Published: 5 March 2019
Scottish painter Muriel Barclay has gained widespread notoriety for her breathtaking depictions of dancers, musicians, and other disciplines of the performing arts. On the verge of opening her latest solo exhibition at Thompson's Gallery London, Muriel spoke exclusively to the gallery on her career, training, the message behind her beautiful works, and much more!
Thompson's Gallery: What significance do the performing arts have for you? The subject matter is prevalent throughout your practice.
Muriel Barclay: Drawing and painting people is my main interest. Portraiture is great - the challenge of reproducing a likeness, solving the problem of how the physical reality can be recreated in paint using line, colour and tone. Using dancers and musicians as subject matter offers extensive opportunity for painting moving figures and representing our relationship with our own image and how we display it to the world in body language and expression. The emotion of the work is distilled by it being a performance... The art of art.
TG: Do you have a particular dance or music studio that you frequent to study and observe the performers?
MB: No. I have observed dance classes particularly in the Dance School of Scotland at Knightswood School, Glasgow and Rosina Bonsu's studio. Most of my models have been students from these dance schools and the Scottish Conservatoire. The figures in my paintings are from drawings and photographs taken in my own studio. We talk about my ideas and they work with me to represent my thoughts. Often new ideas come as I observe their interpretations. Dance students make great models; they are unselfconscious and accustomed to being directed. They understand the picturing of body language and expression. The process is intense and I'm usually exhausted after a 3 hour modelling session but also a lot of fun and I find them truly inspiring. Many of them return joyously time after time, so I think they get a kick out of it too.
So, my paintings are not 'fly on the wall' glimpses of dancers in studios or on stage. They are constructions. When there is more than one figure in the composition, these models will almost not have know each other, or will be repetitions of the same model. The paintings of musicians are of models being given musical instruments and asked to imitate a performance, although some genuinely have experience playing that instrument. It's pretend, artfulness, artifice.
Above: Artist Muriel Barclay at work in her studio. Image courtesy of artist.
TG: What is the significance of the high heels which appear often in your paintings? They seem to have been kicked off by the subject or cast aside during a spree of trying on shoes!
MB: The significance is multilayered. Your question asks about stilettos, but I'd like to include other items like tutus, ballet shoes and stringed instruments. (Other items like mobile phones, sunglasses, lambs, horses, shopping bags, and beaches have been my focus though not in this exhibition)
On one level, viewers/customers see an appealing image of a dancer tying her shoe laces and it makes them think of a grand-daughter, or the universally popular Degas. I don't want to interfere with this view - it's sold many paintings and given pleasure.
For me, the significance is more complex (more or less depending on the work) and some viewers and buyers have an interest in more challenging, ambiguous imagery. To spell it out:
Stilettos = femininity, glamour, sexual attraction, pain, male domination, even a weapon
Tutus = pretty, romantic, nostalgic, every little girl loves a tutu but in reality very few dancers wear them now
Pointe Shoes = traditional ballet, beauty, high level of expertise, virtuosity in dance technique, femininity, pain, often resulting in chronic injury.
Folds of a silk skirt - explain the body beneath, movement
The body language and expression of my figures is also important in what its signified eg
Model gazing at the viewer - challenging? questioning?
Model experiencing private, personal moment, intent on intimate activity
Performance is about display - not availability. The figures in the work retain integrity.
TG: Does your process have any established pattern, ie sketching beforehand or resisting pattern in total?
MB: I usually have a theme eg an abstract idea like communication/ambiguity or performance/intimacy or defiance/compliance. Feminism is in there. From this I'm looking for my models to express these ideas. The formal qualities of the painting are important from the inception of each work - the composition, ie the arrangement of shapes, colour, tone on the canvas - is this pleasing/interesting? Do they signify the idea?
TG: How did you first come upon painting? Did anyone in your family do it, or was your natural talent a discovery?
MB: Dad drew and painted, bought art and talked about it. He was a surgeon so it was a hobby for him. He was very talented.
TG: Do you ever experience 'painters' block'? How do you overcome it?
MB: Yes. Do some yoga. Seek inspiration, usually in other artists' work. Keep working.
TG: Do you listen to music while you paint? If so, what is your favorite genre or band to play in the studio?
MB: I listen to radio more. Programmes on arts, current affairs and politics. We live in interesting times
TG: What advice do you have for young aspiring artists?
MB: Work hard. Be brave and honest
TG: Tell us more about your training in painting. What was obtaining your degree like, and which artists did you find most inspiring at this point?
MB: I achieved Grade A in Higher Art at school but was advised to go to University (Edinburgh)and graduated with History and Philosophy. No regrets. Became secondary teacher, married, three sons. Then in my 30's began studying drawing and painting at Glasgow School of Art night classes. Then in my 40's competed Levels 2 and 3 in Open University Art History. Edouard Manet, Diego Velazquez and Rembrandt. Still are my gurus. I'm also a huge fan of photographers like Oscar Marzaroli, Harry Benson, Diane Arbus, Lee Miller and Mario Testino.
TG: How have you changed in style and approach to painting or content/theme across your career?
MB: We all see beauty, sometimes through half shut eyelids. It's the artist's job to pry these lids open a little further to show the beauty of light falling on a collar bone, a face turning into shadow, the folds of a silk skirt describing the form beneath.
My approach to this has developed. I did believe over-work 'over-explanation' ruined a painting and I was drawn to impressionistic representation. Vigorous brushwork and suggested imagery had more value than highly finished compositions. I used to think realism was pointless (take a photo!). I now think differently: that done well it can result in stunning compelling images. Painters are getting over existing in the age of the camera. Much of the 20 Century we were trying to justify our paint on canvas. For me painting is not dead. Realism takes more work; there is no hiding place whereas insecure drawing can be disguised by loose brushwork and vaguely sketched outlines. I don't dismiss impressionistic or abstract (or any other) but I've found myself using almost hyper-realism to paint faces and figures. It requires more accurate observation, nuances of tone, layers of paint and for me ultimately results in a more intense quality of representation. I find myself increasingly using a combination of detailed finish to contrast impressionistically suggested backgrounds to show the light falling on a figure and its clothing and leaving the rest in shadow. What's seen, half seen or not seen.
TG: Do you have any studio rituals or superstitions?
TG: Do you dance or play instruments yourself?
MB: Not where my talent lies
TG: What is the most challenging aspect of painting your subject matter? What is the most fun part?
MB: Impossible to say - some say art is 10% inspiration 90% perspiration. I don't think so. Each painting is conceived as a masterpiece and then travels the swamp of despair and the heights of genius. Worked in the solitary studio. Problems to be solved all the way. The hardest is deciding when it is finished. Then it's hung on a wall to be judged.
TG: Last and likely most difficult question- if you had to name a favourite painting in your upcoming solo exhibition (Opening 7th March 2019 at Thompson's London), which would it be and why?
MB: Impossible. I would stand beside any one of them and say "I painted that".
Above: Props from Muriel Barclay's studio for models to hold and utilize during sittings. Image courtesy of artist.
Muriel Barclay's solo exhibition 'Performing Art' is on display from 7th to 23rd March 2019 at Thompson's Gallery London, 3 Seymour Place W1H5AZ (2' walk from Marble Arch Station). Call the gallery with interest or questions +44(0)207 935 3595 or email firstname.lastname@example.org