For the month of March, repeated and spontaneous gestures, created from a palette of browns, deep reds and creams, will be filling the TOAST windows. They have been created by Berlin-based rising artist Elena Barber. Here, we discuss her practice.
Can you tell us a little about your background and journey?
I grew up in Cornwall surrounded by nature, and that is something that has really informed my creative practice. I'm lucky to be part of a diversely creative family that, even from a young age, encouraged my artistic side.
I completed my Art Foundation in my hometown of Falmouth, and after that I continued with studying Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts. A move to Berlin after graduating was pushed by the curiosity to experience a new art scene, a new city, a new language, and in general, a change of perspective from London.
Do you have a working routine? What is a usual day in the studio like for you?
Every day is different when I am making work. I don't stick to any rigid routine with my practice, and it takes a long time for me to settle into physically making a painting.
In Berlin, I'm currently working from my home studio, which has it's pros and cons, but allows me to be flexible with my routine. I usually start the working day by reflecting through my sketchbooks and images; this is something that really helps me to focus.
When living in a city and constantly stimulated by busy surroundings, taking some time to feel my way into painting is integral to the process. I also take a lot of time with each piece, considering each brush mark, and drinking lots of tea.
What themes and concepts drift into your work?
My practice circulates around the notion of recycling past marks, drawings, photographs and video work, ensuring it is always referencing something done before, while growing into something new.
This cyclical approach to my paintings is also why it is important for me to work in series, as opposed to individual paintings. I strive for them to converse with each other through their repeated marks and gestures. By composing pieces that speak to each other, I can begin to coordinate a slight narrative for the viewer to navigate through. This is something I am fascinated by: a suggestion of how marks can lead the viewer's eyes around the canvas, yet giving the eye a freedom to wander between different gestural marks.
My interest in these fluid, long, and almost calligraphic painted marks were first developed from writings I had noted of certain memories. Visually enlarging words on Photoshop and projecting them onto the canvas, so they are completely separated from their meaning, and becoming pure form in the process. This is a form of manipulating and extending time, changing something that was originally a spontaneous mark of emotion, to a slow, elongated mark. The notion of time is integral to my paintings. I often use materials that allow a temporal life.
What processes and materials do you employ when creating your paintings?
My process starts from reflection, and I feel it does not have an ending. There is an essence that the paintings I create could just continue on.
The surfaces of my paintings are very important, and that's usually where I begin. I enjoy working with oil paint and acrylic to stain the porous and un-primed canvas, hinting at themes of longevity, decay and resilience.
I usually stretch the canvas myself which is physically challenging due to the scale, but it's a nurturing start to the process. Taking care and preparing the canvas in this way is all part of the mental build up to painting. I use a selected and refined colour palette, as I am more drawn to natural pigments.
Can you tell us a little about the live window series you are creating for TOAST?
Painting on a busy street in Central London in full public view is so detached from my usual, more solitary, way of working. I'm very intrigued to see how the process and brushstrokes will evolve as a result of this change in environment and materials.
Painting onto a glass window will be a change from the usual dense and porous canvases I work with. I'm curious to see how the transparency, light and reflections will play within the composition.
The busy streets of London, the people and the immersion of being in the city will impact the growth and movement of each gesture. I plan to bring an archive of sketchbooks and photographs to give me the starting points of compositions. From there, the marks and lines should organically grow.
Where do you go in the city for inspiration?
Exploring a new neighbourhood, city and its surrounding countryside is still proving to be a huge source of inspiration for me. Most of my thinking and inspiration comes from memories and drawings taken from my surroundings. There's always something unexpected to discover and this is really informing my work at the moment, everything from visiting galleries to the Berlin cafes and bars.
My current favourite galleries to visit are Hamburger Bahnhof and Gropius Bau, and I am often getting lost in the Grunwald forest and the surrounding Brandenburg countryside. Even a late-night journey on the uBahn has informed some of my initial ideas and research.
Are there any artists or designers you particularly appreciate for their originality, designs and thinking?
I really admire the German painter David Ostrowski, who takes so much consideration for the surface, creating a tactile experience for the eye whilst using a paired back colour palette. The marks on the surface appear purposeful yet imperfect.
The most powerful piece of work I have seen this year is from Israeli artist Smadar Dreyfus, titled Mother's Day'. It is a video and sound recording piece that translates voices recorded in a public setting into projections of text. The piece totally transported me in terms of space and time and emotionally made its mark on me.
I love, and always will love, Agnes Martin and her ideas of a meditative approach to painting.
What have been the main challenges you've faced perusing your practice?
Since graduating from my Degree, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges and difficulties that come with being a practicing artist. Figuring out a work life balance, moving country and moving spaces have forced me to rethink my practice entirely.
In the past I have made large scale paintings due to the workshop space we had at Chelsea. Now, I am working independently, without the resources and technical support pushing me in new directions.
Living in Berlin, I have been making the most of the materials and resources I have access to, and in doing so, more ideas are flowing. Change is good!