Rhiannon Salisbury & Benjamin Murphy
Published in December 2022
Ataraxia is a collaborative show between artists Benjamin Murphy and Rhiannon Salisbury at The Room London, in which every single work is the product of both minds working in tandem. The pair have both contributed to each piece in a process of alteration, disruption, and the surrendering of control.
The works are vibrant distortions that are more than the sum of their parts. Displaying hints at each artist’s individual works, this show is a culmination of a process that leads to the creation of an entirely new work that neither could have created alone.
Many of the works are inspired by found imagery that has gone through multiple stages of distortion and dissolution until the final form is indistinguishable from its starting point. Each work depicts the liminal space between two polarities: they vibrate and dissolve whilst still retaining the fragile purity that is inherent in such delicate objects. There is a strong balance of rhythmic abstract mark making next to very figurative depictions of people, plants, and objects which all retain an intentional entropy.
All works are fraught with contradiction; containing beauty and chaos, fragility and power, purity and danger.
CA. Benjamin Murphy & Rhiannon Salisbury
Rhiannon Salisbury - What gave you the initial idea for the collaboration, and what excited you about the project?
Benjamin Murphy - In many ways our work couldn’t be more different, and so I thought it made a nice dichotomy when these two very different approaches/aesthetics were brought together. It seemed like a logical collaboration because of those extreme differences.
When we began I was nervous to work on top of your pieces, did you experience any nervousness or fear about the project?
No I didn’t, I’m never precious about my work when it’s in the pursuit of development. I also trust your aesthetic vision and your abilities as an artist.
The two of us have had quite different experiences in the making of these works, for me I have made works and then surrendered them to you to work on top of, and for you it has been in altering and disrupting works that already exist.
How have you found the process, and did it lead to any unexpected conclusions that wouldn’t have happened if one of the two of us were not involved?
It’s been both exciting and challenging. I was really moved that you gave me so much freedom to experiment with your works and that you had the generosity of spirit to tell me on multiple occasions it didn't matter if it didn't work, to not be precious about it, and to really go wild and experiment. I think the nature of the project has been extremely generous and I’ve loved the experience of really grappling with creating a combined artwork that comes together to hold its own. There was a lot to get my head around in terms of how to merge and balance our works, but I felt like after a while it was important not to overthink them. At first my approach was almost too technical, and it led to a few disasters, but once I let the paint direct me and do its thing (using your composition as a guideline without trying to superimpose too many complicated details into it) the successful pieces of work began to emerge.
I feel a strong sense of foreboding underpins a lot of your imagery, they remind me of Edgar Allan Poe. Am I barking up the wrong tree? What external interests influence your work?
I love Poe. I have a Poe-inspired tattoo on my left shoulder and my first ever collaborative show was entitled Morella (after one of his works). Foreboding is an interesting observation though, I often feel like the works I make are depicting the liminal space between two polarities: they vibrate and dissolve whilst still retaining the fragile purity that is inherent in such delicate objects. This is a very Poe-like approach to storytelling I think, there are a lot of polarities that threaten to obliterate each other if the equilibrium is disturbed - which of course it always is.
A lot of your works are painted from found photographs, do you see your works as paintings of the models in said photographs?
I don’t see them as portraits of the models. When painting female models I often feel that the painting as a whole is intended as a reflection on cultural ideas of beauty and a reflection on how aspirational ideals we are sold in these images are disturbing and misleading.
Ceriman. Benjamin Murphy & Rhiannon Salisbury
Francis Bacon once said (in response to a question about the sitter by David Sylvester): “They inhibit me. They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don’t want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.” I see a lot of similarities between his and your works. Do you see yourself as ‘practising an injury’ upon the person whose form inspires your Works?
Not on the person but on the idea that the person symbolises. I hope that my works act as a mirror to contemporary society which I feel is still facing huge problems in terms of inequality. Since I’ve really found my feet with painting I’ve been hooked on this idea that my work is a kind of ‘detournement’, a deliberate rerouting, or hijacking. I like the idea that I can cause injury to the capitalist system and media culture that I draw inspiration from even if it is just by getting people to rethink about the original source material and the deceitful nature of the way in which it is presented to them, by re-representing it to them through a painting.
Most of the imagery I worked on features plants that are in full bloom or in good physical condition. Is this a conscious decision to depict a plant while it is flourishing? If so, why? Also, do you think of flowers as a gendered subject?
I do actually draw a lot of dead or dried plants too but none of those have made it into this show for whatever reason. I have never really considered the question of if they are gendered or not but now that you ask the question I suppose they are. Traditionally I guess they have been seen as quite feminine but most plants are monoecious and so represent perfect fusion of male and female. This also reflects the show quite well, male and female collaborating, Indistinguishable.
How do you start your work? Do you use photographs or real flowers, or are they purely imagined?
Yeah I often start from photographs but rarely ones I’ve taken myself. I’ve tried to take them myself but they always feel too contrived, and my instincts lead them to becoming something less spontaneous than when using photographs I stumble across. Sometimes the works look like the source imagery but most of the time they are distorted beyond recognition during the process of drawing.
I’m interested in the setting of your work, they seem to focus on interiors and function as still lives. Can you elaborate on this, why does your work feature organic subjects in domestic spaces?
I think the most interesting works are ones that are fraught with contradiction, containing beauty and danger, fragility and power etc. Indoor plants have always seemed quite ridiculous, both alive and dead, flourishing but stunted, free but trapped. Tiny little ecosystems kept as pets by their human overlords. The idea that a houseplant would dry up and die of thirst before reaching over to a glass of water that sits beside it is an absolutely absurd and unfathomable one to me. It is of course also perfectly logical, and in that I think is something quite fascinating. In a way it’s an incredibly violent thing to keep a plant inside.
Due to the nature of the way you paint, certain biomorphic forms are created that must be at least somewhat out of your control. How do you surrender this control and does it ever result in things that you hadn’t intended and didn’t want?
There is an intentionality in the chaos that occurs in areas of my paintwork. I do not know exactly what this will become but over time I have learnt more and more ways to control it. Nevertheless, it still often doesn’t go how I intended and I just have to look at the whole work in a new way and see if it can lead to something better than I anticipated. The surrendering of control has become a part of my process now. It’s something I enjoy working with because it presents real challenges and disruption that I have learned to lean into and pull forms out of. Every painting is a journey that keeps me on my toes, I'm still excited by the process. If I wasn't challenged by making the work I think I would lose interest in painting.
Lilly. Benjamin Murphy & Rhiannon Salisbury
Much of my current work is of natural forms like plants and shadows (although there is one portrait in the show) and much of your work is figuration. In what ways would the show differ if the subject matter had been more akin to what you usually paint?
In some of the works I have brought in figures behind the plants, and I love the merger of our two styles because it creates in some of the pieces something which has a very strong balance of rhythmic abstract mark making next to very figurative depictions of people, plants, objects. I feel like there has been a real blurring of painterly technique and strong linear outlines. If the work was leaning towards my more usual style of subject matter they would probably contain more compositions derived from media sources such as branded fashion campaigns and trending social campaigns on Instagram.
Can you describe your process for those that might not know it already - how much of the marks are intended and how much of it is due to the nature of the approach?
My process is about a personal response to the culture I feel is being represented and sold to us through advertising and media. I store images that resonate with me online. When I set out to create a work I scroll through my archive to find an image that I have a strong emotional connection to at that moment. I make a drawing. From this point I use a variety of techniques to pull out the artwork. One of these is pouring paint and allowing it to distort the fixed boundaries of the drawing. The distortion is an intended mark, even though it is one I aim to not directly control, the element of the unknown keeps me excited by the process, however the balancing act to form the finished piece is a delicate and intentional process of finding the perfect harmony in the painting to know when it is complete.
Besides the imagery that you work from, what else inspires your work?
I look into a lot of mythology from multiple cultures and sources to express and embody ideas in my work. As well as mythology I like to read theoretical texts and to keep an awareness of current events and issues in our culture and also other cultures. I like to look for vehicles that hold ideas and are recurrent across space and time. I also draw inspiration from other paintings. Particularly the old masters. I’m a big fan of Goya, Velasquez, Munch, Ensor. I often wander around the National Gallery with a sketchbook to study compositions of these titans. Outside of this I put a lot of my emotional energy into the work, so whatever I am experiencing in my personal life finds its way directly or indirectly into what I am making.
How does your research into failure in art practice feed into this project?
I think there’s no failure when it’s anticipated. It becomes a self-defeating concept because if failure is intended it becomes success, and then both success and failure then become impossible. In this process (Ataraxia) I see the whole thing as an experiment in collaboration. With any experiment there are bound to be some tests that don’t produce the most exciting results, but that’s fine because those need to be found to serve as signposts for the ones that are most successful. When you view creation like this (as well as realising that we are all fallible) then the freedom that this ataraxia creates becomes incredibly liberating.
Ataraxia opens on the 29 of November and closes on the 18th of December
The Room London
30 Thornhill Road
Benjamin Murphy is a visual artist and writer based between London and Helsinki. Born in West Yorkshire in 1988, Benjamin now exhibits globally. He holds both a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters degree, specialising in Contemporary Fine Art. He will graduate with his second Master’s Degree in summer 2023. His current work explores themes of polarity, time, memory, and contrast – often rendered in charcoal on raw canvas. He is the co-founder and co-director of Delphian Gallery, and is an associate lecturer at the University of the Arts London. He enjoys reading, skateboarding, and talking about himself in the third person. Recent exhibitions include: Daegu Art Fair Korea (with Jari Lager Gallery), The Worm at the Core London (Curated by Cristiano di Martino and Conor Ackhurst), Art Busan art fair Korea (with Jari Lager Gallery), Showstopper (The Saatchi Gallery/ Delphian Gallery), Clovermill Artists Residency Holland, Lychee One Gallery London, Sade Gallery LA.
Rhiannon Rebecca Salisbury lives and works in London. She graduated from the Turps Banana Studio Painting Program in 2018 where she received the Darbyshire Prize for Emerging Art, having previously completed her MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art (2016) being awarded The John Hoyland Scholarship. Recent exhibitions and projects include: ‘Chthonia’ at Arusha Gallery (2022), ‘ShowStopper (Group Exhibition) at Saatchi Gallery w. Delphian Gallery (2022), ’femininity’ (Solo 2021) and ‘Habitual Submission’ (Solo 2020) at Delphian Gallery (London, 2021 & 2019), Darbyshire Prize For Emerging Artists (Solo 2019) at Darbyshire Ltd w. Turps Banana (London, 2018), Accessorise With A Tiger (Solo Exhibition) at Arusha Gallery (Edinburgh, 2018), Synthesis (Group Exhibition) at Saatchi Gallery w. Delphian Gallery (2022), Global Song with Tang Contemporary in Hong Kong (2022), Antisocial Isolation (Group Exhibition) at Saatchi Gallery w. Delphian Gallery (2021), Ancient Deities (curator) at Arusha Gallery (Edinburgh, 2020), Small Is Beautiful XXXVII (Group Exhibition) at Flowers Gallery (London, 2019), Ultra: Art For The Woman’s World Cup (Group Exhibition) at J. Hammond Projects, presented by OOF Magazine (London, 2019).
If you like this why not read our interview with Duncan Poulton.
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