Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

NAKED TALENT; Whitney McVeigh May Have Social Cachet and an Illustrious Client List, but There's Nothing Superficial about Her Commitment to Self-Exposure on Canvas

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

NAKED TALENT; Whitney McVeigh May Have Social Cachet and an Illustrious Client List, but There's Nothing Superficial about Her Commitment to Self-Exposure on Canvas

Article excerpt

Byline: Words by Emily Bearn

The pale, pretty Whitney McVeigh is whirling about amid the huge stacks of canvases in her Kensal Green studio, pulling out a monoprint here and a piece of abstract expressionism there, patiently explaining what they're all about. 'This one doesn't have a title,' she says, holding up a black and white portrait from a series of paintings called Heads. 'It's an exploration of psyche. I'm dealing with aspects of displacement and spiritual renewal. All my work is autobiographical. There's a lot of feeling involved, because I've been through a lot. Everything I paint is a reflection of my state of mind.'

I ask what her current state of mind is, because some of her heads don't look very happy. They are painted in black acrylic, with an anguish reminiscent of Francis Bacon. McVeigh pauses, then answers very carefully, 'At the moment my state of mind is good. I am in constant communication with my materials, and I feel fulfilled.' She has good reason to, for McVeigh is suddenly taking the art world by storm. Last year, she showed with Saatchi Online, and was nominated for the Sovereign European Art Prize. She has exhibited all over the world, including the Broadway Gallery in New York, and is represented as far afield as Malaysia and Beijing. This month she is the subject of a solo show at the A Foundation in Shoreditch. The catalogue introduction surely deserves wall space of its own: 'The monoprints are characterised by a dexterity made complex and resonant through a simultaneous prioritising of gesture and its persistent resistance to easy expressionist readings.'

Roughly translated, I reckon it means that McVeigh defies convention and does her own thing. She has made prints, for example, using pages torn from an old Chinese medical textbook. Her paintings are abstract, and mostly black. She works entirely from the imagination, and says that she never starts work on a canvas with any preconceived idea as to how it will turn out. But she is constantly tearing pictures out of newspapers to use as inspiration, a collection of which are tacked to her studio wall. There are photographs of Michael Caine and the journalist Will Self, and a rather glum-looking one of the 89-year-old Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. 'I just pulled the picture out of a newspaper, I didn't even know who it was,' McVeigh says. 'But her face spoke to me - look at those lines... wonderful, so intense. There's a sense of time passing. Look at what she's been through, you can see it in her gaze.' Pinned below the Duchess's portrait is a photograph of a corpse. 'Such a wonderful image of death,' McVeigh enthuses. 'I'm very interested in decay.' She says that her portraits represent 'the internal, the frailty beneath the surface of us all'. McVeigh certainly seems to have a lot going on beneath her own surface. Ostensibly, her life sounds rather glamorous. Her father is a rich American banker, Charles McVeigh, the former co-chairman of Salomon Smith Barney. And she was married to Jamie Byng, the director of Canongate Books, Barack Obama's British publisher, and second son of the 8th Earl of Strafford. But the marriage ended in 2001, and now she says days and weeks go by when she barely talks to anyone other than her children, Marley, 13, and Leo, 11. 'I'm in a direct relationship with my work right now. It's all-consuming. Yes, it's isolating and introspective, but I feel most alive when I'm working,' she says.

She dates her introversion to her childhood, which sounds rather unhappy. She was born in New York in 1968. The family moved to London when she was eight, and she now speaks with an accent polished by English private schools. And yet she says she never felt settled: 'I moved schools every year because I wasn't happy. And we moved house every year, too. My parents loved doing places up, it was a project for them. I felt I never had a base.' She was eventually sent to board at Bedales: 'It was socially very competitive. …

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