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In the Studio with Holly Rees : Landscape in the Instagram Age

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Progress (left) and finished piece (right), 'Here is an elsewhere. All the cues that she found in a cloud, a wall, a stone, are elsewhere.', oil on panel, 2017

Emerging British artist Holly Rees examines the way we engage with landscape, be it through screens, printed image or windows, and explores how these intermediaries can inform potentially problematic or ‘false’ understandings of the world around us. A graduate from Wimbledon College of Art Holly now lives and practices in Newcastle upon Tyne. We went behind the scenes in Holly’s Baltic 39 studio space to find out more about the inspiration behind her work, her move from London to Newcastle, and her current exhibition at The Biscuit Factory.


Ideas, inspiration and creative practice

I’m a fine art painter working from my studio at Baltic 39 in Newcastle upon Tyne. I’m primarily an oil painter, and I’m interested in landscape – specifically the ways in which people engage and understand landscape. Especially interesting to me is to think about how intermediaries such as screens, windows or a printed image can inform a potentially problematic view of the world around us. I’m interested in how they can reinforce the idea of nature as something separate from humanity, and how this underpins the way we speak and think about environmental issues, such as climate change.

Progress 'Yosemite', oil on panel, 2017

Art education

My practice has changed a lot over the years. I think you learn something from every painting you do. Even the small awkward paintings of fifteen year old me helped me get to where I am now.

When I first started at Wimbledon College of Art I was a portrait painter, painting photorealist portraits. Now I’ve grown to have no desire to do that at all, I’m much more excited by odd blurry landscapes. My time at Wimbledon was fantastic, I learnt so much about paint and technique, and about thinking. My time at Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna also shaped who I am as a painter, and as a person. It was there that I broke out of the box I’d made for myself. I made some really bizarre abstract paintings with leaves in them, studied anatomy and painting techniques, and I learnt how to make mosaics and even took a marble sculpture class. I came back a lot freer, and the things I wanted to say and the way I wanted to paint them all clicked into place. I have a tendency to overthink everything, but some things you'll only really figure out by painting through it.

Inside Holly Rees Baltic39 Studio, 2017

Working outside of the London art bubble

I love working in the North East. Partially due to the landscape. I remember during my time in London genuinely missing the moors and the people. Newcastle has a lot to offer, there’s a real creative hub here. I think there’s enough space up here, mentally and physically, for artists to really make. I like London, and I’m pleased I lived and worked there for three years, but it can be a hard city sometimes. Plus, the water is much better up here.


Studio life

My studio is based at Baltic39 and I fell in love with it the minute I walked in the door. It has huge windows and I’ve built myself a desk to sit and work through any admin. On the other wall I have a large space for painting. I build all my own panels to paint on, so there’s always some wood working tools too. Once they’re primed and sanded the panels are hung up ready for painting.

I work from a combination of sketches and photographs. I have begun to really like working from small images, or bad quality images – returning to the idea that these as intermediaries can inform an idea of place, and painting what I can get from that images.

Artist inspiration

You can probably tell just from looking at my work that I'm a big fan of Richter's landscapes. I also really like George Shaw's paintings. I remember going to a talk of his at the BALTIC when the Turner Prize was hosted in Newcastle.  He had an exhibition last year at the National Gallery in London after doing a residency with them, and he had a series of really gorgeous paintings of trees with all the marks of human interaction, bits of litter and the odd bit of spray paint, totally real and un-Romanticised and I loved it.  I also like Paul Winstanley and Mary Iverson’s work. Outside of painting Patrick Keiller's films have always interested and inspired me, I think they manage to do something similar to what I'm trying to do.

Recent collections and what’s next

I am currently exhibiting a collection of works at The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The titles of the pieces in my current collection all mean something. The #nofilter series comes from Instagram and explores how we view landscapes through this digital platform. These paintings I’ve made from square photos I’ve taken on my phone. The two large paintings, 'Here is an Elsewhere, all the cues that she found in a cloud, a wall, a stone are Elsewhere' and 'Leigh-Cheri, by this juncture, was familiar enough with outlaws to realize that they are living signposts pointing to Elsewhere', come from this idea of an 'Elsewhere' - coming back to thinking about a Romanticised 'Nature', separate from humanity, and how damaging that can be as a concept, and the idea that 'Elsewhere' exists; that all our environmental problems can exist Elsewhere, but not Here. (Which isn't true, obviously, it's all connected!) 

The two titles are quotes. ‘Here is an Elsewhere…’ comes from a poem by Marilyn Hacker titled ‘A Stranger’s Mirror’ (I was lucky enough to go to her poetry reading at Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts – told you Newcastle had it all!) and ‘Leigh-Cheri…’ is a line in Tom Robbin’s book, ‘Still Life with Woodpecker’.

Mostly this year I’m hoping to spend a lot of time in my studio making new work. This year I’ve had two solo shows, as well as showing work in group exhibitions in galleries up and down the UK, so over the next few months I want to shift my focus from showing work to making it.

Holly Rees collection as part of The Autumn Exhibition, The Biscuit Factory, 2017

Holly Rees collection of original paintings is on show now as part of The Autumn Exhibition at The Biscuit Factory until 13 November 2017. The collection is also available to view and purchase online here.