The artist Robert Priseman unveils a series of miniscule paintings based upon the sites of the Ipswich Murders
The latest work by artist Robert Priseman comprises five paintings depicting the deposition sites where, in 2006, the serial killer Steve Wright deposited the bodies of five women he had murdered, all of whom had worked as prostitutes. SUMAC was the name given to the police operation undertaken to catch Wright and each of the paintings in the series takes its title after a letter from the operation’s codename, with all of them displayed in the chronological order in which the bodies were discovered. The paintings are something of a departure for the painter, who premiered his series 'No Human Way To Kill' at The Dazed Gallery four years ago, in that they have been painted on a very small scale rather than large canvasses. These tiny images have been placed inside antique Hindu shrines, elevating people whose bodies were treated as waste to the status of maligned deities. This stretch of Suffolk countryside where the bodies were found is the same area of Suffolk the British painter John Constable made famous, and the works challenge us to explore how a shift in our perceptions of places can occur based on what we know about them, and how we subsequently frame our view of them.
Dazed Digital: What made you want to explore the Ipswich murders?
Robert Priseman: I live and work just 17 miles south of these sites so I had an interest in this tragedy from a local perspective. More personally, as a child of eight I was abducted and taken to an area of waste ground by a paedophile, and I often wonder at the fact that I’m still alive after the event. I was too ashamed at the time to reveal all he did, but he was caught and sentenced to prison. This is a small incident compared to an event like the Ipswich murders, or the many other worse fates people face every day, and it is this event which led me to consider the SUMAC series as a subject suitable for painting.
Dazed Digital: How did your personal experience of abduction shape your view of the world?
Robert Priseman: I viewed most adults outside of my own family as suspect as a child. However, growing older forces you to confront the fact that you become what you most fear – an adult living in a world of grown-ups. You become, in effect, a member of the enemy. This means that in order to continue living you have to learn to find peace with yourself and those around you.
Dazed Digital: Why are you drawn to dark subject matter generally?
Robert Priseman: I am fascinated by our human drive for cruelty, which is reflected throughout our history, and my approach to art is underpinned by a belief that all creative acts are driven by emotions which we rationalized at a later stage – a process that appears to reflect how many of our actions in society are driven by irrational feelings which we slowly make sense of further down the line. Painting is one way I believe we may attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, with paint acting as a metaphor for the potentially overwhelming nature of human emotions, while the physical constraints of the canvas act to hold them in place. For me, painting is a deeply personal creative act, yet what is most personal is also most universal.
Dazed Digital: This feels very different to your previous work... Is this a marked change in direction for you?
Robert Priseman: The ‘SUMAC’ series demanded a different approach to other series I have painted in the past such as ‘No Human Way to Kill’ or ‘The Troubles’, which tend to be more focused around abstracted social issues such as the death penalty or war. With this new set I have focused on a much more personal narrative and as a result I made the decision to create them as a set of miniatures with each painting being framed by a roughly treated antique Indian shrine. I was drawn to the idea that these paintings would need to be seen intimately, experienced by the viewer on a one-to-one basis. I have aimed to paint these pictures as beautifully as I can, setting a contrast to the treatment of the locations as areas of waste ground for bodies which were treated as waste.
Dazed Digital: Is this the marking out of a psycho-geographical landscape?
Robert Priseman: Yes it is. I am very interested in the idea that our perceptions of places can be shaped through personal history. That how we feel about what we see in front of us is informed by what we know or what we have witnessed. It makes our emotions more tangible and heightens our awareness of life while revealing a remarkably superstitious aspect to our psychological make-up.
Dazed Digital: What is the link between Constable's painting and these works, and why did you want to make that link?
Robert Priseman: As a child, I used to go to sleep at night with a copy of John Constable’s painting ‘The Cornfield’ hanging over my bed. ‘The Cornfield’, which is on display at the National Gallery in London, was painted in 1826. Like many great paintings it can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Constable himself referred to it as ‘The Drinking Boy’ and in the bottom left-hand side of the picture we see a small brook. By the brook lies a boy on his stomach, he is wearing a red waistcoat, blue scarf and white shirt, his face immersed in the water he drinks. Behind him stand a dog and sheep being herded up a lane, ready to pass through a gate to a cornfield which gives the painting its title. Beyond the gate walks a man wearing a black hat, red scarf and white shirt, with two further men working a distant field in the background, on the horizon to the rear of them stands a church. The boy, the gate, the man in the field and the church are drawn along a straight axis which gives us a cause to read this painting as a narrative of life which moves from childhood, to adulthood and then ultimately to death and the final resting place of the graveyard. The sheep remind us of the Christian flock and the brook of the cleansing act of baptism, whilst the gate appears to act as the threshold between the innocence of youth on the one hand and the experience of the adult world on the other. The gate itself hangs off its hinges, indicating that we loose something as we gain experience.
The lane is thought to lead from East Bergholt in Suffolk towards Dedham, with the church in the background being an artistic invention. Many of Constables most famous paintings are based in and around this small rural area which lies just south of Ipswich, and is the same small area which Wright defiled when he deposited the bodies of the five women he murdered.
The five paintings in the SUMAC series work to create a visual narrative along the lines of Constable’s ‘The Cornfield’ and begin by viewing the earliest two scenes close-up and in day-light, while the second two take a broader view and move towards sunset. The fifth painting draws back completely to reveal the night lit woods at Nacton. This creation of a narrative arc over a set of images is similar in approach to one I took when I painted the larger six foot by nine foot ‘Gas Chambers’ series on the Holocaust. The scale of these paintings allowed the paint to be applied in an increasingly impasto manner while the size seemed appropriate for the subject.
Dazed Digital: Why do you think prostitutes are so often the victims of murder, and what does that say about our species?
Robert Priseman: Street prostitutes live on the margins of society and place themselves in situations where they are easily identifiable to predators. Further, they get into cars with men they don’t know and allow themselves to be driven to dark and remote places where they are unlikely to be seen by passers-by. They often get beaten by their clients and are perhaps more tolerant of dangerous environments than most people. This allows serial killers to easily target them. Serial criminals and killers also target other vulnerable groups within our society such as children and the elderly who live on their own and are easy to physically overwhelm. As a species, I believe we should endeavour to go out of our way to care more for the vulnerable and marginalised within our society, to place the needs of others beyond our own and create a community which is founded on principles of inclusivity.
The Sumac Series will be displayed by the bo.lee gallery in The Octagon Chapel, Milsom Place, Bath, in the exhibition ‘Wunderkammer’ curated by Jemma Hickman. The show opens on Tuesday 20th September with a line up including Damien Hirst, Viktor Wynd, Angela Cockayne, Marcelle Hanselaar and Cornelia Parker.