Studio 75 (January 2011 – May 2013) was a project and an artist – run space, located on the ground floor of a block of flats in London. I set up Studio 75 to reinvigorate and renew the definition of the “artist-run space,” as neither gallery nor institution.
A really important article from the Artfund website on the invisibility of Black British artists in the art history, by Eddie Chambers.
I have written on here more than once about the apparent lack of recognition of non-white artists in the art world, so Chambers’s article is timely. He has also published a book Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present.
Last weekend I attended a discussion ‘Challenging White Supremacy Within The Media & Arts Industry’ presented by sociologist Kehinde Andrews.* The first task was simply to acknowledge that white supremacy exits in the media & art world. I could list here too many instances and examples of how it operates, but let me offer just one.
I friend of mine approached a gallery owner to show them some work by another friend, a North African artist. She believed that the work was good and the gallerist might be interested in working wht the artist. Now this happens all the time and the gallerist can have many reasons fir accepting or declining an artist. But this one’s response was so utterly odd, it went something like : “Ah that is really good work. I like it very much. But I can’t really take him on: I already have an African.”
I already have an African????
Now let us unpick this. Does she mean
1/ “My clients are pretty racist and I find it very hard to sell art made by Black (and black-ish) people?”
2/ Or does she mean “There is only really space for 1 or 2 Black artists in this town and I have got my share already.”
3/ “Oooh, I dont want to be associated too much with Them. Try a gallery that specialises in Blackness.”
I would argue 2 things:
- that all of the above are true
- that she does not think of herself as racist
It is very difficult because if ’1′ is true, then it’s hard to argue that the gallerist should be a charity and take on the Black artist knowing she can not sell his work to her racist clients.
We need to have a big, huge, ongoing conversation about the white supremacy that permeates our cultural institutions. As I argued before, racism in the arts impoverishes the arts.
I have more to say about this. Especially on how our repositories of art (museums and national collections) are so deeply in bed with the dealers, like our gallerist, who serve the interests of private collectors and reflect those collectors’ tastes rather than the national interest.
* It was part of the excellent TINAG festival at Bishopsgate Institute.
My god, it has finally happened. A major art prize has shortlisted an artist NOT from the Big 6 (the 5 major London art schools of RCA, RA, Slade, Goldsmiths and St Martins, plus Glasgow – which figures only rarely anyway).
I almost didn’t click on the page for The John Moore Painting Prize since I have come to expect more of the same-same same in these prizes. And some of the best painters I know never bother even applying since they don’t come from the Big 6 and therefore expect there is no point except to throw entry-fee money down the toilet. (And to date they have been right)
But in this case my expectations were ill-founded. I opened the page and saw the list, then searched the artists. One really stood out, Mandy Payne. What awesome paintings! Yes, The John Moore Painting Prize has shortlisted Mandy Payne, a terrific artist based not in London but in Sheffield. Payne’s career is rather different – her bio notes that she has been a practicing dentist for some years and did her BA Hons in Fine art part time.
To me this is an interesting and refreshing way of being an artist. There must be something about dentistry – one of my favourite contemporary novelists, Alaa Al Aswany, is a dentist in Cairo and an internationally renowned bestselling author as well.
Looking at Payne’s pictures I was immediately struck by how different they are from the “saw it before” stuff that the big schools inevitably produce. It is is a personal vision, borne of long observation of both nature and culture. The urban landscapes are deep, thoughtful, observational yet they are really all about the texture and patterns of everyday life. Superb.
So, I’ll go up to Liverpool and see Payne’s work. (The other stuff is good too, but does not – for me – particularly stand out).
I wonder what it will take to break the dominance of London and of the Big 6 in the British art world?
What artworks do artists like to have around them? What artworks do artists buy, trade with other artists, or otherwise acquire, and why? Do artists buy artworks?
I was thinking about this when I went to an exhibition recently in Hoxton arches. This was an exhibition called Stomach, a one-day extravaganza featuring a whole host of artists.
There’s a lot of good work in the show, but I was particularly struck by an artist called Maggie Williams. The Art Book is a project Williams has been working on for some time, détourning the pages of the well-known art history compendium The Art Book published by Phaidon. Each individual page features a single famous and important artwork from art history. Williams has carefully excised elements of the pictures and reconfigured them, so that the pictures are subtly changed in adroit and often insightful ways.
I found the display of 15 of Williams’s pieces together really fascinating and, dare I say it, entertaining. I mean, ‘entertaining’ in the best possible sense. I was intrigued, riveted, and made to feel completely engaged; I started to have a kind of dialogue inside my head about the work as I inspected it. Good entertainment is meant to do just that, it’s not about passive ‘looking at’ something, it’s about really engaging with it. Engaging with your sense of humor, your emotion or your intellect, or possibly all three.
Frankly, I don’t really know how the words ‘entertainment’ & ‘entertainer’ got such a bad rap, because frankly I can think of very few things worse in the arts than something which is actually not entertaining. (What is the opposite of entertaining? Boring.) I mean, I don’t really expect going to the bank to be entertaining. Nor do I expect doing my taxes to be entertaining. But I think it’s quite reasonable to expect some kind of heightened engagement when going to an art exhibition, a theater performance, read a book, or watch a film.
I particularly adored the collage version of The Exhibition Of A Rhinoceros At Venice by.Pietro Longhi. I always really liked that painting, with its phlegmatic, hay-munching rhinoceros being gaped at by the gaggle of Venetians clad in their carnival finery, looking far, far weirder than the rhinoceros ever could.
Williams’s détournement of the picture makes it appear that the spectators are actually watching the rhinoceros mating with its doppelgänger. This seemed to me such a perfect comment on contemporary spectatorship and society. It’s witty, clever and fun.
So I had to have it. Right now I’m in the middle of writing a book about the relationship of cinema and art, and I knew immediately that Williams’s version of the Longhi painting is just what I really needed to have above my desk. It’s keeping me grounded, keeping my writing rooted in the real world, preventing me from going into academic contortions. It’s reminding me to write with wit and humour as well as precision, and to try to make the book entertaining to its eventual readers. It’s reminding also that although the process of spectatorship changes, but our human desire to spectate never really does. It’s reminding me that what looks strange and bizarre in one era, becomes utterly commonplace in another.
I was able to arrange to meet Williams and purchase the picture, and I found out bit more about her. She graduated from the University of Hertfordshire in 2011, and now lives in London, where she’s showing her work in group shows around town. The works displayed on her website show that she explores the intersection between fine art and popular culture, without wasting time in callous irony. Her work is fresh and often surprising, with a cleverness which is both humane and devastatingly well observed. I like it very much, and I’d like to see more of it. And I’d like you to see it too.