This, along with the title’s subtle reminder of the industrial wellness complex – that self-care can be laborious – reminds me of Jonathan Malesic’s description of a society of aspiring ‘work saints’ chasing ‘not just a life of material comfort, but a life of social dignity, moral character and spiritual purpose’. With a sketch of Rogier Van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, and a pastel palette of unpolished gold, Ruigrok’s exhibition at The Sunday Painter today I feel relevant and alive has a correspondingly ironic, religious flavour. With references to ‘devotion’, ‘servitude’ and a ‘rigidus altarpiece sky’, Rachael Allen’s accompanying poems articulate a similar feeling.
Relevant and Alive with Sophie Ruigrok
Sophie Ruigrok’s Working on my internal landscape (2021) is a landscape-oriented portrait. It makes sense because the woman seems upset, like she needs a lie-down. It looks wrong, of course, because of those gravity-defying tears rolling left to right, like your eyes moving through this sentence, or the direction we tend to visualise progress in time. That is, although the woman appears to have collapsed, her brave tears march on.
"her brave tears march on"
While the rest of us get to work hailing the new gods, Ad Quality Ratings and Search Engine Optimisation, and pine after a relevance score that will justify our being alive, I spoke to Sophie about the inspirations behind the exhibition.
One work from your show at the Sunday Painter is 'a small drawing based on a small detail from van der weyden’s descent from the cross which is also sort of a self portrait', as you captioned it on Insta. What appeals to you about his work? And what aspects of yourself do you see in it?
I am completely in love with the way Rogier van der Weyden distills such complex and intensely felt emotion into his religious scenes. There’s something incredibly powerful about combining bodily, animalistic emotion with the spiritual. It’s a good reminder that the two are often one and the same.
"I like tears because they remind me that a lot of art is tricks"
There’s also a certain kitschiness to van der Weyden that I love. His work is camp (in the way that Susan Sontag meant camp) - there’s so much exaggeration, theatricality, artifice. It’s all a bit much. I like that a lot.
I titled this piece Scutwork, which is defined as ‘routine and menial labour’. I liked the idea of this intense expression of emotion being a form of work, and a sort of humdrum, day-to-day work at that. There’s also something in there about emotional labour; the way that certain people tend to take on much of the heavy lifting in intimate relationships.
As you mentioned above, Scutwork scrambles the detail of Descent from the Cross with a self-portrait. I do this a lot in my work - set elements of my personal biography against moments from art history, or the past more generally. It’s a way for me to speak to the universality of human experience.
Could you talk about the significance of tears in your work more generally?
I initially became obsessed with tears for quite a basic reason; they’re fun to paint or draw. Tears are very simple in a way - a hemisphere reflecting light - but they also read as something complex to render. It’s all just a trick, learning where to place the shadows and highlights; I like tears because they remind me that a lot of art is tricks.
Tears also say so much - they’re an overt expression of emotion, and demonstrate that we’re feeling enough for our bodies to start leaking. I’m interested in the way the body communicates, and the way it can betray us. And I’m interested in the fissure between the inner world and the outer world; the world of feelings, desires, beliefs and the world of practical matters, environments and things. Tears are magical because they straddle both these realms, transforming the immaterial into the material.
What was it like to have a poet interpret your paintings?
It was a joy, to be honest. Rachael Allen is such a brilliant poet, and the minute I read Kingdomland I could see so many similar threads in our interests and ways of expressing them.
We started working together when we really both needed the wind putting in our sails, and found the experience incredibly generative. During our first studio visit, we discovered more synchronicities; we were interested in drawing parallels between romantic love and spiritual love, and used religious metaphors when depicting love and sex.
Although the plan originated as Rachael interpreting my work, it evolved into more of a dialogue. Rachael gave me the manuscript for her forthcoming book, and I read it (hungover) on New Years Day - the combination of the new year’s clean slate, the looseness a hangover facilitates, and a fresh body of Rachael’s poems resulted in a frenzied gush of ideas and sketches.
Those moments of creative confluence are everything I live for - making art can be lonely, and that experience felt like true connection and understanding.
One of your works is titled after Italo Calvino's influential lecture/essay series Six Memos for the Next Millennium... How does this inform your work? And do you think his predictions were right?!
When I was doing my post-grad at the Drawing School, a tutor of mine advised me to read Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium'. Despite it being intended as a guide for the next generation of writers - whereby Calvino unpacked what he deemed to be the six most virtuous qualities of good literature - my tutor suggested I apply the memos to painting and drawing.
Calvino’s six memos are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Multiplicity, Visibility and Consistency (although, sadly, he never got around to fleshing out Consistency as he died whilst writing the memos).
"Those moments of creative confluence are everything I live for"
To be honest, whilst working visually, I take these words at their face value; I try my best to work with a light touch, quickly, precisely. I leave room for multiplicitous interpretations of my imagery, and avoid making my world too specific. I try to make my imagery clear (visible) and also do my best to be consistent in my practice. If ever I’m stuck or struggling I write these six memos down in my sketchbook, over and over, like a sort of mantra. When I made the piece you mentioned in your question, the memos were pinned to the wall in front of me. I think stuff gets into your subconscious like that.
Why gold? Why pastels?
Last summer, I started to think a lot about the way religious ecstasy was portrayed in art history, or the way art was historically used to induce spiritual states in viewers. I wanted to find a way to induce similar states in contemporary viewers, and so appropriated the golden-hued palette of religious icon paintings.
Gold also symbolises so much in human culture - wealth, divinity, power, beauty - and so by using it in imagery it’s possible to harness the power of that symbolism.
I love pastels for their luminosity, their vibrancy. If you have a good quality pastel, it’s mostly just pigment (with a little binder) - it’s hard to get that pure hit of colour in any other medium. There’s also an immediate and tactile nature to pastels which is very freeing. I mostly work with my fingers, which makes me feel almost like I’m sculpting, or like I’m a kid again - and I suppose all that brings me back to Calvino’s principles.
By Sammi Gale