^ Kingsley Ifill, photographed in 'Soul Swallower', exhibtion at V1 Gallery, 2019. Photo: OTP.
OTP Short-Forms: Kingsley Ifill
An interview with Herne Bay's Ed Ruscha.
Collaboration with Danny Fox, knitted rugs and the feeling of being kicked in the head.
Working between painting, photography, print media and film, a strong sense of proximity condenses throughout Kingsley Ifill’s work. Known to abandon press-releases and champion the descriptive over the explanatory, the signs of lived experience seem to be stamped across the matte surfaces of the artist's works. An interview might seem counter-intuitive.
However questions and oppositions appear everywhere in Ifill’s canvases, hand-made prints and artist books. Here the intimate, the sinister, the mundane and the ecstatic all collide between images of hotel rooms, boxing matches, British back-alleys and the sideshows of American sidewalks. Sometimes hazy or blurred, often clear and severe, Ifill constructs and reproduces the subtle tonal variations that make up a human life.
And there is also the question of materials. Ifill’s appropriation of a new collage aesthetic extends beyond any treatment of paper. Stretcher bars are cleaved and then bracketed, shot with small-calibre bullets or chewed by the artist’s dog in a way that couples Hunter S. Thompson’s manic intensity with the punk sobriety of a folded Parrino.
Born in 1988, the artist’s exhibition history includes: Crowd, Hannah Barry Gallery (2020; group) Soul Swallower, V1 Gallery (2019; solo), Bouquet, LNCC (2018; solo), Mute, Golborne Gallery (2017; solo), Stutter, Cob Gallery (2016; solo).
OTP What’s important to you?
^ Kingsley Ifill, ---, courtesy of the artist.
OTP I’ve seen that you have been travelling a lot over the last 6 months, is there a particular type of image that you are looking for at the moment?
KI There’s a Cartier-Bresson line that I’ve had replaying over and over in my head for about ten years where he said something along the lines of “there’s no such thing as a good photographer. You just have to live and life will give you photos.”
I’m always trying to be conscious of not thinking too hard in terms of what kind of images I want to take, and rather slide in with the motion of whatever is happening - pushing to be more receptive to emotions rather than logic. But no doubt, also with an effort to maintain some form of balance and geometric appreciation within a composition, even if it’s acknowledged to then be ignored.
For a chunk of the last six months I was working on a series of nudes, as part of a collaborative project with my friend Danny Fox. I spent the beginning of this year travelling around the desert in southern Morocco to finish something I’ve been dipping in and out of for around six or seven years.
After that I went back to LA to make a book of the work with Danny. And then a few weeks ago, I did a solo mission to Texas for the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, which is a festival that’s been happening annually down there for the last 60-odd years.
A couple of weeks before, I finished reading a novel based around a similar festival. I'd never heard of anything like it and my first thought was that it was must be a work of fiction. But then after a two-second google, it turned out the event was a real thing. Not only that, the world’s biggest one was happening in a few weeks so I missed my flight back home and waited around.
I had some doubts and had to think about it a lot before actually committing to make the trip, as morally it’s basically everything that I’m against. However, these doubts then developed into an interest in the dilemma itself. I sort of became reacquainted with Plato’s idea that in order for something to exist, it has to also not exist. The gap between the two being a space which I’d explored in work previously.
In this case I utilised the idea as a tool, one that I hope will accurately portray the questions and answers that my experience of the festival brought up.
^ Kingsley Ifill, ---, courtesy of the artist.
OTP Is this series of nudes the first collaborative body of work you have produced? Did you find the experience very different to your usual studio practice?
KI It’s the first time fully sharing an idea with someone, but we’ve been friends a long time and it felt natural, without any pressure. There’s enough respect between the pair of us in regard to each other’s practice, that each of our contributions were in tune, and progressed smoothly as one, rather than conflicting.
At first I was unfamiliar with the process of figuration, that was something to get to grips with, but fortunately it worked out by acting intuitively - gut feeling that you learn to trust, in the same way that you would alone. And yeah, part of the dialogue is exploring how the two mediums (painting and photography) influence each other, therefore certain things wouldn’t have been achievable individually.
For example, when photographing conscious that it would be used as a reference for a drawing, I’d obsess over the simplest subtleties with fingers in a way that I wouldn’t have previously. Sharpened my eye no doubt.
OTP Do you take a similarly intuitive approach to the publications that TARMAC puts out?
KI Yeah, again, there’s no pressure. Just letting it be whatever it wants to be. It exists collectively between the people involved. However, I know that Jack [Jackson Whitefield] has some interesting work in the pipeline.
There’s also a book being published for the project I mentioned with Danny. That was due to be released in April, but will now happen later on down the line, if the world ever goes back to something close to our previous normality.
^ Kingsley Ifill, Alice, 2018, silver gelatin print, 20.3 x 25.4cm, courtesy of the artist and TARMAC.
OTP How did you first become interested in artist books?
KI There were no art books laying around as a kid, with the exception of Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book. The book shelf of the house was in my room for some reason and I can remember thinking of that one as if it were a sacred object.
I think it’s individually stamped out of twenty thousand or something mad like that, but it still felt unique. I might of even been scared to look or touch it at first. The metal cover could've still been sharp.
Then a little while ago, I found the same copy at my parents’ house and, seeing it again for the first time in half a lifetime, began realising how much of an effect aesthetically it must've had on me. Possibly I gravitated towards punk music from it, and then xeroxed fanzines from there. Eventually moving along the chain to hand-made artist books.
OTP How big of an impact has Irving Penn’s style had on you?
KI I just worked out a platinum printing formula after two years of experimenting and I thought a lot about his series using cigarette butts.
Print-wise they're technically in a world of their own. I’m a big fan of his portraits too. Walking out back onto the pavement after the Paris retrospective a couple of years ago felt like a kick in the head.
Stamped gum never looks the same after you’ve seen those photos. The doors song always plays in my head. Faces come out in the… when you’re strange.
^ Kingsley Ifill, Soul Swallower, 2018, acrylic and polyeurethane on canvas, courtesy of the artist and V1 Gallery.
OTP Have ideas like softness and depth-of-tone become more important to you over time? I am thinking more specifically about your colour prints ...
KI I’ve been doing colour prints for years. In about 2013 I’d sneak into the Goldsmith’s University darkroom, where I taught myself the ins and outs of RA4 as I couldn’t afford the membership at a commercial lab.
And then I managed to win a paper processor off of eBay for 99p. Which turned out to be from one of the photo technicians at Cambridge University. The guy didn’t want to let it go, so I had to plead with him that it would be going to a loving home and he finally gave in and let me come collect it in my Citroen Saxo, which barely made it there and back.
I didn’t have a studio and was working a full-time job, but I had it set up in a room that was part of a house getting renovated or part demolished. Foil over the windows, garden like a jungle, nettles and brambles - neighbours were convinced it was a meth lab.
I’d work in the day clearing out dead people’s homes and then print at night. I did that for about a year and half until they finally needed the room back.
Softness and depth are as important to me now as there were then. Which isn’t more or less, but equally as vital in establishing balance with shallow harshness. Both are good.
OTP What about the kick-in-the-head feeling you mentioned, is that something you get primarily from looking at photographic work?
KI No, not limited to photography. I found a book hidden in a dollar pile on the back of somebodies pick-up at a flea market a few weeks ago that’s on 19th-century hand knitted rugs.
Some look like the thick halftone you get with silkscreens, others like the swirl skies of Van Gogh, but fifty years before him.
Good films have a way of suspending the same feeling, parts of songs can be like a stab of it.
But then sometimes it will come out of thin air when riding a push bike down the street, with the light hitting just right, where frowns start looking like smiles and concrete curbs equally as pretty as the girl in the car that almost runs you down.
^ Kingsley Ifill, Robber, 2020, silver gelatin print, courtesy of the artist.
OTP A lot of your work seems to have a strong cinematic quality, what sort of films are you interested in?
KI It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. I’ve always loved that Hemingway short story that he won a bet with: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”. Working out a way of condensing down moving imagery to a single loop, yet still arguably containing the traditions of a beginning, middle and end. Or if it can be done in a single frame, even better.
I like Tarkovsky’s emphasis on emotions and the mental states I seem to enter whilst watching his films. And the way he leaves blanks in his films for the viewer to fill in. As is done in poetry. Maybe that Robber photo is like that. You can imagine what has happened before and after
OTP I have been thinking about your 'Meathead' paintings recently and read that your grandad was a boxer and that your uncle was a painter. Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the role of heritage in your work?
KI There’s some kind of eel somewhere, that upon being born, has a map in its DNA where it knows the route of how to get back to its family which is something like 5000 miles away. You are what you are.
My uncle Harry who you mentioned is currently in hospital. He was on a ventilator and the doctor said he was going to die. But it seems like now he’s pulling through.
There was a similar situation with my Grandad too a few years ago. He was on death’s door, riddled with cancer, lost half his body weight and at the worst point was told that he had a couple of hours left to live. As the priest was giving him the last blessing, he was doing bicep curls with tins of baked beans, shaking his head side to side, refusing to except the proposed reality.
His determination was so strong, that through some miracle, he survived and is currently back to being fit as a fiddle. Like the eel, there’s something in their blood. And that something is weathering the storm and fighting the fight. Nobody in my family has had it easy but we all crack on in our own different ways, and that’s something I’m proud of.
The Meathead painting is from a series based on similar ideas. Facing adversity and pushing through to the other side. Struggle is intrinsic to the human experience. Sometimes simply surviving can seem beautiful.
^ Kingsley Ifill, Safelight, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 190 x 140 cm courtesy of the artist and Hannah Barry Gallery. Photo: Damien Griffiths.
OTP Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the UHU paintings?
KI I was spending a lot of time in the National Gallery whilst making those paintings. Sometimes whole days sat in the arm chairs. An ongoing wonder was the thought of what would be hanging there in the future to portray the time that we were currently in.
From a technical point of view, what would be honest to the processes involved in painting today or recent times? I kept imagining it would be great to have a Steven Parrino or Oliver Mosset hanging side by side with a Caravaggio.
Then I’d leave and be walking through the busy streets of Soho, hustle and bustle, every different kind of advertising and brand being rammed down my throat through my eye balls. And I’d realise my personal reality wasn’t a monochrome, even if I wanted it to be.
Silkscreens seemed ideal. And some of the images are so blown out, that you can’t tell whether they’ve been painted by hand or not. Subjects were possibly influenced by old masters, for the contemporary equivalent. But in general there’s no answers, just questions.