Julie Cockburn (b. 1966) transforms second-hand objects and images to produce entirely new pieces, injecting new life into mundane and forgotten items. She alters found-photographs, using embroidered and painted embellishments, to enhance the fading scenery and characters depicted. Her work is exhibited in Waiting Room at Flowers Gallery, London, until 10 January. www.flowersgallery.com.
What is the idea behind the title of your show?
A waiting room is a very particular place; I see it as a kind of no-man’s land, a space where we are on hold, between the appointment and the getting on with it. It is a location where we can sit and catch up with ourselves and be curious. I always feel a bit self-conscious in these situations – perhaps because I am in the presence of strangers, together but apart. I draw an analogy between the waiting room and the gallery space, where we are engaged in a singularly contemplative activity with other people present. There is an unchoreographed dance that happens between visitors to a gallery that has a similar energy to a waiting room, and I tend to feel a bit uncomfortable. The exhibition explores an internalised space of contemplation, where I invite playful curiosity about our everyday interactions with the unfamiliar.
You transform found portraits – why do you reuse found images? Why not take new shots?
There is something about the found object that has inspired me since doing my sculpture degree at St Martins, where we were encouraged to skip dive for our materials. Working with old photographs is similar to engaging in a dialogue. I am not working on a blank canvas. Rather, I am entering into a pre-existing conversation that took place between the photographer and sitter, and where I experiment with a personal visual language.
How do you select the images to reinterpret?
Generally it is really important to me that the photographs have an archetypal quality – be it portrait, landscape or still life. I definitely prefer to work with anonymous portraits, studio shots where, because of their rather stilted nature, there tends to be a stillness and conformity that embeds them into the generic. Therefore, I see them as the image of the everyman / woman, which allows me great freedom to extrapolate new characteristics, new metaphors and a new set of readings.
Can you explain the process behind the construction of the images? Is the production of each work organic or do you plan them in detail before you begin?
I initially sketch in Photoshop or onto printed scans of the original photos to get an idea of what will work with each individual piece. Sometimes my intervention is driven by the series I am working on; sometimes I am more experimental. I use the computer to plan templates for the final work and then transfer those designs to the original. There is play here between freedom and control; a throw-away scribble becomes a time consuming collage, embroidery, or trompe l’oeil painting. I have to work within certain parameters, but the pieces always tend to evolve as I work on them. They never come out the way I think they will. One of the things I love is when people get really close to my work to see how it is made. I aim for perfection and fall dismally short, but I hope that the errors give the pieces a humanity that would be lacking if made by machine.
In an ideal world, what would you like audiences to take from your work?
I try not to be too prescriptive, but hopefully my engagement in fantasy play opens a door that will invite the viewer to do the same. I love to make the work – obsessed really – and I am thrilled when it touches someone on any level.
Can you explain a little about some of the works that are to be featured in Waiting Room?
There are mainly altered photo portraits in the show, each one with a fantastical character of its own: “The Telepath”, “The Bear”, and “Mr Optimistic”. They are a bit off – perhaps a bit challenging, interesting, mindful – but I like to think they are beautifully made. I would love to have all these people to dinner, with the possible exception of “Debbie Downer.” I’m not sure I have the energy for her right now at this moment in time.
Which artists inspire you?
I love the decorative arts and traditional craftsmanship. Dali’s jewellery, Ming dynasty Chinese pottery, pretty much anything Japanese, are all inspirational. And I was recently enthralled by some sanded filler in a piece of plywood. That’s the sort of thing that stimulates me.
What are your next projects?
I have a variety of group show commitments for next year and I have a yearning to make some more sculpture. I am also experimenting with a change of scale for the photo works. I think it’s rather exciting to embark on a new project and not knowing exactly what is going to happen.