‘Recent British Painting’, a group show, currently showing at Grimm gallery in Amsterdam, can be considered as Tom Morton’s sequel to his 2010 show ‘Recent British Sculpture’, which he curated at the same gallery. Morton is now an independent curator and worked as a curator at Cubitt between 2006-2007, and at the Hayward Gallery between 2008-2011. With this show he is not trying to claim that there is a new British school of painting. “It’s an exhibition of works by fantastic artists, that enrich each other in sometimes surprising ways”, Morton comments when he gives me a tour a day before the opening of the exhibition whilst a photographer is taking installation shots.
He leads me through some mysterious works by Sonja Weissmann, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy in London, who works in egg-tempera. In her work there is a fascinating mixture of illustration and painting and they remind Morton of David Hockney’s illustrations of C.P. Cavafy’s poems. Opposite Weissmann’s work are sculptures and paintings displayed by Catherine Story. For Frieze magazine, Morton reviewed Story’s 2011 show, ‘Angeles’, at Carl Freedman Gallery where she explored the world of early cinema with paintings of cameras in a subdued colour palette of off-whites and terracotta. ‘Lowland’ (2012), an image of a rectangular shaped dog painted like a statue, is one of the gems in this show.
In this interview, Morton talks about how he built up the show, why he is not very interested in the works of the Young British Artists, and his discussions with artists as to what constitutes an ‘excuse’ to make a painting.
200%: How did the collaboration with Grimm originate?
Tom Morton: I think I first met the Grimm team through my friend the American artist Matthew Day Jackson, who they represent. I showed Matt in 2006 in London at the not-for-profit Cubitt Gallery, his first solo exhibition in Europe, and we stayed in touch. For several years now, I’ve also been a regular visitor to Holland – I’ve curated shows there, delivered guest lectures at de Ateliers, and sometimes contribute to Metropolis M. I’ve also worked with a number of Dutch artists over the years, among them Erik van Lieshout, Guido van der Werve, Semâ Bekirovic, and Ronald Cornelissen. Amsterdam is a city I love, and I think Grimm is a really exciting addition to its contemporary art ecology, so when they invited me to curate a show, I was intrigued.
200%: How long was your long list of artists to include in this show and how did you come to this final selection?
Tom Morton: I didn’t make a long list of artists that I then reduced. For ‘Recent British Painting’, I began with a small number of artists I’d worked with before at the Hayward Gallery and elsewhere (Phoebe Unwin, Milena Dragicevic, Cullinan Richards, Edwin Burdis, Alexis Teplin) and built the show around them until it made sense, at least to me. I’d written texts on the work of Catherine Story, Nicholas Byrne, and Rose Wylie over the past year, so I was intrigued to work with them as a curator. Alex Dordoy I’d been aware of for a while, following a studio visit when he was at de Ateliers, where Will Monk also studied a few years earlier. Sonja Weissmann I met on a visit to The Royal Academy Schools in London – we spent an hour talking about her painting ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’ (2012). One of three she has in this Grimm show, and I thought it would be fantastic to show a recent graduate in Amsterdam alongside more seasoned artists. Importantly, ‘Recent British Painting’ isn’t a generational show. The most senior artist in the group, Rose, was born in the 1930s, while Alex and Sonja were born in the mid-1980s.
200%: How did you come up with the title ‘Recent British Painting’?
TM: It intended to be playful – it is, of course, a very old fashioned title for an exhibition. Several exhibitions I’ve curated in the past have had quite poetic, allusive names, such as ‘How to Endure’ at the 2007 Athens Biennale, ‘Handsome Young Doctor’ at Cubitt Gallery, and ‘Deceitful Moon’ at the Hayward Project Space. I’m currently working on a show that takes its title from a line in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: ‘The World Is Almost Six Thousand Years Old’. For me, it was interesting to give the Grimm exhibition a seemingly very boring title, along the lines of a 1960 / 70s territorial survey – there was actually an exhibition of the same name at the Tate in 1967, so I guess you could think of my title as an act of appropriation. ‘Recent British Painting’ is also a sequel of sorts to my 2010 show ‘Recent British Sculpture’, also at Grimm, which only deepens the apparent lack of imagination in play. Over the years, I’ve been involved in quite an intense, self-aware, post-Millennial curatorial culture, so it was interesting to see what might happen if I took the old fashioned ‘hardware’ of an underachieving exhibition title, the kind that my generation of curators set itself against, and used it to play some incompatible contemporary ‘software’.
200%: Is the title also in the spirit of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s titles for his exhibition: name it what it is?
TM: Maybe. I am really interested in exhibition titles. Liam Gillick did a show called ‘David’ at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1999, which I think is really fantastic title – if an entity needs a name, why not reach for one that you might give to a person, or a dog? What I’m not trying to do here, in any way shape or form, is to claim that there is a new British school of painting. For a start, several of the artists in the show might not identify as British (while they all live and work in London, Sonja is German, Milena is a Canadian of Serbian heritage, and Alexis is American). On top of that, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand. If it ever did, the world just doesn’t work that way anymore.
200%: The title could infer that a curator from Britain is going to show a Dutch audience: these are the hot names in British painting today.
TM: I’m not trying to do that. I don’t think this show is necessarily misleading in terms of what is interesting in British painting at the moment, but neither is its intention to educate – in the age of the Internet, anybody on the planet with a wireless connection could gather their own list of ‘hot names’ for themselves. On the simplest level, it’s an exhibition of works by fantastic artists, that enrich each other in sometimes surprising ways. Beyond that, it’s about a set of refusals – a refusal to commit to the term ‘Recent’ – are Rose’s paintings from 2000 still ‘recent’? – a refusal to commit to the term ‘British’. Even a refusal to commit to the term ‘Painting’ as several of the works here, notably by Alex, Alexis, Catherine, and Cullinan Richards, might equally belong to sculpture.
On visits to painters’ studios, I’ve had many discussions about what constitutes an ‘excuse’ to make a painting – what allows a painter to proceed. Subject matter, here, becomes a kind of impetus for action, rather than necessarily a central concern. Paralleling this, I’m interested in the title ‘Recent British Painting’ operating as a kind of ‘excuse’ to make an exhibition. Some visitors to the exhibition will have fun with this idea. Others will ignore it, and simply use the show to check out some interesting work that doesn’t get shown in Amsterdam that often – and that’s totally fine.
200%: In the 1988, the Young British Artists (YBA’s), were trying to shock, distress and outrage its public. Is there also an element of this in the show?
TM: As far as I’m aware, there is no artist here who identifies with that particular generation at all. There are some artists in this show who are around about the same age as the YBA’s, maybe a little bit younger, but they are not artists who took that stylistic route. They don’t share the same preoccupations that the YBA’s – whoever they are – had, and in some cases still have. Personally, apart from Sarah Lucas’ sculptures, which I adore, and some early videos by Gillian Wearing, and the odd piece by Angus Fairhurst, I’m not very interested in the YBA’s work.
200%: What is that you don’t like about it?
TM: Taken as a whole, it seems to me to be quite intellectual unengaged, and what felt in the late 1980s and early 1990s like an exciting, even necessary boldness quickly became brash, and provincial in the worse sense. It’s probably a generational thing, too. Having begun work a few years after the YBA’s came to prominence, the British artists, curators, and critics of my generation wanted to do something different. It happens in all sorts of cultural fields – think of the shift from Bret Easton Ellis to David Foster Wallace in American literature, or from Punk to Post-Punk.
200%: What can you tell about Sonja Weissmann’s work?
TM: Sonja works in egg-tempera, which is an unusual and very historically-charged medium. She works very slowly at the moment, producing only a few paintings a year, and spends almost as much time taking pigment off the canvas as putting it on. I’m interested in her works’ strange, nearly illustrational mode, and how they absolutely succeed at being paintings, despite the feeling that they almost could be drawn. I’m fascinated by the black orb in ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’, which seems to be both supporting and absorbing the hand of the painting’s female subject, as she leans over what might be the edge of a crib. Is the orb a black sun, of the kind that Jean Cocteau wrote about? These paintings have extraordinary poise from somebody who just left in college.
TM: There is an interesting concord in Catherine’s work between the meditative and the humourous. She makes sculptures in her studio, and their forms often find their way into her paintings. Sometimes, as in the Grimm exhibition, her sculptures also find their way into the gallery space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s very interested in Picasso, one of the great sculptor / painters.
200%: I’m interested to know a little bit more about the curator / artist relationship. Can you tell me something more about what type of conversations you have, is it always work related or do you also discuss your private lives, do you use each other as a sparring partner for ideas, do you share artistic doubts and insecurities that you have?
TM: Matthew [Day Jackson] is one of a number of artists that I’ve found myself working with a lot over the course of my career – others include Charles Avery, Roger Hiorns, Keith Wilson, and Erik van Lieshout, and a little more recently Matthew Darbyshire and Jess Flood-Paddock. These relationships began because we were working together, but became friendships, and in their different ways they feature all the aspects you mention. At the moment, I’m working on two more directly creative projects with Matt and Charles – I’m developing a film script with Matt, and an exhibition with Charles that will be staged inside the fictional Island at the centre of his work, which I will curate and he will realise in pencil drawings. I’ve also recently collaborated on a sculpture with Matthew Darbyshire. There are of course as many different models of the curator / artist relationship as there are curators and artists, but the most fulfilling times I’ve had in this job have been when the conversation has developed beyond a discussion of the show at hand.
Interview conducted by Thierry Somers. ‘Recent British Painting’, a group show curated by Tom Morton, Grimm Gallery, until November 24, 2012.
Forthcoming: An interview with the artists Catherine Story and Sonja Weissmann.