Saturday 24 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: With Darren Nixon

In March I did a small collaboration with artist Darren Nixon based on the recent photo and video work I've been doing. Darren's work is a sublime mix of colour, shape and composition that uses painting as a springboard for investigation. He says, 'Although painting is the language at the root of what I do, I am interested in how it mingles with film, photography, sculpture, animation, sound, music and movement'.

For this work Darren was intrigued by the images and footage I'd been shooting about lockdown anxiety inspired by vintage Hollywood and wanted to see what would happen when they were handled in different ways by another person.

Usually Darren's paintings would be the starting point of his collaborations with other creatives, but here it was my work, which I think was very unusual for both of us.

It's fair to say that Darren and I have completely different ways of working and thinking; whereas I am fascinated by the figurative and narrative he is interested in shape and construct and trying to create an understanding of the whole. All imagery in this post is the result of mixing Darren's and my own ideas.

To begin our collaboration I sent him what I would call 'the stuff I decided not to use' from my own work; Video clips that I didn't like and couldn't make work and images from shoots that didn't hit the mark. I had no clue what he would make of them or what he could do with them, seeing no value in them myself.

The first thing he sent back to me was a video clip, 'Gemma 1-1'. I was confronted by a zoomed in version of my reflection but layered several times and filtered with colour. 

I had earlier made a tentative start at playing with mirrors and filming myself but had found the process difficult and the result unsatisfying. Here however the video had a new feel and somehow looked more complete and he totally understood my aim to create a feeling of discomfort and unease while keeping an aesthetic of glamour.


What I really liked was that he had given the imagery the same treatment he would one of his paintings. Framing, cropping and putting holes in it almost as if it was a piece of board to be moved, shaped or painted as was seen fit. I would never have done this.

I then asked if he could do some literal mirrored effects on the same video and again I really liked how he turned the work into something else. Having me glance sideways fervently at myself at different speeds was so simple yet effective.

I suggested filming into a mirror again for Darren to try some more ideas out. I'd recently watched more mirror themed 1940's films (Dark Mirror and Corridor of Mirrors) and was very inspired to try and capture something about isolation and anxiety using my reflection (see my last post to find out more about this shoot)

It was important to me to set the feel of the imagery by referencing the era, so I spent a whole morning setting my hair with a 1940's curling pattern. I was really pleased with the result and it helped me to frame myself within the mirror from different angles. Even when I wasn't sure what to do, the style did a lot of the speaking for me telling it's own story.
Interestingly, that is what also stood out to Darren. Of the shots I took of just the back of my head he said, 'The way the light plays on the waves of hair almost acts out its own drama...
There is something sexual but also full of anxiety and maybe dread in that image'

In line with this, a whole section of video where just my hair was reflected into the mirror was slowed down to almost stillness. An infinitesimal movement as I barely moved my head to one side. I really liked this and it inspired other slow subtle movements in other videos I've since tried out (see last post)

Layering of clips or side by sides (as with the film still here and above) were also a really good way of seeing my work in a new way and giving it a new and unexpected narrative. I like how a simple grouping of similar clips when put together can create something that looks almost planned and as Darren put it,  'communicate with each other in small quiet ways'

For me, this quick collaboration was a way to explore the possibilities of making video artwork. I am so new to it and still finding my way around the technology. I've made a wobbly start at playing with Premiere thanks to Darren taking the time to walk me through the basics and in time I'd like to play some more and try to make some complete videos (currently I have no access to using Premiere properly)
It's also taught me some of what will and won't work when it comes to certain effects and how to think about what I want to get across through a moving image. Seeing my work through someone else's eyes was exciting. It reminded me that one idea is potentially the opening to a hall of mirrors that bounces around more ideas in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Camp and theatrics are important to me, whereas Darren likes what the smallness of a movement can tell us. Somewhere in the middle through this project we have found a way to communicate both. What I also like is that Darren's work is often, although I'm not sure if it's his intention, very attractive and decorative, and this complemented my own aesthetic.

Since editing moving image isn't currently an option I've been applying the feelings some of this collaborative work has given me to photos, experimenting with layering and reflecting images to create new and evocative moments and I'm enjoying trying this out.

For Darren this project was an interesting opportunity to work with someone else's footage. 'Normally if I am working with my own stuff I have to invest all of the footage with anything it is going to have. But {Gemma's work} arrived so full of richness and ideas...all I had to do was watch the stuff {she} sent and listen to what it told me'. This made decision making so much easier and made Darren think about how to make his own voice clearer in the things he films for his own practice.
'Our work is so obviously hugely different to each others so it was really nice to just work with a completely different visual, There are so many themes and moods in {Gemma's} work that I would not even be able to think about touching so it was really interesting to think about those ideas and how to play with them'.
To see more about Darren's work from my past posts take a look HERE and check out his Instagram to find out the latest about his practice.

Saturday 3 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: Mirrors

Something I've noticed while watching the films of the Forties is that mirrors are often used as devices to show the leading ladies inner thoughts, turmoil and unease. In films such as Gaslight we see the character of the wife driven to near madness by her manipulative husband reflected in her music box, her slip into despair shown upside down and distorted. In Possessed, Joan Crawford's portrayal of the hallucinating Louise is shown as several images in the same shot, reflected in her dressing table mirror, and Rita Hayworth is shown in a multitude of false and real mirrored images in a hall of mirrors revealing her duplicitous nature in The Lady from Shanghai.

I began to play with mirrors and reflections in my own work as I figure out my feelings of lockdown/ Covid anxiety and unease using classic movies as inspiration. The first thing I realised was that shooting with mirrors is really difficult when you don't have much room or designated space. Trying to get the reflection I wanted in the mirror and the camera isn't easy. A lot of the time I got unwanted furniture, fridges, cat food bowls, and even the camera itself either shown in the mirror or behind it, so setting up took some time. Here's an early try out where having sections of the room in the mirror really limited what I could shoot, especially as I was holding the mirror at the same time. I do like how there is an unspoken story in this image though.

Eventually I hung the mirror on a plain wall where the reflection was plain too and this made taking the images much easier, though as it was on a landing, I didn't have much space to move. I played with having myself and the reflection in shot and just my refection which in this set up worked much better.

This really created an otherworldly feeling of being trapped or separate from the real world. Not knowing what to do in the mirror, a lot of the time I just stood still and looked straight ahead. Or as in this case turned my back on it completely, adding another layer of separation from the viewer. There's a mysterious element to not seeing a person's face that leaves you feeling unresolved. I also like how my 1940's set hair looks quite sculptural and is what really 'makes' this image.

Lighting was also tricky because, using the limited sources I have at home, I was trying to light myself but then looking into the mirror the reflected me could look lit in a totally different way. That's when I started to experiment with a smaller handheld mirror. This way I could move about to get the best light, but it also gave the images a new feeling. I tried a few videos using both mirrors trying out simple movements and looking into the mirror and at the viewer through the mirror.

On a different day I played with the handheld mirror, moving it around my face while being filmed and photographed from the front. I was able to have set lighting this way and I really liked how the reflections and light changed as I moved the mirror. I moved very slowly and then slowed the video down even more to play with anticipation of seeing the face change in the mirror. I'm not sure if this worked but I enjoyed the aesthetic and creating this piece.

Behind the glamour there is always a lot of faffing and retaking shots. I like that in a way, these images in themselves are a manipulated version of reality existing in an alternative world, a reflection of my mind during the pandemic.

Monday 22 March 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies

It started back in January when I watched the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. It's a film I've enjoyed before, but this time something about watching the character of Norma Desmond descend into madness all the time looking magnificent, while I, like the rest of the world struggled through a pandemic, really struck a chord with me. Her stunning expressive face and glamourous deterioration was so awe inspiring that the next free afternoon I had I was grabbed by the impulse to channel Norma and take some photos of myself.

I enjoyed the experience and the resulting pictures so much that the next week I watched another classic movie with a strong female lead, the 1947 hit 'Possessed' starring Joan Crawford. This film has Joan slowly losing her grip on reality through her obsession with a playboy architect who doesn't reciprocate her feelings. The film culminates in a 'did she, didn't she' murder, as hallucinations mix with the real world.

I've always loved the films of old Hollywood for their glamour and melodrama, but watching them now, particularly in 2021 during lockdown 3.0 my attention has been grabbed by how the female stars portrayed women on the edge, losing their minds with impossible glamour and endurance. While watching old movies has always given me comfort, these suffering powerful ladies are also giving me strength to face the current challenges around me and my god, I love them for it! This was the first time since lockdown started last year that I felt compelled to create something entirely for the joy of it.

I've since been playing around with the visual styling and language of these old movies to try and convey some of the various feelings of paranoia, isolation, threat and fear that Covid has installed in many of us over the past year, leaving many like me, stuck in a world of uncertainty and stagnation. There's a satisfying fit between the aesthetics of Film Noir and melodrama and these times of Covid; A constant feeling of threat, danger and psychological angst.

I began by channeling the stars of the films I have watched, not trying to look exactly like them, but to gently reference them through make up and styling, and try to pick up some of the pitch of their performances in my poses and lighting. I also have really enjoyed using black and white photography to create that otherworldly feel of old films that are so evocative and alluring, whilst completely of their own time.

As I started to explore ideas I tended to allude to general styles of the old Hollywood era instead of the actual stars. I also began to play with projecting images onto myself to layer narrative. I have never used myself as material in my own work, except for the odd painted self portrait (see the banner to this blog for instance), so photographing myself was and still is strange to me. It feels very immediate and open to use my own image this way.

I also began to experiment with video, just short trials to see how things looked like here where I projected Corona Virus cells over my face, purposely staying still like a paused film as the pandemic washed over me. It made me also think about how stuck in a moment we all are during this world event.

I watched the British 1940 film Gaslight which sees a wife begin to believe shes losing her senses through the mental manipulation of her husband, It's a fantastic film and gives a strong sense of outside influence invading ones mind. On the back of this I made a short clip about Hands, Face, Space and the unease and paranoia that was being felt as we went about our daily lives, using some of the film's soundtrack to perform to (sound on).

I am not overthinking any of my process, just making sure I enjoy making it and seeing what comes out. It's important to me now more than ever that I don't stress over the outcome, which is ironic when I am using the stress and anxiety myself and many others have experienced over the past year due to Covid as part of my inspiration.

In short I am enjoying using so many of the things I already love, like dressing up, (I'm trying out original 1940's and 50's setting patterns to set my hair into authentic waves and curls, which is an added boon as we can't visit hairdressers at the moment), glamour and camp, history and story telling to make work that is literally getting me through.The preparation is as much fun as the actual making of the work, though setting up my phone to exactly the right angel to avoid getting unwanted items in the shot can be stressy, especially when photographing mirrors (more of that to come in future posts!).
I'm not a technical person, so I like the simplicity of just grabbing my phone to experiment, clicking and creating an idea and a mood. It's all work in progress, but yes, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up...

Thursday 7 January 2021

Makeup and Needlework

This is my latest drag inspired embroidery created over lockdown before Christmas. While I was stitching it I was thinking about the many things I'd learnt from my residency at Manchester Jewish Museum aaaallll those months ago (pre-pandemic, remember that?) when I went to research needlework produced by women as acts of devotion to their faith and family and how their identity was manifested through stitching.
In this latest work I've purposely used rich textiles and colours to evoke the sacred language found in devotional pieces and used in worship because, for me, the act of embroidery has been somewhat devotional, giving me mindful space to breathe as I create,
especially during recent turbulent times.
But that isn't the only time I've found moments of contentment and peace. Over the past months, my morning routine of sitting in front of my dressing table, pouring out my make up bag and gazing into the mirror as I apply colours and shapes has also been a balm. On those days when I cried because it all seemed too surreal or when anxiety got the better of me and I felt angry and powerless, that simple moment of focus and creativity gave me calmness and strength. 
This is something I thought about a lot as I stitched the false lashes and lipstick into my drag embroidery, and it became clearer to me that there are many correlations to be drawn from both make up and needlework. I think the following passage from Rozsika Parker's brilliant book, The Subversive Stitch explains it perfectly. Here she concentrates solely on embroidery but her words can be applied to cosmetics too:

'That embroiderers do transform materials to produce sense - whole ranges of meanings - is invariably entirely overlooked. Instead embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content'
There are many comparisons that can be drawn between cosmetics and needlework, the most deep rooted being the paradox each holds in relation to women; a mixture of freedom to express ones self and find power through creativity, and a general presumption that taking part in these these activities at all confirms the participant is a feminine stereotype.
I've got to be truthful, I have found it extremely difficult to concentrate on any personal work since the first lockdown last year and this has impacted on my prior direction of work and ideas. Instead, I have stayed busy by taking on private commissions and these have been an amazing opportunity to stay creative and keep my head above water both mentally and financially.

As we enter a third lockdown in a brand new year I feel more drawn to my personal work and I hope to begin to re-explore previous ideas and start new pieces picking up where I left off with the 'Sacred Heart' embroidery pictured above. I can't promise any definite outcomes and I feel any pressure on myself will be detrimental, however, for the fun and joy and sheer pull towards the things that excite me I hope to continue. I will post as and when it feels right. As for all the other things like commissions (which I am still taking) and outside projects, you can see updates about them on my Instagram, so please head on over and take a look.

 Until next time, despite the current situation, I hope that this year brings purpose and gratitude, health and creativity.