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The artwork of Bethany Lee stands out among contemporary young artists who engage largely with digital and new media. Beth’s practice takes the form of oil paintings, a traditional medium which carries the legacy of artists and masterpieces over many centuries but has been decreasingly produced in recent decades. This medium relies on a direct and intimate relationship between the artist and the artwork, in a different way to artworks which engage with the public, participation, space and technology. In one respect, the simplicity of the painting process perhaps keeps the artist closer to their work, and Beth remarks that she makes art mainly for herself, rather than for the viewer or any other context, and she loves her medium.
“I’ve been drawing and painting since I can remember. I only started oils really in second year, mainly because I felt that it was an expected progression, but as soon as I started I wished I’d realised sooner. I love the way it handles and the different things you can do with it.”
We were curious as to what keeps an artist so dedicated to a particular form, and asked Beth what it is about painting and drawing that has engaged her for so long, and why she has not ventured into other media. For Bethany, painting offers all the variety and freedom that moving between forms and mediums might represent for other artists.
“I’ve tried working in other mediums, but nothing has inspired me to get better the same. There are so many different things to do with oil paint. There are so many mediums and colours that I want to play with. I think it’s that possibility for play that keeps me captured”
So, for someone who is so passionate about a traditional medium whose is place in the contemporary art world (like that of many other forms) is being renegotiated, does Bethany feel strongly about defending painting? SCAN asked Bethany if she feels it is important to preserve traditional mediums, skills and forms such as painting. The artist is concise and confident; “Absolutely. All art has a place.” But what is it about this kind of art that is unique? Does it achieve something that other forms cannot? Bethany cites the directness of drawing or paint application to a blank surface as a creative act, “I think the thing that is unique is direction of thought straight into the page where there are infinite possibilities” and the history of the medium as a source of inspiration, “There is such a log of work you can learn from and be inspired by that it will never exhaust itself.”
Bethany’s figure paintings are full of sensation; movement and stillness, emptiness and business, evoking such feelings as isolation, conflict and togetherness. In these paintings it feels that the image of the human figure is imbued with the sensations of human experience. Bethany remarks,
“I mainly want my paintings to be ambiguous. I want my audience to be unsure what the people in my paintings are doing, whether they are acting out a tragedy or a love story, and relate it with their own relationships and experiences. However, I definitely want to show the need for human connection.”
The artist certainly succeeds in these intentions, as when viewing the work one cannot but connect to the anonymous figures, and it is as if the physical sensations and emotional mood of the painting is projected onto us. Bethany’s masterly depiction of texture has I think something to do with this; though not hyper realistic they somehow look so real you can feel them.
Bethany’s work has the ability to affect the viewer on a personal and intimate level, but what is her view on the role of the artist in society at large? She believes an Artist should “Cause a stir, provide a break, make you think, challenge perceptions. The best of art can make a real change.”
Speaking to her about influences from artists who inform her practice, Bethany explains “My favourite painters are Egon Schiele and Yves Klein. Klein especially made me consider the possibilities for painting, even though his work is very different from my own.”
“My practice is inspired by work that uses the human figure and really engages with the medium, such as Michael Borremans, Denis Sazahin and Lucian Freud. They approach a similar subject so differently it inspires me to keep trying new things and never get complacent.”
Last year, Bethany participated in Sky’s ‘Portrait Artist of The Year’ competition, and SCAN was curious what this experience was like for a young artist to thrust their work and their process into the public eye in an exciting but unfamiliar way. Beth described the experience as “Quite mad and it seemed to be over very quick. You only had a few hours to complete a whole portrait, so I felt like every mistake I didn’t have time to correct. But it was also amazing to meet so many different artists and the judges. Everyone was very positive and wanting each other to do well.”