Embracing an overall slowing down, Frea Buckler describes her new collection of paintings onto aluminium as ‘visual poems’. To celebrate the launch of Parade’, we caught up with Frea during the exhibition hanging of the full collection to chat about this latest evolution in medium, colour palette and technique…

Frea Buckler's new collection of paintings onto aluminium 'Parade' exhibition hanging for Smithson Gallery

Smithson Gallery: Hi Frea, it’s wonderful to be here with you in the space, having just hung your new Smithson collection for a very special online exhibition video! This feels like quite a pivotal moment – marked most obviously by the move toward aluminium from paper – and I’m excited to hear more.    

Jumping right in, I am struck by the colour patterns and overarching dialogue between the pieces. There’s a softness and subtle play between shades we’ve not necessarily seen paired before. Colour has always been an intrinsic element to your practice, could you tell me a little more about the palette for this collection?

Frea Buckler: The works refer to nature, light, winter light, and to walking in nature and through the city during lockdown. Also to domestic spaces; light spilling around the window, the light on the horizon, the clouds, the sky. They are the colours that these works are made up of. There’s a quieter sense of things but with moments of uplift so they’re not wholly sad; they’re positive but maybe more muted. 

I guess the colours are a progression from colours I was using before, but also very much part of colours that have always been in my palette. They evolve quite naturally into different areas, it’s just a case of tweaking them a little bit. I’m actually using emulsion paints in these works, so that’s different as well. I’m not necessarily mixing them myself, apart from the fluorescents which are hand-painted with acrylic paint. 

"...Light spilling around the window, the light on the horizon, the clouds, the sky. They are the colours that these works are made up of."

Thinking about those references to nature and the shapes of light, I can really feel that coming through in the compositions. There are refractions, shifts…

Definitely. I don’t know about you but during lockdown I spent quite a lot of time in the same spaces. There’s almost a child-like return to the detail that you notice around your house, or the light coming in between the cracks in the door, but I also spent a lot of time on walks. We found ourselves walking during different times of day, walking at dusk, sunset or dawn. There’s a certain merging of interior and exterior spaces, but still very much part of that lockdown Covid experience.

"I thought of the whole process of each painting as a series of slow moves." 

Yes, the colours really convey those changes; from dawn to dusk, one day changing into the next, a gentle progression. Almost as if there’s a soft-focus across the collection. In particular, I’m drawn to the hand-painted lines in acrylic, which perhaps feel like those slivers of light that slip through the smallest of cracks. This is definitely a visible motif in the collection, almost a punctuation, and does feel like quite a new addition?

Yes definitely, I think I had a real shift during lockdown. The dynamism of my previous works was too much, almost too stressful, so these embody a much more meditative slowing down. I thought of the whole process of each painting as a series of slow moves. I would do something and then step back and stare at it for ages and contemplate my next move. That’s really how they grew. 

Then the hand painted element is almost the last thing I do. Again, it’s very much about the process, it was really about slowing down which a lot of people felt like they wanted to do, and obviously we had time to do. That’s what they embody.

In lots of ways, I like to think of them as visual poems, so every element matters. My larger screenprinted works are much more energetic and expressive whereas these works embrace more of a pulling back, slowing down and really considering things. Working in this different way was a form of challenging myself. It was really important to me that they didn’t feel like designs. I wanted them to have that spontaneity, more of an emotional connection, rather than me sitting down designing paintings. 

I think that resonates strongly within the collection, there’s an emotional depth to the works that does feel symbolic of that moment in time. It still retains a sense of intuition as with your screenprints on paper. I don’t think that tenderness or emotion could have been achieved if they had been ‘designed’ in a different way. 

Thinking about the slowing down and consideration that you describe going into each individual piece, I imagine you must have been working on several at a time? And within the collection there are evident smaller individual series, similar to the way you create your works on paper?

I worked on them in blocks of ten. I actually push the emulsion paint through a screen stencil, so they’re made in a way that I am familiar with. I haven’t completely changed direction, but they are much slower. I might only put one section of colour on one and then wash it and move onto the next. They evolve fairly slowly but like you say definitely retain the spontaneity of how I like to work. 

There’s no sketches or drawings. I do have sketchbooks of drawings, but I tend not to refer back to them, it’s like I just need to figure something out then when I actually come to make the work something else takes over. That’s the thing that hopefully gives the pieces that emotional connection as opposed to a designed piece of work. Because I am working with that immediacy.

"Like Agnes Martin who paints with her back to the world... that felt really resonant when I made these."

I guess in some ways the sketchbook is about getting your conscious ideas on to the paper, out of your mind and out of the way – an emptying of sorts – so that you’re free to let that emotional response lead you?

Exactly. Like Agnes Martin who paints with her back to the world, and she talks about emptying her mind before she starts working and that felt really resonant when I made these.

I think with all the visual references we see, it’s very easy to get bogged down or to repeat tropes we see online. The only way I know to retain that freshness and spontaneity is to not know what I’m doing before I start, and just to see what happens, and that goes back to my screenprints. I always work on a ‘safer’ one first, one that I think will probably work. Then I move on to one where I let go and see what happens, and invariably they’re the ones that turn out to be more successful. 

But I have pared that approach back in this case, partly because I’m working on aluminium. It’s more of a solid object, much less disposable than paper, so the stakes do feel a bit higher. It’s about trying to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, it can fail. It’s a really tricky but important balance. 

I wanted to ask about the shift to aluminium and whether that was a conscious move for you, or rather lead by the works you were creating? We have seen you work on aluminium before in Luminous, your first solo exhibition with Smithson Gallery, but on a much larger scale and these are obviously considerably smaller. How did you find the process?

It came from working at the Centre of Gravity exhibition in October 2020, where I made a series of paintings on found materials. All of the objects were found on the site of the old Gardener Haskins DIY store in Bristol, so I was using whatever I found, and I really enjoyed that. I like that challenge of ‘here’s a pile of materials, what can you do with it?’ It was really rooted in that and using the emulsion paint, I like the utilitarian nature of using those household objects as materials.

"I’ve been aware for some time that my screenprints have more in common with paintings."

Aluminium felt like a very natural progression from paper because I’ve worked with metal before, rather than wood which felt somehow too organic. I like the references to the city, building, architecture and signage. The piece that I made with Gingko Projects for a public art installation was made from aluminium, so I suppose my use of it started there. I’d like to make some sculptures in the future as well, so I’m exploring these lines of thought. The aluminium connects to previous and future sculptural works in that way, as well as being an object in its own right. 

I’ve been aware for some time that my screenprints have more in common with paintings, and I think that can be quite unclear when they’re on paper. We are so used to the concept of a screenprint on paper and being an edition. But obviously my works on paper haven’t really been multiples for a long time, so I wanted to try moving into painting, but using screenprint as a stencil process. 

I’m really happy with the results, I think they have enough connection with my older bodies of work, and the Centre of Gravity exhibition acted like a bridge. 

"I like the references to the city, building, architecture and signage."

There’s a clear path there. I remember going to see the Centre of Gravity exhibition and it was amazing to see your work on that scale and within that utilitarian, semi-industrial environment. It just made sense, especially when so many of your influences are rooted within the everyday. 

I think that because a lot of my work lately has been wall paintings and painted installations, continuing to use the emulsion paint just made sense.

Do you think your recent work on a larger scale is why you’ve chosen in part to work on a smaller scale here? Or perhaps that was born out of the overall experience during lockdown?

Ideally, I would like to scale them up, but because it was a new way of working, I first had to figure out how they would work, and there were a few experimental phases along the way. So yes, I can imagine these in a much larger format – maybe even larger than how I was working on paper!

Wow, yes I can already see them translating naturally to that scale, grounded yet powerful. What an exciting note to round off on…! Thank you, Frea.