The Monthly interviews artist Janet Keith – Part 2 – Developing a non-objective approach to painting

Do you have a theoretical underpinning to the art you create?

If I had to put a label on my approach I would say it was ‘non objective’ painting, meaning that the painting does not have a starting point out there in the visual world – a tree, a figure, seascape or whatever which is then abstracted in some way. Rather the starting point comes from within me – working in an unplanned way with spontaneous marks and areas of paint – fast and random. I sometimes think of it as being like the sound of an orchestra tuning up, a purposeful cacophony. After that initial phase I start working with what I see by adding and subtracting elements, considering the more formal elements of pictorial structure until the painting seems to be working and ringing true for me.

Janet Keith – The Green Garden

Are there any ideas you aim to convey with your work ?

Not explicitly – my idea in painting is really to have “no idea”. I find that the minute I allow an explicit idea to steer the painting it becomes deadened and loses its energy. It is challenging to paint with no idea in mind (which I enjoy!)…I have had to train myself to be quite meditative about it. It may sound contradictory but the mental discipline is what creates space for the spontaneity and flow.

I don’t think paintings always need to convey, or broadcast, a specific idea or message to a viewer. To me, colours, lines, forms and the sheer energy of life contained in those elements can communicate in ways which are outside the scope of literal verbal description and can perhaps speak to people in a different way – maybe in a way more akin to music without words attached.

I have a sense that as we are all unique filters of our surroundings (physical, emotional and the intangible) that what goes in marinades with our individual history and experience and then, through painting (or any other creative endeavour), can emerge again as an entirely new thing. That is something I think may be true for my work which sometimes seems to have a feeling of the natural places and things I love about them – my studio in the woods, costal places in NI and the desert in South West America, music of all kinds from sacred to salsa. Even if I am wrong about that – it doesn’t matter. The paintings are expressions of this person – if another person connects with the expression, which is my song – that’s great, that’s enough.

Janet Keith – Sands of Time

Why the orientation towards abstract Expressionism?

“Abstract Expressionism” is a very broad category indeed! And perhaps that is the attraction – the freedom to paint just as you want to and find your own way. There is a focus on materials and experimentation – the ability to explore and develop in an organic way. If I wake up feeling punchy then I can make punchy marks and bold colour juxtapositions – if I wake up feeling gentle and reflective I can use transparent washes and harmonious tones. I also enjoy not being tied to a narrative – this leaves room for the painting to evolve as it goes along, to take chances, be curious about what will happen if…and to be surprised! It’s an exciting and positive way to paint. If it ceases to be engaging in the studio it will be time to find a different way.

What artist influences?

There are so many! I was awarded a travel bursary at St. Andrews and went to Florence to learn Italian and study art. I was hopeless as a linguist but was set alight by Quattrocentro painting in Florence and Sienna. I still love their colour combinations and those of Indian Miniature painting too. Of course, modern British and American painters feature high on the list – Keith Vaughan, Ivon Hitchens, Lanyon, Heron and de Kooning, Klein, Diebenkorn. Its great that now the work of many women artists of that era is being shown and valued – the recent exhibition of international abstract expressionism in the Whitechapel Gallery and the huge Joan Mitchell exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Institute in Paris were utterly inspiring for their infectious verve and energy.

Keith Vaughn – Artimage

What are you doing now?

I am currently exhibiting with Gallery 545’s exhibition of Contemporary Art at The ISLAND Arts Centre, Lisburn and I am getting ready for a solo show at McAllister Thomas – a beautiful gallery in Godalming, Surrey. Beyond that I continue to follow the advice of the thirteenth century poet, Rumi;

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love…” Rumi (1207 –1273)

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