Jade Townsend and her work Sales Tips for Followers.
Artist Jade Townsend talks to Sarah Murray as she prepares to take flight to investigate the topic of Britain’s changing retail landscape.
She’s collaborated with fashion houses such as Hermès and Comme des Garçons, and now Kiwi artist Jade Townsend is about to take her talents to London. When we talk, she’s in the midst of packing. Having been offered an artist-in-residence position at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, she’s leaving the country with her husband and two suitcases — one full of clothes, the other full of art supplies.
“I’ve got a pretty good first-aid kit,” she says. “I’ve packed glass beads, my favourite scalpel knife, my favourite pen and diaries with ideas for works. I don’t know where anything is in London, even like a $2 shop, so I’d hate to be there and not be able to find what I need.”
As a multi-media artist, Jade’s materials are everything, and with the residency only a month in duration, culminating in a show at the Camden Arts Centre (known as a rite of passage for many emerging artists), she’ll have to work fast. Her project will focus on the British high street and how rapidly the retail landscape is changing. It’s been reported that 15 shops a week are closing in the UK and this is something she’s particularly interested in. “Most of these British brands just can’t keep up with more nimble web-based stores, so the idea is to create a visual survey about the British high street before the advent of online shopping.”
Jade (above right) and one of her works, Floor Filla (left).
Jade’s work gravitates towards the theme of consumerism and in the past she’s featured colours and collages inspired by prints by Pucci, Liberty, Missoni and Miu Miu. The consistent thread is what, why and how we buy. It was during a residency in Beijing in 2014 that she witnessed consumerism at its peak with a celebration called Singles’ Day, on which single people are encouraged to buy themselves a gift. Frighteningly, more things are now sold online on that day than any other in the year, including Black Friday and Boxing Day.
“The dark thing about it is that because of the difference [in numbers] between men and women in China, people are going to be perpetually single. The way they’ve constructed a day that taps into that insecurity and loneliness is quite trippy,” she says.
Some of Jade’s best-known works were created during her time in China working for Comme des Garçons. There she decided to use LED lights to play on certain words that were hard to translate from Mandarin to English. Words including ‘transform’, ‘renew’ and ‘decay’ were lit up like scripted lanterns, creating a feel of luxury and glamour.
“LED lights are absolutely everywhere [in China], taking you to the grottiest places and then to Louis Vuitton,” she says. “In New Zealand when you see a beautiful neon sign, you think, ‘Oh wow’, but in China it’s misleading because they’re on every street corner.”
The works were a hit, and she’s since had similar shows in Scotties in Auckland and at Wellington’s Pataka gallery. At the latter she also created a floor work made from empty chocolate boxes purchased from the props department at Kirkcaldie & Stains’ closing-down sale.
A selection of Jade’s works: Heathers Drawing (left) and I Stay In and Put Make-Up on (right).
Jade’s mother is English and her father is Maori; she grew up in Whanganui before moving to England when she was 14. After high school, she headed to Manchester to complete a degree in fine arts. Her next stop was London, where she started doing window displays for Hermès.
“They saw my paintings and really liked them, and asked if I could paint some carousel horses in their store windows inspired by the silk scarves that were coming out that season.
“Seeing people standing on Bond Street looking at windows you’ve helped create is like having a mini-exhibition.”
It was my first real-life experience of how art and fashion can be really inspiring to people and how it can make art really acceptable. Seeing people standing on Bond Street looking at windows you’ve helped create is like having a mini-exhibition.”
Jade credits her mum for her love of fashion. “I had a really young mum and I’m pretty sure she was the only person in Whanganui ordering British Vogue and things like that. Even though she lived in Whanganui, she still wanted to dress a certain way, and these brands were so appealing and alluring. That profoundly shaped my research.”
Jade leans towards the bold and colourful, tending to mix second-hand with high-end pieces by designers including JW Anderson, Simone Rocha, Preen, Loewe and, locally, Miss Crabb. She’s also turned her hand to embellishing her own pieces, and for her wedding made a lace-look veil out of metallic condom packets. It’s safe to say she has a knack for turning the mundane into a thing of beauty.
“Mixing in second-hand pieces isn’t my choice — I can’t [afford] all designer!” she laughs. “I’ve had things for years. Lots of statement pieces. I actually don’t have enough everyday clothes. ‘All dressed up with nowhere to go’ is the story of my life.”
It’s a hard road being a working artist, and Jade says the trickiest part for her is the different hats she has to wear. “You’ve got to be good at so many things: social media, writing, editing, budgeting, having part-time jobs you hate,” she says. “But then the flipside is you’ve got a talent and a really great hobby, and at the end you can say, ‘I’ve made something quite beautiful.’”
All set to create more gorgeous works in London, Jade’s excited by the challenge the art scene presents. “Getting this residency is the biggest achievement for me so far. I always wanted to go, but I was terrified as it was such a high standard. Some of the best artists in the world are coming out of there every year. When I got it, I thought, ‘Oh god, I’ve actually got to do it now.’”
First, however, her focus is on packing those bags — she’ll deal with everything else as it comes.
Words: Sarah Murray
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly, Issue 3, 2017