By Rosie Campbell for ArtVerve, August 2017
A painted portrait has always had the power to grab my attention – and often to hold me by the lapels till I’ve addressed, quizzed, interrogated, decoded…even then, I’ve often been left confused, full of questions. It almost doesn’t matter the painting age, style, medium, subject, or even artist – there is just something about a human face reinterpreted for a third party gaze, that compels…
In the case of Annie Kevans’ work, I am almost helplessly drawn to her paintings. She paints solely portraits; they are frequently highly challenging, always raw, stripped of artifice, painfully human, and often violently emotionally-charged.
Over the past decade and more, she has focused on challenging the ‘expected’ images of famous people, shocked by her reframing of infamous tyrannical adults (Hitler, for example) as helpless and vulnerable children, and given a spotlight to artists, notably women who have previously been denied the visibility she feels they deserve.
In all, her work challenges conventional assumptions about the work lives, the desires, the public faces and the media-created images of public as well as notorious individuals. She is more accurately a ‘character painter’ than a portrait painter.
I am lucky to own a portrait of Britney Spears by Annie; it was an impulsive, and compulsive, purchase nearly a decade ago – and worth every penny I paid.
It has become not only a talking point in my home but also – bizarrely – something of a ‘child’ of mine. Britney Spears’ evident vulnerability has turned me into her defender, her support, her mother… She is doe-eyed, childlike, yet looks – worryingly – as if she’s emerged a bruising long night of self-abusive revelry…
Britney Spears (2008)
The conversation that follows constitutes a discursive interview conducted online, with Annie, and I hope a fire-starter for a longer piece as well as further exchange.
Rosie I was drawn to your paintings immediately, and I’m lucky enough to see your ‘Britney Spears’ almost every day. She has become a kind of Mona Lisa in my house, her eyes following every passerby, her sadness forever fighting her sexual allure. I have hung her just at the bottom of my stairs …she is somehow inviting you upstairs….
How would you comment on my feelings living with one of your ‘famous people’ paintings?
Annie I think owning art is a very personal experience and no artist can anticipate the effects their art will produce on those who own it and live with it, especially when the work is of a famous person, because people will also have an opinion on the subject of the work.
I use our familiarity with famous people to highlight issues that are so common they are seen as normal. The phenomenon of creating child stars to sell anything from music and films to alarm clocks and shoes, is so prevalent that we barely notice it. By focusing on the overtly sexual poses of these children, I wanted to bring to light the double standard evident throughout the media which, on the one hand, continues to create the current atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion with regard to images of children, while at the same time disseminating sexually provocative images of young girls and child stars.
Olsen Twins (2009)
By displaying the Girls series unframed, like posters, in the setting of a little girl’s bedroom, complete with toys and home furnishings featuring child stars, I wanted to draw attention to the messages relayed to children through the media and, thus, to highlight their invasion of the home and their part in dictating the roles which children are expected to play.
Rosie Can you comment on how you settled on portraits; what you feel this genre allows you to do..?
Annie In my second year of college I tried to paint some ‘evil’ children (Adolf Hitler, Fred West, Mary I and Al Capone) but I wasn’t happy with the results and decided to focus on photography. I thought about creating the series using this medium but it involved finding children to pose for the photos and, strangely, the work wouldn’t have had the same ring of truth about it as the paintings do. By that, I mean that I would have had to create photos that looked like genuine ones and this would have seemed deliberately deceitful. I decided to return to painting and narrowed down the series to political leaders. Finally, I decided that the series worked best on oil-painting paper. Painting gives me freedom to explore ideas in a way I found impossible to do with photography.
Despite contemporary interpretations of the portrait, there is a general acceptance and knowledge of what portraiture is, or should be, about: capturing the likeness and personality of a person. By using the traditional painting format of portraiture, I use people’s familiarity with the genre to imbue my works with truth and to explore difficult ideas.
Marilyn Monroe & Joan Crawford (2009)
Rosie We are very interested in women’s suppressed and too-often ‘forgotten’ artistic lives, and I know you are too… to the point you created an entire series based on women artists who hadn’t had the – art historical/critical – prominence they warranted – what was your plan for this series, and how did you choose those to include?
Annie As is often the case, the series started with my interest in a few people and grew into a large series. I originally created a small series depicting four female Impressionists. They were displayed at an art fair under the title ‘Impressionists’. This simple title was enough to make people think in a completely new way about an art movement they felt knowledgeable about. Some of the female Impressionists exhibited in every single Impressionist exhibition but where are they now in those big blockbuster shows? They had no idea they would one day be dropped from the programme. The problem has been with their legacies and with the recording of the history of art. This is why I called the series ‘The History of Art’ because that’s really what it’s about.
Sonia Delauney & Kathe Kollwitz (2014)
The History of Art series features women in art history who were once acclaimed in the art world – some were even international celebrities – and whose history and significance have been gradually eroded so they are ultimately forgotten to a modern audience. I was astonished to learn throughout the course of my extensive research that, despite the massive obstacles in their path, many women managed to have successful careers as artists as early as the 16th century. Although some have been championed in the last decades having been ‘rediscovered’ by later art historians, these women still remain separate from mainstream art history. Their work is consistently sidelined in major exhibitions and women artists are deemed only worthy as subjects within the secondary realm of feminist art history.
Women Artists from ‘History of Art’ Series (2014)
The more research I do, the more women I find who deserve to be studied, exhibited and remembered. There are probably around 100 artists who should be in the series and maybe I’ll be able to complete the series one day. I never know when I embark on a project how big it will become and who will form part of the work. This is why I say my work is concept driven because the subjects of the works are unknown to me when I begin the series.
Rosie What is it about recognition and the face that feels important to you?
Annie I think people will always be interested in looking at others (it seems so obvious, it feels ridiculous to point it out!), which is why the depiction of humans in art will never disappear. There are always people proclaiming that portraiture and painting are ‘dead’ and yet relevant artists keep on depicting other humans in their work.
Rosie Your style of painting is very identifiable and leaves brushstrokes very ‘naked’ . Can you talk about how you paint…? Is the act as spontaneous and swift as it appears?
Annie It is spontaneous and swift, although it takes me time to get to the point where I can paint like that. I often work intensively for several months and then take long breaks.
Robert Mugabe (2013) & Kate Moss (2014)
Rosie You are on the record talking about the practical and cultural hurdles and barriers women face being ‘artists’ throughout history – and also still, these days. Can you talk a little about the fact of being a woman and your own creative practice?
Annie There are depressing statistics on the disadvantages faced by women in the art world. You only need to look at any commercial gallery website, or even institutions like the Royal Academy, to see the gender imbalances. Auction results show how hard it is for women to attain the same prices for their work as men. Without the backing of the big commercial galleries, life can be very difficult, especially if you’re not from a wealthy background. It takes a lot of money to pay for a home, a studio, materials, international travel to exhibitions, and, as I’ve recently discovered, the cost of self-publishing books (big publishers are only interested in you once you’re showing in big museums). Childcare costs in the UK are astronomical but I get irritated when I hear people saying this is a problem for women. It’s a financial problem for people who don’t have a lot of money. If you’re a person with a nanny, then having children isn’t going to stop you being an artist, a writer or an actor, whether you’re a man or a woman. The fact remains that the obstacles facing women are more to do with the lack of support from museums, curators, writers and art historians.
Hari Nef (2017)
Rosie You are described as an ‘acclaimed British painter’. Are nationality, home, studio location important ?
Annie I think when you realise you have so many obstacles to overcome, you have to give yourself as much of a chance of success as possible. I believe you are more likely to succeed in a big city with a thriving art scene. I benefited from graduating from a well-known London art school because our degree show was very well attended by curators and collectors. As our tutors told us, a London degree show is probably the best-attended exhibition most artists will ever take part in. Location becomes less important as you become more established and gallerists and curators care less where you live.
Jean Paul Gaultier Muses show, History of Art (2014)
Rosie Do you feel free or trapped by descriptions such as ‘acclaimed’, ‘painter’ ‘woman’..?
Annie No! I take those descriptions as compliments.
Rosie What can you say about feminism and art, or feminism and painting..? Are you a feminist painter?
Annie I’ve always believed in equality between men and women so I’ve always been a feminist. I expect all women artists are feminists and, as I’m a painter, that does make me a feminist painter.
Rosie Which other contemporary women artist/s do you feel inspired by, who’s work you would most like to own, are you most excited by at the moment..?
Annie I feel inspired by many women, including Paula Rego, Cornelia Parker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Marlene Dumas, Cathie Pilkington, Tracey Emin, Rachel Kneebone, Tessa Farmer, Karen Knorr, Rebecca Warren and Kate Lyddon.
Rosie When you look ahead what kinds of projects and ideas are you mulling?
Annie My main goal at the moment is to work in different media and on a different scale.
RA Summer Show (2017) – Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy & Robert Mapplethorpe in drag
All images © Annie Kevans, kindly reproduced with permission.
All rights reserved, 2017.