VENETIA BERRY X GURLS TALK
South London based artist Venetia Berry paints the nude female figure through an abstracted lens, simplifying and subverting the human form. Her increasingly sought after works acknowledge the male gaze – whilst challenging the archetypical sexualised female nude. In this Q&A, Gurls Talk speak to Venetia about her recent exhibition ‘Stretch Marks’ and how as an artist, she negotiates the balance between her craft, the necessary commercialisation of her work, social media and self-care. As a body positive artist – Venetia also shares her tips for encouraging body positivity as well as the beauty standards she’d like to challenge and celebrate moving forwards.
Tell us about your career so far…
After studying up in Edinburgh at Leith School of Art and in London at the Royal Drawing School I moved into a shared studio in Brixton where my work evolved from concentrating on portraiture, to focussing on the female nude through abstraction. I had my first solo exhibition in May 2017 at the Alex Eagle Studio. I was lucky enough to hold my second show there in September 2017 too. In November 2017 I exhibited alongside an array of wonderful female artists at Mother London in a show put on by Katy Hessel of @thegreatwomenartists. It was a great success, echoing the demand for more female led exhibitions. Towards the end of 2017 I joined Partnership Editions, a brilliant platform for emerging artists. The founder, Georgia Spray, has managed to create a real sense of community in this world where technology seems to encourage distance. I have shown with Partnership Editions as well as numerous panel discussions and drawing classes. I also sell work through Partnership Editions at Liberty London, as well as their site. 2018 brought in a focus on hand-painted ceramics. I collaborated with Modern Society on a limited number of ceramic vases, alongside a solo show in their flagship store on Redchurch Street. My hand painted ceramics can also be found in The Shop At Bluebird. I finished off the year in December 2018 with a solo exhibition. ‘Stretch Marks’ was held at Noho Studios in Fitzrovia.
Who and what would you say your inspirations are?
The main source of my inspiration is through seeing other artists work. Whether it is flicking through a book and seeing a certain type of line or colour that inspires me, or going to an exhibition and seeing the work in the flesh, this is my go-to process for feeding my creativity. The Picasso show at the Tate Modern last year was hugely influential on my ‘Stretch Marks’ series; I was particularly drawn to his use of pastel colours, which ended up dominating my 2018 series. I love to look at Helen Frankenthaler’s use of colour and shape. Matisse has been one of my favourites for years, I am constantly amazed at how he can create such complexity with such a simple mark. I am intrigued by the effect that Yayoi Kusama’s work has on the eye and the feeling she creates within her work. Egon Schiele’s use of pencil and line never ceases to inspire…the list goes on!
What’s your favourite gallery space?
Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road gallery is stunningly beautiful. It is the perfect mix of contemporary and old school with large wooden beams in the ceiling in one of the rooms. They also have a wonderfully tranquil garden you would never expect to find in central London.
You have described yourself as a body positive artist – do you have any advice for encouraging body-positive thoughts?
I have always had a very negative relationship with my body, sadly, along with the majority of women today. I often think that I am painting for my insecure 15-year-old self, crying in the changing room with my mum and sisters. It is such a shame that we as a human race waste so much time spent criticizing how we look and comparing ourselves to those built totally differently to us. My advice would be to stop comparing yourself to anyone. Delete anyone on Instagram who makes you feel down. Also, try to fill your body with health. Junk food may be comforting instantaneously, but we all know it makes you feel like crap afterwards. Lastly I would advise to exercise. I have never regretted going to the gym or a yoga class – preferably without a mirror!
Your previous exhibition was called Stretch Marks – are there any other beauty standards you’d like to focus on moving forwards?
I think it is important to portray real women in the media. Instagram is currently going through a trend whereby women show themselves as ‘Instagram vs Reality’. Women are also celebrating their stretch marks, rolls and curves through photography. I think trends like these are a great step forward. I would have loved to have grown up in a world where more real women were displayed in the media, and I may have a different view on the feminine ideal if I had. I feel like large clothing brands are still very much designing their clothes for 6ft tall women with no boobs. As someone who is 5 ft 2.5 (the half counts) with big boobs, I regularly feel that mainstream brands are not making clothing for my body type (particulary with tops. Tops always seem designed for a flat chest.) It would be great to see a shift towards the celebration of all the different female body types, however, it would also be great to look deeper than the aesthetic, celebrating the personality before the body in all genders.
How do you feel about social media?
Instagram has been a very important aspect of my career. It has allowed me to share what I do as an artist on a day-to-day basis to people who have chosen to see. Working as an artist is traditionally a very lonely career, however, through Instagram communities of artists have formed. Instagram has no biased opinion; everyone enters through the same door. The art world has always been male dominated, but Instagram has allowed women into the system. I think Instagram overall is a fantastic and fair platform, however, I do see the negatives as people carefully curate their lives on social media, inviting constant comparisons. I think we are probably all a bit too obsessed with Instagram. Recently I have been trying to get off my phone at 9pm and not look at it again until I am leaving the flat in the morning. I have even bought an alarm clock! It has made me realise how many hours I spent scrolling before bed and immediately as I woke up, which isn’t healthy at all.
How do you find the business and commercial element of what you do?
One of the hardest things to do as an artist is to promote oneself, but Instagram has made this 100 times easier. However, it is never pleasant having to discuss money, particularly when it comes to artwork, you are pricing something that is essentially a part of yourself. I have people who help me with pricing and PR, which makes life a lot easier. In an ideal world I would just be working creatively in the studio, but I am effectively running a small business, so I need to be on top of the admin constantly.
Where is your favourite place in London?
One of my favourite weekly routines is to walk through Brockwell Park on a Sunday to Herne Hill market. There is such a beautiful view of the city from the centre of the Park. I love walking through the market, trying tasters and buying farmers eggs and veg. Usually finished off with a glass of red wine or a pint at The Florence by the park.
Where are you happiest?
This is a difficult question as I think it so depends on who is there, rather than where you are. But probably in my flat in Brixton, I have put so much effort into it and I just love being there.
How do you practice self-care?
Having struggled with anxiety for most of my adulthood, I discovered yoga a couple of years ago, which has completely changed my life. I try to practice yoga as much as I can to keep the anxieties away, but they have recently been returning. I have booked myself onto a meditation course in a few weeks, which I am hoping will be transformative. Otherwise I think it is so important to see friends and family to feed your soul.
Working for yourself, how do you manage your time?
I am very diligent with time keeping, if I don’t keep on top of it I would completely fall off the wagon. I try to be in the studio between 7.30-9am and stay there until 6.30pm. The least I can do is be in my working environment, but it doesn’t mean I am totally productive the whole time! Routine is key.
How do you keep your work interesting and varied?
We live in a very fast pace world where people expect things to change constantly and for things to happen instantly. This is a struggle as an artist as the development of an artist happens slowly and doesn’t ever really stop. I try to ignore the social pressures and I would never create artwork because I think it coincides with a popular trend. I think this can become very transparent and will end up biting you in the bum. It is important to me to stick to what I am passionate about and keep with what my instincts tell me. Naturally work does progress, so hopefully people maintain interest in it.
Your work previously was much more portrait focused and technique driven – how important do you think it is for artists to have a notable ‘brand’ and would you ever revert to a previous style or release numerous styles of art at once?
Portraiture was very much the building blocks that I built my love for painting on. I do still take on portrait commissions, which are often a welcome break as it is so different from what I paint now. I enjoy being able to copy something in a portrait, whereas my other work is much more thinking and involvement with the work. I much prefer how I paint now though and feel so much more freedom as I am no longer constrained into creating a ‘likeness’. I think any artist who is releasing numerous styles at once is probably just finding their feet and exploring what they are interested in. It is no bad thing, but when an artist finds what they want to be working with, these numerous styles stop naturally.
Who are your favourite affordable artists?
Rose Electra Harris, Kit Agar, Fee Greening, Jessalyn Brooks, Isabelle Cotier, James Wilson, Alexa Coe, Julianna Byrne, Emilie Pugh, Hester Finch, Emily Ponsonby, Jack Penny, Dickon Drury, Venus Libido, Alba Hodsoll, Christabel MacGreevy.
What would your dream collaboration be?
My work is all about the female body, so I would love to work with a swimming costume brand. Hunza G would be the dream!
What does 2019 have in store for you?
I have a collection of limited edition pyjamas coming out with Desmond and Dempsey early on this year. In Spring, I will be collaborating with Matches Fashion on a limited edition series of hand painted vases, to be available from April this year. I am also working with Paradise Row on their third bag, a beautiful leather goods company based and produced in East London.
Image credit: Shado-Mag @shado.mag – Isabella Pearce / Hannah Robathan