J Chuhan: Recent Paintings

Inspired by Bacon and Manet, we spoke to Jagjit Chuhan ahead of her new exhibition of figurative painting

Professor of International Art at Liverpool’s John Moores University, Jagjit Chuhan’s work is primarily concerned with themes of voyeurism and sexuality, particularly contemporary sexuality. We caught up with her on the eve of an exhibition of new paintings in the ornate Victoria Gallery and Museum.

How do you get in the zone to paint, to shake off the day’s work and other worries, and to get into a creative mindset?

As soon as you pick your paintbrush up, cleaning your palette and painting, it soon vanishes, remarkably quickly … it’s like a ritual. It’s the only thing that gets the cobwebs out of your head.

Have you always painted?

I think I’ve always loved art and I remember being in school in art lessons. They were my favourite part of the week. I started skipping out of games and heading back to art room… the teachers were really nice. They encouraged me to apply to art school, I got a place and that was it. I’ve always loved painting and drawing, I also like making 3D sculptures out of clay. I’ve got some little packs at home, self hardening clay, that sits on my table right near to where I normally drink my tea!

Do you use drawing and sculpture as a way into painting, or a way to express initial ideas?

I think they’re quite different things but they all feed each other. Drawings are great because you can quickly get down ideas; a piece of paper is very portable, you can draw on anything to hand. Painting is really quite different; no matter how much planning you’ve done, you just end up in a different place … I find it a lot harder to realise something because there’s a more complex number of stages. You can scrape it off and start again, building up different layers. The image can go through so many more transformations. I suppose you can do that if you are printmaking, like Picasso’s etchings for instance, they can start off very dense, with lots of detail, then he pares them right down, to just a few lines, then brings them back. There comes a point with drawing that there’s not much more you can do, you may end up going through the paper. They’re different things!

“I’ve lost lots of paintings where I’ve overdone it”

You must feel that there comes a point in a painting when you feel the need to stop, when you know it’s ‘finished’, it’s come to a natural conclusion?

Yes, it’s quite difficult. You do know when to stop usually, but sometimes I’ve lost lots of paintings where I’ve overdone it, I’ll just change a little bit, and lose it, and you might as well repaint it.

Is it really tempting to keep adding?

Yeah it’s really hard, in the last stages of a painting, to know when to leave it. You think sometimes, ‘just leave it!’ Even when it’s not quite there. Maybe weeks or months later, you think, oh well, I was just kidding myself, and then it can go through another cycle. Sometimes you just get to a point when you know you can’t do any more with it, so just have to decide that you’ll leave it at that stage.

Are those difficult decisions the reason you always return to painting, the reasons why you are seduced by the artform?

The paint and the colours and the shapes … it’s like a puzzle really. You have an idea, and try to give it some shape with paint and colour, arranging them. It becomes like a really deep puzzle that you’re trying to solve. You just get so caught up in it, you can’t not paint – it becomes like an obsession, almost. I often wonder why on earth I do this, clearly there’s a strong desire. It becomes very much like trying to solve a formal problem, which is strange, because the things you’re trying to express are usually to do with ideas, and giving the image a certain mood. But you’re still attempting to give the painting a certain mood, visually.

Who would you say your inspirations are?

I love paintings by Bacon and Manet, Indian artists like Ravinder Reddy, Marlene Dumas, Renaissance paintings. I love traditional Japanese art – I just like the use of flat shapes and angles, and how the figures often look like they’re moving, and suggest a lot of drama, and the settings are quite serene in contrast. It’s so controlled. My recent work is more flat and less ‘worked up’. Some of my paintings get worked up not because I want them to, but because they go through so many stages. I go through a stage of wanting to make them more and more thick. My early paintings were very heavy to lift … nowadays I’m pleased to say I can carry my own paintings!

Why are you drawn to the female form?

I think it’s something I can relate to, but I have drawn the male figure as well, more recent work deals with the male form. I’ve done more paintings of couples, male and female, and it’s something I want to develop, as well as groups of people.

“Working from photographs and memory gives you a freedom to change things”

Do you work from memory, photographs, sketches or do people sit for you?

A mixture of all of those. I prefer to paint people I know, and I use the sketchbook quite a lot, so I’ve often drawn them already. I rarely have anyone sit for me, not many have the time to do it. And in many ways I’m ok working from photographs and memory; it gives you a certain freedom to kind of change things. I like both ways of working.

What’s it like to paint someone sitting for you?

It’s quite different, because even if you know them, it’s quite a formality, that’s there in the situation, because they’ve agreed to sit still for a start. I’m aware of the time they’re giving up. I’m also aware of what they may or may not think of what I’m doing! It has its own challenges. Life models are great, in some ways it’s better.

Have you ever upset anyone by painting them in a way they didn’t like?

(Laughs) Actually there have been a couple of people who haven’t liked what I’ve painted!

Art historian Dr Rina Arya said that in your work “there is a welcome reminder of where we come from and where we are going”. Do you agree?

I think so. It can be taken very literally in terms of an individual, who their parents are or what their culture is, geographical region, or where you come from at any different day or time! It could mean where you come from in time, you were young, now you’re older. But it can be taken in a broader sense; where do we come from now in the early 21st century in terms of all our history, new technology, socio-political issues that all have their histories, that we’re all part of? I guess with paint, you’re doing the same thing that cavemen did. It’s very elemental – using some material to make marks, marks that are connected to your own experiences, of the world, of yourself … in that sense that’s where we’re from. Its a natural material, pigment with some kind of binder, like making mud pies a s a child, playing with sticks and leaves. Our ability to make digital technologies are also natural … it only exists because we have a grain that’s invented them. What she said also refers to the painting by Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Are these ideas that you think of just when you are painting, or do they drive you everyday?

I think they’re part of who I am; it’s very difficult to say what I’m actually thinking when I’m painting. Were all multifaceted arent we; when one’s painting, you could be thinking of multiple things – I’ve got to make that phone call, that colour doesn’t look right, there’s some sunlight casting a shadow across the canvas, I’d better move it – you’re not fully aware of these thoughts, they’re in your subconscious. It’s all a mish-mash.

You can see J Chuhan : Recent Paintings at Victoria Gallery & Museum, 1 Feb–27 April 2013      

More of Jaigjit’s work here 

Posted on 31/01/2013 by thedoublenegative