Sarah Muirhead interview

Artist Sarah Muirhead interviewed by art writer Anna McNay

Scopophilia is quite a loaded term – why use this as the title of the show?

I first heard the word in one of my favourite films-‘Peeping Tom’ years ago and have been fascinated by its meaning ever since.  I’m quite interested in how people interpret it and whether they moralise, recoil or sympathise with the notion of the morbid urge to gaze.  I identify with it as part of the way I work- I like my interactions with models to be comfortable and congenial but the images I work with in the following weeks become subjects with which I share a different kind of relationship because I can stare at every pore. I form a much more intimate relationship with this frozen character and probably impose or project a lot more of myself on them because by this stage we are not interacting and the relationship is unidirectional.  This show in particular is a collection of work which objectifies or idealises the body in a way I admit is slightly voyeuristic and I have tried to explore some of the dynamic between the viewer, artist or watcher and the subjects who know they are being watched. 

Gender and sexuality often play a role in your work. How do they interact with this concept of scopophilia? Are you deliberately playing with – and subverting? – the idea of the male gaze?

Yes, that was part of my thinking.  I think I’ve grown up with a very intrenched idea of classical poses and roles in art and while I find these beautiful and appealing I also see them as characters in a completely different universe.  Figurative art is inherently sexually charged, I think, and I find it fascinating that it’s given special licence for this while simultaneously having incredible fixed conventions that dictate what is and isn’t acceptable particularly according to gender.  My experience of sexuality is different, it’s subtle and I try to slightly subvert expectations about who is in control, which features of the body to sexualise and whether the subject is dominant or submissive.  Often I find that ambiguity is the most compelling aspect of the work.  I like to use performers who control the space in the painting and knowingly invite you to look, remaining untouchable or to try and imply a private moment- that delicious fragile feeling that you are watching while the subject knows they are being watched but both pretend not to do this knowingly.  

You make paintings of women and men. Will there be examples of both in the show? How different an experience and relationship is it for you when you are painting a man or a woman?

 This show has both male and female subjects.  I think theres an inevitable difference in the way I approach subjects of different genders simply because the features I fixate on in both differ slightly, however, the reason for choosing many of the people I do is often because they subvert the expectations of gender eg- physically strong women, men who play with stereotypically feminine poses or costume etc.  The quality of skin texture is often very different and means I need to make different marks in order to illustrate that and I think I am probably more conscious of the way I present women’s bodies because I don’t want them to feel disingenuous because of expectations I’ve inherited or accumulated from classical art or media.

A lot of your subjects are quirky in some way or belong to a subculture. Do you deliberately seek out such people or are they in your circle already?

I just get a feeling about people which is probably guided by my own cultural predilections and tastes.  I think I’ll always be more drawn to people who rebel or experiment in some way with their appearance because it’s energising and uplifting to be around people who seem less constrained and a little more expressive.  An opportunity to learn about or integrate myself in to a new community is something I’ll never pass up and I see it as a perk of my job that I am permitted to go exploring where others might feel a little out of step.  

You’ve said before that you like the tradition of figurative artists as documentary. What do you mean by this? Do you see your paintings as objectively representing some truth? If so, what is the truth you seek to capture – an external, visual/physical truth, or something internal/psychological?

It’s fascinating that whether paintings are surreal, narrative, realistic or portrait based they always reveal some aspect of the cultural context of their time.  I am making a record of people who in some way, impact the culture I am living in now.  I think they are often identifiable as contemporary figures even when they have very little context to provide clues.  Tattoos and piercings and their style, placement and coverage are significant to the place and time they were made.  The age and stage of the people I choose is often scarily similar to my own because I choose people by instinct rather than by design so in a way I am documenting a particular stage of both our lives and I think I impose these things on the work because we discuss it when I take photos or make preliminary sketches.  

Skin seems to be a significant surface in your work. Often it is tattooed, scarred or marked with rope burns; at other times it is almost translucent, showing a fretwork of veins and muscles beneath. It seems to carry almost more defining detail than the eyes, nose or other distinguishing features. Is this a fair observation?

It is.  I think the detail and features of the face are something I want to articulate with as much accuracy as possible but I try to avoid photorealism because the harder I stare, the more I see abstraction so I try to achieve both likeness and abstract shapes and pattern when I paint faces.  The flesh of the body is one of my favourite things to paint.  I get completely engrossed with layers of tissue and colour because it satisfies my anatomical curiosity but also conveys something vulnerable about the subject.  I get completely and very happily lost in the contrasting textures of soft and rough skin, the ageing of tattoo ink, the contrast between the texture of fat and muscle and the fleeting pressure marks, bruises scratches or scars in flesh.  Knees and the souls of feet are particular favourites and they’re often the things that visually remind me of other senses like touch or smell so there’s something very specific and challenging about trying to capture that sort of detail.  I also think it’s a sign of remarkable trust that the people who pose for me are happy to expose those parts of themselves as, to me, it’s far more intimate than nakedness.

Is Stigmata going to be in the exhibition? This seems somewhat different from your other work. Can you talk a bit about this?

Yes it will be. I would like to make more work about religious imagery because the poses and scenes are so ubiquitous and immediately recognisable and I can’t resist a little irreverence.  I see paintings of christ as a good vehicle to communicate a particular kind of male beauty and  I wanted to choose a model that was beautiful and slightly androgynous and to use the stigmata as a decorative element rather than an expression of suffering.  Resurrection images are so far removed from true suffering and so absurdly glorified to me that they possess no realism or catharsis-more a study of the pleasure of pain or sadomasochistic pleasure-pain without consequences.  I wanted to reduce the significance of suffering ever more by using gem stones rather than blood.  Andrew, my model in this painting, has an incredible penetrating but compelling stare.  I wanted to capture something of the connection I felt with him. The background references Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’.  I want it to look a bit like a theatre backdrop because the scene is entirely and knowingly performative.  I definitely plan to make more like this.

As well as painting with oils, you do a lot of drawings in biro. What made you start working with this medium? What attracts you to it?

 I paint in with acrylics mostly.  Biro drawings came about as a bit of an experiment partly to save money, partly because the hue reminds me of tattoo ink and partly because I think it’s an instantly recognisable medium.  It is difficult to get used to at first but now that it’s pat of a daily scribbling habit I really love the medium.  It faced you to make much more deliberate marks and specific choices about applied pressure and choices about mark-making so I think it suits a slightly obsessive compulsive draftsman like me.

You’re also painting a portrait of Anne-Marie Imafidon, a girls in science campaigner and CEO of Stemettes – a social enterprise working across the UK and Ireland to inspire and support young women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers – for the University of Oxford as one of 25 portraits for their Diversifying Portraiture initiative. How did you become involved with this? Can you say a little bit more about the project?

There was an online competition for the project so I sent examples of my work and wrote about why I would like to take part and luckily I found out I had been chosen soon after my application. Oxford wanted to recognise the diverse and complex identities which were often left out of the collection of dusty portraits that adorn the University’s walls and recognise quite a narrow range of achievements and individuals-scholars, clerics, philanthropists and leaders. The university have now unearthed and catalogued a collection of about 250 historical portraits, many of which challenged the stereotypes and exclusions of their time.  They are now building on this legacy by commissioning 25 portraits of living Oxonians, many of whom I admire and am really looking forward to meeting, from varying abilities, sexualities, genders, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.  I was keen to make something which would be part of a permanent collection and also to attempt a more formal project that contrasts with the requirements of my usual work but stays true to the same values and aesthetics.  It was a really interesting brief and my subject is amazing.  I can’t wait to see what the other artists have come up with and I have to admit I love the idea of having a piece on the walls of such a beautiful building.

How different is this commission from your usual work?

 My own work is led by my personal interests, priorities and circumstances when I make it.  It’s about exploration and investigation and can shift and change as it emerges.  Commissioned work has distinct parameters and requirements.  I think both inform each other and the contrast keeps things fresh.  One obviously involves more self awareness that the other so when I’m planning a commissioned piece, I spend more time researching and have to problem solve more which informs my own work later on.  Commissions are much more collaborative and I am selective about what I do but I enjoy the process and I think it’s a good opportunity to sharpen skills and create something for an audience with specific expectations.