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Photo by Isidre Mateo
Mediterranean Vista by Annie Michie
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Photo by Siegfried Ceballos
Queen Anne's Renaissance Tree by Annie Michie
Annie Michie is a Barcelona-based British artist. In 2004, she was awarded the FAD Gold Medal for Art and she regularly exhibits her work around Europe. Investigating the links between craft and fine art, her current exhibition, Layers of Looking thought Curtains, considers cloth, how we decorate, disguise and use it in celebrations.
You studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths in London but seem to have been interested in art, or at least the artistic process, for most of your life. Can you tell us when and what made you become interested in art?
Yes, it’s true that I’ve been interested in art for most of my life, one way or the other. It certainly goes back to childhood, when I was always ‘making things’, whether it be sewing,’ papier mâche’, painting or whatever came to hand. I loved making things as presents, mending & making clothes, pottery figures, or writing stories or a diary. Mine was a rich, imaginative world of play. I was a typical Blue Peter child! (British children's TV programme, where there was a lot of hand-crafts). The element of art entered through my mother’s side of the family: my grandfather used to paint, sculpt, while my mother painted. All this was encouraged in me, so that going to art school was a natural course of study. As a teenager, I became fascinated in art and artists and loved to visit London (from the English countryside) to see exhibitions. My own personal activities came especially together, when discovering the work of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg—who combined cloth with paint, print, sculpture and theatre. This apparently light, airy approach to art contrasted dramatically with the work of the brilliant artist, Egon Schiele, whose draughtsmanship and compelling paintings provided an intensity which also resonated deeply for me. I first saw these artists work as a teenager and they have been two key references for me ever since.
You seem to work closely with textiles. Can you describe the relationship you have with cloth and how it informs your work?
Cloth is with us at all times of the day and night, from birth to death. My work understands cloth as something that we use to clothe ourselves, our bodies and lives in many different ways. We put on our clothes to keep warm, cool, to feel good and attractive, as a uniform, to be anonymous, or for protection, amongst other purposes. We use it to make a statement, whether for fashion, politics, relating to brands or perhaps against all this. We use cloth in our homes as curtains, bed and surface coverings, soft furnishings, with many functions. Cloth feels close to me, both in the way I understand my identity and in relation to my body. It can be sensuous, utilitarian or even worn as a punishment. I work in and around this context to make works which take us out and beyond the everyday, into another, perhaps parallel realm, whereby curtains, windows, table or bed coverings, can be seen in a different light. This in turn can lead us to look again at the cloth we have in our lives, as well as art.
The use of cloth is also critical to me as a woman, as well as an artist. As a girl child growing up, this feminine, domestic realm of sewing literally feels very close to home.
Craft is never far away from your work, what place do you think it has in today’s modern society and how, for you, does it cross over into art?
I find that craft is evermore important, both for myself and for us as human beings! With an ever-increasing dependence on technology, computers, massive levels of production, coming from all quarters of the globe, there’s an emphasis on cutting manufacturing costs. This is all so that we can have wonderful products at prices which can seem unreal—either exorbitantly high designer products or chain store clothes which are very low in relation to the amazing work put into making them. I see this particularly in hand-embroidery, but also know other makers who cannot compete with industrial production in their fields. There can be a sense of alienation involved with not knowing who or where exactly the things we use and wear have been made ( often in faraway climes, using cheap labour).Our use of information technology to connect with others, in place of face-to-face encounters, can perhaps compound that sense of disconnection. I think that modern technology, the internet are wonderful tools in so many ways and love to use them. However, I also find that drawing, pencil on paper portraits of a person sitting, sewing by hand, painting, those skills of looking, reflecting, concentrating, reading, writing are critical amidst an accelerating world. Values relating to time, things hand-made for a specific purpose, place are all qualities that we maybe need to enshrine in the way we live in our communities. Speaking for myself, these factors shape my everyday life, in terms of how I relate to the world, my friends, family, loved ones, as a person. In this way, I place great value on things made by people I know, exchanging artworks where possible and always treasuring craft works.
Craft crosses over into art very naturally for me: as I mentioned earlier, that feminine, domestic realm is familiar to me and been part of my creative language since childhood. I went to art school planning to study ceramics. Once there however, I was encouraged to study Fine Art so spent the degree course in the painting and printmaking departments, with long hours making drawings from the life-model and myself. Painting is, generally speaking, traditionally, professionally, a male tradition, whereby women were often excluded or marginalized, usually simply painting as amateurs, in order to widen their accomplishments, along with embroidery or music, amongst other media. By a series of circumstances at art school, I began to move away from the oil painted canvas, stretched on wooden stretchers, and onto loose cloth, hung free as hangings, using textile paints instead of oils and hand sewing words and lines. At the same time I began to study women’s place in art history. All this related naturally to my world as a child and as a woman – at that time, in the 1980’s, it was a political statement to develop these questions of the public/ private spheres. In this way, the ‘personal has always been political’ for me.
You’ve worked all over Europe, can you tell me a little about how you find the art scene here in Barcelona and compare it to other cities that you’ve worked in?
I’ve lived in Barcelona for 22 years and have seen many changes in society and in the art-world here. When I first came here, the emphasis was on ‘Informalism’, as represented by Antoni Tapies and artists of his generation and subsequently, Miguel Barceló. This comprises a gestural approach, often mixing marble dust, varnish or wax into the painted surface. That prevalence has changed greatly as Spain, Catalonia, Barcelona has been able to open up to the outside world, following Franco’s dictatorship. There is a much wider variety of work being made here now, whether it be figurative or abstract painting, often very ‘clean’ now, after the predominance of that ‘dirty’ aesthetic. There are more women artists as well.
However, I would say that it is still, paradoxically, very difficult to break into the art world here if you are a foreign artist, unless you are brought in from abroad. An infrastructure has been put into place in Catalonia now, thanks to hard work by the Visual Artists Association of Catalonia, which is relatively new ( around 11 years old I think) or the Artesania Catalunya centre. These bodies provide a framework within which to operate, find studios, show, make contacts and connections with other cities in countries around the world. On the downside, perhaps the old ways of contacts still operate here, in favour of merit, which can be difficult to negotiate. Each city and culture is of course different, with advantages and disadvantages wherever one goes. I’ve always felt very free and able to develop my work here in Barcelona. If you are prepared to work hard, tenaciously, then it is possible to show in wonderful spaces. I’ve been fortunate to receive plenty of support from the people and places I’ve worked with. My approach is one of curiosity, wishing to learn as much as possible about Catalonia and Spain’s history on all levels. Making and showing my work is very much about making a contribution in the best way I can.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I’m rarely short of ideas! I spend a lot of time thinking, looking, reading, writing. I go out to Collserola nature park every weekend to walk with my dog, draw and clear my head. Over the years I’ve developed my own approach to living and working, which involves going to exhibitions of contemporary art, museums, the cinema, to expose myself as much as possible to new works, trends and ideas. I think it’s very important as a person, to know what is going on in the world, whether in local or global terms, news events, the arts, sciences, politics, or whatever. This together with looking and studying about art, looking at painting, reading widely, make up an everyday pattern.
But as an artist, the inspiration comes from elsewhere, it comes from within myself. All that thinking, looking, drawing, observing, forms a wellspring, from which ideas, moods, feelings, images and words emerge and request to be spoken or articulated in some way. I write all the time, as a private diary, in my hand-made books, and in sewing, so that these parallel languages of words and images run together hand-in-hand. Quite simply, my art and writing as natural forms for me of, first seeing, looking at things, then gradually transforming into conscious perceptions to be articulated. For me, making art and writing are direct methods of making sense of the worlds within and without me.
Your new exhibition, ‘Layers of looking, through Curtains’ considers cloth, how we use it to decorate, disguise or celebrate, can you tell me a little bit more about the idea behind it?
I have long been fascinated by windows and curtains! We use windows to divide exterior, public and interior, private, spheres. A window frames our view. Curtains serve to decorate, disguise, that dark void of night which we prefer to avoid looking at. So, by putting the window within the curtain, then hanging the curtain in the middle of the space, away from any real window, these divisions are mixed up, shown up, seen for themselves. I work with the language of both painting and soft furnishings to produce pieces which discuss all these layers of meanings, methods of looking and ways to represent thoughts, images, views, whether inside or outside oneself or ones world. My approach is essentially philosophical and always figurative in this respect. Layers of looking and layers of meaning.
Anne Michie. August. 2011.