Gallery Girl meets Alice Irwin

Alice Irwin uses print, etching and sculpture to reference childhood experiences and to create her own creatures and make-believe worlds. As she is about to complete her MA from the Royal College of Art in London, Gallery Girl caught up with her to chat fantasy and inspirations.

Alice Irwin’s studio wall

“It is like you are trying to undo your practice and build it up within a year”, Irwin says, describing the transition coming straight from an undergraduate degree to a Masters degree at the RCA. The start of her postgraduate study was not an easy one, but the artist has now found her rhythm: “You have a realisation point and start knitting it all back together. Now I feel more confident because I know what the new elements are.” Those new elements have manifested into a body of work that is most inspired by childhood with Irwin drawing a lot of her material from the playground: “It was a place that most of us at school would have been in”, she says, “It’s a place that would be full of people – everything seemed so big – worries and excitement.” This sense of business is reflected in Irwin’s work, where multiple small figures populate larger backgrounds. They are colourful and vibrant, and a lot is taking place in one space. Just like the daily politics of adult life, we all experienced similar issues in the playground: “We played mums and dads – the beanie baby club met Thursdays – we made dock leaf cream, and sold it to people who had fallen over”, Irwin reminisces, “Always different crazes that you would have to be part of: tamagotchi, hula hoops. This also reflects on how society has crazes that go in and out of fashion.” It is almost as though Irwin is trying to remind us that the hectic state of “grown-up” life is really not that different to what we experienced when we were much younger. 
 
While the creatures that populate Irwin’s prints might look like they escaped from a fantasy world, they are based on children’s drawings. These doodles come from those she collects from the children of friends and from schools. Some of the young artists are youngsters that she knows, but others are strangers to her. She merely uses them for inspiration on mark and form. “Children’s drawings are a key part of my inspiration, how their imagination works to picture things.” In her recent etching Outside Mind, Etching and oil on canvas, 2016, that has just been exhibited in Berlin during East of Elsewhere, a haunting, ghostlike figure emerges in a black and white space dressed in a maroon outfit topped off with a blue hat. There are two luminous yellow forms surrounding him. These flower-like shapes appear continuously throughout Irwin’s work. “I have this language that consists of repeating motifs and shapes”, she explains, “I like to reference our lives but show it in a playful, childlike way.” Thus her works are often titled with light-hearted orders or sayings like Read a Book or No freak out and run.

With her childlike inspirations, Irwin’s work is imbibed with memories, meaning that sometimes, though innocent in their childish intentions, her manifestations can carry a sense of the ethereal and supernatural in the way they look back to the past in a unique light. “My work tries to make you play with the past, and trying to go back into the past can sometimes be unsettling. Because they push your imagination and sometimes if you let your imagination take control that can be shadowy. Even the brightest images can be touched with some sadness or uncertainty.” Irwin’s whole Go to bed series could fit this description. It seems appropriate, that bed – something associated with sleep and night – is presented as dark and mysterious. “I play with the uncanny; when you bring back memories from the past, it is sometimes ghostly”, she says, “If you play with the past there may be a slight darkness. Within my images I often like to have a slight feeling of uncertainty.” This is certainly the sense that the viewer gets from Irwin’s etchings. Their dark backgrounds infused with flecks of white appear like x-rays. Even the technique sounds as though it came out of a film: “There is something about the technique that is spooky: you smoke the plate to draw on, then you put it in acid to etch the image.”

Memory Play, engraved perspex, 2018
Irwin has always been a printmaker and though she explains that screen-printing can be clean and fresh with a crisp image, she says that even using a laser cutter can be mysterious: “When you’re printing there is always a bit of uncertainty when you put the image through the press or pull it off the screen; you don’t know quite what it will look like.” Therefore in some ways, the resulting artwork always contains an element of surprise.

In addition to prints, Irwin also makes sculpture, something that she builds in layers, just like in her printing. She recently exhibited both prints and sculpture together during Play on repeat at Sid Motion Gallery in London: “It has been really nice to see the way the audience has appreciated the repetition – ideas flowing between the prints and sculptures”, she says, “People are beginning to recognise my intentions. It is like a visual map – you see the hands, for example, in the prints and then see them in the sculpture.”

(Read a Book)…You Tutti Frutti, Etching screenprint, vinyl sticker on paper, 100 x 50 cm, 2017 Alice Irwin

As for the artists that Irwin is inspired by, she names many, with her favourites being Kaws, Basquiat, the Chapman Brothers, Mike Kelley, Annette Messager, Njideker Akunyili Crosby and Marlene Dumas. “I usually refer to these people when I am stuck”, admits Irwin, adding, “I have recently started to look into Ciara Phillips and Helen Martin. I like the simple shapes and repetition of Phillips’ work, how they are fun and playful, with a learning element to them.” So, what are the plans for the future following her graduation later this summer? “At the moment there isn’t much headspace to think about what comes after”, she confesses, “The number one priority is keep making work.”

Alice Irwin’s work will be on display during Hold your horses, hold them and never let them go at CGP London, Southwark Park, SE16 2UA between 2nd and 4th March 2018

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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