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In conversation with: Penny McCarthy


Penny McCarthy’s Clouds Fall in Love with Mortal

Image: Penny McCarthy, Cloud falls in love with mortal, pencil on paper. Photo Hugo Glendinning.

In 2019 Penny McCarthy – Reader in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University – won the Evelyn Williams Drawing Prize which is awarded as part of the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize.

The catalyst for the drawings in the resulting exhibition – Clouds Fall In Love With Mortal – was a newspaper image from 2016 of a ‘Fata Morgana’ mirage in the sky above Hastings that looked like a portal to another world. Each drawing in the series is associatively linked to the enigmatic Fata Morgana mirage, in which the sea appears in the sky and the world is turned upside down. Penny McCarthy uses pencil drawing with an exacting slowness that is a kind of reverie or extended contemplation.

Prevented by the pandemic from making her planned visits to Hastings, the artist found opening up instead a speculative and metaphorical exploration of myths and narratives associated with the sea and sky. The suite of drawings is very much a reflection of an interior world conjured out of paper, clouds, water, dust, and light, with a material frugality that comes, at least in part, from being made during the turbulent time of the global pandemic.

OCA Tutor Bryan Eccleshall had the privilege of being one of Penny’s PhD students between 2010 and 2016 and will be running a Study Visit to the exhibition at Hastings Contemporary on Saturday February 11th 2023. This is a wonderful opportunity to see an ambitious set of drawings. He will be at the gallery from about noon and the visit will commence at 1pm or thereabouts. RSVP here.

Bryan recently interviewed Penny about the show.

BRYAN: Winning the prize in 2019 must seem like a long time ago now, given all that we have gone through. Did the challenge of making this work in lockdowns and so on have an impact on how the drawings turned out?

PENNY: In a funny kind of way lockdown was valuable for me as it gave me time to pause and open different doors into my practice. My original plan had been to make work in response to dialogue with people in Hastings but that wasn’t possible. Of necessity my conception of the project changed to become more a process of innovation, drawing as innovation, as testing of its language. A much more internal process too – full of the strangeness of the time. I was watching my drawings evolve and shift and felt like I had very little control over the forms that were taking shape. I don’t think I have ever made work with so much contrasting darkness and light.

Contemporary art often highlights the maker’s identity and/or position in relationship to the prevailing culture. These works don’t appear to do that. The style of these drawings places them in fairly close proximity to traditional book illustrations in many ways. They seem wrenched from stories or in search of them, somehow. How do you see them in terms of contemporary art, or doesn’t that bother you?

I don’t care about whether they seem contemporary! I’m not interested in genre conventions - I think ‘genreless-ness’ is part of the process of innovation and trying to discover something new, something further. As soon as something gets labelled contemporary you know it must already be over.

Can you say a little about drawing as practice and how it functions for you?

I’ve tried to talk about this in the film: I think of drawing as a thought form, a spatialization of feeling with its own architecture and language. When I talk about the language of drawing, I’m trying to articulate a way of being present with ideas and with knowledge that isn’t visible or legible. The beginnings of each work feel contingent but the drawing itself is a structure that brings things into being and tracks lines of thought. It’s tricky to talk about the multi-layered-ness of making a drawing – especially since what draws me (!) is the sense of not-knowing.

In the film that accompanies this show you speak in very grounded terms about labour and patience and yet the things you draw are much less certain, being tricks of the light and so on. Is there a transcendent or metaphysical element to your practice, too?

Maybe. I’m not sure about those terms though as they are associated with things that I don’t identify with. I like the way that drawing seems to summon forth things that don’t quite exist and then asks the viewer to go along with these propositions. I think that a certain amount of pressure is put on the viewer to credit these somewhat strange acts of imagination. I hope that the audience feels invited to think in that space with me as I experience it.

This is a wonderful opportunity to make an ambitious interlinked body of work. Do you think the drawings need each other to be understood? And, if so, was that a concern for you while you we’re making them?

I made curatorial decisions about how the pieces talked to each other in the space at Hastings – part of this involved storying, suggesting different narratives and resonances and maybe also dissonances. Hanging shows is a very spatial process and I think for each body of work there are many different narratives that will be prompted by the space and location.

What happens to the drawings next?

I’m sort of meandering at the moment, allowing myself to see where I end up. I’m quite enjoying not knowing where I’m going for now. I’m sure I’m like every other artist in that all I hope for is that I will get offered another show! If that happens, I will happily respond to a different location and perhaps that will involve new works that reconfigure or challenge this body of work.


Getting There: Hastings Contemporary is about a twenty-minute walk from Hasting Railway Station. More information here:

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