Published  10/07/2015

Jeanne Masoero: ‘My work is about trying to find structures, a kind of contained chaos’

Jeanne Masoero: ‘My work is about trying to find structures, a kind of contained chaos’

The artist explains how her interest in the Mayan civilisation led her to use layers in her work. Typically, she says, she spends three months on one piece, gradually building up the layers in what she calls her ‘landscapes of the mind’


Born in London to Italian parents, Jeanne Masoero spent her first six years living in Italy. When she returned to England and was sent to a convent school, she spoke no English and was looked on as something of a curiosity. The strict education that ensued – “Latin and Gregorian chant and not much else” – instilled in her a rigorous discipline, which is apparent in her intricate abstract drawings and paintings, where unseen nets carry clusters of minute marks – grains of colour – out into a sublime infinity, while simultaneously keeping them contained within an amniotic sac, floating in a white expanse. It is possible to trace journeys between the ridges and valleys, like on a map, and each work offers a journal of journeys – made by Masoero, made by the viewer – through invisible and imagined landscapes.

Studio International spoke to Masoero in her studio during a recent exhibition of her work at Sandra Higgins Fine Art, London, Invisible Cities: A Mayan Journey. Higgins was also present.

Anna McNay: Let’s start by talking a bit about the work in your exhibition, which is inspired by a journey you made to the Mayan sites in the Yucatán in the summer of 1977. Clearly this trip had a big influence on you.

Jeanne Masoero: Yes, I was fascinated by the idea of these Mayan sites – visiting them was an experience, actually standing where the Mayans stood – and by the idea of layers. These cities had existed and had been grown over in time and then other cities had been built on top of them, and so on and so on, right up to the topmost layers. This idea of layers really fascinated me and, when I came back, I started making things with stacked paper [Basis for Light, 1972-79]. That gradually led to the Figures and Light paintings (1984-1998) in red and green, as if you are looking down on plans of these cities that once existed. Really they are cities of the imagination. I was there years before it was known how and why the tribes – the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Toltecs – had wiped each other out. There were all sorts of theories about why the civilisations had just suddenly disappeared.

It was an extraordinary journey for me, both mentally and also physically – I’d never seen a jungle, for example. We went to Mexico and Guatemala and Belize, which is a very peculiar country, right on the edge, very swampy. There were a few sites there, but mostly not very well excavated. And then we went up to the main area of the Yucatán and that was an extraordinary experience, too, because of the flat landscape. We spent a month there going around really very cheaply, by foot and mule, travelling in decrepit buses. We slept in hammocks. I’d never slept in a hammock in the middle of the jungle before. We were serenaded by monkeys and strange pigeons. We had an invasion of tiny little pigs – except I don’t think they were pigs – which rushed through our sleeping place.

Anyhow, I was thinking about having a publication1 and I began writing these notes for Edward Rutherfurd, who was to write the essay, to look at – really my autobiography – starting with when I came to England and then this journey to Central America. The paintings came from that. It’s a big series: I spent about 14 years on it. The other thing that fascinated me was the idea of taking two colours opposite each other on the colour circle – red and green – and, when they merge, they create possibly 40 or 50 different colours and tones, a kind of chiaroscuro. I wanted to explore that and, when I came to the end of that series, I turned to blue and orange for the next.

AMc: Did you work with just the one red and one green?

JM: No, I had about five different reds, from dark red to orange, and then five or so different greens.

AMc: You’ve mentioned that your paintings are like looking down on the cities. You spent three years (1964-7) working as a member of the cartographic design team in the architects and town planners department of the Greater London Council. There certainly seems to be an element of the cartographic landscape to your work today – tracing terrains, perhaps. To what extent do you conceive of your canvas as a map?

JM: Not really at all. But there is certainly the idea of looking down from a great height, like satellite maps, for example. They don’t look like real maps, but they refer to a landscape with ridges and valleys and crevices. It’s not that I want to paint maps or anything, but the idea behind them – the structure – is what interests me. Those paintings [Figures and Light] followed on immediately from the white reliefs in paper [Basis for Light] and also I began experimenting with paint in small flecks or grains of colour, so that you’ve got this transparency, again of layers, like the Mayan sites, one layer of transparent colour on top of another layer so that it builds up gradually.

AMc: Do you always start with a white background?

JM: Yes, it’s the important part of the painting, really. It’s not just the white ground – I see it as light; a strong light behind a screen of colour. Sometimes the white comes forward through the painting, but often it’s pushed back through the colour – the coloured screen, as it were. You have this movement in form and in depth. Parts of the paintings often appear more dense than others: there are transparent areas and dense areas. So often your eye might travel across a painting, lingering more on the dense areas and going more quickly across the transparent areas, as if you were taking a journey.

AMc: Sandra, you were talking about the idea of a journey earlier when we were looking at Jeanne’s paintings in your gallery.

Sandra Higgins: For me, while you don’t think it’s a map, Jeanne, it’s an elevation perhaps. You know, in design, you used to have an elevation? You can imagine, if you were a tiny little person, walking through these crevices that you’ve created. It sometimes reminds me of cubism, as well, because I feel there’s this dimensional element. In the same way you would go through the passage in a cubist painting, I feel I can walk around within one of your paintings and go backward and forward – and so it is a journey, yes.

JM: I like that.

AMc: Are you imagining a specific journey or landscape as you’re painting a particular work?

JM: No. It could be any landscape. It’s the landscape of the mind, really. I’m also quite fascinated by the Hubble telescope pictures – you see some extraordinary explosions in space. To me, it’s all to do with energy. This is what I want my paintings to be about.  So it’s a cluster of forms coming together in a core, a nucleus, before spreading out gradually to be absorbed into the surrounding white light or space.

AMc: There is something quite scientific about them. Actually, before I even knew you had had an exhibition called Magnetic Fields,2 I was looking at your work and thinking it looks rather like you have had a magnet dragging particles across the canvas or page.

SH: They definitely have a sense of infinity. They seem to beckon because the lines are quite irregular; the conversation suggests diverging beyond the canvas, so you have this wonderful feeling of expanse. Even though they’re contained in these groups and clusters, as you say, it's very expansive feeling and it’s ambiguous because you have this feeling that it goes beyond, and your mind goes beyond as well. You have this endless kind of stream.

JM: It’s a fragment of something much bigger. In the more recent paintings, Force Fields (1997-2002), which were included in the exhibition you just mentioned, I’ve left the construction lines, which for me emphasised this idea that they’re somehow part of something bigger, some kind of grid, rather like the galaxies. I actually think of it more like a net, a cosmic net, where everything is connected but there are huge differences of distances. Nothing is static. There’s a kind of flow. Nothing is pinned down to a specific point.

AMc: I find it intriguing because you’ve spoken before of painting as “a model of endlessness”; as an energy that is not contained within the frame. This makes me think of the sublime, but notions of that tend to be that something is pushing right up against the edges of the frame, as with Derrida’s idea of the parergon. Your clusters or nets don’t do that, because they are contained, and there is a lot of white space around them, but you still get that idea that they are almost going beyond the edges, without actually doing so. I’m trying to understand how that happens.

JM: It’s the fine lines. The skeleton of the painting is linear. I don’t think of colour drawing; I think of drawing with colour. So they’re the lines that then spread out beyond the core of the image and go up towards the edges of the canvas. The paintings then do that more and more, and so become more and more transparent.

AMc: Do you always draw on to the canvas first?

JM: I don’t draw with a pencil. I’ve got very tiny brushes. I do a lot of drawings and always have done, to work out if an idea will succeed as a painting. I also draw in pen and ink. Obviously the drawing changes as I work on canvas. Using the very tiny brushes, I draw in the net, and then the very interesting and beautiful part begins of putting in the colour. I paint in one colour on top of another. I never know how it’s going to look, what it will be, whether it’s going to look right or not. It’s a fascinating way to work for me because it’s building up layers very gradually – a cumulative way of painting.

AMc: How long do you typically spend on a painting?

JM: Usually around three months. That’s working full-time, of course.

AMc: I don’t think I’d be able to see straight if I was looking at such tiny marks.

JM: That’s interesting because I don’t obviously look at each one. When you’re handwriting, you don’t actually look at how you form each letter and it’s the same thing with these marks.

AMc: How do you know when a work is finished?

JM: When to go on with one particular painting would mean that I had to start another. I can’t go on and on with the same one. I must reach a point where it’s approaching what I want to say. Not entirely, of course. But then there will be ideas that grow out of that painting.

AMc: So you always just work on one painting at a time?

JM: Yes, I do. I can’t go back.

AMc: You just mentioned something “approaching what you want to say”. Is there a message? Is there something that you want the paintings to say to people who are looking at them?

JM: In a practical way, I like the paintings to draw people close to them, which they do, obviously – they’re not just big drawings. There isn’t a clear-cut message. Like every artist, I want my work to speak to others, to communicate itself, but how it communicates itself, in what particular ways – there’s the core and then the ideas all around it – is up to people who look at it.

AMc: You’ve said before that: "Scale rather than measurable size has to do with feeling, and in these paintings the spaces to be traversed, symbolically, are huge …” Is there a lot of feeling that you put into making these paintings, and would you hope that feeling would then be reciprocated in the viewer? Or would you expect viewers to have their own personal emotional response?

JM: Well, a bit of both. If you’re going to do something creative, you have to be passionate about it, otherwise there’s no point. So yes, it’s my feeling, my whole life, that goes into that mark and I would like it to communicate itself at least partially to the viewer.

AMc: Can you say a bit about the process of how you make the paper relief works? They’re quite different to look at.

JM: Yes, the whole series is called Basis for Light and I wanted to somehow use the play of light and shadow without using colour. Obviously, when you use colours in a painting, you get this movement back and forth of the light and the tone. I just wanted to see what I could do by making reliefs with paper of different kinds: big reliefs, small reliefs, stacked paper reliefs. Painting the small grains or flecks of colour came out of the paper reliefs, in a way.

AMc: Is there a reason why you refer to them as grains?

JM: I prime the canvas so it’s rather grainy and it keeps its roughness.

SH: When you’re working, are you so focused on the creation, on making the marks, that what’s around you just disappears? As one of my instructors used to say, do you get into the “alpha-wave”?

JM: That’s really interesting because I’ve just been rereading, after years and years, a little book called Zen in the Art of Archery [by Eugen Herrigel, 1953] and the master there tells his student: “Don’t aim at the physical target. You have to aim beyond the target.” So surely it’s something like that?

SH: There is something zen about your work, something beautifully still about it.

JM: I hope so. Stillness is terribly important.

AMc: They’re a bit like mandalas, really.

SH: What are you going to work on next?

JM: There’s a section on my website, Infinite Complex of Surfaces, which had very much to do with the Hubble telescope pictures. What I’m doing now really belongs to that – the magnetic fields, for example, are part of it. Again I’m using colours that come from something that I’ve seen – in this case the Byzantine mosaics that I saw in Venice. The kind of dark glow that gold has. It’s a very dark glow and I was hoping to be able to get something like that in these newer paintings. It fascinates me and I go on working on something until I feel I’ve exhausted that particular line of development or idea.

AMc: Do you look at pictures of these things when you’re working, or do you just have them in your mind when you start?

JM: I have them in my mind. But, as I’ve said, an image would trigger an idea for a painting or a series of paintings but it’s not actually the image that I reproduce – it’s the idea that it puts into life.

AMc: So you do consider your work to be abstract?

JM: Yes. Not in a hygienic abstract sort of way – just hard geometric forms – no, it’s very much to do with things seen, always. For example, how the late afternoon light comes through my window blinds, and that will somehow trigger ideas. Something connected, anyway. But it’s never an image that I illustrate, at all.

AMc: Some critics have used the term “lyrical abstraction” of your work.

JM: Actually, I would not have that. No. To me that’s not appropriate at all. It’s just abstraction. That heading has been applied to so much abstraction in this country – and it’s work that I don’t really like. It’s connected with English pastoral, somehow – Delius and English virtues and Elgar, and all that. I feel more continental. I eschew this lyrical abstraction totally.

SH: So you see your work more in the European modernist tradition?

JM: Absolutely. I also might add that a great influence on me was Kenneth Martin. He was, first of all, my tutor when I went to Goldsmiths and then he became my close friend. I know it’s easy to admire somebody’s work because you like them as a friend, too, but I can go on looking at his work without feeling tired – it has so many layers of meaning. And then there’s the whole idea that he communicated about structure – structure in the depth of something.

SH: I think of someone like Roger Hilton’s work as lyrical abstraction. And I think it was Richard Humphreys, in a talk he gave at Tate, who spoke of the influence of music on Hilton’s work. So I associate lyrical abstraction with music. With flowing lines and pastoral colours. With spontaneity and movement.

JM: Talking about music, I went to a convent school and we were taught Gregorian chant. It is absolutely beautiful because it has these phrases and then these long silences between them. There’s this circular rhythm.

SH: Now that could relate to your work.

JM: Yes, and Guy Brett has written about this.3 The spaces and the silences. And a kind of austerity as well.

AMc: And the idea of discipline.

JM: Yes, I think my work is about trying to find structures, which, in a way, border on order, and border on disorder as well – a kind of contained chaos.

SH: It must have been a very regular kind of education in a convent.

JM: Well, yes, we learned Latin and Gregorian chant and not much else, really. No science was taught in those days, not to women at least. Scripture lessons were OK.

SH: Were your parents all right when you wanted to become an artist, then?

JM: In those days, you had three choices as a girl: you became a secretary; you became a nun; or you married as fast as you could. Very few of the girls went on to university – two or three in my year. So, after I left school in 1954, I had to earn my living. My father had died when I was a small child, so I was pushing a typewriter in an Anglo-Italian firm. I took a shorthand course, as well. That lasted about 18 months or so. Then I found out, quite by accident, that one could get a grant to go to art school and so I did that. I presented my mother with this as a fait accompli. Girls were supposed to stay at home until they married in her tradition, of course. So, there you are, that’s how I began. I did my undergraduate at Goldsmiths and then Kenneth got me into the Slade. I was in the first postgraduate intake at the Slade. They didn’t quite know what to do with us. They put us in these terrible huts at the back of the quadrangle. No one came near us. The Slade was terrific though because it had started a film school, under Thorold Dickinson, and it still had a theatre school, too. I was really interested in theatre and film. And I went to lectures in parts of University College, too.

SH: Did you teach, as well?

JM: One had to do some teaching in order to keep oneself doing one’s work. So yes, for years, I was teaching two days a week, but I never liked it. If you’re teaching art students, the emotional energy that should go into your work becomes dissipated. For me, anyway. I know a lot of people don’t agree with me. It takes about a day to recover from a day’s teaching. So I worked at the Greater London Council with the maps. That was during the holidays. I also did stints in infant schools. I don’t have a teaching certificate, but before 1972 you were allowed to do part-time teaching in schools without one. Teaching a group of six-year-olds to read and write and talk about their universe is so much more productive and interesting – for me – than teaching art students. I know this sounds like heresy to a lot of artists. I would take small groups to the Natural History Museum and they would come back and make me wonderful drawings of dinosaurs. For small children, the way they see the universe, everything becomes personalised. If they draw a house, it has eyebrows, and the sun is always in the corner.

AMc: You’re speaking of having to teach to keep yourself going financially. Have you found it difficult to make a career of being an artist?

JM: I don’t see it as a career. I see it as a necessity. I know this sounds pompous, but I didn’t grow up seeing myself as an artist, thinking: “I will be an artist.” I was somehow directed into it, led into it. When I first went to the convent school, I didn’t speak any English, so I was looked at as something of a curiosity. A lot of the other children were quite nasty and thought I was stupid, or something like that. They’d watch me eating to see if I used a fork. There was a teacher there who had been an artist in her time, Margaret Nicholson, and she took a great interest in me. It was a single-sex school, of course, and I approve of that. The standard of education was very high. One was made to work a lot and wasn’t allowed to speak in lessons or from one class to the next – strict discipline, which actually works.

AMc: It must have been very different to then go to art school.

JM: I suppose so. I didn’t get that much out of Goldsmiths, really. I couldn’t use art school teaching, as some students do, to create a kind of following for themselves or to mix with other artists, who might be on a committee, and will choose their friends, that kind of thing. The political side of teaching – I wasn’t really aware that was happening. I wasn’t aware as a student either. I was so intent on my work.

SH: Do you think that’s the problem with some of the younger generation of artists today? Their goal is to be famous and wealthy, rather than just to create. Whereas, it seems to me, what you’re saying, is you have this impulse to create; you don’t have a choice, it’s just what you do. This is your personality coming forth. Your motivations are quite different.

JM: Yes, although I don’t think anyone does it just in order to make money – that’s like aiming for the target, isn’t it, not for something beyond that? A lot of my friends disagree with my choices, but, nevertheless, they were made – without my knowing, as it were.

SH: When people ask the sculptor John Wragg RA, how he can do what he does every day, his answer is always that it’s not a question of how he can do it, it’s that he cannot not do it.

JM: Yes, exactly, that’s right. Me, too. I would say that. And when I’m not actually physically doing it, I’m thinking about it.

Jeanne Masoero: Invisible Cities – A Mayan Journey was at Sandra Higgins Art Salon, London, 18 June – 1 July 2015. Jeanne Masoero will also be showing some work in the Gallery Artists Summer Show at Sandra Higgins Art Salon, 16 July – 14 August 2015.

1. Jeanne Masoero: A Survey by Sacha Craddock, with essays by Guy Brett, Sacha Craddock, Sarah Kent and Edward Rutherfurd. Published by Lund Humphries, London, 2002.
2. Jeanne Masoero: Magnetic Fields was at Gallery Petit, London, 30 May – 22 June 2013.
3. Sequences catalogue, 2011. Introduction by Guy Brett and Jeanne Masoero. 

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