Please tell me a little about your background, and where you studied. What path was it that led you to painting?
I was born in London, 1985, lived in The New Forest on the south coast for my teens and moved back up here to pursue life as an artist. Knowing how hard that would be I studied Illustration at London College of Communication. It was a great course for encouraging experimentation and choosing a medium relevant to the project in hand. I knew I could paint so enjoyed playing with different materials throughout that time. It wasn’t until the fourth of four projects in my final year I painted the ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ series that got me going. I made a fashion film for the second which lead me to pursue the field of art direction within fashion. I liked the idea of reassigning my concept of approach into a fashion field. I graduated and interned at i-D Magazine, working in all departments, then onto SHOWstudio for almost a year. I learnt a lot working with Nick Knight and Carrie Scott. However, art was always an ambition, I’ve been developing my method since I can remember.
A couple of years ago you did a series of black and white paintings. They seem to deal with a darker subject matter. Do you want to tell me a little bit about those paintings and what led up to them?
The ‘That’s the Way’ series is an ongoing collection of paintings done to record my flaws. They are snapshots of myself, with my face obscured in each, a series of anonymous self-portraits.
A couple of years ago I went to Bali for a month to spend a little time alone, to paint, surf, and generally to take a break from London. There was a bit of time for self-reflection there so I came with seven of those.
I’m forever collecting images of blokes with black hair with their faces obscured to use as a portrayal of myself for my paintings; exposing self-portraits whilst hiding behind the face of another. I collaged and moved the images about to create the compositions and went about painting them. I use a frayed brush dirtied with acrylic paint which is picked up by the texture of the paper, creating that blurred effect.
Whilst at college I watched a French science fiction film called ‘La Jetée’ that I suppose had some visual influence on the series.
When giving the paintings their names I took the motto ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles’, rhyming alternative endings throughout. I hope this assonance puts the onlooker at ease whilst questioning the scene.
Your work first got “discovered” on BBC Culture Show. Do you want to talk a little about that body of work ‘Frank Wild Years’ and also about first getting that recognition for your art?
‘Frank’s Wild Years’ is a series of nine I painted because I wanted to paint but was unsure what. I took a song by the same name from the American singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, which gave me this arresting narrative to go about visualising. I stumbled across a collection of stills from the TV series, Madmen (a series unknown at the time). I mixed them up through collage, taking characters from pictures and putting them in others to tell the story of Frank, a used-car salesman that burnt his house to the ground believing his wife was in it, harming no one but her pet Chihuahua.
I submitted two paintings from the series to The Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy, each year The Culture Show does a Summer Exhibition Special, part of which, the BBC’s art historian and presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon, picks four shortlisted artworks he would like to see in the exhibition, mine being his first. They came over to the studio for an interview, showed other paintings of the series and it was great to hear this guy I hold in very high regard talk about artwork I painted whilst studying, referencing it to Edward Hopper.
The programme hadn’t been on 20 minutes before I was inundated with price requests for my body of work. That moment was a huge turning point and an incredible feeling, having painted these for myself to have people I’ve never met before taking notice of what I’m up to, and want to own a part of it. The paintings weren’t chosen for the exhibition, however, but art is subjective so they say.
Your work is concerned with the media and images of the self and how it, in turn, influences our own narratives. Would you like to expand a little further on your paintings and the image of the self, please?
Life is full of reflection, mine’s a healthier one than it would be otherwise, for having the opportunity to paint about it. It’s an exposing practice, which I suppose is why I like to personify myself through painting other skinny guys with black hair, taken from their original photo or cinematic still and placed into my scene, telling my story, with a hazy realism like the scenario is from a dream. I want this distorted ambiguity to encourage the identity of each figure to remain open to the viewer. I’d like them to place themselves or someone they know into the piece.
A number of your paintings portray a sense of alienation or the impression that not all is well in paradise. Do you see your paintings as a commentary on the society we live in?
Life as we know it is uncertain and we’re in a scary place right now. Referendums, Brexit and Trump are all worthy subjects for art and it’s deeply important that society expresses themselves and is heard, but it’s not what my paintings have been about. That’s not to say I don’t have a forthcoming series with that in thought, mind you.
What’s your dream exhibition or commission, and also: what is coming up next for you?
It would feel like an expedition, or it could be one. A tour of a hotel with a key to every door, my life so far. Each room would be clearly designated to a different series of paintings. I’d like the visitor to leave feeling they’ve been on a voyage, with the album of snapshots (paintings) engrained, but the bits between left a blur.
I’m currently painting through the first piece of a large-scale triptych for a client in Spain; a scale out of my comfort zone but it’s looking great so far.
Once those are done I think a couple more of the ‘That’s the Way’ series are in order, then I’ve something very different in mind, playing with a different medium is a while off yet but something to look forward to.
Maria Stenfors has more than 20 years of experience from the art world. She worked at several galleries in Stockholm and London, as well as an independent art advisor, prior to running her own eponymous contemporary art gallery in King’s Cross between 2010 and 2016. Passionate about ‘space and material’ she is an independent consultant alongside working in a gallery.