London-based artist Tess Williams creates spectacular canvas constructions -- not strictly painting, not quite sculpture, not quite assemblage, but a little bit of all three. Influenced by midcentury American modernists and an interest in exploring what qualities of the fabric surface itself, her work is as delicate as it can be serious, as careful as it can appear spontaneous. I'm really drawn to the subtleties of pieces she assembles, especially in the darker, monochrome pieces where emphasis is placed on the formal qualities inherent in the fabric such as its hue, texture, and weight. Happy to share a Q&A with the artist!
+ + +
YS: Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Are you from London originally?
TW: Yes, I was born and grew up in central London. And apart from the three years during my BA degree, I have always lived here.
When did you first become interested in making art or painting?
I grew up in quite a creative family so I have made art from a young age. However, I wasn’t specifically focused on painting until the first year of my undergraduate degree. I initially started the course thinking that I would predominantly be working with photography, because that was what I had been doing up until that point. But I had an amazing painting tutor who was so great at engaging you in the medium and encouraging you to really connect with the process of making. I spent more and more time in her classes, and my love of painting began then.
What I notice immediately about your paintings is your attention to the surface and material of the canvas itself. Where did this begin?
I guess I have always been very drawn to surface in all forms. Whether that be within nature, textiles, on buildings, or art. My dad is an architect so I grew up with him pointing out details of materials, the way that textures are used and the subtleties they can possess.
A lot of the research work that feeds into my painting is actually photos of surfaces that I am constantly taking as I go around my daily life. It’s an ingrained habit to snap away on my phone, and then I print the images out when back at my studio.
When making my paintings I usually like to keep as much of the original grain and texture of the materials as evident as possible. This is why I never prime anything - I love the rawness of the weave to be visible. Especially with certain materials like linen or hessian, which have great rugged surfaces.
With the overall works I love the materials to be able to hang, curl, drape and take on naturally occurring characteristics. This is why most of my paintings aren’t stretched as you lose a lot of the materiality when the fabric becomes taut.
You graduated last year with an MFA from Central Saint Martins; what was that program like?
It was a really important two years for me. It completely broke my practice down and built it back up again. It taught me to be tougher in many ways - whether that be taking criticism, rejection, or powering through periods of uncertainty.
It also really focused the direction of my practice before graduating. As the course finished I felt that I had only just started to make the type of work that I wanted to, which is the way I think it should be.
Since then, what have you been up to? What is it like pursuing your practice outside of the university setting, now that you've been in the "real art world" for a little while now?
Since leaving CSM I’ve been lucky to have been included in some great group shows in London, and also one in Frankfurt. Last month I had a small solo show in London which was my first chance to work with the curatorial duo After Projects, who I will also work with again next year for a two person show.
In terms of making work, I much prefer being out of the University setting because it’s a more free and organic way to think and be. However, I do think it’s important to have a small network of people around you to be able to talk to and get advice from when you need it. There is a happy medium for me between being on a Masters course surrounded by people, compared to being isolated in a studio on your own. Luckily the studio building that I’m in now provides that balance.
What is your studio like?
My studio is in a converted ammunitions factory building in North London. There are about 30 other artists and it’s a very communal place, a bit like a big art family. There are always people to talk to and get opinions from about your work. I spend a lot of time here, and especially if I have a deadline coming up.
Who or what have you been most influenced by?
In terms of other artists, the abstract expressionists will always be the ones who initially ignited my love of painting. In particular Joan Mitchell, Clyfford Still and Franz Kline. Another massive influence on me is Robert Rauschenberg - I never tire of being amazed by his work. The breadth of mediums and the unlimited ways he could make work is really inspiring. Such an open, innovative and creative mind!
With my practice directly, the biggest influences have been three of my tutors who constantly pushed me to better my work and my thinking. And also taught me how to teach myself, which I think is really important as an artist.
Can you tell me a bit about your process? Do you work from a plan, or do you let the individual pieces guide you?
I usually have an idea of what I want to do before starting, but I let the making process take over. A piece of work always takes its own direction and that’s part of what keeps me so engaged. I wouldn’t work well if everything was planned and predictable. My practice is so much about the materials and I am constantly trying to use and push them in different ways. This means that there is a lot of room for experimentation and failure, but also through that process comes the good bits.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects I can share?
I have two solo shows coming up at the beginning of next year in Germany and Spain, which I am making work for at the moment.
After those, I am doing a residency in Berlin which I am really excited about, as it is one of my favourite cities to be in. The art scene there is so fresh and alive - it will be a great place for me to make work.
+ + +
Find more images of the artist's work, and more information, at tessrachelwilliams.com!