“A painting is finished when it can stand alone without me having the urge to grab it and change it.”
Words by Martin Holman
Left | Naomi Frears in her studio | Steve Tanner
Right | Naomi Frears in her studio | John Hersey
A painting by Naomi Frears is an artwork in search of its own definition. A recurrent element is the human figure – but her treatment is, like so many aspects of this remarkably varied and independent artist, non-conformist. Frears thinks for herself. Indeed, she’ll leave out the eyes, or include one but omit the other. She might not spare the nose or mouth, and often she reduces the face to an outline – to a jawline and sometimes to just its haircut. “Heads ruin everything,” she says, “because they fix something about a person. I don’t want the head to dictate.”
Frears thrives on arms, however, especially when sheathed in sleeves. That means the hands can stay, too. But that is not a firm rule. There are no firm rules: “I see no reason to be consistent… nor to explain myself.” This approach accounts for the fleeting quality of the work. The only solid element seems to be the strong colour the figure is placed against. As you look, you begin to wonder if the person is meant to be in the painting at all. And that thought creates a striking sense of anticipation, a sensation not often found in an image. Instead it is an essential feature of storytelling. But who is telling the story?
That question helps the viewer interpret ‘In My Other Life’, a painting that captivates the imagination. “When you pay attention and take care,” Frears says about her own way with an image, “things start to happen.” That advice applies equally to anyone who looks into this work. By following the drift of lines that move up the taut but seemingly careworn, tawny-coloured surface of the canvas, events begin to unfold – about the life of this painting and how it came into being.
Top left | 'Hello There', acrylic on canvas, 31 x 26 © Naomi Frears | Bob Perry
Top right | 'Tangle', monoprint on paper, and 'Boy', oil on canvas © Naomi Frears | Dom Moore
Bottom left | (from left) ‘The Collar’ (paint on panel), ‘Pietà’ (monoprint), ‘Elbows’ (monoprint), ‘The Writer’ (acrylic on canvas), ‘Next to You’ (oil on canvas), ‘Fake Wood’ (monoprint) installed at Exeter Phoenix © Naomi Frears
Bottom right | ‘In My Other Life’, oil on canvas, 100 x 100cm © Naomi Frears | Steve Tanner
Two details stand out from the mêlée of marks, and both are hands. They poke through a cloud of white paint that half-obscures a figure’s seated posture, rendering the dark presence curiously spectral as if it hides from being seen. One hand rests on the knee of a leg arched in a semi-reclining position, recalling a standard pose in fashion shoots, outdated now, in which a garment, invariably passively modelled by a woman, is displayed to accentuate the bodyline.
Is fashion – the transient world of changing tastes – this figure’s ‘other life’? A famous Italian romantic writer once set fashion and mortality in a fictional dialogue because both soon perish. The billow of white strokes enveloping this person curiously resembles a coating of Tippex, the chalky fluid typist applied to delete an error. The similarity raises an intriguing question about who, in the imagined story of this painting, required the correction? Or is the opposite of that fanciful metaphor true? The whiteness might indicate that paint is being removed, taken back to a buried layer. In this scenario, the shape is slowly advancing into recognition, as if being slowly restored to view.
Caught in a flux of coming and going and ever-changing roles, the viewer is left wondering if the masked figure of ‘In My Other Life’ is the semi-erased or half-arrived version of herself. Frears provides the space for a narrative she claims she does not have the ability to conclude. Her audience does the rest so every encounter results in a different story – or none. The onlooker has freedom to respond or turn away, to settle into an appreciation of the balance of line and the weight of colour. “I love not knowing,” Frears says, “hopefulness comes from not being fixed.”
She recalls her early years as lacking roots. In childhood her father, a leading academic, uprooted his family from Leicestershire where she was born to move abroad for his job in France. Travel became a fixture. Fresh from college she went east by motorbike with her boyfriend (still her partner) to Pakistan, India and on to Australia. On her return she knew she wanted to be in Cornwall, where she had holidayed with family and friends from frequent visits as a girl, and St Ives became home. For several years now Frears has worked in a studio with a big window overlooking Porthmeor beach. She can watch surfers and swimmers without being part of their world, turning away from the scene to work. The studio, for her, is where life is objectified and where she can stand back from the hurly-burly of daily existence. She says she is filtering images all the time. The airy, spacious room has its own notable past life: Francis Bacon rented it for six months in 1959 and stayed for three. In Cornwall to escape the pressure of exhibition deadlines, Bacon heard the studio was available while drinking in The Sloop pub. He worked intensely and completed several expressive figure paintings now considered transitional for his style. Frears describes herself as constantly hunting down an image. “I worry my work to death… There are stages when I am seduced by a painting or despair, but I’ve never, ever said ‘that’ll do’.” So each canvas or panel is submitted to numerous alterations and rubbings out, with layers of oil paint scrubbed away with a rag soaked in turpentine. The history of abandoned images is hidden in every surface. “The image makes sense only when it arrives,” she says, because it is never fixed at the outset. When that occurs, and the curtain rises on a new painting, Frears obscures all past struggle; even her own hand is hard to make out in the painting and the edges are always clean.
The search for an image can start with her sketchbook, her constant companion when she is away from her studio in Cornwall, travelling in Britain, France, Greece or anywhere she likes to visit. She says that her sketchbooks are where ideas first emerge and she collects material avidly, much more than she will ever use. “I’ve found that the best paintings can come from the worst drawings.” She draws figures glimpsed briefly in a café through a bus window or seen from the corner of her eye; or she sketches bits of furniture or details of an interior. Sketching is like a pianist’s daily five-finger exercises; she draws to maintain her practice when she is on the move.
But she never draws around St Ives; the town means her studio, which is where the hard work happens. The thrill of handling tools and using materials stimulates her as much as the journey towards another painting. At first, progress is impulsive. “Painting does have magic and I am more mystified than ever by its properties – oil is a complete mystery to me, how it achieves its effects.” That is the stage when she admits to feeling ‘dumb’ and detached from the intellect. Instead she lets the innate knowledge built up over years lead the way.
“I paint because I can’t not paint.” Images are clustered in groups around the walls like casual gatherings of people that spark conversations and coincidences, while tables are cluttered with sheets of drawing paper and small stretched canvases or blocks of wood. Work in progress includes designs frequently featured on the cover of the London Review of Books. She likes to be surrounded by shapes and colours. Photographs, postcards and lines of text by artists, writers and musicians – Frears frequently collaborates with other practitioners on organising exhibitions, performances and workshops – are pinned to walls and scattered over different surfaces. Words add a dimension to her imagery and from time to time are written or printed into prints and paintings as staccato phrases, the sort that we might taunt ourselves with under stress. An integral part of a recent show were brief poems by her daughter, poet Ella Frears, whose debut collection was shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot prizes, that proposed relationships between works while complementing the temperament of the visual formation in verse.
Printmaking has a special importance for her. Frears’ career began with winning the printmaking prize at Sunderland College of Art in 1986 and regaining her confidence as an artist after a shaky start in the adult world. “I think like a printmaker,” she says, even about painting. Breaking images down into layers, a requirement of many printing processes, allows her to stop, think and change a picture until it works. These disciplines have also provided the ideal background for filmmaking. Since a strong sense of composition has long been a feature of her paintings, she felt “completely thrilled from the first” to learn from filmmakers and sound experts how to work with a digital camera – a new tool with new techniques. Her first film, ‘Still Here’, opened at Newlyn Art Gallery in 2014. Composed frame by frame, it runs for 20 minutes over three screens, with each ‘scene’ lasting no more than a minute. She filmed quiet things in quiet places, the kind of easily overlooked, everyday details that fill her sketchbooks, events spotted in passing, each quickly replaced by another.
Temporariness is an enduring theme in Frears’ work, one memorably captured by two films premiered in September last year. The first is titled ‘In Other Words’ (Frears often finds titles in lines of poetry, like those by W.S. Graham.) and was commissioned by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. She was fascinated by how arms and hands gesture demonstratively across eras through changing fashions in the museum’s costume and fine art collections to “signal and describe, push away, embrace, and even talk without words.”
Left | ‘Leaper’ (still from Men Falling) © Naomi Frears
Middle | ‘Shut Up’, collage with paint and letterpress © Naomi Frears | Dom Moore
Right | Inside Naomi Frears’s studio
The second film was shown next door to the museum as part of her simultaneous solo show at the Exeter Phoenix. Conceived in two sections lasting nine minutes, both were projected concurrently on adjacent screens. The first was filmed from her studio window in St Ives and follows surfers as they come to the end of a ride. Frears observed that alighting from the boards involved one of three common manoeuvres: collapsing, sitting down or leaping into the foam. Over and over, surfers disappear into the onward rush of water. The second section has a dark, indoors feel and is a collage composed of brief phrases, still images and an atmospheric droning sound like a sustained final chord. With these elements Frears recounts her memories of the days 20 years earlier preceding her father’s death. Thus, on one screen wet-suited sportsmen are propelled back to earth as nearby, on the other, her father prepares to leave it.
The single title encompassing both parts, ‘Men Falling’, has a bittersweet resonance, gently probing the deep emotion of lost intimacy with a delicate balance of humour and genuine pathos. Those qualities transcend much of this artist’s work. She achieves a rare fusion of doubt and hope, of losing and finding. And then perhaps losing again, the inevitable perishability that is the essence of humanity. Naomi Frears, however, leaves conclusions to others.