The nude is a well-traversed genre. With the weight of the history of art on her shoulders, Celia Hempton has quietly come along and readdressed its representation in an inventive and very modern way. Her intimate, computer screen-sized paintings largely focus on genitalia. Close up images of cocks, arses and vaginas become nearly abstract in their layered, fast swathes of pigment.
She discovered a website Chat Random—a more sexual version of Chat Roulette—and felt compelled to make work about it. Her initial sketches on paper developed into an intense practice in which she would paint individuals live on the site (with and without their permission). “Looking at men on the Internet for four hours a day, every day, is an experience that is a form of research in a way.” Her “Chat Random” series began with an agenda that soon developed beyond the artist’s initial scope. “I had set out to do something. There was the politics of my gender in mind, but as with most of my work, once I get really deep into it things became quite complex.”
There is a speed to Hempton’s interactions with her subjects. People come and go on the screen in front of her—some pass quickly, some linger. All her works are made in one sitting. “Most are painted really, really quickly. It is really important. Whereas if there’s a person who’s allowed me to paint their portrait and has sat still for an hour, the painting looks completely different,” she explains. “There is always an anonymity in terms of what I can see of them and what they can see of me. I put myself in situations where the experience takes precedence over the artwork. What’s happening in front of me is real life. That makes me unselfconscious.”
Hempton’s paintings range from legible to abstract, sometimes unrecognisable as the human body. A lot of the decisions she makes in the work are based on formal concerns, such as color or the light that reflect the pixelated, poor-quality images on screen. That lack of clarity is interesting from a conceptual as well as visual level: the human has become veiled in a way. Hempton suggests that the “thick grotty grungy blurry slimy quality” reflects something about the experience of going on what are essentially sex sites. “There’s a story, but there is always mystery in them.”
Hempton’s paintings occupy a space between intimacy and distance. The body is cropped, faces often removed. The focus becomes the genitalia. (“Getting close is a way of not giving the body a particular context,” she says.) The works can be erotic, but that sensuality is not always present, as the artist is aware of the complex and sometimes repulsive, even masochistic nature of looking at the sites.
It is interesting that prior to her sexual pieces, Hempton was working with landscape, often presenting the work spilling out of the canvas as site-specific wall paintings. In the Gwangju Biennale, her paintings were presented as interiors. “They’re closed in on themselves, framing their body in this way that is supposed to be as closed in,” Hempton explains. “I like the idea that the wall painting might intimate an outdoor space or something that is much larger than this tiny fraction.”
Her more recent works, which are presented in these pages and will be shown at a forthcoming solo show at Lorcan O’Neill in Rome, are blowing up sexual parts to super-sized dimensions; presented with two-metre-high vaginas at eye level, the viewer feels as if s/he could fall in like a reverse birth. As with everything Hempton does, the results are a beautiful, nuanced exploration into what it is to be human today.
Celia Hempton (British, b. 1981) is an artist who lives and works in London. She is represented by Galerie Sultana, Paris; Lorcan O’ Neill, Rome; and Southard Reid, London. This spring, her works will be exhibited in a solo show at Southard Reid and a group show at Mendes Wood, São Paulo.
Francesca Gavin is a London-based curator and editor. She is a contributing editor at Dazed, Twin, Artsy and AnOther magazine, and the curator of the Soho House collection.
Images: Celia Hempton, Caspar, 2014; Nicoletta 2014; Kamal, 2015; Kajsa, 2015; Kamal 2015; Yuri, 2014; James, 2015; Kate, 2014. All images courtesy of the artist and Sultana Gallery, Paris; Southard Reid, London; and Lorcan O'Neill, Rome