“The act of painting is for myself, but the paintings are not for me, they are for whoever is curious to know more about them, have them, look at them.” A conversation with Joana de Oliveira Guerreiro

Born in Lisbon, Portugal, Joana de Oliveira Guerreiro has lived and worked in Liverpool since 2015. Before pursuing a career in art, she studied Military Strategy and worked for NATO in Brussels. In 2019 Joana undertook a residency with CreArt in Valladolid, Spain and exhibited the work she made there at Output Gallery in Liverpool. In February 2019 she participated in Refractive Pool’s Contemporary Painting in Liverpool Symposium at Liverpool Hope University’s Capstone Theatre. Joana and Josie recently had a correspondence conversation about her work, how she came to be a painter and how her ideas are realised through painting.

Picachu Doesn’t Want to be a Pokemon, industrial paint on canvas, 170x137cm

Josie: So, here is a bit of a starting point for a conversation about your work. I am interested in exploring your creative nature, from when you were young, and your need to paint. When you met with Brendan and me, one of the things you told us, which we both found really compelling, was about your childhood, how you used to draw and paint, although it was perhaps suppressed somewhat by your upbringing. I was wondering if you could describe this situation again? My intention is not necessarily to focus on the negatives or appropriate blame to anyone, but more to examine how your creative nature has always pushed its way out.

Joana: As a child I remember being very very stimulated by colours and shapes. One of my first serious parental punishments happened because I wanted to paint but wasn’t allowed. We lived in a flat and you weren’t supposed to make a mess, you were supposed to play with everything you already have. But all I wanted was to paint, so I found my mum’s make up, particularly the lipstick and I painted everything in my bedroom, but in a hidden way. I painted behind the door, inside the bed, behind the toys… it drove my Mum mad because I knew that I was doing something that would upset her, but I still did it… hiding… There are more stories like this one, but this one pretty much illustrates my need to play with paint. Also, growing up, my main interests revolved around art, painters, going to museums, art history, aesthetics… but my parents had other ideas in mind about what my future could be. Art was a very unsafe path to follow and they thought I could do it as a hobby, but to me art was the most meaningful thing ever and everything else was just of some interest.

Josie: So, as a young adult and as you moved through a non-art related career, how much were you able to paint at that time?

Joana: Occasionally really… in school… I didn’t do much painting. I saw a lot of painting and read about it… travelled to different countries to see the PicassosMatisses, some Renaissance paintings in Italy… did a lot of that.

Josie: When you went to see exhibitions, were you interested in painting in particular? Did you see yourself as an artist in any way at that time? Sorry that is a bit of a funny question, I mean did you recognise your own potential to make a great painting, or did you just see yourself as a curious observer?

Joana: It’s not a funny question, it’s actually interesting, because I did not only feel a curious observer, I felt like that was my biggest aspiration in life. I always thought that if my professional life was not going to be making art then I would have to be surrounded by it. That’s why I had friends who went to study fine art and the people that I related to were quite artistic, from actors to writers, photographers etc. All the people that I related to did some kind of art. I was mainly interested in painting, because it gave me a sense that I could do it using simple things; sculpture demanded more tools and I felt more uneasy about. In general I felt that there was no way to do it professionally, I was never a very good drawer, I never had drawing or painting classes. I had art class but it didn’t really give me the technical basis. Although, I was always confident about understanding painting, so even not knowing how to make certain images, there were other routes I could follow because Postmodernism had happened and there was room for almost everything, as long as it made sense.

Josie: So at some point you started painting, of course ;0) When was this?

Joana: This was 2015 when I moved to Liverpool. I enrolled at Liverpool City College on the Foundation in Art & Design. There’s an experimental phase during the first trimester of the course. You rotate between a few tutors and subjects such as design, fashion, marketing and visual communication, fine art and a few other things and the reason why I did this was because I thought I liked everything, but in reality I really liked fine art. So I chose that, and just painted the rest of the year. I found a studio space at CBS and started to go there every day to paint as if I was practicing a sport. Only by practicing could I evolve as a painter. That’s been my approach since.

Another Night In, industrial paint on canvas, 60cmx50cm

Josie: When you started painting, at that time, were you experimenting a lot with paint, with techniques or mark making etc, or were you really focused on subject matter, what you wanted to depict in your paintings?

Joana: I wasn’t thinking about any of those things; technique or making a mark. I wasn’t even experimenting that much. I grabbed everything that I found, that I could use as a brush and any kind of paint and I was concerned with doing it. Just do it. A bit like going to the gym. I believed that the fact that I understood art history gave me enough confidence to come up with images that I could be happy with and other people would be too. The act of painting is for myself, but the paintings are not for me, they are for whoever is curious to know more about them, have them, look at them. My work is not to be appreciated visually only. There’s always a reason for each painting. Sometimes the reason is more beautiful than the painting itself and that’s OK. Ultimately, the Universe is quite vast and we are alive for a short period of time, so I guess the mark that I want to make documents what I’ve been experiencing while on Earth and that’s what matters the most to me. If my work can impact people’s ideas or if it resonates with a lot of people, it means I left a reasonable mark. If not…. I enjoy doing it.

Josie: The way you have described that, it feels like you have ideas about what you want to depict, that are well thought through, but then the act of depicting them seems the opposite, quite instantaneous. I wonder whether there is something very liberating about having those very strong ideas about subject matter in your head and that this allows the focus to be on getting those ideas out. It means that although there is a sense of urgency, the focus is very much back on the painting, though this is not to say that you are making very conscious decisions when you are painting. In fact that is an interesting question about conscious decision making, as when I look at your work I feel that a lot of consideration is going into composition, colours and shapes and I’m interested in whether you feel you are doing that consciously.

Joana: It works by trial and error. When I make a painting I usually think about something that I want to talk about and then I start painting. The first stages of painting create layers and textures on the canvas. After that, a drawing starts to appear and by the time I’m finishing, this painting has changed a lot. Only by painting and looking at it can I see if it’s going in the right direction or not. And when I say the right direction: I look at the image and I think… is this image well balanced? Are the colours pleasing, complementing each other? Does it feel right? All of this is very gut decision making based. I cook the same way. I don’t think I ever read a recipe. I just do it. I understand the basic principles of cooking. Heat, time, pressure, air, the influence those elements have, how the ingredients behave when cooked certain ways, and to be honest, I never make the same dish the same way. There’s always something different. I never wear the same jeans with the same t-shirt. I guess there’s always a very spontaneous side to my modus operandi, but the ground rules are there.

Sometimes, if I don’t want to spend so much time on a painting, or use a lot of paint, I draw on my iPad… and I decide how the painting is going to look like and then I paint. But there is always a moment of trial and error anyway, because I don’t use a projector or anything that can help me, rather just a brush and some sort of paint. So I would say that the conscious part of my practice occurs when I’m deciding tones, subject matters etc. I think of some paintings by other artists that are inspiring me at that particular moment, but once I’m doing it I just go for it. I make a mark and it starts appearing from that. Sometimes I make a painting and then I just paint it white and start again because I don’t think it’s working, or I think I can make a more interesting painting. So killing paintings is something quite important in my process, because the ability to detach is what makes me evolve…. or at least that’s how I feel about it.

Gluten Free Wine, acrylic on board, 80x60cm

Josie: I am also interested in whether you are having fun when you paint. I have a tendency to jump to this conclusion about certain painters and sometimes I get it really wrong. For your work I think of the fun on two different levels. I see the painting itself as fun because of its instantaneous nature and use of household paints, the fun you are having sort of manifesting in the paint, but also the paintings themselves are funny because of the images and subject matter. I imagine you painting a face and laughing at the expression you just put on it. I can’t look at the Gluten Free Wine painting without laughing. It cracks me up every time because it is so absurd.  

Joana: I do have a lot of fun indeed. Sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m having fun because with each painting, I’m there looking at it trying to find the X in the equation, but at the end of the day I think, oh this is fun, I hope I can do this for the rest of my life. It’s one of the very few things in life that I do and don’t notice the time passing by. But it’s not constantly like this… right now I’ve finished a series of paintings about my dog Spike. Since he died I just wanted to make paintings about him but now I should be making new work and I’ve been struggling over the subject matter. I’m in a phase where I don’t feel like doing what I’m the most comfortable with; which is painting stories that have a bit of a political agenda. I’ve been trying to decide what to paint… I know that I want the subject matter to be simple, but relevant to be painted in 2020. It’s almost like deciding… what conversations do I want to have? Those decisions usually come by reading and looking at other people’s work…

Josie: Although, whatever you decide to paint, so much is down to the interpretation of the viewer, unless you explicitly explain what you are getting at, using words alongside the painting. You can’t control what the person looking at your painting thinks about it and what it might mean to them, but likewise, they can’t assume what your intentions were in making the painting. And relating this to the humour in your work: when I look at the paintings of yours that I personally find humorous, what I like about them is that I don’t always know exactly what you are getting at and I think artists (and comedians alike) can be particularly good at presenting something they have observed, in popular culture, or politics or whatever, without necessarily taking a stance themselves.

Gone to the Dogs, acrylic on paper, 22x30cm

Joana: I see painting as the stepping stone of my career, but I do have other plans to communicate my ideas through different mediums. I’ve started making video animations from the images in the paintings, animating the characters that I paint and making them interact with each other. I still have a lot to learn in this field, but I will certainly invest to know more and perhaps make animated movies. I think cinema and video reach a wider audience and that is something that I would like to achieve. I’ve also recently started to make more textile art because of the way one can interact with the materials. I think it’s exciting to have long term plans because they guide my willpower to do anything. Everything is possible.

You can see more of Joana’s work at www.joanadeoliveira.com