In Conversation With: Mark Enstone

Mark Enstone is a British painter who uses his prior career in fashion photography as a backdrop for paintings exploring intimacy, observation, and artistic authorship. 

Just as Enstone reappropriates the scenes of fashion photoshoots he is all too familiar with, he likewise subtly and carefully references other works of art. The result is work in which figures are as mysterious as they are revealing, fluctuating between the ambiguity of the scenes they interact within and the modernity imparted by the fashion articles they wear like Prada and Gucci.

Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss your introduction to painting?

Mark Enstone: I went to art college but the different departments were very siloed, so choosing photography was very much a rejection of painting. It felt like a practice that “other people did.” 

Over the years, I went to more painting shows than photography shows, so whilst I’m technically self-taught, it wasn’t in a vacuum. A friend once sent me a postcard from a Peter Doig show and it sat on a shelf above the kettle for two or three years, so I unconsciously studied it every day. Then one day, looking at it, I felt compelled to try to paint.

It took a few years and a certain amount of courage to expose me so much, even to my family, and to paint what I felt I had to.

EA: How does your background in fashion photography intersect with your career in painting?

ME: I gradually fell out of love with photography, hastened by realizing that I actually could paint to try and express some of the things that interested me most, things that I can scarcely articulate but seem to have a thematic consistency. 

Photography studios are zones of transition, where strangers gather briefly but intensely.

Shoots have hours of prep before a single photograph is taken. When I was a photographer, I was as interested in the social dynamics of those hours of hair and makeup as the shoot itself.  Probably more, in truth.

Eventually, I came to realize that fashion shoots are fertile ground for paintings of intimacy and drama, tension and ennui. And because I remain invested in clothes and the aesthetics of fashion, there’s a lot of clothes interest: Prada stripes, a sweary Vetements sweatshirt, Christopher Kane, Fyodor Golan, a Dion Lee corset.

There is, of course, a splendid perversity in spending weeks rendering in analog a world so inherently fast-paced and digital.

EA: Can you go more in-depth about “Those Titles” and what motivated it?

ME: I love a good title and I love language, but like most painters, I hate the pressure of titling (and particularly the fear of being pretentious). I had the exciting realization that I could both appropriate figures from other artists’ paintings and the title itself. 

That was fantastically liberating because it distances my painting from the title; there’s no correlation between the two. There’s nothing worse for me than a leaden and literal title that removes any possible interpretation for the viewer: “This is a picture of a crying woman, she is sad,” says the artist. “Move along now, nothing to see here.” In my practice, the title is merely a reference and possibly a kind of amuse-bouche, but the viewer has to work at the themes and narratives of the painting on their own.

Plus I get to have fun with the appropriation aspect: to respond to the whole narrative and history of painting, to acknowledge that all of our paintings are retreading a well-worn path. It’s a chance to study further paintings I really admire. Although, sometimes I am seduced by the title first.

EA: Who or what are your inspirations?

ME: The painting shows that had the most impact on me were Eric Fischl and early John Currin (the Yearbook Paintings). Both had an erotic or emotional charge that couldn’t be dealt with adequately in photography. And then there’s that Peter Doig postcard. 

Painters whose work has no relationship with mine at all but bring me great joy are Kyle Staver and Eleanor Swordy. I’d urge you to check them out.

EA: Can you discuss the absence of men in your paintings and their significance?

ME: I have a sense that the paintings revolve around my own experience of watchfulness, of an awareness of women’s companionship and community, an easy intimacy that as a man I am inherently excluded from. 

Adding men to the paintings entirely changes the dynamic of that; they could become fraught with the relative gender power dynamics or add a sexual frisson, and those aren’t areas that I’m interested in exploring. There’s only one painting with a male figure and he’s an observer at a remove; he’s also a tall balding figure, an unconscious self-portrait perhaps. Possibly more significant—and I’ve only just realized thisthat was the first of this series of paintings.

EA: What is your process in creating?

ME: None of the paintings are based on a single image. The compositions are all complex collages from different sources. The college is in Photoshop layers, sometimes as many as thirty layers. Photoshop is a language that comes entirely naturally to me now. The painting revolves around the titular borrowed source image, or some gesture from it (often one of awkwardness or intimacy), the other figures and the clothes come from my own stock of behind-the-scenes photos, from fashion ads, lookbooks, Instagram increasingly, and when I’m absolutely stuck for a pose, my own family. Keeping a grasp on that mental archive is quite a challenge. 

That helps me build the form and structure of the painting, but I can only work out what scale the painting works at by actually making it. Sheets of cheap flipchart paper feel like a dispensable and unpressured way to draw it out loosely. It’s only in the fluidity of the underpainting strokes that the painting takes on its own identity and becomes a thing of itself. 

I’ve usually got between three and six paintings on the studio walls. Any more and my brain can’t cope.

EA: What would you like others to take away from your art?

ME: I can’t possibly suggest anything. If I could articulate it, I probably wouldn’t need to be painting.

I don’t attempt to resolve any potential narratives or moods. I absolutely want the viewers to bring their own responses and not to limit them to mine.