Abigail Jones: Ten Years of Fucking Mayhem

  • Photography   Abigail Jones
  • Text  Phoebe Colley

Photography: Abigail Jones
Text: Phoebe Colley

“I’ve never had faith in my ability to draw really clean things. It’s always been, ‘Well that looks shit so I’ll just layer stuff on the top or write something funny about ISIS’”

Disarming from the get go, Ten Years of Fucking Mayhem does not in fact span ten years.

Taken from the ongoing series A Taste for Perfection, the catalogue presents 101 mixed media creations that span about half that time, with subjects ranging from obituaries and art-world angst to “Vladimir Putin, aged thirteen, feeling injured.” Jones’ decision to title the collection after a piece that utilises an Iraq war anniversary poster sets the tone for a book that delivers highly personal and political insight without ever settling into a finite structure – be it lucidity, identity or the lexicon typically associated with a rolling commentary.

I spoke with the artist over a pint to find out more about her process, future works, and her love/hate relationship with Peckham.

PC: So Ten Years of Fucking Mayhem represents a fraction of a whole body of work. Do you see A Taste for Perfection carrying on as a lifelong project?

AJ: Definitely, and I always thought this is what protects me in a way, and partly why I found it fun to do them: it’s because of the sheer commitment to something. The thought that I will do this forever and I will just keep making them makes the ones that are slightly worse, or the ones that are a bit embarrassing sort of disappear amongst the mass. It becomes more convincing once you commit to a sort of prolificness… There’s a German Jewish artist called Charlotte Salomon, she started this series called Leben? oder Theater? which means Life? or Theatre? when she was in her mid-teens, and it just became this incredible series of paintings on paper about her life, boys she liked and marches that she was caught up in, and her parents going to the [concentration] camps, just so many different emotions and different states of intimacy or publicness. There were like 1,500. She also died in the camps but they found all her work, it was something she did that helped her navigate the world in some way, and that’s kind of when I started doing it – like “Well, I could use something like that.”

With her work it seems like there’s quite a personal narrative, but I feel like with your work it’s not necessarily you – in a diaristic, complete sense. Do you feel like an author in that direct kind of way? Or is it more of a character that you draw from?

I think it’s a character actually – and that gives me a bit of uneasiness, because the idea of a character always implies some kind of manipulation or performance in some way, but I think that that is probably true. I think there are some which are really quite catty and derogatory about, not necessarily named people, but about a situation where I obviously felt dishonoured in some way, and I’m using the smallness of the platform that is A Taste for Perfection to kind of reassert myself. I guess in the way Life? or Theatre? helped Charlotte it’s the same kind of thing… This series provides me with a certain distancing from the immediate hotness of an emotion. Just actually making them on paper and putting them on the internet, it’s kind of like “Well I’ve dealt with that now, and it exists here.”

Have you always posted them online as you go?

The very early ones, which are much smaller – like A5/6 – aren’t, because they’re quite shit. But I have probably 50 of the works posted online.

Something I wanted to ask was about the viewers, because while your work is personal there’s also a thematising of current events – using newspapers and media based cuttings, it’s a shared visual but also private at the same time. Do you think of the people who’ll be viewing it when you are making them? Or do you see the pieces as something more for you?

It depends, some of them are very much to do with things I make for myself and then others… I do think about other people, but there’s also an element – there has to be because it’s a very public thing – there’s also an element of self-policing, and this is something I thought about recently about putting them all online, whether it would change very much if I didn’t do that, and I’m sure it would… The work would change and I might even be more prolific if I didn’t put them online, but I’m also aware that I have an audience that I want to please.

Is this the first time that your work has been published?

Yeah, I had some work published but it was like a political journal. There were two pieces in it and they were very much devoted to a particular theme, so it wasn’t of my work it was my work being incorporated. So I’ve never had what I do in a book.

Do you think it changes the way you experience it? Seeing them how they are [at exhibition], all consuming, it feels like there’s more insight into your process than viewing from page to page. There’s always an urge to find a connection as soon as something’s put into an order, you make links.

Oh yeah of course. Sami [Jalili, Commissioning Editor of Eros Press] and I once had an idea of putting every single one that’s ever existed in a book and doing it that way, then maybe that effect would be somehow filtered down. But the effect of a space and seeing them in a space will always be different from seeing them in a book, even though there’s a materiality that they’ve tried to capture in the book.

Did you draw them in a book?

The early ones I did, which makes them hard to show cause there’s always one on the back (laughs) so I do them on paper now. When I showed them earlier on I was obsessed with the idea that because they’re so scrappy and sort of shabby, that I had to present them in a way that was anti-that.

The combination of writing and drawing, the current affairs stuff, has that always been the way you’ve created artworks?

Looking back on the shitty sketchbooks I did when I was at school, I think it’s because I never had absolute faith in either my writing or making work, so I always felt like there would be something better produced if I combined the two, and the viewer or audience would be slightly disorientated. I think that’s why collage has appealed to me so much; I’ve never had faith in my ability to draw really clean things, it’s always been “well that looks shit so I’ll just layer stuff on the top or write something funny about ISIS.”

Have you found your writing tends to influence the images alongside, or vice versa? From looking through the book, it seems like when you’re making a statement, the visual follows the text whereas when you’re using conversations the text has come first.

I think this is sort of what you asked me before when I said about the lack of belief in something, so if I feel like the statement or the text is stronger, or a bit more arresting… I hadn’t thought about it before but it makes sense logically that I would have done that. But I mean I don’t think… I’m very aware that there really are changes and sometimes I really do do pieces that look similar for three months and then I won’t do that at all for like 6 months; I’ll start speaking in a different way for a few months and I guess it’s just representative of how I’m feeling about the world and my friends and the life I live at the time, my abilities as a writer and an artist.

Has the culture hub in Peckham been a factor in you staying there? And how do you feel about its foreshadowed bulldozing?

I don’t feel at all involved – this false kind of projection, like we support people who don’t have much money, it’s just bullshit.

Totally. Everyone’s pissed off that they’re gentrifying the Bussey Building, but I couldn’t afford to go to Frank’s Place either.

There’s this obsession with gentrification as if like, throughout the whole of human history this hasn’t happened. I mean there is something specifically going on in the arrangement of capital at the minute I think, but at the same time places have always pushed people out and that’s kind of something that yes, you should resent, or acknowledge, but you should also acknowledge that that isn’t a particular affront to you, and that you don’t necessarily have the right to be affronted, especially when you’re part of it… You are part of the cultural niceness that made that desirable in the first place. But I’ve just become less interested in political stuff. I’m not really angry about the London art scene, or how boring, apolitical and anxious all the work people make is. I guess maybe I could just be getting older.

What does your other work consist of?

At the moment not very much. It’s always been paintings – big paintings at the moment – very long thin, almost historical stuff is what I want to make, but the paintings that aren’t in A Taste For Perfection are still collaged sort of things. The problem is there’s always going to be a conversation between the two things that I don’t want to happen. I don’t want to make A Taste For Perfection and then make big work that just has sassier writing on it.

Have you heard of Nancy Spero?

Oh yes. She was someone I showed Sami. We discussed the kind of work I’d like to make – how I love to work on walls, on board, I’m not a big fan of canvas I’d much rather work on paper. We were talking about collage and I was talking about a sort of unnamed figure, a human figure that’s just a mass of human figures, like a sort of language that’s not actual text or writing but still a story that you read.

Did you see her thing on Triple Canopy? It’s a full PDF version of Notes in Time, and it’s the first time you can see it as the scroll it’s intended to be. They talk about it as being a fresco going round a room, and I can totally imagine that’s what you’re talking about – work not contained to a frame, it’s more enveloping.

Definitely. There’s a piece I’ve been working on recently, I mean I don’t know where it’s going but I’m doing it left to right, and I was just thinking I’m making work, but I’m actually writing in a way. I don’t really know what’s happening, but there is a forgivingness in a big long piece because it’s something an audience looks at, and you develop. You don’t kind of have a spatial limit, you just keep going and that kind of becomes the force of it, just a kind of mass

It feels similar to A Taste for Perfection being a lifelong thing. You don’t want to take the worst ones out, because it’s the trajectory of it that’s compelling.

Yeah: “She just keeps making shit. she won’t stop.”

To find out more about Ten Years of Fucking Mayhem, click here
To read more of Phoebe’s work, read her essay Aesthetic Déjà Vu in Issue 04 of PYLOT Magazine here.