Cedric Bardawil

In the studio with Victoria Cantons and Xu Yang

In this conversation with artists, Victoria Cantons (b. 1969) and Xu Yang (b. 1996) we discuss their use of portraiture as a vehicle to explore broader ideas and personal narratives, including identity and femininity.

Cedric Bardawil: I’d like to start by discussing the themes of femininity and identity, particularly how they relate to you and your work.

Xu Yang: Through dress-up and performance, I explore how female identity is constructed and how we use the materials around us to express ourselves. How we dress and look as a way for us to express our individuality in the society.

Victoria Cantons: Whilst I appreciate that there are some very heavy debates going on globally about identity, for me it is created by the self from the inside out. The thing is, as children, we already begin to have an idea of self from a very young age: generally scientists point to age four or five, though for some it can be a little younger. I already had an idea of who I was as a five-year-old. Coming to terms and standing my ground against those who dismissed or ridiculed me was a many-year-battle. Likewise, it took me a long time to find my way into painting myself directly and recognisably. I used to paint interior spaces, objects, and events such as volcanic eruptions as portrayals of myself. Actually taking the step to paint my face and body came a lot later, it was very tied up with my gender transition, dealing with the process-that-that-was-then became a permission to deal with exploring literally and portraying who I am. Who I was. Whom I could be. Showing mine and other’s identity –and femininity if I am painting a female figure– is about stripping everything away and trying to find the core of the individual. It comes back to these ideas: What is the common ground? What can paint and a painting do? What we as individuals present to the world is multifaceted and not always visible. We all have a continuous evolution in response to experience and in relationship to each other.

Cedric: Your figurative work often uses a model to explore bigger ideas and narratives, could you expand on these?

Yang: Of late my practice has been to paint solitary female figures—occasionally there have been still lives. I find it easiest to model for all my works, I know myself best and I find that I can also direct myself best. In the still life works, I select objects that I’ve collected or that relate to me. I would say that all my works are self-portraiture or self-representations.

Victoria: I’m going to refer to painting since this show is all painting though what I am saying really does translate across all my work. Generally, when I paint a someone or something it is not about just portraying the subject or object literally. I want to use them or it as a hook to explore ideas I’ve been thinking about in my notebook writings. As far as I can tell, reflecting on my work and regarding anything I make these days I am trying to make sense of my own life and the issues that are affecting me at the given time but I am also using the work as an opportunity to have a conversation with historical art works and works produced by my peers that hold my attention. The crazy thing with painting is that any single work is made up of so many complications; there’s form, composition, mark making, texture, colour and then there’s the artists’ conceptual and contextual ideas. Depending on the series I am working on, these questions may differ slightly artwork to artwork or from series to series.

“Ultimately our work might converse but it as individual as we are.” Victoria Cantons

Cedric: You share a studio and are in a romantic relationship, does this connect your practices?

Victoria: Yes and no! We do talk to each other every day about our own and each other’s works and occasionally collaborate or act as the other’s assistant, but you know, we come to the studio with different baggage because we have different life experiences and interests and it’s these things that are the works’ fuel. Ultimately our work might converse but it as individual as we are.

“…the personal is political, and today it’s important that individuality is celebrated.” Xu Yang

Cedric: You both use self-portraiture to address similar themes in different ways, which again, is very relevant now—we live in the age of the selfie. How do you see your self-portraiture positioned in today’s world?

Yang: The thing is, the personal is political, and today it’s important that individuality is celebrated. There was a time when self-portraiture was used by an artist to gain commissions, but I think today, through the internet, self-portraiture has become a documentation of one’s experience. On social media it’s a statement of who we are or in some cases who we want to be, which is very important in our aim for equality today.

Victoria: I think self-portraiture is an opportunity to engage in a public conversation about who we are. I don’t see the gain in society operating in an ‘us versus them’ manner, what we need to talk about is how we can recognise that we are actually all in the same boat, cut from the same cloth. The self-portrait is way to hold up a mirror that both I and the viewer can look at and start a conversation from.

“I think self-portraiture is an opportunity to engage in a public conversation about who we are.” Victoria Cantons

Cedric: Victoria, some of your work can be read as touching on your journey as a woman who happens to be transgender. When did you first decide to make work about this, and how has it felt to share your experience?

Victoria: The thing is I do not feel that having a transgender history wholly defines me any more than the fact that I was born and grew up in London, or that my parents were French and Spanish and all my extended family is abroad, or that I was an only child. These are all issues that contribute to the person I am, and the person I am in turn feeds the work I make as it is part of what I ‘kick’ against. Because I have only just gone through the art school journey of foundation, BA and MA I am seen as an emerging artist, but I was painting for long before I entered art education and my first works where I depicted myself literally was a series of self-portraits from 2010-2012. Reflecting on those I think they’re quite emotional, stylistically very different to what I am doing these days. Art school definitely changed and refined me. After these paintings I then reapplied a filter to my work so that even though it was about me, there were also a lot of smoke and mirrors. I was a lot more oblique. It was only as I came to the conclusion of the MA that I hit upon the idea that if I could paint other people and other things then why not just paint myself. Present without the armour and with all the warpaint removed. No more masks. And perhaps that might generate an interesting discussion that I could learn something from beyond what I learnt in the process of making the work itself.

Cedric: Yang, I’m particularly interested in the performative element of your work, and how you tie this into your painting practice. Could you go into some of the themes you are exploring, and why they are important to you?

Yang: I am obsessed with 18th century Rococo art and fashion, during this movement lives were very limited for women, their make-up and dress became the only freedom they had to explore and show, to represent their opinions. I feel deeply connected to them as a Chinese girl who came from a very restrictive background, my activities were very limited when I was growing up, I discovered drag performance after I came to London in 2014, and I just fell in love with the freedom I have. I love how expressive Rococo art can be, for me, to make a tribute to that period with my paintings and persona is the best way I can think of to rebel against my past and declare who I am today.

Cedric: Victoria, your honest paintings contrast their poetic titles, is this an invitation to a covert reading?

Victoria: It is, and it isn’t. The tiles can be like an added layer or mark on the work that you can take notice of and consider, or you can ignore. The titles can also act as a flag to myself about what I was thinking or writing about in my notebooks at the time that I made the painting. Sometimes I wonder if the title is too much? As much as I am interested in all these things and want to have a ‘place at the table’, the opportunity to have a conversation through the work with the audience about what I am thinking about, I also think I should leave it very open. Maybe the long poetic title closes things up too much and perhaps my work should have more open-ended titles? One word as a trigger for a conversation. As they say: less is more.

“…dress-up has become therapeutic—it has helped me with my confidence and mental health through the pandemic.” Xu Yang

Cedric: Yang, I’m interested in how you adopt the extravagance of Rococo in your work. In many ways this period has a relevance now, history is repeating itself–today’s fashion and celebrity culture is full of flamboyance, designed to impress and awe at first sight.

Yang: There’s a saying that ‘heels go up when economy goes down’, although my heels have always been high. I think over the past two years, during the Covid pandemic, people being told to stay at home has added restrictions to our lives, for some people like myself, ‘dress-up’ has become therapeutic—it has helped me with my confidence and mental health through the pandemic. Meanwhile online images are like fast food feeding our brains, we get so much information, so fast, that it could be possible that we are becoming addicted, myself included! We constantly want more stimulation. Our online world is supporting one’s individuality but sometimes it sets up unhealthy trends—the so-called ‘beauty standard’ can be damaging to someone’s confidence when they find they do not fit into a certain category of fashion. I think the most important thing is knowing who you are, embracing your difference and being confident in your own skin.