Fionn Wilson

On Fionn Wilson's self portraits

Two things happened recently, which both made me think of Fionn Wilson's work. I went to see a J.M.W. Turner exhibition, and as I was looking at all those big, bright canvases it occurred to me that there was a kind of reverse relationship between these and Fionn Wilson's paintings. Whereas Turner's paintings all look like something dragged out from a clear and blinding light, Wilson's look like they were painted forth from a dark and mysterious mirror. The other thing was an interview with Frank Auerbach in The Guardian with Auerbach talking about John Constable. ”I am struck by” he said, ”that sense of how Constable has gone round and round and round the subject. […] Everything has been worked for and made personal so you sometimes feel that Constable’s own body is somehow inside the landscapes there.” This made me think of Fionn Wilson's self portraits.

If you're an artist, a real artist, painting is exploration. People seem to have a tendency to think that painters are out to express something (and then they become suspicious when the painters can't quite explain what it is). No. People working in advertising are out to express something, and politicians and people who want you to donate to their church. What a painter does is exploring and investigating his or her given reality in order to understand it, perhaps in order to come to terms with it or be reconciled with it, and he or she does this using paint and brushes. That is all. And by doing so, by going deep and ”round and round the subject”, the painter helps open up reality for the rest of us, and helps keeping it open. Referring to Max Beckman who once said that ”I hardly need to abstract things for each object is unreal enough already, so unreal that I can only make it real by means of painting”: painting – like all art – is reality maintenance.

No given reality is more obviously and unavoidably there than our own physical presence, our bodies and our faces. In some ways, it could be argued, the self portrait is (with a word Fionn Wilson would most probably dislike) the most pure figurative genre. Unless you're trying to simply make yourself look as handsome or attractive as possible, in which case you're not an artist, doing a self portrait is exactly what painting is all about, exploring and investigating what is there – and with no other agendas. There is no 'point' to doing a self portrait except to go ”round” your most intimate and personal reality, trying to understand it. Essentially, there is no difference between painting a self portrait or a landscape, but with the self portrait you're closer to the heart of it all, where it all comes from.

This is clear when you look at Fionn Wilson's oeuvre so far. She's done quite a few self portraits, several of which ranging among her strongest works, and she's done them in various styles. There are naturalistic self portraits, and impressionistic and expressionistic portraits. ”Self portrait whilst listening to the rain” is a powerful expressionistic work with bold and clear lines and a glowing combination of colours. Compare this to ”Self portrait, winter”, another expressionistic work, but this one more questioning and reminiscent of Munch. Auerbach's remark about Constable going ”round and round and round the subject” reminded me of Wilson, because in her self portraits this is exactly what she does. Fionn Wilson also does landscapes and cityscapes and other kinds of paintings, but with intervals she will return to the self portrait. Seen from afar, it's like she periodically will retreat back to what is most private and most emphatically present for her in order to focus on that – and to use it to vitalise her painting and keep it true and honest. There is a great beauty to this, I think. Trying to understand and capture the most basic, her own physical presence – and not some abstract idea, not a concept, not a theory – she engages with painting at the most fundamental and all-important level, and the impressive artistic quality of her self portraits bears witness to the fact that it kindles her art.

What is doing a self portrait? It's an encounter with yourself through the medium of painting, perhaps – as Beckmann said – in order to ”make it real”. But it is also and vitally the other way around: it is engaging with painting using yourself as the medium, which is what painters always do, obviously, but focused and cut to the bone. It is a kind of ground work. Looking at Fionn Wilson's self portraits, I get the distinct impression that this is how it works for her. With intervals she will return to the ground, to re-examine and re-evaluate, but also to get grounding. Which, I believe, is the hallmark of a real painter, a real artist, that there is such a ground. Not a stable one, but a fertile one with a root problem that will feed the artist and give reasons to go on, to go ”round and round and round the subject”, painting, re-painting, trying again, trying in a different way. And Fionn Wilson is a real painter. A real artist, committed to getting it right.

Bo Gorzelak Pedersen,
Art critic for the Danish art paper Kunstavisen