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Birdsong, 2011, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm

Tom De Freston: On Falling

Focused on creating drama on canvas, the artist's latest solo exhibition heavily features theatrical and literary influences

Tom de Freston uses the human figure in his paintings as a director would on film or the stage, manipulating the person into a scenario loaded with dramatic tension. Using performance and theatre (along with multiple other sources) for inspiration, de Freston plays out contemporary concerns and historical modes across his canvases, resulting in what he has described as ‘contemporary history painting’. Before his solo show in Clerkenwell this month, the artist talked to Dazed about this dichotomy and the roots of his practice as a painter.

Dazed Digital: Why did you choose to be a painter?
Tom de Freston:
 I don't know if I did. I certainly can't pinpoint a light bulb moment when I decided to be an artist, it was more the result of a myriad of decisions.

DD: You've described yourself as a 'contemporary History Painter’; can you explain?
Tom de Freston: I'm interested in the idea of History Painting as a bankrupt notion, and if it's possible to have such a thing as contemporary History Painting. My paintings are not historical in that they are not illustrative of a specific geographic or historic source. Instead they are an amalgamation of numerous sources, fusing timeframes in order to produce autonomous scenes which could be read metaphorically and metaphysically in relation to a contemporary or historical context.

DD: Can you tell me a bit about your literary/theatrical influences?
Tom de Freston: I have worked closely with poets, academics and theatre companies and directors. I don't see the dialogue as necessarily different to that which I have with the History of Art or painting. They are all just sources to exploit and scavenge for new end points.

DD: And the Shakespeare references in On Falling?
Tom de Freston: The painting ‘Bathroom’ shows Macbeth sat upon the loo, with a sense of Bacon's paintings of George Dyer. The figure in the bath could be one of a few characters from Macbeth, but nods to David's Marat and images of the Deposition, whilst the entire structure of the space is being threatened by a swirling, descending estuary of paint. In’ MSND’ Bottom and Titania sit apprehensively on a stage above a foresty abyss with witness figures featured crow headed women, flying pigs head, winged and masked putti and a couple both sporting halos and Marilyn Monroe masks.

DD: How do you begin to generate the imagery for your paintings?
Tom de Freston: I hunt out suitable architectural spaces and then using myself or other actors stage photographic tableaux. The process is often quite performative, in order to allow imagery and ideas to evolve.

DD: Performance is key to your work, but does an idea always have to end in paint?
Tom de Freston: Theatre and performance has had a huge impact on my work. I have often worked closely with directors then exhibited work alongside productions as the result of an ongoing dialogue. Almost exclusively, however, this process and that of photography and performance, is merely part of a journey ending in paint. That's not to say that occasionally things have arisen out of this other than painting that could potentially stand on their own right. 

DD: Often in your paintings there's a contrast between human and geometric shapes, it makes me think of a person contained on a stage...
Tom de Freston: Yes. As with the stage in theatre we are aware that it is an artificial construction. In both cases the artifice is constantly on the verge of collapsing. In 'King Lear- End Scene' the geometry of the architecture and the positioning of the figures have a carefully staged symmetry. The stitched up spine of Lear, the Marilyn Monroe masked daughters and the hooded caricatures of the mirrored witness figures are all set within a solid geometric architectural space which appears to be under attack from a thick, spluttering storm which threatens to engulf the entire canvas.

DD: What are you working on next?
Tom de Freston: 
I'm working with the theatre director Max Barton on a project based around Gustav Meyrink's novel 'The Golem'. It will result in a large body of paintings, the launch of a picture book and a new touring play.

Tom De Freston: On Falling, until Sunday 9th October 2011, 20 Clerkenwell Green, Islington, London, EC1R 0DP. For further information please visit: hrlcontemporary.com