in The Frame #1 - Michelle Eva May - Bombshell in The Frame January 2014

Bombshell  2013

126 x 88 cm. Oil, acrylic, spray paint, charcoal, Conte, pastel, coffee on board.

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American actress Jean Harlow was known as the "Blonde Bombshell". In 1935 the movie China Seas was released, with Harlow co-starring alongside Clark Gable. She played 'Dolly 'China Doll' Portland'. In that same year China Seas would be the debut movie projected at The Ritz cinema - originally located at the top of Carlingford Road, N15, on the site now occupied by the Turnpike Lane bus terminus.

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As the first exhibitor in our 'in The Frame' series 2014, the Turnpike Art Group are proud to present a female artist who lives and works in north London.

Michelle Eva May is an artist who harnesses the power of paradox and complementary opposites. Her large-scale mixed media compositions counter the traditional notion of portraiture, presenting a contemporary cropped window into the dark and light world which she captures as a 'construct' of her own emotional journey.

She studied fine art in Johannesburg, at the National School of Arts and the University of the Witwatersrand, and has been living in the UK since 2000. Among her influences, Eva May cites Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Da Vinci, Maya Kulenovic, Roberta Coni, Marco Mazzoni, Guy Denning, Lionel Smit, Derek Eli Sterkel. Alongside these individuals she shares that rare ability to present an emotional connection to the real world, through a combination of vulnerability and strength; plus also portray the dreamlike state of mortality and the subconscious.

TAG visited Eva May's studio in autumn 2013, where her work stood out among the broad spectrum of creatives presenting as part of an Open Studios event. Although her mixed-media compositions are more traditionally displayed within the gallery environment, TAG are interested to show them within our own urban exhibition area, which in itself heightens the sense of vulnerability which Eva May explores within her work.

Krystal 1

The Prayer

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Can you broadly describe how you approach a new portrait?

Before I start a new piece I spend a long time looking at my subject. I allow ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ to guide me and try not to be too analytical. It’s important for me to feel a sense of connection with the person immediately. I rely on intuition and instinct to lead the way. I work mostly from my own photographic reference and occasionally from life drawing. 

At times I feel very ‘alien’ and vulnerable in life and to my environment, so painting has become an outlet and a form of therapy for me. A journey and expedition to try and make sense of this world I live in...

Given the scale that you work at, allied to your very immediate brushwork, how do you find the 'physical investment' in each piece effects the end result?

The larger the scale of the work the more I feel connected because it allows me the opportunity to move freely and feel less inhibited. The physical act of movement creates a sense of freedom and passion in itself. I believe it takes the work to a different dimension, elevating it by ‘letting go’, both physically and mentally. 

There exists a gripping polemic evident in some of your work - where an apparent stillness exuded by the subject is countered by the chaotic application of its composition. Is this use of paradox key to your work?

Definitely, yes! I think, to be honest, there is a lot of self conflict and self exploration going on and it becomes apparent in my paintings.  I also recognize this in others. I see ‘darkness and light’ in all of us and everywhere and attempt to capture this is my work. The one cannot exist without each other. A metaphor of life……. My pieces are an expression of what I see in my subject beyond his/her surface. It’s a visual representation of what lies beneath – people are complex! 

Your paintings have a very visceral quality. One gets a very engaging sense of 'moment' - with us the viewer allowed a snapshot, seemingly post-event; the calm after the storm. Is this charged undercurrent a conscious part of your work?

I think there’s a consciousness and and sub consciousness involved. I think the ‘calm after the storm’ is a great way to describe my work. It tells a story (of my journey in life thus far and others’) emotionally and visually that I cannot express enough in words … Darkness and light, conflict and peace, and ultimately hope! 

On another level, your large-scale portraits convey the traditional notion of an artist and sitter - with may hours spent contemplating the minutiae of a personality before committing paint to canvas. Yet the fluid sense of space and immediacy that literally drips from your canvases counter that process. What made you adopt such an expressionistic approach?

This approach gives me great freedom to express what I see and feel in the person. Working too perfect, precise and realistic in technique and style removes some deeper sense of ‘soul’ in my work. I want to capture the essence of the subject. Looking deeper and working in this expressionistic approach is key to my work. I also think it’s what I’m trying to achieve that dictates the approach. Every layer of mixed media I apply is done in anticipation of the result 

Emotion plays a big part in your work. The viewer is aware of a subtext. And although not quite voyeuristic, the composition dares us to dip into another individual's exposure. How do you find this approach affects the way you paint or compose?

I allow instinct and intuition to help me compose the piece. If it ‘feels’ right, it works.  I don’t analyze too much. I guess a lot of my subconscious informs the way I compose and paint. 

On another level, your large-scale portraits convey the traditional notion of an artist and sitter - with Much like the British artist Jenny Saville, you focus on female subject matter, presented with a rawness, and vulnerability. Who are the mentors or inspirations that you relate to?

I list a few: Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Da Vinci, Maya Kulenovic, Roberta Coni, Marco Mazzoni, Matt Small, Guy Denning, Lionel Smit, Andrew Salgado, Gabriela Bodin, Derek Eli Sterkel and more……

Time is evident in your paintings. Your works portray an almost filmic framework of captured moments. How does this notion of story telling evolve when confronted with a blank canvas? Is it the event that controls the visual? Or does your mixed-media, multi-layered style build its own story?

I think a bit of both really. There’s always a story to be told and the use of mixed media and multi-layered technique allows for the story to surface. It brings the piece of work to life – makes it ‘breathe’. I sometimes feel like I’m just a vessel and the pieces become their own entities. Existing freely and powerfully. My art is a construct, like film. I’d say I play a director’s role….. 

Your portraits have a classical undertone, reminiscent of Head of a Woman by Leonardo da Vinci, 1508; both convey a mood of melancholy or self-reflection; similarly you create that same enticing, ephemeral quality of the 'unfinished artwork'. Given your technique allows for much layering, when do you know that an artwork has reached its completion? And how much do you allow subconscious, chance events to form a part of your process?

Good question, I don’t think I ever feel a piece of work is finished. I think the art lies in knowing when to stop! I’ve ruined many pieces by overworking them. I feel they’ve lost some depth to them that I’m so desperate and inclined to express. It is important for me to step back and take breaks from the work regularly … ultimately gives me a fresh perspective and allows the piece to ‘breathe’. 

Collectively, your artworks also seem very contemporary in their composition. The camera lens plays a role. They exude that 'safe eroticism' brought into being with the phenomenon of the 'selfie', and perhaps a sense of control being fashioned by women willing to reclaim their self-regard though sharing all that they are. Is there any form of feminist subtext to the paintings that you produce?

Maybe subconsciously, yes. There is a lot of self exploration involved in the work I produce…. Having a ‘voice’ as a woman is very important to me. Ultimately beyond the vulnerability and emotion, you peel back the layers and behind it lies a classic and strong individual / woman. I think our battle scars are all part of the overall beauty of a person.

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A limited edition print of Eva May's 'Krystal 1' is available to buy HERE
For more information, including commissions, contact the artist through her website

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