoing series of webcam paintings? I have no idea how this stuff works.
You just type in "ChatRandom" and you go on the site. It's a bit like Skype, but as a website. You have two images: one is the image that would be enabled on your webcam, and the other is an image of your partner. You're automatically hooked up to whoever's on that website at that time.
So it's random?
Completely random. There's a little bar at the top where you can pick what country you want, but I don't use it. I just have it on random, and then you just keep scrolling through, and it's, like, Latvia, United States, Australia, Japan. It's really worldwide.
And what did you like about it?
I guess two things. One is, practically, it meant that any time I was in the studio, there was always someone that I could paint. There was always someone and something happening that I couldn't foresee – an infinity of images. You just keep clicking through, and there are all these different colours and things that I wouldn't have ever been able to invent, and they're also live. Secondly, I began it with a political agenda to do with my position – or gaze, if you like – as a woman, specifically in relation to sexual imagery online.
The paintings are true to the combination of colours you see on your screen.
I like when there's a kind of computer-y light to them. There's one with a guy lying down with ejaculate all over his belly. That's a very typical light, when someone's in their bedroom and all the windows are closed, but they just have the laptop illuminating their face or body. They're not exact, but that was pretty exact, that green. A lot of people in Middle Eastern countries have a green tinge to the image, which I think must be to do with technology at the moment in different zones or something. I don't know – but the colour is more of a trigger, really.
But you don't use photographs or anything like that?
No. I used to, and I don't have a problem with people doing that or anything. But I realised that I work way better and I am way more productive when I'm looking at things in real life. I really admire artists that can come into their studio and invent this world from their imagination, but I need to look at things. I love looking, and it filters through that way.
Your studio is in East London, which throws up questions about where artists are located. I know so many artists here who've been priced out. Do you think your art would say the same if you moved out of London to like New York or Hawaii?
I want to go to LA. I know everybody's saying this.
Everyone goes to LA these days.
I know, and everybody's there and whatever, but I don't care. I still want to go. I think I've made some of my best work on residencies.
Have you done a lot of residencies?
I've done quite a few in Italy. The light in London is different, and it's true that light affects the work. I'm very conscious of colour. Any slight change in colour feels dramatic against the flat light of the UK. During my residencies in Italy, I had a studio in Umbria where it was summer and super bright, so all my colours became more contrasted.
I think I would like LA, though. It's got a similar kind of light to Italy, where everything's like ice cream. It's, like, pinky, and I love all that white concrete, and I love tropical colours, especially for the new paintings.
Do you feel you lack the freedom to be spontaneous in London?
Yeah the problem with money is London is it makes it harder to make spontaneous things happen, like doing a night at a pub or something, because you've got to hold down a job for enough days of the week to support your work.
When I was in Glasgow, we did loads of things. It felt really possible. We took over a prison and made a show there, and we used to practice in there, and all the buildings were open too. There's not the same freedom of the space here. The buildings are all accounted for and they've all got security guards, and health and safety's more of an issue.
I remember curating a show in London in the mid-90s and you could wander to empty warehouse and have it to yourself.
Yeah. I mean huge spaces – 50,000 square feet ¬– to do a student show. No one was using them. If someone had told me then they'd all be worth millions in twenty years I would have laughed.
Oh my God. Where was that located?
There was a place called the Hartley's Jam Factory, which was near Southwark.
Oh really? Wow.
Back to your work, what is about interacting with people online that compels you?
There's an interesting type of interaction that happens online, where there's a level of mystery or it's difficult to understand what's real and what's not real – because you're not sat in front of someone. You don't have all your senses helping you make a decision or judgement about someone, so you're given very little and you end up imagining various things. There's also an intimacy that you can get as well.
Is it because of the anonymous nature of it?
People can be a bit freer online. They might expose things that you wouldn't in the street or when you just meet someone. They feel like they can leave at any moment, so then you sometimes get a window into somebody's very different life.
I met this guy from China once who was a farmer, awake at 3:00am because he couldn't sleep. He was doing all this on Google Translate, so we were having a conversation. And he was slowly telling me that his comrades had just retired – it was like a historic, meaningful day for him. And he was thinking about how he used to be in the army and he wanted to show me his army uniform. He was talking about his job, and he was talking about his father's farm, and how he was lonely and couldn't sleep. That was a conversation I would never have had unless I went to China.
So despite the non-local aspect of your work, the international online side, location, and the economy of that still matters? The expense and the scale?
I mean, I think artists are quite resilient. Even if you've got no money you just make work when you can. Not so long ago I couldn't afford an Oyster Card, so I'd just be cycling. I couldn't really afford a studio, but I just had the smallest studio I could afford. You make it work. I could work for other artists though, and I didn't have to work minimum wage. I think if you work minimum wage, you wouldn't be able to afford a studio.
At this point Charlie, the photographer arrives and I leave. What strikes me always about artists is their ability to solve problems that would make me think 'fuck it, I'll get a real job', but the good ones don't. Celia is 34 and just breaking onto the international art scene, and she's a young artist.
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