Emma Tingård: Ansikten exhibition
Last month, Swedish painter Emma Tingård opened her first overseas solo exhibition in the basement gallery of Shoreditch Town Hall. The show, a special one night only event, was entirely curated and put together by Apostolos Koukidis – a fashion student currently working freelance in London.
The derelict spaces of this Victorian building created the perfect backdrop for Emma’s bold and colourful portraits. Her large-scale canvases stood out against the brick walls, creating a contrast between the bright acrylic paint and remnants of old wallpaper still showing through layers of peeling plaster. On the wall by each painting, a label told me a little about the subject, many of which are fashion designers, musicians, artists and magazine editors, including some of the artist’s close friends.
Interview with Emma Tingård
How do you choose who to paint?
I don’t know exactly… All I know is that I love the human face. You can read so much about a person by simply looking at them closely… what they’ve been though, everything. I love the challenge of finding a specific detail in a person’s face which tells me something about their personality. I don’t really plan who I’m going to paint, I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll fall in love with someone’s characteristics: I love ears, big noses, eyes, and faces with a lot of character. It’s usually much more interesting to paint someone who isn’t “perfect”. And if they are, I’ll often make a change somewhere, to make them more real to me. I’m not interested in painting images which look like photographs. I want to express people’s personality, or even their soul, through the colours I see when I look at them.
A few of your subjects had a very glamorous look to them, but others had, for me, more honest, more intense expressions… how do you get your subjects to sit for you like that?
I used to work exclusively with live models sitting for me, until I realised how exhausting it was for the both of us. Nowadays I only work from photographs, and I’m quite picky about how they should be. I give each of my subjects a list of my requirements, the most important being that they stare straight into the camera, and look absolutely natural. Getting people to feel comfortable is the most challenging thing, without them trying to look cute or cool. In photographs where they’re trying too hard, I feel that, in a way, people’s personalities die. One girl really left an impression on me, I was so certain that she was going to send me a pretty picture with makeup layered on her face, posing and pouting for the camera… But when I received her photograph she was so amazingly beautiful: she had taken a picture of herself one morning, without any makeup, and you could see that she had just woken up. She almost looked older than she did in reality. I was really surprised by the honesty of her photograph, and I’m sure this is the reason for which I love her portrait so much.
The painting which stood out for me most was Guy: I’m fascinated by the anonymous nature of the subject. I also noticed that this was the only painting which had been taken off from its stretcher, and the canvas had been very simply pinned to the wall. Can you tell me a little about this painting and your relationship with it?
Guy is actually the first portrait I painted using this technique. If you look closely you can see that it differs from the others because it has fewer layers of colour. You can almost see through the shadows. After this painting, I struggled to create a second portrait with that same feeling and expression. Guy is also one of the audience’s favourites when exhibited. I think it might be because of its simplicity. His story is in the eye of the beholder, although Guy almost has a life of his own: this painting very nearly didn’t make it to London, and when it did – it nearly didn’t make it back home again. When I shipped off all the paintings for the show I realised that this particular painting wasn’t in the boxes which DHL picked up. So, I had to unframe the painting and take it with me on the plane for him to be in the show (reason for which it is displayed the way it is). Pretty much the same thing happened after the exhibition, when I was packing all the paintings into boxes, ready to travel home, I suddenly realised that Guy was missing…
Do you think that the concept of individual identity has changed in recent times, because of social networks? Could this have an impact on art, in particular when it comes to portraits?
I’m convinced that today’s endless opportunities of open publishing have changed the approach we have towards appearances. Through social networks and such, people – especially attention-seeking youths – can show off their entire life to anyone who’s interested. Just like that, without thinking. I’m not sure how this affects society’s idea of portrait art, but what I have noticed is that many of my portraits are used as profile pictures on Facebook or Instagram… Maybe because now that it’s so easy to publish your own images, it has become a bit boring to show the “exact” you. By displaying a painting instead of a photograph, you might feel like you’re showing a different side to yourself, as it were, an opportunity to be more mysterious.