In quiet residential street in Brixton, HelenA Pritchard opens the door of her studio and pops her head out in greeting. The South African painter, who won the inaugural Evening Standard Contemporary Art Prize, in association with Hiscox, last October worth £10,000 for her abstract painting of London, has been preparing for her latest show.
Clad in classic artist’s garb — pale brown suede trousers tucked into wellies, a hole-ridden jumper over a baggy striped shirt and a vintage lamb fur hat perched jauntily on her head — she takes me on a tour around the higgledy-piggledy warren of rooms and a small enclosed courtyard, where sculptures, paintings, tools and materials all compete for space.
Pritchard’s new show is called Not The Actual Size. It’s a jokey reference to the Ikea advertising billboard that has the disclaimer “*not actual size” beneath a gigantic hotdog. The manipulation of scale and how different-sized objects relate to each other are now her focus, which she has explored through doing sculpture rather than paintings. It’s an expensive business, though, especially casting two new bronze sculptures that wiped out most of the prize money.
Dotted about among the apparent chaos are 3D collages, propped up against the walls next to half-painted frames and small, brightly coloured abstract sculptures reminiscent of Russian Constructivist art. “I know where absolutely everything is. I have to. I have areas where I cut and saw, other areas where I collage, and I even do my painting on the stairs.”
On one wall is a large white canvas with two big circles made out of brass drawing pins, circles above a triangle made out of silver drawing pins, a bit like a crude version of Magritte’s Rape painting. “That’s one of my funny cheesy ‘man-works’,” Pritchard explains. Another is a photograph of an enlarged penis. The Modigliani blockbuster at Tate Modern, she says, was full of man-works and “absolutely brilliant. Men always like to do these kinds of things but we don’t exploit the penis, or indeed the man’s body, enough in art.”
Pritchard is also big on recycling and spends a lot of time gathering things off the streets. Random wood, discarded tins of paints, scraps of embroidered fabric, lumps of concrete, plastic mesh, lengths of scrim and metal tacks… all are grist to her artistic mill. “I found those in a burning skip,” she says, pointing to a vintage grey metal microfiche film tin. “It’s incredible how when you’re looking for things they just kind of appear. I walk and cycle around the streets and whenever I see something I pick it up, otherwise it’s gone.”
Pritchard added the cap A at the end of Helen because she wanted to distinguish herself from all the others, including an artist, and her second name is Anne. Now 42, she grew up in KwaZulu-Natal on the eastern coast of South Africa — her grandparents were English and emigrated there — and she goes back every year but regards London as her home. She originally left South Africa to work in Bahrain after she left school “just to escape” and then came here 20 years ago. A variety of casual jobs and part-time art courses followed, until she decided to embark on a BA in bronze casting and painting at the University of East London. Her hard work paid off when she won a Stanley Spencer Scholarship to the Royal College of Art for an MA; she graduated in 2011.
Living in east London, she still works two days a month as a “plant whisperer”, as she calls it, to support herself, watering and caring for plants for personal and corporate clients. “I love working with plants but ideally I’d change it into something else and make more money from my art.”
But the London art scene is extremely hard to break into, especially when you’re an outsider, she says. “It’s quite a clique, isn’t it? Everyone knows each other — and here I am, an older student starting out, knowing absolutely nothing and no one in that world. You need to know people who have money and build up a network; that’s part of the job. I shouldn’t let it bother me, though. I should just go full steam ahead and do what I want to do.”
Not the Actual Size is at the Hospital Club, WC2 (020 7170 9100, thehospitalclub.com) until Sunday