It could be the face, perhaps just a look, or maybe a certain personality trait. The attraction of the muse has been an ever-present phenomenon in art history, someone who can inspire creativity in an artist, someone they might return to time and again.
When you talk about the muse, historically it’s normally associated with the male gaze, but in a new joint exhibition at London’s James Freeman Gallery, entitled Muse, two contemporary artists, Gill Button and Sikelela Owen, offer us a female perspective on what a modern muse might be.
Gill Button’s muses are fashion and celebrity icons that she reinterprets in a subtle, delicate manner through ink and watercolour on paper. “I don’t feel a muse is homing in on someone who inspires you, it’s more fleeting and more a mood thing,” she tells me.
Little Wing, for example, the title taken from a Jimi Hendrix recording, may have been inspired by a source image but she has invested in it, through her fluid style, a very personal transference. “It fitted the way I was feeling about other things at the time,” she admits. “There’s a delicacy and a vulnerability and also perhaps a backstory on how I felt about that which seemed to fit the mood of that track.”
It’s a beautiful and striking picture, full of sadness and fragility, from which we the viewer can imagine what that backstory might be. It also makes us think perhaps about the difference between the public and the private image. Art is therapy for Gill Button. On a recent trip to Iceland she painted a series of landscapes purely for therapeutic reasons with no intention of showing them. She changed her mind after they were well received on Instagram.
Instagram has been good for Button who has exhibited around the world and holds an honours degree in Illustration from Kingston University. She became something of a sensation not long after joining the social media platform leading to work with Vogue Magazine among others.
Her Iceland trip also inspired the colours of Little Wing. “I went in May when all the snow had melted and you have these volcanic colours and you have the very turquoise water that they have which is so striking when you first get there.”
Button uses a velvety paper, particularly for her largely monochrome pieces. She doesn’t plan a particular look but just rolls with it. “You have to let it speak, you can’t rule it,” she insists. The black and white works are particularly therapeutic for her. “I have less things to be conscious about. I literally have dark and I have water and just me and the brush and the magic of the time in the sense of everything’s drying and you can do things too quickly or too slowly and it’s drying and it’s gone. It’s the whole rhythm of that and you try to reach that stage where you aren’t really analysing what you’re doing and it’s all subconscious.”
Sikelela Owen is a very different artist, her six pictures here are painted in oil on canvas. Her muses tend to be members of her family. “I do sometimes take imagery from a digital space,” she explains, “but knowing people and knowing the difference between an Instagram personality and a real personality is making something else from it.” She also says that using relatives means she can take more liberties with their images and make more decisions based on the painting rather than the original source imagery.
Bobo is a small portrait of her younger brother. At first sight, the face is hard to pick out until you focus on the eye and the rest falls into place. Its tonal similarities were influenced by Rembrandt portraits. “I like the relaxed feel and the colours that were coming through and the luminosity and I changed it to make it more like real life. I also stole a bit of photography lighting,” she laughs.
Owen holds an honours degree in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art and Design and a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from the Royal Academy Schools. She has also exhibited in various solo shows around the world.
In her larger works such as Green Girls, the figures are painted in a way that melds them into the background, giving the works something of a dreamlike quality. The scenes are intimate and catch a mood that’s familiar to everyone. Here, two young girls are playing while other works show their subjects sleeping, with the vulnerability that entails.
One of her inspirations is the world of advertising and how it uses photography and fits together different colours. Green Girls was also inspired by a portrait by Manet. “I was looking at a painting of a lady and her daughter and I really liked how simple it was and that was something I wanted to bring into the painting. I wanted to pare back something that echoed that.”
Both artists invite us into a world of intimacy and vulnerability in which their muses embody a depth of character that reflects upon the artists themselves. In that sense, we are our own muses.
Muse is showing at the James Freeman Gallery, 354 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0PD until 4 August 2018
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.