An Interview with Felicity Allen
In the People Like You project, we are thinking about what it means to be a person today. We know that this is an understanding that has varied hugely over time, across and within societies. Portraits are one way in which we reflect on what a person is. In your practice – Dialogic Portraits, it seems you combine watercolour painting, film and sound to reflect on what a person is, what personhood might be. Can you maybe start by saying something about how you come to work in the way you do, and how the practice of Dialogic Portraits might complicate what we think a person is?
I would add writing to the content list of the Dialogic Portraits process. It’s a process of looking, listening and reflecting that is shared and mutual: the implicit invitation is for the sitter to actively engage with me as I do with them – this becomes clear, I think, in the film I’ve made in this project, Figure to Ground – a site losing its system, whose closing dialogue shows four sitters effectively creating an image of me through their talk. So, while I’m making conventional realist portraits, I’m also thinking about the relational aspect of the process.
A Royal Academician friend tells me that masses of portraits are submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition every year. I infer from this that a lot of people feel a strong desire to make portraits, even though most of the forty years I’ve been practising, artists making representational (painted) portraits have been seen as middle of the road, conservative and inadequately intellectual. These days I wonder if portraiture can reclaim affect from the sentimental as a radical and border-crossing act. There is also a renewed interest in a reconceived or even conceptual portraiture, whether fictional (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye currently at Tate Britain) or painterly realist (Jennifer Packer at the Serpentine), or photographic self-portraits (Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern). These three artists are black women working in different continents. Each makes work quite different from the others, but I think one could argue that portraiture is currently engaging with a politics of personhood.
In 2009, coming out of a decade of not-painting, painting portraits of my family and friends helped me find my painting voice again. I quickly developed the process of what I now call Dialogic Portraits in a first (five-year) project combining diaristic writing with recorded discussions with sitters to make a series of books (Begin Again nos 1–21). That project involved reading about portraiture as well as reflecting on the process in discussion with sitters and writing about it.
Begin Again helped me process the loss of me-ness I’d felt in the decade of not-painting. Making appointments for sittings gave me a structure to help create a studio life. Being assisted in my first steps in painting by sitters gave me an equivalent to a benign maternal presence as witness, recalling the work of psychoanalysts Donald Winnicott or Wilfred Bion, in which the mother’s passive attention or ‘maternal reverie’ is seen as enabling creativity.
As austerity was being imposed by the 2010 coalition government, Begin Again developed out of a sense that a turn away from the last century’s demotic – and democratic – ideals had led to the idea of people as disposable, to very variable degrees, and the tightening of many kinds of borders. Painting portraits felt like giving and taking time with people; although pictures were produced, the process seemed like ‘time out’, a time unrelated to efficiency or productivity. Many of the sitters had a strong sense of not being recognised for their labour by their employers.
I started to ask sitters to co-sign the portraits in recognition of their work, dating the picture as an indicator of time spent together as much as an indicator of my painterly progress. Begin Again formed a basis for subsequent Dialogic Portraits projects, which I developed with more coherent concepts.
One especially striking phrase in the sound track to the film is ‘Being a person is a piece of work’. Can you say something about whether you think you are painting people as individuals? Or are the paintings a record of an event, an occasion, time spent together, rather than an individual? And how does that change if the portraits are themselves re-composed or re-figured in a book, a film or a website?
I’m not sure I see a distinction between painting people as individuals and painting as a record of time spent together. For me, the distinction lies in how the paintings are looked at: as an aesthetic object within a convention of painting, or as an historic document open to interpretation through, for instance, social science or literature. And I’m particularly interested in the idea that a single watercolour can be any of these at the same time: it is this and it is also that. This includes painting people as individuals who, themselves, are usually this but also that. How the portraits are affected by being grouped I think depends on which (and who) is included, at least as much as the medium through which they are encountered. Within that medium is a form – what scale, what juxtapositions, what implicit or possibly explicit narrative, how many are included, etc – adding up to a curatorial proposition. I have experimented with different forms – real life exhibitions, books, films, live events with sound and projections, and online. Each is very different from the others: I guess I am most familiar with exhibitions. Being prevented from going to any over the last year, I am now especially aware of how special they are, offering a swivelling, anti-linear encounter between my own moving body and the works in a three-dimensional space which is a scaled-up version of working in the studio with a sitter.
In our investigation of personalisation, we are exploring how kinds or categories of person – ‘People Like You’ – are being created in a sequenced combination of ‘likeness’ or resemblance and ‘liking’ or preference in a variety of statistical, algorithmic and other practices. The film addresses both ‘likeness’ and ‘liking’ in relation to the practice of portraiture, as part of what I think you’ve called the ‘back and forth’ or the dialogue of Dialogic Portraits. At one point in the film someone says, their portrait could be of someone they know, accepting and refusing – maybe disliking their likeness, while at another point one of your sitters observes that you comment on the likeness you are creating as you paint, sometimes by identifying similarities between the sitter and other – absent – presences.
How is this back and forth present in the film? How do you see the dialogue being extended? Is there a sense in which the film is a group portrait?
Sitters often comment on likeness in the portraits, sometimes seeing themselves as traces of relatives unknown to me. When I’ve painted my own relatives I also see traces of other relatives flitting through as I make the portraits. In an almost uncanny way, when I’m painting people, other faces will sometimes flash through my mind and these might be accumulated news images (the heavy-set retired Hull MP John Prescott flitting across a portrait I was making of a tall, slim, much younger woman) as much as historic paintings. The comment that the portrait could be of someone the sitter knew was made in a recording sometime after the sitting. At the time of the sitting I’d said that the portrait (but not his face) reminded me of a newspaper photograph of a murderer I’d seen as a child. So I am knowingly de-contextualizing the flow of individual conversations to make a group portrait, and a sense of its combined thinking, in the film. My recorded conversational voice is left out. There is dialogue, but I retain a distinct position in the dialogue, which I occupy as artist and director.
Two sitters in the People Like You project chose not to see their portraits. This is extremely unusual and was, I suspect, because I’d invited some people specifically because they were involved with thinking about pictures and representation. I respect and enjoy this as an assertive act in a process that a sitter may feel they have little control over.
In the credits to the film I made the distinction between ‘portrait sitters’ (including those whose portrait isn’t included the film), ‘voices’ (only those whose voices were included in the film), and ‘actors’ (those sitters who were filmed directly by the camera). ‘Portrait sitters’ thus credited everyone who’d contributed to the project, whereas ‘voices’ and ‘actors’ were specific to the film. By creating a comprehensive list of the portrait sitters I am possibly making a group portrait of them, although some of the sitters’ portraits also belong to other groups that I’ve devised: in this sense there is an overlap of identities that I am casting.
By producing portraits of people I turn them into a series of figures which, placed together, can form a minimalist grid. The discussions I have with sitters, and the experience of painting them, inform what could be seen as the narrative, or ground, in which I turn them into a book or a film. Creating a series produces problems relating to quality. Should they all be included to become a mass, or should they form a selection of individual high standard pictures? By re-situating them in a book or a film they are at least two steps removed from the human being portrayed; my artistic authority is reinforced.
Some artists reinforce their authority by removing the individual’s name from the title of the painting (unusually, Lucian Freud’s sitter Martin Gayford reclaimed his authority by writing a book of the same name as Freud’s portrait, Man with a Blue Scarf). Although I maintain a desire to acknowledge sitters’ autonomy by naming them in credits, I frequently avoid linking their name with their portrait. Through working with People Like You I am increasingly aware of the complexities of anonymity and that being overlooked or untraced might actually be desirable.
Can you say something about how you were thinking about the Rooms? How – if at all – do they speak to groupings that emerge from ‘liking’ and ‘likeness’, either on their own, or in sequence?
Making website pages with the portraits is the most difficult form for me, partly because I agreed with Lizzie Malcolm, the website designer at Rectangle, that the virtual space of digital ‘rooms’ are alienating. Sticking with the website ‘page’ as a format misrepresents the original pictures: you haven’t got a clue what size they’ll be viewed at, but you can be pretty sure it’ll have little relation to the original. Scale and the relation of the picture to the viewing body is fundamental to experiencing (and getting) a painting, so this matters! I had to re-imagine the pictures as thumbnail online photos and, in doing so, I could treat them like dominoes or sweet wrappings, something attractive to be played with: not at all like their originals.
In Rooms you say of portraits that are either not liked by the sitter, or are not recognised as their likeness, that, for you, they still retain plausibility. Can you say something more about what you mean by this? Does it relate in any way to an understanding of a composite person? For me, this seems to resonate with what Roland Barthes describes as ‘like’, a liking or likeness that is not tied to a specific preference or resemblance, but nonetheless speaks to their latent possibility.
I think they’re plausible because, if you didn’t know the individual portrayed, you could easily believe they were decent likenesses. I think this may say more about fiction and its closeness to fact. And fiction might enable us to understand the composite nature of a person, but this is a rather circuitous logic. I always do a minimum of two pictures and sometimes neither looks especially like the person, more like reminders – which is pertinent, since the use of digital data is so harnessed to ideas of reliable prediction. While I aim to be in control of whether or not I get a likeness, I rather like the idea of a picture that is akin rather than exactly alike, especially as algorithmic life is usually so literal and is so frequently understood as truth.