Emma Talbot celebrates resilience and aging in her Whitechapel debut


Charlotte Jansen

Emma Talbot, installation view of The Age / L’Età, Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Emma Talbot” at the Whitechapel Gallery, 2022. Photo by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.

“I see her as a kind of orthopedic samurai,” said artist Emma Talbot, gazing wistfully at a textile sculpture that is the physical and thematic center of her new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

The eye-catching piece – which shares the exhibition’s title, The Age / L’Età – depicts a life-size elderly woman with bent feet, hunched shoulders and bowed head. Supple wraps of violet fabric are reminiscent of muscle depictions in Renaissance anatomical drawings as well as body armor of ancient Rome. Talbot’s character is both terrifying and powerful. Her thick, straight gray hair—a wig bought in Hackney—remarkably resembles Talbot’s own. “The characters in my work are always an avatar of me,” Talbot said.

Emma Talbot, installation view from Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?, 2021, in “The Milk of Dreams” at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

The artist is known for her evocative and strongly narrative feminist work in various media. Representations of female forms through large-format acrylic paintings on silk banners, fabric sculptures and watercolors on paper have become special trademarks.

The Age / L’Età is Talbot’s first institutional solo exhibition and will travel to Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy in October. “Being able to do something on this scale is transformative,” Talbot said of the exhibition, and entering a new phase of her career — and life — at the age of 53 with more visibility gives me a lot of confidence.” 2023 will be the Artists show exhibitions in the Chinese Beiqiu Contemporary Museum of Art and in the Kunsthalle Gießen in Frankfurt. Her monumental painting Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going? (2021) is currently installed at the Arsenale as part of the international exhibition at the Venice Biennale entitled The Milk of Dreams.

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Woman1905. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Talbot always addresses the political through her personal experiences, however The Age / L’Etàthe work, was also inspired by a specific art historical figure: the enigmatic older woman in Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting The Three Ages of Woman. “When I first saw this picture, I saw the hair and realized it was the same as mine – and I was like, oh my god, that’s awful, that’s scary!” Talbot joked. Her reaction raised deeper questions about fears of old age and society’s disregard for the elderly. “We’re not used to seeing older people as heroes,” she said.

Talbot believes that the exaggerated, slouched pose of Klimt’s character, with her protruding stomach and bowed head, “evokes a state of shame at being an aging woman being watched – as if she were ashamed of her body”. The artist said, “As I get older it’s fascinating to see what happens to a body, but I kept thinking, ‘I wanted to take the character and make her someone who has a lot of agency, who’s strong.’

Emma Talbot, detail of volcanic landscape, 2022. Photo by Carlo Vannini. Courtesy of the artist and the Whitechapel Gallery.

Portrait of Emma Talbot in her studio in Reggio Emilia, April 2022. Photo by Bruno Cattani – Fotosuperstudio.

Talbot recast Klimt’s female character as an epic heroine, protected by her knowledge and experience rather than handicapped by her physical vulnerability. She appears above two huge translucent hanging painted silk panels with the title ruins and volcanic landscape (both 2022) and an animated film, The exams (2022), made from cut up pieces of the artist’s drawings. Talbot’s alter ego faces the same challenges as the hero of the Greek myth of the same name, known as the “Twelve Labors of Hercules”.

But instead of fighting every obstacle with violence and stealth, she applies the 12 principles of permaculture, the practice of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture. This includes integration, self-regulation and finding solutions. “You don’t solve anything easily do something,” Talbot mused. She deepens the atmosphere of the exhibition with a vibrant, electronic soundtrack that she composed herself. The sound leaks out of the film and floods the gallery space. Talbot’s soft sculptural materials and loose lines, as well as her questions to the viewer (“How will you survive in this climate?”) evoke a sense of fluidity and openness.

Emma Talbot, installation view of The Age / L’Età, Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Emma Talbot” at the Whitechapel Gallery, 2022. Photo by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.

Talbot’s aging protagonist faces obstacles similar to the artist’s struggles. Her career got off to a promising start, graduating with a first class BFA from the Birmingham Institute of Art, completing an MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art in 1995 and quickly winning the prestigious Rome Scholarship at the British School in Rome. But in 2006, when Talbot’s sons were six and seven, her husband died. Talbot raised her children alone while trying to sustain her burgeoning career as an artist. She began teaching visual arts at universities across the UK including Goldsmiths, The Slade and Camberwell College of Art. Her sons are now in their twenties and are graduating from art colleges themselves.

The artist’s own story of resilience, patience and triumph follows the Whitechapel exhibition. “Being a single mom with young kids takes a lot of time, and there are things I can do now that I couldn’t do when they were younger,” she said.

Talbot was thrilled to win the Max Mara Art Prize for Women 2020 supporting her work and exhibition at Whitechapel. But just as the announcement was made, the world went into lockdown. The pandemic prevented Talbot from embarking on a six-month residency in Italy that accompanied the annual award. “By that point I had some group shows and things started happening, but I was still teaching,” Talbot said. “My sons were finally more independent. When I won the award it was incredible; I thought I could finally take a break from teaching, travel and really devote time to my work. I had to go back to teaching online to survive. But it didn’t just happen to me — it happened to everyone, so take it easy.”

Talbot finally made it to Italy a year and a half later. She spent some time in Reggio Emilia where she now has a studio and is considering moving more permanently. She researched sustainable materials, like the recycled silk she used in the paintings for the Whitechapel show. In addition, the artist got to know permaculture on a family-run farm on the Etna volcano and finally visited the Klimt painting in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. It was first exhibited there in 1911, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy.

“The reading of the work as a description of 50 years [since] The association presents old notions of how people lived – their belief systems, their dialects and their old ways of being – as shameful to put aside, while promoting the younger character with the baby – a sort of Madonna and Child – as a mere idea of ​​a modern nation,” said Talbot.

Talbot’s new work examines how such condemnations of the “old ways” contradict our veneration of historical ruins and objects. The artist poses profound questions about our current systems of patriarchal power; about value, use, imagination and transformation. Your show in Whitechapel is basically a survival story. “There is always a subjective starting point in my work, but then it always has to be in the context of current issues that are important to me,” Talbot reflects.

Of Talbot’s older samurai double, the artist said, “I’m really going to miss her – but the next things I’m going to do will be different.” . “All the work now revolves around where we are now,” Talbot said. “That’s what I want to achieve with my work – to talk about what our life experience is.”

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