Having Conversations Through Paintings

A Discussion with Victoria Cantons.

A self-taught multi-disciplinary artist who finds inspirations not only in her surroundings, her childhood but also in works of great masters - Victoria Cantons brings an insight into peoples relationships and intimacy through her art. Before she decided to pursue her tuition and graduated from Slade School of Art, London this year with an MFA in Painting, she was purely self-taught and used her passion for painting to push herself to learn all that she could about the art world by frequent museums and galleries visits. As a Londoner, she often explored artistic sites close to her heart such as The Victoria and Albert Museum as well as The British Museum, while she practised her craft and made connections along the way.

As a multi-disciplinary artist who mostly focuses on painting, drawing and photography, her work can be described as autobiographical, confessional and political with a lowercase p as although they are an important part of her life she does not like to make politics the centre of her work.

Cantons is an avid lover of art history, it is no surprise that she is inspired by a variety of illustrious artists. She studies both the old masters, such as Picasso, Titian and her peers, for example, Brice Marden and Tracey Emin;

I look to the old masters to see how they were dealing with making a painting and my contemporaries to see how they’re having a conversation about what’s going on in the world around us because the world around is the world around them and me at the same time.

These inspirations are certainly evident in many of her works of art. Jacques-Louis David’s inspiration comes to mind if one compares the positioning of the man in the background with Marrat in his last moments. “A new landmark” explores issues Canton's had to overcome as a transgender woman, trying to fight with her body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria along with having to deal with all the conversations and attitudes from various parts of society including people close to her or her parents. The male in the bed could be dead or “used up”, however, the woman is striding forward. She is not static, she is in motion and it seems that is now about to go out into the world to find what is there for herself leaving him behind. The blossoming flowers on the right-hand side of the painting can mean a rebirth as another expression pointing out towards a new life.

Her painting “When Hope Was High and Life Worth Living (after Manet)” inspired by Edouard Manet’s “Olympia.” Although no faces are shown, this painting is a very intimate scene, the subjects’ hands and bodies resemble that of Manet’s “Olympia”. At first glance, one may think there are two bodies but closer inspection reveals it to be a reflection, with only one of the bodies bearing a ring on their finger. The gestures of covering one's sensitive area are seen in both paintings. This could illustrate a want for privacy as although Cantons shares a lot of herself with the world, through her art but also poetry and her openness to conversation. The warmth in the colours of Cantons’ painting is divergent from the cold starkness of Manet’s. From this, we can glean that this moment is not a melancholic one, but merely contemplative. This scene is more joyful and vibrant contrasting with Manet's overshadowing darkness of the reality his heroin found herself in.

Inspired by Picasso’s most famous piece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” Victoria was reflecting women in different forms in “The heart wants what the heart wants”. The women can be read as three versions of her family tree, herself, her mother, and her grandmother. Cantons perhaps can be associated with the shadowed figure, which is holding the mask that has removed it from her. She reminisces that when she transitioned 10 years ago, the act felt like the removing of a mask:

Walls and barriers that existed between me and the world were being dropped.

Her previous works take an active form when it comes to the direction of the style of her paintings, inspiration and even themes The art pieces will dictate what they want, they’re in control, not me. Cantons’ childhood and upbringing is another source of inspiration for her work:

We are all of our histories. I can’t escape from what I am and what I’ve experienced before. So, the artwork is the result of everything that I am and have been.

One of the paintings that originates from her childhood memory is “Every Day the Bed is Made”, which is one of the very first paintings in which the main focus was on a piece of furniture. The sofa and window in the centre of the painting were inspired by the chesterfield that she had at home when she was growing up. The naming of the painting can derive from the routine that is the same and yet different every day and within that comfort, hope and security.

Flowers are a reoccurring theme in her works are which bring a special sort of memories from her childhood. As a keen gardener, her mother despised cut flowers and only living flowers were allowed in the house. She often refused to accept bouquets, which could be seen as rude, however, this was her rules. In her paintings Cantons often reflects on the odd relationship humans have with flowers, and how they can be presented to say I love you, but also I’m sorry or get well soon. This memory appears to have an impact on her work as flowers can be found in many of her paintings, whether they are the main subject, or in the background.

As for many other people in the UK, lockdown restrictions had also a big impact on Victoria's work. A lot of her paintings are of very large size and since she could not use her studio, she could not execute her art as she used to. In July 2020, with the persuasion of her partner, Yang Xu, who collaborates with her in photography, she produced four paintings of Medusas, which she interestingly labelled as self-portraits. She says there is an element of feeling lots of anxiety and self-loathing, which is how the idea of Medusa came about. Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of nihilism, where attempts at avoiding looking into her eyes represent trying to evade the sombre reality that the universe is meaningless. As we have very few places to go during the lockdown, it can feel as if life has no meaning anymore, and with the way we have nothing to dress up for, one can feel like the physical manifestation of hopelessness when they look in the mirror.

I want to have conversations and the only way that you can have a conversation with someone is by bringing something to the table and being open to what that conversation might be.

She considers herself quite an open person and is seeking to have a dialogue with those who come across her work: Rather than like a poker player holding my cards to my chest, it’s more about laying my cards out on the table and saying here I am, here it is, let’s talk.

If Victoria Cantons had the attention of the world for a few seconds with the freedom to say anything she wanted, she would send an invitation: Hi World, I’m Victoria. I’m interested in knowing who you are and let’s have a conversation about how we can make the world better with the power of art.

To discover more other works of Victoria please see her website: https://www.victoriacantons.com/