Monday, January 12, 2009

Art Space Talk: Whitney McVeigh

Whitney McVeigh was born in New York, USA in 1968. She received a BA degree at the Edinburgh College of Art where she began to explore visual arts in relation to sculptural form and to study the portrait head. McVeigh has travelled extensively for her work, with significant periods spent in Europe, India and China while keeping a home base in the UK.

McVeigh makes her work through a process of automatism. She explores themes of sexuality and of male/female bodily form and the recurrent theme of the portrait head is present in her work. Her treatment is figuration, in the spirit of contemporary artists ranging from Francis Bacon to the more abstract mark makers Cy Twombley and Robert Motherwell in her black ink work.

McVeigh has worked on portrait commissions and has exhibited her work both in solo and group shows internationally. She is currently represented by Being 3 Gallery in China and Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong. Her work has been featured in the Times, Financial Times and NY Arts magazine. Her work can be found in several private collections-- including the art collections of internationally renowned artist Marc Quinn and actress Gillian Anderson.

Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

Brian Sherwin: Whitney, you studied art at the Edinburgh College of Art. Can you discuss your academic years? Did you have any influential art instructors? Also, what advice do you have for current art students?

Whitney McVeigh: My time at Art college was challenging. There was one man there who had an influence on my work, Ken Neil who taught humanities. We looked at paintings and discussed their content and the artist’s approach. He’s a smart guy whose knowledge of painting was extensive. He taught me to see colour differently. He understood where I was coming from as a painter. The only thing I’d say to art students is to choose your institution well and to use the place to get the most out of it possible. It’s also important to be aware of other artists around you and to begin forming relationships and showing even at this stage.

Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

BS: I understand that while at Edinburgh you began to explore visual arts in relation to sculptural form and the utilization of the portrait as a subject. Can you briefly discuss those early attempts and how your work has progressed?

WM: I began making sculpture with my local council when I was eighteen. I’ve always been interested in the portrait, I’ve been taking photographic portraits for many years and using these as a source. At college there were strict boundaries between departments, I didn't have access to sculpture so I began making drawings from sculpture. These were constructed of lines and were in a sense a carving out the image on the page. I also worked from life in this way.

At this time I wanted to achieve the feeling of three dimensional form in a two dimensional space. The Heads Series today is an extension of this. The work has evolved into semi abstract works looking at the psyche, they sit in a sense like sculpture on the page.

Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

BS: So is this the direction that you plan to keep going with your work? Perhaps you can tell us about some of the other subjects and themes that you focus on?

WM: I’m interested in surface texture and am dismantling old books that I’ve found and am making prints in response to the delicate surface. I’m currently applying to a residency in New York where I hope to take the Heads onto a very large scale. I'm also working on a group of short films that are a documentation of my drawing process. They are a close look into the active mind of the artist.

BS: Whitney, I understand that you have travelled extensively for your work. You have had significant stays in Europe, India and China whilst keeping a home base in the UK. Can you discuss how your travels have influenced you as an artist? Would you say that your travels have made your work stronger, so to speak? In other words, would you say that your work reflects a global influence?

WM: Yes, absolutely, traveling has been key to the development of the work. It’s opened the work up. I was invited to China because of my black paintings. These come from an abstract expressionist background but the gallery recognised a freedom of the brush they thought would be interesting in China.

Everything changed on arrival in Beijing. The surfaces were different, I’d been using heavy Italian papers and in Beijing I was experimenting with thin papers that instead of resisting the ink absorbed it. So the work changed due to new challenges with materials. I worked with a calligraphy painter who taught me simple techniques of absorbency (using blankets) and I produced a body of experimental paintings based on the circle that attracted a wide audience there.

In fact a Canadian/Indonesian collector has just bought ten of these pieces to take into Malaysia and Indonesia. He's interested in the East/West calligraphy meets abstract expressionism. Both methods are dealing with automatism. This is another area of my work that I'm developing.
Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

BS: Speaking of people and places, your work is currently represented at Being 3 Gallery and Cat Street Gallery. My understanding is that both are located in China. Can you discuss that experience?

WM: Being 3 Gallery plans to show my black and white work in 2009 and Cat Street Gallery have taken on the Heads Series. The latter is a new venture, both in very different areas of China. I met Being 3 during my residency. They took on some of my work following my show in Beijing. They work with an interesting calligraphy painter called Shao Yan whose paintings I’m glad to be associated with.

BS: Your work has been collected by Marc Quinn, Gillian Anderson and several other high profile visual artists and actors, correct? What can you tell us about that?

WM: These people have been to my shows and purchased work. They have interesting collections that it’s a privilege to be a part of.

Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

BS: Give our readers some insight into your art. What do you strive to achieve with your work?

WM: To represent human life in its truest form and to document my own life.

BS: Can you discuss some of your methods?

WM: I’ve been working with ink for many years. I also use oil based materials for monoprinting which is a technique that I love. It involves the unexpected which I find interesting, the most surprising things can happen through the smallest bit of pressure on the page.

BS: What about specific influences? Do you adhere to any specific art tradition, so to speak? Are you inspired directly by any specific artist from the past?

WM: Robert Motherwell’s writings have been a great source for me. I’m influenced by a range of artists but most of my learning has come from reading what other artists say about their work. Louise Bourgeois who I visited in New York has been a great inspiration to me. David Sylvester’s interviews have been invaluable, Francis Bacon's interviews. I try to see new work as much as I can. I'm also influenced by other people's experiences.

Example from the Heads Series by Whitney McVeigh

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your most current work?

WM: I’m working on a Head for Bonhams for February 2009. I’m also working on a sculptural installation called ‘The Carrying’ with writer Kirsty Gunn which we plan to show in 2010 in Scotland.

BS: Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

WM: The One Ton Show in Shoreditch Town Hall. A show in Italy next year and also in China.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
WM: Just that art, the making of work, is a process and a journey. If the end is in site when a work is begun then a painting is less likely to be successful (in my experience). This is where the strength lies, in the process.
In terms of my goals, I hope to be able to continue to make work. I know I've accomplished something if the work speaks to others beyond the painting. Ultimately it's a form of communication.
You can learn more about Whitney McVeigh by visiting her Whitney is currently a member of the community-- You can read more of my interviews at
Take care, stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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