A Boy and a Brush

Photographer Hayley Louisa Brown
Words Alexander Glover

The artist discusses the relevnce of the BP awards the fried egg and its place in art history the pros and cons of going to art college and art on instagram

Tristan Pigott has been my closest friend for over four years now.
Although we’ve spoken about many of the things mentioned in this
interview, we’ve never sat down to have a conversation in this kind
of focused context. I first met Tristan while he was still doing his
Painting BA at Camberwell College of Arts. Since finishing in 2012,
I’ve seen his unique brand of portraiture develop from painting to
painting. Even though I often know the subjects (myself included)
he paints very well, I’m continually surprised at how they end up
looking. His representation of them often goes beyond likeness and
when coupled with his surreal narratives, he shows aspects of their
character that have always been there, and yet, only he has seen.

So the summer you’ve had your work shown at the BP awards and the Royal Academy summer exhibition. How did you find it being part of both?

They’ve been nice things to do but they’re more traditional than the
kind of shows I’d ideally like to do. I guess people have been quite
negative about the BP Awards this year with it being the same old
stuff again. I don’t want to be seen just as a portrait painter.

Why do you not want to be seen as a portrait painter?

I think portrait painting has run its course. It’s a very specific
language. It’s been going on for hundreds of years and has been
reinvented so many times but at the moment it’s pretty stale.

I think portrait painting has run its course. It’s a very specific
language. It’s been going on for hundreds of years and has been
reinvented so many times but at the moment it’s pretty stale. On
the other hand, its appeal lies in the evolution of a painting. It’s
not just one image like a photograph but something that’s been
constructed over time. The uniqueness of painting is in the process.

In light of that?

Just a painter. The portraits of people that I do are narrative-based.
Action is always important. With portrait painting, you normally
look at them as items to be objectified. I don’t want the people
in my portraits to be objectified. Instead, I want them to send
across a message.

Although you’ve said in the past that your paintings are really open to interpretation, the scenes themselves are quite specific in their narrative. How different could people’s interpretations of them be? 

There’s one example with one of my works where there is a girl
getting her top taken off by the same girl. An old man came up
to me and said, “That’s the perfect male fantasy isn’t it?” I was
horrified. For me, it’s meant to be seen as a gesture of liberation.
This old man obviously saw the more perverse side.

You’ve also painted from still life too.

Yeah and that’s what I’m getting really interested in at the moment
because the message can be simplified. The problem with narrativebased
paintings with people is that the message can get confused.
People have coded still life paintings over the years with certain
meanings for certain objects.

Lucian freud would paint a still life or a scene from nature whenever he lacked enthusiasm towards painting people.

I feel like nothing new is being said by painting people at the
moment. I’m getting more interested in playing around with
colour at the moment and still life allows me more freedom to
experiment in this way.

Okay, so let’s talk about symbolism in your own work. In two of your portraits, about a year apart in their completion, there are friend eggs. The narrative for both portraits appears very different and yet you’ve included friend eggs in both. What do they represent to you?

I think there’s strong symbolism in terms of fertility. You have artists
like Sarah Lucas using them as breasts, as well as Velasquez who
featured a woman frying eggs in one of his paintings. So fried
eggs have quite a significant place in art history. They also have
sexual connotations. In one of my paintings they’re featured within
a takeaway box that, in the age of Tinder, suggests the fast and
throwaway attitude towards sex.

When you select people to paint, is it because they’re right for the scene you already have in your head?

Yeah, definitely. I think people take painting too seriously sometimes in terms of looking at the people portrayed, as if it’s some sort of portal into their soul when in reality it’s just about trying to capture someone’s mood and character.

Aside from subject meaning within your work, a lot of people are immediately struck by your accomplished painting technique. Having known you for years through, it doesn’t strike me as something that you want to be wholly recognised for? 

That’s the one good thing about art school as it gave me three years
to learn how to paint. But to be honest, anyone can learn technique
if you sit down and have the patience to do it. I feel like ideas are a
lot more important than just how you paint. It goes back to what I
was saying about the BP Awards and how nobody included seems
to be doing anything innovative or interesting. With the BP Awards,
it was more about how well someone painted flesh.


Was art school good for anything else?

Yeah I guess the other thing it was good for was critical thinking.
It was good to talk about what other people are doing as well as
yourself. It’s good that they give you freedom at art school in order
to let you develop. The only thing that I would change about art
school is the lack of life drawing classes. It’s the only way you can
teach people to look. You’re not going to look properly at a laptop
screen or something. It has to be real.

Later on this year you’re going to put on your own solo show. Is there a concept behind the show or will it be a collection of individual paintings?

I suppose the overarching theme, that I’m finding hard to get away from, is about translating ego into image. The tradition of portraiture is based heavily in narcissism. People used to commission portraits of themselves as some sort of vanity project, something that survives them. This kind of thing is certainly on my mind when I’m painting people. I’m interested in making fun of ego.

Which contemporary painters do you think are doing something interesting?

Jonathan Gardner is doing some really interesting stuff. He exhibited recently. His use of pattern and his compositions are really nice.

When you’re painting, is it ever in the back of your mind tat you need to sell it in order to survive?

Fortunately, it doesn’t. I think my paintings would be quite stale and unimaginative if I did. I think that happens when you become successful though. When you start selling and you sell them for a lot, most artists will keep on banging out the same thing because it’s a safe bet. Artists like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons you know? They’ve found their winning formula and they’re going to stick to it. I guess that’s why I like Gerhard Richter so much because he changed styles even when things were going well.

Do you think you have the capacity in your work for such drastic shift?

I’m not sure. What I hate about a lot of art is when it’s overly contrived. The worst thing you can ever do is change because you feel like you need to cater to the market. I guess it goes back to what I was saying about never letting buyers or collectors dictate the way you work.

A few weeks ago I remember you telling me that an arts company (oxymoron?) had got in contact with you, asking if you were interested in paying them a fee so that they’d instagram your work to their ‘many’ followers. How did you feel about that and art on social media in general?

I think it’s a con when people try to get money via Instagram.
Art-related or not. When you join a gallery, for example, you don’t pay the gallery to show your work. It’s a trust thing. You respect the gallery for being able to sell your work and they respect you the artist for making the work. With regards to art being displayed on social media sites or the internet in general, it’s useful in order to widen knowledge. It can never replace the experience of actually physically looking at the work though. Texture and scale are so important and are obviously omitted from a phone or laptop screen.

Finally, how’s the rest of the year looking for you and your work?

Hopefully it should be good. I’m going to Nigeria for a group show in October, and have a meeting tomorrow about another group show in Dhaka. Whilst working towards a solo show in London in October/November