One to Watch

Natasha Conway’s tactile, textured, layered abstractions

Natasha Conway’s paintings explore the history, language, and evolution of abstraction. Her works, typically painted in oil on linen or wood panel, serve as a translation of daily experience, indirectly pulling inspiration from her surroundings and daily activities. Natasha is interested in the role of the handmade in the digital age, adding three-dimensional elements or purposeful disruptions on the work’s surface. She views painting as a tactile, physical experience that requires the viewer to be fully present.

Natasha received a MFA and BFA in Painting from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin and a BFA from the Gorey School of Art in Wexford, Ireland. She is the recipient of the Jerwood Contemporary Painters Prize, London (2010), Saatchi Art’s New Sensations Prize (2009), and the NUI Art and Design Prize (2009). In 2011, she was shortlisted for the VANL-CARFAC Excellence in Visual Arts Awards. Natasha has exhibited her works across the United Kingdom as well as in New York and is preparing for her first solo exhibition in September at Pallas Projects, Dublin 8.

What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

I make small-scale paintings and collages in oil on linen or wood panel. There is no one overarching “theme”. My interest is in the language of abstraction, its history and its current evolution. I work intuitively without a preconceived plan. My main aim is to surprise myself with what appears, to find images and objects that I could not have planned for if I’d tried. The work nonetheless has parameters. Its informed by a set of long term interests, an internal compass and a restless way of working. Abstraction for me is an indirect form of ‘shorthand’ for the experience of being in the world. The idea of painting communicating sensation as opposed to being illustrative is important to me. I’m interested in poetic rather than narrative structure. I am obsessed with composition and notation and quite simply where things can be. Anything I see that I find interesting around me from the natural world to vintage textiles to the weather probably finds its way indirectly into the work.

I am also interested in the role of the handmade in our digital speed of information age and it’s insistence on meaning, however fragile. I like paintings that can’t be reproduced too well. So a three dimensional element or interruptions to the surface play a part in this. For me a painting is a physical thing with its own internal life and energy and character. The paintings should be a tactile, physical experience in real time – that really requires you to be present. I think of the paintings as physical and emotional entities that evolve out of a sustained belief in the creative process. This involves deep reflection, impulsive action, romantic whimsy, days spent looking, doubt, discomfort and little revelations.

How did you first get interested in your medium, and what draws you to it specifically?

I began making paintings in the first year of a BA in Fine Art at Gorey School of Art in 2006. I was initially interested in an abstract visual language which I began to explore at that time. I had fantastic tutors very early on in college. They were practicing painters who were very talented people and were well informed, interesting and interested. They gave me the freedom to explore what painting might be and they left a lasting impression. I was introduced to the work of many artists whose work I still rever – Raoul De Keyser, Richard Tuttle, Forrest Bess, Paul Klee, Thomas Nozkowski and the sadly very recently deceased Howard Hodgkin. I became very interested in the history of abstraction and in a language that rendered abstract elements in a pictorial space. I was obsessed with composition very early on.

This line of enquiry continued throughout my BA and MA and I still work with and develop that language today. I believe that painting is very unique and very necessary in a time when our daily lives have become so full of technology and overloaded with snippets of information. It requires a viewer to slow down and be present. It also simultaneously gives and withholds information, requiring a unique and very personal engagement with each viewing. The handmade nature and materiality of painting is a very obvious but very essential factor for me.

How has your style and practice changed over the years?

The “style” of my work has not changed very much, only evolved gradually. I think that when a work is authentic and honest it can usually be identified as an individual painter’s work, no matter how much of a departure it appears to be or how much elements such as palette, scale etc. change. Every painter has their own recognizable and distinctive “voice”. I think pursuing and asking questions about that very authenticity was my subject for quite a while. In terms of methods, I would say I’m always open to finding new ways to arrive at a painting. I was quite purist in the beginning, a little less so nowadays. I’m more interested in including rather than excluding visual references from my daily life and art history. I am still deeply fascinated by the materiality of paint and hopefully always will be. I’m also very drawn to collage, often adding other material elements to the work.

Can you walk us through your process? Do you begin with a sketch, or do you just jump in? How long do you spend on one work? How do you know when it is finished?

My working process is ill-disciplined and impossible for me to repeat. It’s often a mystery to me. That’s why I stay interested, I think. I don’t use preliminary sketches, in fact I don’t draw very often at all unless it’s with paint. I’m far more likely to make a 3-dimensional object or collage than a traditional drawing. It has to be physical and tactile. There is no one way for me to begin a painting – sometimes I have an idea, a question or a feeling to work with. Most often I begin intuitively. I start something and when it gets to the point where it’s interesting to me, I have something to think about, to work with and to resolve intuitively. The materials themselves often dictate the direction. I think it’s this intuitive process that I am more fascinated by than the end product – that alchemy that is the painting process.

I have learned through experience to be critical and to edit. Knowing when a painting is completed is the key question for most painters, I think. I go through periods when I’m interested in different outcomes and I am often interested in work that is perhaps not resolved in the traditional sense. I think a painter instinctively knows when a painting is finished. For me there is an energy and a character that a piece takes on that really holds my attention. Sometimes this is quite immediate and other times this is after weeks of looking. Juxtapositions and relationships between different paintings in a studio are very exciting to me too, and I like to see variety, inventiveness and contradictions within a series of paintings. I think they inform each other too in a long unending chain. I tend to make a painting in 1 or 2 sessions. Any more than that and it loses something for me, an energy that I think is vital and so I will start again.

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would you choose?

If I had to choose I’d say a Forrest Bess painting. They are phenomenal little paintings. A Richard Tuttle piece would also be nice. An assemblage from his Village series. Their unfinished, open nature and playfulness would definitely excite me.

Who are your favorite writers?

For fiction Italo Calvino is a favourite, a friend introduced me a few years ago. I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami, he communicates complex human emotions and isolation very, very well. As regards academic writers on painting and philosophy I would say Maurice Merleau -Ponty and Gaston Bachelard were most useful and interesting to me during college and when writing a thesis. Merleau – Ponty was the most relevant to me in terms of painting as a student trying to understand and communicate my own interest in working intuitively with an abstract language – ‘Eye and Mind’ and ‘Cezannes Doubt’ specifically. Bachelard is interesting because his writings are so poetic and non-linear, they are pieces of art rather than art criticism or theory – they almost embody the condition of reverie he is writing about. Poets John Yau and Barry Schwabsky both write essays and reviews on contemporary painting that are interesting. I also devour artists interviews – from famous deceased heroes like Philip Guston and Francis Bacon (The David Sylvester interviews) to interviews with unknown emerging artists – I’ll read them all.

About the Author

Jessica McQueen is Associate Curator at Saatchi Art. Need help finding art? Contact her via our free Art Advisory service at