Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Meet Alison Lumb, December's Artist in Focus

Ahead of her Artist in Focus slot at our gallery, and before the second lockdown ended, I had a fascinating conversation with Alison about working during lockdown, her printmaking process, and her love of the liminal.

 Alison with her print JOURNEY HOME at the Printmakers Council Journeys exhibition

Alison, you joined Southbank Printmakers just over a year ago - a year that has been strange for everyone, but I know that it has been a particularly eventful one for you, with your Beyond Landscape exhibition (with multi-media artist Deborah Burnstone) at another artist-led gallery, One Paved Court in Richmond, and most recently having one of the works from that show selected for 2020 ING Discerning Eye exhibition - do you have a long-term plan for your printmaking, or do you respond to opportunities as they arise?

I’ve always been a bit of a planner, so it’s quite a surprise to realise that the answer is actually no, things just evolve, but with a vague strategy humming below the surface, I think.

I have had a broad aim to discover what my work is about, develop the best means of communicating that and then collaborate with like-minded people,  exhibiting in places where the work is likely to be of interest.

Deborah and I were students some years ago and had exhibited in group shows together a few times since. We admire one another’s work and so we quite naturally reached the stage where it seemed a good idea to mount a two woman exhibition. When I walked by the stunning, newly- opened One Paved Court Gallery in Richmond, I was delighted to discover that it was an artist- run space and we put in an application. 

So that happened quite organically, which is often the case. Having said all that, I had identified Southbank Printmakers gallery as somewhere I would love to exhibit years before I was eventually accepted as a member. The ING Discerning Eye is a good opportunity for printmakers; it is for smaller works only. Each member of the judging panel makes an individual selection, so each section of the exhibition has a distinct identity. It is online only this year, with a virtually gallery, from 17th November to 31st December.  I will miss the fun and excitement in previous years of going to the Mall Galleries for the opening and finding out who selected my work, but there is going to be a full print catalogue to accompany the online exhibition, with introductions and commentary from the judges - and it was amazing to learn that my print was selected by Tabish Khan aka @LondonArtCritic.

I was very lucky to visit your show at One Paved Court, and I was struck by the way you experiment with a range of traditional and digital printmaking techniques to create very atmospheric artworks - could you tell us a little bit about your process?

My process is determined by what I think the work is about, and most of my work is related to my underlying themes.   It is usually a combination of painting and printmaking - whether that’s monoprint, screen printing or digital.  So if I am making a painting I sometimes incorporate a screen print element, and my prints tend to be painterly in style. 

I became interested in how visual perception works while I was studying at the City Lit back in 2003. I discovered that we have an inbuilt impulse to make up narratives about one another.   During sessions of street photography I realized how much the location, time of day and the weather conditions affected the way people moved and interacted, and their posture. To explore all this, I began to make digital prints and lightboxes composed of many photographs, and scans of painterly elements, monoprints and collage. 

The other area of interest was in how completely mediated our view of the world is now that we are saturated with digital imagery 24/7. So these days I am sort of trying to hint at that as well, with the use of the photographic fused with the painterly. I now take photographs on site and then make colour, tone and composition studies in the studio. I then use digital software using painting and drawing tools to compose those elements of the image which I would like to have a photographic quality. This can be quite a long and painstaking process. These might then form one layer of a screen print in combination with hand painted stencils, or a screenprinted layer in combination with layers of monoprint, or sometimes a photographic transfer with monoprint. Each has a slightly different quality.

Occasionally, as in the case of Journey Home, the print which features in the ING Discerning Eye exhibition, I feel that I need to include a direct inkjet print layer with monoprint, because the image requires a combination of  detail and  delicacy which is hard to achieve by other means.


Making art and showing work during lockdown has been a different experience than usual for many of us, how have you found the last few months have impacted on your working practice?

I was quite disorientated at first when the Spring lockdown started – even though I could still work in my studio, finding the discipline was hard and I found it impossible to start work on anything that involved complex processes.  But we had a famously glorious Spring and after a while I made some quick-fire cyanotypes in the garden which was productive and therapeutic. I soon learned via Instagram that I wasn’t the only artist finding motivation hard to come by.

Weirdly, once lockdown was lifted and I could in theory go out and about a bit more, I set about an ambitious multi-layered screenprint, SOUTHBANK which kept me pinned in the studio for a number of weeks. The idea was to challenge myself in terms of how painterly and atmospheric I could make the print. It depicts the area around Gabriel’s Wharf looking towards Blackfriars at my favourite time of day, between day and evening when the lights start come on.  


More recently, in reaction to that, with my Artist in Focus slot approaching, I have spent an intense few weeks making a series of one off hybrid prints inspired by observing people wandering aimlessly down on the river bank by Gabriel’s Wharf. I enjoyed the freedom of the painterly monoprint process. I will be showing these and a selection of work from the last year or so.


You’ve been visiting other Southbank Printmakers in their studios and workspaces for a separate series of interviews on the SBPM blog (and I hope I’m not stepping on your toes here!) - does seeing other people’s workspaces inspire you in your own practice? and how have things changed in your studio and in those you’ve visited in response to Covid guidelines?

Who doesn’t love a peek into someone else’s studio?  As I work in isolation in my own studio even in normal times, I really appreciate the privilege of visiting a fellow printmaker and discussing their practice with them.  There is always something to learn; whether it’s a demo of something I am not familiar with, a recommendation for particular materials or validation of a certain approach to one’s work. It was a big relief, for instance, to hear the highly experienced Hil Scott talk about her lack of concern about technical imperfections if they contributed to the overall intention. I’m with Hil.
In the period between lockdowns, I could only visit studios that can be made Covid safe, so Theresa Pateman’s large studio with its door to the outside world was perfect, as was the high- ceilinged Kew Studios where I visited Peg Morris. You can see from the photographs on the Printmaker Profile blog articles that visors or masks are worn throughout. I am grateful to them for making the visits possible – seeing them at work using various etching techniques was fascinating for someone who doesn’t work with intaglio processes.  In my own studio, life goes on much as before. When I am in there, I can pretend everything is normal, if I don’t turn on the radio! 

You’ve talked about your interest in liminal spaces, and there is a strong sense of movement, an almost cine-visual quality in many of your images - could you tell me more about what influences your work?

The source of the cinematic quality you have picked up on is very easy to identify. For many years I worked in filmed television drama as a script editor and producer.  So my day job was creating narrative in a largely visual form. This influence is impossible to shrug off completely, although I did try for a while, when someone observed that some of images functioned almost as a still frame from a sequence.  Nowadays I have learnt to embrace what it brings to my work, and also to enjoy the fact that in my images, I can merely hint at potential narratives and leave the viewer to decide what their interpretation might be. One gallerist made an observation I like very much, which is that my figures are almost like ‘characters waiting to be given their lines’. Another person said they were like ‘snapshots from dreams’. I love that people enjoy the feeling that there is a possible meaning there, but it can’t quite be pinned down.


I gradually realised that I was drawn to these public and outdoor spaces because they are liminal places where identity is in flux and you are in no man’s land.  So I began to explore more liminal spaces and situations. Hence gazing out of the train window at the pylons flying by, a situation in which you temporarily disengaged from the world.  The people gradually disappeared from my work as I explored these places in which you can take a rest for being your conscious self for a while.  They are starting to reappear in my latest work though.

Can you remember the first work of art that caught your attention, or is there an artist (in any medium) that is a particular inspiration?

The very first work of art …wow!   On a school trip to London we visited the National Gallery and I saw Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. I was entranced. I bought a postcard  and when I got home, I stuck together several sheets of  paper to make a sheet about A0 size and set about painting my version in Reeves poster colours!

There are a number of artists I return to for inspiration time and time again and the ones who recur most often are the Bay Area painters Richard Deibenkorn and Paul Wonner, and Gerhard Richter.  I love the work of contemporary printmaker Elizabeth McGill and a fairly recent discovery is the stunning photography of Saul Leiter. He was previously a painter and it shows.

As we’ve discussed, your work is often about the sense of place, and the journeys between spaces - do you have any favourite places you’d like to share with us?

I do love being by the water’s edge, whether it’s as a break from the frenetic environment of the city, or at the coast.  So a visit to Brittany last year was pretty special.  There is a place called Ile Tudy which is actually a peninsula.  But it was once an island, and from our room we could see the sea almost all around us. Heaven.  

And finally, what is the best thing about being a Southbank printmaker (if you can choose one, of course!)   

Being back in my favourite part of the city as part of my work is such a pleasure.  And I am so enjoying being in an association with fellow printmakers; people who love a chat about process!  It will be wonderful when we can all actually meet again and start to invite people back to the gallery for exhibitions. In the meantime I hope people enjoy the material we are posting on the website. 

Now that the second lockdown is over, we are pleased to welcome visitors again to our Gabriel's Wharf gallery - we are open 7 days per week until Christmas.  See more of Alison’s work in our gallery where she is Artist in Focus 6th-20th December, on our website, and on Alison’s own website:

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