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Susan Preston

September 4, 2010

Susan Preston

Drawing is central to Susan Preston’s practice as a painter.  She remembers watching her father, “I would watch him for as long as he would draw and beg him to do more and try to do it myself”.  She identifies three distinct types of drawing which she uses in her work:  observational drawing in response to something seen; developmental drawings extrapolating from the observation, “more like painting”; and planning drawing, “trying things out, seeing relationships”.  In her sketchbooks she will have “maybe ten pages of the same kind of thing, pushing them, seeing where they can go.”  These are the important ones, those which exist as finished work.  “They have their own integrity”.

Preston acknowledges that painting is a much more complex process.  She works in oils on canvas and describes the process of painting as “serious play”.  She asks herself, “What would happen if I put these two yellows together, one on top of the other and move them around”? She mixes her greens and pinks hardly ever using them out of a tube. “I like to play with several different reds and several different blues”. She has a predilection for blue and creates rich surfaces suffused with luscious colour.  She focuses on making her paintings work formally.  She says that a lot of it “just happens” but that “you have to create the circumstances where it can”.

She has always drawn and collected the detritus of everyday life.  Beach-combing, she picks up “things that have been knocked about by the sea”.   These discarded objects lying abandoned in her studio become triggers for her paintings. It is often the history revealed by surfaces that interests her most.    On a trip to Kuala Lumpur she picked up a cloth rose that had been left under a tree.  It inspired a whole series of drawings.  “It evoked something; it spoke in some way.” In two other, small paintings, for which the starting point was a piece of crimson ribbon wrapped around a present, she played around with the juxtaposition of the reds.  The scarlet of the ribbon and the crimson of the ground into which she has introduced touches of cerulean blue.

In the Summer of 2008 Preston was the first ‘Artist In Residence’ at Rabley Contemporary Drawing Centre near Marlborough, UK.  She took as her starting point the redundant farm buildings that had originally been used as an intensive pig-rearing unit in the 1960s.  These emotionally and politically charged icons of late 20th century architecture were transformed into destabilised open structures in a collection of work, Farm Structure, Forms and Surfaces which was exhibited in the Gallery at  Rabley in April 2009.

She is currently working on a large painting, a commission, about a jetty which leads out into the sea from the small island of Rawa, off the S. E. coast of Malaysia.  The jetty itself, a bridge made of poles moving out into the sea, has rotted away and has been replaced, but it exists as the catalyst which allows Preston to explore her perennial concerns.  She continues to search for that area of a painting which forms a horizontal break between the area above and the area below.  At first glance her work often appears to be about geometry, architecture, or the point at which sea meets land, but these are vehicles through which she explores the divisions within the canvas. It is often the space around the object that engages her interest.  The repetitive losing and retrieving of forms in layers of paint becomes a search for the ambiguous territory between presence and absence.  She aims to reduce the individual components in a piece of work to its most abbreviated element ‘whilst making the surface full of events’. She aims to reach that moment of recognition in a painting when the object used as her starting point has been reduced so much that it no longer seems to be there but it still has a presence.

This is an extended  version of the text which was originally published in Fifty Wessex Artists by Fiona Robinson. Evolver Press, 2006.

© Fiona Robinson  2010

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