Every Painting Has a Silver Lining
I have known Samantha for over three decades, during which she has never wavered from her course of being a deeply committed artist. At an early age she set up little studios in far flung corners of her family home in Ayrshire. In the attics she would scour through drawings by her uncles and aunts, “everyone was good at drawing in my family.”
On her way to school she remembers her father picking up leaves from the gutter to paint, “he was the bedrock of my inspiration and influence.” Her father Rory McEwen was the preeminent botanical painter of the 20th century, who was also a national folk hero in Scotland, a guitarist and singer who appeared on television every week. A major retrospective of Rory McEwen is to be held at Kew in 2012 while this October sees an exhibition of Samantha’s ‘Mineral Paintings’.
Samantha’s uncle is the acclaimed art critic John McEwen. Her cousin Katy was an artist at the Slade who died in mysterious circumstances in Kenya; Helena, Katy’s sister, is a gifted novelist while Sam’s brother Adam is a conceptual artist based in New York.
At the age of seventeen Samantha’s mother, Romana, (granddaughter of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’ great librettist;) sent her to New York to study art. Samantha first enrolled at the Sarah Lawrence College to study philosophy for a year.
“Then quite by chance I picked the School of Visual Arts, a graphic arts school from a catalogue, where teachers were professional artists. My class were an extraordinary bunch of people; a star generation.”
Among them was Keith Haring, who was to become her best friend and flatmate. “I absorbed the directness and colour of Keith’s work and even though I come from a romantic and languid Scottish background, he instilled me with tremendous energy.”
Living in the East Village and the Bowery, Samantha was thrown into the whirlpool of the graffiti art East Village scene. “I became friends with Jean Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and knew Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol. The graffitists saw their art as a jousting competition and a way of exchanging information. Jean Michel’s art was all about semantics; he wrote these spellbinding poems on walls,” she recalls.
Samantha had a solo show at the famous Tony Shafrazi Gallery who championed graffiti art although Samantha eschewed the graffiti style.
“Graffiti art was too specific for me; I actually can’t remember what I showed at the Shafrazi gallery,” she laughed. “Francesco Clemente and Alex Katz were great sources of inspiration, both of whom she modelled for. “Julian Schnabel also asked me to sit for him but he asked me to take my shirt off and I refused.”
The spectre of AIDS loomed taking the lives of many of her friends, among them, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat overdosed. Returning to London in the 90’s and the YBA’s phenomenon she remained faithful to her own particular vision exhibiting in group shows and two one woman shows.
Painting for her forthcoming one woman show this autumn “has brought me back into the world of imagery,” and there has been a gradual genesis from abstract to figurative.
“And yet for me there is no difference between abstract and figurative. This latest body of work is decorative,” she announced confidently as we climbed the stairs to her studio. But then so is Matisse decorative.
Her studio was scattered with bags of colour and silver pigments from Japan, photographs of family weddings, a slide projector, acetate drawings, portfolios and an astonishing glittering silver glamé tarpaulin emblazoned with a gargantuan black dog with a shocking pink tongue painted in acrylic. On other silver glamé tarpaulins hanging from floor to ceiling; usually the province of theatre sets, were the beginnings of silver wedding portraits.
I had expected traditional canvases and the smell of turps and linseed. The contents of a large cardboard box was also completely unexpected. I had carried it from Samantha’s house via a taxi because she had broken her ankle, holding it very carefully so as not to crush it – inside were large though delicate wisps of tissue paper as fragile as butterfly wings.
The paper, Samantha explained, was Japanese rice paper and painted with pure pigments of silver and colour. The paper, shapes, surfaces are an integral part of the painting itself.
The argent theme is predominant in the ‘mineral paintings’ referring to the earth pigments she uses. The silver threads of pigment in her pictures weave a tapestry of all that is fugitive in nature, just as silver is itself.
In the ancient illuminated manuscripts silver leaf disintegrated while the gold remained intact. ”It’s funny because I tried painting in gold and it just did not seem to work”, she said as she uncovered a folio of thick Arches paper, this time of silver collages.
As the images unfurled layer by layer I felt, to paraphrase Kundera’s ‘a lightness of being’, and to attempt to describe these paintings feels hopelessly inadequate. My words tasted stale in the light of these exquisite pieces and their effect on the senses. Amorphic shapes, shadows, silver clouds, incandescently pink flower heads and blooms, pared down to the simplest of forms in iridescent silver and opalescent colours speak of the transience of nature.
Some of the images so fragile in their execution have floating calligraphic flourishes with fleeting banal Americanisms such as ‘it’s been nice talking to you’ and ‘be my guest’ or, in memorium to Angus Fairhurst, ‘I’ll be seeing you’; maybe to ground them in some way, to remind us of the frailty of human nature.
Despite living most of her life in London and New York there is no suggestion of ‘rus in urbe’ in her subject matter, recalling Alexander Pope’s aphorism ‘where the prospect pleases only man is vile.’ There is something ephemeral in her paintings that seem to reflect light, “natural light inspires me, I endeavour to paint it as a prism. The work is on quantum level.” They convey the greater order of things, to quote her great grandfather Hugo von Hofmannsthal on his meditation on the Lord Chandos letter...they ‘conceive of the whole of existence as one great unit but then everything disintegrates into parts and those parts into parts again. No longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.’Celia Lyttelton
Samantha McEwen — Recent Paintings
was held by VERY UP & CO
at The Brompton Garage
1 North Terrace
The exhibition was kindly supported by the Brompton Design District. The Brompton Design District was initiated by South Kensington Estates and partners to increase the presence of new design in an area renowned for its historic links with art, design and education since the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art over 150 years ago.