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Siobhan McLaughlin's Mixed Media Canvases

Siobhan spoke to us about creating work while at home, showing her art to an online audience and how she is using quarantine as a time of reflection.

Lochnagar, oil on mixed materials, 170x200cm

Siobhan McLaughlin's reflective practice combines the likes of shepherd's prose with personal and individual lived experiences which translate a sense of place and self onto a physical, large-scale canvas. These carefully constructed mixed-media canvases are the foundations of Siobhan's immersive abstract landscapes, which have the ability to envelop and engulf any viewer in their perimeter. The haptic and tactile qualities encompassed by these textile canvases often contest the layers of thickly spread paint or considerately placed oil pastel which generate delicate subtleties in the surface texture of the folds and ridges of her canvases.

Hi Siobhan. It's great to speak to you and we love your work! You talk about how inspired you are by specific landscapes, which is particularly interesting because of the current climate. Since our time outside is so restricted due to having to self-isolate currently, we want to know how this has affected the way you are working. How has your making process changed due to your limited time outside? 

Self-isolating has meant that instead of physically gathering research, this period is a time for reflection. My work over the past year has developed from photographs and drawings gathered while following a walk written about in Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, 1977. Shepherd’s prose taught me new ways of approaching the landscape, in that ‘we should not walk up a mountain, but into them, thus exploring ourselves as well as them’. Grappling with my practice following a car accident, I use the sensory experience of walking, translated into the physicality of large-scale painting, to process my sense of place in the world.

Although I can’t hike up a Munro in the Cairngorms just now, I can continue to reflect on my experience and translate these thoughts into my paintings. Instead of worrying about limited time outside in the landscape, I’ve explored it differently. Robert Macfarlane, who wrote the introduction to Shepherd’s book, started an online ‘lockdown reading group’ discussing The Living Mountain. Engaging with that and reading others’ responses to Shepherd’s writings has given me lots of think about.

New York Aerial, Oil and household paint on mixed media & canvas, 152x183cm.

When and why did you start using alternative materials for your canvas?

I started using found materials a few years ago, I think it was a combination of things that sparked the idea. I was walking up Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh frequently, drawing the city and thinking about my relationship with this vantage point. I felt that my experience of the landscape was so immersive that I wanted my drawings to reflect that. I created an installation consisting of two large (4x3m) drawings on polythene sheeting hung taught between two trees, creating a tent-like structure with a small opening for viewers to enter. The occupiable viewing space was constantly in flux, as the wind billowed and hugged the drawings around the viewers. In this sensory experience, I wanted the landscape that is usually viewed from a distance to surround the viewer, creating a new relationship and experience of landscape.

I wanted to move this sensory experience onto a (slightly) smaller scale, and found that the texture and tactility of found fabrics translated that for me. Found, rather than bought material, intrigued me as the element of choice was taken away, the unpredictable nature of the fabrics made them more interesting to work with, and economically it was more viable than creating a 4x3m painting from linen.

I then visited Donna Huanca's exhibition Scar Cymbalsat the Zabludowicz Collection in 2016 and that solidified my interest in alternative materials. Her natural pigments and rich fabrics were juxtaposed with clear acrylic structures during meditative performances, and this fully sensory experience really impacted me.

The materials I use are mostly found from rummaging in the textiles department, or discarded remnants that have been given to me. They’re largely non-traditional, making the process more intriguing as tension is created by competing tautness and looseness of adjoining fabrics, and the paint interacts unpredictably with different surfaces. The incorporation of materials in my work led me to a form of painting outwith the confines of the stretcher. Cut and hanging, there is a rawness in these pieces, with some of the materials so thin and puncturable, they embrace a vulnerability that I align with teetering along the edge of a hill.

There is a physicality to your work because of its large scale and textured surface that are important in experiencing your paintings. What response do you get to posting your artwork online vs people seeing it in person and what are your thoughts on online gallery spaces?

For me, the experience of seeing a thick oil bar line on upholstery fabric or thin encaustic wax on polythene sheeting can’t be replicated online. I’ve always found that people respond well to my work in person, it’s enjoyed online too, but there’s something special about engaging with the scale and texture in person. I worry sometimes that instagram has moulded us to engage more with the most graphic, bright images, and be drawn towards what’s fashionable rather than enjoying the subtleties of a painting or forming our own opinions when we come across a piece in a gallery. I do think though that it’s a fantastic way to share your work, and connect with other artists in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. For some artists, online gallery spaces are ideal, and particularly in the current climate they are necessary, I just think that my work looks much better in person. It’s about my physical translation of the experience of landscape, and really you need to see it in the flesh to get the physicality of the painting.

Which artists have been feeding your inspiration recently?

I had the opportunity last year to analyse a Sonia Delaunay painting from 1916 in the conservation department of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and her treatment of paint and her colour theory, Simultanism, has influenced me massively. Merlin James’ ‘frame paintings’ are a reference point for the visible construction of my paintings. He uses stretcher bars as compositional devices, and although I’ve considered the sewing together of materials as a practical tool, I’m reflecting on how this could become an aesthetic device.

Other inspirations range from Giorgio Morandi or the gorgeous energy of Joan Mitchell to newer painters like Danny Leyland. I met Mark Bradford in London last year, and as well as loving his impressive paintings, he had some amazingly inspirational things to say.

Untitled (Lochnagar III), oil pastel, oil paint and encaustic medium on mixed materials, 310x200cm

What would you consider to have been the most exciting thing to happen in your artistic career so far?

I think that would have to be the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Award that I received at the VAS + SSA Open Exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in December last year. I was over the moon to receive the prize, and also got the chance to visit the WBG archives which was inspiring. Another highlight was being an invited artist for the Guestroom of Sighsteers, a group exhibition at g39, Cardiff in 2018. After working for Scotland + Venice at the 2017 Biennale, I kept in contact with some Welsh artists and was invited to exhibit by artist-curator Bob Gelsthorpe. The exhibition acted as a framework of collective memory: a replica structure of the space where the Welsh artists lived, on the strange isle of Certosa in the Venetian lagoon was created within the gallery to house the artwork, it was a great exhibition to be a part of!

You can find more of Siobhan's work on Instagram @siobhanmclaughlinstudio or on her website

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