Whitehot Magazine

May 2010, Interview with Molly Palmer

Molly Palmer, 2010
Images from Soft systems and related work
top l-r: Ice Unit; Plant-Worker; Soft Systems
bottom l-r: Dream Safari; Scenic Development; Character Development

Molly Palmer: Soft Systems
Supine Studios
255 Amhurst Road
London, N16 7UN
May through 12 May, 2010

7th April Private View
Open 8th & 9th May from 6-9pm
By appointment, 10th - 12th May

In her second London solo show - her last UK exhibition before she takes up a six month residency at San Francisco's Kala institute - Molly Palmer presents new drawings, paintings, prints and objects. Included in these are elements of Soft Systems and related work. Soft Systems suggests layered narratives, a synthesis in which the word is implicit in the image. The subtle visuals tell their own story - one which is open-ended and subject to infinite interpretation. Molly naturally produces “bookish” images. Looking at the various pages of Soft Systems the viewer becomes the story-teller and thus the art-book becomes an interactive artwork. This is an innovative body of work which is adding a new insight to our perceptions of word, image, artwork and books in general.

Richard Crowe: The Latin phrase 'ut pictura poesis' (translated literally, 'as in painting, so in poetry') is an analogy used by Horace in his Ars Poetica to compare the art of painting with that of poetry (see footnote.) Horace meant that poetry (in its widest sense, “imaginative writing”) merited the same careful interpretation that was, in Horace's day, reserved for painting (in its widest sense, “imaginative image-making.”) In context, Horace is saying that just as some pictorial images can be enjoyed with a close viewing while others need greater distance, so too should one approach an imaginative text with either with a close reading or with a broader eye to the piece as a whole.

A book is something you can curl up with... in this sense it is perhaps the most intimate art-form......and book-illustration is an essential part of this experience. Thus imaginative book illustration exemplifies Horace's 'close reading' both physically, psychologically and emotionally. Your work, at one level, seems inward, intimate and humorous but also deals with factories, machines, alienation, externalisation, de-sensitisation. I would say that your work mediates between intimacy and alienation, between inwardness and externalisation. Thus your work seems to incorporate both extremes of Horace's dichotomy, at least psychologically and emotionally. Do you have any comment to make on this?

Molly Palmer: I really like the idea of this pendulum in my work between private/internalized spaces and exterior influences or threats. The world I inhabit in my work is built up in incidental layers, small occurrences that have become significant to me or mundane objects that make up an ambiguous symbolic system. On their own they are probably just anecdotal but when you zoom out to the meta-narrative that is built up in the futuristic landscapes and super cities that I have started to create their smallness and human-ness becomes more palpable, more universal somehow. In Soft Systemsthe narrative swings between the microscopic processes inside the characters at a cellular level and the exterior world of the enormous, noisy, smelly metropolis that surrounds and controls them. In some sense the focus on the minutia of their inner organs and biological functions alongside the churning mechanism of the factories where they work brings the macrocosmic presence of the metropolis back down to a more human proportion. As a giant, complex organism, the city’s daily cycles and movements mirror the internal functions that produce the characters’ experiences and emotions. Throughout the book it undergoes a gradual anthropomorphosis and emerges as a more benevolent presence, embracing instead of dividing them.

I’d like to go back to your idea of a book as something to be consumed privately and minutely, but also to be experienced accumulatively and re-considered in the context of the narrative as a whole. This idea strikes me as a pretty succinct analogy of what I am trying to achieve in my work overall, as well as within the more controlled parameters of the books I am working on. The world I am drawing, painting and dreaming is a young one, but each piece I complete seems to furnish it with an extra dimension of possibility. In the same way that a book is something to be experienced temporally, I would like for my work to be consumed accumulatively, with each piece functioning as a single page within a more complicated unfolding narrative. By this measure my output to date would probably be equivalent to nothing more than a short prologue, but stick around please, there’s a lot more to come!

Molly Palmer, Animal Friend Returns, 2010
Courtesy of the artist.


RC: How do you relate to terms like 'surreal' and 'symbolic' to describe your work? Such words are overloaded with attributions and although they may relate in some ways to your work, they do not fit absolutely by any means. Also terms from psychology such as 'unconscious' and 'collective unconscious.' I am reminded of a quote by Ben Shahn: “I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none.” He made images out of words etc. and does not fit into any clearly defined 'group.' I don't think that anyone really does. Are there any words which you would choose to describe your work?

MP: I recently read a book by Haruki Murakami called Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The main protagonist in this story has had his brain re-ordered to serve a system that requires humans to act as an encoding device for top-secret information. It transpires that this process has created a third circuit within his brain, beyond his conscious and subconscious reality, into which he is gradually disappearing. This third circuit is a complete but finite world, built entirely from the contents of his imagination and excluding all memories of his previous ‘real’ existence. The world is a town surrounded by a high wall, and you must leave your shadow at the gate as you enter, relinquishing your former self along with it. Inside the walls existence is peaceful, ordered and eternal, but there is a lingering sense of mystery, of something lurking beneath the surface, of objects whose functions have been forgotten and which begin to symbolise something new, something intangible and ambiguous.

This character’s choice to enter an imagined world that will eventually obscure any trace of the real one is something that really struck a chord with the way I feel about making. I suppose a word I could use to describe my work is ‘escapist’, though I don’t necessarily mean this in a utopian sense. The images and objects that make up the enclosed and finite world of my work all start life in ‘real world’ encounters (both positive and negative) before being shuffled and distorted through a prism of daydreams, conversations and repeated drawings. In this way I can poach objects from their everyday context and see what becomes of them when they are inserted into the machinery of this parallel world. You asked me how I relate to terms such as ‘surreal’ and ‘symbolic’ and it’s certainly true that the objects and events that recur in my work acquire a sense of heightened significance and ritual (at least to me!) However, this is not a pre-meditated outcome; a lot of those motifs take root in a momentary and accidental misinterpretation of function. I like to isolate things from their everyday context so I can approach them as alien objects and imagine some new and fantastical existence for them. In this sense I think I prefer the term ‘hyper-real’ to surreal; the real world concentrated, magnified and flattened, with the contrast and saturation turned up until some of the lines become blurred.

RC: I also experience a transcendent quality in your work, which takes one into imaginary worlds. However these worlds seem to be invested with transmuted aspects from your working life in London. For example, your characters seem to inhabit their own empires with their own styles of imperial architecture. Could this relate to living in the capital city of a former world empire? It may be true that artists inwardly digest their environments and then express these in a personalised way in their work. Do you think that this is true of your work?

MP: The neighbourhoods, buildings and people that I walk or cycle past regularly often feed into my work and I am hugely influenced by the architecture and technologies that surround me. London is such a strange, confused and confusing city. There’s a constant clash between ancient historic values, cultural influences and futuristic/modern designs that I find exhilarating and exhausting in various proportions. I’ve never consciously thought about the influence of London’s imperial past on my work, with all the political nuances and overtones that accompany it. However, I am amazed daily by color combinations, shapes, patterns and sounds, clothing, hairstyles and domestic objects, even fruits and vegetables that are strange and new to me and probably wouldn’t be here without that heritage.

The visual aspects of this jumble of cultures often become muddled up in my mind until they are separated from their source material and embedded in a sort of internal fiction of the world. For instance, my current day job in a furniture workshop has sparked an obsession with machines and industrial buildings, which are starting to appear in my drawings as an allegory for mental, physical or cosmic systems and processes. One of the books I am working on (Soft Systems) takes this environment as a starting point to investigate the parallels between the technologies that surround us, the inner workings of our bodies and the emotional mechanisms of our minds. The processes and paraphernalia of the factory become more and more removed from their functions and outcomes until the characters’ actions take on a ritual, almost ceremonial pattern.

I suppose for me it’s less a case of digesting and re-interpreting my environment than an active will to re-invigorate the mundane. Ever since I was little I’ve had this compulsion to inhabit unreachable spaces; shining office towers that loom like monolithic entities, gaping tunnels of ventilation shafts, long-armed cranes that signal obscure messages to the sky. As I get older I feel more and more convinced that this is a valid and vital effort to re-claim the mystery and excitement in my surroundings. Life seems much more hopeful somehow when every pipe and shadow becomes an entry point into imagined worlds.


Molly Palmer, Pillar-Well, 2010
Courtesy of the artist

RC: Your two-dimensional aesthetic also contributes to this transcendent quality. Flattened figures and faces, often shown frontally or in profile, and simplified linear buildings, immediately take one into a picture world, with links to ancient civilisations and cultures. However this is no idealised world, and one is aware of angst, injustice and oppression in this picture world. You lull the viewer into a sense of dreamy inwardness, only to expose the horror of the human condition. Do you think that this is true?

MP: My parents both studied classics and I spent my childhood surrounded by imagery from ancient cultures; photographs of Greek cave paintings, Syrian Orthodox icons, Indian miniatures and hundreds of books full of myths and histories. I was fascinated by the intense colors and patterns, the bendy people with huge eyes and ornate headdresses and the curious objects they manipulated. As a child I don’t think I understood that the perspectives in these images were distorted or flattened, I suppose I filled in the ambiguous spaces with my own imagined interiors and landscapes. As I got older I would try to copy the pictures, filling them with objects from my own surroundings so I could inhabit those spaces myself.  

I think I’ve returned to this visual language as an adult, not as an attempt to echo or reference ancient cultures, but to filter my own experiences into a form that I can enter and inhabit in the same way. I felt pretty alienated from painting and drawing at art school, there seemed to be an unspoken requirement that any pictorial representation should be rooted in or informed by modern art history, that it should reflect and react to the art world in some broader sense. My return to painting and drawing since leaving art school was initially a celebration of all the things that I felt I couldn’t focus on within that environment without being typecast as ‘ironic’ or ‘naïve’. I reveled and indulged in the things that excited me; sci-fi, geometry, clashing colors, mysticism and absurdity. As time wears on my practice has become a more layered reaction to the real world, including frequent spells of loneliness, worry, confusion and exhaustion among all the wonders and inspirations I am lucky enough to encounter. I’m not sure that I have any political or personal agenda to ‘expose the horror of the human condition’, but I’m glad you get a sense of a greater complexity behind the more playful elements of my work.

RC: In the illustrated book, text and images are combined. This focuses attention on how conceptual merging occurs in the psyche of the artist/writer or artist and writer. One can use the term 'centre of meaning' to describe that which originates within the consciousness of the artist/writer, and which is expressed outwardly in the form of words and images. In the case of a single artist/writer this is quite simple as the original 'centre of meaning' or 'inspiration' (or whatever term one chooses to use) exists within his or her consciousness, and the artistic work consists in the creation of suitable words and images to express it. If an artist and writer collaborate to produce an illustrated book they have to attempt to work from a commonly shared 'centre of meaning' if there is going to be any correspondence between writing and the illustration. The reader of the book is in turn presented with text and illustrations which invite access to the same 'centre/s of meaning.'

This commonly shared 'centre of meaning' is alluded to by Simonides (556 BC - 468 BC) of Keos in words which can be translated as: “painting is silent poetry, poetry is eloquent painting”. The west with its fractured consciousness tends to divide the arts, but not so the east. China poets were often painters; and critics, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, stated the parallelism of poetry and painting in language close to that of Simonides and Horace. According to Chou Sun, "Painting and writing are one and the same art." Writing implied calligraphy, which linked painting with poetry. Thus, a poet might "paint poetry," and a painter wrote "soundless poems."

To return to ut pictura poesis, illustrated books are intended for a wide range of readership from the illustrated esoteric poem to the utilitarian workshop manual. Viewer distance is also relevant if one considers the large Illuminated Manuscripts depicting complex word and image combinations (such as the Chi Rho page in the Book of Kells) whose pages were intended for public display, and as such were intended as talismanic signs to be revered from a distance. These can be contrasted with illustrated books intended for private meditation. It is interesting that the same book could be used for both inward spiritual purposes.

Your figures and buildings show similarities to those in early medieval art. The difference is that medieval imagery generally tells the story of Christian doctrine as 'centre of meaning' whereas you tell your own stories. Would you agree that your work is a re-visiting of older representational traditions, but for the purpose of telling your own individuated stories?

MP: I don’t set out to mimic and reference the visual language of older representational traditions. However, as a self-taught painter and drawer I have inevitably gathered influences from the art forms that have occupied my imagination since I was very small indeed. The idea of a parallel between visual art and written or spoken language is helpful here. As someone who has moved between cities and countries almost biannually since birth there is no one visual or lingual culture that I identify as home. When I was small I would mimic the accents, expressions and grammar of each new group of friends and class-mates, but the way that these muddled in with my previous speaking and writing habits only singled me out further as foreign and different. I feel like my art practice has developed in a similar way, gathering influences and references that are distorted by my ineptitude or bad memory and become something different altogether.

I think the medieval influence was pretty strong in my earliest paintings and drawings; I was very drained and disillusioned after art school and stopped making anything visual altogether for about a year, concentrating on music instead. I was working in a gallery where one of my jobs was to organize the library, when I came across this incredible book of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Around the same time I saw a show of Byzantine orthodox art at the Royal Academy and the colors, compositions and patterns completely blew me away. I felt like I had as a little kid, that I needed to draw and paint the things around me in that way so that making would become something special and exciting again. Of course looking back on that work it seems pretty simplistic and derivative, but I think that as my visual influences have diversified and grown they have begun to function less directly, more like inflections or figures of speech than something memorized and recited.

I definitely approach image making as a portal to narrative worlds, but I think that any aesthetic similarities to traditional forms of art are more a result of magpie tendencies then a conscious re-visiting of these visual cultures. Sometimes I feel like I am furnishing this little world with all the things I find most beautiful, intriguing and peculiar in the real one and that the fuller it becomes, the safer and more content I become within my self. Perhaps one day I really will just leave my shadow at the gate and disappear up the hill behind that tall stone wall.

Molly Palmer


Footnote. The first recorded thoughts concerning the relationship between poetry and painting can be traced back to Simonides of Keos (556-469? BCE) as recorded later by Plutarch (46-122? BCE) in the words “poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens,” which can be translated as “poetry is a speaking picture, painting is mute poetry.” Simonides did not invent this idea but merely gave expression to a widely held belief, which Horace (65-80 BCE) referred to again using the phrase “ut pictura poesis,” which can be translated “as in painting, so in poetry.” I have adapted terminology from sites such as:



Richard Crowe

Born 1955 Colleenbawn, Zimbabwe. Studied Rhodes University: B.Fine Art (Hons); Master of Fine Art, cum laude (1973-9) Lecturer in Painting and History of Art, now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (1982-7) Manager of non-racial GAP Art Group (1985-6) Represented on first South African non-racial international travelling exhibition - Tributaries '85. Solo Exhibitions: Durban 1987; Johannesburg 1988 Settled in the British Isles 1990: ran 'Creative Force Gallery' 1990-2002 He is interested in Goethe’s Theory of Colours especially as used by the painter J.M.W. Turner ( to whom he is distantly related.) Working as Artist and Writer in London since 2002  crowbiz@hotmail.com  







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