The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition returns to Mall Galleries, London, this month. The exhibition champions emerging and established artists, presenting a dynamic selection of small works for sale. Each piece is selected independently by leaders in the creative arts – resulting in six diverse exhibitions within the whole. Aesthetica speaks to artist Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf, whose work is included in this year’s show.
A: How does it feel to be part of the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition 2019?
RFW: I’m honoured to have been invited by Sir Tim Rice and to be exhibiting alongside some of his other selected artists, such as Jonathan Yeo, Lisa Wright, Paul Benney, Kristian Evju and Nell Sully whom I greatly admire. The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition is always an exciting show; the format of having six selectors curating their own areas of the gallery makes for an engaging and fun viewing experience. It’s also always exciting to be showing some new works for the first time and seeing how they are received. Especially the three pieces from my Lover’s Eye series, which are quite different for me, in part because it’s the first time I’ve worked on this very small scale.
A: What are the main themes in your work, and why did you choose painting as a medium?
RFW: My work revolves around female identity and the experience of being a woman. I’m interested in the very personal and often unspoken physical realities connected with the female body, including the changes and cycles we go through and connected societal pressures. Themes around mortality and desire, which are deeply bound up with the symbolism of the female through mythology and religion, also feature quite heavily.
I’m drawn to painterly draughtsmanship. To me there’s something almost magical about creating a lifelike image just out of pigment on a surface; but I’m equally interested in the materiality of the medium itself. You can create so many different textures and effects with paint alone, and there is always an element of chance that comes with painting. As much as I plan something out in advance, I can never fully anticipate what the paint will do, and where it will lead me. This gives the whole process of creating an element of being alive, which mirrors the subject matter I’m working with. There’s a cyclical tension between control and chaos in the act of painting. Images and brushstrokes are brought into existence only to be destroyed, becoming absorbed into the next form or layer and turned into something new yet again. Although I predominantly paint, I also really enjoy working with digital mediums. In the end I need to feel physically connected to the work, so that it’s almost something that has come from my own body.
A: Your pieces explore ideas of the female gaze. Why is it important to address this in 2019?
RFW: Over the last few years the art world seems to have accepted that female artists are underrepresented. Thankfully many galleries and museums are trying to redress this balance. The female gaze is important because it shows the world from a different perspective. Seeing the world represented through the eyes of women – and the ‘other’ in general – will begin to rebalance the cultural landscape around us which shapes so many of our attitudes and societal norms. I don’t believe that there is any one kind of definition of what the contemporary female gaze is, as there are so many ways of experiencing womanhood.
A: How does your work combine historical influences – including mythology and Vanitas painting – with experiences of today’s world?RFW: The main way I combine these influences is by exploring how they still affect us today. All myths and folklore become part of our cultural make up, and the Greek Myths have such a lasting legacy. Many of the ideas and archetypes described in them still inform our opinions without us necessarily being aware of it.
My last solo show, for example, was inspired by the myth of the Medusa and her connection with menstruation and the female gaze. It explored how this story represents woman as a dual image: beautiful and pure on the one hand and “monstrous” on the other. This image – along with the taboos around women’s bodily functions – stem from these stories.
A: You often work with subjects whom you know. What does this sense of connection add to the artwork?
RFW: It plays a vital part for me. Even though I have specific themes for each body of work, I still want to create images of women that are based in reality. I want to incorporate some of my sitter’s personal essence and experiences through the prism of the ideas I’m exploring. It’s through doing this that I believe you can create representations of women which other women can truly connect with. My main aim is always to create images that are both personal and universal at once.
I want to use my gaze to celebrate my sitters, and to reflect back to them what I see; allowing them to view themselves through another woman’s eyes. In return, the responses I get back from them about the paintings often reveal facets I had been unaware of myself. In this way the painting becomes a process of making visible otherwise invisible aspects of ourselves, to ourselves through each other.
A: Can you tell us about the works you will be showing in the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition?
RFW: The pieces from the Lover’s Eye series are inspired by 18th and 19th Century miniature ‘lover’s eye’ jewellery – as well as my ongoing interest in the symbolism of the female gaze and its perceived dangers. I was really drawn to the idea of being able to capture and cherish your lover’s forbidden gaze, and making it even more precious by turning it into an actual jewel. The eye was used as a symbol for the vulva, menstruation and fertility in ancient times, so there is a very strong link between the forbidden nature of the female gaze and women’s sexuality. I’ve played with this in these pieces. Alongside these I’ll be showing some paintings which continue to explore the physical experience and sensations of the body.
A: Why do you think initiatives such as ING Discerning Eye are important for contemporary artists?
RFW: Having open exhibitions like this is a vital opportunity for contemporary artists, especially ones who aren’t as established to break through into the often-elusive art world. It’s an opportunity to have your work seen by prominent figures in the arts, to exhibit alongside seasoned artists and possibly have your work become part of the ING collection. Apart from this it’s also a great opportunity to have the work seen by the large number of visitors that come to see the exhibition every year.
The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition runs 14 – 24 November at Mall Galleries, London, and all artworks are for sale. Find out more here.
Lead image: Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf, While It’s in Your Grasp.
1. Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf, Enfold.
2. Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf, Between Worlds.