artist emilie pugh designs maps of the mind using incense and bleach

Using dangerous sounding combinations of lit incense sticks, chemicals, bleach and gunpowder, London-based artist Emilie Pugh designs maps of her mind using her intuition (and good luck) alone.

Guided by the interconnectivity of all living things, “from the spiritual to scientific” Emilie Pugh is the London-based artist who’s slowly turning her studio into a chem-lab, using the likes of gunpowder, fire and bleach to gently map the subtle "conflicting or confluent universal forces that govern life." She likens the gentle intricacies within her work to a whisper; they make you lean forward, engage and notice the subtleties nearly invisible to the human eye.

'Anatomy of thought', ink and incense burnt gampi paper (2014)
'Anatomy of thought', ink and incense burnt gampi paper (2014)

What’s the most important thing you want your art to translate to the viewer?

Because my works are abstract there's always an inevitable ambiguity. My intensions and what the viewer sees or feels might differ - one person might see something cellular, the other something cosmic for example. I think it is important to me that the viewer senses the human behind the work, that it is not machine made, that it has come out of and been filtered through the eyes of a person, with all the imperfections, moods and rhythms of life. 

So many artists work on intuition alone, why is it important for you?

I work intuitively only after I've explored my subjects in depth, I am only able to draw out its elemental parts once I fully understand it. It is a more Eastern approach of representation. There is more to capturing something than by simply copying its physical appearance, and as some of the things I am exploring are also not visible the imagination has to take over. It is this that I'm interested in; the part you have to feel and the part that makes it come alive. 

Where do you look for external inspiration when you’re not looking within?

At the moment I’m looking at a combination of scientific imagery: the cosmos, space, and images of cells. I love artists that employ energy pathways in their work like Chiharu Shiota, Shirazeh Houshiary and Julie Mehrehtu. ‘The artist’s touch’ is also something I value now more than ever in art because we see it less and less. It’s why drawing is such a powerful thing for me. It charts the movement of an arm or a hand, a passing thought, the human behind the art. 

'Copper moon', copper and patina (2016)
'Copper moon', copper and patina (2016)

On the surface, some of your art can appear quite dark and sinister but on closer inspection there’s a definite delicacy. Is this contrast deliberate?

I don’t make jarring work because I’m frightened of something being too delicate and feminine so some of my art can be incredibly subtle, almost deliberately invisible. My biggest influence is a Japanese aesthetic called Wabi Sabi – it’s essentially based around the idea of appreciating the beauty and impermanence in everything. There’s a melancholia associated with it but it’s ultimately a positive and beautiful thing. The textures and methods I use are to remind us of that.

The marks in some of your images are made through unusual materials like lit incense sticks, bleach, chemicals and gunpowder. What inspired you to use alternative methods?

I once went to a show featuring Chinese artists and one had made artworks by burning through paper using a cigarette, another’s paintings was made up by the ash of incense sticks burnt in monasteries. Monks also used incense as a timekeeping device while they were meditating which was essentially a clock made with sticks of incense, each with a different scent so that the hours were marked by a gentle change of fragrance. I think this directed my attention to alternative methods of making marks or holes. I feel that the materials and their physical properties act like metaphors that reinforce the concept, so they change according to what I am trying to express.

What is it about them that’s attractive to you to use in your art?

I enjoy the tensions between accident and control; scratching metal after I’ve poured chemicals over it, feeling forms in poured bleach; the juxtaposition of making a beautiful series of marks using something as violent as gunpowder.

'Flame', bleach and ink on paper (2016)
'Flame', bleach and ink on paper (2016)

They’re all materials with very particular pungent smells. Does this have an effect on the design?

It's a big part of the process, yes. They have an effect on my designs because they give me limitations that otherwise wouldn't be there. The smells and the fumes are the things that dictate the perimeters of how far I can go with something.

How so?

The fumes limit how long I can work at a time. One small gunpowder explosion fills my studio with really strong fumes that lingers a long time and although the incense smoke smells subtle, I’m much closer to the work so I can only do about half an hour at a time.  Painting with a corrosive material means you can't touch or smudge or dab your artwork - if it splashes it burns you and the smell gets to you especially when I start pouring it over larger surfaces. The chemicals I use are so strong it makes it quite hard to stay in my studio after I've made it. It’s fair to say, my studio is now slowly starting to resemble a science lab...

 ‘Nocturne I’ , bleach and white ink on paper, 20 x 30 cm (2016)
‘Nocturne I’ , bleach and white ink on paper, 20 x 30 cm (2016)
Emilie Pugh
Emilie Pugh

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