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Roxana Halls: ‘I often equate painting with performance’

The artist talks about her new show, Unknown Women, in which she explores concealment of identity, the different ways in which she creates a painting, and how she loves to mix and match things

by ANNA McNAY

Fifteen years ago, painter Roxana Halls (born 1974) walked into a disused theatre – now a bingo hall – in Streatham, south west London, and asked if they had a space in which she could make her studio. She was in luck and moved in to the old Bavarian Buffet at the top of the building. A little later, she upgraded to the Saloon Bar, where she still works today, surrounded by her collections of costumes and acquired theatrical paraphernalia. There is a strong element of performance in her work – and not just in the more explicit Cabaret series, or Roxana Hall’s Tingle-Tangle, which she produced for the National Theatre. Her paintings depict women, usually in some borderland, some liminal zone – balancing, juggling, or, in her latest series, Unknown Women, about to be shown at Hay Hill Gallery, London, with their faces concealed.

Anna McNay: You are about to open an exhibition, Unknown Women, at Hay Hill Gallery in London. I can see a lot of the work is here in your studio now. Shall we start by talking a little about the show?

Roxana Halls: It’s a series of images – a few of them are from the past, but about a third is new work – and I’m exploring concealment. Concealment of the face and of the identity. In literal terms, I’m concealing the identity of the female protagonist. In a metaphorical sense, these images may have something to do with the various ways in which people conceal certain aspects of their identities. For example, the extent to which someone might not wish to disclose their sexuality, their secrets or information about their past, yet might leave clues for those who desire to uncover them. In the Back series (2010), the figures are adorned with clues. For each one of them, it is suggested that they’re passing through something and that something has clung to them on the way, which tells you something about their story, their own particular narrative. Or potentially someone could think that somebody else has adorned them, that they themselves are static and someone else has made alterations to their appearance. I think all of these images are really open to different readings and I rather like that. The thread that runs through all of them, though, is that somewhere along the line they’re all rejecting something. They’re refusing and rejecting the gaze, which is something that has interested me for years. It’s great to have the opportunity to pull all these things together and make a show around this strand in my work.

AMc: Some of the works here – including the Back series – stand out from the others in that they are monochrome.

RH: It’s a grisaille technique. I’ve always been really interested in diptychs, triptychs and panel paintings and the fact that, so often, they were made so that they could be closed up, so that they could be portable and used for private prayer, as devotionals. You could open them up to contemplate the rich images within, but they were always decorated with these grisaille panels on the outside. You’d have things which were much more low key. During Lent, you used not only to have to abstain from eating but also from enjoying imagery. I saw an incredible wall hanging – or it looked like a wall hanging – in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. It was a sketchily drawn image of the virgin on fabric, very low key, and this piece of cloth was used to cover over imagery during Lent. I thought that was quite extraordinary. It made me think about how we all have passages in our life when we abstain. Perhaps we abstain from making decisions, or we abstain from displaying ourselves. We have periods when we withdraw, when we recede. Sometimes it’s a conscious thing; sometimes it’s a reaction to having marched forwards, perhaps. I find that I go through that cycle in my work over and over again, where I paint imagery that seems more performative or more extrovert, perhaps, like the Appetite series (2013-14) that I just did, where women are displaying their appetites and they are powerfully resisting decorum. I find whenever I’ve done a series like that – also with the Cabaret series (2009), where women are performing – I always find myself returning to this place where I close those shutters and want to contemplate. I think that’s quite a common thread with people. In a wider sense, it’s quite a common thread with society, as well – things are cyclical. Politically, we’re in a time of austerity and abstinence, so in the sense of the personal being political, I think I’m commenting on all of those things.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-04) in the Prado is my favourite example of such a panel painting. I get frustrated when I go to the museum because you’re seeing this tremendous thing, but I always know that behind it is this other amazing imagery, this fantastic grisaille painting, that you would only see if it were closed over. Not many people know this, but it’s a painting of the primordial swamp. I found a picture of it and it’s this incredible circular image, almost like a crystal ball, all in monochrome, and there are these strange swamp plants peering out of the gloom. It’s such an incredible contrast to what you see within.

AMc: Is that why your paintings in grisaille depict the backs of the women?

RH: Yes, I think that’s certainly got something to do with it.

AMc: They look a bit swamp-like, too.

RH: They do. Some of them have some vegetation on them; they’re walking through vegetation.

AMc: I thought they were a bit like nymphs in the forest.

RH: I think that’s what they do look like – it’s as if they’ve moved through something and something of what they’ve passed through has clung to them.

In a more complex sense, this is also what you see in Sleepwalking (2010), which is a larger grisaille with a coloured centre. The centre shows a bedroom with an empty bed. Then you can just about make out the figure as she sleepwalks in each of the segments. In the lower segment, she is passing through an underground grotto and you can hardly see her. It’s almost as if she’s been transformed into one of the stalagmites. The composition of that painting is based on a large grisaille painting by Bosch. The structure in the top section is an old fort by the sea in Kent. The walkway is only traversable at low tide, so I went exploring there very early in the morning with a friend a few years ago. Weirdly it came up for sale recently and it appeared on the Guardian. I thought, “Damn!” – I’d have really loved to have had that place. It’s like a structure of dreams – there’s something really peculiar about it.

AMc: Is that, then, painted from memory, or from a photograph?

RH: A mixture of both. All of the segments are a mixture of both: places that I’ve visited and places that I’ve never seen. The left-hand westerly quarter is the Arctic landscape of the Northern Lights.

I suppose using the back of a woman is something that intrigues me. You do see it recur in art history – [Vilhelm] Hammershøi being the most obvious example – and there’s always something so unreachable about such figures. I find that very interesting as a counterpoint to the kind of imagery in Appetite [Roxana Halls’ exhibition last year at Hay Hill Gallery], where women are rejecting society’s idea of what they should be. In these, they’re refusing the gaze. I find the play between the two really interesting.

AMc: Is there a specific symbolism to the hair?

RH: It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years. Again, it’s something that recurs. There’s something about a focus on a particular part of the body, which somehow enhances its power. The first thing that pops in to mind is Baudelaire’s poem La Chevelure (c1857). It’s an incredible poem. It’s like a hymn to a beautiful head of hair. He describes how he would like to sew it with rubies or sapphires and pearls, and says he can see it as a black sea. There’s this incredible romantic imagery that passes through the poem, but there’s something intensely peculiar about it too. It reminds me of the Nick Cave song Black Hair, which I love, where it’s all about the things that have passed through this black hair – his fingers, his tears. And there’s something about this focus on a particular part of the body that really fascinates me – and what we invest in that. The more you get intensely involved with one part of the body, the more it starts to move into something abject and it becomes something which is both of itself and separate from itself, which is strange, dark and enveloping. So, in a literal way, I’m adorning the head of hair, much as Baudelaire might adorn his head of hair, with his fantasies essentially. Doing that, because it does begin to touch on something that could be a little bit abject, it starts to relate to a lot of things that I do in my other work, because it’s like a borderline state. This is something I touch upon a lot, these kind of borderline states where things are teetering into something else.

AMc: You have a lot of works where you deal with balancing.

RH: Yes. Where things are supposedly polite parlour tricks but they’re going to collapse – or where they might collapse; or things where the objects, which pertain to a female identity, are balancing upon themselves. This could be perceived in one of two ways. It could be absolutely bound to collapse, this balancing act of female identity, which this person has adopted or created, this tower which they’ve built, or you could read it as being an incredible achievement and actually she’s managing it. I think this is one thing that’s common to almost everything I do – there’s something that is potentially not right, or maybe just right, but on the edge. So, with these backs, I think you could feel that maybe you could turn them round, maybe you could discover who they are, maybe they’re just about to turn, but they’re always on the verge of being something else – possibly turning or possibly transforming. With images like the two Nest paintings (2015), that’s possibly made more explicit, using imagery to do with birds and butterflies and so on, and the hair enclosing the face like a nest. In literal terms, it looks more like a wasps’ nest because that’s the kind of form that they make, that strange kind of rounded cocoon.

AMc: There’s something quite surreal about them as well.

RH: There is. I am interested in the tradition of surreal art. I don’t see myself as being part of that, necessarily, because you would then be moving into a realm of something that is slightly more dreamlike, and I don’t really deal in dreams. You could say that Sleepwalking touches upon that, but, for me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s much more about responding to things that I observe.

In the Nest paintings, I’m partly responding to these amazing garments by an incredible artist called Kristjana S Williams. She used to be part of a duo that had a fashion house called Beyond the Valley. Anything of theirs that comes up on eBay, I snap it up, because I’m really crazy about their clothes. I respond to clothes a lot. I find clothing really inspiring.

There’s another painting, A Teaser for the Able Milliner (2011), which depicts a series of hats balancing on poles, where each of them suggests a different character, a different identity, but the shadows are telling a different story. It’s as if they carry with them the shadow of the people who wore them. You might think you know what their story is, but the shadows are telling something different and there’s all kinds of romantic interplay between the ladies who wore them.

AMc: Let’s talk about Spinning (2015). That painting is quite different from the others because of the background, which is so busy.

RH: Yes, it’s got much more dynamism. I thought it would be interesting to place one of these figures into a very different context. It refers in many ways to some of my earlier more theatrical work. Again, that’s another thread that keeps recurring. You can’t place the figure, you don’t know where she is. It may just be that she’s in a state of confusion where you don’t know which way she’ll turn or it could be read as something almost like a knife-thrower’s set up, where someone is going to throw knives at her.

AMc: There’s something a bit witch-like about her as well.

RH: It's interesting that you should say that because it is something I was thinking about when I was doing the Back series, with images of keys and fragments of leaves and letters hanging from the hair, and strange kinds of plaits binding the body. When I was making those, I was thinking about witches’ curse bottles, because I’d seen a few in a lovely little folk art museum. I’m very interested in the way that we imbue detritus with meaning. We all do it. It’s interesting specifically in that context. Some of these images, because they’re sealed and you can’t work out what environment they’re in, could be read almost as being like a hermetically sealed bottle. You see these amazing witches’ bottles that have a nail and a piece of a doll and a leaf and a shred of fabric, and somehow they’re imbued with a strange kind of magic. They were used to curse people. I presume that these objects were all things that were associated with the cursee. What’s odd is that, when you see these things, you can’t resist them. You know there’s something peculiar about them, that they have some dark power. They’re potent.

AMc: Do you see these works as being dark?

RH: No. Possibly. I think, again, they’re in a borderline place. Largely, they’re at a point of transition and sometimes transition is a dark place to be. It doesn’t mean that what they’re passing through or what they’re moving towards is dark. Change is difficult.

AMc: You just mentioned some of the theatrical elements in your work. Can we talk a bit about that? Does theatre play a large role generally in your work?

RH: I did a series of paintings that were shown in the National Theatre in 2009. The exhibition was called Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle. I used my name in the title not for the purposes of ego but because I wanted to suggest that it was rather like a troupe and I was the impresario of the troupe. My studio is in this rather wonderful saloon bar of an old south London theatre. As far as I know, no cabaret took place here, but I wanted to create a series of paintings that was rather like watching a cabaret performance from curtain up to curtain down. And I created that within this room. I made various setups, I produced costumes, I enlisted performers to be part of my troupe. I performed in the troupe myself in one painting too – in Terina The Paper Tearer and Inferna The Human Torch (2009), tearing paper and burning it. Each painting describes a performance. I was painting everything from life, which meant making very complex setups – I was literally making tableaux to paint from. My working practice has evolved a lot over the years since then. Essentially, you have to get to wherever you have to get to by whatever means necessary. At the time, that made sense and there was almost a kind of purity of approach. I don’t like that term, but I wanted the feeling that a performance had taken place here. I often equate painting with performance anyway. It feels like it’s a performative act. It seems like a natural marriage, really.

AMc: You wanted to be an actor originally, didn’t you?

RH: Yes, when I was very young, but then I realised it really wasn’t for me, the actor’s life. But I’m very interested in performance and drama. I think I’m more interested in being a director now, though.

AMc: How did you end up with this amazing studio?

RH: I just walked in one day. I moved to the area and I really wanted a studio space here and I thought: “Well, that looks like a big building. They might have some space.” So I strolled in and I was very fortunate. I wasn’t in this studio originally, I was in the room above this, which is called the Bavarian Buffet, but I always used to wander into this room, which was empty. It had fag burns on the carpet and a few tables knocked over and nobody ever came in here. There was a thick layer of dust on the bar and I thought: “This is the room, isn’t it?” One day the owner of the bingo hall asked me if I knew anyone who would want it, so I found someone else for the Bavarian Buffet and moved in here myself. I’ve been in the building for more than 15 years now. Every year I wonder how long I’ve got because change is inevitable – but somehow I’m still here.

One of the paintings that I did in the Cabaret series is called Mrs Irma Powell and the Britannia Marionettes (2007). It’s an image of a woman with an enormous wig, which is a birdcage, and her skirts are a puppet theatre and the interior of the puppet theatre is the interior of this room. The Britannia Marionettes that are in the painting were made by a woman called Muriel Talbot in the 1950s and 60s. She handmade these amazing puppets and used to perform with them on television and for royalty. I now own all her puppets. It was very odd how they came to me. Her daughter was moving house and downsizing and decided to sell them. She put them into a local auction and it snowed that day, so nobody went. So she put them on eBay and someone else bid on them but something went wrong with PayPal so they couldn’t pay for them. Then I saw them and bought them. So it was a miraculous thing that they came to me at all. But I’ve often thought now that, at some point, I’d like to give them to the Museum of Childhood, if it was interested in them, because I’m quite sad that they’re not being seen by people because they’re amazing.

AMc: Talking of childhood, what is your background? Did you study fine art?

RH: No. I did a foundation course and found that I was pretty ill-suited to an art school environment. I just wanted to be at home; I just wanted to work; I just wanted to paint, paint, paint. I knew pretty quickly that was what I wanted to do. As soon as I started oil painting, that was it, I was a painter. My first paintings were pretty terrible, but, for some reason, I thought: “This is it.” I moved to London and just painted, worked hard, went to the National Gallery constantly and did it that way. So I’m mainly self-taught.

AMc: You’ve certainly been successful. You already have an array of awards and shortlistings to your name.

RH: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been shown at the BP Portrait Award many times and I’ve won a few things here and there. The Villiers David Prize [which Halls was awarded in 2004] was a great one to win. It was that which enabled me to do the Cabaret series. I was nominated by Beaux Arts Gallery in London. It was a prize that was intended to provide you with the funds to travel and to research a theme of your choice. That was how I came to go to Berlin for the first time. I’ve been many, many times subsequently, and I’m constantly thinking that I’m going to move there one day. Inevitably, I was 80 years too late for the Weimar scene though! I also won the Founder’s Purchase Prize at the Discerning Eye show [in 2010], so now I’m in the Discerning Eye collection, which is great.

AMc: You’ve had praise from Brian Sewell [a notorious British art critic] as well.

RH: Amazingly, yes. I’m probably among the few. There should be a little club. He’s a lovely chap. He saw my work really early on – the first time I showed at the BP Portrait Award, in fact. I was only 19. He wrote a review and mentioned my work and he’s written about it a lot subsequently. Very kindly, he wrote a passage for me to use when I had my first exhibition with Beaux Arts. I know he’s very acerbic and I may not agree with everything he says, but he’s been very kind to me. What more can I say? He also commissioned me to make a work for his collection. He wanted a kind of Caravaggiesque image so I painted Nick Hackworth [the director of the gallery Paradise Row] as a Caravaggio boy because he has dark, Caravaggiesque good looks. I painted him rejecting all the props, which you might associate with such an image. So he’s pulling at a voluminous, red velvet drape around him, and the still life that would have adorned the table before him is flying up in mid air. Again, that’s something that recurs in my work quite a lot.

AMc: You say you painted that work in the manner of Caravaggio. Do you try to do that with other painters as you go on your visits to the National Gallery and do your research? Do you deliberately take on or copy elements of their style?

RH: Not consciously, no, but, to coin the phrase, I’m a bit of a magpie, so inevitably you find yourself picking up on things all over the place. There was a time when Caravaggio loomed large, as he does for a lot of younger artists, particularly if you’re doing anything dark and theatrical, but the kind of work that interests me these days has changed a great deal. I wouldn’t say that I consciously look to anyone in particular at any given time, but you filter through so many things. And it’s not necessarily just visual artists either. I’m very interested in cinema and music and writing so it could be an amalgam of all sorts of things that you pick up on.

AMc: Then these ideas just come together?

RH: I don’t really know where they come from. I don’t arrive at my work through preparatory work. Images come to me. Making work produces other work.

AMc: Do you literally just sit at the canvas and start painting?

RH: I’ll have ideas. I’ll have light-bulb moments here and there, and things will pop into my head. Some of them have to fall by the wayside because I can’t make everything, but some things are so persistent that they have to be made. I suppose my general ethos is, if this has to be made, then I’ll find a way of doing it. I used to have quite a defined and prescribed way of working, where I’d make an installation and work from that and see that as akin to theatre and performance. I would always work that way, but I don’t any more. Now I very much take the view that you have to do whatever you have to do to take you there. I use so many different ways to create a painting now and it’s changing all the time. I use photography now, which I never used to, and I don’t necessarily paint everything from life. Sometimes I use models, sometimes I don’t. I’ll mix and match things. I don’t think you can actually tell by looking at my work and I like that ambiguity. Again, it’s the borderline thing. It’s one of those questions you ask yourself – how explicit do you want to be about how you make something? It does influence how people see the painting and, on balance, I don’t want that.

• Roxana Halls: Unknown Women will be on show at Hay Hill Gallery, London, from 5-30 May 2015



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