Emma Fineman’s Personal Memories Construct Unconventional Painterly Contradictions

Emma Fineman’s paintings veer into ambiguous, imaginative and vivid expressions of uncommon and more intimate moments released from restraint. By blending abstract elements with figurative depictions, the artist creates a painting that seems unfettered by the schemes of logic. Moreover, the result emerges from unclear faces, unpredictable narratives, loose brushstrokes, and colour richness. Her visualisations are intentionally imprecise, developing eerie painting stories that encourage the viewer’s subjective interpretations. Fineman’s work encloses the ability to trigger variable feedback and perceptions, although her vivacious scenes are sourced by certain memories of the artist. The emerging artist explains that ‘the content of my paintings addresses memory and internalized experience, and for this reason I do not work from reference imagery, everything I paint is from memory. The less I know the object, the more distorted it may appear within the work’.

Emma Fineman, Studio Portrait, 2019
Emma Fineman, Studio Portrait, 2019

Words: Yannis Kostarias

Visibility can be seen as an ongoing notion or idea that -either intentionally or not- runs Fineman’s recent body of work. Unseen or seen, unreal or real compositions operate as a remarkably aesthetic force, which underscores the dynamics of contraction while observing her paintings. The abstract expressionist style enhances an additional new element in her work, such as in Latent (2019) or Shadow Play (2019); spontaneity comes to the forefront along with more unconventional and accidental configurations. Despite allowing the eye to have generous glimpses of what is represented, the rest of the painting leaves less obvious details for building a comprehensive image. Giving an idea of what the story is behind the painting, the artist seems to invite the viewer to complete the puzzle. This is a departure from her earlier paintings’ style where the artist was revealing clearer body silhouettes or facial features, such as in ‘Portrait of the Artist as Young Man’ (2017) or ‘Questions of Silence’ (2017). Her painting technique was appearing more direct and eye-friendly, yet uncomplicated. In newer works, Fineman is applying speedy applications of colour in combination with automatic gestural marks giving her narrative another aesthetic shape and style. ‘Wheat Paste’ (2019) and ‘Stargazer’ (2019) evidently present such attributes along with a bright and playful colour palette. Obtaining a less logical construction, Fineman embraces an abstract painterly configuration offering an additional aesthetic asset on her artistic record.

Latent, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Latent, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 26 x 36 cm

The use of space in most of her paintings is commonplace. Spatiality is a concept in which the artist seems to place emphasis. Whether a dreamlike narration or a more adaptable figurative image, the story usually takes place in interior places, such as a bedroom, living room or even simply corner areas, enhancing the artwork’s ambiguity as well as creating a deeper visual language within the canvas’ frames. Capturing a moment on the painting’s surface can be reminiscent of taking a picture. Alternatively, it can also be perceived as a visual trick that instantly narrows down reality, excluding the rest of the action from the viewer.

Born in Berkeley, California, Emma Fineman (b.1991) lives and works in London. In 2018, she completed her MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in London and received a BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute of Art in 2013. Her work has been predominantly exhibited in art galleries around the United States and the United Kingdom as well as in other countries such as Holland, Italy, Iceland or Finland. She was also shortlisted for the John Moores Painting Prize and the Chadwell Award. Her latest solo exhibition, REALMS OF THE (UN) REAL, takes place at the PUBLIC Gallery in London.

Install Shot, REALMS OF THE (UN) REAL, PUBLIC Gallery 8
Emma Fineman, Install Shot, REALMS OF THE (UN) REAL, PUBLIC Gallery

Art Verge: Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

EF: My work evolves from a sort of call and response method of painting whereby I will lay down a colour field or loose outline, and then respond with another mark or bit of figurative information. I don’t typically know exactly where the narrative will end up beyond the initial prompt, it’s a process of layering, editing and working off of impulse. The content of my paintings addresses memory and internalized experience, and for this reason I do not work from reference imagery, everything I paint is from memory. The less I know the object, the more distorted it may appear within the work.

AV: How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?

EF: Nonlinear Narrative Painting.

AV: Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?

EF: Generally I love Velazquez, Arthur Jafa,  Botticelli, Alex Katz, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Frankenthaller, De Kooning,  Kanye West (his Sunday services are incredible), Diebenkorn, Klimt, Munch, Matisse, Magritte, Chance the Rapper, Lauryn Hill, Persian miniature paintings, California sign painting, Japanese wood block printing, Cy Twombly, Kiki Smith, Henry Darger, Sight Unseen design house, Hayao Miyazaki

AV: Your new body of work on display at PUBLIC Gallery presents a creative contradiction between what is seen and unseen; should this apply to your imagery, do your painting results enclose any specific messages that need to be told to the viewers or are they more flexible to interpretations?

EF: I would definitely say that as far as narrative, the work is largely up for interpretation, however I would say that it is my intention to call attention to the gaps in our perception. Painting has this amazing ability to present images in such a way that upon first looking you can read the work and feel a general sense of understanding, but the longer and closer you view the individual parts, the more things shift and jumble. I like to reveal those gaps slowly. I am also interested in showing multiple points of perspective in one image as I feel that this is how life is, and viewing things as black and white serves as a complete disservice to everyone involved.

AV: It seems that almost all your body of work has been concentrated on oil and charcoal on canvas. What’s your relationship with these materials as a young artist?

EF: Painting for me is quite similar to writing, talking notes to self, or journaling. For this reason, I choose to work with materials that lend themselves to line in a similar way. Both charcoal and oil bar allow me to draw in my paintings, and oils have a flexibility that one can produce and infinite amount of sensations and textures so that I am never left feeling unsatisfied with these tools, and the possibilities with in them.

AV: Could you share with us some further details regarding your recent painting named ‘Shadow Play‘, (2019)? 

EF: The work is an interdite portrait. There is this sense of restricted viewing in the positioning of the two figurative shapes, which sits in contrast with the clear presentation of blockedcolour and form. I was interested in playing with the idea of visibility.  Could it be possible that the two figures are separate and in conversation, or that they are a mirror of each other, or just a mere shadow of one. I think that there is a large conflict in today’s society when it comes to seeing the experiences of others and communicating through those blind spots. I am also often reflecting on the notion of hauntology and the way in which the presence of a being is often felt even after they are gone.

Shadow Play, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Shadow Play, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 41 x 51 cm

AV: Creating a new painting can be a solitary process. If this applies to you, when you concentrate on a new artwork does it affect your social life at all?

EF: Absolutely, I tend to work on many paintings at one time and am in the studio most days. There are always so many things to be done there, and that can fill a day quite quickly with little room for socializing. While I was studying at the RCA it was a nice balance because I could be working all day long and still be surrounded by all of my friends. Now that I am out of school it’s a matter being intentional with my time and getting out or brining others into the studio when I can. That’s why the art scene in London is so great because there are openings almost weekly, and that balances out the solitary experience of painting quite well.

AV: How do you know when an artwork is finished?

EF: When I don’t feel a burning need to change it when looking at it. Also, when I have found my own investment in the narrative. Some paintings develop quite quickly, and the colours and marks may all be there, but if I don’t feel connected to the work, and don’t understand where the narrative has weight for me, then I haven’t done my job and the work is not done.

AV: What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?

EF: I work in Camberwell in a block of artist studious along a lovely courtyard. I feel very inspired by the space and the other artists who work there. There are leather designers, masons, painters, ceramicists, and wig makers. Seeing them working away excites me. I love the energy there. My studio is very conducive for the way that I work. There are two long walls which are great for working in series or on long horizontal paintings and one central wall that is better for verticals. Out of all the studios I’ve worked in this is my first time not having concrete floors and I have to say that the wood ones are much friendlier on my joints.

Stargazer, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Stargazer, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas

 AV: Which exhibition did you visit last?

EF: Bonnard at the Tate Modern, although I am very excited to see the Don McCullin show at Tate Britain asap

AV: What do you hope audiences will take from your work?

EF: I hope that the work has resonance. I am not interested in forcing a story specifically, but for me when I see work that really grips me, I feel inspired to attempt the same.

AV: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

EF: Night owl most definitely.

AV: Is the glass half empty or half full?

EF: Full.

AV: Which are your plans for the near future?

EF: After the solo show at PUBLIC Gallery I will be having a solo show at BEERS London, which runs 6th April -11th of May PV on April 5th. I will also have work featured in ‘New Mythologies: Figurative Abstraction in Contemporary Painting’ which will open on 12th April and run until 4th May at Huxley Gallery.

Switch, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Switch, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 81 x 102 cm
Red Boots, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Red Boots, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 41 x 51 cm
Install Shot, REALMS OF THE (UN) REAL, PUBLIC Gallery 2
Emma Fineman, Install Shot, REALMS OF THE (UN) REAL, PUBLIC Gallery
Red Scare, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas
Emma Fineman, Red Scare, 2019, Oil and charcoal on canvas


© All images are courtesy of Public Gallery and the artist

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