BY Lucy Stein in Influences | 14 FEB 16

Portfolio: Lucy Stein

As part of a new series, frieze invites artist Lucy Stein to present a series of images that are important to her

BY Lucy Stein in Influences | 14 FEB 16

Clare Stein, against a trellis in the summer, Eastbourne, mid-1970s

I like garden trellises; the prefabricated grids that you can pick up from the garden centre. I like that they act as simple support structures for the enchanted chaos of a back garden.

This image is of my mother in her twenties at her childhood home in Eastbourne on the south coast of England. It speaks to me of growing up and becoming aware of a discord between my mother’s surface commitment to bourgeois ideals and her often-unkempt emotions. (Such discord steered me towards a teenage feminism that ignited many clichéd but generative arguments.) My mum taught me about the importance of these ‘support systems’, and how they need to be recognized and tended to for one’s own psychological survival. 

This influence led to my building up a repository of figures, symbols and tropes from my daily life as a young woman, which I then developed into a painterly language – I found I could process complex feelings or reconfigure my relations to and within patriarchal society by way of the painting canon. Within my expanded painting process these relational strategies often lead me to collaborate with family and close friends in the spirit of positive nepotism.

Courtesy the artist; original photograph: Eric Hayes
 Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking, 1969

A shabby garden trellis brings to mind other ready-made structures around which we create our own stories, like the nuclear family or, importantly for me, traditional folksongs. This leads me to the next image: the cover of Unhalfbricking (1969) by Fairport Convention, which shows lead singer Sandy Denny’s parents standing upright and well put together before a fence in Wimbledon, south London, while the band flop around in the garden behind them. 

When I’m taking off in a plane I either listen to the songs ‘A Sailor’s Life’ or ‘Matty Groves’, which is actually from the album Liege and Lief (1969). The latter is built around the anxious narrative of a passionate sexual betrayal that crosses class barriers and feudal enclosures, and culminates in a double murder. Here, Richard Thompson’s freak-out on his guitar corresponds perfectly with the orgasmic thrust of the engines, the lift off, the turbulence, and then adieu England! 

‘A Sailor’s Life’ gives off such an epic horizontal feeling, as though Denny knows the very secret of existence – as if there were one. This comes around halfway through the song, when the backing musicians change gear and you hear Denny’s lips parting to deliver the vocals that arguably invented the genre of folk-rock. In her ability to impart a blissful, oceanic boundlessness, Denny is, for me, a great icon of femininity.

An ‘Obby ‘Oss at the 2015 'Obby 'Oss festival, Padstow, Cornwall, UK. Courtesy the artist


Every May Day I go to the traditional ‘Obby ‘Oss (‘hobby horse’) festival in Padstow, Cornwall, with my family; I try to celebrate the turning of every season, but this is the one that quickens the blood and feels necessary. The Maysong throbs on all day like a heartbeat heard from the womb as we follow the musicians through the town, all walking at a particular pace and gait that I know only once a year. I get a similar thrill at demonstrations or raves, or those pubs where the crowd becomes a single thrumming organism. 

The streets are dressed with sycamore and birch. The maypole is dressed with bunting and a large black rook. The people of Padstow are dressed head to toe in white, with red or blue kerchiefs denoting their allegiance to either the older red ‘Oss or the newer blue.

These ‘Osses are brought to life by two dancers who wear circular disks of black polythene with hanging robes, conical heads, demonic masks and horses tails for hair. With skipping acolytes known as ‘Teasers’ drawing them through the streets, provoking them into endless whirling dervishes, each ‘Oss sweeps bystanders under its robes like the Madonna della Misericordia. They say that if a lady gets caught under them then she will bear a child within a year. I am proud to be a product of such an encounter. 

My dad and I always weep when the red ‘Oss is ceremonially put to sleep.

Carole Gibbons, Still Life with stone head and Morroccan vase, c.1982, oil on canvas, 152 x 127cm. Courtesy the artist

Carole Gibbons, Still life with stone head and Moroccan vase, c.1982

I was so happy to see a painting of by Carole Gibbons included in a group show at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, as she has been persistently under-recognized in the city – her home city. 

I first met Carole in Spain when I was 18. She was everything that a teenager might hope for from a great painter, and very beguiling. At that time I had no idea of the hardships that a woman of her generation would have had to endure in order to persist with – and continue to believe in – such a unique and personal painting project. 

Carole and I later became neighbours in Glasgow, and I got to know her work well. Before having her son Henry, she painted large Jungian vignettes with horses and self-portraits in vivid mindscapes. Despite her use of bright colour, the brushwork was always deliberate and restrained. When Henry came, so too did the domestic scenes and cat portraits that Carole is better known for, like this one from 1982. Somehow, beneath the Glaswegian grays and ochres of these later works, her previous Iberian palette still pulses.

All of Carole’s paintings come across as psychological portraits of a deep self that is both blissed out and bleak. The relationships between her collected objects come so close to describing (and eliciting) a feeling of psychosis, and their dissolving boundaries convey an exquisitely sensitive interiority, much like the writing of Elena Ferrante. Her kitchen hallucinations remind me as much of Sylvia Plath as they do of Pierre Bonnard.

Play It as It Lays (1972)

Tuesday Weld in the film adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays (1970)

The writer Isabel Sobral Campos recommended this book to me at a rather timely moment and it changed my whole outlook. The 1972 film adaptation is less well known than the novel, perhaps because, even though Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne wrote the screenplay, it’s not very good! Anthony Perkins as BZ is wooden as anything, but Tuesday Weld as Maria Wyeth holds the whole thing together with a peculiar but powerful brand of deadness that lurks behind her bright-as-a-bunny-rabbit’s eyes. Didion’s novel taught me about the power of latent threat, that you don’t need to be overwrought and dramatic in order to be deeply unsettling, and Weld’s acting demonstrates this impeccably. 

Having been institutionalized following a mental breakdown, the film sees Maria reflect on her life: her mother’s death (a possible suicide), her lost daughter Kate, and an unwanted abortion, all of which leads to a vast, flat ennui that matches her beloved desertscape of slinking rattlesnakes. She remembers the epic joyrides that she took under the midday sun in her convertible, subsisting on a diet of Coca-Cola and hard-boiled eggs that she would tap on the steering wheel to crack and unpeel.

Rembrandt van Rhijn, The Abduction of Proserpina, c.1631, oil on wood, 83 x 78 cm, from the collection of the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Rembrandt van Rhijn, The Abduction of Proserpina, c.1631

When I moved to Berlin in 2007 I was sick of Rembrandt, having spent the past three years in Amsterdam, but somehow, come every trip to Gemäldegalerie, I would get stuck in front of this painting, gawping at it and experiencing viscerally the thresholds between violence and bliss, repulsion and desire, light and dark, male and female, good and evil. Rembrandt seems to urgently convey what two centuries later Nietzsche would tell us about the pressing need to go beyond such limiting binaries: that while the chthonic abyss might be terrifying, it is also necessary and unavoidable. 

I have been going into the fogous in Cornwall lately, ancient underground structures that are like granite-clad birth canals leading to serene deprivation chambers, but Rembrandt is not asking us to literally slope back to the anti-diluvial burrow. When you enter the myth of Persephone, it reveals itself to be a story about embracing that which makes us fearful – the unknown – and staying alert to the deeper readings of all situations. Though exhausting, in the contemporary arena it might be the only way to counter the nonchalant veneer of neoliberal hegemony and the myriad of hardline attitudes that pop up in the cracks.

Lucy Stein and Simon Bayliss, Men an tol / Ding dong! (The Sacred sites of West Penwith), 2016. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Lucy Stein/Simon Bayliss

Men an tol / Ding dong! (The Sacred sites of West Penwith)

In 2010, when I lived in the Burren in County Clare, Ireland, I had an epiphany that reactivated in me some magical knowledge that had lain latent since my early twenties. Since that point, I have tried to bring that knowledge to the surface through my work, especially in my painting performances with Death Shanties, a jazz band formed of Sybren Renema, Alex Neilson and myself.

When I moved to Cornwall last year I became deeply involved with the sacred sites in the Penwith district. I love feeling the different numinous atmospheres of each site, trying to harness their power and redirect it into my artwork. The writing of the late painter and writer Ithell Colquhoun has been very helpful, as has that of the St Buryan based witch Gemma Gary and Starhawk, a radical feminist witch from California, USA.

I am still unsure about how far I want to go into ‘the craft’. Living as I now do in St Just, the option to go all the way is always there, but as I tend to reject the calcification of anything felt on a subterranean level, I will probably just stay in this liminal state of half-witch forever. There are also the calibrating factors of my sense of humour and my natural skepticism, which rear up after too much interaction with the more dour elements of ‘Celtic Pagan Goddess worshipping Cornwall’.

Lucy Stein is an artist based in St Just, UK. In 2015 she completed a residency at Tate St Ives, UK, which culminated in a collaborative musical performance titled 'The Wise Wound'. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘On Heat’ at Galerie der Stadt Schwaz, Schwaz / Tirol, Austria; 'Moonblood/Bloodmoon' at Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich, Switzerland; 'Big Farmer' at Piper Keys, London, UK; and 'Retention' (alongside Shana Moulton) at Gimpel Fils, London. 'Squirming the Worm', a radio show presented by Stein's alter ego Coco de Moll and produced by artist Simon Bayliss, is broadcast fortnightly on NTS. 'NEO-PAGAN BITCH-WITCH!', a group show curated by Stein and France-Lise McGurn at Evelyn Yard, London, runs until 20 March.