The award-winning and highly acclaimed UK artist Alice Instone is known for her paintings of powerful and influential women, including Cherie Blair, Bianca Jagger, Elle Macpherson and a host of silver-screen sirens, alongside interactive works that produce a melting pot of shared behaviours among participants. With a list of solo projects that spans the UN, 10 Downing Street, Chanel and Oxfam, Instone is now setting her sights on an audience that has perhaps at times been overlooked. Here, she tells The Net Gallery who and why…

While Alice Instone’s portraits of powerful and influential women number among her best-known work, the increasingly divisive times in which we live have prompted the British artist to take a broader approach in her forthcoming projects.

It was an observation at a private event for the sponsors of one of her exhibitions that first set the wheels in motion.

“I noticed that almost everyone who turned up was female,” Instone explains.“I thought at that moment that I didn’t want to betalking to half an audiencein my next work – I wanted it to be inclusive and remind us all of what we share.”

With this mind, Instone decided to open up part of her forthcoming project – a US exhibition that will include her work on to-do lists – to men. To date, the initiative, in which volunteers submit their to-do lists to the artist, has been targeted exclusively at women.

I ask her whether she thinks the lack of male participation she witnessed is part of a backlash against some of the more extreme elements of feminism that have hit the headlines in recent years.

Instone herself has been vocal on some key gender issues relating to her field, pointing out, for example,that the National Portrait Gallery is dominated by paintings of famous men.Perhaps in part to help redress this balance, her portraits includea diverse cross-section of ‘women of influence’, including Cherie Blair, Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Emma Freud and Emilia Fox, among others. In 2016, she also produced a collection of paintings depicting classic Hollywood screen sirens during a residency at the iconic Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.

“It’s more complicated than that,” is her response to my question. “I felt it was important to focus on painting powerful women early in in my career; so many women had been misrepresented or demonized (‘Lady MacBeth syndrome’), for example, or found that their clothes, rather than their words or actions, were made headlines news. I still believe this issue to be relevant, but somehow it felt really important today to bring everyone together and to talk to men, while also still motivating women.”

In her forthcoming project,which will take place in Hollywood, Instone is set torevisit and build on two of her most recent works: Playing Cards with my Grandmother, archetypes from Tarot cards created by the artist and made available to audiences to play with at her Magic Art Caravan last year; andthe to-do lists installation, which yielded thousands of submissions from volunteers, including a lengthy list of famous names, and shown at the Pram in the Hall in 2016.

Both projects are typical of Instone’s work, reflecting her passion for exploring how people interact with each other, including strangers, and other shared behaviours, both conscious and unconscious, although the forthcoming project will have a new narrative and a new name.

“I hadn’t initially thought of showing the two works together and it took some time to get my head round how that would work,” Instone admits. “But I knew that it was what I wanted to do.”

Instone also plans to develop the project significantly in a UK-based, multidisciplinary piece, expanding it to include a live performance, and bringing in elements of choreography and film.

“I’m currently working on storyboards and coming up with ideas by teaming up with collaborators,” she says. “It’s early days, but I’m really excited about it.”

She admits to being surprised at the level of reaction that the Tarot cards project produced among participants.

“They were a lot more powerful than I expected,” she says. “My inspiration for creating the project was the fond memories I have of playing card games with my grandmother, but I found that other people seemed to take comfort from the intimacy and ritual of the experience too, happy even to join in with strangers, and fascinated by the mystical element.”

Instone has now begun approaching volunteers in the US for the American version of her to-do lists, which were something of a talking point on the art scene in the UK when they were shown.

Describing the lists as “an amazing reflection of people’s lives”, Instone says she was particularly fascinated by the interplay between people’s personal and professional lives on the lists.

“People were really honest too, which was great,” she says. “Their lists were often really detailed, including everything from their good intentions to their medical ailments.”

Significantly, she says, almost all the lists were written by hand. “This was another thing that interested me,” she notes. “Our to-do lists are one of the last bastions of hand-writing when so much of what we do is on screen. The fragile beauty of handwriting was a key component of the installation, and also the behaviour linked to it – the fact that people often make a to-do list at night, which then helps them sleep better.”

Asked whether she thinks American volunteers will relate to the subjects she is exploring in her work, Instone is confident that audiences will be as keen to participate across the Atlantic as they were in the UK.

“I know for a fact that Tarot cards are massive in LA,” she points out. “I think the first time I came across them myself was in the film ‘Live and Let Die’, when James Bond used a deck of Tarot cards to seduce Jane Seymour’s character. But it wasn’t until I started work on Playing Cards with my Grandmother that I really became fascinated.”

By Miriam Dunn