Closing doors and turning corners
My main passion as an artist has been, for several years now, Modernist architecture of the post-war era. I found beauty in crumbling municipal buildings, inspiration in high-rises, delight in multi-storey car parks and, in particular, social housing. Such interesting buildings, I said, should not be ignored just because more innovative ones are going up in place of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s buildings coming down. I’m in the minority, I said, for liking such unpopular buildings. I mourned the tower blocks coming down and the existing ones in disrepair, questioned why they had failed and when I (thought I) had the answer, I looked further back and instead viewed them in their original context of a new social good, putting an end to the misery of the pre-war years and symbolising a fresh start from the ashes and rubble. I photographed, I wandered and explored, I painted and drew. I lugged my portfolio throughout the London Underground, to Harrow, Pimlico and New Cross; I stated my case and won a place at the art college of my choice.
But throughout the journey there have always been tensions. For as much praise and encouragement I have received at both peer and academic levels, there have been problems. Problems are of course all part of the artistic process and not, er, a problem, as they keep you questioning and analysing as you go. But these are problems of an ideological and moral kind, and when I wasn’t just glossing over them, they were keeping me awake at night.
The problems, tensions, and conflicts, tend to be that I often find myself caught between:
FANTASY and REALITY
ABSTRACTION and REALISM
DREAMS and TRUTH
MODERNISM and POSTMODERNISM
ETHICS and AESTHETICS
On the basic level, the main issue was thus: though being working-class, I have grown up in a 1930s terraced house. I have no experience of living in post-war social housing of any kind. I can’t celebrate it when I haven’t lived it, and I can’t keep glossing over the problems. If I am to wander around a housing estate to take photos, and am approached by a tenant, how can I say “the place you live in is beautiful” when inside, and day-to-day, it’s probably a completely different story? How can I celebrate Modernist high-rise blocks as a previous generation’s action for social good, when the reality is so, so different?
As an online acquaintance who grew up in a tower block in west London so succinctly put it, “They knocked down horizontal slums and almost always replaced them with vertical slums.”
One of the other main problems is that, admittedly, I’m by no means in the minority, as I thought I was, for liking Modernist buildings. On the contrary, there’s quite a lot of artists, in fine art, photography, illustration and beyond, inclined towards them. It probably sounds pathetic but sometimes it can be such a disappointment when you find out you’re not the only one doing a certain thing, something you’ve clung to and honed your skills with for years. Surely, you may say, it should be comfort to find you’re not alone in what you appreciate, but in all honesty that’s not how I feel. It feels more like competition, and these days competition can be measured in notes on Tumblr and likes on Facebook.
So when I did discover the popularity of Modernism in the digital age, I had to think about how I could set myself apart. I thought I could differentiate my work by putting a definitive working-class stamp on what’s become so fetishised by safe middle-class creative types. Refer to my previous paragraphs, and you can see I was wrong. Because by creating images of nice modernist social housing buildings in a positive, colourful way, that would make me no better than the safe middle-class creative types doing exactly the same. Let’s face it, tower blocks are trendy. Every other gallery gift shop in London has cushions with Trellick Tower printed on. Don’t even get me started on the gentrification aspect (humorously referred to in the lines “Moved down to an East London flat” and “Now we’re taking over their estates” and accompanying graphics in the hilarious hipster parody 'Being A Dickhead's Cool'
). Gentrification is something I strongly take issue with (one thing that’s certainly kept me awake at night on many an occasion), and no happy upper-middle-class types telling me about integration and community spirit (ha!) can convince me otherwise. And besides, there’s enough “poverty porn” and ironic fetishisation of things associated with us lower orders without yet another artist unintentionally treading a fine line by it all …
It was tough at first. I felt that the proverbial rug had been swiftly ripped out from under my feet; this awful feeling that the main thing I knew I was good at, that had kept me going, that had gotten me into Chelsea bloody College, had failed me, and was too flawed. But I’ve been keeping a small sketchbook of notes and sketches of ideas for potential pieces over the past few months, and touched on something important and very, very interesting.
Despite appearing as a mere doodle, the above drawing has a high significance to my ideas and practice, and a new avenue to explore. Being so fascinated by the culture and design of the 1970s in particular, I wanted to create a work that perhaps looked authentically ’70s if possible. The result is quite interesting - the work is highly evocative of the era without being directly representational, and its aesthetic resemblance to textile design grounds it in the popular, collective nostalgia of the time. This links to vague ideas I’ve had before about the retrospective, perhaps a concept in itself to explore. The past few days I’ve been working on a commission for a friend of a very similar nature to the above work, and I’m enjoying it so much, and thinking about this new direction alongside a few other changes I’m making in terms of my personal life, so it’s all happening at an interesting time, especially considering the fresh start I’ll be making very soon. I’m also interested in the work of Duggie Fields, wild, mish-mash paintings that reference art history and design in a very kitsch way. All potential things I’d like to look further into once I start my degree in October.
The book is not closed on Modernist architecture, by any means. I still love it, a hell of a lot, but opting for naivety over reality and clinging on to the false isn’t always the best of ideas. Who knows, bits of buildings may surface in these new works from time to time - architecture offers a lot of potential for abstraction, after all. But in abstraction I can combine my loves for various respective things, in a strange kind of way. I’m also considering exploring psychogeography again, as I touched on it briefly in my final major project at college two years ago. There’s a lot I still want to explore, and soon I’ll have the tutorial guidance I’ve been without this past year. It’s dead exciting.
As one door closes - or in this case, is put “to”, so not quite shut - another opens, after all.