Argentinian student Anita Furlong makes paintings that explore the “cruel optimism” of growing up. By ORLA FOSTER

Anita Furlong doesn’t like their subjects to pose for portraits. They prefer instead to catch unguarded moments as people muddle through life. “Friends always say, ‘I can’t believe you chose such an irrelevant moment to paint!’ laughs Furlong, “but they aren’t irrelevant for me.”

Originally from Buenos Aires, Furlong is finishing a degree in Fine Art and Art History at Goldsmiths – an ambition since childhood. “In South America there’s this idea of Europe as the place where you’re gonna make it,” they note, wryly. “I wanted an opportunity to separate myself from my context, and always romanticised the idea of London.” It turned out to be more of a coming- of-age tale than anticipated.

Furlong found London incredibly isolating in the early days, to the point of creative paralysis. “I couldn’t make a painting on canvas the whole first term. I went to the studio every day for discipline, but didn’t like anything I was doing.” Left to their own devices, they went through a phase of making only melancholy self-portraits.

Four years and many friendships later, Furlong’s paintings now focus on human connections and the “cruel optimism” of growing up. For example, Sofi Multitasking (2023) shows a fatigued young woman skimming notes over a bowl of ramen. Incidental details, like an unspooled kitchen roll and keys flung down in a haze of multi-tasking, allow an unvarnished glimpse into coping with responsibility.

Anita Furlong, Sofi Multitasking, 80x100cm, oil and charcoal on canvas, 2023

Inspired by Argentinian painters like Carlos Alonso and Antonio Berni, this spontaneous quality is central to Furlong’s practice. “I like immediate painting that captures peoples’ essence, without having to be hyper- realistic. I love it when you just draw two eyes, a mouth and a nose, and suddenly you have a gesture of someone you know.” But there’s a layer of anxiety too. Committing memories to canvas might preserve them, but it’s also a form of procrastination, staving off the unknown by trying to remain in the moment.

“My dad once said he liked my paintings but that I needed to grow up,” Furlong reflects. “This probably has a lot to do with having left where I’m from, like I froze that moment of my life.” People in these paintings cling onto youth, never quite complying with the demands of adulthood. So, what’s the story behind the portrait of the person crouched by a bed, wearing just one sock? “Everyone thinks that’s a child, but it’s my best friend! He was sad because we were having a tense moment and were also hungover – I think you see it in his face.”

Hangovers have provided an unexpectedly effective way for Furlong to explore themes of intimacy and trust. Their artist statement describes “laying in bed at seven in the morning after a rave, three of us staring at one phone watching funny TikToks, dreading the comedown but knowing we will tightly hold each other through it”. These are cherished moments of togetherness; friendship offering a protective refuge from the unforgiving outside world.

Anita Furlong, Miru and Joaco scrolling on tiktok to save our lives at 7am, 40x60in, oil and charcoal on canvas, 2023

The pressure to savour each moment is heightened by being on the brink of the degree show, though Furlong is trying not to buy into the make-or-break narrative. “It’s being sold to us as this big opportunity to get recognition from the art world. But for me, it’s a chance to see what everyone’s been doing. The course is so independent that unless you’re really close with people, you don’t know what they’re working on.”

Plans for the exhibition include selecting paintings with recurring figures (“so you get a sense they’re part of my everyday”), constructing a small inner room where visitors can view the work without distraction. Post- degree show, Furlong is exploring options such as the Royal Drawing School’s postgraduate programme, or returning to Buenos Aires to recalibrate. “I’m really scared of the prospect of being in London with a bar job and no time to make work, running all the time.” While feeling uneasy about this chapter of their life ending, fear also feeds into the work. “When anxiety kicks in, it forces me to paint and record the most. It actually helps, because it makes my life feel well-lived.”

What would they like visitors to take from the show? “I want them to connect with the sentimentality,” Furlong concludes. “We’re finishing this stage where we’re meant to be grown-up and have stuff figured out, but I don’t know anyone who does.” But rather than surrendering to nostalgia, the work celebrates the here-and-now. “Even if you feel you’re hanging off a cliff, maybe looking at my paintings can remind you of all these really sweet moments – that you only get when you don’t have everything figured out.”

Degree show: 23-26 June (PV 22), Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW.

Main image: Anita Furlong, Getting ready, hungry and hungover, 40x60in, oil and charcoal on canvas, 2023

Read the guide on Issuu and look out for updates and coverage of degree shows as they open on and @anartistsinfo on Instagram.

Read the a-n Degree Shows Guide 2023: