Georg Wilson is a painter who uses the unique iconography of her goblin creatures to vividly transport the viewer into an inverted fantasy world of English folktales, distorting their gendered narratives whilst intimately capturing the seasonal progression, flora and fauna of the English countryside. Georg speaks to us about the importance of humour in the art world, the importance of an intimate relationship with the natural world, and finding nostalgia in fictional narratives and potential alternatives to our current way of living.
Interview by Madalena Botto
Hi Georg! Could you briefly introduce yourself and your practice?
Hello ! My name is Georg Wilson, I’m a painter of vegetables, English fields, dark blue nights, creatures and critters, goblins and twisted versions of European folklore and fairy tales. I paint a world in which my genderless goblin friends lollop and lurch around the countryside by night, prising pumpkins out of the ground and snatching artichokes that aren’t theirs from farms and allotments. I am also currently enrolled on the MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art.
You’ve spoken before about how your paintings have become a sort of subversion of the gendered narratives of English folktales. How do you see the androgynous nature of your goblins as important to this?
Over a year ago, when I first started this ‘goblin’ project (which I like to call ‘Goblin Market’ as a whole), the question of gendering my characters never explicitly came up in my mind. But, over time, I realised none of my painted figures had an obvious or distinct gender. I think this is because in my head, the goblins have always been more ‘creature’ than human. The vast majority of European folklore reinforces these strict gendered binaries in which women can only act within a certain characterised role: either victim, enchantress, witch, ugly stepmother, etc. I had also been reading Angela Carter’s fairy tales at the start of this project and that way in which she vividly describes these narratives with weird or subversive feminine roles really interested me, so I guess the goblins come out of all of these thoughts as creature-like aversions to human gender.
Could you speak a little bit about the role of humour in your work?
Humour is so integral to all my work. I think it’s very important to make silly or funny artworks because they have the potential to be more accessible, and they operate at a distance from the social conditioning we all participate in when we go into a grand art gallery and have to whisper and stare at all the artworks very seriously. I paint scenes and characters that are specifically funny to me because it makes me very happy, and I hope that they make other people happy too.
"I think it’s very important to make silly or funny artworks because they have the potential to be more accessible, and they operate at a distance from the social conditioning we all participate in when we go into a grand art gallery and have to whisper and stare at all the artworks very seriously."
Feeling connected to the natural world is obviously central to your work, and you’ve made reference before to Gaia theory- the interconnectedness of all living things. In light of these ideas, to what extent do you see yourself within the world of your paintings?
Whenever I’m walking my dog on Hampstead Heath, or buying vegetables at my local shop, or making dinner - doing anything that engages with an element of the natural world – these images come into my head of a goblin-like creature reacting in an intimate animalistic manner. For example, a few weeks ago all these yellow and lilac crocuses had sprouted out of the ground on the Heath which I had no idea were there, under the ground, and I imagined this goblin recoiling in shock at the sudden unknown-ness of its landscape – I’m developing a whole series of work based on this feeling, called ‘The Horror of Spring’.
Since looking back on how my work has changed over the last year, I’ve realised that my ‘Goblin Market’ work has made my own connection to nature more apparently distant to myself, though I crave it to be closer, if that makes sense!? By living in an urban environment in London, imagining a whole species of critters who are immersed within the English countryside, there’s definitely a fetishistic gaze on nature present in my work that I will probably never get away from. I’m just grateful that my work has encouraged me to notice the tiny changes in seasons on a much more intimate scale.
The seasonal progression of your work really makes it easier to relate to temporally- how would you say narrative influences your pieces? Do you see them unfolding over time as a larger story?
I see all the goblin paintings together illustrating little cameos of the larger system: a herd of critters that grudgingly live together somewhere in the English countryside, getting into skirmishes and squabbling over food. In that sense, there is a wider narrative of an animal civilisation in my practice that I am gradually uncovering for myself as well as the viewer. They have a future just like you and me do.
Your freestanding goblins in the exhibition are a big change for you, especially in the way that they allow you to bring the figures to life by placing them in real contexts. could you see yourself delving even deeper into the sculptural and immersive?
I’m definitely really excited by the cut-outs, and where I could take them! I’m asking around to my friends with allotments to see if I could take the goblins round for a frolick amongst some real vegetables this summer. I’m also currently working on a little collection of films in which I use a night-vision camera to document the cut-outs in my garden being sniffed at by the local foxes – lots of potential for future projects!
Could you speak a little bit about your use of colour, and how it works to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality?
Although I predominantly paint a world that is fantastical and imaginary, my colours are always firmly grounded in my day-to-day experience of England’s changing seasons. Every morning I just stare out of my studio window and I find by the end of the day that the colours I have been staring at are present in the picture I’m painting. My favourite paint colours are Michael Harding’s Napthol Red and Bright Green Lake.
You’ve been building on the world of your goblins for a while now- how do you continue to come up with new compositions and situations for them to find themselves in?
I’m currently browsing through online databases of medieval botanical manuscripts and illustrations of pageant costume from the 16th century – the celebratory, hilarious body language of medieval drawn figures and the intimacy with nature that these manuscripts document is endlessly fascinating to me. So recently, I’ve been copying down costumes, poses, and facial expressions to adopt in my goblins.
Your use of texture and mark making has developed a lot recently, could you speak a little bit about your relationship to oil paint as a medium and why it’s important to your work?
I think for a while I had been trying to cover up the actual texture and presence of paint in my work. I had been painting on heavily primed, flat, smooth canvas for months and had become shy of my work developing a texture of its own. It was only after making lots of small works on heavily primed paper that the fibrous marks of my brush were really coming through and I learnt to exaggerate it rather than smooth it out, and I haven’t looked back since. I absolutely love layering up a buttery thickness with oil paint now, to denote the fleshy texture of vegetables and foliage.
"Although I predominantly paint a world that is fantastical and imaginary, my colours are always firmly grounded in my day-to-day experience of England’s changing seasons. Every morning I just stare out of my studio window and I find by the end of the day that the colours I have been staring at are present in the picture I’m painting."
How would you say studying art history has influenced your practice now? Are there particular references that you come back to, or has it influenced the way you perceive the role of art objects?
The artworks I wrote about and studied during my BA will always stick with me and continue to influence my work. For example, during my first year at Oxford University we were asked to write one essay a week based on a different theme, from ‘brush stroke’ to ‘material’ to ‘frame’, so I chose to make the subject of each essay the ugliest object I could find in the Ashmolean museum each week. By the end of the term, I had a portfolio of ‘hideously ugly’ art objects that I could interrogate to work out what I found so amusingly repulsive in them. There was a simpering portrait of a spoilt Rococo child, a tacky dolphin-shaped ceramic table ornament from the 18th century, and an oil painting of a saccharine cherub riding a fish. On the other hand, in some ways I think studying history of art for my BA has given me quite a cynical view of the art market and the whole system of circulating art objects in Euro-American culture, because I was constantly reading a lot about the ancient commodification of art, and the relationship between patron and artists that goes back beyond the fifteenth century, which can distort or depress my organic enjoyment of artworks.
There’s a primal element to your goblins that seems to reflect a yearning to return to past ways of living. Would you say that this sense of nostalgia for a time when people were closer to nature is important to your work?
I’ve briefly mentioned a fetishistic gaze in my work already – to elaborate on this a little, I am definitely very conscious of the dangers of romanticising other cultures or past societies to the point of blind nostalgia. I am currently doing research on the English phenomenon coined by Sue Allen, ‘Merry Englandism’ that describes ‘celebrating a world that has never actually existed, a visionary mythical landscape where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings’ which is often appropriated by right-leaning political voices in the UK. In my work I am looking for an alternative, more inclusive form of nostalgia concerned with the English landscape in which fictional narratives can introduce potential for a radical intimacy with nature, without untethered romanticising and exclusion.
" In my work I am looking for an alternative, more inclusive form of nostalgia concerned with the English landscape in which fictional narratives can introduce potential for a radical intimacy with nature, without untethered romanticising and exclusion."
Do you continue to discover stories and fairytales which influence your work?
All the time! I often go back through my childhood book shelves to find old stories and brilliant illustrations, like Mervyn Peake’s ‘Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor’ (which is a huge influence on my work). There are also so many local folk tales that have developed and been passed on over generations orally in the UK, all across the country – I’ve been listening to The Folklore Podcast which is doing important work archiving and sharing these stories.
What art and other media has been influencing you recently?
My peers and friends at the Royal College of Art most of all!
Could you speak a bit about what you admire about Daisy’s work, and how you think your pieces can relate to each other?
I adore the powerful quietness of Daisy’s landscapes – there is a sense of intense bright light that emanates out them which reminds me of dawn, and the paintings of Claude Lorraine. I like to imagine that our painterly worlds converge in some fantastical version of the English countryside together, saturated in colour and yet still reminiscent of both our real experiences of the soft, undulating forms of the rural landscape. One of my favourite things about Daisy’s work is also its light-hearted tone – you can’t help but want to smile while looking at one of her gorgeous blue-spotted trees or pink mountains!