Zambian-born artist Jonathan Wateridge has an extraordinary skill to make his paintings look like ephemeral snapshots. Splitting his time between Norfolk and London, Jonathan works on large canvases from full-scale sets and uses performers and models as subjects for his portrayals. His ethereal and dream-like characters go about their daily lives, lingering around swimming pools or sitting around tables. Jonathan captures them in mundane moments, exuding the carefree stillness of a summer afternoon. His philosophy is that there is nothing permanent about life and that all experiences are fluid and open to interpretation.
Jonathan started painting seriously in the pre-internet age, when he was 15 with little outside resources and influences. By the time he started at The Glasgow School of Art in the early ‘90s, he thought of painting as a dated art form and spent time experimenting with other media. It was not until 2006 that Jonathan picked up a paintbrush, and hasn’t put it down since.
Your work is made up of beautifully crafted fleeting moments. What is it about these instances that inspires you?
I think perhaps it’s because these instances are not fixed. Much of what I do is about how things are constructed — at every level, from the way an image is made to the ways our cultures are organised. There is nothing fundamentally permanent about any of these systems and for me a fleeting moment is often an unguarded gap, or reveal, in that sense of construction. Such moments are also, interpretively, more open to the viewer.
How would you describe your painting style?
Looking at my paintings on the internet, I think a lot of people assume that I’m some kind of photorealist which is a bit awkward as I really don’t like photorealism! I try to make realist paintings more in the literary or 1860s sense of the word. I spend a lot of time thinking about both content and how to work the surface of the canvas. It’s always a bit frustrating when a photo of a three-metre painting is reduced to a small jpeg. In the past, I’ve used realism as a “default” setting, in order to clearly depict fictitious and constructed environments, without issues of “style” or an “authorial” voice seeming too dominant. Part of that approach stemmed from a conceptual guilt about painting that I’ve harboured since art school. Now though, I’m slowly finding the confidence to make peace with that baggage and increasingly, my approach is how to best extract the meaning from the image through the paint rather than just by illustrating the scene. I realise I’m not exactly inventing the wheel but that’s what excites me — that a painting you begin is unlikely to be the one that you’ll finish with.
What does this tell us about your creative process?
There’s a documentary feel to some of my work, despite the fact everything I do is a carefully constructed fiction. Essentially, I build a full-scale stage set in my studio, then hire actors and improvise with them, documenting the whole process, so I have a huge reference bank of photographs from which I can select potential sources for paintings. Once I’ve got an initial selection of images I start by making a series of smaller studies, from which I can later work up the larger final paintings. I’m lucky enough to have a good-sized studio space so I’m able to work on a number of paintings at a time. I constantly move them around to see how they engage with each other, so I can curate a body of work as it evolves.
Given that improvisation is such an important part of your work, is there a message you wish to convey through your paintings?
I don’t really like to fix things down for the viewer in terms of a “message”. There are subtexts – for example, recreating my family garden in Lusaka (for a show called Enclave) was not just an exercise in nostalgia. I used it as a metaphorical space to raise issues about the West and its entitled relationship to its post-colonial legacy. But if someone just wants to look at the work from a purely aesthetic point of view, that’s fine too. I don’t want to whack anyone over the head with meaning. Painting tends to work best when it approaches issues tangentially. It’s a weird obsolete idiom but because of its history, because its inherent outdatedness is already “built-in”, it’s actually quite good at taking a broader but sideways look at contemporary issues.