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In the Studio with Chris Gilvan-Cartwright

The works of British visual artist Chris Gilvan-Cartwright explore hermetic portals between an instinctive inner and outer reality. We met with Chris to talk a little bit about his artistic practice, influences, and how he began his journey.

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

My early years, up to the age of seven, were spent in Germany. I grew up with tales from the Brothers Grimm and watching Pippy Longstocking on TV. This fired my imagination. It was only when my parents separated and I returned to England that I started to draw as a means of solace.The first drawing I made was of a parrot. I remember it got a lot of praise and from then on I began drawing religiously. There was a lot of trauma and disruption in my early life, however by the time I was 16 I totally identified myself as an artist and decided to go to art school. This early assurance of who I was and what I wanted to be was a constant in my life, whilst the rest was in chaos.

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

Whilst in Germany, we lived in a village surrounded by forestry and the Odenwald mountain range. My work has always been drawn to the rural and I need to be surrounded by greenery to create. 

My father was Principal tenor at Mannheim Opera House, so music was always an important part of my upbringing. I was put under the grand piano for naps during rehearsals and I remember being backstage amongst all the props and sets of past and present Operas. I loved how they all collided; the smell of theatre paint and the sounds of singers rehearsing. Theatre and music seem very familiar to me and have remained a constant. After returning to the UK, we became nomadic and moved around a lot,  eventually settling in Somerset. However, I don’t identify with being from anywhere. It’s only now I have a family and have lived in East Sussex for a number of years, that I feel part of that area. I’m always an outsider looking in. This is what I do in my work. It’s a kind of drilling down to find treasure, like discovering stage sets.


Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

Instead of doing A-levels, I did a two year full time foundation course, which got me into Central St. Martins. There I studied Illustration, but hung out in the painting department. A Polish visiting tutor told me about an exchange at Krakow Academy of Fine Art and I went and studied painting with Prof. Nowosielski. 

It was the early 90’s and the Russian Communist occupation of Poland had just finished, Poland was embracing capitalism, good and bad. Change was happening overnight as statues of Communist leaders were torn down and discarded and entrepreneurs set up markets that flourished. Krakow is also very close to Auschwitz and the student halls were the old Gestapo headquarters. There were bullet marks in the courtyard walls and some of the furniture had swastikas on them. It was a very intense time. I was there for around two years, but eventually it took its toll and my mental health suffered. I checked myself into the local hospital. The broken characters I met in there still feature in my work. Eventually I made it back to the UK and it took about 18 months to fully recover.

At the turn of the millennium I did my MA in Fine Art at Brighton. I recently attended the studio painting programme at Turps Art School, an independent art school set up and run by painters, the closest thing to an art movement today and the nearest thing to a ‘proper’ art school. 

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?  

There isn’t a message – except perhaps about the precariousness of things. Through painting I am re-inventing the world as a playground, between reality and illusion. For me painting is a vehicle to present the potential truth, an enabler to inspire the fantastical and doubtful. The paintings become hermetic portals between an instinctive inner and outer reality, operating as if a pineal body.  The act of making a painting is important; one decision leads to another as the work becomes realised by applying paint directly, wet into wet. I draw out the subject using what’s at hand; brushes, charcoal, rags and fingers twisting and turning the paintings until images reveal a cliff edge, or a space containing bathos and absurdity, something both divine and decrepit.  I invent painted narratives involving corporeal figures occupying preternatural landscapes and stage sets. They are falling or about to fall apart, often in a state of transformation, reverie or catatonic breakdown, referencing the fool, visionary hermits and mythological characters. 

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

If anywhere they come from automatism, certainly my drawing does. Painting allows me to locate and explore the dynamics of the imagination by re-inventing the world as a hallucinatory playground. I’d describe the aesthetic as epic and frail, being both beautiful and grotesque. Foolishly Romantic, like  an Admiral aboard a sunken galleon, the aesthetic is  wonky, inside-out, it plays and hangs in the balance.

Landscape at Céret 1902 - Chaim Soutine Tate.org.uk

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

Recently works have evolved using the motif of The Lamentation by Geertgen tot Sint Jans ca. 1460/65 and Joos Van Cleve 1485-1540. If my ‘house of influences’ was on fire, the painter I’d save would be Chaim Soutine.

Are your works planned? 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?

When making a new body of work I research and gather source material from all over the place. I’ll then test out ideas and get a sense of the work. It’s usually textural, like a feeling rather than an academic approach. I’ll make numerous sketches as I try to navigate the new terrain. But when I start painting, I’ll put that research to one side and just start drawing instinctively with charcoal on the canvas, this helps me to negotiate the reach of the painting and gives me something to jump off with. I’ll seal it and then start painting into it, sometimes obliterating or leaving parts of the drawing. I’d like my paintings to be firstly experienced and then read. I think of the paintings as being hermetic and so it’s an invitation for the audience to enter into the work. I don’t work with an audience in mind – I’m on a journey in my work, the audience are very welcome to come along.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

By naming a facet of my creative self as ‘The Baron Gilvan’, I aligned all the creative endeavours and mediums that I was juggling, such as painting, playing trombone, making animations, singing, performing and teaching under one roof. The Baron was originally conceived as a conduit for my own creativity and has since become the governor of all of my works and the character through which it all must flow. I picture The Baron as raw, unflinching and utterly sincere; a compact of all that is magnificent. Sometimes in the studio when I need to inject something else into the work, I’ll ask myself, ‘What would The Baron do?” Often this enables me to be a braver or a wilder version of myself. It’s a very useful vehicle to keep the work moving. I have exhibited work in the past as ‘The Baron Gilvan’ and will do again for the right project.

Performing as The Baron with multi instrumentalist Foz Foster, we walked on stage as ex – British Music Hall stars washed up on the shores of Blighty. We performed songs celebrating the intensity of life itself and the beauty of the ideal. 

An Arts Council award allowed me to devise and create animations for a theatre performance called “Christina The Astonishing”, a visual narration depicting the story of  Christina Mirabilis, the Patron Saint of mental illness. The piece incorporated puppetry and projected animation along with an evocative soundscape by Foz Foster. All of this narrative goes into my paintings and forms the backbone of how I think and create work.

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

Early morning around 5am, painting outside with big brushes, hot summer days, the sound of test match cricket, audible books, coffee, a cigar and fresh water.

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

There are so many great contemporary painters I’d like to show with. The list is too long, but once lockdown has finished I’d love to curate shows. I’m currently working on paintings that reference the Tales of Ovid, Gilbert and Sullivan Operas as hallucinations and the music of Daniel Johnston.

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

Everything has slowed down, it’s a joy not having to drive around all the time. Time has become so precious.

I cleared out and converted a garden shed into a makeshift studio, putting up shelves and hanging rails. I’ve had to be super economic with the space, every inch has purpose and order. I’m currently sharing it with some bees, a sparrow and numerous spiders, but we all rub along well and I’ve totally loved making work there. I make early morning drawings with pigment sticks on newsprint, they feel earthy and connected, gritty and integral to the space.

Are you creating new work while social distancing?

Yes. I’m able to get up and start work immediately or nip into the shed studio at the end of the day. I think painters are very suited to lockdown or self isolation, it’s been a natural state for years, alone with your work. I’m working outside a lot more as it’s heading towards summer and the days are warmer and longer. 

How are you staying creative?

Reading ‘The Love of Painting’ by Isabelle Grew, watching films – I’ve rigged up a blind to project onto creating a makeshift home cinema, checking out painters on instagram. I love the work of Suzy Babington, Thom Trojanowski and Rachel Hodgson. Listening to Radio 6 music, playing games – The Mind,  Rapidough, Racing Demon, (which I’m spectacularly bad at), bike rides, walking on the South Downs, cooking, washing up, growing salad, drinking gin…

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