From Issue 62: A Portrait of Celia Hempton, The British Artist Exploring the Beauty of Human Intimacy
top by James Davison Studio, jeans by Vetements, boots by Miu Miu
Celia Hempton’s working day always starts with breakfast – “A really good one,” emphasises the 37-year-old British artist. It entails coffee (“a really good coffee”), and then porridge and a fruit salad – and then she does it all again an hour later, this time something savoury, such as toast. She then goes over her emails, before finally heading to her studio in Stratford, east London, at about midday – which is when the work really begins. “I want to do some more paintings of arseholes,” she says in her dreamy but considered way. “Because I’ve only made two or three – and not in enough detail. There’s a lot more to look at. To investigate.”
Hempton has a sense of humour, and she giggles a bit as she reels off her ideas. Then again, the artist is deadly serious, and the work is, too. Over this decade, the Cotswolds native, mostly working in paint, has established herself at the forefront of her generation, in part by going to places where other artists usually don’t go – namely, a lot of stuff below the waist. This is what she commemorates, infamously, in her Chat Random series, where she paints her encounters with the users of an online video-chat site, but it’s just one strand in her work – she has also climbed to the top of a Sicilian volcano to paint its eruptions, just as she’s painted the detritus of building sites. There’s one common theme, she says.
“I’m just really interested in looking – that’s what drives my work. That’s how I understand the world.” A good deal of her paintings – much more delicate and nuanced and beautiful than their subject matter might suggest – are “of things I haven’t looked at in detail before, or they’re uncomfortable to look at, or it’s uncomfortable to be in that situation, perhaps. And it’s something I want to investigate – ‘Why do I feel uncomfortable?’ I want to break it down and research it through the painting.”
top by Anal House Meltdown Club, jeans by Vetements, boots by Miu Miu
We speak just as Hempton has returned from a trip to Serbia, where she has been part of a group show. She’s quite enthused by the charms of the former Yugoslavia, and heartened by the welcome she had there. Of course, though, when she gave a talk, “there was one guy who did the obligatory question”, she sighs. She puts on a faintly Slavic accent: “‘So, do you tease men? You’re a pretty girl, are you teasing them online?’ But it’s all right.” She sighs a little more. “I mean, it’s quite useful, in a way, to have someone say that out loud, because that’s what a lot of people think. And it’s sexist, the way people can’t separate a woman’s work from the way she looks. He just had to get it out, and then it wasfine.”
Of all of Hempton’s work, it’s inevitable that the Chat Random series should attract the most attention. The story behind it, and the results, are what push our most elemental buttons: issues of sexuality and gender, attractiveness and loneliness. She decided to start seeking out her subjects as a kind of feminist act, to challenge the proliferation of male-based porn all over the internet. “I had an interest in flipping something that I thought was unbalanced online, in terms of who gets to have an active gaze.” Yet in the years since she got down to it, she’s had to concede that the exchange is never quite simple, and the politics aren’t either.
shirt by Acne Studios, jeans by Vetements, boots by Miu Miu
On Chat Random, you log in to chat to someone, and you can be connected to anyone across the world. “I might be connecting with someone from Switzerland or India,” she says. “I could be talking to somebody from all different races and ethnicities and religious groups and sexualities.” Sometimes they just want to chat, sometimes they’ll want to masturbate. Sometimes they’ll show their faces, sometimes not. At the other end of the line Hempton is ready and waiting at her easel, seeing if she can paint her subjects – she has to move quickly, before they move on or the connection goes. For her, in work mode, in an old hoodie, it’s not some kind of titillating experience – although it has taught her plenty.
“Sexually, it’s probably made me a lot more open to things,” she says – but then she thinks she was always pretty open-minded anyway. She is in a long-term relationship with her fellow artist Eddie Peake, but it doesn’t prevent her from chatting to someone interesting if they’re attractive enough. “But it completely depends on the connection,” she says of the exchanges – and she also means the literal internet connection. “You know, sometimes you can’t even really see what you’re looking at, which is one thing.”
Chat Random is one of the darker corners of the web, and some of it goes way beyond a bit of anonymous wanking. Punters looking for children, a really attractive man who promptly did a shit on a plate. “That wasn’t so shocking,” says Hempton. “I was quite excited by that, it was making a good painting.” With time she has learnt to move on and to disconnect, but she always tries to treat her subjects with care. “It’s never been about tricking people. I’ve always been sensitive to whoever I’m talking to.” Loneliness is another strong theme across her work – it could also explain why it resonates so much today, when many claim there’s a loneliness epidemic. “Don’t we all feel lonely?” says Hempton simply, with a little laugh.
Like most of her generation, the artist didn’t grow up in a culture where your smartphone was awash with X-rated imagery. “When I first saw porn I was totally scandalised! And it wasn’t that long ago, in my twenties. I’d seen things at uni, but only briefly.” But she was on the road to being an artist long before. The child of artists, with an artist brother, too, she grew up in a house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where things were always being made. It’s this that probably explains her attraction to the old-fashioned medium of painting, even if she does work in other media, whereas Peake, and most of her artist friends and peers, are much more “interdisciplinary” and often don’t make their works themselves. For Hempton, working with paint itself – “oily, sticky, slippery, crusty” – is both a necessity and a pleasure.
jacket by Acne Studios
“I just really like the directness and immediacy and efficiency of it,” she says. “You know how sometimes it’s easier, when someone asks you for directions somewhere, to just draw a map with a pen and paper?” After doing a BA in art at the Glasgow School of Art, she later got an MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art, in Chelsea. Painting also means that her gaze is always active. “If I were just taking a picture, it would just be done and then be over and done with, in a way. [But painting] requires me to be always actively looking, and I love that.”
Stroud, meanwhile, is a particularly artsy place, full of hippies and creatives, and various fun English characters, such as Keith Allen, Sade and Jilly Cooper. “I grew up in a very rural, beautiful area, and my experience of the landscape was quite idyllic,” Hempton says. But there was a flip side. Around the same time, the crimes of the serial killers Fred and Rose West were being discovered, only a few miles away in Gloucester. Hempton was of an age where she could have been their victim. “That probably had a weird impact on me and changed the way I saw the relationship of my body to a space,” she says. “What it means – who has the power, what your body means in certain situations.”
coat by Miu Miu, top by & Other Stories, vintage jeans by Versace, trainers by Feiyue
Hempton and Peake got together in Glasgow, long before either had any kind of success (Hempton thinks it’s worth noting; there’s often a sexist assumption that she started dating him after he first found success). They have lived and worked in London for years, but the plan is to get out of the capital eventually. “I just think it would be really good for my work to just get out for a minute,” she says. “To do something weird, without being trapped in the constant circus of whatever the current conversation is.” She has been particularly inspired by Italy – from a two-year residency in Rome, and from her recent trip to the volcanic island of Stromboli, where she painted its bubbling lava. “It’s just a very sensory space. Especially the south – in the summer it will smell of rotting things and bins, and then the most delicious baking smell, and then the flowers that bloom…”
It sounds like she’d like to go further away, though. Maybe LA, for its particular light; maybe even a studio in the desert. She chuckles, “I’ve feel like I’ve just talked about this for years and never done it!” And perhaps she doesn’t really need to go that far. Her latest paintings, after all, are self-portraits of her genitalia, made by squatting over a mirror. “They’re all quite dark and monochrome,” she says. “A bit more intimate-looking. A bit more aggressive.” She never quite tires of looking.
jeans by Vetements, boots by Miu Miu
Photographs by Anna Stokland