The Art of Living

London, a city where trains of thought go missing more often than they do for Southern Rail; a city of so many competing voices and motivations that really focusing on something – fighting the urge to text a friend, go to the pub, stare at the traffic – can be incredibly difficult. It’s a situation that hasn’t been helped in the slightest by the endless absorptive possibilities offered up by digital tech. Ludditism isn’t useful in a capital city, yet the sight of 90 percent of TfL commuters frowning into handheld iPhone screens would likely strike us as unacceptably dystopian if it weren’t already so familiar. Messages penetrate this distracting electrical storm as we fight our way through it daily. Fragments of schoolgirl chatter are overheard through open top-deck windows, strange accusations made forcefully on the backs of toilet doors, new tweets and Facebook comments land in your hand with every manual refresh, barrages of heavily abbreviated texts stir you from sleep in the witching hours. It’s easy to deride this ambient noise as an unnecessary nuisance but this is how cities tend to communicate with themselves – from this swarm of voices can be discerned a mood, an atmosphere, a logic that dictates a city’s identity, keeping its inhabitants if not on the same page then at least in the same story, even in times as disparate and distancing as these.

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“Don’t you call anybody else [sic] baby.” “Walk into the club like hey what’s up I’ve got social anxiety & I want to go home.” “She’s not 341 likes in real lyf!” These snatches of monologue – which seem pulled down out of the London air, whether by human ear or phone sim – can be found in the paintings of Nottingham-born, Peckham-based artist Hetty Douglas, scattered graffiti-like across canvas and acrylic amid wild daubs and patches of competing colour. Has the candid nature of these missives, whether “found” or her own, ever come back to haunt her? “I did a painting that said ‘f*ck pigs’ once,” she explains, “then, ironically, I had to call the police on someone I know! It all got a bit awkward.”

Douglas moved to Southwark about six years ago, just as Peckham’s nightlife and art scenes and transport links were beginning to crystallise in a way that has made the area one of London’s most exciting and popular places to be if you’re young, expressive and nocturnal. “I lived in East for about a year, which was great as an 18-year-old but very quickly I was over it,” she says. “There’s a lot more space here, and it’s calmer than Central as well, where I used to work. The pubs are much better here and also there are way more trees.”

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The work described earlier is from the 2016 show Finger, which Douglas produced in collaboration with Patrick Dakers. A new show – this time in tandem with another fine artist, Alfie Kungu – is opening in July at Camden’s Cob Gallery. Its subject matter is sure to reflect in some way the life she has made for herself in Peckham, which – like her work – came about in a way that seems instinctive and improvised almost to the point of being accidental.

“I broke my back in a couple of places and a lot of other bones when I was 17, living back in Nottingham,” she says. “At the time, all my friends were applying to unis. I didn’t expect to get in anywhere, but applied for a laugh ‘cos my mates were. Then I got into uni in London and was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna get away from all this’ – a lot of d*ckheads and negative vibes were floating around in Nottingham at that point in my life, so it was maybe prompted by that.”

She’s settled now in South London, on good terms with its tumult and the rhythms of its nightlife. “It’s a stressful place to be. I love feeling stressed – I’m almost addicted to that mindset – but I need a release sometimes, and for me, going out provides a platform for that. Sometimes I get all ‘wahhhh’ about things, but I’ve met some of the most inspiring and incredible people while I’ve been out in South London.”

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It’s the traces of Londoners and their lives that give allure to Douglas’ work. The origins of the bursts of speech, or text, that were captured in Finger remain mysterious at the same time as their tone is almost brutally candid. We’re given access to the emotional apex of exchanges – “I’m not f*cking cute”; “You’re a snake” – yet denied any explanatory context, punched in the face without being told why, allowed briefly to rubberneck a tear-stained street argument before being shuttled on home by the cab driver. It provokes an urge to fill in the blanks that is common to much of London’s best art – stuff that plants a vignette in the mind that spirals in detail to the point where it becomes a biopic, and it all stems from an innate fascination with people and with life. 

Like her adopted home city, Douglas’ work couldn’t function without the kind of human collisions that make your head and heart hurt, a soreness the result of those endless street-level distractions – sex, friendship, envy, going out – which turn out to be the most crucial course of action after all.

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