How is it being an artist in London? How have things changed in the last 20 years? Is London still the right place to be if you’re an artist?
This week we’ve teamed up with Londoner painter Adam Gray, a resident artist at Southgate Studios, an arts complex (containing 12 studio spaces between Hackney and Islington) overlooking the Regents Canal, to learn more about his works, experience and points of view.
What is Adam Gray’s story?
I was born and grew-up in London always drawing and wanting to be an artist. I studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art and have subsequently remained in London as a practicing artist. A year after completing my degree I was shortlisted for a major national painting prize for which I received a lot of publicity because of my young age and the £25,000 prize which eventually went to John Hoyland. Subsequently, the Anderson O’Day Gallery began representing me and I received interesting commissions such as painting a cover for a Pink Floyd album and designing the set for a Channel 4 adaptation of a Mark Anthony-Turnage opera (both ultimately unrealised).
This all happened before Saatchi began buying works from young graduates so it was unusual at that time for success to arrive that young and I remember sometimes feeling slightly frowned upon as though I hadn’t fully served my apprenticeship . Today there is enormous pressure to achieve success even before you’ve finished college. Ultimately, I parted company with Anderson O’Day but continued to paint and show – including two comprehensive solo shows at the vast Trinity Buoy Wharf space and throughout a large four storey warehouse in Holborn.
Being an artist today demands quite a high degree of self-centredness and egotism that I probably lack but I like to think that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
How did you become an “old fashion” painter?
I don’t actually consider myself to be old-fashioned at all. Certainly some people view painting in itself as an old-fashioned and outmoded form of expression – but I think it always has its place and remains one of the most accessible art processes – which can be both a good and bad thing in the same way that a pop song can be ‘accessible’ but still be either brilliant or completely dire. It doesn’t really suit me to work any other way but I would say that I am always seeking to be original and innovative.
My working processes are complex with a large element of spontaneity. But I don’t think being spontaneous has to necessarily mean immediacy or urgency. I like to use as diverse a range of colours as possible and often build-up images gradually in order to achieve a richness and depth that can so easily be missing from rapid-fire art works that rely on minimal mark-making. I instinctively feel when colours, marks or images are right or wrong and although it’s also often good to deliberately go against instinct and question it, ultimately you always come back to it as a guiding factor.
I try to resist categorisation and be true to my natural instincts as an artist whilst simultaneously being driven by a desire for originality and invention . I have often found this to be problematic in today’s art world where too many galleries appear to identify both technical and imaginative versatility (as opposed to repetition and flogging-to-death of an idea) as a weakness when it’s surely a strength, albeit a potentially less lucrative proposition for galleries for whom a familiar artist’s trademark signature can be the safest means to ensure income.
How much has living in London helped you with being an artist?
London is and has always been, full of artists, galleries and art-going public so it is obviously helpful to be amongst all that. The problem for many artists though is that the galleries consistently operate in a bafflingly incurious way, never visiting studio shows or trying to find out what is really being made outside of their limited gallery circles. Consequently they only get to see a very small amount of what is actually out there whilst simultaneously making it extremely hard for artists to approach them to properly show what they’re doing. Most artists I know are so demoralised by the unhelpful and seemingly condescending attitude taken towards them by galleries that they have long since given up attempting to communicate.
For 25 years I have co-managed (with fellow artist Adrian Hemming) Southgate Studios, the De Beauvoir studio complex that my own studio is in. Having previously both managed a far larger studios at Angel Islington we were well equipped when we planned the Southgate conversion to know how it could function best for the fifteen or so artists working there and it has proven to be a huge success with a great sense of community and a healthy working atmosphere. We annually have shows which are always open to the general public.
Your paintings are quite catastrophic, do you find inspiration only in dramatic facts or is it more that you try to represent humanity during big negative events? And why so much hopeless negativity?
My paintings can go in many different directions and only some of them are dark or ‘catastrophic’. But I can certainly be interested in the idea of conveying a sense of fear or foreboding. This could be either subtly suggested by, say, a tiny fire within a giant space or more directly like my tsunami-related images. What I aim to try to avoid is a literal interpretation – because when there is no mystery or questions to ask the painting tends to become a bit dull and pointless. My imagery ranges from disturbing to enigmatic, from constrained to tranquil. I try to exercise control over the process of disintegration and manifestations of chaos. In a painting such as Detritus the dense accumulation of elements is downplayed by their organized disposition in the space whereas in Field an abandoned landscape and scenery contrast with bright
but deceptive colours. The viewer must ultimately decide what is happening or pick up on whatever mood they sense. I don’t see my paintings as hopelessly negative at all – indeed some of the more abstract ones are going in completely the opposite direction – but they certainly sometimes contain a strong sense of foreboding, or of something dark taking or having taken place.
Your paintings are big and colorful but also full of details that you can see only if you are close and pay more attention to them. It seems that humans can do nothing facing big natural events and are only small parts facing the infinity.
I’ve always found it rather hard to avoid the fact that we are all tiny blips in an incomprehensible endless expanse. Everybody is terrified of how pointless it all is, hence the proliferation of reassuring religions to hide behind. But at the same time this idea of the infinite is obviously an exciting and dramatic thing when looked at objectively and even some of the most horrifying images of natural disaster can have a chilling beauty to them. I have often played with scale and the idea of initial invisibility – where you do or don’t see certain things within the painting depending on whether or not you are drawn into viewing them from quite close up. In this way an innocuous seeming image can suddenly take on a completely different meaning.
How is the life of a painter right now? How much do you need to sell in order to face living in one of the most expensive cities in the world? And I also think that the artistic community was quite better some time ago, when art studios were not dismantled to build new luxurious flats..
Unless you’re a painter with an established gallery making regular sales for you it’s an unreliable profession. The definition of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art is always highly subjective and inevitably a lot of bad art gets hyped into being seen as good whilst much good art stays unnoticed or unseen. I don’t tire of being in London even though what has become a total obsession with wealth and greed here is highly objectionable. The art-world is heavily caught-up in all of that too although it kids itself that it’s aloof from it all. Corporate and private collections are everywhere now and seemingly consistently prioritising investment over aesthetic judgement. They appear to never contemplate purchasing works that aren’t either made by very established figures or else extremely young artists either fresh out of (or even still in) art college who look like good investment opportunities. This rather shallow approach can make it extremely hard for artists over a certain, relatively young, age to be taken seriously. There is an unhealthy assumption in the art world that if you haven’t achieved recognition very early on in your career then you can’t be any good. Which of course is nonsense as history so often proves within many different professions. Also, the downside to ‘discovering’ artists whilst still at college is that it assumes that they have already developed their artistic language when that’s what they’re actually at college to do. Once discovered though the pressure immediately exists to produce more of the same thus potentially stifling their development.
The problem of traditional artist’s warehouse spaces being hoovered up by the developers has existed for a long time now but is increasingly bad. It is very hard to envisage how this problem can be resolved without a major shift in people’s attitudes towards property and wealth – which seems unlikely. I have been lucky in that I sold enough paintings at an early stage to buy a flat when the prices were considerably less ridiculous. I am also lucky that the owner of the building where our studios are has a healthy loathing of developers and an unusually friendly relationship with his tenants. Most people nowadays won’t be quite this fortunate though…
Depending on your experience, where do you see the artistic community in ten years?Putting aside those artists with a steady and healthy income from (usually) being affiliated with an established successful gallery I think the artistic community within London will be severely damaged by what is going on with property prices in London. Already, many studio complexes such as ours have closed due to the developers insatiable thirst for property – and especially the type of buildings that have always tended to suit artists to work in. Ever increasing rents will continue to force artists to either leave the capital or be far too reliant on a secondary job which actually consumes much more time than they are able to devote to their art. But artists can be quite resilient so hopefully they won’t just get flushed away by a tsunami of greed.