Damian Elwes: A painter in search of the roots of inspiration

In his vivid paintings of artists' studios Damian Elwes has produced portraits of some of the most creative minds of the twentieth century. Sophie Leris meets a painter in search of the roots of inspiration
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The Independent Online

The show, entitled 'Artists' Studios,' is extremely beautiful, flooding the gallery with a sense of space, light and colour. In a series of well-executed paintings whose sizes range from small to vast, Elwes depicts the interiors of 20th century masters such as Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo and Gaugin. Each picture is redolent of its absent subject (the artist) but Elwes avoids pastiche by retaining his own style while using palettes typical of the artists and the works they were making at a particular point in their lives.

"I try to capture a moment of inspiration, to explore where creativity comes from, to make things dream-like," he explains. "I feel as though I am painting someone's mind and soul as much as their physical surroundings. The way an artist places his things tells you as much about him as his painting does - these people were so visual that even the negative space [between objects] has been thought about, so what I'm doing is painting thousands of still lives laid out for me by the most creative minds of the last century. As a painter, it's joyful to discover frame after frame; it just amazes me that no one else has done it."

Using a combination of photographic and literary evidence, artists' sketches and personal belongings, as well as long nocturnal stints on the internet, Elwes creates virtual replicas of studios, many of which have never been seen by the public. "All the clues are there," he says. "You can go on eBay and find any artefact you want: a 1956 set of Caran d'Ache pencils, a particular vintage of cigarette packet or tin of cookies. I stick over 60 pieces of paper around every painting and use them like a jigsaw puzzle. It's quite a mathematical process. As I wasn't really there I'm creating a fiction to a certain extent. Picasso said 'Art is a lie that helps us to understand the truth' which is what I try to do."

"Matisse was crucified when he said that a painting should be like a comfortable armchair that you can go home and enjoy," he continues, "but I agree with him. I want to make big paintings that can extend your space - it's escapism, like a picture window of the imagination." His American dealers have more high falutin' ideas: Elwes tells me, with a self-deprecating grin, that his New York gallerist, Francis Nauman (the world expert on Duchamp), considers his work to be "conceptual," and Scream lends me a documentary on DVD in which his LA dealer, Fred Hoffman, opines that "Hollywood is interested in Damian's work because he is setting a scene in his paintings and the process is not unlike making a film, especially an historic one. There's a completeness in the realisation of these paintings."

The best quote in the documentary comes at the glitzy private view where celebrity guests tell the camera what a great artist Damian is before Hollywood director Richard Donner says: "I'm a realist, not an abstractionist. When I look at Picasso I don't understand him, it looks like a kid could do it, stoned out of his head on a little weed, he could do a Picasso. But Damian does it with a sense of reality." So, in Hollywood at least, he's more real than Picasso? Damian laughs long and hard. I reflect that the fact that the reason he remains one of the more charming members of the Californian elite without buying into any of the bullshit, and that he can hold his own on the New York art scene without claiming kudos as a conceptual artist, is probably down to his rather outré English background.

Born in 1960, to heiress and interior designer Tessa Kennedy and the husband she eloped with at 17, Mayfair-set artist Dominic Elwes, Damian's childhood was bohemian and star-studded. His parents divorced when he was eight and he grew up with his brothers at their mother's house in Surrey where dinner guests included Marlon Brando, Rudolph Nureyev and King Hussein. Dominic's own father was society portraitist Simon Elwes whose work was collected in the thirties and forties by American families like the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys. Dominic's talent was less of a commercial success and he also suffered from manic depression: he committed suicide when Damian was 14 and there was some conjecture that it was the result of his ostracism by 'friends' after the disappearance of one of their circle, Lord Lucan. Within three months, Simon Elwes had also died. Both his father and grandfather left the contents of their studios to Damian, the only one of the boys to have been drawn to their work as a child, loving the smell of turps and oil paint and learning to fill in his father's skies.

"I put it all into storage," he says. "I didn't want my life preordained." Determined not to become an artist, he took himself off to Harvard to study playwriting but his professor gave him a palette knife that had once belonged to Matisse as a graduation present and, says Elwes, "I realised he was trying to tell me something." Exploring the New York art scene of the 1980s, Elwes says he was "electrified" by the graffiti art of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat but that, being English, he lacked the necessary abandon to spraypaint the city walls. "I made some graffiti-based art and had a show with Basquiat but I really wanted to learn to paint with a brush so I decided to follow the palette knife to Paris and visit its owner's studio." On arrival, he found Matisse's studios closed to the public so he turned his attention to living artists. "I knocked on doors wherever I smelled turpentine and linseed oil and asked if I could sit in a corner and paint their space. They'd come and look at my painting and say 'If you like my mess, go and see Réné,' and so it went on. That's how I learnt to sculpt and paint, by watching artists at work."

Once he got painting, Elwes returned to the States and concentrated on his fears. He painted bulls because he was nearly killed by one as a child watching a bullfight outside Malaga, where his father lived for some years. Then he painted the rainforest because he was afraid of its extinction. "I bought a mountaintop in 1989 for $5,000," he says, "in the middle of the Colombian rainforest. An art dealer introduced me to the area and, despite the dangers, I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen."

He eventually moved there, Gaugin-like, for seven years, but took his wife with him. "That place is all about magical realism," says Lewanne. "You read Allende and Marquez but until you live there, you don't realise that all that stuff actually happens. The people are telepathic." Learning to cut their bamboo by the full moon, cook strange-looking vegetables, ride wild horses and heal their baby's cuts with ear wax, the couple existed without any form of media and "we thrived," says Lewanne. Elwes painted monumental, interactive installations of his surroundings. Expecting their second child, the Elwes finally decided it was time to return to the world of schools and galleries and they bought their house in Santa Monica. "As far as my art went, I was really uninspired by this new environment," says Damian, "but I spent time on the internet and began to research those studios I had been denied access to years ago in Paris. That's when I had my idea." Not only is his idea a roaring success in America - Elwes' larger works sell for around $50,000, diptychs go for $100,000, and there are several museums sniffing round his 7-piece installation of Picasso's Villa de Californie - but it has enabled him to return to England in triumph, with a top notch show. That should lay some ghosts to rest.

Damian Elwes's 'Artists' Studios' is at Scream Gallery, 34 Bruton Street, London W1 until 8 July. Tel: 020 7493 7388 info@screamgallery.com