From Fashion Photography to Fine Art
Words by Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
Using his prior career in fashion photography as a backdrop for paintings exploring intimacy, observation and fashion, British artist Mark Enstone reappropriates the scenes of fashion photoshoots he is all too familiar with. He also, subtly and carefully, references other works of art. The result is a body of work in which figures are as mysterious as they are revealing, fluctuating between the ambiguity of the scenes they interact within and the modernity imparted by the fashion pieces they wear like Prada and Gucci. Mark Enstone lives and works in Newark-on-Trent. The street his studio is located on, Kirk Gate has a very unique history with buildings dating back to the 14th Century and a church that was damaged in the English Civil War when Newark was under siege. Here & There had the opportunity to ask some questions to the artist and go a little bit deeper into his creative process.
What was the most challenging for you during this transition to painting?
The challenges were twofold. Obviously, the challenges were technical more than anything else to start with: literally learning to paint with oils and getting into the discipline of drawing and seeing. My only transferable skill—probably my only real skill—is ‘looking’. A career as a photographer has certainly helped with composition and colour, which comes naturally to me, and looking hard to assess and edit images is a real help. Although it's not always as present as I’d like. Weirdly, I find the last look of the day, as I close the studio, to be incredibly helpful: suddenly seeing what doesn’t work and needs changing.
Deciding at art school to choose photography felt like I’d put myself in opposition to painting. Because that was very much the culture within that particular art school at the time. It always felt like painting was something ‘other people’ did. So, to take on another medium and realise that I had something to say and that my voice was relevant, that I could express myself within it felt like a massive emotional challenge.
What sparked the need to change your career’s path?
Curiously, ‘need’ is exactly the right word. I think photography is the hardest medium to find a distinct and individual voice, and I simply reached a point where photography was less interesting to me. I had always been fascinated by painting. I also had always been to more painting shows than photography shows. A good friend had sent me a postcard from a Peter Doig show, and I looked at it every day on the kitchen shelf as I waited for the kettle to boil. After a couple of years of absorbing it, I suddenly felt compelled to paint, with the belief that I could express myself better that way.
Looking through your paintings, blue is a colour that comes back again and again. What does it represent for you?
I wish I knew why I find blue (or rather, a particular blue-green) so seductive. There’s an extraordinary short book, On Being Blue by William Gass, entirely about or on the colour and language of blue. He asserts that because ‘blue contracts, recedes, it is the colour of transcendence, leading us away in search of the infinite,’ which is one of the reasons it was used to signify heaven in Renaissance painting - plus it was the most expensive pigment to produce then. I can’t pretend to have such lofty ideals, but however much I try to resist it, there's a dirty blue-green that I find deeply satisfying. In French or even Pantone colours, it’s called Cendre (or Ash) Blue. I can’t see where the ash element comes from unless it’s in the manufacture, but it’s exquisite. And annoyingly hard to mix.
Those women are not showing anything through their facial expressions but through their posture and how they hold themselves, is it something you think about when composing a frame?
Yes, posture really does seem to matter. A lot of the paintings evolve from or revolve around some kind of gesture of awkwardness or vulnerability. Expressions, less so. I’m a bit uncomfortable with paintings that are too frozen in a specific moment of time—a smile or a laugh, say—which seems too much the realm of photography. So, the paintings inhabit a more formal and slower time, almost more like a staged tableau. The composition of the paintings is a complex assemblage in Photoshop, which is the tool I almost think in after so many years of using it. Many of the paintings are taken from multiple sources, sometimes more than a dozen: my own archive of photos, photo poses I’ve taken specifically, ads, magazine tearsheets, and internet searches. This forms a kind of maquette to work from but it only transforms into something ‘of my own’ once I start to draw it out large with a brush and see a fluidity of line. At that point, it hopefully feels like a thing in itself.
Besides your prior experience as a photographer, where do you draw your inspiration from?
I guess it's related to my past but I love print. Especially interiors or shelter magazines, full of rich patterns and especially Parisian interiors. I have a massive pile of pages torn out as references; it’s steadily taking over the studio coffee table. I listen obsessively to music but I can’t see any influences from there. Like most other people I spend a worrying amount of time on Instagram.
As a fashion photographer you must have travelled all over the world, why did you decide to settle your studio in Newark on Trent? What’s special about this town?
I never planned to settle in a small provincial town but you end up staying near where friends and family are. We are fortunate to live in a rural village and yet be able to travel easily on a fast train into London for all the intensity of a capital city. It’s great in summer to be able to leave the hubbub and get home and smell the countryside and hear the owls that nest in our trees. Newark is a fascinating little town, twice besieged in the English Civil War, it has an astonishing mixture of architectural eras pressed cheek by jowl on the town centre streets. From my studio window, I can see a half-timbered building from the 1400s as well as some rather less romantic fast food shops.