Societal reflections through a mirrored insect world.
In case you’re not familiar with Japanning, this technique was popularised in Europe during the 17th Century, serving as a decorative method for those who could not afford luxurious materials, given its mirrored surface that imitated Asian lacquer. However, to this day, it’s proven to be at serious risk. In response, artist Tuesday Riddell is preserving this endangered craft, amongst other ones such as marbling, wood graining, stone blocking and Chinoiserie, introducing them into her nostalgic works, which often incorporate insects or animals in conflictive situations through harmonious compositions. The artist’s stance on craft and detailed visual qualities are defying contemporary culture’s gradual enthusiasm within virtual alternatives, social media platforms, and other intangible devices. “Preserving these crafts offers us an understanding of past communities, the history and legacy of their cultures, and of what we will be leaving behind”, the artist adds. In an attempt to learn more about the enchanting images Riddell builds, we sat down with the artist and asked her to introduce us her surreal staged situations, her specific choice of animal portraiture, and reveal to us how she keeps her works right on the edge of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
You’re part of Artpiq’s platform, which allows emerging artists’ kick-start their career through visibility, funding, development of artistic practice through their Summerhouse Residency, and transparent sales. What is your position on their ethos towards emerging art?
It can be hard to switch between two different mindsets and finding the time and focus to spend on creating artworks when you’re trying to deal with the business aspect of being an artist. Artpiq gives you the support, network and exposure, allowing me to spend more time doing what I’m best at, producing the work.
You were part of Artpiq’s Instagram takeover, coinciding with your involvement in London Craft Week. Do you think that being part of this platform allows for a ‘community’ aspect with other international artists?
Definitely, especially through the Artpiq takeovers which allow you a window into the world and process of other Artpiq artists. Its inspiring to see the progress of the other artists with the platform, and encounter artists that you maybe wouldn’t meet in London, especially now with their summerhouse residency.
How has being part of Artpiq developed your confidence? Does this platform allow for you to concentrate on your practice without thinking about sourcing clients or the business side of the arts?
Somebody appreciating and believing in your art is a huge confidence boost, so I was very happy when a platform like Artpiq was interested. It has given me so much more time to focus on my practice knowing the work with Artpiq is in good hands.
“I used to spend most of my childhood with butterflies” was a striking quotation you referred to in my recent studio visit. In this context, can you tell us more about the butterfly imprints that you add in your works, and are you playing with the limits of the beautiful and the macabre with this technique?
I spent hours of my spare time in childhood catching butterflies on a huge butterfly bush outside my childhood home, and would keep them in my bedroom as pets, along with ladybirds. I would build small worlds in containers and jars trying to recreate their environments, I think it has strongly shaped the visual qualities I appreciate in a painting. I was instantly attracted to the 17th century genre of Sottobosco paintings that are dark, eerie yet magical ground level undergrowth/forest floor images reminiscent of all of the time I would spend on the ground playing with insects. One of my favourite artists from that period was Dutch painter Otto Marseus von Schrieck, who occasionally pressed the wings of butterflies he found into his paintings to capture a naturalistic impression. I have ethically collected butterfly wings for a few years with damaged wings, which I press sections into a solution on the painting and the pigment sticks. I then paint on top of it, leaving a mixture of imprint and imitation. There is a place between wonder and repulsion when it comes to insects. The contrast of beauty and horror makes the images not just about whimsical insect filled worlds, but also about the world we inhabit which at times can be not so enchanting.
You have been interested in more ‘traditional’ mediums than your peers when undertaking arts education. Have you found today’s education system and it’s approach to more contemporary mediums quite challenging?
I’ve always been interested in skill, techniques, and had a maximalist ‘more is more’ approach to my work. Before I began at City & Guilds Art School, I really struggled with being pushed towards performance art and video installations, which I wasn’t particularly interested in making. When I found City & Guilds, I was able to pursue and explore projects I’m passionate about, discover how I work along the way rather than feeling pressured to follow trends and formulas.
Your recent series involve birds, fishes, and butterflies. Can you tell us more about these different series? Do you work on several series at the same time?
I like to work on a series of 3-6 works at a time, I usually focus a series on one subject, but because some works take a lot longer than others, they end up intertwining with other series.
Can you tell us more about your process? Do you paint from memory? What’s the role of photography at this stage?
I’m surrounded by a lot of plants day to day, and have a collection of insects, pressed flowers, and butterflies to work from if I need a reference. I occasionally flick through botanical illustration books if I need extra inspiration. But I mainly enjoy using imagined scenery, insects or animals as it adds to the theatricality of the scenes, gestures of the insects and plants feels exaggerated, and the movement of properties like the grass and certain qualities of the leaves start to have familiar traits, almost stylised.
Your practice revolves around a strong sense of craft, including techniques such as chinoiserie, gilding, marbling, stone blocking, glazing, and japanning. Can you explain us through the techniques you use, and how you use them? What are your views on the preservation of these ‘endangered crafts’ in today’s landscape?
A technique I work with a lot is Japanning, which is currently on the Radcliff list of endangered crafts, meaning it is seriously at risk, as these skills are not being passed on. Today japanning exists primarily as a conservation craft. Through the Painter Stainer’s Fellowship, I’ve been exploring how to integrate these beautiful techniques into a contemporary fine art context. Japanning is an imitation of Asian lacquer work popular in Europe during the 17th Century. At this time, ‘Chinoiserie’ was also a popular style in European art and decoration. The Japanning technique involves preparing a board with up to 30 layers of lacquer to create a mirrored black surface to then paint images upon which will afterwards be gilded with gold/silver leaf, and subsequently built up with layers of shade and line. I also use techniques like marbling, wood graining, stone blocking and Chinoiserie, which also involve lots of different layers of textures, different types of brushes, tools and materials. These techniques were used throughout history to decorate establishments and homes that could not afford the luxury of having real marble, stone or wood, so instead they would imitate the patterns and textures to decorate, using layers of glaze and paint to mimic the grain and consistency of these surfaces. Preserving these crafts offers us an understanding of past communities, the history and legacy of their cultures, and of what we will be leaving behind. I believe the authenticity and quality of these crafts is very valuable today given the great amount of virtual worlds, social media platforms and other intangible digital products. I’ve been very happy to come in contact with more people that treasure these often-overlooked techniques. Personally, I find a great amount of worth in acquiring a skill that comes with such a body of knowledge.
Your subject matter involves an ‘animal world’ centred around conflicts, in which different species of living organism are struggling and dying in their natural environments. Is this imaginative ‘insect world’ somehow reflective of society?
Human-insect interactions are so universal that insects often appear as symbols, within politics, science, technology, religion, and literature. I would say so, yes. Historically, in forest floor painting, the paintings were often responses to contemporary scientific, philosophical discussions and issues. I like to see my works as reflective of our society. The images I build depict a mirrored insect world full of conflict, transformation, disease, death, and harmony, all while looking distractingly beautiful.
The compositions of your works appear staged, as imitating film sets or dioramas from natural history museums. Can you expand on this ‘theatrical’ aspect? Is this perfectly placed set up environment a tool for enhancing distortion, and keeping your works on the edge of the uncanny?
There’s something nostalgic in creating my compositions, perhaps reminiscent about childhood play, staging situations and creating environments with objects and different elements. In cinema and theatre you can play with so many different aspects to create a world that portrays what you want to the viewer, similar to natural history dioramas that capture a suspended moment in nature. I take from dioramas the strangeness held in their scenes, heavily composed to look wild, often resulting in having an unnatural perfection. It’s important for me to keep my works right on the edge of the ordinary, giving the images an enchanting, surreal aspect, without being straight forward supernatural. The images of butterflies falling from the sky, birds dying, bees drowning are images not far from the truth, but I like to depict them in somewhat of a horror movie scene mood, where you would see swarms of insects and flocks of birds hitting a house, surreal happenings having an effect on our natural world. If the imagery goes over the edge of uncanny on the other hand, it feels too fantasy, and I like my work to be grounded in reality, with just a little twist.
You mentioned you are fascinated by natural history dioramas, and these sets combine the 2D and the 3D aspects – painting, taxidermy, sculptural. In this context, are you interested in merging of two- and three-dimensional elements in your works?
I have been working on a still life forest floor Gilded Diorama sculpture, and in the past I have used raised Gold areas in my Japanning work that adds an Illusion effect as well as a sculptural element to the works.
In our recent conversation, you mentioned that curiously, the animals you represent in your works are fundamental for human race to exist. Can you explain this idea further, and your position on nature and human’s coexistence?
I portray animals that are all vital for the pollination of many of our foods and natural resources, and for the control of our climate and even our economic system. It’s so important that we are aware of the loss of these species, the destruction of our home, and that we generate the attention needed to conserve and sustain our planet.
I’d love to know more about your influences – from a classical horror aesthetic to 17th Century Forest floor paintings?
I’ve always been hooked to horror, even as a child my imagination would grow to the point where I would be terrified. Horror cinema has a particular mood, an atmosphere I find a lot in forest floor painting, a mixture of magical darkness. I love Dario Argento and David Lynch, and the way they both create opulent beautiful images with an underlying horrifying strangeness that really sticks in your mind. I became completely obsessed with forest floor/sottobosco paintings whilst at university, with the likes of Matthias & Hans Withoos, Van Shchreik, Johanne Falch and Rachel Ryusch. This genre of painting is characterised by cinematic, eerie, intimate ground level observations of insect and animals existing in dark foliage filled worlds.
You are finalising your Painter Stainer’s Decorative Surface Fellowship at City and Guilds, London. What’s next for you?
To end my fellowship, I’m part of the MA show at City & Guilds Art School alongside the MA students, fellows and artists in residence. After the show, I’m planning to study with an amazing conservation and gilding specialist who is going to be teaching me additional historical lacquer techniques such as Coromandel and Pearl inlay.
Words by Vanessa Murrell