Sarah Longworth-West focuses on painting as both a medium and a subject, creating what she describes as “subtle dystopian non-spaces.” She draws inspiration from everyday urban and suburban experiences, capturing moments through photography, which then serve as a basis for her paintings.
Kelly Foster – Could you start by introducing yourself?
Sarah Longworth-West – My practice is based on painting, both as a medium and as a subject. It engages in a cyclical dialogue with the history and ongoing developments within painting. Overall, my work focuses on creating what I consider subtle dystopian non-spaces. These paintings are ambiguous but are grounded in fragments of real life.
I draw inspiration from everyday experiences and visuals in urban/suburban settings. I come across objects, images, colours that resonate with me, although not daily; perhaps once every few months. These sightings become the foundation for translating real-world fragments into my paintings, acting as a conduit between both the natural and man-made world.
KF – I’m particularly interested in the interplay between abstraction and specific objects or scenes that catch your eye. Could you elaborate on the process of how you translate these moments of inspiration into paintings?
SLW – Certainly, it’s an intuitive process, refined over time and through past experiences with painting—both failures and successes. To capture these inspirational elements, I use photography as an initial sketch or snapshot. These images are not fully translated into the paintings; I edit and refine the visual information.
I keep these photos on my phone—something low-tech but immediate. From there, I create drawings, sometimes immediately, sometimes after a long period. Some of these photographs can sit unused for years before they find their way into a painting that feels like the right fit for them.
Back in the studio, I work with these drawings, sometimes combining them with other elements, such as loose stencils, painterly gestures or background images from magazines. I employ an analog approach, using tracing paper to collage and rearrange these drawings over pigmented gesso surfaces, looking for relationships that can begin to form.
KF – I was intrigued by the collage elements in your work, but I’d like to shift the focus to your unique technique with gesso backgrounds. You mentioned layering, sanding, and revealing different elements, which adds a sense of degradation to the painting. Could you discuss how you developed this technique and its significance to you?
SLW – Absolutely, it’s an idiosyncratic technique I’ve developed over a considerable period. Initially, my interest in gesso stemmed from traditional techniques dating back to frescoes and wooden panel paintings seen in Italian Renaissance churches. Unlike modern plastic-based acrylic primers available today, I use a labour-intensive, traditional method involving natural glue and champagne chalk, which gives the surface a chalky texture and appearance that I find appealing.
I began experimenting by adding raw pigments to the chalk. The method is fraught with risks—cracking due to humidity or temperature changes—but the resulting layered, slightly degraded surface makes it worthwhile and crucial to my paintings. When I sand these layers back, pockets of interspersed colour reveal themselves, providing cues for the next steps in building the painting.
This technique allows me to work from a surface rich in colour, pattern, warmth, depth, and layers. It provides an exciting starting point, a way to react against the tyranny or starkness of a blank surface.
KF – What initially attracted you to this medium? The textures remind me of architectural layers in buildings, so is it mainly about texture or is there more to it?
SLW – The attraction was a slow build-up, comprised of multiple elements that I found crucial. First off, there’s a marble-like quality to the surface that fascinates me. In terms of architecture, you’re spot on. It makes me think of structures like the Siena Cathedral and other incredible marble buildings. Additionally, the layers (and the concept of them) along with their softened colour palette intrigue me.
Despite having some control, through experience, the element of chance always exists, which opens up relatively unpredictable possibilities. This notion ties back to my interest in archival work, where I can be quite ordered and methodical but also need to introduce elements of chance to balance things out.
KF – The process seems labour-intensive and controlling, yet the final result feels unpredictable and spontaneous. This dual nature seems reflected in your paintings as well, through collaged yet abstracted images. You also hinted at figures being present, adding to the ambiguity, which seems to exist both in the process and the final outcome.
SLW – Yes, I appreciate your summary. Ambiguity is another crucial element for me. If something can be too easily named or categorised, it instantly loses its appeal. On top of what an audience might read in a brief statement or press release, I would like people to form their own connections and interpretations rather than being overly prescriptive. In general people often ask, “What is it?” of artworks or paintings; which speaks to our human instinct to define things rather than just reflect, enjoy and/or understand them at a different, possibly more perplexing level.
KF – Absolutely, the strength of a good painting often lies in its ability to provoke questions while still feeling somehow right, even if one can’t pinpoint why.
SLW – Lately, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how we live in a world filled with objects and materials. With our increasing reliance on screens, we could sometimes overlook the physicality of the world. I’ve been exploring this theme in my paintings, thinking of it as ‘flat volume.’ Looking back at my body of work, I see recurring interests that help me understand why certain elements keep attracting me.
KF – I love the idea of an archive encompassing broader elements, like ideas, notes, and images. So when you mention fabric, is it depicted in your paintings?
SLW – To some extent, yes. But when I mention fabric, it’s not confined to clothing. For example, I’ve explored the ubiquity and history of common objects like gingham-patterned market bags. Their history fascinates me, from their association with cheapness to their adoption in high fashion.
KF – It sounds like your process involves observing and reflecting on materials and their histories. This then feeds into an evolving archive of ideas and experiments through painting.
SLW – Each painting is its own piece and I very rarely create iterations. Looking back, I see direct links in my work, informing where I want to take it next. For example, I have what I call “gesso days” where I prepare my materials. The ‘remnants’ (excess dried paint, in ‘Swell’ for example) of these days sometimes find their way into my paintings because they’re essentially the same material. It wouldn’t make sense to replicate them in another less fragile medium; they are of the painting itself; so equally belong in a composition.
KF – Your approach feels like archeology of the material. You’re dealing with degradation, erosion, and then refining these elements. The material itself is so layered, and you incorporate these layers back into new pieces. I find that a really compelling aspect of your work.
SLW – Exactly, your mention of archeology resonates with me.
KF – I also appreciate that the materials feel earthy, although they’re not necessarily natural, are they?
SLW – Actually, they mostly are. The glue is natural, the champagne chalk is natural, and through trial and error, I’ve found that natural pigments work best. Synthetic ones mostly tend to repel during the process. I do use synthetic pigments in some cases, but not in the primary mix. Oil paint though, of course nowadays, comes from a mixture of natural and chemical elements.
KF – Do you see a dichotomy between the natural essence of your materials and the artificial or superficial materials like the fabrics or bags you mentioned?
SLW – Yes, there’s a duality. The imagery might also incorporate natural elements like obscured or abstracted body parts or nature itself. There’s harmony at times, but it’s not explicit. An element of what I am aiming to do is enhance the viewer’s visual awareness of their everyday surroundings. Perhaps as a catalyst to reconsidering their environment, and the impact of consuming and living with both natural and artificial elements.
KF – Looking at your works, they seem balanced but off-kilter, compositionally speaking. They have focal points but not one overwhelming point.
SLW – I like your phrase “balanced but off.” I’ll remember that. It’s about creating multiple focal points in the work, so the viewer’s eye has to move around. I don’t want a single, strong, instantly satisfying point. I’d say the work potentially requires some visual effort.