Alice Irwin: Alchemy with Acid

“I can’t sit and think, I’ve just got to make.” [author]Holly Black[/author] meets Alice Irwin, the recent Royal College of Art graduate whose prolific screenprinting practice delves into visual symbols and the human soul—with self-proclaimed hints of Where’s Wally.

As a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art’s Print MA, Alice Irwin is not afraid of pushing the boundaries of traditional processes. Her enormous screenprints utilize spontaneity as opposed to precision, and her three-dimensional works are inscribed with playful etchings. Ahead of her solo show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park this October, I met her at her East London studio, where she makes full use of the sizable printmaking facilities, creating alchemy with acid and breaking a sweat over her screens.

Your studio has so much going on, are you always working on lots of different projects at once?

Yes, I work on lots of things at the same time, and when I make a series of screenprints, I’ll work on three or four screens and just keep playing until I think something’s working. A series could be four or twenty. When you’re creating so much, when you come to cut it down, it’s mission impossible. I often make a work that will lead onto another. I can’t sit and think, I’ve just got to make. I eradicate, make; eradicate, make; eradicate, make.

You have some strong visual symbols coming through, especially the hand. How did they come about?

I don’t know where that hand came from. I just started to look at children’s drawings, and I was really strict with myself and kept doing tonnes of drawings and suddenly this motif appeared. There’s some reason behind it, but I guess it’s more of a symbol that is part of my recurring language, and it often leaves you questioning. Sometimes it appears as a balloon or a person or a floating sticker, it’s playful and it always changes slightly.

I’m very interested in the idea of the eye too because every human has them, and in turn we’ll always subconsciously look at humans. The eye is the entrance to your soul, so when you see one you’ll always subtly consider humanity. That gives a nod to the more figurative parts of my work.

“The eye is the entrance to your soul, so when you see one you’ll always subtly consider humanity”

I like to layer things too. Some of them are quite simple with strong contrasts, but I like how, the more time you spend looking, the more you find. It’s also a bit of a game of Where’s Wally: “Let’s try and find the hand!” There’s a lot of thinking behind my work but it’s also a bit of a joke and a game.

  • Alice Irwin: Alchemy with Acid
  • Holly Black meets the recent Royal College of Art graduate whose prolific screenprinting practice delves into visual symbols and the human soul.

How do you define your practice? You seem to be working across a real range of media.

A lot of my work is print-based, and I always start from drawings, but I’ve always thought of things in terms of printing, even my sculptures. I engrave them and that brings to mind a plate, and the marks come from drawings. Some of my sculptures are also made in layers, which is a crucial component of printmaking. It can all appear multidisciplinary, but actually everything has its basis in print. I’ve actually always thought of myself as the “bad printmaker”. My pieces are more like paintings because they’re all one-offs, I’m not running off editions, they’re more like series.

The physicality of printing so large, pulling these huge screens, must be pretty intense.

Yes! Massive guns required. At the RCA the best thing to do was to go big because no one else was doing it—they were scared! It meant there was always space for me to work on the big stations. I also work best that way because you can be more free, and that opens up more possibilities. I love printing because I’m quite a scatty person, but this process gives me order and focus. The same can be said for making sculptures.

“I love printing because I’m quite a scatty person, but this process gives me order and focus”

You’re also a big fan of colour, right?

Yes, but I work mainly with three colours: blue, pink and orange, and I usually just mix them up again and again. The inks I have at the moment have been used over and over, and because I’ve made something slightly transparent all the colours come through. Each layer is its own experience. I like to have something psychedelic come through, something that has an edge of darkness, or something a little bit odd.

Can you tell me about your etchings? They’re quite aesthetically different from your multicoloured screenprints.

My etchings are much more refined. My recent work has an element of sadness, and the eye isn’t looking at you, it’s looking up, which makes you think that this person isn’t present. It’s trying to take you to another place. There’s some weird texture, and this print was such a bitch because it is so big. I was literally sweating. This is a very traditional process and one of the things I find interesting is pushing that process into different realms.

“I like drawing intensely and tightly as much as being big and expressive”

Etching can be so cool though, you can get so much texture, and these glowing elements. This is a zinc plate, which is best for drawing. You’re using loads of acid and working onto the plate directly, it’s like being a professor. You have to get your timings just right. I like drawing intensely and tightly as much as being big and expressive. They both use different parts of your brain.

You’ve got even more sculptural elements going on too though.

Yes, my last body of work was all based on the board game snakes and ladders. It’s the idea of good things helping you succeed and demons dragging you back down again. Each square represents a different moment in life. I made engraved, Perspex sculptural jigsaw pieces that fit together like a snake. It is held together by inked up pieces that look like dice, just like in the game, and the snake can articulate and move when it’s all put together. I’d like to make a snake puzzle that goes all around the room.

I love the lists you have pinned to the wall too, are they word associations?

That’s right! I’m thinking jigsaw, treehouse, puzzle, how many words can you come up with on a particular subject? They’re all about different elements I want to pull into my work. The worry is out of your head, it’s there on the wall now, not hidden in a book. My whole diary is full of post-it notes because you can pick them up, crunch them up and move them around.

You’ve got a lot of sketchbooks too, though. Do you use them?

I go through phases, though right now I’m just drawing and sticking things up on the wall. I don’t have much interest in filling pages in books at the moment.

I find it can all be a bit counter-intuitive, like when you are at school and they tell you to “show your working out” but that doesn’t really work when you’re talking about creativity, does it?

Exactly. It’s like asking “How did you get from A to B?” But you don’t really know. Nothing is ever that simple.

All photography by Benjamin McMahon