In a quest for the ‘perfectly imperfect’, Tess Williams belongs to the new generation of artists changing the rules of conceptual art. A true Londoner, Tess has just exhibited at the Young Gods show curated by Zavier Ellis, where her wall pieces aimed to push the spatial boundaries of painting, while exploring the narrative and sensual quality of materials. The CSM graduate’s main interest lies in what can be identified as masculine and feminine aspects of materials, and investigating the relationship between these polarities. She tells us how coming from a creative family encouraged her to follow her passions, no matter at what cost: “most freelance people have to worry of the ‘next month syndrome’ — as it’s called, but I would rather that than to be secure in a job that I didn’t love,” and why her work actually isn’t conceptual at all.
“Mistakes can turn into successes that you didn’t think would occur.”
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process?
My art practice explores the physicality of painting and the evocative potential of both structure and materiality. I work mainly with unstretched canvas, cotton and linen, exploring how folds, creases, layers and movement within the materials can not only act as a form of mark making, but also reference the body. I’m interested in what can be identified as masculine and feminine aspects of materials, and in exploring the relationship between these polarities. I engage with how the sensual immediacy of paint can affect the way we experience materials. My work aims to go beyond the boundaries of the traditional ‘frame’ in order to amplify the physical presence of painting, whilst still continually referencing its history as a medium.
How has life been now that you have graduated?
It took a couple of months to adjust after finishing my Masters, which I think is the same for everyone! I have been fortunate to get a studio in a building full of great artists, which is a very communal and open place to be. This has helped to bridge the gap between the busy open plan studio life at CSM and being alone in a closed off studio. I now have the best of both worlds by being in a place where there are always people around to talk to, but yet still having that independence and quiet to work in.
Being able to discuss my work with others is a massive part of what helps me move forward with my practice. And what I probably miss most about CSM is not having regular exchanges with my tutors and course mates or being able to ask their opinions.
With regards to research — what form does this usually take?
My research is very much rooted in the physical activities of seeing and doing: I visit a lot of shows, go to other artists studios and try to engage as much as possible with what is going on in the London art world.
Sitting with a book or at a computer is necessary to get information, but that is limited for me, as there is only so much that reading and researching on the Internet can give you. It’s really important for me to connect with physical environments. There is richness to being in places where exciting things are happening – to me this can’t be underestimated because people’s passion is infectious.
For example, I recently got back from L.A. where the young contemporary art scene is really buzzing. After visiting many small artist-led spaces, newly opened galleries and seeing what people are doing over there, I came back to my studio with a renewed excitement for making work.
“I am a ‘doer’ who learns predominantly through the doing rather than through separate thinking, and my practice is very much about my interaction with the materials.”
Do you “plan” every aspect of your work, or is it more about instinct?
I work in quite an organic way. I usually have starting points or ideas of what specifically I want to explore, but then I like to allow space for the process of making work to introduce elements that I haven’t expected. I feel as though you often make your best work when you are not determining the outcome. And in that respect I do work in a very instinctual way. I try to never confine myself to exploring just one idea or pathway, as one thing always leads to another, and that is the natural evolution of the work. Mistakes can turn into successes that you didn’t think would occur, and sometimes those are the most interesting moments. At the same time, I also consider my work carefully and often take photographs of a piece in progress, to help me make specific judgments about what feels right.
Your art is quite conceptual. How do you deal with the idea that some people may not understand your work?
I find it interesting that my work may come across as being conceptual, because to me it really isn’t – it’s very much process based. But I agree that, in a kind of dialogue with more traditional painting, my deconstruction of components, their reconfiguration and my questioning of perimeters all have a conceptual basis. However, I am a ‘doer’ who learns predominantly through the doing rather than through separate thinking, and my practice is very much about my interaction with the materials. It is not theory based or ideas-led, which is what I normally perceive to be conceptual; the visual and experiential qualities of a piece are very important to me. Writing an MA dissertation means that you understand and contextualise your practice in a conceptual and theory based manner, but how much of that you use in your studio life can vary.
I don’t mind the audience’s perception of my work, but obviously I would hope that they connect with it in someway – whichever way that may be. I hope that the physical presence of my work is engaging and supersedes an idea of having to ‘understand’. For me the point of art is that it is up to the individual to engage with it in anyway they chose to. That is the exciting thing, especially with abstract art, as there is more room for interpretation.
Your body of work is very cohesive — do you ever feel like trying something completely new?
Throughout my Masters I experimented a huge amount with ways of working, which I think is so important to do while still in that educational environment. It better prepares you for when you leave, as you have more to draw on and are much more knowledgeable as an artist.
I strive to never make the same piece of work twice, so I’m always trying to move forward with my work. One thing always leads to the next, and, if it didn’t, then I would feel the work becoming stagnant. I also feel that there is a lot more for me to explore within the range of what I am doing at the moment.
“Uncertainty comes with the territory, and I guess it’s something you get used to.”
The career path of art school students is often very uncertain, and many people question the art school institution as a whole. Now that you’ve graduated, do you consider art school to be really necessary to be successful?
Uncertainty comes with the territory, and I guess it’s something you get used to. There are a lot of people who can’t understand how you could want to live your life that way, which I get. But I have grown up in quite a creative family so it’s not an alien way of life for me. Most freelance people have the worry of ‘next month syndrome’ — as it’s called, but I would rather that than to be secure in a job I didn’t love.
There have always been artists who succeeded without art schools, but it has been really important for me in so many ways. And not just in terms of art, it helps you think about life in a different way.
Whats going on for you work-wise this year? What’s next?
Well, I have just been part of ‘Young Gods’ which is an annual graduate show curated by Zavier Ellis, who is very encouraging of new artists. This year the exhibition featured eight artists from UAL, RCA and Goldsmiths and ran across Zavier’s gallery, Charlie Smith London, and the Griffin Gallery.
There are some really exciting things coming up later this year – starting with a show called ‘Black Paintings’ at Heike Strelow Gallery in Frankfurt.
And then I am particularly excited about a two-person show featuring the work of myself and Daniel Silva (CSM MA Photography graduate 2014 / Saatchi New Sensations 2014). The relationship between our work is going to be very interesting to explore with the curators, and it will hopefully produce a really powerful and engaging show.
Words by Francesco Guelpa
Images courtesy of Tess Williams