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Sam Wood In Conversation with Ailsa Ogden

A garden in Tottenham – Brie, Beaujolais, and annoying flies.

SW: I need to get your drawing framed.
AO: Yes I’ll be interested to see what you do with it.
SW: Not sure what to do, I’ll speak to the framer this week.
AO: That cheese is a good idea for us, when you’re a little hung over its just what you need.
SW: Right? Shoo fly.

AO: It seems silly not to talk about the current situation. For me the time has been a luxury in terms of being able to sit and look at people and make the drawings.

SW: I feel the same. Obviously I am looking at things, spaces, instead of people. I thought the fact that we are both caught between studio environments and our own practice is something that we have in common, and how this time has allowed us to let a train of thought run without too much interruption. That’s been a real gift.

AO: Maybe there is something about working from home as we both do and not having a huge studio to complete work in. Both our work-spaces are quite small and sometimes that can make you feel like you’re constricted, but lockdown is a bit of a leveller as everyone is having to look at their homes and re-evaluate how they use that space.

SW: I agree… Someone asked me the other day what I was most proud of, and I said ‘feeling comfortable to call myself an artist’ which seems odd given that I make work all the time and I am showing it to people regularly, but there is some kind of disjunction between making a living and getting at the root of ‘being an artist’ that inhibits you from telling people it’s what you do. Space works in a similar way I think, the idea of the artist’s studio is so diverse and at the same time so singular, it could be any space at all really, but there is a kind of hierarchy to those spaces outside the domestic environment, whether that’s financial or social, or whatever. Even if lockdown hasn’t levelled the playing field in terms of what constitutes a studio it has certainly made us all look more closely at the spaces we use for working and living.

AO: That’s great that you feel comfortable to make that statement about being an artist. I can’t seem to get my brain completely out of being a graphic designer, the two sides of my practice are so different; what I do with the pastel drawings for example feels like the antithesis of the design work and that’s why lockdown has been such a gift.

SW: You mean you feel you have to wind down to it?

AO: I find it difficult to get out of the rigidity of design in order to have the looseness to get into the drawings. Even then it’s a very specific mode when I can do it. When I get it right and I can do it it’s almost like I’m slightly dislodged from my own brain, I’m so much freer. However I think I need the design work as a break because making the drawings is so challenging to me, they’re so weird.

SW: Whenever I watch documentaries about painters, they are always asked how they feel about painting, the act of making a painting, do you enjoy your work, is it relaxing? And invariably they would answer that it is maddening, frustrating, upsetting often. I used to think, that’s mad you’re living your dream you’re making work every day how can you be unhappy or frustrated? But the more I do it the more I find I agree with them, that the work is about solving a kind of problem all the time and when you’re getting it its great, but when you can’t find it or worse, had it and than ruined it, it can really be very intense and stressful. Sometimes a brief is a relief because you already know the solution to the problem, you already know the requested outcome of the work.

AO: I always feel so much frustration with it, and I often try to run away from it entirely because I find it sometimes too unbearable to cope with. That’s the thing with Graphics, there are rules, and I think in a way I have started to set rules in my own work in order to take some of the stress out of making drawings.

SW: You set rules?

AO: Yes, in the sense that I want to try to capture something very specific, almost this oddness, and I chase it, throughout the course of a drawing session.

SW: A lot of your image sources are from magazines from a certain time period, Physique Pictorial for example, when you talk about setting rules is that based on the origin of the image or how you think you will realise what is there in the image texturally in the drawing?

AO: It’s how I am going to realise the Image on the page. There’s something raw about those particular images and I often can’t identify it specifically, but it is the compulsion to make the drawing from that specific image, from there I set an intention for the drawing at the outset and that makes it less stressful to realise.
I have always been interested classifieds, gay ephemera all of that. I was buying old magazines maybe as young as ten or eleven, going and finding them at car boots in Cumbria but they were few and far between, coming to London and finding a wealth them in markets was a revelation, even down to the plastic wrappings they come in, I have a thing for that.

SW: There’s something illicit in your drawings, it’s interesting you say you like the plastic wrappings, that covering up, the implications of queer shame. I look at lot at apertures and voids as a way of thinking about identity, was there something in the covering up that spoke to you?

AO: I always enjoyed the underbelly of it all, kink culture, fetish and that someone had put all of this interest and knowledge into a pamphlet. There’s something about masking and negative space that I have developed in graphics work which is part of it too, like photography, the idea of something hidden and developing, and it links to drawing in that sense, the sense of development over time.

SW: I wonder how social media affects the way we make work, with relation to the illicit or unseen; now everything can be constantly posted online on instagram and seen. There was a period when I used to enjoy drawing in galleries and people coming over to talk to me about the work but then there was a switch maybe five or six years ago when It began to make me really uncomfortable and I think that was around the time I started making work in a serious way again, I wasn’t happy for people to be ‘in on that’ so to speak.

AO: Totally, I feel like I’m getting that at the moment when I look at other artists, like Trudy Veken, I love her work so much and enjoy it on a number of levels, but I think if I saw her working it would break down some of the mystique of it and some of the magic would be gone, maybe that’s where social media falls down, too much is given away, too much exposed.

SW: In terms of proliferation of images on Instagram and other social media which we’re all absorbing constantly, I am looking at space or at objects where as you concentrate on bodies, when you choose to look at magazines, or old porn are you looking at actual figures or are you looking at the apparatus surrounding an image, in terms of time period, social issues or politics that so heavily influence what people choose to put online?

AO: I am looking for the physicality and the personality, and stance. I am obsessed with stance, of people who are uncomfortable, or slightly over-weight, struggling. I like the way it reflects the oddity of those people, a lot of times those were the people I would see on the streets of Carlyle

SW: There’s something classical and formalist about your compositions, and the disjunction with the stances is really compelling, you don’t know how to feel, and I think that’s a sign of really great portraiture, an image that almost makes you want to get up out of your chair and help the person in the image.

AO: People often think they are from life, and that’s a compliment to me because that’s what I’m trying to capture, to get back to a real person.

All artworks by Ailsa Ogden