Diane Chappalley In conversation with gallery manager, Katie Telford exploring themes and inspiration behind Diane’s practice and her recent solo exhibition Behind Closed Doors which was recently held at the gallery
When did you realise your passion for art?
Experiencing the work of Artemisia Gentileschi when I visited Florence as a teenager was a breakthrough – It showed me the strength and power that painting can hold along with the vulnerability of its author.
How has your work developed in the past years?
I graduated from the Slade three years ago, since then I have been challenging myself and have developed my painting practice a lot. My approach is now more conceptual and I have pushed the form of my work in terms of scale, display and ways of painting. I also now use various fabrics, hang unstretched paintings, make paravents (folded screens), and have taught myself to build frames.
What do you take your inspiration from?
My sceneries are imagined, autobiographical and inspired by art history, all at once. But at the core, they are inspired from intimate occurrences; for example, the wildflowers of The Swiss Alps where I grew up, the local community gardens that I see through my window in London or the Regent’s Canal that I regularly cycle along.
Poppies, edelweiss, sunflowers, daisies, or dandelions; some flowers are recognizable in the paintings but overall the scenery is non-specific. I translate my personal experiences without affirming a particular time or location. They do not rely on nature or history to achieve their coherence or credibility, they are fantasy.
What is your painting process?
I use recollection and imagination to generate scenery. Searching back and forth between remembrance and novelty to create a world that is mine and with its own rules. I channel this reality during the painting process. Painting is for me a way to layer time and simultaneously to transcend it. I think of places I’ve been or seen in other paintings and express my emotional response; whether it is the allotment behind my house in Walthamstow or Ophelia among the Flowers by Redon that I regularly visit at the National Gallery.
I believe that reconnecting with our senses is very much needed to counter the modern world that pushes sensory experiences away. In my process, I do not rely on technological devices (photographs or external visual source material) but exploit the residue of lived experiences. It is a conscious disconnection from the blur and speed of the world around us. Flower fields and forests are places of pure sensations which are common to all of us and do not involve intellectual, cultural, or social hierarchies.
I also want to draw attention to the relevance of depicting nature as a sensory experience in contrast to our society of consumerism, technology and ecological distress.
What do you want the viewer to experience when looking at your work?
A sensory experience instead of a narrative. Looking is a physical experience. The act of the eyes moving around the painting through the variety of layers, textures, colours and forms. I hope the work can take people off the present reality and bring them in a different space where the conscious reality is distorted; the flowers are too big to belong to the real, what you thought as the sky could turn into a lake and vice versa, perception is shifted and the viewpoint unclear. Ultimately, I am looking for the Vitalistic Fantasies effect that Isabelle Graw talks about. Vitalistic Fantasies is the capacity of the paint — a dead matter — to retain the life of the artist. Graw explains that in a Vitalistic Fantasy, self-command, will, and energy are projected onto lifeless material. The painting itself embodies the presence of the absent author. The idea is a living artwork, like an organic system: a field of flowers.
What was your inspiration behind the body of work for this exhibition ‘Behind Closed Doors’?
The title ‘Behind Closed Doors’ reflects the privacy of the painting process, the one on one conversation between the maker and the work in the studio. The paravent (folded screen) and the gingham fabric also accentuates the notion of intimacy and the domestic. Hiding and revealing is at the core of my process and its imagery. The idea to title the show ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was to bring the outdoor scenery depicted back to the intimate place where they have been made.
There is no figuration in the work, the elements in the paintings, the flowers, the trees, the field and the sky become active agents. I wrote this prose after I hung the show:
‘On the slopes of the Alps, a field of flowers is too abundant for you to walkthrough
Some giant sunflowers are guarding the hidden green space of east London
At the edge of winter, the blooming flowers are teasing you, edging through the bare forest
And the row of naked trees acts as a barrier between you and me
You don’t know what is behind, what is hidden, but only what is left to be seen’
Which artists have influenced your work?
Recently, I paid particular attention to the artist Charlotte Salomon. I have been studying her work for a while and I was lucky to see it for the first time at the Jewish Museum in London this year. She had left behind an incredible modernist artwork called Life? or Theatre? consisting of 784 gouaches and text created during her exile in the South of France. Her work is personal, complex and has many layers of reading. I relate to it as it is not a linear narrative. I am currently reading Griselda Pollock’s book Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory published last year, it is fascinating.
You paint onto unbleached linen/flax and gingham fabric. What effect do you want that to have on the painting?
It gives resistance to the brush, texture to the marks and a bucolic tonality. Similarly, the gingham fabric evokes early 20th century Europe while reflecting my personal identity.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge when making new work?
Being simultaneously inventive and consistent.
How are you approaching your practice during your time of isolation due to the current COVID-19 pandemic?
I have been in isolation for a week now, I am working on a series of pastel on paper called ‘Anxious Flowers’. Those works are about the common feeling of anxiety that we are all to some degree experiencing during this unsettling time. Humankind is facing something bigger than itself. Nature feels extremely relevant today and also frightening, it is putting us in place. The entire world is looking at the same issue and this one is invisible. There is a sort of fearful beauty in that commonality; in that collective and sometimes private grief.