The Selfie-Conscious I, exhibited by Juliet Benini as part of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015, is a powerful, striking work whose subject’s eyes catch and hold yours even though she is not looking at you. It is an arresting image that raises unsettling questions about contemporary individual identity in a world in which the self can be constructed, distorted and manipulated on a screen. Eager to learn more about the artistic process behind the work, I caught up with Juliet, who provided the following thoughts on watercolour, in particular its ability to unearth what is ‘inside’ the artist.
When painting the Selfie-Conscious series for the 2015 Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, I wanted watercolour to visually embody the subtle fragility and ambiguity surrounding contemporary individual identity. I chose the medium mainly for its ‘look’–its fleeting washes, its lack of consistency, its soft airiness against paper–all of which I felt resembled my elusive sense of self amidst a world of technological ‘white noise’.
In the following years, however, I came to discover the centrality of watercolour to my specific process and to what drives me to make art in the first place. My ideas shifted to a more timeless and universal human predicament: that of the fundamental impossibility of full and authentic self-expression. Any attempt to communicate a feeling or a thought will always be incomplete. Like a stutter, expression falters–something comes through, but not everything. Trying to communicate is like trying to fit liters and liters of water into one small cup–it simply does not fit.
The act of painting is often seen to unearth what is ‘inside’ the artist, paint itself acquiring a revealing and subject-like force. We may consider watercolour to maximize this power. Watercolour has a closeness to life, the velocity of its marks steer the maker into the present moment of making and secure the essential contact between paper, ink and painter. Watercolour’s immediate and permanent stains have the ability to record specific incidents in time–like breaking open, crashing through, swimming away.
With this in mind, I work obsessively across long scrolls of paper, trying to catch up with my present state of mind. I repeat the same image of my face, re-rolling or crumpling the paper behind me. Each face turns out differently, by virtue of watercolour’s properties, but also my present mood. The difficulty of controlling the paint forces me to work attentively yet instinctively, in between accident and intent–arguably the reality of subjective experience.
When too distracted to paint, I chase my thoughts by writing in black ink along till rolls. Like a physical stream of consciousness, I let the words fall and fold under my desk. It makes me feel like I’ve poked a hole in my brain, the ‘stuff’ can leak out and I can breathe again. Sometimes after a full day or writing, I feel silenced around people, like I finally have nothing left to say. When too agitated to write, I tap or slap till rolls with one ink-soaked hand, whilst pulling it like an assembly-line with the other. Far from a release, this process further frustrates me, for it brutally mimics the fleeting intangibility of each moment.
What result are heaps of paper which highlight a continuing studio behavior. The folds, spirals, bunches and piles simultaneously reveal and conceal, emulating the interruptions inherent in the articulation of the self. Text and image take on a sculptural form; literal meaning is abandoned and is replaced by the act of expressing, or the potential to mean something. Words and images are rendered essentially inaccessible and inconclusive, allowing them to gain an open-ended, poetic quality. I would like interpretation to be halted or slowed down, so that a space might be opened up for whatever was left, the lack, the absence contained within every presence.
Deciding ‘what to make’ is a daunting thought which has probably crossed the mind of every artist at one point or another. What we find in the whites of gallery spaces are like simplified echoes, highlights in a text, tips of icebergs. I am especially preoccupied with the complexities of choice. If we accept that personalities, feelings, thoughts etc are unfixed and ever-changing possibilities, then unbounded choice to express one thing or another seems oddly constricting. Far from opening doors, it closes all but the one we end up choosing. My avoidance of oils, acrylics or pencil stems from the possibility of erasing, altering, going back or jumping forward. Working with stains in an assembly-line format is my way of limiting choice, to catch up and keep up with my mind in the present moment, a moment which naturally and infinitely eludes my grasp in the first place.
For further information on Juliet and her practice, visit http://www.julietbenini.com/about/.
To enter this year’s edition of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, visit https://sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk/. Deadline: 5pm, 26 June 2017.