WIA featured artist Sarah Jane Moon is an artist specialising in portraiture and figurative painting. Her work explores identity, sexuality and gender presentation as well as interrogating formal painterly concerns. She was selected for the BP Portrait Award this year at the National Portrait Gallery and you may have seen her portrait of Dr Ronx on the Portrait Award poster campaign.
WIA caught up with the artist during a very busy week. As well as teaching regularly at Heatherley’s school of fine art and occasionally at the Mall Galleries, the Art Academy and the National Portrait Gallery, she also runs specialist art classes abroad. This week we catch her at the mid-point of her amazing exhibition of friends, colleagues, and their life and loves, Queer Portraits, currently showing Downstairs at the Department Store in Brixton, to 14th Nov.
As well as invigilating the space, Moon will be painting a portrait during the exhibition this weekend (9th / 10th Nov) and leading tours of the works at 2pm on Saturday and Sunday. She will then be exhibiting in Manchester from 16th November, before rounding off with Brixton Open Studios at the end of the month!
Here she takes a few moments to tell us about her creative life and inspirations.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Sarah Jane Moon: Mostly today I’ve been looking after my exhibition Queer Portraits. I’ve been hosting people in the space and telling them about my work. I’ve also been liaising with the event staff regarding upcoming tours, photo shoots and members events. Early this morning, before the exhibition opened for the day I had some errands to run around town and this evening I’m at my desk catching up on exhibition related admin.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
SJM: I tend to work mostly from photographs when it comes to portraiture and sometimes other source material if working on narrative based paintings. I like the distance this gives as I am attempting to be less naturalistic in my work. Once painting, I use thin layers of oil, usually on a brightly coloured ground, and allow them to dry in between. Keeping things loose and allowing the drawing to shift over time. I like a painting to change radically in process and try and leave room for spontaneity. The later layers tend to hold a lot of paint, applied in a gestural and energetic way. A portrait will usually take anywhere from three weeks to three years.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
SJM: In my Brixton studio. It’s small and I’ve been here for nearly 10 years. It has a lovely big window and good light. Most people comment that it’s tidy but there are a lot of books and canvases in the space.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
SJM: Threesome with Sadie Lee & Roxana Halls. This was a creative and collaborative project that involved painting ourselves and each other for an exhibition held first in London at New Arts Projects and then in Liverpool at The Gallery. The theme of the female gaze was engaging and rich territory and the fact that we didn’t show each other our portraits until the first private view added suspense and intrigue.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
SJM: It is the thing I’ve most wanted to do for as long as I can remember. Life is short and so in my late 20’s I shifted from an Arts Management career to painting and since then it is how I’ve made my living.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
SJM: Mostly on promoting and organising my current exhibition Queer Portraits. I’m also in a group exhibition called Rogue Women in Manchester next week which will require thinking through some logistics. In terms of painting, I have a double portrait in progress in the studio and intend to begin a large portrait of a friend and fellow artist in the gallery space at my exhibition. Slightly nervous as I seldom paint in front of others. I’m also about to begin two large scale multi figure New York based commissions back at the studio.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
SJM: Yes. Usually music or audiobooks / podcasts / radio. Sometimes I find audiobooks too engaging to paint to however and I revert to music, which can be anything from contemporary electronica to 80’s power ballads to classical.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
SJM: Identity, authenticity, sexuality and gender seem to be threads running through my portraiture. I like to celebrate individuals. I’m also increasingly interested in the abstract and plastic qualities of oil.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
SJM: Definitely the people I’m trying to capture, but beyond that the moments of abstraction across the surface of a support. I’m increasingly concerned with colour, gesture and physicality in an effort to try and imbue paintings with an energy that persists long after the paint is dry.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
SJM: I love oil paint for its gritty and organic quality; it’s oily nature. I use it in a robust and direct way and like the spontaneity of it.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
SJM: My digital SLR. I work mainly from photographs and so the photo shoot is an important part of the process for me. It’s where the portrait begins and when I start to think about colour and composition. I generally take 100 photos or so for each painting.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
SJM: Contemporary painters like Marlene Dumas, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville, David Hockney, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Amy Sherald, Maggi Hambling and Paula Rego as well as those no longer with us including Alice Neel, Gluck, Sylvia Sleigh, Maria Lassnig, Barkley Hendricks, Francis Bacon, Euan Uglow and Lucian Freud.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
SJM: My work is largely about gender and many of my portraits deliberately engage with the idea of the female gaze. I’m currently trying to amplify people of colour and women’s voices through my work.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
SJM: I generally like whatever is on at Victoria Miro. They have a habit of showing consistently good figurative work that is also fresh and exciting.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
SJM: Teenage Wildlife by Cecily Brown absolutely grabbed me when I saw it at the Tate Britain as part of the All Too Human show. The palette, gesture, ambiguity and figurative subject matter all appeal hugely. It’s a painting that has stayed with me and has affected how I paint. It’s the only image (in print form) I currently have on my studio wall.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
SJM: Alice Neel. I think she would be wonderful to have spent time with and I’m fascinated by her direct process and fluidity.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
SJM: Although slowly receiving more recognition, painters like Maria Lassnig, Paula Modorsohn Becker, Gluck, Sylvia Sleigh and Pauline Boty should be more well known. Also, New Zealand painters like Rita Angus who is happily the subject of a show at the RA in 2020.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
SJM: Blue – in most of its forms, but definitely Cerulean Blue.
You can keep up to date with Sarah here:
CURRENT & UPCOMING EVENTS:
Queer Portraits: Downstairs at The Department Store Brixton until Thurs 14th Nov, 10 – 5 daily. Sarah Jane Moon be in the space throughout and painting on 9th / 10th Nov. There will also be artist led tours on the 9th & 10th at 2pm.
Rogue Women Manchester, 16th Nov – 1st Dec
ASC Open Studios: 246 Stockwell Rd 29th / 30th Nov