Boo Saville's work has long been concerned with mortality; life, death and what happens to the human body in the process. Skulls, ghosts, decomposition and decay were long-running symbols, rendered in immense detail, most often in monochrome. Saville's 2009 show, Butter Sunk, for example, featured several biro and pen recreations of photographs of the well-preserved, centuries-old bodies found in Danish bogs in the 1950s; fine details of hair and bone snapped from the canvases as if the human remains were in front of your eyes. Now, Saville, who studied at the Slade School of Art, has shifted her focus to abstract colour fields; work that is the result of working intuitively with layers of colour to produce resonant depth and tones. By their very nature the pieces invite the viewer to project their own emotion and thought onto them – an interaction that excites Saville greatly. We spent a sunny afternoon talking with her in the seaside town of Margate, to where she recently relocated from London.
For a long time your work was concerned with the fine details of human mortality; the intensely detailed skulls, the bog men. Now you’re working on these immense, sensual, abstract colour field paintings that invite an entirely different kind of immersion. What’s shifted?
Well, the initial abstract paintings I did weren’t very colourful at all. They were dark and heavy, quite depressing. Then, in January 2014, my mum died and something happened. I had this sudden, amazing experience of colour. My vision changed. When I was walking around, the sky, flowers and trees became so saturated. I felt like I was on ecstasy. It was exhilarating, as though all the love I had for my mum, because she wasn’t there anymore, had all been reabsorbed into me. During the process of planning her funeral, it became really important that everything was beautiful and for the next year I was experiencing colour in this brand new way. Obviously this translated into my work. Before, I was always kind of skirting around the idea of beauty. Everything was darker.
Do you feel like you’d consciously rejected beauty in these terms?
Yes. I thought it wasn’t very intellectual to focus on beauty as an idea.
Interesting. It’s clear that death occupied your mind for a long time through your work.
I became obsessed with death around 2003 when I went through a very dark time. I was obsessed for years and didn’t tell anyone. I became fixated on the moment of death and the only way I really could get around it was in the studio. I remember I made this painting of people standing around a grave at Auschwitz. I just wanted to do paintings of the Holocaust. I don’t know what it is.
Yes. Or the closest we can get to watching the devil.
Is there anything else that has the same resonance for you?
I’ve always been consumed by the idea of black holes, that idea of a vortex. I also used to watch movies where there were meteorites hitting the Earth, or earthquakes; anything like that. I’ve got a book about the Titanic that, when I was a kid, used to floor me. There’s a paragraph about how the Titanic got sucked under by the suction vacuum of the boat. It got me in the gut and I’ve never stopped thinking about it. There was a point around the time, when I was six or seven-years-old, and I was sat in assembly with my legs crossed. I remember thinking, “I’m alive, I’m here, I’m conscious,” it was really weird. I said to myself, “I’m going to die one day.” It was a moment of being super-aware of consciousness and it was almost like an awakening.
How does that profound awareness of self translate to being an art student, where you’re often left to your own devices?
Well, at the art school I went to, you are just thrown in and it’s like, “There’s your studio, get on with it, see you in four years.”I was like, “What the hell am I going to do? I’ve just got this expanse of white space.”
Basically a black hole, then.
Yes! Loads of people really ran with it and are good at college. I’m not, I don’t think, because whenever you get an idea and it gets halfway you have to explain it. Everyone is always asking you what you’re doing and I found it really frustrating. Eventually I would just go off to the museums and draw because then I wouldn’t be bothered by anybody.
You’re not an artist who feels the need to be visible in your work, either, are you?
No. I have never had that feeling of needing to put myself into the work. I’m like a siphon. The bog men pictures, for example, were my interpretations of images I’d seen in a book. I wanted to be like a photocopier. In my paintings there are no brush marks – there’s little evidence of me there, like I don’t really exist in the process. I’m just picking things, colours, images and am a sort of processing tool for the work. A conduit.
What’s the psychology behind that, do you think?
I’m just not interested in forcing a gesture of me into anything. I kind of feel like stuff doesn’t really exist – it’s just our minds and feelings, really, that we have. Nothing feels very concrete to me, it’s all about projection, particularly when you’re dealing with death. For that reason, though, I think, people have often picked up on the tiniest hint of me – a brush stroke, say – they can see in the work and really focused on it.
The death fixation speaks, to me at least, of an anxious mind. It’s interesting, then, that you moved away from it entirely.
Yes. Maybe that’s what it was about for me. I’m prone to anxiety and I think death was undoubtedly linked to it. The work was a way to cope. The reason I moved away from the subject, though, was because I watched a lecture series on death by Shelly Kagan, a philosophy professor at Yale University. It broke down so many fears about what death means, metaphysical ideas of souls, things like that.
Do you believe in souls?
I don’t think I do, no. I don’t believe they exist. But I am fascinated with identity and nature, the moment of death and how death doesn’t exist to us while we’re conscious, because we only experience other people’s deaths. You don’t experience your own. These Kagan lectures put into words so much of the philosophical anxieties I had about death. It was literally like a light turning on. Talking about death felt totally irrelevant. I’d had my questions answered. It’s funny, something like that calming a lifetime of preoccupation.
These colour fields you are producing now are incredibly meditative to look at. They invite a surrender, almost. Presumably the process isn’t all that meditative, though…
[Laughs] They do take a lot of work. They go on a big journey. I want them to look like they’re really simple, though; like they could have been breezed on. I like the idea of of them looking like they’ve just appeared in the world. That’s the difficulty. There are layers and layers of colour built up on the canvas, and mixing the colour is a process in itself. It takes time and precision. I have described them to the gallery as being like cheeses – some of them are “young” and some of them are “mature”. They feel alive.
Some are ricotta and some are Parmesan?
Is it an intuitive process? Do you start with a final colourscape in mind or just work as you go?
It’s completely intuitive. I work tonally, so I might say I’d like there to be a dark one, or something mid-grey, but they’re so fluid: they tell me where they’re going to go. In fact, if I were to step back and look at my work, I’d say intuition has definitely eclipsed death as a theme. Death is all we have waiting for us, but intuition is all we really have, in a way, while we’re alive.
Working in that way, though, being so present with the colour and letting it take you on a journey, seems kind of a radical state of mind to be in, because the human brain can struggle to be present.
Well, yes, I’m relying on making very minimal choices. I’m making a box for myself in the sense that I know how to mix the colours and have my really fastidious brush-cleaning method – they have to be beautifully soft for each layer, because it has to be so smooth – but it’s not a mapped-out journey. Between each layer the canvas is sanded and washed, so there is a mechanical nature to the process. But they all turn out differently. Working with colour in that way is so amazing, it sparks all sorts of memories and feelings. One layer might be depressing and I’ll think, “It looks like shit, or gravy,” and I’ll want to erase that feeling with a different colour. They’re so emotional to make.
There’s an immense generosity to these pieces, I think. They give me a similar feeling to Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall; you have no choice but to be engulfed. Is generosity something you consider?
It is. I have wanted to be much more generous. I love the idea of painting something and people reflecting onto it whatever they want. They make up the rest of the painting. They bring themselves into it. The mind is so powerful, so fertile, and I’ve become very interested in the way you can encourage projection with something that appears so simple. I look at them sometimes and think they seem so simple that I’m taking the piss.
Do you feel like you’ve found your groove?
I do. Going back to the anxiety I used to feel, when you’re making paintings, it’s like trying on everyone else’s pants. You’re literally saying, “No, that looks like someone else, that looks like someone else,” and it’s really hard to find your little chink. When you’ve done it, when you’ve found your little chink – whether or not people like it – and you own it, then you just spend years refining it. When I was trying to make paintings before, everything was self-referential and postmodern. It did my head in. I was putting on different caps all the time, kind of like a ventriloquist.
How did you view your peers during this time?
I would look at them and think they were better than me. I’d constantly be asking myself, “How do they do that?” The worst thing about developing as an artist is that you can’t help but absorb other people’s work. You’re a sponge. This is why I sometimes don’t like going to other people’s shows. I get so excited. If it’s a good show I’ll feel sick and be full of anxiety because I’ll want to go and paint like that. It took me a long time to realise that I couldn’t actually make mistakes in my work; that any “mistake” was just my own projection.
Do you think people have had preconceptions of you as a person, based on the themes of your work in the past?
Yes! People meet me and they say, “You’re not dark, you’re really upbeat.” It’s funny. They think I’m going to be a Goth or something. I’m not at all. I’m just being honest. I see it like I have a plague; a disease of honesty. Even with my friends, everything is on the surface. There’s no subterfuge. I don’t feel like I’m clever enough for that. All I can ever be is myself. I have found myself going to Freize in the past and feeling irrelevant, but I just cannot be preoccupied with “aligning” myself. I feel like all I can do is be as honest in my work as I am in life – there’s no separation. I believe in openness. When you’ve had experiences of mental ill health, for example, you realise you’re not doing anyone any favours – including yourself – by holding stuff in.
Is there an anxiety in Western art, do you think, of your work not being exciting enough if you’re feeling comfortable?
Absolutely. I’m actively pushing against that. I think it was David Bowie who said that you’ve got to be being dangerous all the time, always taking risks, but I’m not sure.
Can you identify a burning ambition you’ve always had?
I think I can. I’m really close friends with the abstract painter Rachel Howard. I remember going to see her studio when I was in London about ten years ago and she had this amazing system for making her paintings. I remember being so jealous. It was so tight. I remember thinking, “I want that one day for myself.” It’s probably the only ambition I’ve ever had.
Do you feel like you’ve found it now?
It’s unnerving to say out loud, but yes. Perhaps I have.