Clare Mitten, Still Time, 2011. Image: Jerwood Visual Arts

Artist in Focus: Clare Mitten

David Trigg

An interview with Clare Mitten.

Your work seems to be about the mediation of an idea through several different media, whether it be sculpture, collage or painting. How do you go about starting a work?

They tend to start with a specific object that I own or with an image of an object that intrigues me – maybe a phone, a clock or some kind of gadget that I want to investigate further. I then attempt to replicate it in 3D using paper or cardboard. The materials I use result in rather crude objects that very quickly start to suggest other things. The gouache paintings then become a way of editing or re-evaluating these objects.

So you make gouache paintings based on the constructions?

Yes, and then the collages are based on those paintings. For several years I’ve had an ongoing fascination with the relationship between object and image. Before I was at the Royal College I was making objects and then making oil paintings of them. But because the objects were made out of these subversive materials and had a very contemporary feel, as soon as I made a painting of them in traditional, conventional painting material they didn’t seem to work. So for a long time it’s been about trying to find a way to have a flat image or to have 2D things that work in tandem with the 3D objects that function as equivalents rather that straight forward copies. The gouache paintings help me to understand the objects. They flatten them in the same way a photograph does but because the process is hand made it encourages other things to happen – surprises and errors that suggest other things. The gouaches are then translated into collages, where again I have to make quite crude decisions. I have to edit further and make decisions about shapes and how they fit together. The collages are much much simpler and sharper but far more abstracted. 

But you’ve chosen not to include any actual paintings in the show.

At one point I was very keen to show the gouaches but somehow they felt less like painting than the rest of the work because they function much more like drawing for me. The paintings are usually a kind of intermediary stage, a process that helps me to understand the work, although sometimes they are a means of catching an object before it moves on or collapses.

The constructions are quite rudimentary. They have the feeling of maquettes or studies for work that is yet to be made or is perhaps not accessible to us.

It’s important that they feel rough and unresolved like sketches because the process is ongoing – there’s rarely a full stop. They’re stages of a larger process and they feel like they’re still in flux. Things keep evolving and start to inform other things and if they were more resolved or cast in bronze then they wouldn’t be able to do that.

In what way do you consider the paper and card constructions ‘painterly’?

I think the process of making these constructions is analogous to painting in that it’s fluid and in flux before solidifying temporarily at the point of exhibition. Also it’s like painting through construction with one thing layered on top of another. They’re very gestural and the roughness of the materials that I use are, for me, very painterly, particularly where the glue and the wetness of the gum strip stain the objects. Similarly with the collages; the fact that they come from the simple flat gestures of the gouaches and then there’s the creases and the folds and the way the paper lifts off from the surface. I think all this starts feeling quite painterly.

 There is a clear visual relationship between certain works in the show. Take for example the watch strap of Still Time and the caterpillar tracks of the tank in Burg (creeping up and taking off).

The watch strap actually inspired the tank. Also, the large collage – also titled Burg (creeping up and taking off) – is based on a gouache of a slide carousel construction, but the images of projectors I was using suggested tanks as well. That piece connects to the watch face too, so there’s definitely a strong visual connection between those three works.

Looking at your show I thought that the watch had informed the tank and that in turn had informed the collage.

Well in the studio, one comes into being and then other things are often started in tandem. They’re not necessarily made in a linear way; it’s not like I finish one thing which then gives rise to something else. I have multiple things on the go in the studio so automatically they’re feeding off each other. The way I was imagining it in the Jerwood Space was that there are these lines of connection between the objects that don’t flow just one way. It might go from the watch to the tank to the caterpillar track and back to the watch. Then to the watch face back to the collage and from the collage back to the carousel and then round to the other objects in the space. So there’s a kind of back and forth that creates a network in the imagination of the viewer.

 So how do you answer the criticism of those who might say that what you’re doing isn’t really painting?

I think everybody has their own understanding of what painting is but painting is the context of this exhibition and it has always been the context in which I’ve worked. I see myself as a painter and everything I do relates to painting. As a viewer that should start you thinking about how these works might or might not be considered as paintings and this opens up a dialogue.