Artfractures Quarterly | Issue 03 | Spring 2010


Stephen Carley. 12 x 12. Andrea Hadley Johnson

Stillness is not evident here.
Stephen Carley is not still. There is no sense of stillness in Carley’s work.
His studio is static but not still. Pause and hesitation are replaced by a stinging visual energy. Space is filled with thought, image, text, sound. An atmosphere of receptive alertness hangs within the room.
Stephen Carley is a UK based artist. Over the course of the year he is opening up his studio to create twelve intimate and unique site specific exhibitions. I went to find out more.
As I walk through the studio door I experience an overwhelming sense of the artists urgency to project ideas. Surfaces are gouged and materials burnt, paint is sprayed across wood and dust is fixed onto rubber structures. Sounds trickle from a corner of the room and images blink and flicker on the floor. There is a discordance to the sheer quantity of media used here, and yet a preciseness of hand connects the work, pulling it together to dilute the chaos and sharpen the tone.
Within the visual cacophony of 12x12x8 I find a text piece that articulates this perfectly. Liberty, is written in water on the studio floor. Not fluid and without boundary but captured precisely and ingeniously (see question seven), distilling a chaotic, multi layered concept into a most simple and beautiful end.
The diversity of material and the way that the work is presented reflects the way Carley talks. The work on display links with the way he behaves in my company; sharing ideas emphatically, projecting every thought and responding to each fragment of a comment, editing and rephrasing a sentence to ensure that it’s received in a particular way. He is rarely still and I’m wondering whether all artist’s studios are so autobiographical.
To gain an insight into the urges and choices that define his practice I asked Stephen Carley some questions.
AHJ: Are there areas within your practice that you wish to conceal from the viewer?
SC: Only the stuff that’s rubbish, the things that go wrong or appear naïve. The series that I’m currently working on shows what I wish to communicate, how I do it and why I do it. Because the conceptual and practical elements happen in the same space that the public wander into I have been thinking about what is implicit, explicit and what might remain coded or ambiguous in my work. One of the intentions of my practice is to create a link with someone else, a point of departure, a point of controversy and conversation point. So in that respect I need to be relatively transparent...
but then if it was that obvious it would be pointless. Where is the interaction if it is spelled out? I think that there is a fine balance between blindingly obvious and ‘poetically obscure’.
AHJ: Did you excel at art as a child?
SC: Art and running were the only things I was any good at when I was young. My primary school teacher seemed to teach every lesson through the medium of drawing and I still have a drawing he made for me when I left. My teachers at secondary school were very proactive and encouraged and enabled me to try printmaking, ceramics, photography and life drawing. I loved art at school, but failed my art exams. I was very good at drawing and loved process, hence printmaking. I didn’t have anything to say back then though, so the school work was very academic.
AHJ: What ignites your creativity?
SC: It’s difficult to be precise – sometimes the simplest things can make a connection that seems very powerful. I suppose I try and remain open and aware.
At the moment the thing that ignites me is the question of whether the war in Iraq was legitimate and the huge question marks that hang over the presence of British troops in Afghanistan. I come from a ‘services’ family, my father was in the RAF for the whole of his working life and one of my brothers has been in the Royal Navy since he was 16. I think this anger and frustration that I feel is palpable within my work because it’s informed by very direct and personal experience.
Looking at the work of other artists always has an effect – positive or negative. I remember
seeing Jeremy Dellers work for the first time, ‘Acid Brass’and the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, and being determined to strip away the artifice from my work and become more connected with my immediate and wider ‘community‘.
Music has always fired me up. As a 17 year old in 1978 the whole empowering DIY scene around punk was influential. And of course, teaching; if nothing else it keeps me fundamentally connected with process, experimentation and the joy of discovery.
AHJ: Which other artists have influenced your output?
SC: I would say Helen Chadwick, especially her ‘Of Mutability’ installation. I was drawn to the combinations of media and the re-drawing of myths in a contemporary context. It was simply beautiful. Also, Anselm Keifer – the scale, the sheer enormity of it all. The taking hold of his cultural identity by the balls and giving it a bloody good shake. Christian Boltanski, who I first happened across in Paris and was deeply moved by how somber and analytical his work was. An art that can be made out of anything.... but what that is can have huge symbolic attachments, for example, dust.
AHJ: Do you consider how people will eventually engage with your work?
SC: Yes. This tends to be at the forefront of every decision I make. In the end it isn’t for me, it’s for an audience - if it’s exhibited in a gallery or on a website or in a book. The process is all me and that’s what I love doing, getting my hands dirty. But, once I’ve made it and it ‘goes live’ it has to function in that context... it’s sort of back to your first question - what shall I hide!
The decisions are always different though, at the moment I’m thinking about how subtle I can be before the audience doesn’t notice the work. Past shows have been about things like ‘how difficult can I make it for people to move about the space before they get disinterested or angry’ or ‘can I engage or repel the audience with this sound’ or ‘will this smell make them remember their childhood’.
Years ago I made a piece for the ‘National Review of Live Art’ at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow – it was a ramp that was rigged up with contact microphones fed through a delay box and a huge amplifier... when someone stepped on it there was a few seconds of nothing then a huge bang would come back at you – it was called ‘Tread Lightly My Child’. Audience engagement is at the centre of many of the ‘12X12’s either in a ‘cumulative blackboard’, origami structures or fake voting slips. You can have so much fun with the audience!
AHJ: Do you like to work in silence or to a soundtrack?
SC: I can’t listen to music when I work. I get too absorbed in the songs and stop thinking about what I’m doing. If I put the radio on, it has to be a current affairs or news station. The current affairs stuff seems to just drift in and out of my thought patterns as I’m working – I have the volume low and it might simply function as a voice in the room to keep me company. If I’m reading it has to be silence. If I’m having a serious debate with myself about some material or mark or word, silence again.
AHJ: Tell me about Liberty and how the piece was conceived?
SC: The phrase ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’ formed the focus for ‘12X12X8 three little words’. I wanted to use the words without being illustrative or overtly political, to strip them back to something poetic and contemplative. I chose dust for ‘fraternity’ and wet clay for ‘equality’ - materials in their current state that would change dramatically if touched or breathed on.
I was working out how to approach ‘liberty’ when I spilled my coffee, as the liquid pooled, its meniscus held it between grease marks on my work bench. I ran my finger through the liquid and it simply sprang back into the shape it had previously occupied. Then I had the light bulb moment, shapes could be letters, liquid could be water... It was a spontaneous process from there to create
a stencil from Vaseline and pool the water inside to form the letters. The fact that the water could evaporate over a few hours added to the piece, that it had to be continually topped up and never left to run dry became a powerful subtext to the conceptual thinking behind the piece.
AHJ: How do you harness your thoughts when you’re developing ideas?
SC: I have a cupboard and several bags full of envelopes, bits of paper, letters and other paper bits. I don’t like sketch books because they suggest linear development and don’t give you the opportunity to cross reference (without ripping all the pages out and re-arranging them!). I don’t often wake up with an idea – I always find I’ve literally exhausted my brain by the time I crash out. And I don’t trust dreams as a basis for making anything – I don’t buy into that surrealist sub conscious thing, it’s not something I feel comfortable with.
I doodle, draw, sketch, and write to remember fleeting thoughts that will one day become a more fully fledged ‘thing’. These can happen at work, on the phone, on the train, walking down the
street, listening to music. Because they are only fragments I’m happy to let them be like that and then revisit them in a more controlled and analytical frame of mind later on. I have to do this; as Brian Eno says in his ‘Oblique Strategies cards – ‘the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten‘.
AHJ: thank you Stephen for sharing your thoughts so freely and generously.