INTERVIEW: Louise McNaught talks to ArtworldNow

By Gloria Wiley

Louise McNaught. Courtesy of the artist.
Renowned for her neon palette, Scottish artist Louise McNaught (b. Paisley, 1981) is inspired by nature. The animals she depicts are God-like, sublime and ethereal in their luminescence. McNaught holds a BA Hons in Fine Art from the University of Greenwich (2012). Her work has featured in various group shows including 'Memorabilia' and 'The Wing Project' in the UK and 'Animals, strangeness' in Germany. 'Supernatural', McNaught’s first solo show in London was the result of her artist residency at DegreeArt (17 June – 28 July, 2013). Her work will also be shown by DegreeArt at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea (17-20 October, 2013) and at 'Art for Youth', an exhibition that raises money for the charity UK Youth, to be held at the Royal College of Art (20-21 November, 2013).

Louise McNaught, Wild Ritual, 2013
Acrylic, pencil, gold leaf and variegated gold leaf (blue hue) on Fine Grain ‘Gallery Professional’ canvas
153 x 153 x 8 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Over the past century, the definition of painting has broadened to include pieces as diverse as Ives Klein’s performance-based paintings and the digital works of David Hockney. Under this expanded definition, do you consider your work painting or drawing?
Both! My work is often a mixture of painting with drawing overlay and I often call these pieces ‘painted drawings’ or ‘mixed media’ if they are on an unusual support like an old star map for example.

Louise McNaught, Icon - Fire Fox, 2013
Metallic paint, acrylic and spray paint on linen deep-edge canvas
40 x 40 x 4 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Your oeuvre features ethereal animal portraits. The majestically depicted beasts appear to evoke the supernatural. Do you connect certain animals with spirituality and the heavenly?
I do. I find the traditional symbolism of animals very interesting and strongly linked to spirituality. Animals used to be considered to have special meanings, often differing from continent to continent. I love how they were held in high regard and sometime seen as beings higher than ourselves - God-like. It is such a contrast to how animals and nature is treated now, often as pests or something that is getting in the way of ‘progress’. There is a longing in me that we would go back to the time when nature and animals were treated as something special and sacred, and this is what is behind all of my work.

Louise McNaught, Wooden Icon - Song Bird, 2013
Acrylic on vintage burnished-gold wooden icon with closing panels
16 x 23 x 1 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Many of the pieces from your recent artist residency at DegreeArt seem too draw inspiration from religion - the large gold leaf canvases, the golden wood panels and even your jewellery/accessories remind me of how Christianity has preserved and expanded its own myths and narratives. Christianity has traditionally used gold leaf to evoke God and heavenly creatures whilst there is a strong link between golden wood panels and religious icons. Even the display of your hand-painted jewellery carries spiritual overtones. Are your works therefore an attempt to make creatures transcend God or maybe even conciliate the duality between God and Nature?
I definitely think my work draws a parallel as I feel ‘Nature is God’. It is awesome, sublime, unfathomable and can amaze me as much as it can scare me! To me that sounds like many descriptions I have read of any ‘God or Gods’. I was also brought up Roman Catholic and went to church until about the age of 13. I have always loved the Roman Catholic iconography with its precious jewel-like colours and the mementos the Catholics use such as amulets and rosaries. This has seeped into my work as I feel it is a recognisable way of elevating the status of animals by depicting them in traditional religious setting - be it against a gold leaf backdrop or inside an amulet.

Louise McNaught, Wild Atmosphere,  2013
Acrylic and pencil on wallpaper. 83 x 62 x 3 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

You make discretionary use of neon paint in many of your works. You also include upward dripping elements in some pieces. What draws you to these elements?
I use neon paint as it is the only paint that looks like light itself, and the creatures painted with it look as though they are shining from within – which gives them the ethereal quality and importance I am looking for. The upward drips are further hinting at their divinity as drips usually drop down because of gravity but I have them travelling upwards towards the ‘heavens’ to show that the animals are sacred, divine beings.

Louise McNaught, Wild Phoenix, 2013
Acrylic, pencil, gold leaf and variegated gold leaf on Fine Grain ‘Gallery Professional’ canvas. 153 x 153 x 8 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Throughout history various artists ranging from Titian to Sam Taylor-Wood depict myths or use mythological creatures in their practices. Where does myth enter the frame in your own work?
Myth comes into the traditional symbolism I tap into with my pieces. I feel it gives the piece another dimension, more meaning and connects with the importance the past bestowed upon animals.

Louise McNaught, Heavenly Bodies - 6# (Starry Eyed), 2013
Ink and pencil on Antique Celestial Map from 1880.  35 x 42 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Your series of constellation maps is amongst my favourites. Each piece reminds me of the creation myths - the symbolic narratives explaining the origin of the world and how people first came to inhabit it. How do you view the origin of the world and how did you match each bird species with a particular set of constellations on the antique maps?
I started by using owls on the star maps as these are nocturnal birds and seemed fitting to be depicted in the night sky. But then I realised all birds form a link between heaven and earth, conscious and unconscious, and the bird is universally seen as a symbol for the soul – so I expanded into depicting other birds on the star maps such as ravens and finches. I also love the fact that these star maps are very old, usually between 1830-1890, which further links the pieces into tradition symbolism. I also use the size of the maps to connect with the birds depicted, such as small maps for hummingbirds and larger maps for owls. 

Louise McNaught, Heavenly Bodies - 1# (birds), 2013
Ink and pencil on Antique Celestial Map from 1880.  35 x 42 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

As previously mentioned, animals stand at the centre of your practice as both powerful and celestial creatures. This seems to me as a subtle critique of Humanism (the notion of making humanity the centre of the universe). Were you aware of this interpretation of your work and if so, is it part of your intended message?
It may seem that way but as an artist my main focus is the message in my work. I do feel nature and animals are ultimately more important than humans as without them we could not exist, and if we just focus on ourselves and disregard nature it will be (as is) to our detriment. I like to think in some small way my work is reminding people of this and diverting the focus back to the importance of animals and nature. We are the only species that harms the planet, in that regard animals are already better than us, in my mind anyway!

Louise McNaught, Metaswan, 2013
Pencil and acrylic on Bockingford paper.  56 x 76 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

Which artists - dead or alive – do you most admire and why?
I think Leonardo Da Vinci was an extraordinary human being. He was so ahead of his time in his work and even his life-style. I saw his show at the National Gallery in 2012 and his pen and ink drawings were so immaculate they look like they could have been done yesterday. He also had that gift of being able to give the humans in his painting a very divine quality, which is obviously something I try to do with my subject matter.

I also love Raqib Shaw’s work. He depicts animals in a very grand way, usually on a grand scale with jewel-like metallic paints in the style of Indian Iconography – the pieces have a very narrative and illustrative feel with lots of mythological references. They are very detailed and ornate paintings packed with hidden meanings – I could stare at them for hours...

Louise McNaught, Drops of Jupiter, 2013
Acrylic and metallic paint on canvas.  60 x 60 x 4 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery

As a young artist, what do you believe to be future of painting and where do you see your praxis taking you?
Painting has been stretched so far by contemporary art practice it’s hard to imagine how much further it can be pushed, but what is thought of as amazing now will be mediocre compared to what will come in the future I’m sure. In my own work I feel my mixed-media approach is based on more traditional methods and I feel this is core to my work and will continue in that vein, but I enjoy the freedom of not being tied to any one medium or support for my art work, and this always opens me up to exciting new possibilities! 

Louise McNaught, Icon - Divine Metamorphosis, 2013
Acrylic on ostrich egg with wooden stand.  15 x 15 x 19 cm
Courtesy of DegreeArt gallery