Currently being exhibited by K. Nichols Contemporary at a pop up space in London, Amanda Watt is a mid-career ‘Fusionist’ Artist from Northern Ireland. Having spent twenty-five years in LA, her bright and vibrant scenes became a favourite of Californian society. After returning to her native Northern Ireland, she is back exhibiting in London and across the UK with Clarendon Fine Art, as well as appearing at group shows and pop up exhibitions across the capital. Her latest collection showcases her interior scenes and more wintry landscapes, inspired by her life in LA, but with hints of her new countryside home in the hills of Dromara. Katharine Nichols talks to Amanda about a patron who helped her become one of the most sought-after artists in Los Angeles, her love affair with colour, and her belief that the best is yet to come.
You graduated in Fine Art from Belfast College of Art and Design and then moved straight to London – was that the start of your career as an artist?
I mean London is a great place to start, and that’s a very romantic idea, but it’s rare to make a living as an artist from the outset. It was all a bit gritty to begin with to be honest. I did all sorts of things when I first moved there, from life modelling to working in a framers, and painting all the while in a dark dingy little studio in Finchley Road. God it was bad…but cheap. On the verge of collapse, no natural light, dirty, and infested with rats and degenerates! But it allowed me to learn the trade from different angles, and from some very talented people, and observe a variety of interesting characters while I was at it! I remember once I was life modelling at Camden Arts Centre, just across the road from my studio – I walked around at the end to look at the paintings. I said ‘Gosh, your work looks like Jo Brocklehurst’s!’. She replied: ‘Darling, I AM Jo Brocklehurst’. She’s been a huge influence on me ever since.
So why did you leave London for LA? You mention a patron that helped you along the way…
Well while I was in London I met a lovely American couple, Barry and Diana, through a great friend of mine, Ulrika Palamountain. Diana wanted an escape, and somewhere to paint, so she started coming to my studio every week, and even co-rented part of it from me. I guess I was part teacher, part confident. Barry – a film director, working on Young Sherlock Holmes – visited, and loved the theatrics of the space: the artists, the ‘characters’ and the alternative atmosphere of the whole building. He really liked my work, but didn’t like the darker, murkier colours of London and Belfast. He wanted to see what it would look like with the Californian sunshine, and invited me to live in their pool house in Malibu for a few months…well you can’t say ‘no’ to that can you?! I moved there and never looked back! My patron/saviour/fairy godfather – whatever you want to call him – was Barry Levinson, who a few years later won the Academy Award for Best Director for Rain Man, and introduced me to some of the most incredible Hollywood personalities and LA art collectors.
And so you stayed in LA, and forged an amazing career for many years?
LA is such an eclectic city, and inspired me with its positive attitude, bright colours and amazing characters. I moved around from Malibu to West Hollywood, Santa Monica etc and was inspired at every point. Between 1993 and 2005 I was represented by two amazing galleries: Timothy Yarger Fine Art in Beverley Hills and Bowles/Sorokko in New York and San Francisco, who presented my art in amazing annual solo shows. I was exhibited at art fairs from Miami to Cologne, worked with incredible printmakers and gallerists, and met interesting and erudite collectors. I am so grateful for my career out in the States.
What prompted you to leave LA?
To be honest, I was completely burnt out. I was painting all day and all night, exhibiting so many works, and had a few mental health issues because of it. I moved to Florida to – as I like to say – uncover my ‘authentic self’, and unify Amanda Watt the artist with Amanda Watt the person. It sounds corny, but those two had been in conflict for so long, and I thought that was what made my art so successful. But now I realise that I am a more rounded artist having taken a step back and had a period not exhibiting. I honestly think my new works, now I’m back in Northern Ireland are the best I have created. Although I guess all artists say that don’t they?! But I am driven, happy, and just enjoying painting again.
Why do you call yourself a ‘Fusionist’ artist and what does it mean?
I see my art as a fusion of East and West, and of lots of different movements and styles. I take inspiration from Japanese Shunga and woodblock prints, and fuse them with Western principles of cubism and expressionism, amongst others. In fact I pick and choose from the artists and movements that I love, and try to merge them to make a balanced whole that represents me, how I feel, and what I want to represent.
So who inspired you?
Well, the list is long but distinguished (to quote Top Gun). Apart from Japanese art, I do love Gauguin and his Orientalist imagery, indigenous African Art and the masks Picasso depicted in the early 1900s. Cubist multiple perspectives and Matisse’s flat patterns and decisive curves are also key for me. I love Gustav Klimt’s pattern-making too. More recently, Rainer Fetting’s bold use of colour and gestural brushstrokes, and the highly stylised figures of Tom Wesselman and Alex Katz. I was also painting in LA in the ‘80s at the same time as David Hockney, so the influence of colour and to some extent subject there is pretty clear. Lots of people really! I have always truly believed in Picasso’s famous quote, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’.
Where does the subject matter come from? You vary between powerful women and more serene still lifes.
I love to have a variety in my work so I don’t get bored of a certain subject. The women in my pieces are real, powerful and unashamed – my ‘Pussy Posse’ I call them. Some are reflections my state of mind at the time, and others are more of a commentary on my social and political surroundings. I’m a feminist, and want to see women reassert their power, rather than being objects on view. I also believe difference in life is key, and like my characters to blur the boundaries of race, gender or sexuality, as is increasingly happening in today’s society. I also value love, friendship and support, and try to bring this out in many of my pieces, especially my most recent figurative work.
My still lifes and interior or studio scenes are really just letting my imagination going wild. Everything is painted from memory, never staged. Many of the chairs, tables and bowls are from past houses or places I’ve been. The settings and the objects vary, but I like to use pattern-making to draw in the viewer, and a confusion of perspectives to make the seemingly mundane objects have a life and a place of their own.
What is it about bright colours that attracts you as an artist?
I just find bright colour so joyous – don’t you?! They make me happy; bring life to the canvas, create emotion and elevate mood. The colours I paint with tend to reflect my mood and surroundings, and in turn influence my frame of mind. I’m not always ecstatically happy when I use carmine, for example, but it certainly cheers me up! Since the advent of the camera, artists have been so much freer to use colour to portray feeling and emotion, good and bad: to break boundaries. Van Gogh showed that even in times of emotional turmoil, bright colours can make for moving and beautiful paintings. It’s not all the traditional dark colours anymore that show conflict or sadness. That said, I still have phases where I use deeper colours, and have recently painted a monochrome series, so they’re more about line than colour.
Has your use of colour changed significantly over the years?
My colour palette has certainly transformed since I first started painting. At college I was heavily influenced by a teacher who really focussed on mixing different greys and aligning them with primary colours. That, and the fact that I was in Belfast and then London means my paintings in the ‘80s were pretty moody and wintry. But then I moved to LA and immediately started using cadmium orange and ultramarine blue. It just felt right. And now after thirty years immersed in that atmosphere, I can’t give it up! I don’t consciously think about the use of colour – I’m not experimenting anymore, it’s ingrained in what I do.
Can you give us any hints about what you’re working on next?
I have recently got back in touch with a number of my old collectors, and seeing my work from the ‘80s has given me the desire to be more emotional again. My next series will focus on the theme of relationships: with myself and my own vulnerability; with others; and between figures within an image. I want to bring my ‘man with a briefcase’ back who used to be a key player, and add a bit of humour, while I continue to portray my women as strong, but at the same time thoughtful and somewhat reserved. Watch this space!
Amanda Watt's work is currently on show at 'The Showroom Presents', 25 Effie Rd, London SW6 1EL, open Monday - Saturday, 10am-6pm until 22 December.
For more information visit www.amandawatt.co.uk