Despite being well-established in London's fashion circles, artist Sam Wootton is much more than a pretty face. Having now established an almost cult-like following for his distinctive, realist paintings, Wootton has moved from the ranks of influencer to bonafide artist in a matter of months, making him someone to both watch for the future and enjoy in the present.
When I was given the opportunity to sit down for drinks with Sam, I had to take it – ever-articulate and thoughtful about his own work, I knew I had plenty of thoughts, but wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
Jacob Barnes: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your practice, where you're from, and how you got into painting!
Sam Wootton: Well, to be fair, it wasn't a very traditional route – people assume when I say I graduated, it was from an arts college or uni, but it was from King's [College London], doing English literature. That was what I felt the pragmatic option was, coming out of high school; believe it or not, the most employable option I felt I had at that point in time was to study English, instead of art, or drama or something. So I went and did English, and then it was alongside my degree that I found my love for art – I'm a big believer in finding time for things that matter to you. Ultimately, it became what defined me in terms of self-expression. So no real traditional training; the fundamentals, I kind of had to teach myself a whole lot. I've been kind of finding myself along the way.
JB: I’ve noticed that over time you have worked at the intersections of the industries that you're involved in – you've painted for a lot of [fashion] shows and a lot of designers. I understand that you went to university and graduated from King's, but in addition to art, what were the parallel streams of your fashion life, the radio show you host, and everything else, because it seems like that all informs your visual art.
SW: I feel like my mental make-up drives it a lot – rather than any sort of polymath tendencies, it's more that I need to have a lot going on at any given time. So it's less a choice and instead fulfilling what I need to fulfil to stay happy. In terms of fashion, it's always been an interest for me. When I was a kid, I was always fairly expressive. But then obviously I came to London and found myself in the fashion world – I got picked up by an agency in the first year of uni. As a model, you're just kind of used as a face, but I wanted to absorb what I'd seen, take it on, and fold it into my artistic practice. There was an element of pragmatism to that, though; I remember during Fashion Week of second year, a couple of my friends were in Shoreditch, and I ended up in a nice hotel, lying to the bouncer, and inside everyone was getting free massages and the most ridiculous free food. I'm like, "Damn, this is my career chosen! Let's go into fashion!" I mean, that now sounds overly cynical or vapid, and isn’t reflective of what I feel drives me now, but I guess it's true as an impetus – it's fun for a young person coming into London, and people are creative. It’s all the adjacent space. I do surround myself with a particular circle that is interesting off the back of their creative practice, rather than status, I feel.
JB: I certainly see the influence of that creativity – knowing your fashion background, looking at the influences of those designers, it does come out. I think it's fascinating that all of this creativity isn't divided, but just contributes as one "creative mass" towards your practice. But how would you describe the things that you're working towards in your paintings?
SW: That’s a good question, and it's one I've struggled with: trying to bring something together to cohesively present to people, because I'm aware of the art world as an establishment founded on commodities, so I'm aware that maybe I need something to package; finding a clear direction. It sounds abstract, but the colour red was something that I found in many of my ideas: red as a counterpoint, red as an extreme, red as something opposite to something else. I’m also drawn to geometric shapes, to very beautifully intricate skin tones, and beautifully intricate fabrics. So the undulations of fabric, and undulations of the skin alongside a very flat, single-coloured surface, drew me in, and I feel like that's what has aesthetically appealed to me. But then thematically, as we've said, it's been fashion. Working from editorials, I often feel lucky because they are beautiful: beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful lighting, usually very well-produced. The art, in a sense, can work for itself, pushing you as a [painter] to a point where you are given so much creative licence, because all of these foundational ideas are already there, with a huge creative team behind all this editorial work. So you see it, and you pick it up, and run with it in a direction that feels intuitive.
JB: You really have picked up that baton in your work – your ability to work with figures and skin tone is gorgeous (and very different). I absolutely love it. But you go way beyond simply painting nice pictures that are replicas of these environments, right? So how would you describe that next level? What are the things that you see and then use as the fundamental building blocks of your own personal practice?
SW: I kind of coined a term that I wanted to adhere to, or wanted to use as a label for my work: pseudo-realism. It's not Hyper-realism, it's an entirely different direction of realism, that realism that takes these elements that you mentioned, the fabrics and skin tones, and pushes them in a direction that's instantly recognisable, but in a way, as in their most evocative senses, rely on heavy contrasts and a beauty found in depth. I wanted to take them and push them and run with contrasts, and even problematically flatten them: flatten surfaces that maybe shouldn't be flattened, and bring out surfaces that maybe shouldn't be brought out. I mean, I don't want to give myself too much abstract praise – because it's still very much within the realm of realism. I don't feel like I have pushed the "pseudo-realism" to a level where I'd like to, but that's great, because that's the driving force. I'm trying to work in the macro and trying to view my whole life as the artistic canvas. I understand now is not my most refined artistic period. But I'm loving the work I'm making because it's allowed me to find out what's next.
JB: You speak very clearly and articulately on what it is that you're doing; do you feel that these are things that you conceive of and then put it into practice? Or is it this dialogical process of doing something that feels natural and and applying a terminology on the back end?
SW: I do think it's the latter. It's more of a natural process. But it's then a posthumous process where I do apply these labels and look at my work critically. I feel like that allows me to appreciate my work. And if I didn't have that, I don't believe I would appreciate my work in the same way. I would just make a painting and move on. Whereas if I need to look back at it, and think about what I was doing in the midst of the creative process, it's then that I can figure out [those labels]. I'm actually just an assemblage of nebulous intellectual, or less intellectual and less cognitive, ideas that are just coming forward in my work.
JB: Where do you understand yourself in the broader art world? How is your own career and practice taking shape in the contemporary landscape at the minute?
SW: I think that's maybe a question I was dreading just because I don't have a huge amount of knowledge about the art world itself. Besides the fact I'm maybe a bit too cynical about it – about the fact that it's upheld by our valuation of art as a commodity, by gallery spaces, or spaces that aren't necessarily open to the working classes, and by entities that don't actually allow the proletariat to realise that they have that within them which they can use to dismantle our current systems or hegemonies. Perhaps that's an overly cynical view of the art world but that's my conception of it at this period of time.
JB: I think that's probably reasonably accurate. With that in mind, are there any artists at the minute that you find yourself gravitating towards, or kind of community that you find yourself within?
SW: I do find it difficult to retain names and specifics. I've been hugely into Francis Bacon recently – I think that's emblematic of what it is that I'm attracted to this at this point in my life. Art as personality, art as the liminal space between the artist and the work, appeals to me. I don't know if it's because I'm hugely exposed to celebrity culture, or if it's because I'm a young, naive, twenty-two year-old, but the idea of the artist as embodying the work that they create is such an interesting one to me. Basquiat has always been a wonderful inspiration to me partially because of that… In another conversation, though, I have been really enjoying Kehinde Wiley's work, which is beautiful in its own right, but I don't feel a connection to the artist – purely because of the realist subjects there. So that's where I feel quite self-conscious about my work; I'm starting trying to bring myself into my work a little bit more through abstract terms, through less standardised processes. And that's where I want to go; I want to emulate these artists who bring themselves into their work so much.
JB: I think there is, at times this binary of identifying with an artist and liking their work, or not identifying with an artist, and not liking their work. I think an ability to say, "I like this, I'll leave that," is important to anyone looking to build something new.
SW: I feel like that's what I've found my artistic viewpoint to be – and is the way in which I live my life. I don't know if you're aware, but there was a nun-turned-artist in the 1950s in America, Sister Corita Kent, and she had an artistic practice wherein she used a viewfinder… a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard, through which she could segment the world into tiny portions, effectively cutting it into tiny canvases, in order to see how the colours interplayed with each other. By doing that, and applying that method to actually even specific pieces of art, you can draw out beautiful sections in a piece of art that you otherwise hated. And I don't think that does a disservice, but more so just brings out something underneath that you might not have seen. There’s so much beauty, and resolution, in the micro.