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The following conversation with Graeme Durant took place as part of his participation in the Critical Perspectives at Teesside University Fine Art. Durant’s work work was the subject of a major survey exhibition at Baltic, Newcastle, UK and at Bloc Projects, Sheffield. For the entire interview, please go here.

Critical Perspectives: Graeme, one of the things these artist talks and workshops allow is for there to be a bit more of a cross-generational conversation between artists working at different levels along with students—to give students access to these other voices and approaches. A number of students contacted me after your talk and said that it was particularly helpful as you had been a student more recently, but were now getting higher profile shows like the one at Baltic. For them, it made you more relatable and perhaps helped them see a bit of a path they might apply to their own approach. How is this for you? How does it work from your perspective as I remember you mentioning that you were usually a bit hesitant in these sorts of talks?

Graeme Durant: I always really struggled with talking about my work, to tutors and other artist. Still kind of do. People tend to ask me what I make and m

y reply is mainly just “stuff”. I am slowly coming to realise what I do and why, and have a passion for the concepts I’m playing with, so can openly talk about them more.

Things like these talks help a lot! They add a good amount of pressure and seriousness to make a person open up more.

I have taken part in these residential retreats the past two years that have also helped me talk about what I do/have done. They took place in Cumbria a

nd Cornwall, and on them you live with 15-20 other artists/writers/dancers/thinkers and you discuss your practice or area of interest to one another. Its been really helpful to me so I am going back again in February!

CP: You mention that you are a bit resistant to theory, which I think scepticism is really healthy, but then a lot of your work self-consciously references work by other artists such as Baldessari or Brancusi, but also pop culture with references to people like Tilda Swinton. What’s interesting to you about this sort of in-between place/approach?

GD: Not really sure how to answer, I’m still on the hunt for the answer myself. I guess I make for myself, as an average entertainment or as banal distraction.
Whether it is commenting on popular clichés or historical subjects the work becomes a DIY drama—a place where crude/slapstick/impotent art and precocious/sensitive/emotive art all exist as predominant characters.
The work is habitually self-critical; I am the zombie drawn to the colourful, moving thing. Dragging my feet until some flesh and bones appear giving me a hint to understand my actions.

CP: One of the students asked me to include a question about your interest in making copies or knock-offs rather than pressing the real thing? For instance the skewed Kurt Cobain guitar or keyboard made from an object lying around studio or your arch?

GD: This is something that has only appeared to me recently, or should I say I’ve come to understand that I’m doing it. I would say I build fast visual associations between objects and conjunctions.

The idea of realising a thing you want or want to see by making it is crucial to developing and mirroring existing emotions and concepts outside the realms of language. I want it, I could buy it, I’m not, I’ll make it. Guess this has connections with kinaesthetic learning. Doing/making the thing makes you long to understand it.

I think this is one of the concepts I’m toying with a lot at the minute. I think there is something interesting about how, found objects and ready-mades have done a sort of full circle in the art world and are heavily used throughout college and beyond. Not that it is a copout but more of a natural progression, like how in school you copy a bowl of fruit, then you do a self portrait, then you have to choose an artist and make your work in their style. This follows a lot of artist around after graduating and it does make some interesting viewing. I saw a really nice piece of work in London and it was a book a guy made of all of his paintings of Leona Lewis (the pop star who rose to fame in X Factor). He had (or what I understand) no real necessity to contextualise his stuff, he just was a fan/artist which has appeal too.

CP: There is also a really nice casualness to the objects you make as well as your painting. Do you see any parallels to this approach to the work above?

GD: I’m not sure casual is the right word; it comes across as something ‘cool’. I would say it had a sense of constant improvisation. A conversation with heavy or phallic forms prevail for instance, and presenting them through a twisting of conventional and unconventional materials and painterly surfaces that are simultaneously flat and textured may be read as casual but they are all deeply considered. I always allow for mistakes, errors and follow different directions within my practice therefore encouraging experimentation.

CP: There is a show that has gone around called Supermarket of the Dead that is about the traditional Chinese practice of burning paper money or objects as a sort of offering to the ancestors in the afterlife. It started with really simple objects, but now it seems obsessed with creating paper status objects like ipads, Prada shoes, designer clothes, cars, paper lingerie. I think these sort of cultural translations and copies are really interesting, but I’d like to hear your thought in relation to what you do?

GD: I’m quite interested in when this tradition took hold and became modernised by making ipads and other commercial goods. I’ve heard of burning paper money before. There must have been some progression in traditions. I guess this it what I’m aiming for with my new endeavour with the bonsai and scholar rocks. To change/challenge/adapt traditions and conceptions of what they are for.

This article is really good: its about Ghanaian coffins. So they basically jazz up the coffin to put the fun into fun-erals, excuse the pun. I saw these in real life at the British Museum a few years ago and was totally blown away!

People have a tendency to embellish things and make light of certain situations. I guess this has parallels with the question below, I make deadpan associations with the titles I pick, to allude to certain information that I wish to divulge.

CP: Along with the resemblances that some of your object take (copies or replicas) you also seem to build a lot through resemblances of words or even tenuous similarities in words that add another level or visual pun to the work. How does this come about and what do you attempt with it?

GD: The titles come about from pulling in info from all areas, conversations, books, internet journals, memes, you name it! I just write the things that jump out to me down and go back through my notes and delve into them more. Some get so lost that I cant even remember writing them down. For example… my top three favourites…(taken direct from my notes)

  • you mean you want me to rush the rush job I’m rushing to rush
  • deadliness of leisure and the uplifting effects of industry
  • you left the door open so the cat ate the doughnut.

Some are pretty obscure and I have no clue why I wrote them down…

  • pool noodle
  • le phoque
  • I’ve seen better bands on a cigar

So yeah that’s a bit random but I guess that’s how it goes sometimes.

CP: What is exciting to you at the moment (art or otherwise)?

GD: Land rovers/unimogs/oxyacetylene/local history/flat eric/the sea

CP: What kind of advice would you offer to students or artists just leaving art school?

GD: Think I’ll keep this one uber simple…just keep making!!.. it sounds silly to say but my years at uni were the highest achieving years, think there were seventeen1sts handed out. And I can only think of one person who got a first that is still actively making work. Quite sad really as some people were great and had potential but lost interest and faded away because the lack of support goes and you get a bit deflated. I didn’t get a first by the way. I got a 2:1 and was pretty chuffed!

CP: Whose work/ideas are you interested in lately? Why exactly? Any collaborations?

GD: No collaborations, but hoping that 2017 will bring some!

CP: What is appealing to artists about a place like Teesside or say Newcastle? Why might it be more likely that these sorts of ideas and approaches might emerge from an environment like this as opposed to someplace like London or New York?

GD: This is hard to answer… having lived in Newcastle for 30 years come January I always question the pull of London and other big cities have to artists… I can list things that are great about the areas in the north but wont as they are so obvious. But there must be reasons for moving south. Money I guess… sad to say. People get more funding and opportunities.

CP: If that’s the case then where do we go from here then, or where might it be important to go?

GD: Stay put? Follow the sheep? Move all of the interesting people you know to a small town and put it on the map?

The Critical Perspectives series presents artists and thinkers from across disciplines, offering artist talks, mentoring, lectures, workshops, and tutorials at Teesside University. Simon Critchley observed, ‘The problem with contemporary art is that we all think we know what it means and we don’t,’ and that has been our jumping off point. With an international focus and interdisciplinary approach, Teesside University Fine Art’s Critical Perspectives challenges us to rethink our location within an ever-evolving community of artists in the twenty-first century.