Fionn Wilson is an artist and curator who has spent the last four years putting together the touring exhibition Dear Christine which started off at Vane, summer 2019, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, before moving on to Elysium, Swansea and the final venue, ArthouSE1, London, to 29 February 2020.
Dear Christine looks at the legacy of Christine Keeler, the model and showgirl at the heart of the Profumo Affair, which rocked the British Establishment in the sixties. In the exhibition, twenty artists, including Wilson, Stella Vine, Sadie Lee and Caroline Coon explore how Keeler’s image has been used for many purposes. It takes in themes of class, power, attitudes to ageing and the politics of sex.
London-based, originally from the north east of the UK, Wilson is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of British Women Artists. Wilson’s own work covers portraiture, landscapes and still lives.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Fionn Wilson: Parcelling up Dear Christine catalogues to send out, drinking coffee and unpacking. I recently moved from Southgate to Palmers Green. It’s just down the road but it’s amazing how much work is involved in moving all your stuff from one place to another. I’m looking around the house and despairing a bit. I don’t mind chaos, as long as it’s organised!
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
FW: My practice is focused primarily on transforming paint into something that can carry an emotional resonance. Sensuality is very important to me, too. I work very quickly, mostly from photographic sources (ideally photos I’ve taken myself) whilst never attempting to recreate the image. Most of my work is portraiture, but I also paint landscapes and still life. Transcendence is important to my practice. I like to explore physical beauty (which I see as a kind of ‘purity’ or virtue) along with sexuality and glamour. I especially like to paint women and I view the female body as somehow supernatural. The women I paint are often sphinx-like or masked — their beauty a riddle. I’m also interested in how people organise different frameworks of belief, be this political, spiritual, or philosophical. I find people of conviction compelling to paint (whilst not necessarily being in agreement with their ideas). Self portraiture is an important element of my work and I constantly reevaluate where I am with my creative process through painting myself.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
FW: I paint anywhere – generally in quite a chaotic way in my bedroom, but I’ve recently moved so I’m likely to set up my easel in the back room overlooking the garden.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
FW: Dear Christine – a four-year project dedicated to reframing and reclaiming Christine Keeler, culminating in an ACE-supported touring exhibition. The project has involved a total of just under 50 contributors and working with three galleries in Newcastle, Swansea and London. I’ve met so many interesting people through the project, including Christine’s son Seymour Platt, writer Julie Burchill, artist Caroline Coon and Amanda Coe, the executive producer and screenwriter of the recent BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler. It’s been very intense and certainly a labour of love but so satisfying to see all the efforts come to fruition. Other projects equally exciting in different ways have been meeting and painting a series of three portraits of former Labour MP Dennis Skinner and historian and writer Tariq Ali.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
FW: It was more my friend, artist and poet Bo Gorzelak Pedersen, who decided I should become an artist. Previously, I had considered myself a (pretty bad) poet/writer and when I first met Bo and talked to him about art he suggested I should start painting myself. I thought this was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard – the last time I’d picked up a brush was for GCSE art in the eighties. What happened though was quite interesting – all these paintings seemed to pour out, fully formed, as if they’d just been waiting to be realised. I carried on painting (that was in 2010) and continue to teach myself.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
FW: I’m having a short break from painting whilst focusing on the final Dear Christine exhibition in London before starting work on a new project around actress Fenella Fielding. I’ve been meeting up with Fenella’s close friend and biographer Simon McKay, who is showing me the wonderful archive he’s building of her personal papers and effects. Fenella sadly died a few years ago and it’s been fascinating to get to know more about her via Simon. I’m looking forward to painting a series of three portraits and I’ve also invited artists Cathy Lomax and Jeanette Watkins to join me – so there will be a total of nine new portraits of Fenella, which we’ll exhibit together.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
FW: If I do listen to any music whilst I’m painting it’s almost always disco classics. I love disco.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
FW: Beauty and the power of beauty, sensuality in the everyday object, redemption, transcendence, politics, concealment/revelation, mystery, light.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
FW: Emotion and an integrity.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
FW: Heavy body acrylic paint really suits the way I work – which is very fast. I like brush strokes to be seen – I like evidence of the painting process to be visible, so heavy body paint is ideal. I’m currently skirting around oils and investigating how they could work for me. I’ve produced a few mixed media works which are more abstract than figurative –a real departure from my usual way of painting, and I’m finding this quite exciting.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
FW: My hands.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
FW: My local landscape, the underbelly of the city, sex, film stars, poetry (Baudelaire), looking at the planets and the moon, music (blues), exciting people with interesting frameworks of belief, my friends, dancing in discos, pints of Guinness in dark, old pubs.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
FW: It does in so far as I much prefer painting women than men, simply because I find their beauty more interesting and vibrant with more scope for exploration.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
FW: Probably the National Gallery mainly because it’s easily accessible and it’s free and there is always a painting in there which you haven’t seen before no matter how often you go. Most of the time I baulk at the prices we have to pay to see exhibitions, I think it’s disgraceful.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
FW: Any one of Rembrandt’s self portraits – if I had to choose then the one with two circles, which was one of his last paintings. The way he distills light into his works is something which I don’t think can be explained technically. It’s like there’s some sort of heavenly light actually IN the paint. His self portraits are, to me, the finest works examining ‘what it is to be human’ that have ever been produced. I admire his ruthless honesty and self awareness and try to reach some level of this in my own self portraits.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
FW: El Greco. To me he sums up everything I love about painting and everything I would hope to be able to do. He was completely ahead of his time – his painting are supernatural.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
FW: I’d love to see a revival of interest in Sheila Fell’s work. She died at age 48 – just a year older than I am now. Her Cumbrian landscapes are extraordinary. There was an exhibition of 40 of her paintings in Kendal in 2011 but I missed it. She was great friends with Lowry who believed she was the best landscape painter of his generation and I agree with him.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
FW: Grey. Grey is a very underestimated colour. It has this ability to make black look blacker and white look whiter. I really like that.
Dear Christine is at Arthouse1 to 29 th February 2020.
A symposium will take place on 22 Feb 2020 – tickets are free but very limited, book here to attend.
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