Shaun McDowell: interview
Hannah Barry Gallery, London
26 June – 27 July 2014
by MK PALOMAR
Save Yourself! is an exhibition of small-scale drawings by seven artists from different generations, disciplines and geographical contexts: French artist Marie Jacotey, American artist Robert Crumb, Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski, Russian artists Pavel Pepperstein and Evgenij Kozlov, British artist Oliver Eales and British painter Rose Wylie. The British painter Shaun McDowell, who has been part of the Hannah Barry stable of artists since 2007, is the curator.
When I got to the gallery, along with the sound and cameraman, McDowell was not there and the show was not hung (a few works were on a table). When McDowell did arrive, he said he did not do film or sound interviews, but we were welcome to transcribe the conversation. The following is an edited extract from our interview, in which he talks about his own creative practice and how he came to curate this show of different artists’ drawing works.
MK Palomar: You worked at the Chelsea Space [a public exhibition space at Chelsea College of Art and Design]. Do you think that had any influence on your ideas about curating shows?
Shaun McDowell: Well, Donald Smith [director of exhibitions at Chelsea Space] would seek to open up my eyes around things – but, not really. I think you have to have your own singular vision. Working with Hannah [Barry] has had quite an influence – the idea of seeing a value in a work of art, even if you don’t like it. Although, I like all the works in this show.
MKP: How did you come to live in Peckham [the south London district where the Hannah Barry Gallery is located]?
SM: I moved in more than 11 years ago. I was looking all over London for a cheap place to stay when I was going to Chelsea College. I didn’t know anything about Peckham. I’d already looked at a place in Clapham and thought I’m going to get that, but I thought I’d just come down here to see what this place was like and I was sold. It was quite different then.
MKP: In what way?
SM: The demographic on the street was different; it did have a bit more of a raw edge. It still has that, but the demographic has changed. There are far more white, middle-class people now walking around Peckham.
MKP: And how did you come to be involved with the Hannah Barry Gallery?
SM: It was when I was working at Chelsea Space, and it might have been for an exhibition there that I was showing in, called Rehearsing: Samuel Beckett. David Gothard, who was the previous Riverside Studios director, was a good friend of Beckett, and he invited me to be in that. And Smith said: “You’ve got to meet Hannah; she’s young, she’s exciting.” So he introduced me and we started talking. We enjoyed what we were talking about with each other – we were kind of excited by each other.
MKP: At the time, you were living at Lyndhurst Way [in Peckham]?
SM: No, I never actually lived at Lyndhurst Way, it was too much of a mad house.
MKP: Can you tell us what it was?
SM: It was a squat. There were lots of Czechs and Poles living there, and artists and musicians, and I would go there to visit Bobby [Dowler, artist with the Hannah Barry Gallery]. That’s how I was introduced to that space. Bobby was an artist at Camberwell College of Arts, whom I knew through one of my flatmates, so I’d go and spend time with Bobby and have a smoke or drink – actually I didn’t drink at that stage. Bobby would have a drink, and we’d talk about our plans and things we wanted to happen.
MKP: At that time, you were at Chelsea?
SM: No, I’d graduated by then.
MKP: From the painting department?
SM: No, back then Chelsea was three disciplines – painting, sculpture and new media. I was actually on new media.
MKP: And was the college opposite the Tate Britain then?
SM: No, I had two years at Manresa Road [off the Kings Road in Chelsea] and I was the first year to graduate from the new space at Millbank.
MKP: Do you think your work was affected by the college’s move?
SM: Affected in showing it, not in making it. It was handy because, for a long while, I’d been thinking of making this one work and I’d been looking for a space to show it. I needed a window that receded into a wall and then I was going to build across the wall, take the window out and build a structure through it, so it looked as though the wall had some structure going through into an empty space. The first day we were introduced to our new premises at Millbank, the room for new media was the perfect room – so it just facilitated my work perfectly.
MKP: So you’re involved with sculpture as well?
SM: Yes, sculpture, installation, film-making. My painting then was very linear, black and white straight lines, no brush marks.
MKP: It sounds slightly like drawing.
SM: I think all my paintings are drawing. It was a process where I’d take strips of paper – dip them in black, and then put the strips on top of each other to build up a line, and then I’d pour white paint in between – so I’d end up with these black horizontal lines which were ridges raised up with white paint in between. But I’ve always felt my work was drawing, even if it was sculpture. That’s what it always seemed like.
MKP: That’s interesting. Whose work do you look at for inspiration? Or do you look at work for inspiration?
SM: I was in Paris recently and as soon as I got off the Eurostar, I just went straight to the Louvre – I had two hours to play with. I went straight to the 17th-century French painting – Nicolas Poussin.
MKP: A landscape describing outside space. Do enjoy being in the outside environment?
SM: Yes, definitely. It was this one picture by Poussin – I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – Sleeping Venus and Cupid (1630) – that really inspired me. I’ve been working with models quite a lot, making abstract works inspired by models, or a lover.
MKP: As in a figure in the room with you?
SM: Yes, it wasn’t like a Picasso situation – it wasn’t purely pleasures of the flesh, that kind of titillation or skin deep: it was something else – it was a sensual experience of lovers and … when I saw the Poussin painting Sleeping Venus and Cupid, I just really felt I had to do what I was doing in the studio outside – and preferably in Italy. He might have painted it in France or Italy, I don’t know. I wanted to have the same experience in Italy when I saw it.
MKP: Can we go back to how you first met Hannah and the Bold Tendencies project – was that your initiative?
SM: No, that was really Hannah’s. I had a lot of input when we were working on Lyndhurst Way and brought a lot of artists into that space –
SM: I always walk through studios – less now, but I try to look at young artists. Going to the studios, I like seeing work before it’s finished and I’d seen a work by James Capper at Chelsea. I didn’t know him really, but it was a base and I could tell by the way it was put together that he has a sense of structural integrity and it was going to be something bigger and more exciting, so I just left a Post-it Note on it with my number and said give me a call. I had a chat with him and invited him to be in the first show at Lyndhurst Way, which was 10 Rooms and a Sculpture Garden. He made this kinetic piece called Weather Machine,which I still think is one of his best pieces. So Capper from Chelsea, and Nathan Cash Davidson, whom I met him when he was about 17.
MKP: You are talking about something really interesting. Some artists hide themselves away in their studios and don’t really want to talk with other artists, but what you’re doing right there is almost the opposite of that. Are you fascinated by other people’s processes?
SM: Definitely, definitely, and also what I find really exciting is the sense of potential – that’s the most exciting thing. That’s what excited me about Peckham, this sense of potential and this momentum, which keeps raising –
MKP: Potential to what?
SM: Create and for something to grow and to form organically – I can’t help but think the East End is finished in that respect.
MKP: What do you mean? That it’s not going to grow any further?
SM: It’s going to grow. I’m just not so interested in the way it’s going to grow.
MKP: And you also have the same idea about artists and the way they work?
SM: Yes. It doesn’t mean that I’d only be interested in the early stage – because an artist always has to have potential. I’m not interested in artists who have a fixed signature. An artist has to move and grow. That’s what I’m always interested in.
MKP: Does the same apply to you?
SM: Of course.
MKP: If you look at your practice back when you were a student at Chelsea, what steps have you taken since then?
SM: Well, before I went to Chelsea I was making abstract painting – a colourful brush mark usually, or palette knife. I went to Chelsea and started making very structured work. So the linear work – black and white, no curves, no colour – and I spent a lot of time making sculptures, work that had space like a structure, which had some room for something spontaneous in between. For me, abstract painting’s completely spontaneous – the only borders are the edges of the board or the canvas. Everything inside is completely spontaneous – so at that time, I felt I needed a very strong balance. So once we started making work at Lyndhurst Way, we started that project, it moved very quickly and I came back into using brushes, using colour, being bold with abstraction rather than having these linear pictures. You have to be bold with that work to keep it up, I think. To be inspired, to keep being inspired by that kind of making, you have to be bold. But my sense of making has to have fewer boundaries than that.
MKP: I read that you’re interested in, and enjoy, motorbikes and I wonder if there’s something about the motion and the wind in your hair that is in someway connected to the rush and the dash and the flurry of a brush in the space that you’re creating?
SM: Well, it’s thrilling and it’s something that uses your body – unlike a car, which is quite a lazy person’s transport generally. You have to move your body: you don’t really turn the handlebars so much on a motorbike, you lean – you turn it – and that’s how you move round a corner. You just lean and move around, and that’s how I really enjoy painting as well, it’s a physical sense. When I was at Chelsea, when I was doing that very linear work, I had something that held me, a structure, which then had something spontaneous in it. Now, I enjoy the sense of nothing to hold me – a sense of almost potential failure, which is very strong when you’re riding a motorbike. You can’t relax on a motorbike because if you do you’re on the floor and it hurts.
MKP: You have to be well balanced.
SM: Yeah – you have to be very much in your body and very present every second to what you’re doing.
MKP: And would you say that you were very physically well balanced when you paint – I mean as a kind of choreographic dance?
SM: Yeah, I think all of that stuff depends on how physical you are in general. I run, I cycle, I’ve got quite a good balance, I land on my feet if I fall. So, as a painter, yes, I have quite a good sense of being in my body.
MKP: Can you tell us how you came to curate this show Save Yourself!?
SM: I generally have an interest in one thing or another alongside my own work. I see another artist’s work or something starts to gestate in my head – I suppose one of the things I miss myself is that I never show figurative drawing: I make it, but I don’t show it.
MKP: Why not?
SM: (Pause) I think, for me, there’s less risk because it’s like – sure, you can deviate from a body, but there’s usually four limbs and a head with humans – for me there’s not such a risk coming to a board or a canvas with that sense of this is what I do. And I think with complete abstraction, I don’t have that sense of what it is that I do do. So I prefer that I prefer not knowing what it is that I do.
MKP: Does that in any way mean that perhaps other people are not entirely sure what you do?
SM: Well, that’s the talent or the task of an abstract painter, to convince them of what it is you do. You know, you find out what you’re doing through not knowing. You come to a board and you start making the work and you find out – but with that process something new always comes. The limbs don’t come, but something new comes and that’s exciting.
MKP: So can we go back to the show that you’ve curated? How did you come to select the artists?
SM: I’ve come by these artists on the internet or through exhibitions.
MKP: So you don’t know them necessarily – not in person?
SM: No. I’ve not met Robert Crumb, I’ve not met Evgenij Kozlov. I’d love to. I met Rose Wylie the other day – spent quite a while in her studio. I know Saul Adamczewski. I know Marie Jacotey, but actually I only know Marie through seeing her work and then going to talk to her.
MKP: Every month, do you take off and look through people’s studios?
SM: I haven’t done that so much over the past year, although because I’m in Peckham quite often I know people at Camberwell and I walk through the studios – I like doing that. But in the past year or two, I’ve hardly gone round to Chelsea, Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martins.
MKP: You were away in Italy last year. Did that make a difference to your thinking and making?
SM: It gave me a great space to work, so I could make a whole new body, which I couldn’t have done in the UK before.
MKP: And that was in the show that you had downstairs [Moons Masks Birds Demons at the Hannah Barry Gallery, 1 May – 15 June].
SM: Yes, the place where I was making those works, called Villa Lena [Art Foundation Tuscany], is a very supportive environment. You can be as much of a caveman as you like there. You have your studios, which are large agricultural buildings, and then you have a lot of people – critics, artists, writers and musicians go and stay there.
MKP: Is it useful for you, do you think, to mix with practitioners from a wide range of disciplines?
SM: I like variety, that’s for sure.
MKP: Would you like to talk to us a little bit about these works on the table [a selection of works from the exhibition]?
SM: Sure. How did I come to choose these works – in a visual sense – they are what I find visually arresting [McDowell picks up Adamczewski’s drawing Save Yourself!). This was one of the first works of Saul’s that I saw: it was in an exhibition in Peckham. I was interested to see what he was making drawing-wise. This was one of maybe four or five works and, straight away, I wanted to buy it. So I asked him if I could, and he sold it to me. And that kicked further into the idea of drawing – of me making a drawing show, which I’d been thinking about for quite a while. I thought this is an interesting work.
MKP: Are you putting together a collection, do you think?
SM: I can’t really afford to [laughs]. I’d like to. I mean, I will do – I don’t really have much other work of other artists, I’ve got some other small drawings. I would like to for sure.
MKP: This is a drawing show. Are you putting your own work in it?
MKP: I’m going to ask one of those old chestnut questions – just because I’d like to hear how you respond. What is the difference between drawing and painting in your mind, from your point of view – now?
SM: I think it depends on different types of painting. I am a mark-maker, so I have a sense of that being like drawing – making a mark. I put one mark down after the other. The board is always dry, I put one mark down, let it dry. I feel that’s similar to drawing. Painting, in a sense, where you mix it on the board, is more to do with the fluidity of paint mixing rather than a single mark. Graphite doesn’t mix so well, it just goes on top, so it doesn’t work so well for many layers on top of top of top. I can do that with the work I make – a layer after a layer – so it’s still drawing, but it wouldn’t be so successful with graphite.
MKP: Can we look at this drawing [Wylie’s Canto VII)?
SM: It’s from Dante’s inferno.
MKP: Did you talk to Wylie about reading?
SM: I didn’t really talk to her too much about reading, and she didn’t talk about these paintings.
MKP: Did you choose these, or did she offer them to you?
SM: No, I chose these works. I looked at a lot of Rose’s works.
MKP: Those kind of experiences perhaps inform how you think about an artist – to visit someone’s studio, not just to walk through and leave a message, but to dwell and look at the work.
SM: It’s a privilege when you can meet an artist and talk to them about who they are and their ideas and have that kind of dialogue.
MKP: I wonder if you could start a kind of movement thereof?
SM: Well I’d like to meet some of the artists in this show. I’d love to meet Robert Crumb and Evgenij Kozlov.
Three days after talking to McDowell, I went back to the gallery and saw the show installed. McDowell was also there, showing people the exhibition. “I selected these works because they have a similar energy, but are not fixed to one time or place,” he explained and then went on to say: “I ask everyone who comes, which one picture would they take away with them?”
Must it be only be one? Surely I could sneak another under my jacket? McDowell acquiesces and I chose Wylie’s A Handbook of Romans and Crumb’s Self-Loathing Comics; Is that me?! My God! It Is!!.