With a solo show currently at the Courtauld Institute, Conrad Atkinson talks to Sue Hubbard about the evolution of his career – a practice rooted equally in the political and the personal.
Art literally changed Conrad Atkinson's life. As a young Catholic of Irish descent growing up in the 1950s in the northern town of Cleaton Moor there were few career opportunities for a working class boy: "It was either down the pit or Sellafield nuclear power station." Art college provided "a short window of escape for kids who were not too academically bright".
After school he got into Carlisle College of Art. From there he went on to Liverpool and bought an easel from a fellow student, John Lennon, for thirty shillings. "I thought Lennon was a loser, that he was just messing around with music because he couldn't hack art school." Now he wishes he had got the easel signed. Atkinson's childhood was steeped in politics. His grandfather was involved in the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s and acted as a political agent for the miners "but by the age of seventeen I had had it with politics". Later at the Royal Academy he began to see the possibilities of painting as a political act. To be a painter was to be at the cutting edge of intellectual investigation "though, in those days no one ever got into the academy doing abstract paintings". The great watershed was in1968 when he became involved with the student protests at the London School of Economics. Everything was changing; the last shackles of post-war constraint were being overthrown; the personal became the political. He became disillusioned by painting, felt there was "too much disparity between his family background and what he was doing". But there was no chance of an arts council grant to support work unless it was painting and his tutor had told him he didn't regard video as an art form. Atkinson was offered a show at the ICA on the strength of his paintings, but when he went back to his village he found himself making a video Strike at Brannans, highlighting the plight of the workers at a thermometer factory in Cleaton Moor. The work was raw and deeply felt though he wasn't sure if it was art. There were meetings of the factory workers in the gallery, along with workers from the south London branch who turned up out of the blue. Since then Atkinson has built his reputation on an art that dares to act as a catalyst to discussion on social issues from nuclear war to 11 September. Atkinson does not, he insists, favour a particular 'style'. Rather he uses whatever materials he feels best suit his subject, everyday objects such as shoes or newspaper in which he might paint over the text to make a point about being mute or silenced. How, I wondered, could he continue as a political artist in an age of commodification, where what is supposedly radical is so quickly absorbed by the mainstream. "Not all of us make corporate art, not all of us think art should shock the English middle classes, not all of us are more interested in our own blood than the blood of those dying in Iraq and Iran. Perhaps art can't really make a difference but it can highlight alternative ways of seeing and living. We don't know if art, which nowadays is so quickly appropriated by advertising and entertainment can change things, but we never know when we might need it, where it is going to come from next, what it might look like." He senses that people are tired of being shocked, that there are signs that young curators are excavating the work of 1970s artists. So what advice would he give to artists setting out. "They must desperately want to do it, but that doesn't mean they have to touch their caps to the big institutions all the time. To be radical you need to know where to insert work, where to place it and at what level."
He was invited to show in Bond Street Gallery in his second year at the RA and until 1986, Atkinson managed to survive by selling work. In 1970 he and others founded the Artists' Union to help artists negotiate their way through the gallery system and in 1972 he was awarded the Churchill Fellowship and also taught part time at the Slade. Now largely based in California, Atkinson was recently appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor to the Courtauld. His new work, Excavated mutilations, has been made in response to the Courtauld collection and investigates how we respond to images, unpack and control their meanings. He still passionately believes that art can have an impact on life; he's not interested in 'autobiography' or confession but in constructing alternative cultural meanings. Other artists might do worse than take a leaf from his book.
First published: a-n Magazine December 2002 as Who dares
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