I can only imagine what Lydia Gifford’s studio is like. She says it isn’t big and I’m guessing it’s stuffed with swathes of material and totally splattered with paint.
When the 35-year-old artist gets to work on the kind of paintings and sculptures that make up her newly-opened Baltic exhibition, Drawn - her first major solo show in the UK - there are various stages in development and paint of all colours involved.
The colour themes of Drawn, which occupies two exhibition spaces on the ground floor of the Gateshead gallery, are grey, blues and creams in the main gallery which I find instantly calming. “Quite melancholy?” suggests Lydia.
This is new work by the Cheltenham-born artist, who now lives in London, made specially for Baltic and she has given a huge amount of thought to its lay-out here and to the way each piece will come into the view of visitors as they make their way around the room.
It’s all to do with dimension, volume, space and balance. “Installation is a huge part for me,” she says.
Besides the artworks on white walls are installations positioned on the floor which are made from wooden frames covered in padding then stretched cloth: some paint-soaked; some dyed so subtly that the merest hint of colour, an occasional pink, show through.
In the pinks and yellows she uses, she’s influenced by artist Philip Guston’s paintings of armpits, elbows and knuckles.
She’s inspired too by literature, particularly poetry, and mentions how she was struck by the description of the skinning of the whale in Moby Dick – that idea of multiple layers.
Her work is all about building layers and it’s done in a very physical way: soaking, stretching and pinning to create tension in her cloth; cutting through her canvases – one chopped in half to better fit a viewer’s eyeline – showing their insides or revealing the techniques of her work from the back.
From deciding on an abstract form, her processes include the drying of paint which allows plenty time for thought. She might decide to rework them, adding more layers of material or paint. One piece she thinks will take years to dry thoroughly. Yellow, due to something in its pigment, apparently takes the longest to dry.
Several pieces have not made it to this exhibition stage.
She explains: “I let them evolve through the process and one informs the next. Then it’s about editing - it’s the same as editing a story or screenplay.”
While she’s developed her technique, and goes through various frustrations in the making process, she never knows quite how the pieces will turn out. And that’s what interests her.
“Always the outcome is completely different,” she says.
She points out how paint has leaked through the surface of one piece. “I love mixing colours; it’s a passion of mine,” she adds. “I often try re-making a colour but it’s very complex.”
She works intuitively and the work is very personal so she finds it quite embarrassing, she says, when it’s out there on display.
But she loves the process of it: how something as fragile as a piece of paper can be transformed into a solid surface.
“I’ve developed this way of drawing,” she says. “Rather than trying to draw forms, I lay down layers and build up atmosphere on paper.”
Drawn is at Baltic until November 2, www.balticmill.com