Indecisions, Visions and Revisions: An Interview with Lucy Neish

Interview /  December 2023

Indecisions, Visions and Revisions: An Interview with Lucy Neish  
by Isabel Casey

Isabel Casey: When we first worked together, you were predominantly making larger works on canvas and on paper. Since then, you've been through a shift in your practice, making these smaller pieces — can you tell me how this came about?

Lucy Neish: Yeah, I think it's a moment of refocus for me, and quite a generative time. In terms of how [this change came about], it was quite a practical thing; it wasn't thought through. The big pieces came from this shifting of what came before, and painting over what was there before, so that has always been a part of my practice. But there came a point — I remember it specifically — when I was in my studio and I'd been working on this piece, or this version of a piece for six weeks, and it was 180 x 160 cm, and I just had this moment when I thought ‘What am I doing? Why am I just painting over and over this thing?’ It almost felt like it had become cursed, and I had a lot of doubt, and felt like I'd never finish it. It wasn't stretched, just stapled to the wall, so I ended up cutting it up out of frustration and I just left it. And then (it almost feels like I have mythologised or romanticised this story…) but I came back, and I just thought ‘Okay, there are these fragments of a thing, maybe I can make them into a new thing, a fresh thing.’ So I started stretching the smaller pieces of built up canvas over cardboard, and I really liked the history and tactility of them. They almost felt like stones to me, and it just gave me a new lease of life.

IC: What is your process after creating the distinctive, repurposed surface of your newer works?

LN: I’ve always archived images, and I’ve started doing it more purposefully, creating different folders on my laptop and such, and those are the images that I’ll paint on top. For example, one image is from a WhatsApp image sent from a friend's dad. Their cat had brought in a goldfinch, and he found it on the kitchen floor and wrapped it in this kitchen towel. She just sent it on to our group chat very casually, and I found it really beautiful. So I do stuff like that, poaching images from WhatsApp groups, taking a picture from my phone, or a screenshot of a film. It’s a process of gathering and collecting, and then re-purposing those images.

IC: It feels like a kind of contextual swapping, because you have the context of the images placed on an already loaded surface of the previous paintings.

LN: Yeah, that's so true and it's quite funny because someone said the other day they felt the images appeared quite faithful, as in faithful to the original image. But what you're saying with the surfaces already being quite loaded, it’s like a clash, because they are quite realistic representations of something, but they're also battling against, or being butted against this surface that's being obtuse in a way. It’s a complicated surface, but I like that about them.

IC: It's almost like a double meaning, where there are two things at play within a singular work. When you're at this stage, do you respond, or are you informed by the prepared surfaces?

LN: It’s more a case of matchmaking. I'll sit with the images for quite a long time and then have certain surfaces or canvases that are ready to go and match them with images. The texture of the paint underneath doesn't necessarily correspond to the image on top, and I think there's something quite disorienting about that, so there's a kind of double-action happening that you only get seeing them in person.

IC: In terms of the subject matter, it seems that although they come from random sources, there are certain types of images you are drawn to, for example animals.

LN: I think the images come from a remembered, nostalgia-tinged version of my past self. I think nostalgia is a complicated feeling: it's a nice feeling but also an unsettling feeling as well. The animals come from growing up on a farm. My parents often send me images of the farm or landscape or animals, and I feel like it's their love language.

IC: Their own niche love language. [laughs]

LN: It’s quite weird. [laughs] But like with the baby hare, my dad just sent it on WhatsApp, and I feel like it's a way of saying ‘I'm thinking of you'. The interior scenes, like the one of the curtains in Disneyland Past-Life at GROVE, come to have this kind-of dreamy, filmic, nostalgic quality. The animals and these works come from all over the place but always in thisconsistent murky green, so they are unified by that.

IC: It’s interesting the way you connect nostalgia with an unsettling feeling. It reminds me of Freud’s essay on the uncanny, where he locates the familiar in the uncanny, so something can only feel uncanny if there is a familiarity to it.

Yeah, that makes sense. I don't want them to feel like too much of a personal experience. I hope there's something for other people to relate to in them as well, or like you're saying, a familiarity which makes them uncanny for other people.

How did you arrive at this colour palette for the works?

It's just two colours; Prussian Blue and Burnt Umber mixed together in different quantities. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a cheat – in that it feels simple – but I think if you make things in the same colour or palette we assume they’re related. But I want to give myself freedom to pick images that have that uncanny or nostalgic feeling and allow that to be quite an organic process and not be too swayed by any aesthetic realities within them. Like if something has quite a jarring colour palette ordoesn't appeal to me colour-wise, then that's fine because they're going be made in this unified way. It allows me to focus on the image more.

Yeah, and I think sometimes nostalgia can lead to a saccharine representation of something, so it's interesting you're going against that.

LN: I think the version of nostalgia I am interested in is a kind of murky, unsettling one – not rose-tinted. Some of nostalgia is about it being a made-up, better past, but then if you look at the word 'nostalgia', its etymology is the Greek 'nostos’, meaning 'to return home', and 'algos', meaning 'pain'. It's like a painful return home in one sense. But nostalgia is also this safe space, and I think it comes up often when you're having a time of uprooting or difficulty. There’s some research that says you feel most nostalgic at those times, because your brain automatically wants to put you in a place of familiarity.

Let's talk about scale as well, because with these small ones, they make you look up closely.

LN: There's something intimate about that, and people are often asking what they're made on, and it’s just oil on canvas, there's no trick there. But I think it's a bit cheeky as well because they don't look like traditional oil on canvas, and also they're oil on canvas wrapped around cardboard, so they don't read as directly as they might expect.

IC: For me, Xxx (2023) at GROVE, the shape of the work reminded me of a pillow, it doesn’t have neat edges and feels more like an object.

That one actually had two layers of cardboard and maybe cheekily had a bit of tissue paper under it as well to make it a bit pillowy. I think they're quite playful with the whole 2D and 3D thing. It's like you were saying, they're not totally even, but then they're also trying to make the illusion of a flat image as well. To the best of my painting abilities, they're trying to create this flat image on something that is almost rejecting it.

You’re also exploring drawing and painting from memory. There's drawing and painting from memory, and then there's making paintings from an image, but about a memory. It's interesting you have these two different ways of exploring memory, the process for each way of making must bring something different to the work?

I definitely think so; having this exploratory stage working from memory feels more personal and exposing. It's just trusting that it’s allowed, in a way. I think it's something I'm interested in, and I’m working out how those things play together. I feel like there's something in my personality that has that as well. Even socially, I feel like we can be these different people, and certain situations require you to be more empathetic, or more reserved, and I feel like that with my work as well. I feel like the more detailed work is a version of myself, and then the larger more expressive work from memory comes from something related to that, but it has a different outcome. And it’s the same with the drawings: I did a detailed small painting recently of the baby hare that my dad had sent me on WhatsApp, and then I did these drawings from memory, and I feel like they come out of me from the intensity of making that painting, because that painting took me over a month to make. There's something excitingin that learning of an image or remembering of an image. I'm interested in the way I gather images, how we process memories, and how memories stay with us. Something so familiar becomes something you hold in you.

These different strands of your practice complement each other really well. I also really relate to what you mean, having different situations requiring different way of being. We're all nuanced people.

That’s true, and it's not disingenuous. I think it comes into the reality of making work over time. People have given me advice (and I hear other people be given the same) to make the same work because people will want it. I think it makes sense and comes from a place of care, but I don’t want to fall into making work in a certain way because that's what I feel like I should do. Both of these ways of making feel personal and authentic to me even though they're both very different. I feel there’s something exciting about having a big painting done from memory that is expressive and loose, next to a careful and faithfully made image. I’m looking forward to making these pairings moving forward.

Image Credits:
1. Lucy Neish, Xxx (2023), Oil on Canvas, 9 x 6 cm; Courtesy of GROVE 2. Disney-Land Pastlife Installation View; Courtesy of GROVE 3. Lucy Neish, Bad Apples (2023), Graphite on Paper, 5 x 6.5 cm; Courtesy of GROVE