There's an aura of mystery to Ena Swansea. Her big, impressive paintings are now on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts ('green light' to 30 July), and I wanted to know more. Just how are they made, and why do they show what they do? So I arranged a Zoom with the artist in her New York studio…
How does your use of graphite in paintings operate?
I discovered that graphite had this curious quality that it both sucks the light out of the image and also reflects and so brings light back into the image as you move around it. I've made many paintings on graphite grounds, but they only really thrive in perfect lighting - they can die otherwise. So I evolved into using what you might call graphite and its cousins… there's oil, acrylic, mica, pulverised marble, ink, graphite and pastel in these paintings, including luminous and metallic pigments.
What effect does that intend?
I hope my paintings feel as if they could be turned on and off. As if you have just a nanosecond ago pulled the plug on an old TV. The images look unstable as if part is missing or out of focus. That echoes how, when I was a kid, US TVs only had 525 lines. Now, of course, we live by these glowing screens: it's as if we have a doppelgänger who has another life, who lives in the screen and thinks everything is real in there…
You have a background in film, but I think it's your photographs which provide your starting points?
Yes, looking back over the last few hundred paintings (see enaswansea.com), they feel like frames from a film that cannot be made. I'm revisiting things that I haven't quite figured out. But I don't shoot much-moving stuff - rather, I have a library of 165,000 photos organised by ideas, sometimes literary, sometimes particular subjects like 'pollarded trees'. They look weird to an American; we don't control our trees like Europeans. To me, they become anthropomorphic.