Sean Penlington

Sean Penlington currently lives and works in Manchester, graduating from Manchester University in 2010. He is quickly establishing a reputation for his darkly satirical paintings that reference the carnivalesque.

Recent group exhibitions include ‘The House of the Nobleman’, London and ‘The Way it all Worked Out’ (International 3) Manchester, both 2010. Jotta caught up with Sean as he prepared for Saatchi’s ‘New Sensation’.

Your work makes me think of two young female painters, Carla Busuttil and Tala Madani. They both paint very powerful men and through the use of satire question their authority…..

I am really interested in Busuttil and Madani. I feel that my use of satire is more social than overtly political compared to them.

You often take figures out of localized and specified geographical space; they remind me of theatre, this idea of a situation being divorced from its context…..

This is really important for me, to create contemporary paintings, but not necessarily of our time, I don’t want to make historical images. It’s certainly a conscious effort to give the paintings a theatrical feel; I love that thing that Guston said about painting being able to show a three act play on a single surface.

Your work feels very European through its references to the carnival. Ryan Mosley is another young painter who seems to be dealing with this iconography….

It came from looking at painters such as Beckmann, who were heavily influenced by carnival. I started to read about its history and realized how rich and relevant the imagery was – the excessive use of meat, sex and violence. Mocking each other as a way of letting off steam, this hasn’t gone away; an obvious connection could be made to any Friday or Saturday night in the centre of most cities.

There seemed a broader shift after ‘9/11’ and the subsequent war on terror towards a ‘Neo-Gothic’ sensibility in art. A new-seriousness after the pop sensibilities of the YBA’s etc…..

This idea of a more introspective, ‘Neo-Gothic’ way of working is just a response to the zeitgeist. Perhaps after ‘9/11’ people started to realize that there is more to say. I think that Madani’s paintings could only exist now; I suppose work is getting more personal – which I think is a good thing.

Ranciere talks about the idea that art is only working when it confuses you, it’s only then that our framework is being expanded and challenged…..

I don’t want to confuse people, but equally I don’t want people to think ‘Ah I get that, this is what this means’, because that’s not what painting is about, I don’t think there is anything to ‘get’. I would be happy if my paintings resonate with them for whatever reason, or makes them question something then that is fine with me. I agree that art shouldn’t be easy, I think the difficult stuff usually ends up staying with you, but if somebody has an immediate response to it, then that’s OK.



The idea of masquerade and the body as a site political protest etc is something well covered in performance art. The body in your work is often mutilated through some sort of framing device, the viewer only ever has a fragmented experience……

The chopping up of bodies and framing is to exaggerate the comic and the violent. This sense of mystery and ambiguity is deliberate.

The brush becomes a kind of weapon….. Leon Golub talks a lot about how the subject’s pain is enacted for the viewer, we become complicit and implicated in the violence.

I feel that Golub used to paint more violently than me, I like his paintings, and they do almost invite the viewer into this edgy violent world. It’s hard to speak as an onlooker for my own work, but I don’t think that viewer connection is in my paintings. It would be nice if it was.  The brush as a weapon, I like that idea.

The mask in your work is significant-it makes me think of the plague masks of the  14th century, a big nose is going to save you from the flu! These regressive ideas can be pretty resilient and carry irrational fear-is this something you are tapping into?

The masks are important in the paintings, just as they were important in traditional carnival; they are used as disguises, as tools to mock members of the community and as a fear mechanism. The most interesting one for me is the idea of the mask disguising your identity, letting your inhibitions go and being free to carry out strange fantasies. There are interesting records of this in carnival. The long nose on the mask was also a phallic symbol; bawdy jokes of the time seemed to help in carnival being this act of a ‘pressure valve’ for society.

Finally, I always finish with the same question! where would you like to take your work in the future?

I have been making rather small panels of about 60 x 60cm, but now I’m interested in opening up the space, bigger paintings bring different problems. I can only really carry on with what I’m doing and see where it takes me, but I have a good idea of what it is I will be doing.

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About georgevasey

George Vasey is a curator and writer. You can contact him at georgegrahamvasey@gmail.com

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