Angela Lizon takes standards of kitsch imagery and elevates them to large-scale paintings, creating her own brand of humorous fine art.
Up until around four years ago, Angela Lizon was an abstract minimalist painter, gradually painting herself into a corner. Her abstruse creations had developed to a point where the paint was so pale it was barely visible. The work to which she had dedicated 15 years of her career had reached an end.
Such can often be the case for a painter, even one working in abstraction. Even without a distinct subject, there can still be a finite point to which your work can develop. In Lizon’s case, this point was represented by a canvas almost bereft of colour. And she was left back at square one, with only the question of ‘where next.’ No one could have guessed what that next step would be.
Coming face to face with one of her series of Colossal Cats is an experience. Those huge kitten eyes stare hopefully out at you, and the natural reaction is either to grin heartily (almost impossible to avoid when faced with the bespectacled He’s a Barbie Girl, or He Could Have Been a Contender which sports a clown nose and hat, or any of a number clad in rather dashing ruffs), or to actually feel a bit intimidated. It’s easy to look at a picture of Moggie of the Glen on a computer screen or printed page and fawn over its big blue eyes and cute little antlers, and the little numbers at the bottom don’t really mean anything. What difference does a note saying ‘200 x 200’ make to you, clever dick sitting at a bus stop. But nothing can quite prepare you for that little cutie scaled up to two square metres. That’s almost six feet seven tall. What’s more, some of her more recent work, on a similar scale but with the ‘cute’ element undoubtedly in the back seat, focuses on the meeting of cherubic babies with unnervingly ugly Maribou storks.
Crack meets Angela at her Spike Island studio, on entering which we are confronted by not just one of these gigantic creations, but tens, mounted on walls, stacked in corners. That many vast, glaring eyes is quite disarming. Not only that, but there is what can only be described as a shrine against one wall, consisting of countless trinkets, knickknacks, curiosities – or as Angela puts it, ‘bits of tat.’ It is from such items that she takes much inspiration for her work; these simple, throwaway items become heightened, scaled-up and given status to become what is undeniably a piece of fine art. Crack is even lucky enough to come away with a miniature, cock-eyed owl as a memento, adding to our relatively pathetic collection of ceramic beasties.
An engaging, if slightly reticent, interviewee, Angela seems far more comfortable expressing herself through images and objects than in over-explaining her work or what motivates her. What is utterly clear from the time spent in her world, however, is that she has arrived at an artistic vision which is entirely her own.
A word and aesthetic regularly associated with your work is ‘kitsch’ – what does kitsch mean to you?
Overly sentimental, I suppose. And cats and kittens, when you see them portrayed in advertising and things, it’s always sickly sweet, and I think there’s a certain derogatory stigma attached there. I’ve had comments from people saying ‘Oh, we don’t want that kind of thing in here’ – there’s a real snobbishness about it. It’s to do with cats and what they stand for. It’s a case of ‘My culture is better than yours.’ Which is kind of why I’ve been doing the babies as well, as babies are also associated with being sweet and cutesy, but I’m trying to use them in a different context. Subvert the cliches, I suppose.
Your work always seems to have interesting, and often humorous, names – how does that process work?
Sometimes they come straight away, sometimes I can struggle. Cowboy Joe from Mexico is from a skipping song when I was young, so I made Indian George from Cheddar Gorge to match. Dressed to Death and Killed by Fashion was actually something my great aunt used to say to my Mum when she was young and getting ready to go out.
So the Calendar Girls series – was that inspired by all the dolls and things you’ve gathered together?
I’ve always liked dolls but I’m particularly interested in the Victorian ones, because I find them quite spooky. A lot of them were actual portraits of children, or even dead children. The dresses are from a series of Barbie crochet patterns I came across, which are completely absurd. I’ve also given some of the babies Barbie hair. Having girls myself, I see padded bras being sold for six-year-olds and all the advertising for what I would consider inappropriate playthings that children are bombarded with. So these babies are born ready to go, complete with Barbie hair.
Do you find a big difference in the process of painting humans to painting animals?
It’s much easier to paint fur than it is skin. I use quite wide brushes on the cats, it one becomes finer around the eyes or the nose, so you can keep the technique quite loose. And I suppose also I’m out of practice. I started off being a figurative painter when I left art college, but up until last year I hadn’t painted figures in a long time.
It’s interesting, we printed one of your images as our poster a few issues ago and a lot of people though it was a photo. Is that a common reaction?
Yes, I suppose when they’re photographed they do tend to look quite photographic, but actually they’re not at all and are quite painterly when you see them in the flesh. I don’t want to go down that photorealism route. I very much want them to be paintings, although they do have to possess a certain amount of realism for effect.
So do you actually love cats, or just the idea of them in this form?
I do have cats, but I got them as pets for the children, and I got them at a time when they’ll be on their last legs by the time the kids leave home!
So did they play a part in your decision to start painting this way?
Well, I was a minimalist abstract painter and I’d become stuck with what I was doing and I thought it best to just paint my way out of all the problems. So I was just painting anything and everything, and my daughter had lots of posters of fluffy animals on her bedroom wall. I remember there was one of a little white kitten on a pink background with ballet shoes placed in front of it. But it was just so cynical – girl’s magazine, pink, fluffy, ballet shoes, just absurd. And I thought ‘that’s great – but it’s got to be big.’ It’s the kind of image that, as an adult, you’d just throw away, whereas I wanted to give it some status, make it into ‘fine art,’ and make it so you couldn’t just ignore it, were forced to confront it.
So obviously the clue is in the title of the series, Colossal Cats, but was that one of the first things you thought – that you needed to make an impact in terms of the size as well as the content?
It was about taking away from the throwaway image that it had started out as, completely removing it from that and taking it to the other end of the scale. Changing its status, taking it off the mantlepiece and glorifying what it was, in a way.
There’s definitely something dark and intense in the stork and baby images – was that a deliberate move away from the cutesy subject of our kittens, or just a progression of the idea?
I think they have been getting a bit darker, but that’s also been happening with the cats - Dressed to Death …, that was one of the more recent ones.
How is the reception from buyers? Are people generally happy to take these into their homes?
Well, I’ve never sold anything over six feet – as you can see, most of them are stacked in the corner there. But it surprises me actually, the most popular paintings tend to be the ugliest and meanest looking cats, which are also the ones I enjoy painting most.
These little nick-nacks and ornaments which you surround yourself with – do you literally spend hours trawling through eBay and charity shops to pick them up?
No, not hours – if I’m popping out to get some bread, I’ll rummage through a shop on my way back! And online, I’ll just go on there every now and then and have a scan around – but the items I want is the stuff no-one else is bidding on and costs a quid or two. The quality kitsch – and I know that’s a contradiction in terms – I never get that, because people actually spend lots of money on it. I get all the tat.
Do you find surroundings yourself with this stuff helps with forming ideas?
I’ve always liked kitsch, and I’ve had this collection in my studio since back when I was working in abstract. I was just collecting and re-assembling things. Yes, it definitely feeds in.
How does it feel that it took you such a long time to find this style?
I think I had to go through all those serious years, and I really think the best of my abstract work was successful. It’s just that there was nowhere to take it. I do see traces of what I learnt coming back into my work now.
And can you envisage this style of work ever coming to an end?
Maybe, but not yet. I really love doing this and I suppose it took me a while to realize that I could just paint whatever I wanted and it didn’t matter how frivolous it may seem. I think it’s a lot more genuine, because it really is what I like and what I’m interested in.
So how long have you been working out of Spike Island?
Since we opened – I moved from the old Art Space building, around 10/11 years ago.
Are there any artists here who you would associate yourself with?
I think there are lots of good artists here, but not that many painters.
Painting in general isn’t a particularly popular medium at the moment, it’s getting increasingly rare to see really well-made, technically skillful paintings. How do you feel about that?
Well I think there are multiple generations now of people who’ve been through art college and haven’t been taught it that much. I suppose it just makes it less competition!
Yes, well a lot of the focus in art college these days tends to be on constant deconstruction and not so much on skill and craftsmanship. How was your experience?
I went to Bower Ashton in 83-86, and it was all about learning traditional skills – even in the 90s that was an unusual approach.
And you also studied in Poland, how did that come about and how did the experience affect you?
My father was Polish and came here as a displaced person after the war. I had all this family in Poland who I’d never met, and he’d told me all these romantic stories about the country.
Do you think your time there and your Polish heritage influenced your work at all?
No, I don’t think I did anything decent art-wise while I was there, but it was a fantastic experience, because it was still communist then – tough to live there but very interesting to see how it worked. I do think some of my art has been influence by father and the stories he told me when I was younger. He was a carpenter and whenever I asked him what he was making he would say “the door to the forest.” He spoke about Baba Yagas, bears, wolves, forests. I read a lot of Eastern European fairy tales and they were quite dark, like witches living in the woods in huts that stood on chicken legs. These things stay with you, and an element of that has maybe bled into my work.
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Words: Geraint Davies