Painter & Poet: Studies in Creativity
Victoria Best with Miranda Boulton & Kaddy Benyon
- June 2017

The studio is at the top of the narrow terraced house in what was once an attic. Clean, white lines, and a long slice of window that displays the city below, glittering in the sunshine that has followed a snow flurry. The space has that rich, expectant silence of all places where creativity occurs. It belongs to the painter, Miranda Boulton, and its walls are lined with canvasses that are part of her recent body of work, one of which, Day to Night, was selected for the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The paintings draw on the 17th century Dutch tradition of flower painting, but here the eerie calm of the black background surrounds a vortex of layered expressionistic images that have a mesmeric quality. Miranda tells me how the painting came about:

Miranda Boulton (MB): I was thinking about how I was painting and I was flicking through my phone late at night. I saw this image of flowers and the next day I tried to recreate it. I used to use photos to paint from, I needed something solid to reference. With this painting, I let go of all that and just worked from memory. It was like getting rid of my stabilizers. I let go and it all seemed to come together for me. It became more about the process of painting, of one stroke leading into another, then taking it off and going back and forth in layers of paint… pentimento… it was letting go, so one mark led to the next, it was a process of trying to get to something, of knowing and unknowing.

Pentimento, I discover, when I look it up later, comes from the Italian for repentence, and refers to traces in the work that show the artist has changed her mind in the course of composition. The traces may appear in the underdrawing, or in the painting over the drawing, or in subsequent over-painting. It seems appropriate that working from memory and its infinite layers should result in a palimpsestic painting of such complexity. And appropriate, too, that the unfathomable depths of the internet should provide its origin.

MB: A lot of the source material I use is from the internet. I quite like the distance. When you’re dealing with flower imagery it’s so personal and I find the internet neutralises that. The image becomes a free-floating thing that can mean anything. Then it’s about capturing that meaning.

Victoria Best (VB): I have this idea of the internet as a vast unconscious, just not your unconscious, but other peoples’. It’s like a huge daydream in which you cycle through other people’s discarded images.

MB: I think all the paintings are about ghosts, they are all haunted. For me it’s very much an acknowledgment of the past and the present merging… It’s an interesting thing about painting that you have this whole history behind you and you have to acknowledge that. You have to deny it and accept it; you have to hold it somewhere but it can’t be too much to the forefront. Because I studied art history I had too many images in my head and it took me a long time to desaturate myself. Now I know what my influences are, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at books because it’s memories I’m interested in filtering. It’s these traces that are left on us that I want to explore and I can only do that when I’m in process. It’s a process of knowing and not knowing and letting go and it’s the actual paint, the texture and the materiality, that allows it out.

VB: It’s all about the flow.

MB: It becomes almost meditative when you know you’re functioning in the moment. You have to hold it all, be aware of it all, but you’ve got to put it over to one side when you’re doing it. I think there’s a process in doing a body of work. You start with an idea and there’s a point where you have to look back and quantify it, think it through. It’s like going below and above water. I understand it now although for a long time I didn’t.

VB: So how long did it take you to do this?

MB: This painting? Probably took me about six months. In different settings and times so there are different layers. Each of these paintings has been completely other paintings before, and worked through over time, and completely destroyed and then worked into again and again. There’s an archaeology.

VB: Do you have to work through sketches in order to get what you want?

MB: No, but I work things out when I’m doing these smaller ones. I work out a gesture, ideas, and then it comes to fruition on the larger ones. They have many more layers underneath the surface.  Sometimes it works in one layer, but if you haven’t worked on the layers underneath it doesn’t have quite the same density to the surface.

Nevertheless, I find myself deeply drawn to the smaller paintings with their bell jar effects. Having been in the presence of Miranda’s work for a while now, the theories of Rollo May on creativity are coming to my mind. In his book, The Courage to Create, May proposed that creativity is first and foremost an encounter, be it with ‘a landscape, an idea, an inner vision, an experiment’. We know in works of art when that encounter has significance for ‘genuine reality is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.’ Artists, for May, are people who have the courage to risk turning their intense, sensitive consciousness onto their world in order to have those startling encounters. If you have escapist art, you won’t get that experience of encounter. But with Miranda’s work, I’m conscious of being in the presence of something very real and visceral.

MB: There’s a lot of figuration. This one [Day to Night] there’s a lot of limbs and different parts of the body. To me the image in the middle is like a kind of truncated torso. Whereas these ones I was interested in being much more internal… internal organs, blood and guts. But made quite timeless in a way and contained.

VB: You have this very 19th century effect here with the bell jar. You have something very sterile and held without oxygen but in fact you can see inside it to the blood and the guts. That’s a terrific draw into the painting.

MB: It’s the old and the new, a collision. There’s a timeline when you read a painting. You have a moment when you take the whole thing in, and then you unpick it. Every book, every movie, is fed to you chronologically, but painting is very different. It happens in the moment and then unfolds over time.

VB: Because painting can’t explain anything. Most other artforms explain, but an image doesn’t.

MB: No, you have to bring your own meaning to it, you bring yourself to it and you respond to it in different ways. It can take a lot of time. Once you’ve seen that painting and you start to look into it, you will never see the same thing again. It’s amazing and one thing I absolutely love. It’s the temporal process of painting and I think that’s why building up these layers over time is very important to me, because you’ve got to unpick them over time.

Rollo May also talks about the artistic ‘waiting’, the necessity of holding still and calm in the face of the empty page, the blank canvas, for the next right step to take place. ‘It is necessary,’ he says, ‘that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation.’ I ask Miranda if this is something she is ever conscious of: waiting for the images to settle and the time to come.

MB: I don’t think I’m aware of it but I’m aware of creating the conditions for it to happen. If you’re too aware you trip yourself up. You have to get in the studio and just do it. This week after the holidays I went back into the studio and I had one day when nothing worked. I was going in and out between the layers of paint looking for the imagery. Two days later I went back in the studio and had a great day. It takes a long time for it to come out of the painting and some days I’ve got a real fight on my hands. But when you get there, it’s so worth it.

VB: When we first discussed doing this interview, I was talking about art often being pre-empted by crisis. And your feeling was slightly different.

MB: I think for me, it’s never been about crisis. It’s a feeling of being very uncomfortable, vulnerable, and then I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s really, really hard.

VB: Rilke says the artist is a perpetual beginner in his or her circumstances.

MB: Yes, you’re going back to the beginning often and questioning. It’s a process of uncovering yourself. Because it really is all about you. Maybe there’s a point when you take a step forward that you know is really positive because its uncovering or exposing something else about yourself. I need that vulnerability to know I’m having a real encounter with the work.

I have been impressed all along by Miranda’s creative serenity. I’m beginning to realise that she has this startling grace because she is so at home in her processes, so welcoming to every stage of creativity, accepting even the hardships – perhaps especially the hardships – as necessary and relevant. I’m intrigued to know how she began painting.

MB: When I first started painting seriously, about 15 years ago, it was landscape based. My Granny passed away at 101. I had a very close relationship with her and when she died I went to the house and found this book of photos that my Grandpa had taken. I never met him; he was a painter and he died before I was born. The photos were taken in Norway in the 1930s and for two years I painted from them. I put other things in, figures and animals and really made them my own. I created this whole mythological world from them. I’ve always had this thing about combining figures within the work whether it’s landscape or still life, there’s just this humanistic side, something fleshy in there. I have tried to move away from it but it always comes back whatever I do. I’ve accepted that now.

VB: Did you know you would always do something artistic?

MB: Yes, I always wanted to be a painter. I suppose growing up with painting around me and Granny telling me about her days at the Royal College, it became this mystery, the mystery of the artist.

VB: So both your grandparents were painters?

MB:  They both went to the Royal College and met there. Granny went into fashion design and he went into painting. So growing up with it around, it was always a possibility. It was open. It was allowed. And my Grandpa’s studio was still in the house and she didn’t clear it out. So I used to go in there and just stand and look at all the brushes and the paints and the canvasses and things. There was just this kind of romance in my head.

VB: How has motherhood been? Has motherhood got in the way?

MB: I think it’s helped. Beforehand, I used to spend hours thinking, what shall I paint, what shall I paint? And then suddenly, I had no time. I had two hours and I had to get on with it. It really freed me up, it stopped me judging myself. I used to go to a lot more exhibitions and read a lot more books, look at a lot more paintings and suddenly I had no time and it was actually the best thing. I was so image saturated and the possibilities… when you get to a canvas you have endless possibilities. I had to strip it bare; it was a kind of going inwards to go outwards. And also, because I was in the home, it kept me sane. So my son would go to sleep and I would put the baby monitor on him and go and paint.

VB: Did the landscapes move into the flowers? Did you have a stage in between?

MB: Yes there was a stage when I was playing different genres. I like working within a genre, a seam I’m really mining. So I did the landscapes and then I was working with lots of different imagery for a couple of years. I used to trip myself up. I’d get so far with a line of imagery and then think, that’s getting a bit problematic, I’ll try something else. But you never get into anything in depth if you don’t stick with it.

VB: You need that concentration and focus.

MB: If you look up here I’ve got rules of painting. I did those nearly two years ago when I said to myself: you’ve got to hone in. And I’ve stuck to it and it’s been the best thing.

VB: How much is art about permission?

MB: Yes, precisely. But you’ve got to understand your own methods of making it harder for yourself – or momentarily easier, but harder in the long run. I was making it easier by saying, I’ve got bored of this, I’ll do a figure, I’ll do a landscape, I’ll do all of it. But actually I was tripping myself up for the long term. In the short term it was keeping the flow going.

VB: Isn’t that the way? The running away is never…

MB: The facing up to it is what matters. You stick with it. I told myself: if you want to paint flowers, then you paint flowers. Do what you want.

VB: Why is that the hardest thing? To say: do what you need to do, what you want to do, what exactly speaks to you in the moment, free from other people’s demands and expectations. I don’t know why that’s so hard.

MB: We’re very self-critical. But I think the thing that’s probably changed over the last few years is painting from memory. Although the landscapes were about memories they weren’t my memories, they were my grandparents. It’s about traces left on our minds. It’s an interesting thing about the process. You think you’ve gone somewhere really different and then you realise…ah, I’m back in the same place. But maybe I have moved forward a little bit. For you, it’s really different, but probably no one else realises it.

VB: So maybe it was with the flower paintings when you felt you’d actually found your…

MB: Yes, I understood because it was the second massive body of work I’d done, and I understood what the first one was about through the second one on a much deeper level. You have to have a fascination with something. Then to understand that fascination you have to do it for long enough so that you can go back to the beginning many times.

VB: You have to have a whole revolution.

MB: You have to lose your way massively and then find it again.

VB: The art of going wrong.You have to go wrong first before you can go right.

MB: And this is what I’m talking about with the vulnerability. You have to sit with that absolute discomfort.

We have stumbled into the territory of my favourite theory about creativity – that it is as Kathryn Schulz says in her book Being Wrong, ‘an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.’ She argues that art comes about because ‘we cannot grasp things directly as they are.’ In consequence, there exists an exploitable gap between the real and our perceptions, a gap embroidered and embellished by the powers of imagination. The artist who permits free rein to imagination effects entry into a parallel world ‘where error is not about fear and shame, but about disruption, reinvention and pleasure.’ This extends to the consumers of art as well, for we look at art in order to lose ourselves, so that we might find ourselves in new ways. I think of Miranda’s pentimento, the layers and layers of overpainting that create these deep, pleasurable palimpsests in which we cannot distinguish which lines, which forms are the ‘right’ ones to read. And I think of her embrace of vulnerability and discomfort, knowing that these are the states that open into creativity, not block it. It seems strange to think about wrongness in relation to Miranda and her art, when she is so clear in her vision, so steady in her process, and so calm about the necessity of creative disquiet. But it’s the eerie uncertainty of her paintings and their ghostly resonance in which the past and the present collide that remain in my memory long after seeing them.

MB: I’ve just done these two paintings this week. I don’t think this one’s finished, though this one definitely is. It’s possibly a little bit more easily read than a lot of my paintings but I’m so happy with it. It’s just hit something for me.

VB: I love the cameo. It’s something my eye is drawn to the whole time. I’m looking at the centre always in reference to the frame.

MB: For me it’s like a mirror. You’re reflecting yourself within the imagery.

VB: It’s interesting what you were saying about having to work in a place of knowing and not knowing, of certainty and doubt, the past and the present. There’s a really interesting play here between wildness and control.

MB: Yes, there’s a sort of romantic quality to it. There’s a deliberate wornness, an acknowledging of age. Which is reflected in the background and also in the imagery.

VB: I love the texture of the pink. It feels like it’s reaching out to me. 

"Overview Effect" - Essay by Anna MacNay, 2016

In her predominantly grisaille paintings of bunches of flowers, Miranda Boulton emphasises this notion of fragility, as well as playing with the idea of looking down on something from darkness. Sourcing images of flowers late at night on Instagram, Boulton commits them to memory ‘in the no man’s land between being asleep and awake’. The following day, she paints the bouquets from memory, wilting, overlaid on older paintings, creating an archaeology. ‘Art,’ writes Jean Cocteau, ‘is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious,’ and Boulton’s work epitomises this, imbuing these memento mori with moods and emotions from her own existence and from the transient passing of others.

"Offline Online" - Catalogue Text by Jessica Lack, 2015

Miranda Boulton’s eerie paintings encapsulate that moment of anxiety and dislocation that occurs at night, when nature colludes with artificial light to transform the familiar into something foreign and pregnant with atmosphere. Her paintings exude an uncertain light – ghostly and penetrative – like the flash of a camera or the amber beam of a car’s headlights passing across a bedroom wall. The results are flowers frozen in transition, as if sealed in yellow oil paint as slick and gelatinous as aspic. In this respect the still-life genre, with its focus on the transience of life and mortality, is singularly suited to the artist’s spooked vision. For Boulton’s flowers do not belong to the daytime, where fat dewy roses grow vigorous. Her subjects are stunted amoeboid shapes that emerge awkwardly out of the darkness. Painted in synthetic colours - radioactive greens, ectoplasm yellows – they are as rubbery as tofu and their slender stems, the colour of charcoal, are knotted and twisted like coarse wool.

In ‘Wake Up’, streaks of translucent oil paint add to the slippery sense that nothing is solid here, not the flowers, not the vases nor the thick grey outlines that hold back the encroaching blackness.

Born in Cambridge in 1973, Boulton studied History of Art at Sheffield Hallam University before focusing on painting. Her early works, which depicted the figure in isolation, were created by layering several drawings on top of one another. Later she concentrated on the natural world, making a series of studies of birds and trees. Since 2012 she has been studying at Turps art school, where her technique has become bolder and more expressive.

‘Middle of the Night’ is the most disconcerting of these new paintings. It has that unnatural quality found in the truncated dolls of the Modernist artist Hans Belmer. Painted in a pallid orange the colour of peach flesh, it looks like a disembodied hand. It is crude, and cartoonish, and reminiscent of Thing in The Addams Family, although it remains morbidly monstrous enough to wonder at where those severed fingers went. The circular flower stems in the foreground, denuded of petals, hover gawkily, like cheese-wire Cobras. There are blotches of gangrenous green and livid pink, and with its flaccid sexual undertones it is as uncanny as any surrealist image. Yet, like all of Boulton’s paintings, the central desire is to capture that moment of disturbance, between sleep and wakefulness, when the darkness seems full of possibility and the rational mind is consumed by the restlessness of our imaginations.

"Offline Online" - Charley Peters Review, 2015

The paintings of Miranda Boulton and Suzanne Holtom share a pronounced relationship with the line as a means of moving across and thinking though the picture plane. Off Line/On Line, showing at Studio 1.1 until 2nd November is a selection of recent paintings that clearly suggest the artists’ use of linear constructs to develop an image through the shifting grammars of formal logic and intuition. In both Boulton and Holtom’s works lines appear as important compositional devices – translated into paint but without eliminating the traces of reflection and decision making underneath. This is distinctly illustrated in Boulton’s painting Before Midday (2015), in which drawn and painted lines and areas of thin, glazed oil colour are seen to be laid down onto the supporting board in translucent layers. Each lightly covered line remains in evidence in the final painting, slowly revealing corrections and deliberations in Boulton’s active and additive process of constructing an image. Both Boulton and Holtom’s work express this similar energy. In Holtom’s work Swamp Legends (2015), she uses her signature technique of dropping threads picked from the warp and weft of the canvas to establish the skeletal form of the composition, which is then worked into with varying fleshy tones of paint to create complex, shifting organic shapes. Off Line/On Line presents a selection of works that feel as close to drawing as a means of thinking as they do strictly resolved paintings.

The Off Line/On Line of the exhibition’s title inherently suggests the dual interpretation of both the drawn line present in the artist’s work and the language of the world seen through the window of the internet. Boulton’s work begins with her sourcing images on line, often focusing on flora or other traditional still-life subjects. From these starting points she develops the natural shapes of the flowers into her layered compositions, which suggest figuration yet do not describe specific forms, seen clearly in the luminous, suspended subject in her painting Middle of the Night (2015). The twisted, bulging contours in Holtom’s paintings are informed by her studying stuffed and bottled specimens in the collection of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Both artists use paint’s capacity to engage illusionism to full effect, using images mediated by the surface of the screen or the curved glass of a specimen jar from which to create something that does not exist yet presents an actual, physical experience. Holtom’s displaced and painted canvas threads are at once knotted, bloodied arteries and fine, fluid drawn lines suggesting the interior geometries of her paintings. Her work may begin more intuitively than Boulton’s through the process of dropping threads to determine an early compositional framework, but the resultant image achieves a similar effect of an abstracted natural form; the contorted paint covered shapes and raw bodily tones appear, like Boulton’s subjects, as remote, disembodied figuration. Her work suggests a point at which technology and the body meet: her images feel present yet detached, like watching visual information at a distance, on a screen.

In both artists’ paintings we get a sense of concurrently looking down through the layered image, and looking across and into the paintings’ subjects. This awareness of multiple viewpoints is something we are becoming accustomed to in a world dominated by the consumption of images on a screen. In her essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective Hito Steyerl discusses how our sense of spatial and temporal orientation has changed in recent years, incited by new technologies of surveillance and tracking. Steyerl attributes this to the growing prevalence of aerial views on screen, such as those from satellites and Google Maps; she refers to this ‘God’s-eye view’ as a new way of seeing that has started to replace linear perspective as the dominant paradigm of visuality. The overlapping panes of line and form in both Boulton and Holtom’s work reference our contemporary ways of viewing the world, but both artists reintroduce a more visceral experience of seeing through their material manipulation of paint, which embraces the spectrum of liquidity and dryness, opacity and translucence – at odds with the durable plastic of computer hardware and the brilliant glare of the computer monitor.

Off Line/On Line presents the two artists’ work in separate areas of the gallery. Holtom’s work, in particular, forms a series of impressive viewpoints in the exhibition space. Her largest canvases, at 185cm x 150cm, are the most immersive, enabling a more complete understanding of Holtom’s intense reworking and material interventions with the canvas. Boulton’s painted series are hung closely together, forming an intense arrangement of illuminated forms on black grounds, which reference both Dutch still lives and handheld, backlit devices. The titles of these paintings often reference points of the day or night, suggesting the passage of time in an unexplained narrative. Richard Serra’s declaration that ‘drawing is a verb, not a noun’, reinforces that drawing is a dynamic endeavour rather than a static, fixed activity. In Boulton and Holtom’s work the lingering presence of the drawn line also reminds us that painting is a temporal process. To perceive each image in Off Line/On Line fully takes a prolonged time: we are forced to slow down to enter the speed of each individual painting, thereby countering the velocity and ubiquity of the on line, digital image.