In a landscape of artists who analyse the internet through their work, Celia Hempton's paintings stand out as a direct and unfussy representation of online culture. Hempton uses the website Chat Random to interact with stangers across the globe with one hand, whilst she paints what she can see of them with the other. Due to the nature of this website, sometimes paintings are unfinished or extremely graphic. The result of this online venture has formed the basis for Hempton's current solo show at Southard Reid Gallery, Chat Random.
We spoke with the artist to discuss figurarive portraiture, avatars and private art collections.
Which pieces in this show do you feel are most representative of your style, and why?
In terms of a purely formal rather than conceptual ‘style’, one of the things I have thought important in making the work is a sense of stylistic or formal aesthetic freedom. Painting for me is loaded in terms of its own history and I try to enjoy that rather than see it as a hindrance. In this show the way the paint is handled and the surfaces the paintings are on are somewhat divergent, depending on how I want those works to function. So they appear sometimes loose, encrusted, smooth, wet, abstract, or figurative because they reflect choices I make in relation to each specific online encounter and each specific image I see on the screen. Typically I paint them very quickly, so in that way they do look quite distinct to recent non-Chat Random works, but it’s still not easy for me to single out individual paintings as in my mind almost each one I approached differently.
Can you talk me through your process in creating the paintings in your current show Chat Random?
I have a laptop on a table, with a small canvas laying flat next to it on my palette. Whilst the laptop is connected to the chat room, I start flicking through live feeds of people online, clicking next until I find an image that I want to paint. Depending on what the person in the image is doing, or if I can even see a person, I either begin painting without engaging in conversation, or I begin a conversation and then start to paint, perhaps asking them if they mind me painting them. They can usually see and hear me. Some interactions are slow, if for example I am with a person whose internet connection is poor, or if my ‘partner’ is using a translation tool or not speaking at all but using hand gestures. Another interaction might have a different pace, say with someone whose language I can speak. Either of us can click next at any time, so quite often the paintings look ‘unfinished’ – ie I stopped painting before I would have if they had stayed with me. There is joint control - albeit vastly fluctuating depending on the situation - between the sitter and I within the making of the works. It means that the paintings go in any number of directions that I could not conceive of before making them, though suppose I do have ultimate control and direction.
How have you approached nudity in these paintings?
There is much nudity on the site because many people use it as a means to have a sexual interaction of some sort. I have painted one or two people in a traditional ‘nude’ sense online, where they are not visibly aroused but posing for me only. The majority of people who are nude are looking for sexual gratification. I find it quite interesting that the users rarely orchestrate with any care the image they are presenting to the world, unlike in typical online social interactions ie an attractive selfie. The scenes are often of dimly lit interiors, camera angles that reveal starkly average body types – the lens pointed in unforgiving, direct ways at penises, elderly or overweight bellies, men (as 99% of the users are) relaxed in jogging bottoms at home, or in an unbuttoned suit, camera pointed at their crotch under an office table. The ability to be anonymous I suppose must enable this, though I still find it compelling in the context of the rest of the internet, which seems to be geared towards selling things/ideas/people in one form or another. A few times I have watched what I thought was a person but in fact turned out to be a person playing a video of someone else, whilst they watched me interacting with their avatar.
Did the name of the show come from your varying experience on chat rooms?
The name Chat Random comes from the name of the website, and since all the works were made on that site, there was a simplicity to this title that reflects the document-like approach to the making of these works.
As a young artist, what did you make of this year's Frieze Fair?
I look forward to the energy of the social hyper-activity around Frieze and do go to see it, but have to admit that since its sadly never a shopping trip for me, I then lack some of the joy of that potential experience! The ‘market’ aspect of art buying is obviously quite a complex topic for me, and I imagine lots of young artists. I spoke to a writer friend recently who is strongly against the idea of owning art. I think I like living with art. I have a different relationship to the works I own that I catch sight of over breakfast or as I am lying in bed. They catch me off-guard when I am not thinking about the act of looking at art, and I love that.
Chat Random by Celia Hempton is on at Southard Reid until 15 November 2014.