Push and Pull, Back and Forth.
Dwelling in the intricacies of the masculine identity, Falmouth-based artist Fergus Polglase calls for help in a vulnerable expression of discomfort. After finding his footing within the realm of painting during the Foundation Year at Falmouth University, then graduating with a degree in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, Polglase’s work scrutinises his own past in an almost Freudian inquest for self-encounter. Childhood memories, subconscious reveries and woodland stories are central to his uncanny creations, constantly reappearing in his visual work in the form of chromatic compositions and androgynous figures. Both fairytales and nightmares make up his paintings, which are created in a performative act that expands beyond the canvas and onto surrounding surfaces. In a process one can only describe as automatic, Polglase begins by filling sketchbooks with random splodges and marks to encourage the phenomenon of pareidolia, stating that “if the work and ideas come from my imagination, then they can only be mine”. Working with a wide range of materials and welcoming accidents, his entire production is traversed by a strong sense of unrestrained freedom, in addition to the desire for an organic symbiosis with the natural process of painting, much in the line of artists Joe Bradley and Oscar Murillo. After healing from a period spent battling his own demons, the painter addresses the topic of mental health in a more direct manner, and is becoming increasingly interested in exploring his vision of masculinity through new ventures in photography and sculpture.
First and foremost, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where do you come from and where are you living now?
I was brought up in Nottingham, but now live in Cornwall; which is where my Dad’s side of the family are from. He’s in the army now, while my Mum does interiors, so I guess you could say my creativity comes more from her side. However, my Dad used to build treehouses and assault courses with me when I was a kid. He’s very hands-on, which is what got me into sculpting in the first place. I was always up a tree, constructing a den or making swords or spears. There was this fox that used to eat our chickens, so I would go into the woods with one of my weapons and spend hours looking for it… In full camo.
(Laughs). Taking no prisoners. So was it the swords that sent you full charge into painting?
As a kid, I actually wanted to be a cartoonist. The author Roald Dahl had gone to my school, so I felt this connection to his stories and Quentin Blake’s inky illustrations. I’m still interested in gruesome fairytales now, even though the BFG was fucking scary. I was lucky enough to have a really inspiring art teacher back then, who really pushed me to try harder and get into art college. When I got in, it was a great relief to finally be around like-minded people.
Yes! I can really see the sinister Roald Dahl and splattery Quentin Blake influences in your work. When you made it to art school, how did your practice develop and what were the pivotal moments that changed who you are as an artist today?
During my foundation year at Falmouth someone showed me Willem De Kooning’s expressionist paintings, and I just fell in love. Then I discovered the work of George Baselitz on a trip to Berlin, and remember sitting in front of one of his paintings for hours. It was almost a religious experience. After that, I just wanted to become an expressive painter myself. I started to look for inspiration in different artists’ work, and began to imitate their style, which was incredibly freeing. However, when I got to Central Saint Martins I had a crisis with my work. My tutor didn’t like my approach, and pushed me to become more conceptual. I would constantly be reminded that I’m a CIS white male, and that my voice as a creator wasn’t relevant. I then started doing performative acts, where I’d make these long paint brushes using found bits of wood that allowed me to paint from a distance. I assembled these folding instruments that acted like biceps, and I’d stomp around with them, flexing. I let the studio get progressively messier, covered in paint, rubbish, muck. Kind of like the artist Paul McCarthy’s work, but less ketchup. I wasn’t in the best headspace in London, and this really affected my production. I still attach my paint brushes to the end of sticks even now, as I like how little control it gives me.
It’s interesting that the response to your tutor’s comment was to take on this overtly masculine persona, stomping around the studio and flexing your ‘muscles’. How do you identify with the masculine identity?
It depends how you define the term ‘masculine’. When I was younger, the only direction I ever saw my future going was playing rugby and enlisting in the army. I never thought I could pursue art as an actual career, as everyone seemed to push me away from the idea. My Dad always wanted me to join the military, and it’s not that I let him down, but it’s odd to think that I’m sitting and painting while he’s been out fighting in Afghanistan and other places. I remember when I was really young, my father once asked me to shoot a cockerel. It had been bullying the chickens and pulling their feathers out. So I shot it and remember feeling like it was an initiation to becoming a ‘man’. I felt terrible and ended up feeding it to the fox. Shame and failure are important themes within my work. I believe there’s a lot of humiliation around masculinity; about not being macho enough, or being ‘too’ macho. Both are seen as shortcomings.
You can certainly see this conflict within your paintings; they’re equal parts harsh and soft. Even in your colour palette. You mix gutsy blacks and camo greens with soft pinks and ethereal woodland hues.
I believe these colours come from seeing my Dad’s things around the house – his medals, army photos and camo bags. This imagery has worn off on me, and you can definitely see it reappear in my artworks. The greens are also influenced by my love of nature. I often wish I could grow a painting naturally by making my own pigments and planting my own trees for canvas stretchers. I would like to work more organically, like the artist Peter Doig. His woodland paintings can be so calm, and yet have such an anxious feeling to them. They remind me of being deep in the woods by myself and getting that eerie feeling – as if I’m being watched. This interest led me to look into Cornish Piskies and local woodland folktales, as I wanted to connect these with my childhood memories spent down here, as well as with fairytales from Nottingham, where I used to go to the Robin Hood festival in Sherwood Forest every year in homemade costumes.
I can picture it. Right now as we record this interview, we’re sitting in a little hut nestled in the trees of your family home in the rural Cornish countryside. You sometimes come to this tranquil spot to paint. How does the landscape affect your work?
When painting down here, I feel a lot more freedom, especially in my family home. I’ve actually been using paper from my Grandma’s piano books to draw on. The fact that she’s touched and read from it adds another level of spiritual connection for me, particularly as I’m painting where she used to live. The landscape helps me think; it’s so quiet here, we’re literally in the middle of nowhere! Being back home during the pandemic has prompted me to reflect on my life and urged me to talk about mental health. I’ve been making work about being in the woods as it was my safe place as a kid – I was never really inside. Five years ago I had a really tough time with depression. I couldn’t work, I didn’t want to do anything and I wasn’t very nice to people. I want to make art about this now, as I’ve come out the other side. While I still struggle with it, I feel I’m a lot better. This has also led me to start creating work about friendship. It’s something I cherish at present more than ever – to look after my friends and the love that we push towards one another. I had many who really helped me during this period, and others who didn’t. The artist Salman Toor discusses this a lot in his work too, and he’s a great inspiration to me.
Mental health is such a pressing issue – now more so than ever – and the discussion is only just beginning, so I really respect how open you’ve been about it. Can you tell me about this painting, which reflects on the need of emotional support with its self-descriptive “help” statement?
It’s pretty different from what I normally do. I did a drawing of the cartoon character roadrunner, and then started to think about his adversary, Wile E Coyote, and how he always holds up these signs before he falls off a cliff. It felt pretty poignant to me. People often ask if you’re okay but, not wanting to make a scene by saying you’re shit, you just say you’re fine. That’s how I thought about this piece, which reflects on showing someone a signal and asking them for help. It feels particularly relevant when seeing how men deal with things, they bottle it all up. I find poems and writing are the most helpful, and my texts in turn influence my visual work. I’m lucky to have such supportive friends and, of course, painting. I’d combust without this outlet.
Being an expression of your lived experience, you have a really fluid creative process that involves tapping into your subconscious. Your studio walls and floor are covered with scribbles and Freudian ink splatters, when did you start exercising this technique?
During lockdown I had less space to work as I couldn’t go to the studio. I also had no money, which meant no paint either. I got some paper and just started drawing again, always from my imagination. I start by doing a few lines randomly, maybe by putting the pencil in my mouth or by using my left hand and looking away from the page. Sometimes it turns into something, and other times I fill entire sketchbooks with random scribbles. But once in a while something comes out of it. With the splatters I dribble paint on one side of a notebook, then press the sheets together. This one here reminds me of one of Snow White’s seven dwarves. You can see the nose here, then an eye here and a forehead.
Right! And his little smurf-like hat. What are these ink splodges down here, did anything come from them?
No, not really. At the moment I’m working on a book of drawings with Loose London, a London art collective publishing independently. This one will be a little zine of skulls and devils. I didn’t mean for it to go down this route, and I’m only now realising how many death-related sketches I do. But it’s not really about death, it’s more about… Sadness. I never plan before making anything, it’s all pretty sporadic. Finishing my paintings in particular can be a never-ending and often frustrating process, as well as a massive waste of money and paint.
Your paintings collect colours, paint, marks and stories. You walk over them, you turn them round, you wait for something to appear from them. Can you tell us more about this time-consuming, but fluid and performative process?
Yes, It’s a long process of adding different layers of paint in order to create depth, and then adding and taking away to make space until the piece starts to turn into something or it works as a painting. It’s a constant push and pull, back and forth, like a tennis match. I’m interested in the natural process of painting, and how things can fall on them randomly: automatic marks and scrapes, like those left on the walls by bin lorries, or the peeling paper from torn-down poster walls, for example. I was introduced to this idea through the work of artists Joe Bradley and Oscar Murillo around six or seven years ago. When I paint outside, I let leaves and twigs fall on the work, giving it texture. I’ve even had food from eating spectators fall onto my canvases, and I simply painted over it. The boot prints that appear in some of my works are definitely performative, as if someone’s kicked the painting or stomped on it. The one that’s got a dog on it suggests they’ve maybe just stood in it’s shit. I made this other piece in response to something that happened to me in Australia. A man I met was describing his ex-wife, when someone remarked that she was really soft, to which he replied: “The softest thing about her was her teeth”. They were really spiky, so I liked the analogy.
Ah, now you say it I do see it! Your process embraces and even invites the inevitable nature of life into your paintings. Tell me about your recent exhibition at The Fish Factory Art Space, “Sweet Dreamzzz”, how did the idea of sensations occurring during sleep come about?
I was actually supposed to be in China for a Residency during the time that it took place, but it got cancelled because of Covid, so I moved back to Falmouth and rented a studio there. I’d been drawing throughout my travels, and was itching to do some big paintings. In Australia, I’d drawn somebody asleep, transforming this person into a dream-state-angel. I wrote ‘Sweet Dreamz’ on it, which initiated the idea for the show. All the works in the exhibition were about my dreams and the thoughts I’d have in the middle of the night. My best ideas seem to come out of nowhere, even when I’m doing the dishes!
I was once told that if I ever get creative block, I should get on a bus. The trees and scenery flashing past the window recreate that calm, dream-like state and spur your creative cogs into gear. Do you have a dream journal, and can you read an extract from one?
I usually just write them in my phone notes. Dreams, fairy tales, nightmares… I guess it’s all similar, right? It’s nice to go into different, imagined worlds. And the best part of this is, if the work and ideas come from my imagination, then they can only be mine. I woke up the other night and wrote down that I needed to make a sculpture of a Witch being burnt at the stake, but it was shaped as a T-bone steak. As you can imagine, I get a lot of bad ideas.
It really offers a window into your psyche. I’m interested in the artistic process: sketchbooks, rough notes, undeveloped film and screwed up drawings that went wrong, for example. The remnants of artist Francis Bacon’s ’slashed’ and destroyed paintings were discovered in his studio after he died in 1922, which he once admitted were his best. Do you keep everything you’ve made?
No, I throw plenty of things away including drawings, poetry… Those that are perhaps too personal and I’m embarrassed to show people. I wouldn’t want my mum to see them either. If she knew how sad I was sometimes, she’d get upset. But creating them is still a nice release of stress and thoughts. Funnily enough, I haven’t actually talked about my work or self like this in a long time.
Understandably so, your works are intimate self-portraits, funnelled through your subconscious. So Fergus, despite being in wildly uncertain times, what do you think the future holds for you?
Cornwall can be slow, and while I’m really happy here, I feel too comfortable, and am itching to get into the art world. My plan is to go to Berlin (Brexit and Covid-dependant), although I might hate it. I’m a bit fed up with painting in garages and sheds, so I want to get a studio too. I’d like to get back into sculpture and also photography – sometimes I just can’t express myself fully enough only through painting. It often takes weeks until a piece turns into something. I have a photography project about masculinity in mind, inspired by an anecdote from my student days. At school we had this football match and a guy forgot his shin pads, so he came out with a Nuts magazine in one sock and a Zoo magazine in the other… I’d like to recreate that in a photo. I love photographer Cindy Sherman’s work.
Words by Peach Doble