Laura Sutton is a London-based artist whose practice incorporates a number of different mediums and reference points, often constructing fictional narratives that play with ideas around the absurd and how we present ‘factual’ accounts of the world. Sutton graduated with a BA from Chelsea College of Arts in 2019, having previously completed a Foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts. For her degree show at Chelsea, Sutton created a fictional, museum-style exhibition, intended as an immersive but “not wholly believable’ experience. She has described these larger, installation-based works as being similar to novels, “layered with multiple fictions, truths and integrated references to various literatures.”
To learn more about the complexity and context behind her work, as well as her university experience, we took the opportunity to speak to Sutton in some depth.
The Net Gallery: How did you find the transition as you progressed through your education, from studying art at school, to your Foundation course, and then doing your BA? Was it relatively smooth, or more like abrupt changes with a sense of shock as you moved between courses and institutions?
Laura Sutton: As much as I enjoyed making and learning about art, I found it difficult in secondary school. In the first couple of years, art really took a back seat in the curriculum: I remember having just one lesson every two weeks. Once I chose to study it at GCSE and A level, it was extremely structured. All the art we were creating had to be regimented to fit into the marking scheme. For any artwork we made, we had to find three artists who were creating similar work, and each had to flow visually onto the next. I also wasn’t too fond of having to write a detailed explanation for everything I made. The teachers ended up being very frustrated with me.
When I arrived on the Foundation course it was a real shock. I remember, on the first day, they told us to forget everything we’d learnt so far, they wanted messy sketchbooks and half-realised ideas. I loved it, but it did take a long time to adjust. I think the purpose of Foundation is to get you to loosen up, to become playful and child-like again in your approach. The move to BA from Foundation was much smoother, although I did have to get used to having more conversations about my work. Initially, it made experimenting a bit more difficult because I often felt very embarrassed about my mistakes, but eventually it’s something you get used to and is an important part of developing your practice.
TNG: Did you find that the Foundation course gave you an opportunity to explore and focus on the mediums and subject areas that you felt most suited to?
LS: In the first two of months of the Foundation course we were given various activities to complete. Each week was focused on a different art and design discipline, like fashion, drawing or graphics, and then you had to select a specialism. I found choosing the right pathway pretty difficult at the time; after a couple of meetings with various tutors I cautiously settled into painting. I think that for most people, they already have an idea about what section of the creative arts they want to go into before they arrive, so it didn’t seem to be a difficult decision for most. I would have liked more experience in each field, but the fantastic thing about all the pathways is the flexibility of them. If you went into painting but then decided your forte is creating cat-embroidered corsets or giant papier-mâché brogues, it wouldn’t be a problem.
TNG: Did you specifically choose Chelsea for your BA because something about it seemed relevant to your work and interests?
LS: In all honesty, I didn’t really study the work that was being produced at Chelsea when I decided to go there. I knew that my practice wasn’t settled on a specific medium so I wasn’t really looking for colleges that specialised in painting or sculpture etc. I chose Chelsea mainly for its atmosphere. All colleges have various styles of teaching and some of the places I visited on open days felt extremely stuffy and business focused. Chelsea felt more welcoming and it advertised itself as a space for experimentation and collaboration.
TNG: You mention that you settled on painting as your main pathway during your foundation course. You obviously diversified from a straightforward painting brief at Chelsea, at what point during your BA did that start to play out?
LS: During my foundation at Camberwell, most of my paintings included an element of craft. Because of this I was often encouraged to explore sculpture as a medium, which is something I didn’t consider until I came across Helen Martin’s work in the Turner Prize show during my first year at Chelsea. Her work kick-started me into trying sculpture, as I was really attracted to the way she transformed everyday objects into colourful metamorphic structures. I found it a really easy transition – as something of a compulsive hoarder I already had a vast collection of found items. I began by re-looking at the things that I’d kept with different eyes, trying to understand what attracted me to them in the first place. The items were always useless but contained something I couldn’t let go of, like an unusual texture or a magnificent colour.
At this time, I was reading a lot of poetry and I started to see a correlation between my reading and my creations. Every object is filled with descriptions and associations that completely change when put next to another item. Similarly with poetry, where words are sewn together to create distinctive imagery, the objects change and create meaning when combined or coloured. I spent a while looking at Kandinsky and translating poems into small sculptures using made and found objects. During the second year my work changed pretty drastically again, when I started to make more text-based installation work. My first solo installation piece came from my interest in Wittgenstein’s language games, focusing on miscommunication and words with double meanings. As I began to experiment, I started to allow words to be in the forefront of what I was making. I soon realised I didn’t have to force an element of paint or sculpture in what I was creating in order for it to be valuable or accepted as a finished piece.
TNG: How would you describe the teaching style at Chelsea and did the overall experience leave you feeling well prepared for beginning a career as an artist?
LS: The teaching at Chelsea was focused on facilitating conversations between students. Although the teaching style was relaxed and never intrusive, tutors were always reachable for every art or existential crisis we might have. I was lucky to have some great tutors who encouraged me to go ahead with projects that I was initially worried about starting. When I arrived, I had some strict ideas about what ‘good art’ was, but by the end my perspective completely shifted.
In terms of preparing us for a career as an artist, I think that’s pretty difficult to do. There is no straight pathway and what career you might strive for changes depending on what medium you’re working in. If you asked a hundred successful artists about how they became successful, you’d probably get a hundred different answers back. Chelsea did invite outside artists regularly to discuss their life and practice with us, which helped to get an idea of how people get their work seen and what opportunities are available.
In the first and second year we had to group-up and find a place to host an exhibition somewhere other than the College. This was one of the most useful things we did in terms of preparing us for the future. I expected it to be a lot harder than it was to find a space, but once we started looking there were lots of places that wanted art to be shown within their facility. It helped us to develop a few skills, like timing and negotiation, but mainly it gave us confidence to approach venues and encouraged us to think of non-traditional places to display our work.
TNG: Can you explain the concept behind the installation you created for your Chelsea degree show? When did the ideas first start to crystallise and how long did it take to collate and make everything that was displayed?
LS: The idea for my degree piece came about whilst I was writing my dissertation. It was exploring waiting and the absurd, through a mixture of narrative and essay. Based on the middle section of Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Haywain Triptych’ the story is told from the perspective of a character depicted in the painting, a religious woman who finds herself stuck in a purgatory-like setting.
After all the research I did for my dissertation, I became quite obsessed with authenticity and it encouraged me to create another existential narrative for my degree show. Although I had become somewhat of an advocate for existentialist ideas, whilst studying the philosophy, I saw a lot of discrepancies. I became aware about the difficulties that would arise if someone tried to live a completely existential life, with the figureheads of the movement often giving contradictory advice.
My final piece was an installation, portraying a room from a retrospective exhibition of a fictional artist called Roger Rote. Roger Rote read the 1944 short story Waiting for Him (the narrative extract from my dissertation) after the suicide of his close friend. In desperation, he develops a concern with living and creating authentically. Through this process, he becomes deeply troubled and isolates himself, ending in him neglecting a major component of existential living – acknowledging his own freedom. The characters from Waiting for Him are repeated within Rote’s own life, and the ‘authentic art’ that he creates is the same repeated image, a reflection of Nietzsche’s eternal return.
Although going to a gallery is usually a leisurely activity, most art is created to get people to question and to explore the nature of perception. What should be quite an existential task is often removed by the importance the gallery puts upon the art and the artist.
Popular artists are often labelled as geniuses, giving them an almost God-like status and distancing them from usual moral codes we’re happy to judge others by. The information provided about the artist in exhibitions is often quietly slanted to the positive, despite their actions. Just like Sartre’s waiter, they cannot transcend the label of what they are considered to be, artist and genius. In my piece, the gallery dictates its own story of Rote’s intentions, despite his best efforts. It ignores his obvious existential obsession, made clear through his letters filled with existential quotes and references, and even ignores the intention of his art, overlooking his signature and hanging a painting sideways so that it fits the space.
The installation took around four months to complete. The most challenging aspect was deciding what I wanted the audience to read from it; I didn’t want to explain my protagonist’s obsession with existential philosophy. I knew that not all visitors would pick up on the quotes and specifics, but I wanted the installation to be believable, and for people to pick up on its oddities and humour.
TNG: How did your selection of Bosch’s ‘Haywain Triptych’ come about?
LS: I have always been a huge fan of Bosch. I love how his rich imagery is almost impossible to take in. You could sit with his works for hours and still not pick up on all his monstrous detail. A couple of years back, I went to Madrid and visited the Prado where I was fortunate to see a few of his most famous works. There I came across ‘The Haywain Triptych’, a painting of Bosch’s I wasn’t familiar with at the time. The left side of the triptych depicts heaven, the middle purgatory and the right side hell. His picture of purgatory shows a scrambling mass of people indulging in a variety of sins, surrounded by a huge ball of hay. At the time, hay represented wealth and people in the 1500s would have immediately understood it as a comment on people’s obsession with material goods.
I had just finished reading Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ in which he discusses the character from Greek mythology who is condemned to push a bolder up a hill for eternity. I was drawn to Bosch’s picture because I saw a similarity: trapped figures with spherical objects, carrying out the same repeated acts endlessly. Similar to most of his paintings, Bosch had populated the scene with many figures and a few characters really stood out to me, such as the nun removing a young woman’s teeth and a man wearing an extremely tall hat. I began to see an existential narrative developing the more I viewed the painting. I had a real urge to write about this work because I could see the suffocation in the frame; I could almost feel the inescapable heat bearing down on them all.
TNG: Your work engages with a lot of ideas and diverse subject areas. Does some of that relate back to interests you had outside of visual art at school, or other parts of your life, or is it more a product of your experience at Chelsea?
LS: Probably the most valuable thing about art school is the people you meet there. At Chelsea, I was able to learn a great deal through conversations about other people’s interests and obsessions, often topics I wouldn’t have thought to explore. However, a lot of the interests that inform my work began long before college. My affection for narratives came about when I was very little. Like most children, I loved and was surrounded by stories. I was particularly close to my granddad, a factory worker, who had left school at fourteen and had a self-taught love for Shakespeare. He would often recite sonnets and have many humorous Shakespearean quotes to respond to any problem.
My grandparents live in Worcestershire, surrounded by woods that I found incredibly magical and fairytale-like when I was little. I’d go for long walks with my dad and granddad, where they’d swap childhood stories and old village rumours. Without fail, my dad would read to me and my brother every night, and once I got older I would listen to audio books before I could sleep, a habit I still haven’t managed to break.
My degree show-piece was heavily influenced by existential philosophy, a topic I had found comfort in, in my late teens. From a young age, I’ve suffered with anxiety and excessive over-thinking. My mum had an interest in self-help books and tapes and growing up our fridge was always covered in self-affirming quotes. I found self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy very patronizing, especially as a teenager. I remember being particularly angry with Tony Robbins when, in ‘Awaken the Giant’, he had a list of language swaps, a technique used to change your outlook. One of the suggestions included swapping ‘sad’ to ‘sorting out your thoughts’.
I found a lot of reassurance when I began reading philosophy. Unlike the figureheads of the self-help movement, philosophers were eccentric and often outcast creatures. In philosophy you could never over think a problem – that was par for the course. I particularly warmed to existentialism, because in their school of thought anxiety is an essential part of living, not something to be removed. Whilst I’m not sure it’s a completely beneficial attribute, I found it a refreshing idea.
Interview by Richard Unwin.
You can learn more about Laura and her work via her website, here.
The image at the top of the page shows an artwork by Laura Sutton, made in reference to the poem ‘I had a dove, and the sweet dove died’ by John Keats.
All images courtesy of the artist, Laura Sutton.