Cedric Bardawil

In the studio with Diane Chappalley

I recently visited artist, Diane Chappalley (b. 1991) at her studio in East London. During the conversation we discuss the paragone, Diane's residency in Turin, her influences and the poetic nature of her work.

Cedric Bardawil: I’d like to start by addressing the importance of symbolism in your work.

Diane Chappalley: Through symbols and metaphors, I explore experiences that have affected me on a deep level. Everyone has things that are personal and difficult to talk about; experiences that feel close to the surface, but that are hard to address in a direct way. I think a lot about the weight of silence in this context. My artistic practice is the best tool I have, I paint and make sculptures that tackle what I can’t articulate.

Cedric: Since your recent ceramics practice, do you think about the paragone—relative merits of painting and sculpture? How has it been to explore a new medium, and can one do something the other can’t?

Diane: I relate to Louise Bourgeois who says that it is only through making sculptures, bringing three dimensional objects into the world, that she can exorcise her demons fully. I feel that way with ceramics, but I also need to make paintings: I want to make both. They record presence in different ways and both practices have unique forms of directness. Ultimately, the gesture is present in both, touch is all over the paintings and my hands form the ceramics. The work needs to contain that energy; a closeness that will hopefully ‘touch’ the person looking at it.

Cedric: How has your painting language changed over the past few years, and has it been a conscious decision?

Diane: During art school and for a few years after, I wasn’t fully able to address what mattered to me. I was scared to go there, and the past two years have been a revelation for me due to the re-emergence of trauma. I suppose the period of lockdown and prolonged isolation meant inner thoughts and memories were able to crystallise. I found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to paint how I truly felt, and I started including figures and started making sculptures. My work has developed to be closer to the reason why I make art in the first place. It has always been a form of escapism, creating a new reality within reality, a way to cope, to survive almost. And now the work is a way of facing these thoughts more directly—it feels vulnerable.

Cedric: You appear comfortable using negative space in painting, which allows for contemplation. What’s your intent?

Diane: I work from reminiscence, trying to capture past or present emotions. Although feelings are very real there are holes in memories, they are incomplete—they don’t make perfect sense. The negative space in my paintings allows for ambiguity. The space that the viewer occupies within the painting is unclear: water, sky, fog, blood, dream, reality, life or death?

The negative space in my paintings allows for ambiguity.

Cedric: How is your residency in Turin going? More generally, does the environment you are in affect your work?

Diane: Everything about Torino is inspiring to me: the light, the fog, the baroque beauty and extravagance, the sculptures, the rose gardens around the villa I am lucky enough to be staying in, its people and their kindness. There is an obscurity about Torino, a mist that somehow makes me feel that I am in my element.

My bond with Italy has always been very strong, it is my favourite place in the world. The reason I started painting was seeing the work of Artemisia Gentileschi when I was sixteen in Florence at Palazzo Pitti with my sister. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at and it showed me how personal and powerful an artwork can be. It is interesting to think about the painting ‘La déchirure de sens’ I showed in your exhibition Invisible Dragon, as it was inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Danaë’ that I saw at The National Gallery last year.

Cedric: You reference art history and past painting languages in your work. Where do you position yourself in contemporary painting?

Diane: I can’t, but I can tell you about my long-time heroes: Louise Bourgeois, Charlotte Salomon, Niki de Saint Phalle, Etel Adnan, Marianne Von Werefkin.

Cedric: Your titles are often poetic, how important is the written word to you?

Diane: Words tend to get stuck in my head. I am a slow reader because when I read something that inspires me or resonates with me, it goes through me and I can’t get rid of it. It’s on repeatedly in my head, like a loop. For the Invisible Dragon exhibition, I had to put those short sentences, expressions that I think about constantly, down somewhere. I used a pyrograph on the plinths that the ceramics stand on. They come from books, songs, conversations… On one of them is written: ‘A la vie, à la mort et tout ce qu’il y a entre’ meaning, ‘to life, to death and everything in between’, it’s a sentence that my friend said when we were raising a toast in the memory of our dear friend who passed away. I was extremely moved by it; I was amazed by her capacity to find the right words at the right time and thought it was so beautiful. I had to use it.

…when I read something that inspires me or resonates with me, it goes through me and I can’t get rid of it.

Cedric: Finally, do you have any studio rituals you can share with us?

Diane: Not really, I don’t have many rituals in general. I am always surprised when people are able to describe and define themselves with specific habits like ‘I am a morning person’. I change habits constantly.