In the Studio with Zoë Carlon.

Words by

Sofia Hallström

In the Studio with Zoë Carlon.

Sofia Hallström: I have known you and your work for a number of years after having worked collaboratively together for an online project, Painters Posting Paintings (run by artists Joe O’Rourke and John Brown) during the first lockdown in 2020. During that time, we spoke about the experience of solitude, a subject matter that consistently reoccurs in your paintings. What is it that interests you about this subject matter?

Zoë Carlon: That was a really lovely project to be part of! I think our experience of all-encompassing solitude is becoming increasingly limited as we inhabit public space both physically and psychologically. Even when we are physically alone in a space it becomes an active decision to inhabit our own solitude. The consciousness of that decision relates to our sense of agency over our attention, which is being manipulated more and more. The spaces depicted in my paintings for me in some way enable, or open up, the conditions for solitude.

SH: I remember the first time that we FaceTimed during lockdown and we spoke about your desire to capture particular moments in a painting: a fleeting moment on a train or an object that might be on your desk in front of you. As a viewer, I am often left wondering what's happening to the side of that scene that isn't depicted, or in that restaurant where people aren't present. Can you talk us through how you explore space in the work and how we might experience space?

ZC: The images that form the initial reference points for the paintings are taken instinctively and nearly always when I’m on my own, travelling from one place to another. It’s important to me that I experience the places or encounters I paint first hand, that initial interaction and feeling is what I try to hold on to through the painting process.  

Often this relates to the experience of being alone in communal space, or of travelling through unfamiliar environments where we may come across a moment of recognition. I'm interested in that duality of moving through multiple spaces physically and also psychologically, that disconnect, and what it therefore means to direct our attention and choose to look.

SH: Sometimes you have kept the images for a long time, archived away until you come back to them at a later date…

ZC: Yeah the photos are taken on my phone, I make a selection and print off and file all the images in a folder and when I'm thinking through new paintings I will sift through and see what comes to the fore. Sometimes, something presents itself as a painting almost instantly, and I immediately understand the composition or colour. Other times it can be months or years before I work out a way to use an image, or come back to that initial interaction with it. It's a mysterious and intuitive process.

Installation view, Strange Comfort, South Parade, London 2022
Images courtesy the artist and South Parade
SH: The work in your solo show Strange Comfort at South Parade in London was presented this time last year and brought together a body of paintings on aluminium panels. What is it about working on this material that you enjoy?

ZC: I was painting on gessoed panels, sanded back to create a smooth surface, so the shift to the aluminium panels felt more intentional and efficient. Working on the aluminium also feels like a natural translation from drawing, there is a similar handling for me of the paint both on the panels and the oil sketches in my sketchbooks. That relationship between the drawings and paintings, and how they crossover and overlap, is really important; trying to maintain that liveliness that often happens quite naturally in a drawing through the painting process. I use Liquin which is a fast drying medium that enables me to manipulate the levels of translucency of the paint. The non-absorbent surface of the aluminium supports the gradual layering of the paint over multiple sittings and this allows me to play with how much of the surface, and the previous application, to keep visible.  

SH: There’s an interesting duality in your process and the subject matter of the work, for instance the process of building up thin layers of paint over time and capturing moments of time with photography, a medium that is tied up with time in itself. Can you talk us through the transferral of processes that might take place in the studio?

ZC: I’ve come to realise over the last couple of years that giving the paintings time and developing them over multiple sittings is really integral to the process, however frustrating that feels sometimes! It’s quite hard to define but it’s as if they need time to emerge and often that in-between time when you are simply looking more is happening. It’s about trusting that something will come from it. For me painting is a process of slowing down, it’s elusive and a constant back and forth. The pace of developing the paintings is also linked to the experience of viewing them, I hope that they engender a slower look, revealing themselves fully over a period of time.

Primula, 2023, oil on aluminium 38 x 26cm
SH: In your paintings, there is this ability to render a room without people or narrative action and yet somehow convey the sense of their being in the space. The paintings are often cropped, spliced or framed to only allow the viewer in so far… Do you think about the viewer's experience and how these compositional arrangements might alter their engagement with the painting?

ZC: I’m interested in creating a threshold or a shift of perspective that makes the paintings awkward, there is a barrier there that creates uncertainty or a reconsideration. Ambiguity and nuance are important in enabling an opening for the viewer to form their own conclusions, or questions! I think all my favourite painters do that somehow, that sense of uncertainty is what I really enjoy when looking at painting.  It connects to the solitary, interior experience which can be both unnerving and immensely freeing. The title of my previous show, Strange Comfort, pointed to how these two conflicting sensibilities can coexist.  

SH: I know that drawing and sketching is important in your process too, can you talk us through your process?

ZC: Through the drawings I will work from the source images, emptying out unnecessary information. The sketches are made just not thinking about the end result, not thinking about whether the mark is going to be successful. You can be quite relaxed and take a lot of risks. That's when I find that I'll be most excited by finding something new in the image that I can't quite articulate yet. It's quite hard to talk about drawing, isn't it? You kind of have to enter into a space and not be conscious of what you're doing at all. And that's when the most engaging drawing happens. When I’m painting, I think I’m a lot more conscious of every decision.

SH: You’re currently working towards a solo presentation at Material Art Fair in Mexico with South Parade this month. Can you tell us about what we can expect to see from the presentation?

ZC: The paintings are a continuation of previous works, I've been working on them simultaneously through the latter half of last year. They depict communal spaces as well as peripheries of the natural world within a public, functional setting.

Hotel, 2022, oil on aluminum 61 x 61cm
SH: Is the scale of the work an important consideration in relation to its subject matter?

ZC: Yeah, definitely, I think scale is really important. I think about the size of the work and how it relates to the cropping of the image. The larger panels convey a more recognisably constructed space that you can enter into, the smaller panels are tightly cropped.  I’m interested in how those two scales sit together and the experience of that for the viewer. I think the scale with which I work offers an intensity to the view, you're brought into the space bodily as well, and are aware of that. There is an intimacy to that experience too.

SH: Definitely… it comes back to that distance thing with painting. I find that interesting when thinking about a pointillist painting, for instance. It's so different when you are really close to it, compared to when you have some distance.

ZC: Yeah, I really love that. That to me is one of the most engaging things about painting, the construction of the painting and the relationship between the whole experience and the minutiae of each brushstroke. How the gesture and application combine to convince you of the subject is something that constantly fascinates me.

Beehives, 2021. Oil on aluminium. 35 x 28 cm
SH: In our past discussions, you’ve mentioned novels and literary references that influence your work. Can you talk us through some of these references and how you bring these into the work?

ZC: The things I read often help me to clarify my intention with the work or lead me down a different path. At the moment I'm reading Mary Oliver’s poetry and essays. Another book I've loved recently is Jenny Odell’s  How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy in which she questions how we perceive productivity and emphasises our attention as one of the most invaluable resources we have. It’s a really hopeful book about the importance of  bringing us back into our human bodies existing in real time.

SH: What is it about being an artist that you love?

ZC: The freedom, the challenge, constantly being surprised by the work. I feel really grateful to be able to go to the studio and process through painting!  

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Photography: Emily Ryalls