Sophie Vallance Cantor Drenched in Neon

by Rubén Palma
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Sophie Vallance Cantor (United Kingdom, 1993),creates worlds that express the inner workings of her mind by blurring the line between reality and imagination. Her paintings invite viewers to see the world through her eyes: where bright neon signs light up dark alleyways and domestic cats transform into wild beasts in 24-hour bars and cafés. Each painting reads like a still from a film; characters look at the viewer with a sense of cool detachment as they ride motorcycles down infinite highways, smoke cigarettes and drink extravagant cocktails.

Amidst the narrative of her paintings there often lies a sense of stillness. Each small moment is immortalised and savoured through thick, luscious strokes of oil paint that exude a palpable sense of joy and pleasure in the creation process. Vallance Cantor’s figures are depicted with strong, bold shapes and her use of vivid colours invites the viewer to relish in the pleasures of her practice. There is a certain sense of playfulness and mischievous delight that permeates all of Vallance Cantor’s work.

In a broader context, Vallance’s art serves as a counterbalance to her experiences as a neurodivergent individual, with her self-portraits constantly evolving and conversing with each other on the canvas. Although viewers are welcomed into her world, they are still kept at arm’s length, like outsiders looking in on a private moment.

Text courtesy of GUTS Gallery / Profile pictures courtesy of Brynley Odu Davies.

Hi Sophie! Thank you for sitting down with me! First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in London?

Hi Rubén, Thanks for having me! A regular day of mine is begging for structure that I just can’t seem to provide it. There’s usually some painting, or thinking about painting, some reading, some eating, stroking cats, avoiding emails and phone calls, anxious stressing you know, the usual. 

I’m curious. Growing up, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing, and how did you spend your time?

When I was a kid, I loved using my imagination to play and to draw. I was really shy around people who didn’t know me, but weird and fun around the ones who did. I especially loved drawing my pet cats (ha) and making up games set in other times or places. Makes sense, now that I write it down! 

So when did you start painting? And when did you start taking becoming an artist serious?

I was taught how to draw and paint in a more formal way when studying A levels (aged 16-18) and I did go to University to study painting (even though I didn’t graduate) but everything was still young, fuzzy and open-ended until I found myself in Berlin in 2016. It’s a long story how Berlin came to be – I married my partner Douglas Cantor, but we didn’t earn enough money for him to qualify for the British marriage visa and stay in the UK, so we moved to Berlin to stay together. For the first time in my artist existence I was removed from all of the opinions, trends and noise of being in education, and for the first time in my human existence I was removed from the somewhat structured path I had been on. I owe so much of the mindset shift to Douglas (also a painter) who made me realize if we want people to take us seriously, we have to take ourselves seriously. 

Alright, let’s talk about your work now. What’s your inspiration behind the various scenes in your work? And what are you hoping to convey?

Ultimately I think that I’m searching for myself in my work, and for answers to (most probably unanswerable) questions about belonging, fear, love and being alive. I think visually my paintings are very atmosphere driven and what I’m hoping to convey for myself is a sensation of what it would feel like to be within the setting of the painting, whatever work it is. Since I was a kid I was fascinated with films and television shows set in busy cities particularly in America. Watching them felt like seeing what I thought was a ‘real life’ that I wasn’t part of, but desperately wanted to be. Now, as an adult I understand that feeling of otherness to stem from being on the spectrum, and that’s probably why it has never left me. A part of me still yearns to occupy the world from those 1990s American scenes, (drenched in Neon of course), so I began to paint them for the painted me to occupy instead. 

Same thing goes for the various animals and characters. Who are they and how do you come up with them?

The most often recurring characters in my work are myself, Douglas, and my two cats Autumn and Luna. The world of painting comes with the lovely allowance of artistic licence, so we get to grow, shrink, and transform through the works. It makes sense to me that the most important characters in my real world are still the most important in the painted one.  

Your current cartoony style. How long has it taken you to develop it? And what is it about that look that resonates with you?

At the start of 2021 I made a conscious decision in my practice that I wanted to pursue portraying people in my work in a way I had only skirted around in the previous years. I was definitely yearning to expand my toolkit as it were and the types of compositions I could then make. I’m not really interested in making traditional figurative portrayals because I want there to be more wiggle room for expression, humor, dynamism and scene setting within the alternate reality the characters occupy. I think my style continues to develop with my practice and there is always more to learn.

In previous interviews you’ve been very honest about having autism. Is that in any way visible in your work? And has it influenced how you approach certain things?

I’m not sure how visible it is to people who don’t know me but I think it is definitely a part of why I continue to make work and how I go about it. I think there is quite a purposeful gap between the world in my work and the viewer. The viewers aren’t invited to participate so they are left on the outside looking in, a personal flipping of the structure that a lot of autistic people experience in the world. 

Can you walk me through your creative process? From beginning to end?

Generally when I’m wandering about living life, I’m always saving images that inspire me, taking video clips and writing down ideas that could be paintings. I always begin the actual making with drawings, I might draw the same thing a few times or lots of different ideas just to get something out. Once I’ve settled on an idea I’ll stretch and prime my canvas, and paint a base layer of dark brown oil paint, I usually draw by wiping into the base layer because working out the drawing from the paper to the larger scale canvas is the hardest part in my opinion so it helps to be doing it in a very forgiving material. And then once the base layer dries I start painting in colour. I also use an IPad to test colour combinations as I work.

How do you approach colour?

Colour is something that doesn’t come so intrinsically to me as I’d like. I save a lot of colour references to return to later and I’ve learned that being patient when picking colours to get them right works much better for me, because when it goes right it can completely elevate an entire work. 

How do you deal with creative blocks?

Creative blocks are something I’m naturally terrible at dealing with. In my experience taking time away from even trying to work, to live some life and let the spark return is the best thing to do – but only sometimes do I manage to take my own advice, because you can probably find me grumpy and frustrated thinking it’s a smart idea to work through the block instead. 

So you mentioned Douglas a little earlier, and i’ve been doing my research on you. And that includes the mandatory scrolling through your Instagram feed as well as going through your previous interviews, and I’ve noticed that you’re married to another successful artist, Douglas Cantor. How did you two meet? And what’s it like being two artists under the same roof?

We met at University over ten years ago, so we really have been walking this road together. We were completely broke and starting from nothing all those years ago, but doing it alongside someone else made it feel possible. Even though our income was only part time work at minimum wage, we always put aside 100 EUR every month for art materials, and that changed my life. By insisting on it, Douglas allowed us to flourish and begin to find ourselves without self imposed restriction, he allowed us to plant seeds and watch them grow. I suppose it’s not always easy because there isn’t an off switch, art and profession and life and two people are all tangled together, but you gotta take the rough with the smooth!

Douglas Cantor x Sophie Vallance Cantor -shot by Brynley Odu Davies

I gotta ask. What’s the best and the worst thing about being two artists in a relationship with another artist?

Best, someone to steal mixed colours from. Worst, twice as many art materials to buy. 

Can you tell me about your use of symbolism?

There are definitely a few symbols that reoccur a lot in my practice – Douglas as ‘El Diablo’, Tigers, cigarettes – and at this point they really feel embedded in the visual language of my work. I first painted ‘El Diablo’ as a commentary on British public perception of immigration and my partner’s position as an immigrant and how he experiences that. Something that always amuses me is people noticing the devil horns in the works, and assuming what they must mean or be a symbol of, but if they looked closer ‘El Diablo’ isn’t ever causing trouble in the paintings, he’s usually got an air of calm stoicism about him. So in essence people read what they think they see, not what they actually see, and there’s a funny slip in perception. There is a video essay called ‘Sympathy for the Monster’ about portrayal of monsters in cinema with one of the examples being the creature from ‘The Shape of Water’. The film was set in Baltimore in the 1960s and the classic monster narrative is subverted by making the creature the secondary protagonist and using his plight to explore the systemic inequality of the era. It noted that ‘portrayals of monsters often mirror portrayals of marginalised groups’ and centre around fearful reaction to a perceived threat (not necessarily a real one) and I really feel that for ‘El Diablo’ too.

What motivates you?

Lots of things, good and bad ones. A good one, the idea of living life as an artist, really embodying it, and being able to inspire other people to do the same. I’m not going to tell you the bad ones! 

How would you describe a perfect day?

One where I get my arse in gear to do some boring but sensible things first (exercise, admin) so I can feel good about myself haha, and then some painting – but ideally I’d be half way through a painting that’s actually going well – (starting paintings is hard, difficult paintings are hard, and the feeling after you end a painting is hard!).There’s gotta be some good food in there, and maybe a drink at a suitably cinematic yet not too busy (sensory issues you know) bar to end the day. Or, if they existed in London, a cup of decaf in a 24 hour diner.

In one of your other interviews the topic is grievances in the art world, and you mention that you have a list about the shitty behaviour that goes on it. Do you still feel like that? And if so, can you tell me about what kind of shit that goes on :D?

I actually made a painting about it, called ‘Naina’s Art World Shit List’ and everything on the list is true! Since I made the work thing’s haven’t gotten much better, but I think I’m just not shocked by anything anymore, IT’S DIRTY OUT THERE! 

Alright Sophie. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favourite movie and why?

Hard question, not sure I can pick one so I’m going to give a few. Paper Moon, a favourite for at least twenty years, particularly Tatum O’Neal sassy, grumpy portrayal of Addie. For the cinematography Fallen Angels or Rebels of the Neon God. Paris Texas, just everything about it. Amelie, because I can’t not love her. 

The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?

Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees

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