Gabriella Boyd: Inside the Studio

As part of The Painting Imperative’s commitment to showcasing emerging artists, Simon Bayliss went to visit Saatchi Gallery New Sensations prize winner, Gabriella Boyd in her studio in Peckham.


Gabriella Boyd’s space is nestled in a revamped factory in an industrial estate, housing up to sixty other artists. Bright red pipes traverse the parameters of the bare plasterboard room now bustling with paintings. Before we began Boyd introduced me to some large familiar pieces and some small new work, all emitting a warm but peculiar ambiance.

Simon Bayliss: I’ve just seen the Keifer Exhibition in which there are paintings depicting the inside of Templhof airport. These pictorial spaces are vast and derelict, about to fall apart, and not a place I would want to enter. Your interiors have a very different atmosphere, and have the opposite effect on me as a viewer. As a way to introduce your work could you talk about the kind of space that you’re painting?

Gabriella Boyd: When I’m making my large paintings, and also when installing them, I think about portraying spaces which the viewer feels they could almost step into. Even on a structural level if they’re hung fairly low to the ground, I’m inviting you into them. In some of my paintings a pattern on the floor acts as this invitation.

SB: I can see floor boards leading to stairs in this one called Green Sofa and tiles in this one titled Orange Room.

Green Sofa

GB: That guides your eye into the painting and maybe encourages you to feel that you could almost walk up those steps and inhabit the space yourself.  The characters often appear to be unaware of each other, their faces blurred or concealed; I think this similarly encourages you to enter the spaces.

SB: To see what they’re up to?

GB: Yes, and to feel free to explore their world unnoticed.  Orange Room is the one painting where you’re being addressed as a viewer; the girl holds your gaze in a way that’s both vulnerable and defensive at the same time. Maybe you are only invited into the uninhabited space in the foreground; there is a division between that and her space. She could be pulling a blind down to detach herself.

SB: Historically interiors with decadently patterned floors, wallpaper or fabrics, in complex architectural spaces have given painters the grounds to test and prove their own skills and virtuosity. But although your work has aspects of that, it doesn’t show off in that respect.

GB: I wouldn’t completely agree that these artists were showing off. Something like Crivelli’s Annunciation depicts those incredible sockets of space providing glimpses of intricate interiors. It’s a different aesthetic that I’m after, but I’m definitely inspired by this technically brilliant painting.

SB: And what about the psychology of the space? They’re odd spaces that you wouldn’t come across in day to day life; they seem invented. I get the impression that they’re not necessarily about…

GB: …having to be a real space, having to be so believable?

SB: Yes.

GB: It’s important for me that the viewer believes in the space enough to imagine being in it. Normally I’ll start with quite a solid structure, a much more realistic space, and then gradually break away from that. It’s almost like the way a Leipzig artist works, such as Matthius Wiescher and Christoph Ruckhäberle, who start with a kind of box and draw back from that, becoming more dreamlike. For my belief in a space that I’m painting, or for my own security even, it’s important that it starts with something architecturally sound.

Blue Room

SB: Your interiors don’t seem to have windows and are painted in a fleshy pallet, which suggests to me that perhaps their real subject is an inner world, snapshots of the dreamlike workings of your own subconscious maybe.

GB: Definitely. My current work stemmed from a series of works I made two years ago called Socket. I painted incredibly pared down and minimal empty rooms and cavities in pink and green fleshy tones; a much more literal suggestion of psychological space. I’m glad it still comes across in my new paintings.

SB: As a viewer you feel like you’re a voyeur in a private world and you’re witnessing people engaged in strange rituals, or that you’ve interrupted a very personal moment.

GB:  I’m really interested in how we distinguish between a painting of an intimate scene and a painting that’s voyeuristic. Maybe it’s dependent on the perception of the viewer. I think the obscured images of the characters and the ambiguity of their activities allows the viewer to project what they want on to the paintings; it remains pretty open. Whatever narrative is deduced, these works are about people in space coexisting but being in different places mentally. That could be seen as quite a sombre or bleak view, but actually there are a lot of cheeky and playful elements.

SB: Although existential, they’re made with humour.

GB: Yes, that’s important. A lot of the spaces resemble theatre sets or something public. These people feel comfortable to do their own thing and it’s open for us to watch.

SB: That’s a nice analogy, describing it as a kind of theatre, because if they’re on stage you don’t feel guilty as a voyeur.

GB: Exactly, it’s not my intention to use the spectator’s gaze to morally charge my paintings.

SB: Could you talk about your process, where do you source your ideas?

GB: I begin by building theatrical installations – rearranging a domestic space, using everyday furniture as well as dramatic props.  These sets help me to bridge the gap between reality and the world that I’m painting. While I was at art school in Glasgow I lived in a flat with four friends – we all hoarded stuff in the hope that it might one day find its way into our work, this was gold dust. It would be pretty standard to find a huge red hose in the kitchen or a cardboard bath in the hallway.

SB: I was looking at one of the photographs earlier of someone perched on a mantelpiece. So you get them to pose…

GB: …in unexpected places. Yes, I’m interested in surrealism and that boundary between inner and outer worlds. It also comes from a personal experience; a feeling of escapism or calmness when you remove yourself from the clutter of a space, even if it’s up a ladder or sitting on the top of a fridge. There is a theory called the ‘clutter theory’ which is about how your mood is affected by physically removing yourself from clutter or mess – maybe it’s just an unhealthy alternative to tidying up (laughs). Those ideas are always in the back of my mind, but when I’m with a model it could be as simple as trying something that could look comical.

SB: When we were chatting earlier you were saying how you could be quite obsessive about the props you use; how you ordered striped curtains especially from Ireland because you couldn’t get them here.

Orange Room

GB: Yeah I also once found a bath in the middle of the road about fifteen-minutes away from my house, I called up a friend, who wasn’t quite as excited about this as I was, but she came to help me drag it back to our flat in the rain. The bath ended up in Blue Room a couple weeks later. There is something important about having a story or a history behind the objects I use. The viewer won’t see it in the paintings but it’s an integral part of my process.

SB: Going back to the Leipzig painters, stylistically your work is very different from Weischer, or Dexter Dalwood, whose interiors have a collaged aesthetic and are deliberately fragmented to quote an array of history paintings. Yours don’t have that plurality, which I find refreshing. For me they have more of the atmosphere of say, Matisse or early Hockney.

GB: While I’m inspired by the way Weischer works and his process of building space with paint, I want them to feel like spaces you could step into- I don’t want to reference the surface of the canvas so much. With Dalwood there is a constant reminder that it isn’t real space.

SB: They’re paintings about painting… So what artists would you cite?

GB: Vuillard is a key influence. His formal decisions to flatten depth and melt the distinction between figure and surroundings have encouraged my own exploration of this in my practise. He gives the same importance to a lampshade as a he does to a woman’s back. Bacon as well; [specifically] his ability to create stage-like rooms with very little. Matisse’s Red Studio is also a hugely important painting for me.

SB: Last year you were awarded a special commendation by the Saatchi Gallery as part of the New Sensations prize. What did that entail?

GB: When I was shortlisted I was commissioned to make two new paintings. I made A Room in London and Three Rooms. I had just moved back from Glasgow and had two months till the exhibition. It took me three weeks to find a studio space. So I spent five weeks in here drinking silly amounts of coffee (laughs)…

SB: I can imagine!

GB: It was an intense period of painting and a new challenge for me to make two paintings that were going to be hung together. This time I had to think about whether to connect them in some way.

SB: Did you meet the elusive Charles Saatchi?

GB: Charlie himself? No I didn’t!

SB: Even though he bought three of your paintings! Has the prize led to other opportunities?

GB: I’ve been asked to show work at the Beijing Biennale after a curator saw my work at the New Sensations show, and I will also be in the Catlin Guide 2012, a book of emerging graduates from last year. This has led me to being selected to make new work as a finalist for the Catlin Prize, which will open at the Londonewcastle Project Space on 3rd May.

SB: Where do you see your work going now, can you see an evolution?

GB: It’s hard to say, but at the moment I’m exploring fragments of ideas from the bigger paintings, almost like going back on myself, but experimenting and letting accidents happen.