Frea Buckler’s striking geometric screen prints hold a sense of composure and tranquility, but what secrets and desires lie in the bends, folds and overlaps of her work? In an exclusive interview with Smithson Gallery, Frea talks about her new body of work, the discovery of her process, the magic in mistakes, her love for colour, and why she doesn’t want to know anything about origami...
Hello Frea and Happy New Year from Smithson. I know that you are currently amidst a new body of work. Is there a thread that links your previous work to the way you are working now?
I would say it’s about perception and illusion, what you believe to be true and what is actually true. For example I have always found the disparity between the idea of a place and the reality of a place interesting. I travelled when I was about 20, and saw some really awful things, it really put me off. So yes, that feeling runs quite deep and a lot of my work has referenced the illusion of paradise. That’s why I used to take all of my colours from holiday brochure imagery or Kodachrome colour postcards. If I look back at my work when I was doing my degree in Fine Art at Central St Martins it was mainly black and white and featured lots of people. I had grown up in the countryside and when I moved to London I was completely overwhelmed by all these lives of all these people, and I think even then my work was about what I don’t know and what I perceive to be true. I think this permeates my current of work as well, the idea of knowing and not knowing.
That must have been a big transition moving from the countryside to study Fine Art at Central St Martins. How do you think your education has shaped the way you work?
When you study Fine Art you develop a technique of being critic, viewer and artist, which I think is really paralysing. I couldn’t make any work because I was constantly trying to resolve everything in my head, whereas what I have now realised is that you need to resolve it as you are doing it. I had an amazing Visual Culture lecturer during my Printmaking MA at Bristol UWE, and he was the first person that ever said to me that an artist’s language is visual, it isn’t words. If you are trying to map verbal language on to the uneven terrain of your work it doesn’t fit and that is exactly what it felt like. He was the only person to ever say, ‘This is difficult, but it's okay’. After studying Fine Art, where everything has to be conceptualised, it’s hard to shed. It’s taken me 10 years to get over it. For example a common reference in regards to my work is the practice of origami, but what I really don’t want to do is start looking into origami, in fact I don’t want to know anything about origami! It’s fine that that reference is there but I don’t need to go and research origami - it doesn’t matter. But I do think ideas are important and in hindsight I am glad that I went through that experience, but I'm now pleased to be out of it and free of its constraints.
"I learnt to screenprint really well, I got to the peak of something, then started undoing it."
And why did you choose to study Printmaking?
I always knew that I wanted to print. I grew up around screen prints at home, it was an aesthetic my parents both enjoyed and we would go to exhibitions. My Dad was an art teacher who loved screen printing and made his own work. We also had a screen printing bed at school. I still have my first screen print. I made prints for A-level, for Foundation; I didn’t do any of the other
stuff. I was just always in the print room on my own. I chose the degree at St Martins because you could specialise in Fine Art Print, so maybe the work I am doing now has only become possible because I learnt how to screen print really well, I got to the peak of something, then started undoing it. It’s the idea of chaos and control where things are perfect and not perfect. You need things to match and things to not match.
Chaos and control is a recognised theme in your work, how does this apply to screen printing?
What is important to me is the methodology, and the balance between chaos and control. There are rules that I have to follow in order for the chaos to be ok. My process is not chaotic, it is actually quite methodical, the only chaos is not knowing quite what I’m going to produce at the end of it. So that is quite different to how you would traditionally produce a screen print, and very different to how I screen printed before.
"Then I started just printing randomly and instinctively, just moving the shapes around and matching up edges. I laid out the prints and saw things happening, I saw three dimension and movement."
I’m keen to talk about your process as I know you have recently discovered a new way of working. Can you talk me through the start of your journey?
It started with mountains. I did some drawings of mountains, looking at the facets and the ridges. I like the calm of the mountains and the sense of something big that makes you feel small. I then started doing these process drawings, which I didn’t really have to think about. I started to like the things that I saw, the things that happen when you start to draw in that way, I became interested in the folds and the 3-dimensional illusions. This was the start of the change of how I work. My Instagram was actually a really important aspect of me changing the way I worked because you can go back through it and see what happened. I love Instagram because it documents your journey.
Yes, the way it visually maps your development as an artist is really interesting. So how did that initial process translate into screen printing?
I started creating drawings in Photoshop and would make prints from them. Registering the shapes was a nightmare, and it became a headache. I began to question why I was screen printing them, I could just print them digitally and where was the creativity happening? Was it happening at the computer? Because it wasn’t happening when I was printing and that is what I wanted, I want the excitement to happen when I print. Then I made a mistake when I was printing one of the Photoshop-rendered drawings, and I suddenly realised that is where the magic was happening, when things go wrong. After this realisation I stopped printing, I didn’t finish the print. My parents actually ended up buying it, so when I go to their house I see it and think ‘Oh yea I really like that! I like the negative spaces and the mistakes.’
How did you respond to this turning point and your transition in your thinking?
I made some simple drawings of shapes taken from photos of mountains and had them exposed, I made some prints but I didn’t know what I was doing with them, I knew that something was wrong. Then I started just printing randomly and instinctively, just moving the shapes around and matching up edges. I laid out the prints and saw things happening, I saw three dimension and movement and began to get the same feeling as I did when I was drawing. I kept thinking ‘Don’t think, don’t think! Just do what comes instinctively’.
I love the idea that you are drawing with your printing press, with your equipment and with your paper...
That’s it. That is what it is about. Now that I have found that I will probably continue working like that, the forms will change, the colours will change and my prints will just be more instinctive responses to my world and what is going on around me.
"I want to be in love with every colour in my work."
I’d like to talk about the significance of your colour palette. What does colour mean to you?
It’s quite intuitive, I really try and not think about my colours too much anymore, which is a real change from how I used to work. I enjoy following intuition then thinking about it afterwards. I find it interesting that all the decisions you instinctively make are ‘in’ you somewhere, and I think it’s more interesting to consider why they have come out, and what they are saying about you. I like the idea that everyone has an emotional response to certain colours and I like questioning why certain colours make us feel good, and where the urge to use a certain colour comes from. I want to be in love with every colour in my work, I have learnt that if you don’t love a colour, don’t put it down, because it will bother you. I’m looking at colour all the time. My husband is a designer and we can talk about colour and describe colours really well to each other. We have this shared understanding of colour.
The titles of your work - for example ‘Overlap’ and ‘Unfolded’ - feel practical, structural, and yet suggestive. What do they mean to you?
I think of the titles as suggestions towards certain human behaviours. As a person you may be tipping, or unfolding, or in between something. This is implied by the composition of the print but I think it’s more about those things that you feel as a person.
Do you think that the way you feel when creating a new piece might be reflected somehow in the work?
Yes, that is what I try to get at without being too obvious about it, or thinking about it too hard, I want those things to resonate because they are part of you as a person rather than contrived or forced in any way. I was thinking about what makes art different from design or illustration. Is it emotion or magic or otherness or something of you that is in the piece of work that makes it art rather than just a design? That’s what I was trying to tap in to. The piece that got into the RA Summer show called ‘Balance’ represents this somehow through the folds and the movement. I want to apply to the RA summer show again this year so I’m thinking about getting work ready for that, and I’d like to enter two pieces.
"I remember seeing the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate. She lived in a high rise flat with her kids and all of her sculptures were really tall and thin."
Fantastic, it would be great to see your work at the RA again. Lastly I would like to talk about future possibilities. The sense of three-dimension in your work is almost malleable. Would you consider transforming these structural forms into 3D?
Yes! That is what is in my head, I would love to make them 3D. I like the idea of playing with scale and perception, and printing on to different materials. I’d love to do an installation or 3D printed piece, or make my work out of something really precious like gold! But I don’t have time to do that at the moment. I have my routine and screen printing is what is easiest for me right now. I find that interesting, the work an artist makes depending on what resources are available to them, or how big their studio is. I remember seeing the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate. When she was a mum she lived in a high rise flat with her kids and all her sculptures were really tall and thin. That’s what it is about, reflecting you as a person and what you have available for you. At the moment it is easy for me to just come into my studio and keep doing what I’m doing. The idea of not stopping is important.