Hanne Kemfor has hung a few of her scribed, rubbed, trailed, scratched, brushed, gestured surfaces in the foyer of the Barbican Library. I met her on a hot afternoon, too hot to be standing in this institutional space to see how her studio paintings would feel pinned to these formal notice boards in the entrance.
“I am not controlling these associations and transformations, I am letting them occur in paint.” – Hanne Kemfor
Messy, reworked, hard-worked oils in the entrance to the clean, clean formal library was a strange juxtaposition. I stared at the large canvases. The browns and dead palettes, the renaissance suggested forms, Daumieresque lines, hints of movement, the human spirit in the transparent and scrawled oils in the company of the dead, the devils and the angels, people falling in paint around my head.
Kemfor is hugely funny. Not sarcastic, not witty, but empathetic. What a terrible life, we all die. We laugh and cry in our dilemma of tragicomedy. She paints the big pictures, the moments of death, the inner feelings in sketches that distort and define the ambiguity of humanity’s form. What mood is this? What are we supposed to summon in terms of our emotional response when looking at these intense tableaux?
Firstly, what is going on in these works? There’s a scene. There are bodies. Something serious. As someone who worked for ten years cataloguing Reuters videos, I recognised the photography core, the news core, the witnessing of scenes inside these complex multi-layered, many-deconstructed surfaces. Kemfor told me some of the start points for the images, too personal to share here, and I’m sworn to secrecy, but personal moments inside her own studios, those intimate moments when we catch a glimpse of ourself (maybe in a mirror) and think how foolish we look, how foolish we are, and how vulnerable we are, charge these paintings which might on first glimpse seem like original grandmaster sketches, of a type.
Hanne Kemfor is hilarious herself. On facebook, she’s known as Sripey because she spelt stripey incorrectly. I think the stripey moniker comes from her association with tigers and leopards and there is a cute one here in one of her larger canvases, prowling and fixing you in its sensitive gaze. She never changed it, feeling it hilarious to have such a ridiculous nickname. Be sad, overwhelmed and laugh. What do we feel?
Kemfor studied philosophy in the wastes of time and still feels her work then to relate to what she paints, to how she paints, to the pain of her paint. Her subject, should she have commenced her PhD was the nature of empathy. Instead, she chose to portray her questions. She paints her PhD. What is the nature of empathy? How does it feel to witness these awful images that we have to see on the news etc? And we know we are not immune from the terror we encounter on screen, although we are far away. We will, one day, die, Kemfor presumably still holding her paintbrush judging from the witness this works pay to her daily labour.
When her grandmother arrived in the docks as an immigrant she was a little girl. She had to hold the hand of her family, they had to clutch onto her tightly lest she be ripped away and possibly lost, sold into prostitution. Kemfor clutches onto her paintbrush and somehow remembers in colour, form and line, above all line.
There are group scenes. Some faces descend into cartoon. Are they scared? They look scared? Not dehumanised but reduced to flesh and bone, not very effective flesh and bone, distorted as much as Bacon’s figures. Have they been tortured? Are we seeing man’s violence against man? It’s not clear what is going on. But there is a sensation of true depression, and horror, and then again the laughter.
I remark on the Gothic scale, the sublime cathedral-nature of the scenes. But, Kemfor says, this is my studio. I have made my painting studio huge, extended it high, descended it low, blown it up into the scale of God and the devils. This, I know, is ludicrous. And this is why I have done that. I am not controlling these associations and transformations, I am letting them occur in paint.
While studying, Kemfor was advised to look at Tintoretto and ended up taking a trip to Venice to see his works in their proper location. ‘It’s not all angels,’ she was told, ‘clear your mind.’ I am not someone who has paid much attention to Tintoretto myself so I searched his images for researching this piece and discovered I did already know his work. We all know his work. We have seen it many times before. The groups. The posturing. The models enacting these scenes from the bibles, transformed from models into flying creatures. Jesus’s death played out time and time again. The battle between good and evil as realised by man.
Compositionally and in mood I see Tintoretto in Kemfor’s work now but there’s more too it. This is post-modern. It is reminiscent of his painting but it is not simple channelling. This is intense, raw, personal and hidden. Always the tension of painting and hiding, painting and hiding, hiding one’s feelings from the world, yet showing them. Seeking the rightness of the moment that can be shared yet that moment will never come, not until it’s all over. She itches in front of me to grab her paintbrush and start daubing some more on her own exhibition pieces. ‘You have to leave them,’ I tell her, ‘let them go.’ I sound quite ridiculous myself.
We are uncomfortable in the heat, surrounded by this tribute to the discomfort of the human condition. People walk backwards and forwards to borrow books, glancing at the paintings, not at all at home in this foreign space. It seems almost callous that these broken, bare moments should be exposed like this.
But there is no final answer. This what we have. The probing, scraping visceral life. It’s time to go and sit by the water and take our minds out of this intensity, and prompted by the dark brightness of Kemfor’s work, we have the deepest conversation.
Photos/Words Jude Cowan Montague © Artlyst 2018 Top Photo: Detail ‘Look’ Hanne Kemfor 2016 Photo: Peter Abrahams
Jude Cowan Montague worked for Reuters Television Archive for ten years. Her album The Leidenfrost Effect (Folkwit Records 2015) reimagines quirky stories from the Reuters Life! feed. She produces ‘The News Agents’ on Resonance 104.4 FM and writes for The Quietus. She is an occasional creative writing tutor for the Oxford University Continuing Education Department. Her most recent book is The Originals (Hesterglock Press, 2017).
Hanne Kemfor – 3 -28 July ‘Mainly Pertaining to Doom (HA HA!)’ Barbican Library Foyer, Free Exhibition