London-based artist Nina Baxter produces geometric abstract paintings that focus on the interaction of colour. Baxter graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art with a BA in Art History. Working from a studio in Peckham’s Bussey Building, her pieces draw inspiration from landscape, architecture, photography and music.
A: What does painting mean to you in the contemporary age?
NB: Questioning what painting means to me in the contemporary age asks about the purpose of painting and its relevance for both the artist and viewer. Painting is a means of expression that comes naturally to me; it is a way of organising my thoughts and presenting the constant stream of ideas that need an outlet in one way or another. The purpose of painting as an art form has transformed drastically throughout the course of art history. Artists in the contemporary age have a lot of scope when it comes to painting; a painting can now be an object in itself, it does not need to be representational. Foucault discusses brilliantly the role of Édouard Manet as an artist who paved the way not only for Impressionist painting in the 19th century, but all painting after Impressionism in the 20th century, and consequently the painting that led to the development of contemporary art as we know it now.
It was through new approaches and techniques to light and colour, as well as the artists’ ability to play with the properties of the surface of the painting itself, which Foucault suggests brought about these developments. In other words, painting became more self-referential and there was a movement away from the notion of a painting as a window into a scene and towards the object itself. When I am working on a painting I like to keep this in mind through considerations such as painting the edges of the canvas, so that the composition is not limited to the flat surface and the canvas can be viewed from different perspectives, reiterating its status as an object.
I feel like the relevance of painting today is something that is often challenged. In the contemporary digital age, photography and image sharing has become so accessible, saturated and immediate. When you can create an image on a computer or capture a landscape in a photograph, it may be easy to wonder why bother with a painting? As I mentioned before, however, the purpose of painting has gone far beyond pure representation. The time, effort and thought process that goes into a painting can often be measured in positive correlation with the level of engagement it demands from the viewer.
David Hockney explained this well by describing how a painting of a scene can often convey so much and be a far more truthful depiction than a photograph as the painting can express profound insights that a photograph cannot, resulting in the painting demanding greater attention from the viewer. In terms of abstract painting, with my pair entitled You’re In Control I wanted to challenge myself (and also the viewer) by creating two painstakingly detailed images that, when viewed on a phone or computer screen, look as if they could be computer generated. In a process that took months to complete, I hand-painted the corresponding grids with carefully chosen colours in a systematic arrangement. This laborious method of painting left little margin for error, however, it is the slight inaccuracies (only picked up on when looking at the image in person) which serve as a reminder that you are in fact looking at a painting rather than a perfect digital image. It is in this way, that I wanted to reiterate the importance of painting and maintain the need for a painting to be viewed in real life as well as through a screen.
A: How does colour theory feed into your practice, and why do you think it’s inherent to many artists’ processes?
NB: Colour theory is at the forefront of my artistic practice, and is generally of primary consideration when approaching a new piece. Given its symbolic power and its associations, colour provides a universal language that can be used, understood and interpreted by all. I differentiate between understood and interpreted because, although certain colours have an obvious reference to an entity in reality (such as the natural colours in a landscape) they also have the potential to trigger emotions, recall memories, or sensory experiences. In this way, certain colours, or combinations of colours, have the capacity to offset a highly personal response in the viewer. Colour, therefore, becomes an indispensible tool at every artist’s disposal. In my practice, I frequently refer to Josef Albers’s Interaction of Colour as a guide for beginning my own experiments into colour relationships and arrangements. I will often decide on the subject of a painting based entirely on colour, for example, my instant attraction to La Muralla Roja and La Jardin Majorelle for their beautiful colour combinations and contrasts.
A: Could you describe the journey from reality into abstraction – how a tangible landscape or object translates into something that is merely a notion of visual representation?
NB: Although there are certainly common steps, I think in the case of my paintings, the journey from reality into abstraction is unique to each picture. To best describe this journey I will use two specific examples: The Wall and Harmony. The Wall is based on La Muralla Roja in Calpe Spain, a beautiful housing project designed by the architect Ricardo Bofill. Harmony is a painting in four parts, each of which is an interpretation of a song by London-based band Flyte. Both of these paintings began as collages before coming to life as a final painting.
As far as abstract compositions go, I think The Wall is perhaps the most representational of my recent paintings; it has a retained a very architectural feel to it reminiscent of La Muralla Roja. For this painting I wanted to distil the colour contrasts and distinct shapes of the building into simplified blocks of colour. To do this I gathered several photographs of La Muralla Roja by Andrés Gallardo Albajar, Nacho Alegre & Gregori Civera and used these as references to arrange my own composition in a paper collage. I like the freedom collage provides to play with colour and shape in order to figure out the most effective proportions for a composition before starting on a painting. I prefer this method to preparatory paintings or drawings as I find it’s usually more time efficient when the final paintings often take weeks or months to complete.
With Harmony, I began listening to four of Flyte’s songs with a view to interpreting them into colours. I am very interested in the relationship between art and music the extent to which it is possible to translate between the two. When I was listening to the music, I wanted to work out which notes or harmonies related to certain colours, and also the proportion of these in relation to one another.
One of the main differences when approaching the painting compared to listening to the songs, is that colours are arranged and connected within a space; they can be viewed in any order or direction, at any speed, and you are able to return to those you have previously looked upon. Conversely, tones in the music are perceived within a sequence that moves forwards within a restricted length of time. The initial collage I made (also entitled Harmony) was a combination of flat tones or block colours, as well as textures, such as glistening turquoise water in the section interpreting the song Victoria Falls. The transition from object to collage, collage to painting, allows for considerable distance to be created between the tangible subject matter and the abstract representation of this in the final image. I like to visualize this transition as if you were filtering a jumbled up assortment of components through a sieve so that only the vital ingredients are able to pass through; this is the simplified composition of colours and shapes that you are left with.
A: Who are your main influences, and how have they fed into what you’re trying to achieve?
NB: My influences are constantly changing as my interests and style evolves. A couple of years ago, for example, my paintings were primarily concerned with the transition from landscape into abstraction, usually working from photographs that I had taken. At this time I was heavily influenced by artists from the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Abstract Expressionism movements, from Paul Cézanne to Mark Rothko. These artists influenced my work in terms of technique and approaches to colour, the application of paint, brushwork and mark-making. I wanted to achieve a personal style in my painting that combined ideas and techniques from these movements in a way that allowed me to represent specific places I had been to and experienced in a unique way. Once I had reached a conclusion with this style of painting it took me close to two years before I could approach painting with a fresh perspective and was able to find a new aesthetic that felt my own. I would describe the paintings I am producing at the moment as “geometric abstracts”; my main influences for this new style are Bridget Riley and Josef Albers. Their approaches to colour and composition feed a great deal into what I’m trying to achieve with my current paintings. In 1995, Riley claimed that “Abstract art should try to be as resourceful and expressive as the great figurative art of the past”; this is something I constantly keep in mind and strive for in my own work.
A: Where do you think the line is between inspiration and having your own authoritative voice?
NB: I think it is rather difficult to try and stipulate a set line between inspiration and an artist’s personal voice. When you look at a painting or walk around a gallery it can be tempting to try to find references to other artists in everything you see. It is often the work that has achieved something original which will be considered the most successful. Coming from a background in Art History, I find the study of other artists work imperative to my own practice.
There are certain artists whose influence has been a constant factor from secondary school years to the present. Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter (amongst others) have become inextricably linked to my studio practice and development as an artist. I often feel as if I have grown up with them, having prints of their work at home and post cards of paintings moving from sketchbook to sketchbook; their influence has become omnipresent. However, a lot of the time, the inspiration I take from these artists will not manifest in an obvious visual way, but rather their ideas will have fed into the development of my own artistic language or authoritative voice. When it comes to taking inspiration from other artists work, this does not need to mean adopting a similar visual style or treatment of a certain subject matter, resulting in the work actually looking the same. Sometimes the inspiration is far less tangible.
I consider “The Wall” to be one of my most successful paintings because it is an accumulation of ideas and inspiration from different artists and sources, from architecture to photography, represented in a way that feels highly personal. In this painting I feel I have achieved a level of originality that I strive to in all my work but don’t necessarily succeed. This is not to say that I don’t like, or am unhappy with the rest of my work; but there is a certain sense of specialism about your favourite paintings, songs or books that elevates them above others. I think this is the result of a strong personal voice.
A: What are your future plans?
NB: I am currently working on a couple of painting projects which are in the early stages of planning. One of these is based around La Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, a beautiful garden of exotic plants and bright contrasts. Secondly, I am working on a series combining poetry and painting. With reference to Goethe’s Theory of Colour, I am aiming to explore visual representations of work by poets such as Byron, Keats and Rimbaud, through the symbolic power of colour. To begin with I will be focusing on John Keats’s poem On Seeing the Elgin Marbles; interpreting the themes of the poem, such as mortality and the fleetingness of human life through a composition and palette influenced by the stoic beauty of the Parthenon.
Nina Baxter’s work will be on display at Peckham Festival, 15-17 September. For more information: www.peckhamfestival.org
1. The Wall. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.