By Helen Murphy and Nick Pelling

It is an odd thing but sometimes a familiar scene can suddenly seem strange. The banal momentarily flips itself and appears quite disturbing. The artist Stephanie Fawbert has made this slippery realm her own. Her exhibition at Hastings Arts Forum is entitled Capturing Worlds, but in a way, it is more about moments. Little disturbances in the white noise of daily existence when a humdrum scene warps and freezes into something eerie but magical.

Fawbert is a very difficult artist to pin a label on. Certainly, there is the painterly skill to render things as ‘realistic.’ But she says her work is “not real” and instead deals in “psychological spaces.” The paintings almost always feature people in a pleasant rural setting, but the figures seem a little small and somewhat vulnerable. The landscape starts to feel overwhelming or indifferent to human life. There is frequently dappled light, often on brilliantly rendered rippled water, but also a hint of the sinister that lurks behind the veil of normality: the David Lynch twitch of uncertainty about whether this is just a delightful scene or an ominous moment before something terrible happens. 

Green Lake by Stephanie Fawbert

Steph’s personal story has been full of sudden shifts and surprising leaps. She trained in Fine Art at Newcastle College of Art but extraordinarily, for a fine artist, she somehow managed to lurch from being a dreamy watercolourist to employment as a layout designer at the Daily Mirror. Indeed, she found herself in the middle of the Murdoch revolution: an exciting and volatile time in terms of adapting to change. After years in the hard-boiled world of journalism, she swung in another direction and headed for Africa. In the Gambia, she spent two years working with and advising young women – often with the use of puppets – about family planning. It was an experience that she says, “re-wired my brain.” And after that, she returned to London to do a post-grad in International Health Promotion.

But nevertheless, a constant in this searching journey was always an underlying need to paint. Over the years she has moved towards oils, and she has gradually devised a distinctive technique: she handles the glutinous substance in a very sensitive manner, building up layers so as to keep a certain translucence. Her artistic influences come from all sorts of directions, but we felt that the flickery world of Peter Doig was definitely a reference point. However, her own camera is also a constant source of prompts. She uses photographs as a sort of jumping-off point but she then takes a powerful editorial control over what she edits out, shifts across, or weirdly distorts from any given image. Indeed, she says, “I like to play with the hierarchy of an image.” Sometimes it feels as though she has been let loose with a pair of scissors on someone else’s photo album. But unlike sentimental family snaps, we find strange absences and suggestive disconnects.

Chanctonbury Ring by Stephanie Fawbert

Technically, Fawbert is a highly skilled painter. She captures light and textures with considerable finesse and, not surprisingly, she has been shortlisted for the prestigious Jackson Painting prize. Her method is not always the same. She begins often with the photograph, but her work can be quite loose at times: as she says, “I paint very freely and quickly with the intention that the paint and the way it is applied is a major contributor to the feeling that the image imparts.” This means that works can be sharply in focus in certain visual passages and yet drippy and painterly in other parts. Evidently, she has always retained that sense of just enjoying messing with paint.

Undoubtedly, the HAF gallery, below Marine Court, with its sea view and changing light, is the perfect setting for what is certainly a slightly strange but wonderfully intriguing show. The Open Evening, on 17 June, features readings of creative writing inspired by the paintings and live music.

The Exhibition runs from 14-26 June. The Open Evening, on 17June, is from 6.30pm until 8.30pm. The artist will be in the Gallery on the afternoon of Sunday 19 June to discuss her work. 

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