“I’m into questioning people’s ability to parse aesthetics, it’s all about challenging interpretation as an activity and ideally encouraging people to question themselves when making snap judgments or sweeping evaluations.”
Interview by Charlie Mills
Could you tell us a bit about yourselves and your background? Where did you study?
I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art (or that those words had a specific meaning) until I was in my early twenties, my partner (Fern O’Carolan) is an artist and when we met, she was going to school for her BA. I started going to some little local shows and got a studio to make some work, then it snowballed from there. I studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art, while at the RCA I started writing freelance and had the opportunity to work for a lot of great publications. It’s worth noting that my background is in DIY culture, punk is where I grew up and that informed my worldview and the work that I make even now. Even with something like SCREW, our organisation is anarchic and non-hierarchical, it’s based on mutual support and a desire to bring artists that we love to our city – the same way that DIY touring networks or labels run. It’s good for everyone to be able to sell work or get written up in magazines or whatever but you need the passion for it to be sustainable, none of us are making millions out here.
Fundamental to your work is the role of semiotics in image-making — especially at points of disassociation or fracture. This tension is often exploited to challenge the viewer forcing them to question why certain values or fears are ascribed to different images — as well as the insidious politics that drive these associations. How did you first get interested in semiotics and how has this developed in your work?
There’s actually a very definite starting point for this. When I was on my BA, there was a tutor called Gary Barker who had been teaching on the course since the beginning of time (allegedly teaching Damien Hirst on his foundation) who would give advice from another planet. He’d suggest things like listening to faraway sounds with an ear trumpet or taping a paintbrush to a broom and then the broom to your hand. He was the first person to talk to me about semiotics and phenomenology, which both play a significant role in my work.
I feel like so much of contemporary life is a branding exercise, putting a beacon out to the world about what kind of person you’d like to be perceived as. Everything is reduced to its symbolic language, in order to allow us to analyse our environment quickly. I don’t think the world is that simple, nuance is what separates real life from capital and I like to use imagery that is duplicitous in order to emphasise that.
Key to this process of semiotics is the recurring use of photography, collage, stickers and transfers, mediums that are both “realist”, so to speak, but also indicative of a disruptive DIY punk aesthetic. The content of these are often provocative, featuring references to war, religion, sex and death. How do you source the images you do and what are you trying to reveal or question through this process?
The imagery used to come a lot more naturally to me, I’d just stumble across things as I went about my day. I’m particularly interested in imagery that speaks to the dissonance between reality and popular culture, especially when that imagery becomes a symbol for a culture or perspective. An example of this would be the scene in Possession where Anna breaks down – that went from cult cinema to meme almost out of nowhere because it spoke to something in a certain group of people.
I’m into questioning people’s ability to parse aesthetics, it’s all about challenging interpretation as an activity and ideally encouraging people to question themselves when making snap judgments or sweeping evaluations. I’m not necessarily trying to say anything specific about individual images, unless it happens that they have a particular emotional resonance with me at a given time – but that’s not actually even supposed to be visible to an audience. It’s more important for me that my work emphasises the importance of nuanced interpretation, even in seemingly extreme situations.
The end of 2021 saw you participate in the group exhibition Tree and Leaf at Hannah Barry Gallery in London. For the show you made two new works that were in dialogue across the two floors of the space. Could you tell us about the different works and how they were conceptually tied together, especially in relation to the show’s overall theme of landscape?
I’m glad you wanted to talk about this, they’re two works I’m really happy with. I interpreted landscape, or more specifically changing landscapes, to refer to our relationship to physical environments. What those places represent in our memories, as well as present lives.
I showed a sculpture called Alienated From Religion and Family, which is taken from an American police document used to determine whether or not a teenager was a satanist. The second work is a video (editioned as a series of three VHS tapes with hand-painted covers) called It’s 10pm, which is an analog rip of an advertisement that ran before the 10 o’clock news. The sculpture is a loose reference to a place called The Stone, a suburban meeting point for teenagers to drink, smoke and fornicate near where I grew up. As children, we’d root through the aftermath of crushed cans and joint ends, totally transfixed by the chaos of adolescence. When I got a bit older, it became a bit of a warzone – contentious territory between factions – until someone threatened the wrong person and it all just went away.
The work is two blocks of Yorkshire Sandstone, taken from the garden of painter Harley Roberts’ Grandad (thanks Wilbur). The original stone in Scotland had some sense of magic for me, but these blocks jut out into somebody else’s youth, having sat alongside a disused caravan where Harley had a few of his own formative experiences for as long as anyone cared to remember.
Together, the works are a reference to adolescence as a state of being that has an undying influence on our lives. I continue to measure myself against my teenage wishes, I think it keeps you from making the wrong kind of decisions. As I get older, I’m becoming preoccupied with recapturing that sense of adolescent wonder, recklessness and chaos through my work.
Over the past year you have been self-publishing a monthly piece of original arts criticism, compiled and printed as short-run zines, under the title FUTURE OF NOTHING. How have you found developing this project and what were the reasons that motivated you to start it? I have always been very interested in your relationship to writing, especially criticism, as a practising artist.
Haha, monthly was hopeful. I think it’s more like every couple of months now but yes FUTURE OF NOTHING is my publishing project. I started doing it because during 2020, a lot of the magazines I was working with had their commissioning budgets slashed. It was less money to write about stuff that maybe just wasn’t that interesting – publishing is a precarious industry. I wanted to write about culture in direct relation to what was influencing me, not what was in the news. If I watched a film from the 90s and felt inspired, I should write about it. Same goes from an artwork from the 60s, et al.
Honestly, if I could get away with it, I’d like to be a far harsher critic. Art is hard enough, the reality is that I could tank the viability of my art practice in 300 words or less if I said them about the wrong person. The conversations we all have after a few beers at an opening are a far more honest representation of contemporary criticism than anything being published today. I like to write because I like to think about culture. My work is wrapped up in the milieu and can’t exist without it – I can’t (or won’t?) make a decoration. Art press is in a difficult situation, my independent publishing is a stab at honesty in an industry populated by the regurgitated-press release and the endless need for content.
Despite your academic interests, you often speak about the necessity to de-academicise the art world — not only in the way we speak about and frame an artist’s work but in the very experience of aesthetic objects. There is a drive for honesty in your work which reflects this. Do you think this drive affects the way you think about and produce your work, or simply how you consider its reception?
I was actually talking about this yesterday with Fern O’Carolan (a co-director at SCREW, a great artist and my partner). The academic system can prevent the making of art because it encourages analysis within a specific framework, if often asks the question as to whether it’s worth making something at all if it isn’t critically watertight – in the academic sense. With this in mind, it’s important to be aware of academia as a for-profit industry in the UK, it’s version of intellectual rigour is one which seeks to protect the image and reputation of the institutions and academics within it, in spite of them being at odds with one another. It’s fundamentally dishonest.
That’s why I sort of prefer to exist in the part of the art world that I do – there’s an honesty in the buying of art from emerging artists because it normally means that the person either loves the work or wants to show support. Artworks are very expensive, if you live fairly modestly, you don’t have to sell very much to get by.
But this is where your question about reception came in – I am not and have never been insecure about my ability to critically understand art, I’m comfortable with the framework for interpretation that I have and like to maintain an open mind and awareness of subjectivity. Trends in academia are never going to affect the work I produce – but maybe the things that galleries say could.
When a larger gallery gets in touch to say they’re interested in working together, with an emphasis on a particular type of work, it encourages you to push that work forward. The reality is that it might not be the right time to do so, you might be going in a different direction and that’s where inner conflict can arise. It’s hard to turn your back on something that might offer a better standard of living. There are so many outside influences that can alter the work we make or how we do it, the aim is to limit the negative influence as much as possible, however we work.
For you, 2021 also saw the inauguration of a new project space in Leeds called Screw Gallery. The project is run collectively by you and a number of other collaborators, and so far you have produced exhibitions by Peter Spanjer, Tom Harker and Bora Akinciturk, amongst others and numerous satellite events. Can you tell us about the formation of Screw Gallery, the ambitions behind it and what we can expect next from the space?
SCREW, like all good things, was born out of necessity. It’s a gallery run by seven of my favourite artists (and people) doing shows for some of my other favourite artists. We were all spread out across the city, working in less than perfect spaces, and ended up managing to get a hold of a great building in central Leeds. We had a shop front, so we decided to turn that part of the building into a gallery and the rest of it into private studios.
We want to bring our vision of the best contemporary art has to offer to Leeds, creating a space for people in the city to access the work in a welcoming environment. We’re not a community centre, we’re a gallery, our programme is uncompromising and sometimes challenging but we’ve found that people really respond well to that. Access to art is not created by banal, simple work – it’s about having a curatorial team willing to stand in the space and talk to anyone who comes in, treating them with respect and aiming to help them connect with artwork that we really believe in.
This year we have a stacked programme, including a bunch of open call spaces for pop up shows. We’ll also be putting on a graduate showcase to help ease a few of the best grads Leeds has to offer into professional practice, which I’m really excited about. It’s all for the people, having somewhere that anyone in the city with even a tangential interest in art can congregate and do their thing.
Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
Everything is under wraps for now, so in the most vague terms possible: two solos and two duos in the pipeline, both duos are with artists I’ve worked with for several years but will be pretty different projects to any previous stuff we’ve done together. There are some group shows in the pipeline but over the years I’ve learned that you have to embrace the precarity of it all, so no matter what happens you’ll be able to find me in my studio in Leeds for the foreseeable future – drop by anytime.