In conversation with Alexis Treplin at Bluecoat

by Lorraine Bacchus

The fragmented, colourful and playful nature of Alexis Teplin’s exhibition at the Bluecoat is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope, where the components shift with each turn and yet they continue to be interconnected.

The paintings, the costumes, the performances, the films, the ceramics, the glass, the steel furniture  – all the elements have their own integrity, yet instead of being isolated in the gallery setting, Teplin has created a narrative that stitches them together, sometimes literally, always visually.  She has expanded the medium of painting in all directions.

The experience of being in this exhibition echoes life itself in that our days are a coalescing of fragmented moments, of sometimes fleeting contact with other people. There is no stasis.  As the late john Berger recognised: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”.

This idea of there being no resolution is among the topics explored in one of Teplin’s first film works, “Lives of Women”, made specifically for the Bluecoat: “It’s about relationships, how to deal with today’s malaise, excesses and uncertainty, to be active not passive, to understand that ultimately there are no answers”.

The film is a patchwork of texts, mostly her own but also historical, including extracts from such sources as Iris Murdoch’s passionate letters in the 1940’s to her mentor, the French author Raymond Queneau, as well as lines from Ken Russell’s The Debussy Film.  Teplin takes text apart, moves it around, puts it together in a new narrative, in the same way she does with the fabric for her paintings.  She describes how “it is a visual process” for her as well as an aural one, that “all the most poetic things in the text are (from) me”.

At one point, one of the actors in the film talks of “a pilgrimage of nuns and a priest hopping across a stream, in a procession of need, desire and dancing skirts”. Teplin explains that this evocative image came from her husband, Noah Sherwood – a scene from Ireland.  Sherwood and Teplin also collaborate in their art practices.  Here he has made all the steel frames and furniture, the form of which put one in mind of Mondrian’s grid paintings.  Meanwhile, the design of the woman’s dress in the film is inspired by one Teplin’s grandmother wore in the 1950’s.

There is the sense that Teplin’s entire life experience is continually firing off synapse connections that she can transform into artworks.  It all began with painting and this is still the bedrock of her practice: “It always starts with painting, with colour.  Matisse was a huge influence in this and in his love of fabrics, in particular of linen”.

She turns to one of her large paintings made up of blocks of colour on fragments of un-primed canvas and other found, decorative textiles.  One piece contains an embroiderer’s drawing, which, for whatever reason, remained unsewn.  Teplin ponders the woman’s story: “This 18th century woman’s history, even though it is unknown, is now part of another history”.  There are gaps in these fabric paintings, as if to reflect that one never knows the full story of anything.  They also provide windows through to other exhibits so the viewer is always linked to the rest of the work.

Even the way Teplin collaborates with other artists and technicians is a form of stitching together – of her vision and their skills.  But whether she is working with a glassblower, a pattern cutter, or a ceramicist, it is only Teplin who paints: “My hand is always the painting hand.  And the medium is always pure pigment.  All pigments are vehicles for light.  Light bounces through the colours”.

In the upstairs gallery there is a large mural of such pigments.  It is her first such wall work and also for the first time she has produced a film documenting its coming into being.  It is a rare occurrence for an artist to be filmed painting and the near absence of sound gives it a meditative quality, as she and her collaborator, Kitty Beamish, go about their task.

The two are wearing hand-painted costumes, as are the actors who move through the galleries in the same fabric and colours as the canvases on the walls and speaking the same text as in the films.  Teplin’s idea is that the actors are not performing for the audience but for audience engagement.  Here she references the late Gertrude Stein, who used landscape painting as her model for playwriting so that the focus is on the spectacle not on the plot. The viewers enter the actors’ space and so involuntarily, sometimes unwittingly, become part of the scene.

On the opening night, Teplin was thrilled to see this in action as people trailed after the actors in a kind of quiet, curious human wave of colour: “I love it”, she says, “the participation is just what I’d hoped for”.   The performances last 15 minutes and only happen once a month.  The rest of the time their costumes and props will create a series of tableaux in the galleries.

To date this is Teplin’s most extensive exhibition, with the Bluecoat giving her free rein over its galleries.  It is the first opportunity she has had to show all aspects of her multifaceted practice and here she has the space to do so, with ample light and air around each element.  She has taken on the challenge of the architecture and produced an exhibition that can be experienced on many levels – the vibrant colours alone are a visual delight but it is also thought provoking, not least in the way Teplin extends the notion of what painting can be.

Alexis Teplin – It’s My Pleasure to Participate, The Bluecoat, 26 October 2019-23 February 2020.

Free Curator’s Exhibition Tour, 15.00, Saturday 16 November 2019

Free Alexis Teplin Performances, 14.00, 16 November 2019, 7 December 2019, 22 February 2020.

Alexis Teplin in Conversation with Hettie Judah, 18.30, 20 November 2019, Tickets £5/£4