Interview with Emma Morris, Executive Director & Curator of Richard Billingham: Panoramic, Towner, Eastbourne

Towner presents a major exhibition by English artist and photographer Richard Billingham, showing together for the first time his panoramic photographs and video work from 2002 to 2014. The show, entitled Panoramic, draws on the artist’s background and sensibilities as a painter, as well as his emotional and creative relationship to nature and landscape. Billingham’s photographs capture the shifting geology, vegetation, weather and light conditions of British countryside, from the South Downs to the Norfolk Fens. Whilst revealing a unique chapter from the former Turner-prize nominee’s extensive practice, the exhibition reflects on the visual frameworks employed by a selection of British landscape painters, from John Constable to David Hockney. We speak to Emma Morris, Executive Director at Towner and Curator of Panoramic, about the impact of the show in relation to the gallery’s collection and ongoing programme of temporary displays.

A: Richard Billingham is a renowned British artist and photographer. Why is this display of work important to the gallery?
EM: Landscape is at the heart of our collection. At the very beginning, the acquisitions policy was to collect works of the Sussex countryside by Sussex artists. Whilst this has broadened considerably (and thankfully!) over the last 90 years, we still collect around the theme of landscape, be it natural, political, social or artificial. Richard’s exhibition continues our narrative of presenting new contemporary work exploring the landscape.

A: The exhibition at Towner unites Billingham’s panoramic photographs with his video work from 2002 to 2004. What is distinctive about the artist’s practice during this period?
EM: Sweep was commissioned during Richard’s residency at ArtsWay. I think Richard was beginning to explore the relationship between painting, film and photography during this period. Richard initially studied painting and the Ray’s a Laugh photographs were taken as source material for his paintings. It was during 2002 to 2004 that Richard turned his camera on the landscape, both natural and urban, defining a new direction for his practice.

A: Panoramic makes reference to the pictorial rhetoric of British landscape painters. In your opinion, how do contemporary practices permit audiences to explore developments from the 19th century to the present?
EM: Photography came out of painting in the early 19th century. The influence of Constable and Turner on Richard’s new work is evident and a number of contemporary artists in our collection including Thomas Joshua Cooper, Wolfgang Tillmans, Tacita Dean and Jem Southam, continue to explore this relationship.

A: As curator, how did you go about selecting and organising Billingham’s work?
EM: The panoramic works had not been printed before and Richard choose a number of his favourites, which we edited down to the final selection. When Richard first visited Towner, he spent a long time looking at our collection and we agreed that he would curate a small exhibition from our landscape paintings. Painting’s influence on Richard’s practice is obvious so it was a nice opportunity to highlight this in the show.

A: How does Panoramic connect with Towner’s ongoing output, and what does the gallery have planned for the rest of 2015?
EM: Commissioning and supporting new work is central to Towner, as well as displaying work and artists from our collection. This summer we are presenting a major exhibition on William Gear. Gear was the Curator of Towner from 1958 to 1964 and should be much better known than he is currently. Hopefully this exhibition will reposition him as one of the most important British abstract artists. From July to September we have East Sussex Open, showcasing 42 regional artists who have been selected by Jonathan Watkins (Director of Ikon), Saskia Olde Wolbers and myself.

Richard Billingham: Panoramic, until 28 June, Towner, Devonshire Park, College Road, Eastbourne, BN21 4JJ.

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1. Richard Billingham, Untitled 2015 (detail). Courtesy of Towner.