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Before and After: Robbins asks Littlewood pt. 1

When curator and gallery director of Hales, Stuart Morrison and I were in the cornerstone stages of co-curating a group exhibition at P.P.O.W, EarthWORKS: Ten artists on land and industry. During the process we traded our interests in several artists that organically held a common thread of concerns in their work.  British artist Jess Littlewood and St. Louis native Colette Robbins both used their highly mastered techniques to created complex textural environments that allude to societies both lost and familiar.  However, before they ever met in person at the opening of the show, the match was already lit between them through eager emails about each other’s work.

Colette Robbins: I took a look at your website, and I was really drawn to the textures and use of light in your works. I would love to hear more about your process as a start for our conversation.

Jess Littlewood: The process of my work has evolved over time, from very straight forward physical cut and paste collage to the digital form it now appears in. I started to make collage after a long period of making large and complicated drawings of intricate scenarios, usually to do with construction, so the creation of alternative landscapes has always been an underlying theme. I began to make collage as it became increasingly difficult and time consuming to create what I wanted through drawing, and in doing so found a new and really exciting way of working.

As these collages became more and more elaborate I reluctantly relinquished my scissors and glue to make the work digitally. I wish I had done this sooner as this new process has opened up so many possibilities for the work.

The images I use come from various sources but the majority are found on the internet and are then supplemented by images from books etc. Over time I have built up a large digital archive of images that have been manipulated ready for use in my work. This allows me to think as I work, with images always ready to collage together.

Jess Littlewood. "Shaman I" 2012, giclee print on paper 49 x 36 cm

CR: It is really interesting to hear about how your work has evolved from drawing, to hand made collages, and now to digital collages. I understand what you mean about drawings taking a lot of time. I am still working on mine for the show that opens next week!  Many of your series such as ; Shaman I , The End, and Archipelago remind me of the idea behind your work you referred to as alternative landscapes.  The idea of an alternative landscapes, for me, brings to mind natural scenes from the planets we have not discovered yet, or some sort of parallel universe. I am curious to know what it means to you.

JL: That’s interesting that you have visited a lot of the places that you are using in your work. I have not been to any of the places that I use and at the moment am very reluctant to do so as I think most of my interest in these landscapes comes from the fact that they seem very alien to me and almost magical or fantastical in their distance.

I think my idea of an alternative landscape is similar to yours in the sense that it brings to mind other planets, but I also feel in my work that I am trying to illustrate another way of see our own world and our place within it. Sometimes I feel it is easier to see something familiar in something that is posing as utterly alien than it is in the everyday.

Jess Littlewood. Archipelago III, 2011 giclee print on paper 16 x 24 cm

CR: I know what you mean about relating with something that is alien to you, more than something that is familiar. The familiar items around us, when analyzed can be strange and full of mysterious pasts of their own. They can seem less connected to our experiences that ultimately feed into artwork. Since your imagery is not something you are familiar with, how you go about searching for images to work with? The imagery you use is epic and fantastic, but aesthetically specific, so I wonder if you have some specific books or internet sources you gather from that really inform the work. Is there a certain genre or theme you look for when searching?

JL: I agree with you that the imagery that I use is quite specific. The choice of imagery has evolved over time and has become more and more distilled, and more specific, and now that I have built up a large archive of images it is even more refined as the same specific images are used again and again and start to gain a new significance within the language i am trying to create. I do have books of images that i have used again and again, these tend to be kind of slightly grainy pictures of volcanoes and geological sites, but most of my images come about from simply looking on google images, as it is so immediate and unending. I recently heard Grayson Perry say ‘google is the ultimate tool for the contemporary artist’ something which is utterly true in my practice.

The aesthetic of my work has also been influenced by films such as ‘Fata Morgana,’ ‘Holy Mountain,’ and an amazing video piece called ‘Slow Action’ by a British artist called  Ben Rivers.

still from film "Slow Action" by Ben Rivers

Although I talk about my work representing alternative worlds, I think that they appear like heightened versions of our real landscape, which I suppose comes across in their epic or fantastical nature. I think my tendency to try to produce epic imagery comes from a reaction against life and art being quite focused on the mundane, a theme that was prevalent when I was studying at college.

CR: As someone who is working with figurative elements in my work, I understand how they inform the entire experience the viewer has with the landscape. In your works from the ‘After the Battle’ series that were featured in: Earth Works :Ten Artists on Land and Industry, the viewer can have a direct relationship with the imagery based on their memories of the different structures and scenes you have combined.  Some of the structures, like the tents or columns insinuate that some humans have just fled the scene or might be lurking there somewhere. To me, the imagery references a war that has just taken place or is taking place currently and is about to end. Then you place an image from a different landscape in a circular format in the center of the collage and it represents a natural disaster instead of one that is directly created by humans. How do you decide which scenes or structures to pair together?

JL: Although I never use any figurative imagery or directly show a figure in my work I think that it I am always trying to say something about what it is to be a human being, and about how we inhabit our planet. So in a way our works are both exploring relationships, and both looking at our relationship with our own existence, mine whilst we are here and yours after we have gone.

In the ‘After the battle’ series and in general in my work, the scenes have been abandoned. In the spaces that I create Utopia is always being strived for by the unseen inhabitants, yet they can never match the power and beauty of nature, and destruction and failure are always inevitable. The decisions as to which images to collage together happen in various ways. Generally it takes a while to find the right images, and the work used to be a lot less ‘collagey’, in that I would be trying to create a continuous, fairly seamless image of one fictional place, whereas now I am beginning to incorporate much bolder placing and over lapping of images and making links between different worlds or elements in one piece.

Jess Littlewood, After the Battle III, 2012 giclee print on paper 42 x 33 cm

At the moment man made shelters are playing a large role in many of the pieces, and as this goes on I am becoming more and more interested in the kind of structures that humans build and have built and in portable structures such as tents used by traveling people. I am also just starting embarking on a series of work that will depict an Island Commune, in its varying stages of creation and what is left behind after its demise.

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