In the Studio with Catherine Lette

Catherine Lette is a visual artist whose work is concerned primarily with the impact of contemporary life upon the body & mind. We met with Catherine to tell us more about growing up in Cornwall, her greatest source of inspiration and how recent months in lockdown have affected her practice.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

I wanted to be an artist since I was a child, but I was encouraged to explore other career options first due to funding, so it took a while for me to make my way back to art.  The other jobs I did gave me a good salary but no satisfaction, so I took myself back to art school and committed to life as an artist, which I love. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I come from Cornwall and grew up as the youngest of three children in a lovely slightly chaotic house in the country.  My father is a designer silversmith, my mother a partner in his business, my brother makes gin and my sister works in silver too.  We come from a long line of makers and collectors and I think the thread of artistic endeavour running through the family has definitely influenced me.  The house I grew up in has walls covered in wonderful artwork from early modern to contemporary, I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a place with inspirational art on the walls and be surrounded by inspirational people.  My father always said to me don’t buy artwork to match your paint colours, paint rooms to display your art.  Being brought up to see art as intrinsic to everyday life, a way to question things and create meaning has certainly impacted on my practice.  

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?

I always had a form of practice in drawing and painting since childhood but going to Central Saint Martins in 2005 was where it began to shape into a more serious commitment.  I did my BA in Fine art at CSM part time over 7 years, working as a PA in a property company to fund my way.  I think the slow progress was really helpful to conceptually develop my practice and understand where it might fit within the wider world. CSM was my first foray into formal art education and I found myself veering towards making 3D sculptural work because it seemed to fit the conceptual theory of the time.  I began the degree wanting to paint though and left wanting to paint, so decided afterwards I would pursue painting which is where my passion was.  Discovering Turps was a huge turning point for me, an undercover art school filled with incredibly inspirational painters and mentors who are all committed to talking and making painting.  When Marcus Harvey, founder of Turps, said ‘Welcome to the family’ as we joined, I felt I was on the right track.  

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

My work always starts with the human body as I see this as both our touchpoint to the world around us and the vessel that carries our minds around.  My interest in the figure is always rooted in my own present and a questioning of life and society experienced around me.  Currently we are bombarded with imagery, simulacrum, different ways of experiencing life in the virtual and the real and I try to question that status quo within my painting. Most recently this has centred in a questioning about the effects of the lockdowns due to the Covid 19 pandemic.  I have been thinking about figures bound into certain spaces, pushed together or perhaps pulled apart both physically and mentally.  Lockdown has been a place of safety, privacy and solitude for some, but a place of danger and destruction for others and I have been considering that as I have painted through some of these ideas.  In the space of a year our attitudes to certain objects or habits have completely changed and that has fascinated me.  

In terms of practice I am experimental and playful, I allow the making to lead me, even if at times that seems uncomfortable.  As a result of that the aesthetic is malleable and my pallette also changes, but there is a thread that runs from one painting to the next.  All my work is underpinned by drawing, which I do daily, sketching the people around me from life or ideas that pop into my head.  I always carry a sketchbook and watercolour pencils with me, I feel bereft without them.  

Who and what are your greatest influences?

I’m like a magpie when it comes to artistic influences, I find something to inspire me in almost every show I go to and have a bookcase crammed with other artists’ catalogues and tomes.  Some of my favourites right now are Christina Quarles, I love her figures and the way she thinks about identity and the sense of looking at the body from both the inside and outside.  Dana Schutz, the compositions and crazy scenarios her paintings conjur up are brilliant.  Michael Armitage, David Salle, Paula Rego, Carlos Quintana, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, George Condo…I could write pages of artists’ names so I’d better stop.  Another huge art love is Venice, I haven’t been many times but I have been so captivated when I have.  I could camp out in Madonna dell’orto and look at Tintoretto’s Presentation of the Virgin… which is saying something as I’m not a keen camper!

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I find Instagram a big source of inspiration as I follow so many great artists and love getting to see their work in progress and behind the scenes…their sketchbooks or thoughts…the bits you never see in the gallery shows.  The ability to have conversations with other artists around the world or see into studios as work is being made, creates a sense of community and a feeling of being part of the wider art world even when you are sitting painting in your own studio alone.  It’s a very different type of inspiration from the one that you get from seeing art in real life hanging in a gallery or museum, but I find it really important as well.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I hope that when people look at my work they will see both the familiar and unfamiliar in it.  They will enter it via something that they recognise and then perhaps be offered a question held within something that is ambiguous or unexpected.  I hope that it will make them think about their relationship with the body or figure. 

I don’t think of the audience when I am making work, I think of the question in my head such as what does it mean when we disassemble body parts, what does a cartoon eye versus a ‘real’ eye convey?  I only consciously become aware of the audience when I step back from making and try to look at what I’ve made critically.  

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? 

I feel like I am always evolving, which keeps me bound to a certain energy and integrity within the work.  I am very experimental and because I respond to contemporary life around me, I feel like the work always has the potential to change. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I don’t think there are ideal conditions for making good work, other than to keep working and keep challenging yourself and questioning what you do.  Sonia Boyce was one of my tutors at CSM and she told me to trust in the making, that doing will lead the way.  It took a bit of time for me to understand exactly what she meant, but now I do.   

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your (consignment) works?

One of the pieces I have consigned is called ‘Unquilted’ and it is inspired by the psychology behind panic buying toilet roll.  It fascinated me that the pandemic led us into a place where toilet roll became the icon of a country’s anxiety and it was exploited by shops putting prize pyramids of Andrex in their window displays.  I was interested to read that panic buying toilet roll denotes general anxiety as opposed to specific worry.  I started to make sketches of figures surrounded by toilet rolls, grabbing onto them or running away with them.  This painting was developed from one of those sketches, in which the figure is frozen in a parody of movement, its limbs mimicking the palette and form of the toilet rolls.  I liked the sense that the figure had become subsumed by these objects, almost petrified, except for the claw-like markings in the hand.  There is nothing very real about this figure other than perhaps its direct gaze which I think references the reality of the situation that it has been placed in.  The title ‘Unquilted’ is a nod both towards the value system that is created around toilet rolls and the wider connotations of the word.  

Something in the future you hope to explore?

The exploration in toilet roll paintings led me to think more about our relationship to inanimate objects, which is something I am now exploring further.  I am always experimenting with my paint and am thinking about testing working on different surfaces.  I have never done any screen printing and keep seeing really interesting painting mixed with screen print, so I think I’d like to try that at some point in the future.