Great and small

If twin thirsts for self-publicity and instant communication are characteristic of contemporary culture, then painter Vicken Parsons is not a woman of her time. She takes several days before replying to my email request for an interview. When I do meet her, she is friendly, nervous and quite devoid of the narcissism that is a default setting for so many of her peers.

Parsons’ self-sufficiency reflects her detachment from the contemporary art scene. Her solo show opens next month at the Alan Cristea Gallery, five years after her most recent UK exhibition and three since a monograph at her regular gallery, Christine König, in Vienna.

Yet as the wife of Britain’s leading sculptor, Antony Gormley, few have been closer than Parsons to the very centre of British art. Inevitably, the association is a double-edged sword. Thanks to Gormley’s success – a life-size model of his most famous sculpture, “Angel of the North”, recently sold at Christie’s for £3.4m – they enjoy spacious, side-by-side studios in a custom-built complex behind King’s Cross. Yet the young man who opens the gate is nonplussed to find that it is Parsons I am seeking rather than the author of the potent bronze figure that presides over the courtyard.

“Oh, you want Vicken? Her studio is up there,” he says, waving me towards the left-hand set of two identical flights of steps. I am 20 minutes late yet Parsons, when she opens the door, is the acme of politeness. Dressed in a grey cashmere cardigan, jeans and paint-spattered apron, blue eyes blazing out from a parchment-pale complexion, she is simultaneously frail and doughty, part English rose, part Viking.

I accept her offer of jasmine leaf tea – “It looks like tadpoles,” she mutters apologetically – and drift over to the paintings, arranged on a shelf that runs along three sides of the cream-painted studio.

If much mainstream contemporary painting is brash, shallow and ironic, vast in size and diminutive in substance, then Parsons’ work is the polar opposite.

'Untitled', 2011

These paintings, which measure just 25cm by 30cm and are all on unframed plywood, do not roar; they whisper. To describe them as landscapes and interiors is correct yet misleading. Their seed has been sown by specific places, from Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin to Icelandic landscapes – “so primal and young. No markings, stripped tarmac, no posts, no edges. I loved it” – and, more generally, “tunnels, underground car parks, and other buildings which are spatially interesting”.

But Parsons folds those images back into her own mind’s eye before returning them as “a painting, separate from my internal [self] and from the outside, so that it is in itself something else”.

The results are rooms distilled down to skeletal architecture: doorways, corners, a suspicious-looking loop suspended from a ceiling. Asymmetric lines, scratched in charcoal to emphasise their ephemeral nature, create awkward, tilted perspectives; depths that beckon you in yet block you out.

Pigments are parsimonious: milky blue, metallic grey, carbon black and bone white are thinned down to translucent layers through which the plywood glimmers like sun trapped behind a cloud. In such a chill, secular climate, scant bursts of colour – a slab of tangerine, a citrus-green halo – possess a quasi-sacred intensity.

These are small, subtle statements about sophisticated subjects: space, architecture, interiority, silence, darkness, light. Such metaphysical matters were the business of painters for centuries. (Parsons cites Piero della Francesca, Matisse, Rothko and Luc Tuymans as influences.) But today they have been all but replaced by auto-referential comments churned out by the high-tech image factory that is contemporary art.

'Untitled', 2010

Behind Parsons’ pursuit of this timeless vision lies a tale of both accident and design. Born in 1957 in Hertfordshire, to an actor-turned-farmer father – “a lovely man, so lovely” – and a mother who is not only “a really, really good potter” but also worked in a boatyard during the war, she clearly grew up in a home less ordinary.

“I am one of five,” she says in diffident tones, her gaze locked on the table-top. “And we all went to art school.”

There must have been lots of encouragement to be creative? “Oh, lots and lots and lots!” she cries, see-sawing, as she frequently does, between shyness and passion for the fabric of her world. “There was no expectation to make money. It was all quite idealistic, although my dad must have worked incredibly hard. You never knew it because he made it seem fun.”

Hailing from a family “that didn’t really have anything”, her time at the Slade school of art was materially gruelling: she lived in a squat without gas or electricity – “we foraged for wood and candles” – and ate homemade bread and cabbage. Artistically, however, there was plenty of nourishment. With tutors including the late abstract artist John Hoyland, Parsons defied the trend for video, performance and installation – “they wrote, ‘Painting is dead’ on the walls,” she laughs – and embraced oil as her vocation.

In the 1980s, “when painting got bigger and bigger”, she briefly followed suit. Then, around the time she had her second baby, she started making small canvases. “And there was no turning back,” she says.

Why such devotion to the diminutive? “I like the contradiction of making a large space within a small thing, and then within the small thing, the space opens up again. But it’s not a real space, obviously, it’s a suggested space – and sometimes it is a cancellation of that.”

Parsons admits she is interested in “going down into a place which is hidden. Trying to get down to the unconscious, I suppose.” Yet she hesitates over the words, aware that her work’s ineffable painterliness is lost in translation. Repeatedly she remarks that “looking is the most important thing”.

'Untitled', 2009

Indeed, when I look at the canvases, the artists who spring to mind are Vermeer, Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi and American photographer Francesca Woodman. All made pictures about our rapport with our surroundings; stilling their interiors into prisms of silence, shape and light with inhabitants who possess an ineluctable mystery.

Given the calibre of her work, the puzzle is where has she been all this time. “I never stopped working,” she says. Indeed, her résumé is far from blank, with small solo shows “every year or two”, including one at Tate St Ives in 2001-02.

So why is her profile in inverse proportion to her talent? “I suppose all the life stuff, getting married, having a family.” (She has three children: Guy, Ivo and Paloma.) “I always felt guilty when I wasn’t working, and guilty when I was.”

She and Gormley met at the Slade. Asked if it was love at first sight, she looks as if she would rather crawl under the table than answer. Gradually, however, she becomes less reticent. She loved, she says, “the way he got on with stuff. [He was] very energetic and focused. There was no barrier to him doing what he wanted. He would find the materials. He would find the way. He would work day and night. It was challenging and inspiring and fun.”

Gormley, an elemental personality according to those who know him, was never house-husband material. Did she mind putting her own career on hold while he forged ahead? “Yes, but I also knew that we had to feed the kids and pay the mortgage.”

She helped him in the early days, sealing him into the casts that left him blind, able to breathe only through his mouth. Was she ever scared? “No,” her laughter froths. “But he was sometimes.”

No one is more aware than Parsons that her work – miniature, inward-looking – is the antithesis of her husband’s monumental statements. “I hugely admire what he does ... and I do the opposite. I could fit a whole exhibition into a carrier bag!”

The dichotomy, she suspects, is no coincidence. “I think there is a huge, unconscious dialogue.”

Before leaving, I inquire about the picture of an egg-pale oval floating in a luminous sea. It was inspired, she explains, by a geyser in Iceland. “On the ground, it is just bubbling water, you just wait and wait, and suddenly ‘Whoosh!’ ” She makes explosive gestures with her hands. “And then it goes back to being quiet again.”

It is a perfect metaphor for the painter herself.

Vicken Parsons’ ‘Here’, Alan Cristea Gallery, London, February 23-March 24,

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