Artist Emma McIntyre steps into modernism's male-dominated realm

Fresh coat

Painter Emma McIntyre comes from a long line of well-established artists. Now, the abstract painter is boldly stepping into modernism’s male-dominated realm. 

In her small, sunny Eden Terrace studio, which is on the second floor of a townhouse shared with eight other artists, Emma McIntyre sits near the windows in a paint-spattered t-shirt. She is surrounded by colourful, large-scale canvases created for an upcoming show at Hopkinson Mossman. McIntyre’s work embraces grid-like patterns, a softer, more feminine take on the rigid grid that early modernism introduced. She is the first female painter in a long line of male artists in her family; her grandfather was renowned landscape painter Peter McIntyre and her dad is abstraction painter Simon McIntyre. Ahead of her new exhibition, Paperboy visits her studio.

You completed your masters at Elam last year. What did you focus on? It was really about looking at an alternative history of modernist painting, one where abstract motifs originated from a history of craft and cloth rather than being born out of the dominant painting theory of the day. I was interested in the origins of particular abstract motifs and how women adapted them. I use the grid a lot and the known history of the grid is almost like it was born out of modernism and owned by the masculine modernist aesthetic. They used it as a device of making painting very much about itself rather than referring to the world around it, so I was much more interested in finding a softer grid and looking at women artists, especially [those] who used the grid early on in different ways.

What artists were you looking at? People like Mary Heilmann from last century, who’s still making works today. Her work, especially around the 1970s and 1980s, was really interesting to me. Today, people like Charline von Heyl. I was looking at Florine Stettheimer, a figurative painter from the 1920s, I was really interested in what she was doing. Those three were quite key to my research.

You spent two years in New York. Were you influenced by the scene over there? A lot of my research during my masters was quite focussed on artists working in New York, especially around the 1970s and 1980s. New York can have such a huge creative influence on people. I find with artists that
I was looking at, they really identify as being artists from New York, more so than they might identify as an artist from Auckland or whatever. There’s this really strong tie and rich history, especially with painting abstraction, so I think that probably drew me deeper into abstraction in some ways. And I think people make huge work there because they’ve got the space and gallery spaces are big. People are really ambitious and I wanted to make much bigger work after New York.

I read that for you, it’s just as important to take paint away from a surface by scratching or scraping as it is to apply the paint. Why do you like to employ this technique? I’m always interested in the tension between things, like these opposites [of] soft and hard lines or fluid and then fixed, having that tension between adding and removing. I really like to find that balance between putting down and taking off. So my whole process as I’m making the paintings is to put paint down, take it off again and put it down again and take it off again, not just through scraping but by using cloth and sanding and rubbing. I get my hands and my body really involved in the process so that there’s always this sweeping across the surface. Sometimes it’s almost a cleaning thing, cleaning the paint off the painting and putting it back down.

These larger works must require a lot of time in the studio. What’s your schedule like? I’m here four days a week and I work three days a week, so I come in Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I work at Lonely [Lingerie] two days a week and then I’m an art assistant the other day.

So you have no days off? No. I kind of go quite easy on Sunday; I’ll just come in for two or three hours and usually it’s just sitting with the paintings and staring at the paintings. I think it’s really important. I just sit here and have a coffee and look and think about what’s happening or just read, I do lots of reading. The rest of the days, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I try and have three long days.

And how do you spend most of your time here? When I’m in here, each day is different. There are a lot of times when you’re not painting, so lots of reading, lots of preparing canvases, lots of looking at other works and flicking through my books. And looking online to see what’s happening in the contemporary art world overseas, reading articles and trying to keep really connected to what’s happening overseas. It’s really important not to get into this bubble of my own work. 

In terms of your upcoming show, what can we expect to see? It’s definitely along the same vein and the same area of research, but it’s taken a new turn. I think the work’s become more complex and maybe more difficult than it was with my master’s show. I’ve pushed colour a lot more and I’m trying to create a lot more depth in the painting and a lot more layers. They feel like an extension of what I was doing last year.

You probably get this a lot, but coming from a family of artists, how does it feel being part of such an artistic lineage? I feel pretty thankful. I’m a fourth generation artist and I basically grew up in my dad’s studio and he looked after me a lot. He was a full-time artist when I was younger, so I think I just know and understand things about painting that I never really think about, that are just so second nature to me, so I can thank the family lineage for that. My whole life I’ve spent so much of my time talking about painting and going to openings and exhibitions and looking at art since I was really, really young. So everything seems familiar and easy to me as I don’t know any different, so I’m quite thankful for that.

In the past you’ve worked with other materials such as denim. Do you want to work with other materials in the future as well? I’ve always loved sewing and I used to sew a lot when I was younger. I really like fabrics and I’m excited by artists that work with fabrics. Because I was looking at quilting so much it seemed natural that I incorporate some stitching or do some stitching and unpainted works that still had a painterly quality. I did another denim work this year which was really exciting. I asked all my Facebook friends for their old jeans [and] I stitched them all together. It was so painterly, and all the ways the jeans had faded and worn were really nice. I was also interested in movement and evidence of all these other bodies moving in the work – the worn patches and the ghosts of other people in the work was exciting to me, because it’s important for me in my own paintings to have lots of my own movement.

With your paintings, you seem to use quite traditionally feminine colours, such as pink and purple. Is that you trying to reclaim modernism as well? Yeah a little bit. I like to use colours that may not necessarily be deemed tasteful, so I’m always trying to push colour. I think so many paintings can be boring just because the colours look too tasteful or too polite, I like to avoid being polite in my work. I think it’s definitely a part of that and reclaiming these colours. I love using lots of pink and purple and making them quite loud and sometimes kind of rude. 


Emma McIntyre’s solo show can be seen at Hopkinson Mossman Gallery, until Sat 23 Dec.