INTERVIEW

Siemon Scamell-Katz: Painting the Post-Human Sublime

by Maya Fletcher-Smith | 13 April 2022

Courtauldian Editor Maya Fletcher-Smith talks with artist Siemon Scamell-Katz at the opening of his exhibition La fin de l’altérité at 28 Rue Saint-Gilles, Paris. The exhibition is accompanied by Quarry, a short story by Rachel Cusk, as part of The Cahiers Series. La fin de l’altérité will finish on the 17th of April, 2022.

Siemon Scamell-Katz, Painting 20:04. Oil and enamel on aluminium. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Standing in front of a Siemon Scamell-Katz painting feels like standing on the cusp of something. Each work evokes a transitory experience – a waxing moon hidden behind fast-shifting clouds, rays of light gently illuminating the ocean floor. The paintings themselves are ephemeral objects, and appear strikingly different on the afternoon I’m sat with Scamell-Katz in Paris’ Marais district than they did at his exhibition opening the previous evening. “I like that feeling of uncertainty,” he grins, “I’m not offering a frame of reference you’re familiar with.” This is certainly true. For the majority of his artistic career Scamell-Katz has painted entirely abstract landscapes. Nothing in the eleven paintings exhibited as part of La fin de l’altérité (The end of otherness) is representational of the Greek landscapes that inspired their creation. Yet, an experience of standing on the scorching Greek seafront is tangible, a moment captured, entrapped in fine layers of oil and enamel paint.

Siemon Scamell-Katz, installation view of Painting 21:06. Oil and enamel on aluminium. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Scamell-Katz has an unconventional career background for a painter, however, it is one that has greatly informed his practice and the considerations behind his work. “Well, I always wanted to be a painter when I was a kid… but for various reasons, to do with my family, I worked in shops.” Working in shops led to an interest in shopper behaviour, specifically, to where a prospective customer’s gaze is drawn during their shop. Scamell-Katz then founded a business specialising in tracking people's eye movements as they go about their shopping. This is about as dystopian as it sounds. I ask how his experience working with this technology translates to his painting approach. “What I learnt about visual marketing and perception is what has informed me in how I go about painting… the general population’s idea about how they see is completely wrong, our view is actually very narrow. We fixate for a very small amount of time, and that gives us our perception of what’s in front of us.” As Scammell-Katz can attest, given his work studying the neural responses of shoppers, we’re living in the age of experience overload. At no time in human history have we ever been so bombarded with images, advertisements, music, sensory confusion. As such, our experience of the sublime is decidedly different from that of Shelley and Byron on a romp around the Swiss Alps two hundred years ago. Today, you can choose to have the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen in your life as your phone wallpaper, if you so wish, and be exposed to it dozens of times every day. “A memory of yours of a sunset may well be an advert for Thomas Cook holidays. So, the commercialisation of the image, as well, is something that led me towards wanting to go back… to look at the sublime and the presentation of beauty in the context of landscape.”

Siemon Scamell-Katz, Painting 21:03. Oil and enamel on aluminium. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Through his artwork, Scamell-Katz confronts the fact that our perception of the world has very little to do with what’s actually there, rather, it’s largely filtered through our personal experiences, our memories, including our exposure to masses of visual culture. “We have established ways of capturing landscape that are formulaic… as soon as you use composition in landscape, you are immediately referring to a whole body of landscape work that came before.” The result is that conventional landscapes can appear all too familiar, having been effectively pre-digested by our visual memory. When looking at a landscape of the Romantic tradition, we expect to see a blurry cathedral, the gleaming, dewy hilltops, and as a result we fail to look properly. I agree with Scamell-Katz in that it’s difficult to eke out a feeling of the sublime from a John Constable painting when you are accustomed to seeing his work on biscuit tins. By avoiding composition and symbol, Scamell-Katz places emphasis on his personal experience of the landscape and its awe-inducing sublimity, without the distractions that can accompany an established tradition of representational art.

It goes without saying that the work presented at La fin de l’altérité – and the nonrepresentational aesthetic ideals in which they are grounded – are evocative of abstract expressionist and colour field painting. I ask Scamell-Katz where he sees himself in relation to these movements. “I love that link to history, but I don’t want to feel like I’m painting another Rothko… I’m aware of and acknowledge those traditions in my work.” Scamell-Katz’s works diverge from abstract expressionism in their lack of emphasis on medium specificity, in fact, I would never have been able to tell the medium had it not been listed beside the works. To achieve this ambiguity, Scamell-Katz utilises an unusual painting technique that takes months of layering and buffing enamel and oil paints. At the gallery, the date of the application of each of these layers is displayed next to each work – a wonderful curatorial decision to indicate their temporality – every layer working to signify a certain point, an experience, in time. Scamell-Katz jumps up and strides across the room to gesture towards a lightened spot on Painting 21:06. “This painting, for example, changed a lot in its final days… I worked wet in wet and it took off a lot of glaze.” The work has a haunting glow. Each work is similarly tinged with a degree of melancholia. A mere two years ago, Scamell-Katz was critically ill, something he admits has had an impact on his personal perception of landscape. “I thought ok, well, that’s what dying might look like,” he says in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone, a smile surfacing on his face in response to the concern surfacing on mine. Death, in the same way as mountains and seascapes, serves as a reminder of human frailty in the face of the sublime. I thank him for his time.

Siemon Scamell-Katz, Painting 21:08. Oil and enamel on aluminium. Image Courtesy of the artist.

On my way back from meeting with Scamell-Katz I spotted a large poster pasted to the metro wall. A man with hair greying around his ears was taking a picture of it on his phone: Des microplastiques retrouvés dans du sang humain pour la première fois (microplastics found in human blood for the first time). It’s rare for art within the tradition of landscape painting to address how the all-pervasive, omnipresence of human culture affects our mind – our very perception of the world, of artwork, of the amount of attention our image-weary brains will afford it. La fin de l’altérité actively seeks answers to such questions – what does it mean to paint the sublime in the age of the post-human?

Many thanks to Siemon-Scamell Katz and his team for inviting myself and Literary Editor, Mary Phan, to the preview evening of La fin de l’altérité and for arranging this interview.