Artist couple Victoria Cantons and Xu Yang have been busy participating in London galleries the past summer. Kristin Hjellegjerde, Saatchi, Unit 1 and Fold, it’s quite a list. After sharing a studio at Wimbledon College of Arts and then going different ways for their postgrad programs –Victoria went to Slade and Yang went to RCA– now, at last, they are back to sharing a studio in Brixton. In this studio visit, where's the frame talks to them about their meet-cute, studio habits and the perks of being an artist couple.
So, did you two meet when you were both studying at UAL Wimbledon?
Yang: yes, we have to thank Zoë Mendelson, my third-year tutor. While I was in the second year and Victoria was third-year, Zoë put us in the same studio.
Victoria: Zoë was also my first-year tutor.
Y: And we went into the studio every day and then there was a school trip…
V: …and that's how we got together. Having shared a studio in Wimbledon and living together, then Yang went off the RCA and I went off to Turps and then Slade and now here we are back again in a studio space together.
When did you get into art?
Y: I’ve been drawing and painting since I can remember. My parents were always really supportive. In Kindergarten my first drawing was a unicorn, I was always drawing them and Pegasus. That was all I was doing. My parents sent me to study art, traditional techniques in primary school. My dad said “I think you should start working in a studio instead of just drawing by yourself”. When I failed to get into the best highschool in town, my mum told me that she doesn’t believe that her child is going to find a 9 - 5 job or working on something that’s not interesting for their whole life, so she encouraged me to apply for A-level study in Qingdao where I met this art professor who supported me to apply for universities in London, with his support, I came here and started noticing what I really wanted to do. I did stuff that I never imagined that I would do before, I went to drag clubs and saw drag queen’s performances and I saw here that you can really express yourself any way you like.
V: You [to Yang] are a lot more diverse in how you explore art than I am, I am a bit of a traditional artist. Even though I come up with ideas for sound works, for video works and I love photography… I used to work as a photographer before I went to art school, generally, my big passion is painting. It’s like, paint on a pallet, brush, stretched canvas and I’m happy. That’s it for me. I was always drawing as a child all the time –after my parents died and I packed up the family home, I found stacks of drawings from when I was 6 to 8 to 10 years old. When I was 16, which was mid 80s because I’m 50, I found out that there was such a thing as an art school and I really wanted to go –Chelsea, Camberwell, Saint Martin’s– but my parents, they were immigrants, they came to England with suitcases to make lives for themselves and they didn’t want a hard life for me so they said no, do art as a hobby and get a proper job. I became a hairdresser, which is sculpture anyhow. Then later in the 90s, I went to drama school and did stage work which I love and was in bands. Eventually I got to a point where I thought the best chance of me succeeding personally is if I am doing stuff just myself, I’m not reliant on anyone else. This way, If I succeed, it’s me and if I fail it’s me and that’s fine, I’ve got no one else to blame. I didn’t even believe I could do art school at that point, the idea had died in a way, and I started pursuing painting more seriously. I think painting at that point was a way to bury my gender issues. It was only after I had dealt with transition, an issue that had to be dealt with all my life, and after I divorced that I suddenly thought: I’ve got no dependents; I’ve got no responsibilities… mum and dad are not here to please them and so the only person I have to please is myself and I’m going to try to go to art school at 43.
How did you, Victoria get into curating the KH and Saatchi grad show exhibition?
V: With the Slade having shut down on the 18th of March and telling students the degree show is canceled and it is not happening this year, I thought, can't a London gallery exhibit graduates? I spoke to Kristin Hjellegjerde, whom I was already friendly with, and she said “That’s terrible, art and new graduates need to be seen, why don’t you put on a show in the gallery”. My immediate thought was “Fabulous! Thank you very much, that’s amazing!” This was in April, by the beginning of august the show had expanded into a double showcase for RCA and Slade grads and Kristin posted on instagram about it. Two days later she called me to say Saatchi gallery is in touch and they think it’s a great idea and they’re suggesting a collaboration to show more graduates. Amazing, wow! What an opportunity.
You play with art history in different ways, would you say you have influenced each other’s work?
Y: Before we got together, I was reading a lot about conceptual art, I was focusing on ideas and less about the presentation. I wasn't interested in art history because when I was in China my professor was forcing me to read all the time about art history but I didn’t like to be pushed so I worked against it. It continued until Wimbledon where I discovered conceptual art and made installation works with unicorn toys but I always explored the ideas. When we got together, Victoria made me realise the beauty of history and how historical painting sat in its time frame and why it is so important to us today. Whenever we go to a museum she would always talk about symbolism and the artist…And she wouldn’t stop...
V: …all I can say is that I read a lot…
Y: …and we watched a lot of documentaries together which got me back into art history and that also made me want to paint. I was watching Victoria painting which was also why I wanted to do oil painting again. I explored photography, and again, it was Victoria that helped me with the technical side, she showed me how to use film cameras as well as digital cameras, how to use all the camera’s manual controls. I think I really got into painting and photography as a technique to think about image context, how does it sit in history? Victoria made me start thinking how to explore colours in my own way. I always loved colour but I only discovered how much I can use colours to express because of Victoria and our conversations with Zoë and in RCA as well.
V: Yang brings it all out of me. I love what she does with her compositions and her shapes. That’s absolutely rubbing off on me. And how she plays with mixing colours because she’s had a tremendous training…
Y: …yeah, a really painful 15 years haha
V: …which I didn't have. I only started painting when I was 20 and that was because my best friend’s mum said “You’re drawing all the time you should try some paint. Here’s some of my brushes, here’s some tubes and start doing it”.
Y: You still have some of her brushes right?
V: Oh yeah! I’ve got a handful of her brushes. I’ve had them for 30 years and they were well used when she gave them to me. They’re favourites of mine because you get the most amazing marks out of them because they’re worn. I’m a bit of a bookworm and I watch a lot of documentaries and am self-taught in a lot of ways but being with Yang, I have someone to talk with about these things, and not just talk at them but talk with them about it. It becomes a dialogue, sparks to something new, pushing each other forward. [To Yang] there is influence in terms of how you handle the brush, your mark making, colour play and compositions.
Y: There’s a difference in your mark making maybe but recently I’ve…
V: Hahaha you’ve been trying to step back but you can’t help speaking. I leave you alone, you make a painting and I’m like “That’s nice dear” and then I make a painting and you’re like “Victoria, what are you doing, you should do this.” [Laughing] do I interfere in your painting do I tell you how to do it?
Y: I’m trying to step back now. Leave you to do whatever you want…
V: I’m like “You know, look, here’s my brush, take my brush and you make it because obviously you want me to make a particular painting, you paint it.”
Y: I’m so much more relaxed now, right?
V: Yeah, sometimes…
Do you have routines/ rituals before starting to work?
Y: I do crunches haha! Just kidding.
Before you say anything [looking at Victoria] she has a really long preparation time. She comes to the studio around midday, I’m going to paint, she sits there, looking at the paint [there are hundreds of paint tubes in the studio], gets her brush, starts checking her emails, does some research online, mixing the paint on the pallet and leaves it, goes off for lunch.
V: Someone once told me that they heard, play with your paint on a pallet for half an hour, mix around different colours, see what happens.
Y: Victoria does that for four hours.
V: And then Yang is like “Oh, the brush is out, she’s going to paint!”
Y: My painting routine is quite straightforward. I think about things on the way. When I get in, I grab my materials, I can set up in half an hour, because when I have an idea I would like to realise it as soon as possible. But Victoria prepares herself mentally, when I’m almost done with my painting, that’s when she starts painting.
V: I’m like that cat that pads the cushion before it sits down.
Y: You have a very long padding time.
V: I’m standing over there [pointing to the far wall] in the studio and ask Yang, what do you think?
Y: And I say, Victoria I don’t know but honestly, but mine is almost finished.
V: Yes, you are saying “Victoria, just paint” and I’m saying back I AM PAINTING! THIS IS THE PROCESS LEAVE ME ALONE I’M DOING IT!
What are the biggest perks of being an artist couple?
Y: I’ve got all these materials and a studio assistant!
V: Haha! Seriously, I think it’s the general support, it’s the understanding and the way that we can encourage and carry each other in the challenging moments. Someone to hold your hand, someone to help stop you falling into the abyss and you know, someone that gets it. That’s what we do with each other, the other gets it. And so we support each other, we move forwards side-by-side hand-in-hand. That is really the most wonderful thing.
Y: We’ve been through a lot together…
V: …also that someone gets the commitment that is required to do this.
Y: …it’s also the opinion from the other person, I trust her completely, she gives me the most honest opinion and I discuss with her about future projects and different ideas. Because we have different experiences of life…
V: …two brains are better than one…
Y: Dating an artist, we do understand and respect how important the practice is to the other. I understand when Victoria wants to stay late in the studio because she spends 8 hours preparing herself hahaha
After the Saatchi, what is next for you both?
Y: I’ve got a show opening at No 20 Arts the 18th and 19th September 2020 and my work is going to be shown at the first edition of REA! Fair in Milan next month, the future will be exciting!
V: Obviously Saatchi is running until the end of the month and then Slade is saying we’re getting studio space next March for the last term …it’s like now we’re paused so press play again. After Saatchi I’ve got a solo show with Guts Gallery and Soft Punk Magazine, who have gotten a railway arch for three months in Haggerston, there’s a solo show every four days. The first one is 26th September and I’m 10th December.