Published  13/06/2014

Joyce Cairns: interview

Joyce Cairns: interview


Joyce W Cairns RSA was born and brought up in Edinburgh. She studied painting at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen from 1966-71, the Royal College of Art, London from 1971-74 and at Goldsmiths College, University of London from 1975-76. In 1976, she returned to Aberdeen where she taught drawing and painting at Gray’s School of Art until 2004, when she took early retirement to complete the body of work which culminated in her War Tourist series. It was exhibited for three months in 2006 at Aberdeen Art Gallery, attracting nearly 30,000 visitors.

A visit to France in 1984, where she observed the ceremonies to mark the liberation of the country in 1944, prompted Cairns to make paintings that would enable her to explore her father’s war experience. There followed works in 1986 that focused on the Aberdeen village of Footdee (pronounced Fittie) where she lived: the sea, the piers, the oil and naval boats that frequented the harbour, and the rich nightlife. Essentially metaphoric works, they are replete with personal references enabling Cairns to broach the painful memories of her childhood, which was dominated by her mother’s long-term mental illness and suicide attempt when she was a young child. The exploration of these issues underpins Cairns’ oeuvre, which depicts the inhumanity and absurdity of war.

In 1995, having been given a suitcase of her father’s personal effects, she used his uniforms – kilt and greatcoat juxtaposed with historic memorabilia – to draw attention to the unstated ramifications of war. A Queen’s Own Cameron Highlander, her father had seen active service in North Africa and in Europe. The impact on his wife was grave (suicide was still a crime in the 1950s), but never discussed. It was only after her mother had died that Cairns felt able to explore the impact of the tragedy of her family’s life.

Cairns, Doug Cocker and Alan Robb (all Royal Scottish Academicians) are the first artists to show at the Tatha Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Beginnings. The gallery, which overlooks the River Tay, is situated directly across from the construction site for the new Victoria and Albert Museum, Dundee. A few miles away, towards the North Sea at Broughty Ferry, is the studio of Cairns, who is in the final stages of moving south from Aberdeen. I went to visit her there.

Janet McKenzie: Art in Scotland falls into quite separate camps. I have just visited Doug Cocker’s studio where the forms are abstract; Arthur Watson and Will MacLean’s work in sculpture and printmaking is conceptually based, and John Bellany championed figurative art and looked to the northern European tradition for inspiration. I am interested in the significant divide between abstract and figurative art and how it might be related to the art education system in Scotland, with a strong emphasis on drawing from life and where drawing underpins all processes. You and Bellany have always made large-scale figurative works, even when you went to the Royal College where you might easily have been swayed by conceptual or performance or abstract art. What are your views on the Scottish system and the manner in which it has developed in a dichotomous way?

Joyce Cairns: I was a student at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, having grown up in Edinburgh. There was a Pop Art scene going on, and had been from the early 60s. As a schoolgirl, I visited all the exhibitions on show in Edinburgh and read Studio International. I went to Gray’s from 1966 and the course, like [those at] other art schools in Scotland, was about learning the “three Rs”; you spent your time in first year, drawing and painting antiques; drawing skills were honed over four years. Your painting developed without much reference to what was going on in the world. I have very little memory of art history – except for Kenneth Clark. When I went to the Royal College (which tended to take in eccentrics), I developed in quite a unique way once I had thrown off the shackles of the academic training. There were artists tinkering with abstraction when I was in my final year at Gray’s, but for me it was a vehicle to challenge traditional pictorial space so I could release the figures from this prison. When I first moved to the village of Footdee at the mouth of Aberdeen harbour, I came to absorb aspects of the sea into my painting. Figuration became important again. I was looking at local legends. From 1984, the major body of work came after my mother’s death and the first war painting.

JMcK:A strong female urge exists to construct narratives and to explore previous generations. Did the feminist movement influence your autobiographical, diaristic work?

JC: All my life I have been working in a mainly male environment, but it didn’t make me a feminist. I always believed that recognition would come through hard work and being able to stand up to the male echelons in the painting department. The first war painting followed my mother’s death; it was about my father because some of the memorabilia of his war experience came to light. My mother had been tormented by the war. It was following this first body of work that I started to gather research at the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum in Chelsea and HMS Belfast, and I would go on board any naval boats that came into Aberdeen harbour.

JMcK: After the very personal war paintings, you travelled to war sites in France, Germany and Poland. How do these works depart from the more personal ones?

JC: The earlier works referred to war in a very loose way, but did not refer to a specific time or place. I had to go on various tours not only to get a sense of where my father had been (especially Tunisia), but also to photograph not only the area but also many of the artefacts recovered and placed in museums. I have always loved museums, and as a young adolescent I trailed round the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street in Edinburgh every Sunday. It is my way of making the paintings connect authentically to the past. I cannot do paintings about battles, I was not there, so I am a war tourist and connect to history by removing the artefacts from museums and bringing them back to the site of conflict.

JMcK: I am interested in how you construct the visual narrative, how each work is made. You have a whole folio of drawings for each large painting. There are preparatory drawings, from photographs and from life, and there are drawings made at different stages of the work in progress that form a documentation of the work: they are like state proofs that reveal the manner in which the painting has been structured and executed. Can you tell me about your War Tourist works?

JC: The first works were created at the time of the first Gulf war when we were all transfixed by [its depiction by] the media, and spent long hours watching it, even eating our meals in front of it, as it unfolded on television.

JMcK: Kate Adie was the first female war correspondent at that time.

JC: Yes. She was very inspirational. And like my father who was sent to Tunisia in the second world war, many of the young soldiers in the Gulf war had never been abroad to somewhere like the Middle East before. I made a psychodrama from the point of view of someone in an Aberdeen village looking into the wider world. I didn’t want to make insular art, though I did make references to village life with the inclusion of an Irn-Bru bottle, fish and chips, ketchup and the Sun, in TV Dinners (1991) for example. I also included objects from my own house. In the painting The Deadly Wars (1993), set during the war in Bosnia, I made reference by using the merry-go-round to the confusion of not knowing what was going on, who was supporting who, and the troubled legacy from previous wars, and the United Nations’ inability to find a realistic solution or to get involved strongly or early enough led to unspeakable suffering and genocide.

JMcK: You capture the juxtaposition of dichotomous features that typifies modern culture. What prompted you to use the merry-go-round in several pictures including Irma (1994-95)?

JC: I photographed merry-go-rounds in France during the 80s; there were many very old ones still being used. I saw the war in Bosnia as being like a merry-go-round. Irma was prompted by the story of a child named Irma Hadzimuratovic, who was very badly injured in Sarajevo in 1993 and brought to England for treatment at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. She did not survive.

JMcK: No happy ending then, as one perhaps expects with media stories?

JC: The tragedy of the child’s death was intended as a metaphor for the fact that Bosnia was being walked over. I had a neighbour who, remarkably, went on nudist cruises and had a brochure for a such a cruise in Yugoslavia as it was then, which I incorporated into the painting to illustrate the juxtaposition of the bizarre and ridiculous aspects of life. I use hens as victims; in this case, it referred to a story of an entire Muslim family, mainly women and children, who were burned to death in the basement of their home. The pier is the North Pier in Footdee; the area attracted prostitutes, whom I use as sirens luring men and women to death and destruction. Although in other works they can be anyone out for a good time in the Footdee party paintings, they often have evil undertones.

JMcK: You include yourself in many works. What does that signify?

JC: It seems very narcissistic, but I am the narrator, I am the war tourist, the bon viveur, I am the child whose world imploded in 1956 when my mother attempted suicide (she spent the next four years in a psychiatric hospital) and whose image keeps reappearing.

JMcK: When you recently chose works for the New Contemporaries exhibition (2010), you observed a decline in the quality of painting in art schools.

JC: Drawing is taught much less than when I was a student and even less since I left teaching in 2004, in part due to staff cutbacks. There is very little painting and very little good painting, and a lot of painting that I find underdeveloped. Having said that, the present-day student population is very different from ours. They have grown up with a digital culture and can access images, artworks with a single click and, quite rightly, have very different aspirations to previous generations.

JMcK: Is it possible to return to, or to teach, the working methods you use? As I mentioned earlier, you have a whole folio of drawings for each of your paintings documenting their various stages.

JC: Yes, of course, one can suggest that this is a good way to develop ideas, but it does not suit everyone. For myself, working on a large scale with such complex designs, it is important to see how the main images interact and I also transfer the drawing by using a grid system. After that, you are free to add all the other ephemera. As I work very thinly, like watercolour in parts, contrasting with opaque, I don’t want to have to clog the surface with too much over-painting. I am not immune to using Photoshop to experiment with tone and colour variations on an existing image. My works are complicated structurally and I can work much more freely and creatively using paint, ink, collage and so on.

JMcK: The Last Supper (1989) is a very good example: the number of angles, the relationship between the numerous figures, the table and objects.

JC: I don’t consciously think of triangles in the creation of a work, but I am conscious of how pyramidal forms work and how different angles work together. Many of the angles are small lines, which create wounds on the surface. Because the paintings are not of real time, there are different levels of time and place. For them to work, I have to structure them very carefully. The images could all be presented openly on the plane, but it wouldn’t work for me. A complicated structure is necessary for me to go back in time. Also some of it is disturbing stuff, from my childhood. A lot of people say: “Is your painting a way of curing all ills?” Perhaps it is: someone once said to me that the best art comes from being wounded, so I have to believe that this makes it all worthwhile.

JMcK: Peter Fuller referred to it as “redemption through form” and that is why I asked you earlier about whether you had been influenced by feminism at all because it is one of a number of strains that have come together to enable us to work through intensely personal ideas or experiences.

JC: I have always worked from inner conviction and it is very much a feminine angle but not feminist. In fact, I think they would abhor my portrayal of women as victims, sirens who can epitomise lust, betrayal, hope or fear, death, compassion, loneliness or loss.

JMcK: Max Beckmann must be an important artist for you?

JC: There was a big Beckmann exhibition in 1980 [at the Whitechapel Gallery, London] and it was very important. Also: Berlin a Critical View: Ugly Realism 20s-70s in 1978 at the ICA. Compositionally, the cramped and claustrophobic construction of space of Beckmann’s imagined space combined with the reality of figures and objects presented within it had a huge influence. Objects in museums and inherited family pieces have also been very important in creating the illusion of a past time by asking the viewer to re-examine them and allow me to be a time traveller.

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