The Gallery Green and Stone
30 May to 3 June 2023
Scarlett Segal’s exhibition, A Sense of Place, is briefly on display at Green and Stone in Chelsea. Before the show opened I enjoyed a visit to her studio in a village nestled in the South Downs, not far from the Long Man of Wilmington and equidistant from Seaford and Eastbourne.
This location is worth mentioning for its varied and quick changing geographical diversity of well kept fields, ancient patches of woodland and dramatically shaped, grass covered chalk hills. Within a short day’s wandering a healthy walker could find themselves enclosed by thickets of ash, beech and oak trees, tripping on stony ground or slipping on soaked grassy banks. There are plenty of dark, leafy copses, leading on to more open local vistas that coax and challenge further investigation. Steep stretches of smooth hillside that beckon the traveller upwards towards local summits can be enclosed in mist or clearly contrasted against clear blue skies. These climatic changes can take place within a day, let alone from season to season. For those who reach these various hilltops the views of the South Downs will stretch far and wide to invite aerial perspectives and to scale up vision. To the south, where the gaze can detect the sea view so surprisingly close by, there is a big enough hint to confirm the island upon which we can still sometimes lose ourselves in – a place of safe solitude, perhaps, despite the recent pandemic. To the landscape painter it’s a small paradise that can stretch as far as the eye can see, to beneath one’s feet, or to the finger-tips in search of the distinctively tactile.
We first spoke to each other after a presentation of Julian Le Bas’ paintings exhibited at The Star Gallery in Lewes. As with Le Bas, if you live in this wonderful corner of the county and you have an interest in painting, you cannot avoid the land and sea as subject matter. Historically Eric Ravilious, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (at Charleston) plus Jean Cooke and Harold Mockford, amongst many others, have responded to and extracted and invented something from this chalky Downland that engages with the English Channel, or should I say La Manche, as Segal is a French citizen who will therefore not take this landscape for granted.
Meeting in an artist’s studio is always a special pleasure, and, with an interview a handy precursor to a formal exhibition presentation. Many of the paintings for A Sense of Place had been unwrapped and temporarily displayed in the library, mostly perched on shelves in front of the art books and French novels. The paintings were simply but effectively framed in white moulding which more than adequately served the purpose of completing the works for hanging in future homes. From seeing some of these paintings on the gallery website beforehand there was a degree of familiarity with the imagery, but the digital image can never substitute for the real thing. Colours and surface qualities have to be considered in the flesh – and a composition such as ‘Path in the South Downs’ came across as far more varied in painterly and scratchy, drawn textures and subtle tonalities than on the computer screen. At just 26X34 cm it is quite small, but the composition and paint handling evoked sensations of both the physicality of the terrain and the implied movement of the walking observer who will perceive the changing scenery as a time-based phenomenon.
I was intrigued by the art history books, but was curious as to how Segal had found herself in East Sussex and, as a painter myself, in her daily working practice.
GH: You originate from Paris and have lived and studied in London, so how have you found yourself in rural Sussex?
SS: I needed a change of scene literally and a reset button. I am a big city person at heart but the lockdown took the advantages of city living away. The culture had gone overnight and so did the possibility of socialising with friends. I have always liked to replenish in the countryside. My family had a country house in Normandy, which we always went to at weekends and on holidays. I also lived and raised my family in Surrey for many years. It did not feel rural enough and therefore I took the leap. Sussex is gorgeous with its hills and the sea nearby. It is a stones throw away from London. And it has its perks. I have also discovered the Towner and the glorious Charleston Trust. What is there not to like? I once wrote in a journal years ago that I needed to be in isolation in the calm and quiet to build a brand new body of work. And I did just that here. I am very adaptable and flexible. If money were no object I would live between London and here, and between England and France. I could certainly do with more sun and blue sky!
GH: What is your way of working? Do you have a routine?
SS: I am very self disciplined and a hard worker which does not prevent me from having fun and procrastinating somehow. I justify it as my thinking mode. I work most days and even on walks I look and sketch and think. I would read on a train journey. For me art is a way of life and thanks to it I learn valuable skills such as problem solving and perseverance. There are skilled artists. Talented ones even, but in order to make it, it is sheer hard work and resilience. I am fortunate that I can now devote my time entirely to a passion that originated in childhood. And even though I came to it later on in life I can now put all my energy and life experience into it. So yes, I draw most days and paint relentlessly. No routine as such but I make sure I go to my studio every day. To paint, to read, to tidy up. To prime surfaces which I love experimenting with. Boards are my favourite at the moment. I love being there. I love the smell of the various media. I feel time stands still except when there are important deadlines. I find solace and the more you do the easier it gets. I paint in both acrylics and oil and want to experiment with mixed media. But for landscapes I definitely prefer oil paint. I use very high quality pigments because it makes life easier and the process is so much more enjoyable. I use a limited palette and mix all of my colours.
GH: There must be ‘off days’?
SS: Of course – some days are just not meant to be. There are also the happy accidents and the times when everything falls into place. It is an ongoing learning curve. I feel so fortunate I can do what I love and express my emotions. If viewers are moved or reminisce or travel through my work then I am a very happy artist indeed. I never quite know what the next work will be and this makes the process exciting. The dream I have is to make a difference and collaborate with community projects.
GH: Art History is clearly important to you, as you have studied at Christies, Sotheby’s, The Courtauld Institute, and continue to do so at Charleston. Does this academic background affect and inform your painting practice in any specific kind of way? Does it help, or is it an academic hindrance?
SS: It certainly does help. I think the discourse is changing drastically right now and it is very exciting for female artists who have been so cast aside for centuries. Somehow I don’t think it had ever been questioned before Linda Nochlin’s essay (“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) in the 1970s. Since then, we have had women such as Judy Chicago, Siri Husvedt and Katy Hessel, among others, to thank for that. When you think that widely read and influential art historians such as Vasari and Gombrich could only name one woman each! So, yes, history of art informs my work through research but like all artists I am a magpie and will study real masterpieces in order to use what appeals to me. I love visiting galleries and I am sure I must be irritating to other museum goers as I love standing close to understand how a certain effect was achieved. I must confess that it can take the fun away which is why I tend to go to exhibitions often more than once if I can and take friends too. You cannot learn from books reproductions or art critics. And to see the brushstrokes of Cézanne or Morisot in the flesh brings tears to my eyes.
I am very aware of all the arts movements and their historical context. I wish I knew more about cross disciplines such as literature and music. I remember a splendid exhibition at the V&A a few years back called Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. The curator (Kate Bailey) had done just that putting all the facts together per city, where there was an opera house, on a blackboard. I remember thinking this is the way we should be taught before being taught the formal way of analysing works of art and the themes to look out for. It feels forced to some extent but you need a toolkit.
Cézanne, the Father of Modernism, is one of my favourite painters and we are so fortunate that his works are so easy to access. I also love Corot and Turner. My work is inspired mostly from Modernism, including Abstraction, and as such it is inevitable to have a very good understanding of what happened before, since Modernist artists pushed boundaries and endeavoured to break all the rules.
GH: Your exhibition at Green and Stone, A Sense of Place, has essentially a landscape theme. Are you moving on from your geometric/abstract work or do the two practices work alongside each other?
SS: Yes, it is actually all landscapes but not only – hence the title of the show. The works are painted in a varied style or language. Some move totally towards abstraction even. It comes back to what I was just saying. It is difficult to justify that you can do both and want to do both. Galleries will accept that you paint portraits and still lifes, or still lifes and landscapes, but not representational and abstract. I find this infuriating and short sighted. I think the explanation lies both in the difficulty of branding different looking aesthetics, or what could commonly be referred to as a “Jack of all trades”, and the classification and hierarchy of genres imposed by the Academies.
In the history of art timeline, artists evolved towards semi abstraction and abstraction from the 20th century until now. Very few reverted back to representational art. Vanessa Bell did try it all. The need to label and compartmentalise everything is a sign of our times whereby instant gratification and ready-made explanations are sought. But this is exactly what artists have always done (think of the Bauhaus or the Bloomsbury Group) and must carry on to do. Anyhow, conventions and limitations have always been imposed. Think of Gainsborough who painted portraits for a living but only ever wanted to be a landscape artist. Nothing new. Artists have free rein to express the way they see the world and seek to make a difference.
So to answer your question, yes I would like to find a way of making the two practices co-exist and look coherent. In my eyes they already are and show an evolution from Space to Place. This is just commercially difficult to explain.
GH: There is quite some emphasis on water in many of the paintings in this new exhibition, with the Cuckmere river, streams and the coast nearby this is inevitable for a landscape painter living in this part of the county. Plus there’s snow in ‘Gone is the Long Man, Wilmington’ and ‘White Stillness’, plus mist (‘Misty River’) and the loaded, soaking, atmosphere in ‘Before the Storm’. Should the viewer read anything into this?
SS: I find water soothing. Its noise. Its rhythm. Its fluidity. And I love swimming. I am drawn to reflections, as I also like how it changes our perception of what we see above. It is like being confronted by two realities, one more transient that the other. I have also always been fascinated by the myth of Narcissus. I see water as a mirror of our soul.
GH: I am also intrigued by several of your titles, particularly ‘Let Go’, ‘Looking Up’ and ‘Serene Promise’. It suggests to me that a sense of place is more than a view or visual record. I feel a sense of time, particularly on a personal level, where one might acknowledge that sense of a lifetime journey. Am I reading too much into the titles?
SS: No you are not at all. It is true. Some works are drawn to certain memories and are very personal. Landscapes can be self-portraits too. I actually think you can dig deeper and express more this way without being obvious and imposing a reading of the work. I am a strong believer that once you finish a painting you need to let go and accept that some people will perceive other emotions than the ones you intended. Hearing the explanations given to some Old Masters’ and contemporary works sometimes make me laugh. I think of course that was not the intention, but who knows? If it gets people thinking and talking this is a great thing! I like the openness in a way. I dislike pedantic talks about art though. Art should not be elitist. It should be accessible to all. But knowledge is power in any field.
GH: A serious and a tongue in cheek question: Why not just photograph these landscape locations? Isn’t the genre of landscape painting quite outmoded nowadays?
SS: Well if you want to look at and frame a photograph then you can. It is a work of art in its own right. Photography has in fact forced painters to paint differently. Would the Impressionists have existed without its invention? Most unlikely, or not to that extent.
GH: Well photography probably created Realism (in France), from which Impressionism developed that sense of the now and the everyday. Monet is the classic example. I don’t equate your paintings with the camera at all.
SS: Even though I use my own photographs, I do not paint directly from them. I would find this boring and limiting. There would be no creativity. One could use grids or paint by numbers! Joking apart, I always work on compositions through sketches, and rebuilding photographic worlds in Photoshop or Procreate. And I really think my heavily constructed abstract geometric works made me work this way. Nothing is random or completely organic. I see myself as an architect of worlds. By contrast, the landscapes start with a mapped composition but evolve organically with shapes of colours. So no, a photograph could never achieve this in my view.
GH: As I said earlier, your work suggests a sense of place and the experience of perception in that place – far more than a view or visual record.
SS: I personally see shapes and colours dancing in front of my eyes all the time. I thought everyone did. It certainly makes drawing easier. It might be a form of synaesthesia or something else; I am not sure what the correct term would be. This perception informs the way I paint. Painting for me is recapturing the experience of seeing and feeling.
But I should add that I do not think that landscape painting is quite ‘outmoded’. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think landscape painting has a very long tradition for sure but that its ubiquity has been sidelined by more spectacular art forms such as Conceptual art, Installation art, Performance and Land Art, even. But I have noticed a resurgence of interest for landscape painting as demonstrated by the latest publications on contemporary landscape artworks. I find the works by David Hockney, Peter Doig (exquisite show at The Courtauld by the way), Anselm Kiefer and Luc Tuymans, to name but a few, very current. They have all reinvented the idea of landscape according to their artistic needs and the times they live in.
GH: That’s an extremely positive point to end on, to acknowledge that landscape related art is continuously reinvented. Thank you, Scarlett.
If you miss the show you can contact Scarlett Segal directly via her website – https://scarlettsegal.com
Exhibition at Green and Stone – https://www.thegalleryatgreenandstone.com/exhibitions/scarlett-segal