Emma Talbot

Embroidered piano shawls may sound like a surprising source of inspiration for the utterly contemporary artist Emma Talbot. Victorian women wore the fringed shawls draped over their shoulders, but the textiles were equally admired as decoration thrown over a piece of furniture (hence the name) or as an artwork on the wall. Talbot explains the popular fashion showed her how one object “can inhabit space in different ways” and “pointed to a way my work could expand.”

Drawing and its immediacy has long offered a constant in Talbot’s practice. When first considering how to extend her drawings she tried raw stretched canvas, but felt stifled by a material that carried a “whole history of painting that was decided for me.” Silk – “monumental without being heavy” – proved more apt and today she moves between drawing on khadi paper, silk panels, three-dimensional figures and, most recently, stop-motion animation.

“Drawing in three-dimensions,” is the description Talbot offers for the beguiling female forms that make an appearance in much of her recent work. Her reluctance to call them sculpture is, at least in part, out of respect for a tradition that was not part of her own education. Instead, she recognises that her unconventional approach allows her to maintain the same spontaneity that underpins her drawing. She works intuitively, inviting the unplanned because with “immediacy comes the less expected.”

In 2006, Talbot faced a personal and creative crisis after the death of her husband. Finding herself unable to create, she reduced her practice to what she considered a bare minimum. Watercolour paints in seven colours were selected because she considered them “the lightest material”, plus her late husband’s black paint. Because of their optical dominance she removed primary colours and focused on “tertiary colours that make a kind of language atmosphere.” This distinct restricted palette reflected Talbot’s acute sensibilities at the time, and today remains a signature across her work.

As an art student in the mid-nineties Talbot was advised that if she wanted her art to be taken seriously typically women’s interests should be avoided. In the wake of her husband’s death she adopted an entirely different approach, determined “to do all the things I’m not supposed to do.” Along with water colours, often considered “a weak, preparatory material” the sequins and buttons of haberdashery entered her repertoire. In time, a writing practice that had remained private found a new place with the inclusion of text in her artwork. “The text hopefully feels like someone speaking,” she explains, “quite immediate. I want it to be easy to engage with the work.”

Talbot likens her use of text to a reader’s ability to access both the internal and external voice of a character within a novel – the possibility of “listening to someone thinking.” Quite distinct from their serial cartoon-format, here “text and image don’t serve each other directly.” Instead the different registers of communication, Talbot explains, “try to account for the way we think in layers.” In text and material, two- and three-dimensions there exists a longstanding curiosity for the artist: “How do we encounter things inside, when we are also part of an external world?”

From an often intuitive starting point, Talbot is aware that the extensive research process she then undertakes remains relatively hidden in the final work. She refers to her adaption of the French writer Hélène Cixous description of the weight of cliché: as “a brush all sticky with marks” and the thrill of learning specialist vocabulary for different types of archaeological remains which appear in works she exhibited at the 59th Venice Biennial last year.

From intimate and often subconscious beginnings, Talbot touches topics as diverse as ecopolitics, digital technology, grief and the possibility of a post-capitalist future. “I try to be as honest as I can about my thinking,” she explains. It is an approach Talbot feels resonates with many audiences: “I have found people respond in quite profound ways.”

  • Written for

    Selvedge magazine