Monday, 24 February 2014

5 Questions With... artist Meredith Birrell

Artist Meredith Birrell

Are the old photographs you use in Grandmother series and Archive (both on show at the 2013 NAS grad show) of your own family? If so, why is this family connection important? If not, where do they come from?

Yes, they are photos from the life of my mother’s mother from childhood to young adulthood, so they date from c.1920s – 1950s. The idea of family history has become increasingly important to me over the last few years – I suppose it comes from a desire to know more about where I come from and what makes me who I am now. My grandmother also died when I was very young, so I never really knew her. My mother actually collected all these pictures from other members of the family and when I was given them it inspired me to think about making a project based around them, especially as it allowed me to work through my maternal history. It is really about three generations of women. 
Meredith Birrell, Grandmother Series - Home. Courtesy of the artist.
In Grandmother series you produce large scale canvas reproductions of old photographs that are unclear and obscured, why do you create this effect?

I was exploring the dual nature of memory and nostalgia, that it is at once comforting and safe and yet also distant, lost, forever-out-of-reach. I was deliberately trying to show this paradox and the difficulty of reaching the past. Figures from the past are ghosts, spectres that haunt us in the present, so I tried to show this by making them insubstantial and out-of-focus. It was also about bringing attention to the surface of the picture – the fact I couldn’t reach through it to get at the past. The paintings show this struggle and my subjective response to history, not factual history itself. 
Meredith Birrell, Grandmother Series - Matrix, oil and beeswax on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Your work is heavily steeped in nostalgia and memory - what inspired you to head down this path?

Yes, for all the reasons above. The family photograph carries this narrative of pleasure and pain, life and death, something Roland Barthes talks about in Camera Obscura, which incidentally was inspired by a photo he discovered of his mother as a child. As much as I was interested in discovering some ‘truth’ about myself though an exploration of my past, I knew this would be an impossible task, I could only paint my own subjectivity, not the past itself. 

Do you see yourself continuing with this theme and how do you see it developing?

Yes I do, this is only a beginning for me. I have just begun working with an album of my own family photos, so we’ll see where this goes. There is a lot of painting and writing out there at the moment that talks about photography and memory, so I see my work as fitting into this conversation somehow, but with my own personal bent. I would like to keep exploring the opposing drives within the photograph and our strange attachment to it, as well as keep testing the limits of representational painting. I want to make pictures that people respond to viscerally, that shift between the light and the dark.  

Describe you work in five words.  

Figurative, conflicted, personal, painterly, introspective. 

Meredith Birrell, Grandmother Series - Untitled 1. Courtesy of the artist.

Meredith Birrell, Grandmother Series - Untitled 2. Courtesy of the artist.
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