Sean Penlington earned an MA from Chelsea College of Art in 2013 and is currently based in Salford, UK. His practice experiments with various definitions of what painting is or can do, and I just adore the way he combines various materials into compositions that appear both lightweight and weighty -- simultaneously. See more at the links following our great interview!
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First, can you introduce yourself? What first interested you in making art?
I’m an artist currently living in Salford, part of Greater Manchester in the UK. I make what are probably best described as abstract paintings; which are broadly based around the idea of looking at paintings, communication, and language. I am interested in what the recent history of painting can mean for someone making painting today.
I used to go to art museums in Liverpool when I was young, and I used to copy anything that was a desirable form – from any source. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was interested in – I just enjoyed it.
What has your art education been like, formally or informally?
I studied painting for my BA (Hons) Fine Art at Manchester School of Art in 2010, where I worked with broken-down figurative forms based on traditional European Carnival. It was at this point I first started thinking seriously about abstraction; Sharon Hall and Ian Hartshorne, my tutors at the time, encouraged me to think about the quality and vocabulary of paint, and that a visual thing creates a dialogue that can be ‘read.'
I then rented a studio in Manchester for a couple of years, spent time painting in the day and working in a restaurant in the evening – the time straight out of art school is the time when you’re sat in a quiet studio, and for the first time there is only your own judgements to follow; make or break.
In 2012 I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Patrick & Kelly Lynch Scholarship for the MA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, part of University of the Arts London. I wanted to use this time to really develop my practice and push it into a more critical context. The 1 year programme was the most important part of my education.
Can you chat a bit about your practice? You work in a variety of media, often in a bold, saturated palette; is there a particular theme or question you explore?
I am interested in painting as a language and the possibility a new context. I have long been interested in the traditional European Carnival – the World Upside Down and how this logic can be applied to painting to search for a space where things can happen. My work is about the notion of looking at painting, so quite often appear to be almost like visual puzzles that need to be answered. I think about hybridity in painting quite a bit, how boundaries can cross but still retain an identity as Painting.
Do you do any sort of research or planning in preparation for making work?
Well I believe that everything goes in to making a painting, both conscious and subconscious. So my research would be looking at exhibitions, thinking about painting, having conversations with people, my day job – which is working in a school for children and young people with learning disabilities. I use sign language on a daily basis to communicate and I am thinking about this more so at the moment in the studio. I also keep a journal of writing whilst I paint, but before I start a painting it will be sketches.
What is the thing that intrigues you or challenges you the most about the media you work with?
Baggage in painting intrigues me. Lightness and honesty are challenges.
What is your process like?
I normally allow the last couple of paintings to influence the initial make-up of the new painting. The first decisions are around size and shape, which I make sketches for. I then have a number of paintings on the go at any one time; the majority of studio time is spent looking, with the actual painting part taking as long as it physically takes. I normally work in waves of activity; I will sit and look for a very long time, usually planning ‘moves’ ahead to predict what character is emerging, what it may be saying or not saying. Sometimes I’ll know what I want to do and I rehearse it in my head; then finally go ahead and do the physical painting and step back to re-analyse.
It is always dependent on the actual painting to know when it is finished. Occasionally it just sings out and makes total sense. Other times I can be suspicious of something seeming too finished, or falsely arrived at. By that token I am always curious when I have done something which sits uncomfortably with me – if I have a problem with something then I will keep it in that state until I gain some clarity over whether it is an interesting problem or not.
What do you do when a piece isn't "working?"
It’s the most frustrating feeling to be working on something that feels like it has no voice or clarity, and that can likely happen when you work in part intuitively, without a ‘plan’. If I feel that a painting has no voice or character then I’ll most likely scrape it down to work on another time, or sometimes I’ll discard it completely.
What ‘works’ in painting has to do with baggage, both the baggage of the medium and that of the person viewing /making. I am usually suspicious of seduction in painting, quite often it can be all too tempting to do the thing that you feel will look good. I have a bit of a problem accepting that, I’d much rather experience something that challenges my tastes and gets into the psychology of the viewer.
What is your studio like currently?
I have rented a few different studio spaces in London, Manchester and Salford – but about a year ago I decided to move my studio into my house, which is an interesting dichotomy to have. There are a number of challenges to do with boundaries of studio/domestic space – but I enjoy having tensions in the studio. I find that being able to pop in and out makes more sense for me at the moment rather than traveling across the city.
What do you consider to be the most challenging part of pursuing an artistic practice, whether creatively or professionally?
I think just to be risk taking and fresh but also clear and specific. It’s all about the work.
Is there a piece of advice that someone has given you, or a lesson you learned somewhere along the way, which has changed the way you approach your work?
I remember Brian ‘Dawn’ Chalkley, the MA programme leader at Chelsea College of Art, saying that he didn’t want to see people make Art at Chelsea – there is enough of that stuff already – he wanted to see something else, I think he was talking about honesty and awkwardness.
What do you need most, or value most, as an artist?
I think that tension of some sort is needed, you need to work through things in the studio.
What are you working on right now? Any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
In May I’ll be in a group painting show in Manchester at PS Mirabel – an artist led project space. The premise of the show is to respond to the 1876 paintingThe Artist’s foot by Adolph Menzel. I have made a new work in respect of this, which was interesting for me; my work is normally born out of itself rather than being in direct dialogue with a separate, historical painting. I think about history and language quite a lot – my work is very much about this, but to work in response to one specific work is very different. Of course, one has to be true to one’s practice and the language that it exists within. So the thing I was making had to make sense in relation to the other things I am making.
Anything else you would like to add?
My cat typed this when she walked over my laptop. So I will leave it at that and say thank you for showing my work!
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