Born in 1992, Natalie Wadlington is currently based in Texas. In 2020, she completed her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art and was a resident fellow at the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Michigan. Her figurative paintings are largely based in the traditions of storytelling, frequently featuring animals and their relationship to humans. Wadlington paints in various artistic styles, conveying the nuances and variations within the history of painting itself. We asked Wadlington a few questions about her artistic practise and her participation in Unit London’s current group exhibition, IRL.
UL: Can you talk us through your artistic process, from the beginnings of an artwork to the end result?
NW: I begin with a scene or story that strikes me as quite symbolic or resonates with me in a larger, metaphoric way. These can be things I’ve personally experienced, or stories I’ve heard or read. But it’s important that there be a strong and specific mood in the scene, one of pensiveness, wonderment, and uncertainty. When drafting the image, I focus on the shapes, geometries, and composition of the image because I think of the painted surface as a sort of tablet for encrypting these narrative symbols, or perhaps a stage setting. I make drafts for mapping out colour, but leave opportunities open in the actual painting to surprise and challenge myself. Painting is such a joy and also very rigorous and surprising when you allow space for expression and play. I want to imbue a certain energy in every area of the painting, so I let that approach take the lead.
Wadlington in her studio, 2020
UL: The relationship between humans and animals is a dominant theme throughout your work. Animals often appear in your artworks and are featured in the works presented for IRL. What do these animals represent?
NW: As a kid, I really loved animals. In particular, I loved just looking at them. I was a bit of a meek child, so I never liked catching frogs or anything like that. For me, it felt like I was intruding on their private, inaccessible lives. Instead, I looked very intently at them. As a kid, I would draw animals from magazines or calendars, and I would focus on every detail of their fur or markings. Somehow, that was my way of appreciating them. I’ve always been very sensitive to a gap in understanding between myself and nature. We put a lot of language on animals, plants, and landscapes, but for me there always remains a sense of unknowing. In the work I’m doing now, these child-like figures are looking very intently at animals. Similarly, in the face of so much uncertainty and instability in the current world, I feel myself returning to that childlike space of just looking, and that’s the sentiment I’m feeling in the work as well.
UL: You have said that your practise is centred around storytelling. Do you often have specific narratives in mind or are these narratives largely up to the viewer’s interpretation?
NW: The narratives start with me from specific things I’ve experienced, read about, or stories I’ve heard. They’re often slight moments that strike me as quite symbolic for larger themes that I explore in the work. In this way, the narratives operate as archetypes, though they blend shared cultural motifs with personal and specific experiences. But ultimately, the stories are symbolic and poetic, so the viewer can resonate with the larger themes being expressed.
UL: Your work explores many different artistic styles. Why does this appeal to you and what do you think this experimentation with style has brought to your oeuvre as a whole?
When I began studying art in school, I immediately became an avid fan of painting’s history. I poured over all the books I could find in the school library and made exhaustive lists of artists on Instagram and magazines. I was earnestly soaking in all the different ways paintings could be made. Nicole Eisenman was a huge influence for me early on, I think she broke a lot of ground for the interesting painting conversations that are happening today. For me, the way I lay down paint and think about the colour, texture, and gesture of a mark is idiosyncratic to the specific thing I’m creating within the painting. The imagery is symbolic for me, so the chosen painting style is symbolic as well.
UL: What is next for you after IRL? Do you see your style and subject matter developing further or changing in any way?
Right now, I’m working on a body of work that I think expands on the themes represented in these two works. I’m exploring more this feeling I’m currently bringing to the work of a meek child looking and watching. This year has really brought me back to a child-like place of wonder in so many ways. I feel like I’m living in a space of unknowing again and that is the sentiment I’m wanting to bring forward in these next works.