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TERRA COTTA PRINTS

BEL MEHTA

BEL MEHTA

Across eerie landscapes, from idyllic groves to domestic interiors made strange, London-based illustrator Isobel Mehta’s evocative practice draws us into a dream-world of bodies and animals, sex and symbols. An in-demand commercial illustrator, it’s Mehta’s personal projects that best articulate her recurring pre-occupations; flat, evenly lit scenes, redolent with possibility in which her figures loll, caress, fight or gaze, blankly.

POSTED BY 20/06/2021 by

Mehta trained as an illustrator at Brighton School of Art but, she says, drawing hardly came into it. Rather, the course fostered an ability to think differently about visual storytelling; to harvest influences from beyond the confines of the discipline, and bring them to bear in the service of communication. Today, Mehta maintains archives, screenshots gathered from films that inform her compositions; cookery books from the last decades of the 20th century, found in charity shops, that inspire her palette.

As she’s defined her own visual language, so Mehta has come to consider the significance of the symbols that crop up again and again in her work, refining a process-based, digital approach that still leaves room for intuition and experimentation in her pursuit of the surreal, the humorous, and the uncanny.

With a new collaboration with Terra Cotta Prints coming soon, we caught up with Isobel to learn more about her influences, and what she hopes to conjure through her work.

Tell us about your interest in Japan

I visited Japan in 2016. It was the first time, and maybe the only time, that I've left Europe; even when you get there, the sunlight feels different. We went to Tokyo for 10 days, and had a weekend at Mount Fuji; I felt really isolated. I couldn’t catch my breath, at least until we got to Mount Fuji. I remember eating in different places, drawing, taking in all the interiors of the places where we ate. A lot of them felt like they had been there for 500 years, if you know what I mean. And the journey, the struggle to navigate and understand where the hell we were going; it felt like every single place that we found to sit down and have gyoza was a 10 hour trek, and a mission, and there was a whole story behind us even just finding the place. So as soon as we sat down to eat, we would just sit in silence. And it was so still. And those moments, of eating in silence and feeling like you were the 8 billionth person to sit there and probably feel the same feeling, were really nice.

Later, I went to an exhibition at the British Museum, a shunga exhibition - a kind of sex exhibition. That's massive influence on me as well. I really like things to be quite structured, I guess quite flat. I see that in earlier Japanese art, and also when I look at early European religious iconography. Like portraiture, where everything that's used in an image is used in a symbolic way. I really love that as well. I'm working on something at the moment, and I'm finding myself being quite considered about what's going into the image. What does it mean? Why is it there? If there isn't a reason why a small thing like a box of worms is there, then it shouldn’t be. I'm working through a process of adding and removing, adding and removing, constantly.

That comes back to storytelling; images as a tool for communication, those religious icons telling Bible stories to a largely illiterate audience.

Right, I remember studying art history, and reading that in the 14th century, rich people would like commission artists to do a portrait of them, and they would be instructed to completely embellish - their facial features, or their bodies, or their wealth. To put in all of these indicators to fabricate the situation. And I really loved that. I remember studying paintings, and looking for meanings, or looking for lies. Even though I'm not telling a specific story, right now, in the work that I'm making for myself, to be interpreted in a specific way, I still want there to be that language that you're describing.

"I THINK IF AN IMAGE DOESN'T SEEM TO STIR SOMETHING A BIT UNSETTLING, THEN I DON'T REALLY FEEL LIKE I'M SATISFIED WITH IT. AND SO THE USE OF ANIMALS, OR THE USE OF SEX, CONJURING UP SOMETHING THAT FEELS A BIT OFF, IS SOMETHING THAT I DO LOOK TO DO. BUT I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO LOOK TOO HARD FOR IT."

How consciously do you work to bring together those influences?

Most of the time it happens intuitively. I don't plan anything before I start. I could start something on a Monday and think, what I want is for this to be a kind of, Botticelli, women in the flowers, kind of thing. And then two days later, when I come back to it, I'm like, absolutely not. How am I going to change it up? I act quite impulsively.

I'm not very precious about the process at all, until maybe when it starts to look like it's finished. And then I think, Oh, no, I don't want it to be finished. Because I enjoy doing it. Or I think, nothing I'm ever going to do is truly going to make it finished. In the last couple of years I’ve started to tell myself to walk away and come back to it a week later, rather than rush it because I want it to go on Instagram.

Finally, let’s go back to symbols; how actively do you use them to make meaning?

At the beginning I used animals, almost as a way of filling in a blank space. I was quite afraid of blank space. The reception was positive - people found it a bit surreal, or absurd, or even a bit threatening, which I quite liked. I don’t really bat an eyelid to creating images which maybe have a bit of a disturbing quality; that’s kind of just like my inner brain coming out.

I think if an image doesn't seem to stir something a bit unsettling, then I don't really feel like I'm satisfied with it. And so the use of animals, or the use of sex, conjuring up something that feels a bit off, is something that I do look to do. But I shouldn't have to look too hard for it. If it doesn't feel natural, if putting a frog in just seems a bit like an accessory rather than telling the story, then I’ll remove it. I'm not just doing it for the sake of it.

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