'Fragmented Cities' - David Somerville Interview

David Somerville at Wooster Projects Gallery, NY 2004
© David Somerville & Gregory Weir Media

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We learnt about David Somerville’s artwork through a visit to his partner Neil in their main London residence, a truly spacious loft apartment, which is full of art, and among it, dozens or David’s artworks with striking colours which made us want to learn more about his work.

David Somerville is a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, composer and photographer living and working in London. His work explores figurative compositions, abstract landscapes and cityscapes, the images emerging from a vast series of sketches and drawings. He composes music and creates films and photographs that reflect his immediate surroundings.

Somerville’s strength as a colourist is immediately apparent, the stillness of the figures and abstracted landscape compositions establish a clever and unusual rhythm of colour. David treats the urban and rural landscape as an anthology of found images and it becomes possible to regard his work as a sort of “map” of these environments.

We set up a meeting in David’s London studio in Hoxton a few weeks later. In that meeting we had the privilege of contemplating many of his large size artworks, experiencing his sculptures, watching some of his original films and listening to his captivating music. Hypnotised by the bright colours and the stories revealed on each painting, We were also amazed about how prolific David is. His studio contains hundreds of striking works produced through decades, across different media. David’s career has gone through long quiet period after many successful exhibitions internationally in the 90’s and early 2000’s. However, he is now willing to allow his art out of the studio again and it has been an honour to rediscover his work through this interview, we certainly look forward to his next London exhibition.


We are always interested in how artists start creating art, what are your first memories about realising you wanted to be an artist, what prompted you to produce your first paintings

I first recall making artworks at primary school in Wiltshire. My very early pictures were executed at the age of 5 or 6 years old. I remember making drawings of animals, collages cut out from magazines, little watercolours of landscapes and figures.They were well accomplished pictures even at such a young age.

At the age of 7, my foster mother, Ada Ellis, an elderly white lady, gave me my very first box of oil paints. It was a Christmas present and I remember vividly being puzzled as to what was inside this small blue plastic box. This was my first exposure to the beauty of oil paints.

The first portrait I remember doing was of Ada and I still have the picture today. This was the beginning of my passion and dedication for making works of art, and the passion and dedication has stayed with me all my life.
It was not until I was at secondary school that I found a book on David Hockney which was about his early work and life. I found it fascinating. It made me realise that it was possible to become a fine artist. His early paintings from the 1960’s were of particular interest to me and I found his cross over of abstract and figurative method of painting intriguing.

When I studied at Bath Academy of Art in the early 80’s, I saw a show of the work of British artist, Ken Kiff. His work inspired me to create a series of paintings dealing with the human condition and its internal struggle and this became a theme in my work at the time. Later on I studied at Chelsea School of Art where Ken was one of my visiting tutors. He was extremely helpful and encouraging to me. He even wanted to put me in touch with a gallery in New York but I could not follow it through at that time. He used to say I had a really great command of colour. I am so pleased to now own some of his works that I enjoy looking at every day.

My prized book on Rembrandt which I got when I was about 12, provided for me an invaluable inspiration for drawing. By looking at this book I gained a great knowledge and ability to make rapid sketches and compositions.

‘Soho Cafe Days’ by David Somerville

You have seen the changes in the art world through several decades. The shift between NYC to London as world art capital, the globalisation, the big fairs and the online business. How has it affected you?

I have made my work very much regardless of the fashions of the time. it has been very important to keep my vision and artistic integrity so that I have retained my original voice.

My work has evolved through time and has become multi-dimensional. I am aware of what is going on in the art world including the major art fairs. What I do often is visit the auction houses and the contemporary art galleries but I try to really focus on my own work and its observations and transformations.

In the early 1980’s on my winter break from studying at Chelsea School of Art, I took a trip to New York where I saw at first-hand what was happening in the art scene there. There were several new galleries in the East Village and this was the time that Basquiat was known as the great young artist of the times. It was a very exciting and exhilarating period which I found very inspiring.

I had recently started living in London when the Saatchi Gallery first opened in St John’s Wood in about 1985. This was a seminal moment on the London art scene and in the early 90’s, I would see the work of the YBAs which Saatchi was focusing on at the time. So I saw the development and shift in focus in the art world in the world’s two most exciting cities in the later part of the 20th Century. These were the experiences that have been the most valuable to me in seeing what is possible to achieve in this fast changing art world.

With the exception of Basquiat, when you started your career there were almost no black artists represented by major art galleries. Has this been a challenge through your career?

It has taken many years for black artists to be seen in the major galleries and museums but now there are several black painters, filmmakers and photographers who have emerged into the limelight. It is a positive change for the good.

In the1970’s and 80’s I was not aware of many black artists being shown in the high-profile galleries. There were a few political artists dealing with the theme of the Black Diaspora but very few in prominent positions certainly not in the public eye.

When in the early 90’s, I was invited to participate in an Arts Council touring exhibition called The Dub Factor curated by Eddie Chambers, I came into contact with the abstract painter, Frank Bowling. Frank wrote the postscript for the catalogue for this group show that toured museums and galleries around the UK. This touring exhibition addressed the issue of abstract art created by black artists whose work had not had much exposure.

The Dub Factor premise was to draw the viewers’ attention to black abstract painters whose work as suggested by Eddie was like the b side or instrumental version of a Reggae music single whereas figurative painting was equivalent to the main song – the vocal – on the a side. The idea was that the b side of the
vinyl was sometimes more interesting. Although I don’t listen to Reggae much, I can relate to Eddie’s discourse drawing an analogy between the work of black artists at the time and this inventive genre of music.

“Making art and sticking to my vision has been a challenge but one worth fighting for” – David Somerville

Many of your works are based on scenes you have witnessed in the streets of London and also in the US. Are there certain locations or situations that inspire you more?

I have spent the last 35 years in Central London so I have made very many notes, drawings, sketches, photographs, and videos based on London especially the areas around Camden Town, Soho, Old Street and Shoreditch. These places and its inhabitants have left an indelible imprint on my imagination and have inspired my work. My drawings and paintings of urban dwellers have developed from the vast amount of source material and visual information which I keep in a library of sketchbooks. Documenting the energy of the streets has always been an important part of my daily observation and I have created these vignettes as a visual diary or sequence of invented events.

Whether using the method of the automatic drawing technique which evokes figures from memory or creating images directly drawn from life, they are both abstract glimpses of the inner city existence. The locations in the paintings tend to be generic cityscapes represented by flat simplified geometric shapes to signify buildings. I use various tones of green paint and yellow ochre to depict the ground, pavement or grass. The locations are fragmented and ephemeral.

I have spent a lot of time in the US where I have also made shows based on the urban experience. The first one man show was in a gallery called Wooster Projects in downtown New York City. The exhibition was titled Stories From The Urban Jungle. This body of work incorporated figures with themes relating especially to my experiences of urban USA. Paintings with titles such as the Fragmented Cities and a series of works called The Situation Sequence have significant importance in my oeuvre.

I also created a show in LA based on my stay at the legendary Chateau Marmont, a place where I have made many painting studies, drawings and also created music on my laptop. This famous hotel is a place of historic significance in popular culture and was a great source of inspiration for several works which were shown at the George Billis Gallery in LA.

The Southern Californian light has entered my palette and the energy of New York City has stayed with me for 3 decades. Having said that, the location that most influences my work is my home town of London with its multitude of different cultures, architecture and bustling streets.

There is also a focus on the immediate, the instant, like a polaroid in your brain. How do you recreate those scenes and experiences once you are back in your studio?

I refer to my sketches and drawings as a trigger for my thought process and preparation for paintings. I also play the films I make of my surroundings while I am painting. These films relay a particular sequence of events that I have edited and altered through certain effects and filters. I show these films on several TV monitors that I use for installations and they act as subliminal inputs that recall the reservoir of images that I have collated over the years. The films are not only an important aid to the visualisation of a particular subject matter that I am dealing with at the time, they are also works of art in themselves.

The paintings are not an illustration of a theme; they are a recreation of a sensation experienced in the process of transforming daily observations into paintings. It is important for me to keep images fresh in my mind so that the work has a presence and resonates energy. The immediacy with which I produce my pictures comes from an ability to improvise with controlled agility.

The colours in your paintings are so rich and vivid. Have you always worked with that chromatic intensity and what attracted you to use colour in such a bold way?

I have always used high key and tonal colours to make my pictures. Looking back on my very early works I can see the interest I have always had in colour and the development over the years in my use of colour. This comes from an intuitive response to my surroundings that causes me to translate memories and sensations into compositions.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s I made several pictures using ripped up paper and images from the National Geographic. I would often get copies of this publication from charity shops. The colour printing was so rich and luscious and they looked like 1950’s technicolor film stills. I would then add my own colours to my ripped up abstracted photographic collages. I take something existing in the world and alter it in order to create a fresh image. I apply this methodology to all my work.

Colour is a vital part of my visual language. I am interested in the effect colour has on the senses. I like to portray an invented space where through the use of colour one can see things pushing forwards and other things receding. I therefore create an illusion, a place for the eye of the viewer to be stimulated. My relationship with colour has its roots in my early development as an artist and continues to arrest my senses to this day.

‘Abstract 3’ by David Somerville

Another fascinating element in your work is the distinctive way in which you paint human faces, they feel deliberately unfinished at times, perhaps keeping a secret from the viewer. What type of people or characters do you usually represent?

The figures and faces signify people from the street or in cafes. My work is not however illustrative but more a re-creation of a glimpse of the person which is why sometimes the faces are reduced to a masklike quality or seemingly unfinished. This symbolic rendition of a face has a long history in painting traditions. For example, Cezanne and Matisse use this pictorial device in their paintings.

I am sometimes also using this traditional method as a way of portraying an idea of the anonymity of people.

At times, when I re-create the figures for paintings from my sketch books, I block in the shape of the face and I then add a nose, mouth and almond shaped eyes. These markings are then reduced down to their raw simplicity.

The faces that I create can look as if they are unfinished but they are part of the abstract nature of my work. Some of the characters’ faces have been left blank out of necessity, so that the compositions can suggest an intermingling of the diversity of humanity, a mixture of race and genders – or a face may be painted with attention to detail in order to create more of an intimate engagement for the viewer.

The characters in my work are often isolated and self-protective. Even if they are in a crowd, they may be wearing a modern mask.

‘The urban studio’ by David Somerville

Some of your works may take decades to be finished. How do you decide when you have reached completion of an artwork?

When I pick up a paintbrush and canvas, I think about it as a record of an event. It is the moment from which I put down a mark that suggests a timeline. Painting is an action, gestural mark making can lead to a face, a figure, an abstract representation of a memory or a moment in time. This causes a reaction to do something, to put something down that is tangible and real. I have a rigorous and disciplined work ethic. It consists of a daily (seven days a week) session in the studio.

Paintings are often made and then put aside (sometimes for years) so that I can clear my mind to work on other projects. A painting can be transformed from one thing to another but as long as it has that original combination of ideas, marks or areas of colour showing somewhere in the painting, it can be warranted as a time based work i.e. a piece made over time. A painting is finished when the artist says it’s finished. For me a painting has to have resolution that can only come from years of understanding of one’s medium and subject matter and knowing the elements in one’s own work that are capable of connecting with the viewer who always brings their own thing to a work of art.

I am always interested in layers; it may be paint surface or the layers of time and an artwork is finished when all the elements of a composition have been pushed to its limit. I apply the same set of rules to my films and music. This is when the history of a piece of work finds its finishing point.

It is extremely rare to find a multi-disciplinary artist like you who can create a language which relates your message across so many different media including paintings, music, film, photography and sculpture. How is your music and film connected for instance, to your paintings?

I don’t really differentiate between the various mediums in which I work. They are all part of who I am as an artist so they all have an interconnected thread. The paintings are the primary part of my practice as an artist. The music and films are a counterbalance to the paintings.

My daily work routine is to paint from early morning until lunch time each day. This is when the light is perfect in the studio. After lunch I work on my films and music. This routine means that the paintings, the films and the music naturally influence each other.

In my painting, I use multi layers of colour, super imposing images onto each other and the use of abstraction to create a cohesion where colour is the link that binds all the works together. In the films I use overlay techniques in the editing process and with music I make overlapping rhythm and ambient sounds. This is where the crossover and the connection between all the different methods of work lie i.e. imposing layer upon layer and creating depth to the work.

The methods used to create these works are of great importance. There are recurring motifs in the paintings and the films. Geometric forms and traces of previous images are something that surface throughout my production of imagery.

Music has always played a huge part in my life and work. It evokes a memory or an emotion in the way that it works on the senses. if I am not writing my own music I am listening to other music and always while I am in the studio there is music playing.

All my work has a similar quality in that it is creating a connection to the real world through the use of sounds and a visual language. For me, this is vital in order to engage with an audience. All of my work has a cohesion that has taken many years to develop.

What are your most recent works on what future projects you are preparing?

At the moment I am embarking on reinvestigating a series of paintings and films that have been ongoing for twenty-five years called Fragmented Cities. It incorporates a series of works about four cities – London, New York, Paris and Los Angeles. I have shown versions of the film series at Soho House and Shoreditch House and the paintings and films at The Club at the Ivy in London. I would like to find a gallery that would show and promote this work.

I am also in the process of writing a visual autobiography, re-reading my various notes since 1988 and writing down my present thoughts; also, I’m looking back over my pictures and describing how they have arrived at this point in time.

I am also working on a music score based on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross of which I have already made a series of small abstract paintings that were installed at St. Vedast Church in the City of London in 2003. I would like to be able to make a larger series of the original paintings along with writing the music and exhibiting it all together at some point as an installation piece.

To find out more about David Somerville’s work, visit davidsomervilleart.com. Follow him on Instagram! 


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