British artist Ian Francis loves the romantic beauty of winter, but he also sees the sadness in a season that ends life as part of nature's cycle. His new show Artificial Winter captures both the beauty and sadness as seen through a different winter landscape, namely the artificially crafted world of media. The show (October 28 to November 25 at Los Angeles' Corey Helford Gallery) expresses the conflicting realities of media expression through emotionally challenging images crafted with acrylic, oil, charcoal and ink. Francis, a native of the artistically vibrant and quirky city of Bristol, spoke with PRØHBTD about social media, life cycles and winter violence.
As a storytelling device in general, what do you think winter represents, and how does the Artificial Winter exhibit play into that characterization while at the same time challenging it?
From an early age I've always loved depictions of winter in stories. It always felt like a magical time but also a sad time, a time of endings and things closing down as part of a natural cycle. I remember being struck by evocations of winter in stories like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, where the onset of winter in the town adds to its strangeness and isolation.
I first heard the phrase "artificial winter" on a science podcast wherethey were discussing global warming and potential scientific and technological efforts that could be made to counteract its impact, but there was something about the combination of the words that struck me beyond its initial context. I think it's the impossibility of trying to control the world and the natural order of things to that extent, that something like that could only be achieved in a superficial way. The idea that we increasingly spend so much of our time in virtual worlds and that these are the only places where a concept like an artificial winter really makes sense.
Is there a general narrative that ties Artificial Winter together, and what are some tips for helping viewers see the deeper layers of meaning?
I love how paintings can be frozen scenes that imply a broader narrative but ultimately only exist as a single moment captured within the frame of the piece. Film and TV have always been huge influences on my work—I really like the way stills from them are composed, the way they still contain within themselves a fragment of the whole story. With paintings, I like the suggestion of there being a whole story there but one that’s ultimately unknowable.
Recently I've been more interested in the carefully constructed images people create of themselves online through social media, the way people have turned themselves into characters in their own dramas that have their own separate reality. I'm interested in the way that, after they're posted, these images continue to exist out there online, that they almost have a life of their own that persists even after their creator has discarded them.
These images exist online alongside news reports of wars and disasters and a general pervasive abstract threat of destruction, and I experience all these things through the same screen, often on the same webpages. For me, painting is a way of creating an interstitial space where all these disparate images can combine together and interact.
Your artwork often conveys a sense of violence or harm. In what ways do your depictions of violence epitomize your views on modern society and humanity?
To me, it's violence as seen in the media, through a lens and a screen. I feel incredibly fortunate to live in one of the safest places and times in human history, yet either despite or because of that, there’s an inescapable sense of impending destruction, that the whole complex and delicate edifice of the way the world works right now might come crashing down because its fragility can't support its scale.
The violence or harm in my work is usually abstracted—it's a sense of the uncontrolled and abstract application of paint or larger geometric structures that threaten to obliterate the more delicate, translucent painting of the characters in the scenes. The character's lack of action or reaction is intended to mirror a sense that it's hard to know what to do in the face of an abstract and indistinct threat.
For someone with a limited artistic lexicon, how would you describe your technique and the materials you use to bring your artwork to life?
I'd describe it as mixed-media painting. I make pieces composed of many different layers of paint and try to get different styles of painting and drawing to work together and play off of each other, from large abstract brush strokes to patterns and geometric shapes and delicate fine-detailed painting.
What would be an example in your artwork that epitomizes the influence of technology on modern life and social relationships?
My artwork would never exist in the form that it does if it wasn't for technology. It's hugely important to both the way that I produce the work and what the work's about. I save thousands of images that interest me that I see online into folders on a computer and then flick through them periodically to see how ideas recur and link together. For me, painting is a way to try and make sense of this constant stream of ideas and the way they link together. The paintings are visualizations of an almost dreamlike space where these disparate ideas can interact, and it's a very different place to physical reality.
To me it's been fascinating over the last few years watching the way people turn themselves into images, and the way the importance of the image in some ways almost supersedes reality. Looking back at my work over the last 10 years, I don’t think I'd have predicted the extent to which people would embrace this other artificial place.
What has photography taught you about painting, and what has painting taught you about photography?
Photography and cinematography are huge influences on my work. The fundamental decisions of composition, of angles and where to crop figures, are intricately linked to that way of looking at the world. Even if the scene I'm creating is essentially deeply unreal or made up or abstract, when I'm making the initial roughs of it, I think about it almost in terms of camera position. When I'm creating an unreal scene, it's very important to me to try and get some elements of the picture to "make sense" in terms of perspective, vanishing points, in a way that ultimately stems more from how things look through a camera lens than how things look in real life.
Bristol contains a beautiful mix of architecture. Has it directly influenced your artwork in any specific ways?
Literally, yes. I made a painting a few years back—maybe seven or eight years—that contained a part of a street in Clifton I'd walked past a lot of times. Generally, though, I try and make work that's not about my physical reality. That's why "natural" colors like earthy greens and browns that I see most days outside my window rarely make it into the paintings. There's something really interesting about old cities and the way that new architecture gets integrated in them, but I'm not sure if it's something I manage to get across in my work.
Last year, a Brit named Ian Francis got caught with 35,000 ecstasy pills at Ibiza airport. Any chance you caught any calls from concerned friends or other people thinking it might be you?
Hah, no! That's the first I'd heard of that. I think there's an Australian horseman with the same name as well, though, so maybe he got a few calls?
Have you ever utilized psychedelics, cannabis or other substances as a way to stir up fresh artistic inspiration?
Honestly, no. It's not something that's ever particularly appealed to me, although there are some very talented people who use that as part of their process. Maybe it's naive, but I've always valued my perception of the world as it is, and for me, my work is a way of trying to understand how I feel about the things I see. Even though I make scenes which are strange or surreal sometimes, they're very much a product of or a reaction to the world as I see it now. I’m trying to make something that I relate to in a regular frame of mind.
Finally, what is an example of a book that truly challenges your worldview?
There have been loads—it's always something I've really liked about books. I'd say lots of Alice Munro's short stories [have], for her ability to create characters with a very different viewpoint and experience of the world to my own. Recently, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy [has] for its sheer bleakness and the physicality of violence, the evocation of the way people thought and acted in a world that's not really all that long ago but still so horrifyingly different to now.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.