Roxana Halls is an award winning British artist. In her work, Halls depicts characters in a carefully constructed narrative tableaux who are often caught in the midst of an action unusual for a subject of a painting, such as her Laughing While… series. Cinematic and sometimes surreal, they exude a strength and dark humour that eludes traditional readings of women pictured in art for a more complex and subversive view.
Roxana Halls’ work has been exhibited widely and is held in numerous private and public collections in the UK and internationally. Read Halls’ interview here:
WIA: What are you doing today?
Roxana Halls: It’s interesting for me to be required to note just how consistent the rhythm of my days are at this time as they are with any other working day. The question finds me in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, at the start of which I wondered how I might respond and deal with the situation and if I would be able to work at all. Several weeks in and I can report that my days are much the same as they ever have been. I’m working not in my studio but in our spare room at home but I am painting.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
RH: The process begins with a spark. An image flashing before my eyes seemingly out of nowhere. Mostly they come as unbidden surprises and not always entirely welcome: often they ask that I paint something which I don’t yet entirely know how to make. When I come to actually create them while the act of painting is a relatively straightforward solitary activity they often involve a lengthy behind the scenes process.
I start from the guiding principle that I will do whatever is necessary to make the image in my mind exist. I make no preparatory sketches at all and paint direct to canvas but the images from which I paint are carefully constructed tableaux which resemble film stills or frozen theatrical moments. I cast my models in a role, costume them and give them props then either describe a scenario within which I would like them to perform or otherwise pose them exactly. I’ve mostly worked from life in the past but currently I film and photograph my models, then build the composition around them, situating them in whichever location most befits the intention.
I generally find that my mind generates a great many more images than I can possibly manifest and this is a constant source of frustration for me. I work consistently and am fairly productive, but paintings take time and the act of making images only encourages my mind to keep firing off more, so I find that it is as critical an aspect of my creative process to select from among these ideas that my over zealous brain generates as it is to actually make them.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
RH: Mostly the real creative work, as I would define it, is done in the cluttered junk shop of my mind without my knowledge or invocation. It is a filtering of all that I read, experience, watch or consider. My job is to wait, to listen and to try to suspend judgement or censure.
In addition there are times when I work with my models which are really fulfilling. I’m very selective about who I work with and need to feel that there’s the potential for creative collaboration. It’s why I’ve mostly worked with actors who are able to inhabit the roles I create for them, my characters are fictionalisations and so I ask that they adopt personas. I’ve painted some people multiple times and on the occasions when working from life over long periods of time. My preference is to work, and be, alone so if I don’t sense that rare synthesis with someone I don’t paint them.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
RH: Always the next painting. The one in the mind is always better than what’s gone before.
I find it extremely difficult to even remember what I’ve made, I’m so preoccupied with the current work and if I’m not excited by an idea then I just don’t make it, I don’t have time to make anything I’m not committed to.
If pushed I’d probably mention my project Roxana Halls’ Tingle-Tangle which was exhibited at the Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London in 2009 which depicted an evening’s cabaret from curtain up to finale.
The show’s name derived from the German ‘tingel-tangel’, the name given to a kind of third rate theatrical variety show. To make this work I effectively designed, cast, costumed, built and became the impresario of my own cabaret venue.
For some years now I’ve been making paintings of women laughing while freeing themselves from traps, the Laughing While…. series. When I first began making these I had an overwhelming sense that I had struck bedrock. Like a detective picking up a scent and following a trail that feeling still hasn’t left me and the excitement of where it will lead has yet to wane.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
RH: I know it might sound risible but I didn’t decide, it’s a vocation to me. As a kid I wanted to act but one night aged 16 I thought I’d try some oil painting and although the painting I made – it was a self portrait – is pretty abysmal I just knew from then on there was nothing else for me.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
RH: As well as preparing to participate in and developing several group shows I’m working towards a body of new work, all of which is under wraps but I will say that they are an offshoot of my Laughing While…. paintings, several of which are a direct response to Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and all of which nod to genre paintings of female martyrdom, situated in a cinematic realm.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
RH: Constantly. I sing much of the time when I paint too. I don’t allow myself to listen to the music I love unless I’m painting, it’s part of my structure of productive discipline. Joni, Kate, Tom, Leonard, Siouxsie, Bowie, Neko, K.D, Scott for songs. A range of German cabaret & electronica …Britten, esp with Peter Pears, Bach, Messiaen, Handel, Purcell..
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
RH: I would describe my work as wayward and feminist to the core. They are concerned with refusal. I’ve often spoken of my protagonists as women laughing while freeing themselves from traps both imposed and of their own making, by whatever means necessary.
I examine how class, sexuality and gender intersect and inform the apparent repertoire of roles available to women. I’m skeptical of straightforward narratives of empowerment and self-actualisation and generally swerve away from some kind of strong/weak binary by showing women in a range of less heroic more plural guises.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
RH: While I deploy humour very deliberately laughter is a serious business. The surface and painterly considerations are in service to the image and used in tandem with what could be seen as absurdist satire I’m consciously trying to create an immediate hit, akin to seduction. Once the viewer is in I hope they will offer up a lot more over repeated viewing. They are often layered and are equivocal, they aren’t slogans and they don’t reveal themselves very easily. I’m very interested in testing what I see as the confines of what might be considered serious art and what could be described as low brow, (I equate this with considerations of class and decorousness) and often my images can be an unholy combination of both. I use artifice to try to strike at the heart of the matter, I’ve never really subscribed to the idea that it’s necessarily through the stripping of layers that you reveal the truth, that can feel like an ossified convention to me. So often when people try to speak of what weighs upon them the most they misdirect, they obfuscate, they involuntarily laugh.
I hope that at my best I create scenes which are alive with metaphorical resonance within which the viewer sees themselves.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
RH: I only use oil paint, it’s my language I suppose, always has been.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
RH: See above. In addition like many artists I’m quite the collector and as much as I try to streamline and try to only keep what I’ll use in a painting I still accumulate costumes and props.
I bought myself a magnificent easel after my first solo-show, over twenty years ago. It was a sell-out so I got the best easel money could buy and I still use it now, money well spent. The artist’s life is quite the ride so you have to learn to be immensely pragmatic and resourceful but if I’ve had money I spend it first on good materials.
I love having the right tool for each job and I’ve a place for each. Green tea always on the go. A beer crate, invaluable.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
RH: There’s so much to counteract, fight against and refuse out there in terms of misogyny and class prejudice so while I don’t see my work as a direct reaction as such I suspect that’s a component. I’m an avid cineaste so that’s in there, certainly. I can be inspired by things I’ve found or been gifted. Something I’ve read. In many ways I can’t tease out why I’ve painted something until long after it’s made, it’s all a process of filtration. But I’m considered about what I ingest and try not to fill my mind with trash….apart from the best kind of trash.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
RH: Is all work on some level some form of self-portraiture? I think that’s debatable but I’m not conventionally feminine and my work certainly isn’t. I think my gender affects the way my work is read and categorised.
While I paint women mostly I’d suggest my themes are on the whole universal. It is, largely, women for whom my work engenders an intense sense of recognition, when it does.
Male viewers regularly and exclusively tell me that they don’t like seeing pictures of women with their mouths open and teeth bared. There are many men who really respond to and support my work but just as there’s a subsection who just don’t read books written by women or listen to their music I suspect similarly there are some men who wouldn’t give my work much consideration. That’s just fine.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
RH: It really depends on the work that’s in it, so while I like might prefer one space over another if I want to see a show I’ll go wherever it is. I’m as likely to visit a museum of artifacts as I am of visual art. Living in London there’s a wealth of places. I’m very partial to the Barbican, architecturally as much as their programme. My partner and I travel quite a bit, often to see a particular show or a collection we haven’t been to yet. Some I could return to for a lifetime, the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna and their Bruegels springs to mind. I could never go to The Prado too often.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
RH: There are numerous works I can think of which I adore and esteem. Give me a Goya any day, but overall I have a slight issue with the whole question of ownership of art work. Of course I know that’s in contradiction with my work being collected but if I were to hoard work I love then others couldn’t experience it. I do try to buy small things where I can by other artists I know. If pressed I’d be as likely to choose a work by an Outsider Artist than someone more celebrated, perhaps something by Judith Scott, Madge Gill or Mary Anne Willson? I’d love a self portrait photograph by Lee Godie. If I was feeling greedy a Maria Lassnig. Or Joseph Cornell’s Thimble Forest, a tiny piece of perfect magic.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
RH: Like so many artists I’m a natural loner and very independent so aside from the extent to which I already collaborate with mainly actors I’m not sure how conducive it would be for me to work with another artist. I’d be as likely to request to work with a particular actor from the past as I would an art practitioner. I’ve often thought I’d like to work with a costume or clothes designer and create scenarios evoked by their creations.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
RH: Women and BAME artists in general. I think things are improving on that score but it still isn’t good enough. I’d like to see more attention given to so-described Outsider Artists.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour
RH: Eau de Nil, but on the sickly side.