New Britannia: Reinventing British Iconography is a series of ten painted collages on display from 12 October at Roast Restaurant in Borough Market by Rachel Maggart.
Born in Rochester, NY, but raised in Knoxville TN, and educated in Dallas TX, Paris, France, and New York City, Rachel had a unconventional route to her craft – she was trained in Classical Music, went on to work at Rolling Stone magazine then did a stint in corporate law. But her call to art wouldn’t silence and in 2013 she moved to London and dedicated herself to the sounds of paint.
Rachel is an American artist who works with recognizable British iconography and in her latest exhibition at Roast Restaurant in Borough Market, she plays on staple visual queues in an openness to subject matter, and the unique interpretation of each of her viewers is a refreshing attitude towards one’s body of work. Her paintings dance in colour and swell with hyperbole – they are a punk two fingers up to the confines of metaphor.
Candid recently caught up with Rachel while in London to ask her about her work and to get more insight into the vibrant and fascinating paintings that make up the exhibition New Britannia, as well as her collaboration with Roast Restaurant.
Candid Magazine: Why have you chosen Britain as the origin of the images you use to inspire your work?
Rachel Maggart: The paintings of New Britannia are in conversation with the place where they are exhibited: Roast Restaurant, which sits atop Borough Market, while aiming to elevate British cuisine by way of locally sourced products. Two of the paintings also allude to causes supported by Roast Foundation – maintaining Southwark Cathedral (Modern Love) and rehabilitating youth offenders by giving them employment in kitchens (Meat Your Maker).
The irony of an American putting a new lens on British iconography is essential to my project. I think it helps to eschew any question of (in)authenticity attached to a symbol, which may reaffirm or contradict preconceived notions of Britishness. Instead, it opens up an economic discourse around that symbol’s visibility. By re-presenting the visual exports of Britain, from an outsider’s point of view, I can look at a symbol’s trajectory through time and space, in addition to its embedded content.
CM: What are your main influences?
RM: For this project, Hito Steyerl’s 2007 documentary, Lovely Andrea, and essay, In Defense of the Poor Image, influenced my thinking about image movement and degradation in the digital age. I can also see Peggy Phelan’s theoretical writings on phantom bodies (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, 1993) in all the melting and eroding figures of New Britannia.
While I am painting, I listen to novels and stranger-than-fiction stories, in line with the ethos of the work. I am fascinated by authors like Witold Gombrowicz and Milan Kundera, whose work has a healthy dose of surrealism. Gombrowicz’s Cosmos (1965) creates a psychological tautness I try to reproduce in my paintings, while Kundera’s Immortality (1988) makes use of a magical device – something like a literary wormhole – which inspires me to play with depth of field and space. Generally, forms of storytelling, philosophy and studies in visuality guide me more than art, per se. Though I have always admired Egon Schiele’s mastery of the tortured line.
CM: Do you research material that you collate in the same painting or is the choice influenced primarily by aesthetic factors? Namely – would you say there is one theme more predominant in each piece?
RM: I have very little idea of what a work is about until after I finish painting it (and maybe not even then) though I research content while it’s materializing. For New Britannia, I collected a lot of imagery from the Internet and arranged it in various combinations, until stumbling upon a composition, which I would then distort and thoroughly manipulate, before painting and further modifying it in the final medium (usually oil, sometimes also using ink and house paint). Initially, I would have in mind some icon, artwork or place to incorporate, but random aesthetic judgment would quickly take over and determine the digital study.
Each piece does have its own set of concerns, with lots of overlap. Concepts of sexuality, exposure, illusion and decomposition play a part in most, if not all, of the paintings. If I had to reduce each work to a central concept: Modern Love = sexuality; Paper Doll = vacuity; Vanitas = exposure; Red Dot = commodification; Meat Your Maker = sublimation; Queen = decomposition; Shoot = objectification; Birds = fear; Fresh Ness = re-appropriation; Alice in Acid House = illusion. All of the works involve concepts of metamorphosis and transmutation.
CM: Do you aim to maintain a spontaneous response in terms of the images you couple together? Or do you go through a more rigid selection process?
RM: A composite image clicks into place by some mechanism of which I am hardly aware. Apparently, it is both subconscious and spontaneous, as, only in processing each image, I notice a growing dialogue between formal elements and narrative coding. This unknown factor is part of the alchemy of collage, I suppose. I try to be precise and never rigid, but this is a constant struggle for me.
CM: What do you consider more important? The concept or the visual link between the images?
RM: I don’t know actually! Both are certainly important, but the visual link always precedes the concept, which often changes and comes into focus well into the process of making the work.
CM: Colour is clearly an important factor in your compositions; do you find colour plays a big role in the picture combinations you initially make?
RM: Yes. I’ve always been fascinated by the emotive implications of colour and don’t understand why it sometimes gets a bad rap!
CM: To what extent do you manipulate colour in order to serve your composition (if at all)?
RM: I use colour to mimic chemical processes like iron oxidation, bacterial growth and decay, on the assumption also that colour can enhance the visceral impact of the work. The sanguine and lavender of Francis Bacon’s portraits of anxiety and alienation, for example, have stuck in my memory and haunted me in a particular way. I always gravitate toward this hot and cold pairing.
However, I am probably more concerned with elaborating textures in my work, to affect viewers. If I am blending paint to oblivion, I think of Morton Feldman’s atmospheric constellations of pitches. If I am drawing lines, I think of Richard Strauss or bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Akron Family’s use of strings.
By Alexandra Constantine