Taking inspiration from the past and paying your dues to the greats who have gone before you, without turning into parody or sheer plagiarism is a skill that not everyone can master. Whether you are a writer, film maker, designer or artist, taking inspiration or revisiting inspirational works is a tightrope. It’s one which Sheffield-based artist, James Clarkson , is currently dancing along.
One of the most industrious and respected young artists to be found in the country, Clarkson is open about the historic root of his practice. Talking in his studio at Sheffield’s S1 Artspace, Clarkson is enthusiastic about tracing the work of contemporary masters in his paintings and sculptures, but is equally keen to play his inspirations down. “They’re just influences, so other things do come into each piece. People can come to the works and are able bring their own ideas to them. It’s like an expanded art history is contained within each work” he explains.
Scattered around the room are various works, comprising computer generated prints, painted collages interspersed with waves of metallic shapes and freestanding structures that gradually climb towards shoulder height in a patchwork of dense shapes and teetering protrusions. The visual effect is immediate and simple, as block colours are interrupted by sparse, foreign objects and each obelisk stands boldly, almost aggressively self-assured in its space. At once accessible and rich with layers of overlapping references, often playing wall and floor-based work in harmony with each other, Clarkson’s work exudes confidence.
Similarly confident in discussing his artistic interests, Clarkson explains: “The basis of the work is about referencing specific and non-specific moments in art history, by finding an object which I almost instantly see has a relationship with a piece of work that already exists. For example there is a piece of a wine rack mounted in a piece, but I saw it as the format for a Paul Klee painting. By bringing it back here and splitting it into three sections and sticking it down, it became a piece of work, but I wasn’t looking for a wine rack or to create that particular piece of work before I saw it.”
Once the viewer comes to understand two distinct elements of Clarkson’s practice, namely the references to art history and working with found objects, then looking at a whole room of his work becomes a more informed voyage of discovery. It is certainly playful to tinker with his influences and in some cases directly reference particular pieces of other artist’s work, but representing them with in the detritus others might see as redundant or useless he removes hierarchical notions of value and worth. Many artists would relish the prospect of commissioning industrial scale showstoppers, or perhaps more modest material ambitions for fabricated pieces of work in steel or stone, but Clarkson is clear that no part of his work gets specially made; only discovered.
When asked about his penchant for picking up materials as car windows and kitchen equipment, he explains: “I’m excited by the possibility that you can make anything you want, without having to get it made. Like needing a cylinder of marble and finding it in a rolling pin, or there are loads of good marble cheeseboards that were popular in the eighties and nineties that are great for making relief work on. It’s the same with the metal, a lot of things are made of metal in powder coated colours, and it’s just a case of finding that object that has those qualities.”
Going back a little further in time, before coming back to the artist as he is today, Clarkson’s says that his journey towards finding his feet as an artist came when he was lucky, or skilled enough to get the chance to base himself at the renowned S1 Artspace as a student. Whilst studying at Sheffield Hallam University he was selected to join the gallery’s bursary programme, offering him reduced rate accommodation to shape his practice around his final degree show, with the added pressure of a second show in the S1 gallery once his time was up. He appears to have taken the weight of expectation in his stride and got the most from the environment in which he suddenly found himself.
“It was a great opportunity,” he says “because you can reflect further on some of the issues or problems you faced during your degree show, with the support of a curator in a gallery with a reputation. So that’s when I really started to develop work, which wasn’t geared towards gaining a mark at university. It was a support mechanism that makes you have to keep making work. A lot of the time, graduates find it difficult to find the drive to keep working after the stress of a degree show. It’s about learning how to be professional, such as how your relationship with a curator can work.”
Clarkson’s experience of being pushed into an environment of artistic industry, of collaboration and deadlines came in sharp contrast to the lessons he had learnt as a degree student, explaining that visiting artists would often tell students about themselves and their own practice, rather than what students could expect to achieve, or experience as artists in the real world. So, as someone now used to foraging for experiences of his own, Clarkson eventually ended up having to step over the threshold of the nurturing studio environment, into the cold world of public exhibitions. On making that leap, it turned out that the outside world was just as warm to his work.
A landmark show for him was with Supercollider in Blackpool, opening in July 2011. He recalls the experience of exhibiting with the arts led venue, saying: “The first time I felt I achieved something that was akin to my own practice was in Blackpool. That was about a year after I graduated, so it took that long to work through and develop my ideas. I had always been interested in the same things, but I went through a period of making myself more explicit. The show was based on an exercise undertaken by students at the Bauhaus, whereby an existing object is given to students and they deconstruct the object into a series of colours and forms, to then use as an instruction for a whole body of new works, a visual manifesto in some respects. Through that process I realised that you could take something that already exists and use it in a contemporary way.”
Taking objects that already exist is one thing, but taking work that already exists and representing it differently is another. Clarkson cites Ben Nicholson, the Bauhaus movement and Alexander Calder as particular inspirations, with the latter hitting you between the eyes as soon as you look at many of the arcing and juxtaposed, boldly coloured shapes in much of the artist’s work. He talks through a piece titled Two Birds In Space, offering a respectful nod to Brancusi’s sculpture Bird In Space, effectively demystifying high art by juxtaposing the line of the original sculpture with the line around a female behind in hot pants. The marriage of the two, uncannily similar forms is irresistibly clever and humorous at the same time. That the work was another project with Supercollider, this time offsite and offered to the people of Blackpool via a disused shop window, only confirms the work’s success as an endlessly looping reflection on multiple themes of sexuality, humour, history and merit in modern culture. The work was later represented as part of a solo exhibition at Rhubaba, Edinburgh, where the work could be viewed as part of a larger exhibition based upon a quote taken from Comte de Comte de Lautréamont’s 19th century prose poem, Les Chants de Maldoror.
Clarkson returns to the theme of artistic grandeur and chipping away at the closed minds and reputations forced on artists and art lovers by the establishment which controls how we value and view art. For a recent show Comedian, Corinthian, Caricature, at Public House Projects, London, he took the cue from another rebellious interpreter of past masters by referencing Fernand Leger’s Mona Lisa With The Keys, a 1930 painting which paired the original’s infamous smile with a bunch of household keys. The comment where beauty in art lies could barely have been lost on anyone. Of the project Clarkson says: “My show will expand that narrative. I have made a large print, with the Mona Lisa as part of it, which will be hung with a bunch of rejected, useless brass keys displayed against it that I got from a locksmith. It’s shows that art history isn’t absolute.”
Clarkson is no more keen to make his own practice absolute than he is to let art history rest where I lies and after a thrusting start to his career, the indications are that he is keen to blend in a little more with his landscape. He is looking at collaborations more after a successful partnership with Haroon Mirza for a show at Spike Island in Bristol and after solo shows in Edinburgh and London he is just as happy to share space, explaining: “Sometimes it’s more enjoyable being in group shows because you can just make one really nice thing, and it’s down to the curator to make it work. Working between group work and solo exhibitions is a really nice balance. The work with Haroon was great, and another collaboration with Hannah Knights for Line Magazine has been really productive too. It keeps things really fresh.”
Looking ahead, Clarkson will test himself again by stepping out of the limelight as an artist, but taking the opportunity to design an interior pavilion at David Dale Gallery, Glasgow, in which other artists will be asked to display their work. Of course, there is inspiration from a historic project in the work, in particular Yves Klein’s mural for the Gelsenkirchen Opera House in Germany. It is not particularly the mural that interests Clarkson, but the way the West German Ceramics Company turned Klein’s imagery into a design for vases.
“The two weren’t associated at all;” says Clarkson “and the premise of the show will play on the idea that art can become an interior design object that references art history through the way it is presented. It will play on the idea of these things being quite disparate, but closely connected.”
A busy mind inevitably inspires busy hands, and James Clarkson is taking his chances, letting his ideas play out in increasingly ambitious ways and expressing his artistic vision with clarity. His work is at once uncomplicated and direct, but equally engaging and multi-faceted. When it comes to his aspirations however, he evidently remains a young practitioner finding his way in the world. When asked what he would like to happen next, there’s a simple and quite attainable ambition above and beyond any hopes to emulate those artists he chooses as his inspirations.
He simply says: “Just to have the opportunity to keep trying things out, because this feels like a really productive time.” Undoubtedly, he will be afforded that luxury at least.
Info: James Clarkson lives and works in Sheffield, UK. He will be exhibiting as part of «solo-show» by Kate Liston at Reg Vardy Gallery, Sunderland between 23 April – 17 May 2012, Oriel Davies Art Prize at Oriel Davies Gallery, Wales between 28 April – 27 June and A Painted Sun as a Yellow Spot at Rod Barton Gallery, London between 10 May – 16 June.
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