Featured Artist - Simon Keenleyside

We asked Featured Artist Simon Keenleyside to expand on his practice:

Hi Simon, you emphasise that you work in the British landscape tradition, and specifically you make work based on your local area in Essex, but to me they are universal. Is there a correlation between the local and the universal to you?

By invoking the British I’m pertaining to our love affair with the landscape and its continued importance within our cultural history, from its industrialisation to our need of seeking out the picturesque. For me it’s important that the work has roots and that my chosen landscapes are spaces I’ve experienced and have a deeper understanding of. That then enables me to re-explore them at a distance and through memory. Ultimately, I’m working towards creating an authenticity for the viewer but one that allows space for them to bring their own history and interpretation so that the works can indeed be read universally.

You often return to the same site, which makes me think of the Impressionist strategy of painting the same location repeatedly but under different conditions. There was a sense of difference in repetition in their methodology. Has Impressionism informed your work and if so how?

Repetition is an integral part of my work and my understanding of the landscape, so undoubtedly over the years I’ve been influenced by the Impressionists, but perhaps more so by a second or third generation of artists that followed. Mondrian‘s belief that art should reflect the underlying spirituality of nature is an idea that resonates with me and his use of a strict visual vocabulary to reveal the essence of the natural world is an approach (albeit to a lesser extent) I adopt when exploring the spaces I’m drawn towards. I am interested in the natural shifts of a changing environment, but also in invoking the experience and memory thereof.

Your palette is intense, certainly heightened and even hallucinogenic. Can you explain why this is?

There are many ways to answer this. There are certainly a number of art historical influences from Dutch flower painting to German Expressionist groups to contemporary painters like Mary Hellmann.

A variety of cultural references also get thrown in the mix, but one notion I’ve often thought about and perhaps succinctly sums up my approach to painting is from my memories as a child then teenager growing up not far from a seafront resort. The illuminations and lights from the Arcades at night were always a wonderment. As a child they were magical but as a teen they enticed you as intended and then the darker secrets behind the facade would become the focus.

As with my painting, there is often a less refined element beyond the attraction of heightened colour. They are often on the edge of being playful and whimsical, yet it is the darker undertones that really drive the work. The disruption of the surface, be it scraped or sanded into, or the waste paint being reused, for me counters the initial attraction and gives the work a physicality that pulls them back and places them elsewhere.

With your psychologically intense palette and obsession with nature, I would consider you as a Romantic painter. Would you agree?

Most definitely, but too often the notion of the Romantic spirit is seen as only in search of and desire for the paradisiacal or beautiful; and forgets it also encompasses the sinister, the dark, the uncomfortable. Casper David Friedrich suggests that ‘painters should not only paint what they see in front of them but also what they see inside’— an idea that I fully embrace and always attempt. Yet the romance of oscillating between attempt and failure has become an integral part of my process.

And finally, you work from small to monumental scale and across watercolour, spray paint, oil paint, canvas, board, print and paper. You always master your materials and scale, but what is it that working on paper brings specifically to your practice?  

I am always looking for the limits of any material I use, and paper is so often unforgiving to me that it has become my favoured surface to fail upon. Rarely do I set out with one idea that is then carried through to its fruition, but rather I set up scenarios I know will end with me having to start over. So I use paper in a way that forces my hand and encourages me to be quick and brave and it is in these moments of fearlessness that often the hand can disappear, so that when I return the success or failure is determined by my need to feel surprised. And the process starts again.