Apastel green quadrilateral leads into a murky grey triangle, which in its turn lies next to a sombre pink hexagon. This is the complex world of ‘House’, a canvas by the young artist from Oxford, Emily Russell. The vibrant colours in her paintings are like those of Matisse and the geometric shapes, suspended on the canvas in perfect unison, are reminiscent of Malevich. However, her style is unique and exciting.
When I meet Emily Russell at the Quarter Horse cafeÌ on Cowley Road, the setting for her exhibition of her artworks, she is dressed in an understatedly cool fashion. Her maroon trousers match some of the colours in her paintings. She is modest and softly-spoken.
This is the first exhibition of the young artist and the setting of a cafeÌ is completely organic. The series of canvases and boards, all share the same theme of coloured geometric shapes, but are divergent in their interpretations of it: the shapes in ‘Abstract’ are less defined and slightly blurred, in another unnamed canvas the shapes are separated by thick black borders. The works are just as interesting for their differences as for their similarities and as a series they possess an over-arching architecture, which characterises her work.
The young artist has had a complicated relationship with art. She completed an Art Foundation course, but was quickly disillusioned by the fine art world, which she describes as “inward-looking and vain”. After a couple of years without any particular direction, she decided to read Theology at Harris Manchester College. She realised that this was also not how she wanted to spend her time. She says, “It was a lot of will power rather than enjoyment get- ting me through it by the end of it.”
After graduating she decided to explore art again, and currently has a part-time job as a nanny to support her real passion: painting. She is currently in the process of applying to the Royal Academy, returning to traditional art teaching in the hope that she will be “guided” and “challenged” by tutors.
Russell’s approach towards the creative process is to avoid making a “chore of what you love”, so that it “ceases to be enjoyable”. This is not to say that she does not have a structured way of going about creating her work. She tells me that she tries to paint for three to four hours each morning. “I view it a bit like practicing an instrument — even if you don’t want to do it, you do it and you do it almost without thinking about it.” When she creates she does not focus on just one painting, but normally has five or six being painted in tandem. She tends to have one canvas which she uses simply to get rid of extra paint from her brush. Bizarrely, this purely functional canvas sometimes produces the most interesting results.
It seems that the development of her particular style occurred quite naturally. She tells me, “I started painting and just discovered that I was producing geometric shapes over and over again.” Her works have progressed from small- scale paintings in acrylic to much larger-scale ones in oil. Her response to my question about her future artistic direction is surprising. She wants to turn towards more traditional forms of art, such as portraiture and more representational works. However, she assures me that she will not turn completely away from abstraction.
So why did she choose a bustling coffee shop as her exhibition space? “I always feel fairly intimidated when in I’m in a white space and just going from picture to picture and I thought it would be better if they were adding to a place, rather than being its sole attraction.” When I ask her about the names of the canvases, which have been eclectically titled, some abstractedly — ‘Space’, ‘Abstract Gerard’ — some rather figu- ratively — ‘Turtle’, ‘Fish’, ‘Stairs’, Emily explains that she uses second-hand canvases and bases the names of her paintings on what was on the canvases before she uses them.
Have her stud“ies of theology had any influence on her art? “Not evidently,” she chuckles. However, perhaps on an even broader level, her knowledge of Buddhism has informed her approach towards life: that is, to do something which she enjoys. “It was very tempting to compromise even from the outset and have the attitude that it’s impossible to make a career in art, so therefore I should go into some related field. But I was conscious that that wasn’t what I wanted to do first and foremost. We are living in one of the most affluent, privileged nations in the world. If you can’t do what you want to do here, then where can you do it?” Her words resonate far beyond this particular case and should act as inspiration for any young person trying to forge a creative career.