just enough violence: phoebe collings-james and the failure of representation
In a new exhibition of watercolour works by the young artist, the paintings’ aesthetic grace is often a way to deal with the violence that surrounds us. Beautiful work that deals with ugly subjects.
Alongside A.L. Steiner at Arcadia Missa in Peckham as part of the London-wide exhibition CONDO, Phoebe's work continues to revolve around absence, with a series of watercolour paintings of symbol-heavy animals; horses, she-wolfs, a magical chimera that is part medusa and part Pegasus, a hydra, all of which stand in for human bodies, revealing and revelling again in their absence.
"A lot of the animals are sort of representations of ourselves," Phoebe explains, "they embody some of that violence in them. Like the first image I drew, the she wolf on its hind legs, coming towards you. I wanted to just make these images become a bit more human."
The title of these works, Just Enough Violence, hints at that violence that inescapably lurks all around us, contrasted here with the watercolour's lightness of touch and colour. One of the most powerful pieces, and the only in the exhibition to actually feature a human body, finds a Klansman atop a horse, a speech bubble appearing from out of shot, "Hey Buster, I ain't afraid of no ghost". That clash, between watercolour and subject reveals most about the themes the work circle around; how we communicate (who's speaking) and the politicised violence of the world around us.
The exhibition is called Just Enough Violence, what does that mean to you?
It came from something I heard on the radio when I was working in the studio. The way I was working at the time was by drawing and writing ideas, research, one liners, all that kind of thing, all over these huge pieces of paper. I don't even know what it was in relation to, the whole phrase was 'just enough violence for the whole family' said in quite a gleeful voice. I thought that it was quite poignant really, in terms of our relationship with violence and how thirsty we are for it whilst also being such a negative part of our lives, and how unconscious we seem to be of the reality of violence.
Most of the works are done in watercolour, are you interested in it as an idea, or as a material?
I guess initially it started off as a conceptual idea, wanting to move away from using oil paints in my works because of the inherent value of it. When I started making those paintings they became quite popular and I was selling quite a few of them, but they weren't about that, they were about a certain relationship with performance art and instead they had become valuable abstract paintings and became part of a different art history. I was a bit conflicted about including two of those older oil paintings in the show actually. So the watercolours were kind of returning to trying out something more figurative, more accessible through drawing, using a material less valuable and less toxic.
I like there's that this relationship in the works between the material of watercolour and the idea of watercolour, which I guess relates to the representation of the images, and what these figures represent.
Yeah and I guess obviously the history of watercolour is something that seems exceptionally dull and twee.
Do you you feel labelled, you know, as the model who's also an artist? Do you think it means you have to justify yourself in your work in a way that most male artists would never have to?
I think just as a woman I have to justify my work in a way that male artists would never have to. Like, how many mediocre male artists are there? The moment that I really realised that I stopped giving a fuck.
I feel very very privileged to be able to model, even though it's not particularly stimulating and it has loads of issues. You know like this morning I earned enough money to pay my rent for the next seven months or something, and that's a privilege I just wouldn't get anywhere else. It's also not like I hate fashion, I think there are elements of it that are wonderful, especially having lived in London for so long, with great designers like Martine Rose and Simone Rocha and Claire Barrow.
So is it annoying being called and artist and model? Yes and no. I don't know if I mind as much anymore and I also don't ever want to be seen as being a victim, like this is some dirty little secret that I have. I wouldn't be doing modelling if I had money, but still sometimes it's relevant to not have it as a secret, because it might be important for the conversation.
Your last exhibition was called Choke On Your Tongue. I'm wondering if that feeling and theme still comes up in the work, it's so loaded with the problems of communication…
Am I still feeling choked or restrained?
When I first started making those choking drawings I was very young, about 20, I was going out with a photographer and not... I don't know, I just hated him so much and didn't know how to express myself properly with him, with the world, and I started quite obsessively drawing these animals that were choking on their tongues.
I think that's what kind of happens a lot, these things that might come out of something that's personal then actually transcend that into something that's far more about how all of us are communicating, about what's happening in the media or in the world. I think those concerns are pretty constant. So to answer the question, I do still feel like that, yes, but not all the time.
In your work I really like that relationship though, between how it communicates the idea of the difficulty of communication.
It's something that never really goes away. It's like that dream where you can't talk or can't scream. These feelings are triggered by going to a Rise Up march in New York and feeling like we're standing together, we are real, our bodies are real, life is real, and then Tamir Rice not getting justice and sitting my living room with my parents crying. But also, at the same time, sitting in the living room with my parents just feeling very lucky to be alive. One of the drawings deals with that actually, the horse saying 'can I live'. These things always hang in the balance.
Much of the work, even obliquely, deals with race. It's maybe less overt here though, than the last exhibition, which featured the KKK-esque hood sculptures.
I think that race kind of relates to everything I've been rambling on about, in that it's something that's constantly in my consciousness. Even when I was making these paintings you know, the starting point might've been my use of watercolours, and I'd been doing a lot of research into classical myths, but then when I was actually making the work a lot of it is quite automatic, drawing out of my imagination, and it was the same with those pieces. It's almost just like the materials matching up with the ideas you're thinking about.
When I started making those sculptures, I was really interested in the material and wanted to make something really beautiful and moving that was somehow representational of the feeling of falling, of vertigo and something being in flux. So I was using this huge icing bag to mould the plaster, and I made holes in it, and then after I'd turned the first one upside down it's form as a hood became apparent. It's not an accident, but it's almost like all my intentions at the beginning for the material only then kind of came through I guess.
It's not really related I guess, but it was something else I was thinking about recently, and just how much of a problem with race the art world has.
Something as simple as how few black artists there are shows how endemic the problem is.
It's only really been in the last year or two that I feel like I'm having more and more contact with the art world and it's a space in which I don't really feel comfortable. It doesn't reflect other aspects of my life, I think a lot of people feel like that. It's very much one class, mainly heterosexual.. we're in a difficult position at the moment because actually to be somehow Other is what people want at the moment. So it's this real toss up, it's not the same conversation anymore, that people aren't interested in black artists, people aren't interested in queer artists -- that's what they want, Otherness has such a high currency at the moment.
The problem in the art world is systemic and it is sort of exceptionalist in that there is probably room for one black artist at a time, or like, one per gallery. At art world parties we'll go into a space which will predominantly be middle-class, predominantly white, predominantly male, and the problem gets worse the higher up in the gallery world you go. It's not a space I really want to be in, and something I think a lot of artists don't feel comfortable with. The worst thing is that it doesn't really seem to changing.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Lucie McLaughlin, courtesy of Arcadia Missa