Full Tables and Empty Chairs

There is a phrase used habitually in restaurants, ‘Mise en place’ (to put in place) and it covers a multitude of actions concerning preparation. A chef might ready ingredients, delicately categorised in that pleasing culinary taxonomy which makes a paint-box of a countertop and a composition of a chopping board. Similarly the phrase alludes to the laying of a table; the relation of a wine glass to a folded napkin, the direction of a knife. This peculiar type of hospitality attention-deficit-disorder stirred something in me, so after a year or so avoiding the making of work after university I began to draw again. 

In 2016 I was working for a design studio and started to make work for them illustrating their completed projects; luxury hotels, Piccadilly restaurants, the glitzily Manhattan mansions of the super-rich. After years of unfocused doodling this was amongst the first concentrated bodies of work I had produced since university, all of a sudden, a coherent style became important, a decision I had always seen as a concession to the norm, but which now seemed organic, and timely. 

I can’t remember what made me choose watercolour pencils, or indeed account for the decision on the framing, but something in me understood this as a significant moment as I chose to record it in a precious object. A leather-bound book, filled with blank, tactile, hand-made paper that had been a gift from my parents on a trip to Rome on my 18th Birthday. I draw in this book perhaps once a year and adding to it is somehow an acknowledgement that time is passing, or that I have progressed in a meaningful way. This was my domestic Mise en place, my putting in place, and it does seem that’s just what it was as the style endured largely unchanged for several years. 

If my Mise en place was a preparation, an allusion to impending presence, then the next thing I focused on was the reflection, the retrospective look back at what was. 

In my job at the design studio I sat in front of an empty chair every day. It was designed upon the death of the studio’s founder from cancer in 2013. A small maquette, a plan for a chair, that was never quite born. It occupied the space as a memorial, not to be sat on, the empty throne as it were, it was somehow Victorian in its overtones and in this environment I thought, shyly camp. I drew it habitually and finally put it in my first solo show in November of 2018. I tripled it’s size and made it Ultra-Marine (it had been black) with a yellow halo, surrounded it with other abandoned objects from the studio, from my home, from the home of my recently deceased Grandfather. I know it’s it’s glib to say that my work is about death, all work is in a way, but it is fair to say that it was here that the void as a conceit became apparent to me. Images of stricken dinner tables, abandoned hotel rooms, empty chairs began to proliferate and I started to examine the work of artists I admired, Hodgkin, Rothko, Bacon, in an entirely new way. 

I started to paint in earnest only last year, pulling linen sheets out of the bins at the laundry around the corner from the studio. There was something pleasing about the link with hospitality, the soiled bed linen, the irredeemable tablecloths, rejected for their impurity, a history of stains. I soon found however that table and bed linen was an unforgiving medium when one wanted to paint in any thickness; it rumples like saturated paper, an aesthetic annoyance which seemed to highlight what was in retrospect a fairly thin theoretical allusion. 

So to canvas; the grown-up, straight-laced, commercial minefield I had stridently avoided all through art school and derided as irrelevant, dead, derivative trash. Here I am, hurtling towards figuration and grasping at voids, somewhere between painting and drawing, laying out brushes diligently in my tiny study, putting in place forms on the canvas like laying a table.