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Life in the Paint

(Paintings  2018 - 2022) 


In 2018, after more than a decade of working abstractly, British painter Michael Pemberton (b.1974) revisited the human form. It had remained a constant pre-occupation with life drawing and anatomical study maintained throughout his years of pure abstraction (2005 – 2018). He believed the rigor and discipline demanded by close human observation would continue to be valuable, even if absorbed by osmosis. He began anew drawing and painting friends, life models and lovers looking for a direction.


During this time, Pemberton embarked on an intense exploration of his own humanity and faced questions he couldn’t ignore: What is identity? Who are we? How and why are we ‘trapped’ in the human condition forged by our perception of what we think is real? His investigations ignited an analysis, beneath the surface, under the skin, he began to explore as a painter, 


I had to be free from the body in the room. I needed to find a way to paint humans only from within.


This drive led Pemberton to ask if he could ‘paint imaginary humans that felt emotionally alive’.  This posed immediate challenges for the painter.  He repelled any ‘drift into illustration’ and feared never being able to bring them to life. 


With some irony, it was the experience of abstract painting that steered Pemberton onto the right path on his figurative journey. Years of painting abstractly allowed him spontaneity and unburdened him from any need to merely record. He says he tried not to make an image, not to see a face,


Suddenly one was alive. It was raw marks, didn’t look particularly human but I could feel it. Something was alive in the paint itself.

Once this ‘living quality’ was established, he says the philosophy could develop more instinctively. The concurrence of our outer and inner life, with emphasis on the exploration of the mysteries of the inner-self, became implicit and is now palpable in all his work. It seems to provoke examination, intrigue and introspection. 


Pemberton believes being free from the interference of source materials, images and ideas allows his own depths of feeling to directly steer the work. This spontaneous and accidental approach keeps the work emotionally honest and invites interpretation, 


I never begin with a plan for a work. The focus is how the marks feel as they are made. Each has an implication, a relationship or contradiction to every other mark. There is no intentional narrative or goal.


Pemberton’s drawing has continued but not as preliminary work. As he nears completion of a series of paintings, he produces what he calls ‘retro-studies’ produced spontaneously and entirely from imagination. He intends them to be subliminal echoes of where he has been saying they are emotional maps from memory. In Pemberton’s drawings his mark-making is at its most exposed and free, leaving behind scrawlish lines that ‘try to draw what cannot be seen’. 


Since 2018, Pemberton’s development has revealed paintings that are arresting and often emotionally raw. He says he wants to leave behind a sense that a human’s true image is only honest and complete if unresolved questions are evident.  Over time the paint has become thicker, freer and more useful to him as he pushes further to reveal more of what he calls ‘the life in the paint.’ 


During the period 2018 – 2022 the painter developed work in four distinct series. The first series ‘Inner Human’ informs the foundation of Pemberton’s ongoing philosophy, that life is indeed within, despite our outer identities and beliefs in physical reality. In this early series the flat backgrounds locate figures in a void thus avoiding any constraints or distractions of a setting in the ‘real world’,


As the first figures began to invade my imagination they reminded me of interruptions in a dream. I explored how interruptions in the paint, how marks are made, provokes unexpected stimulation and leads to more truthful sensations.

The emotional intercourse between his own creative desire and what the work demanded of him is apparent in the series he embarked on next; Human Frequency. Here, the often distorted figures seem unconscious of their own frequencies, represented by bold bands or striking lines of contrasting colour,


I became deeply interested in how alone we are in our human experience. I wondered if a personal frequency that we are each tuned into, either consciously or not, is affecting how we interact intimately or socially, how we feel and behave and indeed who are and become.


In 2021, Pemberton felt the need to focus closely on one distinct area of human inner life. He investigated change, in particular the space we occupy after we let go of parts of our pre-formed self, thoughts, feelings or ideas. Firstly there is an intermission, even anonymity before we begin to construct a new identity. In these large scale works the deconstructed figures, in various stages of re-formation, seem to challenge the boundaries of their own physicality both energetically and emotionally. He called it Human Reformation.


I thought a lot about letting go and what happens next. After a stillness the next moments of re-formation are very interesting to explore. As new threads start to emerge, how do they entwine with our old ghosts into the new versions of who we think we are?


The fourth and final series, completed in 2022, saw the painter expand not only in philosophical investigation but also in colour, abstract language and motif, resulting in a series named Human Atmosphere. Presented as a solo exhibition at JC Gallery Mayfair in May of the same year, the series suggests we each have our own personal ether where we truly exist, unseen by the naked eye but as real and critical to self as anything physical or tangible. In these works we see the artist continuing but enlarging the ‘life within’ theme. He proposes our human atmosphere not only creates us but we in-turn are its creators, 


We are just a symbiotic flow of energy masquerading as thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Like planetary atmospheres and climates, everything is interdependent and in flux resulting in harmony or chaos, peace or violence.

In conclusion, Michael Pemberton hopes his work rouses questions, provokes conflict, motivates investigation and amplifies how our flaws define humanity. 


‘There is a very big place to explore when we question reality. When we begin to believe the real world is within. This is where I go as a painter and am at my most honest.’

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