I MEET the artist Hayley Tompkins in a Glasgow coffee shop during a brief sunny interlude in a week of rain.
Tompkins, who is back from installing her work as one of three artists in the Scottish presentation at this year’s Venice Biennale, seems to have brought something of Venice’s light and dazzle with her: she is literally bright-eyed, wearing a cheerful striped top and a matching cheerful disposition.
Early on in our conversation I ask her if she thinks of herself as a painter. Her art, though mainly in watercolour, extends into the use of photographs and found imagery and her paint is as likely to be affixed to a chair, a twig or a mobile phone as conventional paper. “Actually I think like a painter,” she says. “The work for Venice uses a mixture of paint and also some photographic images, which were not made by me. It’s about the use of colour in making images. I think of myself not quite as a colourist but interested in colour. While we’re sitting here I’ll look at this green” – she points to the lurid wall next to our table – “and wonder how I could make that. I think that’s probably a painterly attitude.”
Tompkins will fly back to Venice with artists Duncan Campbell and Corin Sworn for the official opening on 30 May of a show that has been curated by Katrina Brown and Kitty Anderson of Glasgow’s Common Guild. In the madness of the Venice Biennale’s opening days, art professionals, critics, curators and collectors will climb the steps of the Palazzo Pisani to see their work. Over the summer months, art-world types as well as some of Venice’s tourist multitudes will visit.
In 2003, when a partnership that now includes Creative Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and British Council Scotland launched a new presence at the event, it was in recognition of the changed cultural and political landscape of the UK after devolution. Wales still presents at the Biennale, Northern Ireland no longer.
The neoclassical British Pavilion in the city’s Giardini, a kind of Olympic park of culture, is playing host to Jeremy Deller this year. But in the ten years since that first show, the Scottish exhibition, classed as an official Biennale “collateral event”, is recognised as an important destination for the Biennale crowd and a significant career marker for the artists involved.
Among the artists selected in that decade, Jim Lambie, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Karla Black have been nominated for the Turner Prize either subsequently or simultaneously. Simon Starling and Martin Boyce have won it.
Tompkins, like all these names, studied at Glasgow School of Art. She moved to the city in 1990 and, at 41, has spent longer here than in her childhood home of Leighton Buzzard, a market town in Bedfordshire. “In sixth form I had a really great art teacher, a lot of people were applying to London and she said you should apply to Glasgow,” Tompkins says.
The youngest of five children, and inspired in part by the alternative career path of her elder sister, who went to drama school, Tompkins applied alongside one of her close friends and her twin sister Sue. These days it’s hard to imagine the art scene in the city without either sister. Sue is known for her spoken word performances and poetic text works and Hayley for her seemingly offhand but carefully calibrated paint. Both seemed part of a wave of art that, while it drew on the international confidence and connectedness of an earlier successful generation, took a distinctive, improvisational, unabashedly experimental approach, concerned with feelings as much as ideas.
She talks of her art in terms of its closeness to emotions and, while it is largely abstract, of its intimate connection to the body. Her work with sticks and mobile phones touches on the way that as a painter these things, like the brush, can be an extension of the hand. “With the phones I was thinking about the mobile as this piece of technology in touch with the skin.”
Tompkins found at Glasgow a sense of connectedness with her peers and examples of international ambition. “I remember that in fourth year we had a group show in the Mackintosh Museum and Simon Starling was doing the photographs. You were meeting people and they were really friendly. At the degree shows Douglas Gordon came and Richard Wright was there. After art school artists like James Thornhill were putting on shows in flats and found spaces and I very much became part of that.”
After art school she didn’t, as some graduates did, feel defeated or deflated: she just wanted to make work. “I remember when we were leaving art school, Sandy Moffat, when he was head of painting, telling us that only 10 per cent of us would be artists. And I remember feeling quite angry. And then I look around now, and he was probably right.”
That she remains one of the 10 per cent should be of no surprise. Tompkins exudes a quiet confidence that comes from doing what she really loves. In 2004, she was nominated for the Becks’ Futures Prize. Back then I interviewed her and she talked about how her tiny gestural paintings were as strong expressions of presence as any gargantuan abstract expressionist. When, in 2007, I saw her work in a group show at New York’s Gagosian – the glitziest gallery in the glitziest art city in the world – it still held its nerve.
If this all sounds impossibly glamorous, the truth is more mundane. Tompkins lives in the city’s east end and makes a modest living. “I’ve had a few lucky moments,” she says, “a flow with some busier times. I just want to make the work.”
When the Venice launch is over she will show at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. “It’s the feeling of wanting to make something, the compulsion to make something. It’s nice when you think: I want to do that next.”
• Scotland + Venice 2013 is at Palazzo Pisani (S Marina) Calle de le Erbe, Cannaregio 6103, 1 June-24 November, as part of the 55th Venice Biennale. www.scotlandandvenice.com