We visited Sarah Jane Moon at her studio in Brixton to discuss her roundabout route into portraiture, what compels her to keep painting people and the evolution of her practice.
Anyone who frequents the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition will recognise the work of Sarah Jane Moon. Since she began showing in 2011, the artist has earned a name for herself as someone who is challenging the traditional conventions of portraiture. Her boisterous and brave works are instantly distinguishable on the walls of Mall Galleries – Bold colours, sartorial aplomb, immediacy, strength of character, queerness: these are the elements of a quintessential Sarah Jane Moon portrait. Though her artistic vision feels clear cut, Moon's path into portraiture was not so straightforward.
Sarah Jane Moon, Derek, Mark & Baby (2017) Oil, 150 x 110 cm - NFS
Moon was interested in painting from an early age but was encouraged to pursue a more pragmatic career rather than study Fine Art. She studied English Literature and Japanese, picking up Art History. “I think that I was trying to get back into the art world somehow,” she recalls with hindsight.
After a stint teaching English in Japan, she moved to Perth, Australia, where, alongside post-graduate studies in curatorial practice, she tried her hand at various arts-based roles. This included organising the visual arts component of the Artrage festival and programming artist-run gallery spaces. “I wanted to be around art,” she explains, still not realising "that this was all probably an attempt to get back to painting.”
Sarah Jane Moon in her studio in Brixton (2019)
In 2007, she moved to London with her then-boyfriend and worked at the Royal Drawing School for a time in an arts admin role, before leaving to pursue a more hands-on path. It was during this crossroads that Moon signed up to life drawing classes at Central Saint Martins. “I was really not very good, making entry-level life drawings without much nuance, but despite feeling very nervous about it all, I loved it.” The artist remembers a pivotal moment in the class which changed the course of her life. “At the end, the tutor walked around the room trying to say something nice about everyone's work. She looked at mine and said, ‘It looks like your mark making suggests you might be good at portraiture.’ And I thought, ‘Oh...portraiture?’”
Sarah Jane Moon, Krishna Istha (2018) Oil, 122 x 97cm
Shortly after, she applied to Heatherley's – where Moon now teaches herself. She got in, though only by the skin of her teeth. The tutors told her she didn’t have quite enough experience, and warned, “You're going to be at the bottom of the heap. But as long as you know that..." A self-defined contrarian, this only served to motivate Moon to prove herself. “I think I've always had a healthy sense of confidence,” the artist explains, “I've always thought that with hard work most things are possible. That might be to do with being a New Zealander and our entrepreneurial spirit. You just think of course you can do it – or at least give it a go.”
But what is it about portraiture that has truly captivated Moon after all this time, other than the challenge it presented? “The engagement with my subjects.” She points to a painting in progress in her studio and explains, “Juno for example, is someone who I don't see very often as we live in different countries. But I'm very much thinking about her and what her life means, her work and everything else the painting suggests.”
Sarah Jane Moon with her portraits of artists Roxana Halls (2018) and Sadie Lee (2018)
Moon is fascinated by the way humans piece together their identities: how we choose to present ourselves in the world, from our body language and facial expressions to the clothes we wear and the objects we surround ourselves with. She attributes this to her experience as a queer woman painting queer subjects. “Because I paint a lot of LGBTQI people, issues around presentation are heightened because of the identity politics. How people feel within themselves, how they present, how they perform their identities and what I project onto them or want to portray is endlessly fascinating.”
Sarah Jane Moon, Dr Ronx (2019) Oil, 130 x 100cm
The artist notes a “distinct shift” from her earlier work, which was flatter and "less impastoed", often including lots of objects and details. The change came about in the summer of 2016 when Moon was working intensely on eight double portraits, without much time for her own work. “Everything was becoming too literal, in terms of the way I was putting the paint on the surface. I wanted the paintings to have a little more freedom and character and to be more painterly. I had always found this gestural approach came more readily in my landscape paintings and it took deliberate effort to bring it into the portraiture. There's much less detail in my portraiture these days; they are becoming more about the expressive potential of oil – like the portrait of Dr. Ronx.”
Even if you don’t know Sarah Jane Moon’s work, it’s likely you’ll have seen her portrait of Dr. Ronx dotted around London in recent months. The striking painting has been used widely, unsurprisingly, for the promotion of this year’s BP Portrait Award. This work, alongside two pieces exhibited by Moon in this year's Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) Annual Exhibition, feel as though they mark a transition into a new phase for the artist, both stylistically and conceptually.
From to Left: Sarah Jane Moon, Untitled (Portrait of My Girlfriend): Oil, 154 x 114cm - £5,600 and Bird La Bird: Oil, 154 x 124cm - £7,400
‘Untitled (Portrait of My Girlfriend)' and 'Bird La Bird' tell a story with a political undercurrent. The former, which depicts her partner half-dressed, is part of an ongoing investigation to paint the female nude through a queer lens, questioning and subverting the genre's patriarchial history along the way. The latter shows Bird La Bird in academic drag in front of foundational floor plans from Millbank Prison (current site of the Tate Britain) and St Martin’s Workhouse (that stood on the site of the National Portrait Gallery). Bird is a queer femme performance artist who works to uncover the inequalities that lurk beneath the histories of beloved UK art institutions.
Apart from becoming “looser and more expressive,” as with 'Dr Ronx', the artists sees herself "shifting towards working on a bigger scale.” She gestures to a stack of paintings in her studio, “like these things behind you that are seven feet across.” As with her works from the RP exhibition, Moon says, “I’d like to move into a narrative space, making paintings that are concept driven while remaining figurative.”
Sarah Jane Moon, Harriet & Anoushka Oil, 140 x 120cm - NFS
It feels timely, at this junction point, that the artist is holding a retrospective exhibition of sorts. Queer Portraits (2 to 14 November at The Department Store, Brixton) will exhibit 16 portraits created over the course of the last ten years, including friends, writers, artists, academics and commissioned work.
Moon debated using “queer” in the title to avoid being exclusionary. She is adamant that she wants everyone to feel welcome at the exhibition. “I didn't want to just call it Portraits because the queer aspect is a unifying factor and something I feel very celebratory about. It’s increasingly important that we celebrate diversity of all kinds.”
The fact is that queerness is a key tenet of the artist’s work and the thing that makes her portraits sing is the vitality and joie de vivre of the queer character she captures. In doing so, she is creating greater visibility of queer people, presenting them in spaces where they have not always been welcome. “[Historically], portraiture is about the establishment and maintaining a nuclear family structure as well as class privilege and I'm subtly trying to expand and subvert that.”
Buy Art | Buy Now: Sarah Jane Moon
We have a new selection of paintings by Sarah Jane Moon available to purchase on Buy Art | Buy Now, including one of her signature portraits, as well as still lifes and landscapes.