Abstract Critical

Sophia Starling interviewed by Daniel Sturgis

Fluor Red, 2013, oil on canvas, approx  225cm x 280cm x 30cm

Fluor Red, 2013, oil on canvas, approx 225cm x 280cm x 30cm

Daniel Sturgis: Sophia, we’re at Jerwood Space, and looking at a very bold painting of yours in Gallery 3. I wondered if you could say a few words about how the painting came about?

Sophia Starling: With Fluor Red I had an idea of the tiers of a cake; though it doesn’t look like a cake I wanted something which had thicker structures compared to what I’d done before. I started by stretching the middle circle with a piece of canvas about three metres squared…

DS: So the middle one, which is hanging down a bit, was stretched right in the middle of this piece of canvas, and then you built the other stretchers around it – is that how it goes?

SS: Yes – so I started with the middle one, and stretched under the first one, then over – layering up stretchers. Because they are circles you can never quite stretch it neatly so its got these pleats and tucks where I tried to make as flat a surface as I could. And then after the last stretcher the canvas is just spread out onto the wall.

DS: Then it’s all one continuous piece of canvas. And you introduce colour right at the end: is that right?

SS: Yes, the colour comes after I have lived with it for a bit on the wall in my studio, and then the flat surfaces are painted, and the edges as well.

DS: What about about that choice of colour – are there associations you make with the colours in your paintings?

SS: This whole year I’ve been trying to think about colour. As the paintings don’t normally have this many layers, colour became really important. With Fluor Red I actually just went for the brightest, most vibrant colour I could – this fluorescent brick-red, and I think it has made the painting more bold, more in your face. The colour also accentuates how 3-D the painting is, how much it is coming off the wall at you.

DS: The boldness is really very visible in these works. And I wondered if over the course of this Jerwood Painting Fellowship you’ve found a confidence to push your ideas? 

SS: Having support and the extra money has meant I have been able to make the ideas that I normally wouldn’t be able to do. So the scale has increased, the shifts I have done within the paintings have been a bit more dramatic, and I’ve had more time to stop and think about them, without having to rush and finish. So for example, the piece Unpeeled (Green/Purple), I left for quite a long time, before I did ‘unpeel’ the bottom. So that the steps I’ve taken in the paintings have slowed down – though the colour decisions may have sped up.

DS: And how did the Jerwood Painting Fellowship – which you are awarded this time last year – work? Within the group of artists who were selected you are by far the youngest, and gained the award fairly soon after completing your BA course.

SS: I found out I’d got it about six months after finishing at Camberwell. It was pretty overwhelming but it was great to have something to work towards, and to be able to have a studio: before I was attempting to make work on my kitchen table, which at this scale doesn’t really work. Luckily the walls in my studio at V22 in Bermondsey are about 4 metres high, so it was a good studio for making these works. And throughout the year Mali Morris came and visited me. It was a nice relationship; not necessarily critiquing my work each time – there might be discussion about when to leave a painting – a friendly chat rather than a direction from someone. Time has been very important. I might make something really quickly and then leave it before unstretching and stretching again, which kind of came down to confidence, to have the confidence to undo what I’d already done.

DS: How often did you meet Mali?

SS: She guided me through the year. We probably met every two months at the beginning and then every month in the build up towards the show.

DS: And you met the other artists as well?

SS: Yes we did a studio visit in the year, and we’d meet up and see how it was going.  The interesting thing was that it is an award for three different artists and our work is very different. And we all had mentors who went with that as well. We all got on and had successful mentor relationships.

Unpeeled, (Green/Purple), oil on linen, approx 310cm x 194cm x 10cm

Unpeeled, (Green/Purple), oil on linen, approx 310cm x 194cm x 10cm

DS: Can you say a bit more about Unpeeled (Green/Purple), where you’ve actually unpeeled the canvas from the bottom part of the lozenge shape, so it is off the stretcher, whilst the top half is on the stretcher? Was it made with a similar process to Fluor Red?

SS: I start with the shapes that are sticking out the furthest – so the two circles – and then try and align the lozenge shape with them – but it is never quite perfect. And then after painting I unpeeled the bottom, so the drips which normally would be vertical come out into the room a bit.

DS: One of the things which was very noticeable when I first saw the work was the way you seem to have painted it. It is a little bit different to the other pieces in the sense you can see these vertical lines, which I took as very slow brush-strokes on the surface.

SS: That is actually because of the herringbone linen that I’ve used. I found that the paint absorbs into some of the lines and not into the others. It is also to do with how the material has been stretched – to do with the nature of this particular fabric.

DS: These works are really very sculptural, although they still clearly are on the register of painting. What are the influences and the ideas you bring to this way of working?

SS: I became interested in what abstract painting could be, so I developed this process where the support, the paint and the material all have equal weight, they are all as important as each other. Most painters use the support and material to create a surface on which they will create their painting; whereas I wanted the material, the structure and the support to make up the composition of the painting.

DS: How did this way of working develop? You talk about questioning abstract painting; the object nature of some abstract painting is very noticeable, do you see this as important?

SS: How do you mean? I don’t really talk about them as objects. It’s more of how stretching these structures into the painting has created this shape – it’s more about the process.

DS: There is a huge amount of control in these paintings, even though they have this confident and informal look. Each part is treated differently, each process which has been enacted onto the painting or into the painting is very well orchestrated. So that there seems to be something in it which is about being in charge, being in control of the material, but then also something in it which is slightly more casual in the way that the elements are arranged…

SS: Yes, well they look like I am more in control than I am. With this one, I put two circles at either end of a lozenge shape, but after stretching those circles into the material they are not in exactly the right place because it is difficult to work out exactly where they will end up. It was the same with the pleats – I didn’t know where they were going to be. And when I go onto unstretch it – which is a sort of release – that is probably the most exciting bit of the whole process, because I have painted this surface, and I then get to undo it, and I don’t know what is going to be revealed underneath the pleats, I don’t really know what it is going to look like until I’ve done it and I can’t undo it because I have stapled through the paint into the stretcher behind.

DS: And when you were saying that the purple circles are not correct, do you mean that they were not symmetrical?

 SS: Yes, I always have the idea that the circles will be perfectly at either end – this never quite happens. In the same way I attempt to be really neat, but I will always get paint on the part I don’t mean to – like when you bring a new piece of clothing into the studio, you always get paint on it; I’m always trying to make myself be, or paint,  a certain way, but it never quite works…

DS: Well, it might be that if they looked too machined, or too perfect they would lose a huge amount, and it is that inability to get it exactly right, that inability to be perfect that enlivens them, gives them this very human quality?

SS: Yes. Also when you look at the fabric, you can see the marks from where I’ve stretched it, where its been on the floor in my studio. They are things that happened as I was making it, that I could not have put there afterward.

DS: The fabric around the bold central, painted area has a lot of history in itself, it’s creased with life from the studio, with all sort of drips and splatters – also it’s very fragile in the way that it hangs, with light and shadow on it, compared with the robust middle. It’s of a different order I suppose, yet you keep relating one to the other. The process reveals itself…

SS: I like the parts where you can see the stretching process on the fabric – so it’s not just smooth, off the roll, you can see that this form has been stretched into it – its got the history of how its been made, what its gone through.

Shifted X, 2013, oil on flax, 310cm x 164cm x 10cm

Shifted X, 2013, oil on flax, 310cm x 164cm x 10cm

DS: Can you mention some of the artists who have been important to you when developing this body of work, that you see these paintings as being in dialogue with?

SS: I’ve always been interested in the kind of work where something happens when the artist isn’t in control. I’ve looked at the work of Alexis Harding, where he will create this surface that he then leaves and the paint does its natural thing with gravity and falls off or moves. When looking at other people’s work I try to understand what’s happened, what they’ve done, or what they haven’t done. I also like Steven Parrino’s work but more because he came at a time when people were critical of what was happening in abstract painting, and he put his two fingers up and said I’m going to do what I like, was really physical with the canvas, unstretching it, moving it.

DS: Do you see your paintings as being confrontational like Parrino’s?

SS: I would like to think they are more positive. They are less about destroying the painting in the way that Angela De la Cruz’s are. I hope mine look like they are expanding outward – that there are more things that can happen in abstract painting, and they literally expand out as well as questioning what can be done. I hope they are more positive.

DS: Their very clear formal languages – that are almost diagrammatic – of circles in circles, or circles in lozenges, also seem to be about building something up, rather than abusing a surface… Looking at Shifted X, the quality of the painted surface seems very different again, with a different type of canvas support, but also with the paint having a different type of feel to it…

SS: Yes, it’s done on flax linen so it is quite a lot coarser. And I’ve layered up the oil paint mixture and made it really glossy. So when it is unstretched and the fabric is crumpled up it looks richer; also the middle part is matt, so the different surfaces of the shiny red part and the matt yellow part play off against each other.

DS: The scale of it is very particular with the size of the lozenge shape being more or less human sized. Can you tell me something about the overall size?

SS: It doesn’t seem human sized compared to me!

DS: So bigger than human sized…?

SS: For some reason this shape felt like it needed to be big… I’ve never been able to work particularly small. It is quite important for the movement and the shift in the painting that it is large. Also a large shape needs more of the linen around it. It makes it bolder.

DS: The boldness and toughness of it seems to be a stance which you have. Is that something which you see directed at anything, or sort of playing to any particular ideas?

SS: I suppose it is to do with what else can abstract painting be – it says ‘look it could be this…’

DS: And do you think there are questions of gender embodied in that boldness, or not particularly? 

SS: Hmmm… Maybe because I’m small I wanted to make something that was too big for me!? It almost took me off the ladder in my studio a few times. It’s also a challenge for me. It is difficult to stretch shapes that aren’t square, that aren’t rectangular. I create these challenges for myself, and maybe scale was part of that as well.

DS: So you were problematising your process by working as big as you can, bigger even than you could quite manage, in a studio that was hard to negotiate?   

SS: Yes, also scale takes control away a bit more, it is pretty difficult to stretch canvas round the end of the lozenge shape when you can’t put it upright to stretch because you can’t reach the top. It’s quite a strenuous activity; but I like that. I like making something which you feel that involved with. I don’t make things that easy for myself.

Continuous Painting, oil on canvas, approx 180cm x 1500cm

Continuous Painting, oil on canvas, approx 180cm x 1500cm

DS: This series of painting are all quite individual pieces, they all have their own quality, they all seem to be asking particular questions about their surface and their make-up. But I know that during the year you did a very large joined-up painting, could say a bit about that?

SS: Throughout the year I had ideas about different ways to take my work. So I started by making a few pieces and thought that this one could be unpeeled or this one could be shifted; and to make a decision about what I was going to make for the show I got fifteen metres of canvas and stretched as many different supports into it as I could,  and found different ways of stretching the supports. It was to get the ideas out more than anything, as now I’ve  cut the piece up into individual paintings. It was like a sketch: I don’t make maquettes, so the only way to see if things could work was to go with it, and do it.

DS: That makes me think about how you plan these works. Presumably you’d been thinking about stretchers and supports prior to that process of sketching because you would need to get them made. I wonder what happens before the canvas arrives?

SS: Yes – it’s quite a long process. I had ideas about the kind of shapes I wanted to use, and I used this year to make as many as I could, so I had a studio full of circles and lozenges, so I could grab anything at any point; which is what I did with the long continuous painting. But when making one of the paintings here I had to work out the scale, make the stretcher, decide on the fabric, stretch it, move it: so there was more planning than I like to think there is. But when it comes to doing the painting, I still haven’t quite decided how it’s going to be. With the unpeeled one I thought it might stretch out onto the floor, but I hadn’t realised I would need an even longer lozenge shape to make that work in terms of the height on the wall. When it comes to actually making them something might happen so that the whole painting changes – I don’t have an idea of what it is going to look like until it is actually finished.

DS: Did you make the wooden supports for the stretchers yourself?

SS: Yes, I made most of them – I had some help with some of them. I think I like being in control of all the materials: I like making everything myself.

DS: And the way they hang and fall on the wall. How much is that precise, or how much do you pin them up so they fall in particular ways? What qualities do you want the expanse of cloth to have? – because all of them have a large amount of unprimed fabric, where the fabric is just being itself…

SS: I’m still working with that. Most of the time it comes quite naturally – I don’t have a plan of how it’s going to look.  There might be a pleat in the stretcher which follows on from the fabric, so its got to be pinned up in a certain way to reveal the top of the painting; and I try not to put any staples at the sides, so that the top holds it up. But I think it can change a lot – this might be how it looks in this space, but it might be different in another space, composing it on the wall is a large part of it, because in the studio it might just have been pinned up so I could paint it.

DS: Finally, I’m struck by something you said earlier, about how there is more planning in them than you would hope there was – why would you hope that there wasn’t?

SS: I feel that something more exciting is going to happen if I haven’t decided on every move. But obviously the more I make the more idea I am going to have of how they look. So maybe now is a point when I don’t know everything – they are still new, there are still loads of ways they can go. Hopefully it won’t get to a point where I know exactly what they are going to look like…

DS: I can see that. But it strikes me as important because you spoke about wanting to decipher Alexis Harding’s; of trying to work out how they are made. But with your own work you want not to know – and that seems to be one of the strengths within the work. There is this care, precision and boldness but also an element which is a little bit wait and see; where the materials enact themselves.

SS: Well, lots of people say that some kind of mystery in painting is good… The paintings are new to me as I am an artist coming out of art-school. I don’t know what can happen next. I’m as excited as I hope someone else might be…

Jerwood Painting Fellowships 2013 is on at JVA at Jerwood Space, London until the 28 April 2013. After that the exhibition tours: 20 July – 24 August 2013 BayArt, Cardiff; 18 January – 1 March 2014 Aberystwyth Art Centre; 11 March – 5 April 2014 The Gallery at NUCA, Norwich. Sophia Starling’s website is here.



  1. Geoff Hands said…

    I have not seen this work in the flesh but the images of Sophia Starling’s shown here are very exciting. The construction/de-construction process in painting (more so than sculpture?)is alive and well and informs the work of many young artists today.
    The terms ‘abstract’ and ‘painting’ seem like a misnomer for this category of (relatively) recent practice (I have Rauschenberg’s ‘Jammers’ in mind from the mid 1970s that were shown at the Gagosian in London recently). For me, this kind of work eschews labels such as ‘painting’, ‘abstraction’ and ‘process’.
    ‘Objecthood’ comes to mind of course. Sophia’s work creates a strong sense of the ‘here and now’ (even in photographs). I can imagine that some observers might be tempted to make external associations to the work – but this should be resisted at all costs. To me this work has a phenomenological presence and impact (I was thinking ‘aura’, but that’s too metaphysical) that implicates an instinctive creative technology at work.
    The work also appears to have an honest factuality that invites contemplation (looking and thinking). There’s a sense of risk too – the kind of risk that the most able Fine Art degree level students are encouraged to make at Camberwell and elsewhere. Sophia has evidently been able to continue this critical exploration in that most difficult year or two after graduation.
    Where this body of work leads will certainly be interesting.

  2. Sam said…

    Agreed. Perhaps the best possibility is to look past the process, and to extend how they work visually? I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    It’s good to see a young artist being ambitious with big, bold and visual paintings. Makes a change from the usual array of 30cm square dinky abstracts. I hope her adventure continues, and that she avoids turning it into a fixed style.

    • John Bunker said…

      I like this thinking!

      “I became interested in what abstract painting could be, so I developed this process where the support, the paint and the material all have equal weight, they are all as important as each other. Most painters use the support and material to create a surface on which they will create their painting; whereas I wanted the material, the structure and the support to make up the composition of the painting.”

      I like this approach a lot! It has echoes of artists covered by AbCrit like Richard Smith and Simon Callery.

      Right now Starling’s work sits well with this Tina Jenkins piece.

      And maybe this one by Adam Walker.

      I can feel a show coming on!

      • Sean said…

        “I became interested in what abstract painting could be”

        This is quite a potentially loaded phrase, which for me is not followed up within her work. It suggests a kind of frustration toward a failure of current abstract painting not fulfilling its potential.

        Her response then is to create hung fabrics with pleats and folds with the odd structure floating within, as if this is some kind of radical development, or surprising revelation as to ‘what abstraction could be’? forgive me, but are we not still dealing with traditionally accepted notions of painting, i.e oil/canvas/support, all be it re-jigged in a not-so-new way. It’s a bold statement with a flaccid response. She spoke vaguely of something similar at the Jerwood Painters discussion, opening with a strong statement of suggesting a direction in abstraction, then failing to follow it up by resorting to insisting the paintings are only about process and nothing more. It’s as if she wanted to situate herself within a critical framework – and then protect herself by cutting all ties to any critical dialogue.

        Probably a harsh response to her work, but if you open the gate with a statement like that..