Truth and fantasy in the work of Julie Cockburn

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Truth is a concept that has preoccupied Julie Cockburn since she was a child. “I am a bad liar, I hate doing it,” she professes, “I would rather suffer the consequences of honesty, and sleep better at night.” It is unsurprising then that truth has remained a central theme of the photographer’s work throughout her career. The artist combs the Internet for miscellaneous images of forgotten individuals and nameless landscapes. Certain photographs affect her and Cockburn selects these as her canvases, appropriating them with embroidery, collage and paint. Rather than investigate the lost identities of the subjects depicted, she invents new narratives, and endeavours to make visible the thoughts and feelings that an image can evoke. “It is my truth, if not the historical truth of the anonymous sitters and unknown places in the photographs I work with,” she explains. “This is the integrity of my work.”

Cirque. 2019. Collaged found photographs with glass beads © Julie Cockburn, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

Her most recent exhibition, on show at Flowers Gallery, London, focuses on this element of her work. The show is titled Telling it Slant, a phrase drawn from Emily Dickinson’s poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant, which posits the idea that unless the truth is revealed gradually and accompanied by explanation, it may be too difficult to comprehend. The exhibited work embodies this approach, with Cockburn engaging in a process called “paradoxically unmasking”. The artist draws narrative histories and layered meanings to the surface by embellishing her images. “My interventions are an empathetic response to this,” she says, “paradoxically the process of covering the face acts as a code for what is being hidden and can be deciphered in many ways depending on who is looking”.

Cockburn has employed found images since she studied sculpture at Central Saint Martins, London, where students were encouraged to experiment with anything and everything. “Instead of plaster, wax and bronze, I chose everyday items — wallpaper, plasticine, magazines, embroidery thread etc,” says Cockburn. “I enjoyed combining and juxtaposing these different elements and presenting them out of context.” Aside from the found photographs she appropriates, the artist also draws inspiration from an array of other sources. “I love the work of Pablo Picasso and traditional Japanese crafts like ikebana and sashiko embroidery,” she says. “Mid-century furniture, seventies embroidered Spanish postcards, Instagram accounts showing videos of cake decoration, gardening, Fred Astaire films, and really good graphic design all intrigue me.”

Blue face woman. 2019 © Julie Cockburn, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

“It is my truth, if not the historical truth of the anonymous sitters and unknown places in the photographs I work with. This is the integrity of my work”

Moonscape. 2019. Hand embroidery on found photograph © Julie Cockburn, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

Cockburn’s subjects are specific — men, women, landscapes, and still lives. The portraits are mainly from the mid-20th century: “Not for any nostalgic reason,” says the artist, “but because the studio shots have an archetypal quality and, compositionality, their stillness, uniformity, plain backgrounds and graphic clothing enable me to add interpretive interventions more easily.” When she discovers an image that she can work with Cockburn scans it to create a digital copy, onto which she sketches in Photoshop or on a printed, hard copy. She often experiments with multiple ideas before settling on the final design, which she then transfers back to the original employing a template or pricking guide holes. “The hand embroidery process can take anywhere between five days to two weeks, depending on the size of the piece and the intricacy,” says Cockburn. “It is surprisingly physically demanding work given the dainty nature of embroidery, so I can only stitch for around five hours a day”. 

In an era in which mass-produced and digitally-manipulated photographs prevail, Cockburn’s work is distinct. Her images draw attention to the subtle appropriation of images while simultaneously negating it in their candour. “My aim is to convey my response to the images using my own artistic language,” she explains. “I can easily conjure a meaningful narrative of character or place, and I suppose my work attempts to make this manifest. I am not trying to be didactic about how the viewer interprets my work. More, they should go on a parallel journey.”

Telling it Slant is on show at Flowers Gallery until 02 November 2019. 

Qualm. 2019. Hand embroidery and inkjet on found photograph © Julie Cockburn, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.
The Welder. 2019. Hand embroidery on found photograph © Julie Cockburn, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.