Anna Freeman Bentley: ‘The work is successful when there’s a question over what it is you are looking at’
Freeman Bentley’s paintings are visual and psychosocial mazes that tease layers of meaning from architectural spaces. She talks about her inspiration and the social tensions that lurk beneath the surface
by EMILY SPICER
Anna Freeman Bentley (b1982, London) is drawn to the interior life. Her works are painterly reflections of public spaces and transient lives, teaming with glossy surfaces, elaborate light fittings and rich textures. But these rooms represent more than just walls and glass. They speak of aspiration, hierarchy and history on the one hand and more personal desires on the other. They are, then, psychological spaces with dark corners and disorienting corridors, a painterly mix of the homely and the impersonal, the comforting and the unsettling. Be it a humble junk shop or a plush members’ club, in Freeman Bentley’s hands cluttered spaces are transformed into complex worlds within worlds, cleverly evoked with the fracturing effect of mirrors and doorframes.
Emily Spicer: What drives your interest in interiors?
Anna Freeman Bentley: When I was doing my BA, I started exploring abandoned buildings in London and what I found really curious about them was this sense of a time capsule, because time stops. It’s thick with atmosphere. So I started making paintings on cardboard about abandoned buildings, and that was somehow the beginning of it. And then I was drawn to lots of different ideas that could be explored within the confines of architectural space, such as longing or history.
At the end of my degree, I did a series of paintings from stills of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is a cult film about three men who go into a forbidden zone – a big derelict wasteland in Russia – looking for the room of desire. When they go in, it will fulfil their deepest desires. Along the way, they discuss the stories they have heard about other people who have gone into this room, but in the end they don’t have the guts to go in. I found the idea of longing as embodied by a room very interesting.
ES: There’s an argument for comfort in melancholy and longing.
AFB: Exactly. When I was doing my BA, I did an Erasmus exchange in Berlin and, again, I was drawn to abandoned buildings and the history that I could see all around. I look back on it now and I should have realised that it was going to change. It has all been cleaned up and gentrified and regenerated. In the same way, all the abandoned buildings in London that I used to explore have now been knocked down and turned into “luxury” flats. After my studies, I moved to Berlin again and when I was there that time I was doing a lot of collaging and, interestingly, making some paintings of London.
ES: Were you longing for London? Were you homesick?
AFB: I really didn’t expect to experience homesickness – which is a bit of a simplistic way of putting it perhaps – because I grew up abroad and thought that I wasn’t that attached to being English.
ES: Where did you grow up?
AFB: When I was between the ages of three and 10, my family lived in Thailand. My father was working out there as a civil engineer. I have often talked about the fact that I didn’t grow up going to galleries, I grew up going to construction sites and how I see that as something that makes me look to structures and buildings as a starting point for my work.
The work I was making in Berlin was very collage-based. I was interested in lots of different types of spaces, abandoned buildings, but also baroque, opulent palaces and how they seemed to evoke some sort of similar atmosphere, even though they were so different.
ES: But you have gone from one extreme to the other, from derelict buildings and construction sites to baroque environments, rich with velvets and mirrors and tiles. Why did you make that leap? I’m trying to understand how they evoke the same feelings.
AFB: I don’t think I understood it at the time. When I studied for my masters I was able to get to grips with these ideas, so I did a lot of research into the baroque and wrote my dissertation on emptiness and fullness in baroque architecture and the architecture of abandoned buildings. Something that is so clearly empty and something that is suffocatingly full actually seemed to do a similar thing, which is to leave you in a state of dissatisfaction or lacking. It’s that atmosphere that is a hard thing to put your finger on.
ES: But you’re not painting empty buildings, you’re painting the full ones. Why haven’t you chosen to paint vast, empty canvases?
AFB: Some might say they’re empty of people, which is something a lot of people seem to find challenging about my work.
ES: Actually, it didn’t occur to me that there were no people in them. I suppose that’s because there are traces of people in every painting. The environments you paint are very full of objects.
AFB: Exactly. It’s an interesting thing. I don’t paint figures because I feel like that would pinpoint a narrative, which then makes you think, what is this person doing? Whereas with these traces of human presence, you have to interweave your own narrative and then you can potentially put yourself in to the environments.
I did a series of works looking at junk shops and, because of my interest in collage, I was fascinated by how a junk shop is like a composed space – it’s curated in a way – but you’ve got all these objects that are out of context. You have grand chandeliers from opera houses as well as railway signs and industrial paraphernalia, all these weird things that just wouldn’t go together in any other way. And they’re not permanently together because the idea is that they leave, that they’re bought and taken away. With my ongoing interest in collage, suddenly I became aware that these spaces are collaged spaces themselves. Something about the atmosphere of the space is visually exciting for me.
ES: And you have painted bars and hotels. You seem drawn to transitory spaces.
AFB: That started when I had a show in Venice in 2012 and I wanted to make work in response to the city. Almost everyone has been there, but hardly anyone actually lives there. It’s mostly hotels.
ES: And there’s all that opulence, of course.
AFB: Exactly, a shared grandeur that is abandoned time after time. So I made a body of work looking at transient spaces in Venice.
ES: How do you choose an interior and then turn it into a painting?
AFB: Sometimes a body of work will come organically and other times I’ll spend a long time planning it before actually making the paintings. I had been making works for a few years on gentrification and how spaces have changed, looking at new cafes and whether they showed signs of their past. It’s glossed over, but there’s social tension. For example, the clientele will change when an old pub becomes a heavily stylised chicken restaurant with a nightclub out the back. The old clientele, the regulars, will never go to this new place.
I was making a lot of work about that and I felt that I had come to the end of it and then was writing a proposal for a show and had this idea that it would be really interesting to explore members’ clubs. There’s a social tension that comes with exclusivity and the idea of a community that you have to pay for. So I contacted people who could give me access to members’ clubs. The temptation is to suddenly go to loads, but I think you can become overwhelmed if you have too much source material. I want to pace myself, so I’ve been making work from the same club for the time being and then I intend to gain more source material as I go along. This is a better way of doing things as well because it means that I will approach photographing new spaces from a more informed position, with a greater understanding of the kind of imagery that I need for the paintings to work.
In Thailand, my family was part of an expat community at a time when the world was less globalised than it is now. And we were members of the British Club. It was basically a place to play tennis and swim. We went there all the time. That’s probably one of the resounding memories of my childhood, just being at the British Club after school and all weekend. I’ve been back a few times and it’s just so funny. I really like it, but, as a child, I had no idea how colonial it feels. There was membership, community and a sense of ownership at this club and yet I just accepted it all as normal. It’s interesting how these themes that are probably related to my childhood feed into the work I’m making now in a very subtle way.
ES: When I first looked at your work, the tight corners in dark rooms and the glimpses of mirrors, it made me think of a film noir. But your colours are so often vibrant. I don’t know how you arrive at that and I think it’s very clever.
AFB: Colour has always been a battle. For a long time, my work was much darker. I always felt more comfortable with a greyer palette and I used to get a lot of responses, you know: “It’s too depressing.”
ES: And your work is becoming more – I hesitate to say realist – let’s say, more representational.
AFB: That’s something I struggle with because I think the work is successful when there’s a question over what it is you are looking at, when the line is blurred between figuration and abstraction. I came in today and looked at my most recent works in the studio and wondered if they are getting too tight, that the locations are perhaps becoming too literal or too located even.
ES: Is that why you divide the image up as though we are looking at a reflection in multiple mirrors? Are you trying to move towards abstraction again by subtly fracturing what we see?
AFB: Yes, I’m trying to dislocate it. I make [these paintings] in four separate sections, so I’m not able to see the whole image until it’s finished, so I’m veiled from it too.
ES: So you cover everything but one quarter, and work on one section at a time?
AFB: Yes, and then I’ll come back the next day with freshly mixed paints. That idea of longing and dislocation in space, in a location, is why mirrors become really powerful in architecture; because of the difference between what is real and what is reflected. And if you paint them without giving any hierarchy to the reflected or to the physical surface, then it becomes hard to read and I really enjoy that.
ES: I have to admit, when I read the blurb on your website and saw the word heterotopia, I had to look it up. Can you explain how this idea fits in with your work?
AFB: Heterotopia is something Michel Foucault wrote about, and what it literally means is “other place”. It’s connected to that idea about the mirror. There’s a place in the mirror, but it’s not a place because it’s a reflection. Foucault talks about the ship being the ultimate heterotopia because it’s a place, but it’s not grounded, so at the same time it isn’t a place.
It’s one of those things I talk about slightly cautiously because I like the loose connection to it; it is a hard thing to pin down. You could even say that painterly space or the space of a painting is a heterotopia; that idea of reflected space, real space and painted space are all functioning and, in addition to that, here we are in a room, another space, looking at these reflections of space.
ES: What is your next project?
AFB: I want to push further the sectioning up of the image through painting. I’m quite intrigued by showing a cross section of ideas of dislocation and longing by pairing together multiple subjects. One idea is to bring together imagery of members’ clubs with outdoor antique markets. I was in France in the summer and I explored a lot of brocantes, thinking about how they are temporary spaces, which are opened up and closed down for each session; they are similar to a junk shop, but even more fluid because they’re outside and different every time. At the moment, however, I’m really just working on exploring the members’ clubs and in future I’d like to pull in this other thing and see how it would work to show them together, or how it would work to actually combine the images in one work. But artists always have lots of ideas. I might try that out and then realise that it doesn’t work.