Agnes Martin at Tate Modern

Apollo Magazine, July 2015. Original article

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Agnes Martin and the singular obsession

What is Agnes Martin trying to say? If you really want to know you will have to go see for yourself, because rarely does art lose quite so much in a photograph. Even once you are there, it takes a moment to work out what is going on: the Tate Modern retrospective of the American artist demands a certain commitment. Because as Agnes Martin once said: “Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind.”

At first glance the surfaces are plain – beige, grey, muddy yellow – but take a moment to slow your breath and much will be revealed. Do not expect the titles to be much help though: “I love the whole world” is one, another is “Happy holiday”, and so it goes, as if she is mocking our instinct to look for clues. Agnes Martin is not a thought – she is a feeling. This is the softest geometry, and the mellowest company you will keep today.

The exhibition runs chronologically, from Martin’s initial shapes in muted colours to the signature grids, which she started in the 1960s and stuck to for the rest of her life. For a body of work that is so meditative, Martin’s art also has a distinctly obsessive streak: she used a ruler to create her lines and blocks, always trying to get it straighter, more exact. Many of the grid paintings have tiny repetitive patterns – it is as if you can feel her there, straining so hard to get it just the way she wants it.

Martin’s extreme desire for order on the canvas can possibly be traced back to her schizophrenia, which she suffered from throughout her adult life. Sometimes this contrast can be felt on the canvas: the picture is a wish, the painful flipside or reality. But other times the same process creates a result that is nothing short of magical; “Friendship” is a large-scale canvas covered in gold foil, laid out in bright and deliciously dirty rectangles. It is still subtle, like everything Martin does, but the effect is a shiver down the back. “A grey stone” is another wonderful experience: the closely detailed grey surface transforms gentleness into thrill.

More blocks of would-be dull colours follow in the next room, but by this point we are primed to love it: pale grey, pale beige, off-white; small rectangles, dots, tiny squares. Then a whole section of graphite grey, in what starts to feel like obsession – what is happening here? The answer comes in the next room, where obsession turns into worship with the series called “The Islands”. Now the canvases are all in white, over and over, surrounding you, and the effect is nothing short of elating. The paintings glow from the slightly darkened walls, and it feels like the problem Martin has been working so hard to solve has reached some sort of resolution. The answer, it feels like she is saying, is in the light.

Martin’s journey towards a single colour brings to mind another Tate Modern retrospective: Mark Rothko in 2008-09. But while Martin’s journey of simplification culminates in bright white, Rothko ventured in the opposite direction: he moved through colour towards a room of canvases in intense black. What both conclusions have in common is a feeling of reaching answers to inner turmoil; “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal,” Rothko wrote in his New York Times manifesto, co-signed by Adolph Gottlieb. “We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

Rothko’s journey ended differently than Martin’s: he committed suicide at 66, while Martin kept painting into old age, passing of natural causes at 92. For both artists, their Tate Modern retrospectives present one more room after their singular colour experiences, and in both cases the final insight feels revealing. For Rothko, it was the reintroduction of light: subtle panes of silvery grey started creeping into his black canvases, insisting that maybe there is more than one answer. For Martin, it is the breaking with her strict geometry: bold blocks of purple, defiant lines of red, cheeky tips of acidic yellow. It is still precise and exact, but it feels less obsessed and more playful. It feels like the work of someone with nothing to prove and nothing to lose – it feels like a wink, is what it does.

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Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)

This Is Tomorrow, July 2015. 

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 16.05.09Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)
Modern Art Oxford, 2015

What is technology, but another tool for shaping our identities? Lynn Hershman Leeson has been exploring the relationship between humans and technology for over 50 years, starting in a time before technology looked anything like it does today. Her multi-disciplinary approach remains pioneering, and if Hershman Leeson is a so-called digital artist, it’s is done with much subtlety. That’s also why it works: the digital element is here to enhance the idea, not an end in itself.

The retrospective at Modern Art Oxford shows a distinct thread running through Hershman Leeson’s work, from today’s interactive pieces all the way back to the earliest drawings. The show runs chronologically, easing you in with paintings of wired figures and their shadows, the first dated to 1962. The Breathing Machine makes subtle noises in response to people passing, a mechanism which was groundbreaking at the time and eerie still today. It feels like there’s someone here with me, and it’s possible that this someone is my own shadow: I’m the one who’s creating this presence.

The Roberta Breitmore archives stretch from 1974 to 1978, when Hershman Leeson created this fascinating alter ego, going great lengths to give this artificial character a complex inner life. From the photos, Roberta seems somewhat put on, with exaggerated make-up and what is obviously a wig – she’s a shadow that’s not quite right. “I saw her as a mirror of culture,” Hershman Leeson has said, but Roberta arguably became her own person. There are letters confirming her rental agreement, and Roberta’s notes to friends. Roberta left traces like a real person, but in retrospect, how can we tell what was real and what’s just a shadow?

All the while, the nearby Breathing Machine continues to make sounds. The idea of surveillance and monitoring takes on a more obvious shape in the Dante Hotel project, although the photographs from 1973 makes you wonder why we’re so muted in our outrage about surveillance today. We know we’re being monitored to a greater extent than ever before, in the street as well as in electronic communication. But for better or worse, it’s possible that privacy as a value in and of itself is fading.

Hershman Leeson’s early works take on new meaning as the visitor encounters Agent Ruby. Just like Hershman Leeson created Roberta Breitmore, we each have the opportunity to construct a digital persona in the manner of our choosing. Agent Ruby is a creature of artificial intelligence, and she invites you to talk to her via a keyboard. “Is the internet real life?” I ask, and she answers: “If it is, I’d be surprised.” We chat a little – she’s clever, and intriguingly philosophical. Sometimes she turns the question back at you, and I’m surprised how quickly I start to feel that Ruby is interested in me.

The third section of the show contains a film curated by Modern Art Oxford, where Hershman Leeson has interviewed Oxford-based scientists and researchers about genetic technology. The Infinity Engine is presented in an immersive space with photographs and paperwork pertaining to genetic discoveries. The scientifically grown ear in the picture – is it more or less real than Agent Ruby or Roberta? The microbiologist in the film is talking about evolution: “Biology can be very scary,” he says, explaining how we must take responsibility for what we create.

The Infinity Engine is ambitious in its attempt to explore a complex issues such as genetics, but it’s less approachable than the rest of the show and it takes a minute for a link to the previous works to suggest itself. But maybe anything can be a mirror of ourselves, from synthetic biology and Agent Ruby, all the way back to Roberta and the wired shadows in the earliest paintings. We create these representations and they can be whatever we make them, good or ugly. I get up from my seat after the film, and for a moment I can’t find the exit from the laboratory-like room. All I can see are the slightly warped walls, mirroring back to me numerous versions of my own twisted image.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

Whitehot Magazine, 2011. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 12.08.11Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgment

The Serpentine Gallery, London. 

Michelangelo Pistoletto has got us all working for him. The artwork displayed at the Serpentine is only part of the equation; the rest is up to us visitors, moving slowly through the maze of swirling cardboard. The corrugated paper winds itself around the entire gallery, leading us on, every now and again depositing us in front of a massive mirror. There is no escaping Pistoletto’s mirrors; it is just you there, surrounded by white walls and cardboard, with no choice other than to look. Your eyes scan over your fellow audience, the walls and the ceiling, until like it or not, they come to rest on your own reflection.

Pistoletto, the Italian artist of worldwide renown, is no stranger to the themes of reflection and participation. It can seem as if there is a social experiment at work here, starting when visitors enter the gallery and search for instructions whether to go left or right. But there is no set order to the art, which is constantly changing anyway; it is all down to us. Standing in front of the big mirrors, several of the visitors seem uncomfortable having to look at themselves so blatantly, resorting to a quick adjustment of hair or clothing before scuffling on.  We are used to being provided with direction when looking at art, but Pistoletto does not seem to be all that interested in telling us what to think. Instead he sends us on our merry way through the labyrinth, possibly a metaphor for life, where around each corner we encounter a new version of ourselves.

Having said that, with an exhibition named The Mirror of Judgment it is clear Pistoletto is not devoid of motives. The four largest mirrors are adorned with iconography from one of four religions: a Buddha, an Islamic prayer mat, a Christian altar and the Jewish tablets. Pistoletto uses the word “judgment”, but there is something unifying about the way the cardboard maze ties it all together, creating a feeling it may in fact be about the opposite. Whether you stand by the prayer mat or the Buddha, the experience is the same: you, and your thoughts.

As the labyrinth leads us into the centre room of the Serpentine, we encounter Pistoletto’s mirror obelisk. Suspended from the ceiling are three large ovals, forming a symbol of infinity. The angles of the sculpture mean you get a different view each time you move, of the ovals, the obelisk and of the perpetually mirrored visitors. Then suddenly, only for a minute, I find myself alone in the room, with no reflection other than my own. With only white wall and brown paper behind me, I watch myself walk, conscious of the vanity but reluctant to look away. Pistoletto offers us no paintings to admire, no sculptures to study; just the maze, the mirrors and what we see when we look into them. I am not entirely sure what it means, but I believe the answer lies in the experience.

Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

This Is Tomorrow, 2012. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.51.46Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

David Roberts Art Foundation, London

It is a good thing the word “compendium” features so prominently even before you enter the gallery, as it makes a helpful prelude of what is to come. “Where is the rule?” is what Bouvard and Pécuchet used to say, the characters from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel whose name has been given to this exhibition. The two Parisian gentlemen would meet to fuel each other’s curiosity about the world, studying a myriad of subject ranging from agriculture to medicine. After spending an hour at the David Roberts Art Foundation I am not sure if I am any the wiser about this elusive rule, but I do believe this show is not about a hunt for the red thread – but an exploration of that thing they call beauty. At least that is what followed my initial confusion about the volume of such diverse pieces, once I gave in and just focused on how good most of these works ultimately are.

34 artworks from as many artists make up this exhibition, including several famous names. Sometimes it feels like an education, while in other moments it is just luxurious to wander in a space where pieces were chosen because the curators liked them; the search for beauty has overwhelmed all other concerns. Still, says Pécuchet: “Beauty must be sought within a rule,” so the exhibition is divided into nine categories. But then Bouvard says: “Everybody knows that rules are not sufficient. Something else is needed: genius. And genius comes from sentiment, manifesting in expression.”

An urn by Grayson Perry is the first item comes first, representing the “Classic v expression” category. Photographed faces are contrasted against classical drawings around the pot, perfectly illustrating in a single work the points made by both Pécuchet and Bouvard about rules and their counterweight. “Memento mori” has Gerald Byrne’s large black and white photo of a newsstand, where an extra layer of meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of David Shrigley’s taxidermy kitten carrying a sign reading: “I’m dead”. The “Realism” segment has Thomas Demand’s large photograph of an empty office next to a perfectly crafted bin bag by Gavin Turk and a broom by Susan Collis, both easily mistakable for something left by the cleaners. Notes Bouvard: “The most banal things are liable to reveal new facets about the world. Modern life conceals within itself so much richness.”

‘Female beauty’ is the biggest single category in the show, with Valie Export’s “Body Sign Action 2” from 1970 being a standout piece. A big black and white image shows us a close-up of a woman’s hips; she has an intriguing tattoo on her thigh and her shadow plays up against the wall behind. Only then do you realise she is naked, a fact less subtle in the other images from this segment. One is a classic topless pose, another is a comical sex painting, the third is a man surveying a woman presented to him. Another excellent piece is Mario Pascual’s “Untitled” from 2010, where the photograph is gently folded in the middle so most of the woman disappears. Her head and shin sticks out, and somehow this is the most titillating of all.

Down the stairs, to “Abstraction”, we encounter Roy Lichtenstein’s six images of a cow. Each reworking looks less and less like an animal, illustrating Pécuchet’s point about abstraction being the final stand against art needing to represent anything at all: “One must reduce, purify.” Less obvious in its message but possibly even more intriguing is Bram Bogart’s “Blanc tombant”, where piled-on layers of paint are now hidden under a coat of white. Next, in the “Outsider beauty” category, is Douglas White’s “Mop print 1”: a large tea stain on a piece of paper, buckled from the moisture long since evaporated.

At the end of the exhibition we find “The sublime”: consisting of only one piece of art, by Graham Hudson. By this point, Bouvard and Pécuchet have run out of words to try and determine the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, and how to measure taste, because the rules have proved useless. Hudson’s rectangular box lined with lights spin slowly, and there is only one thing to say: how wonderful.

 

The weird, the wonderful and the WickED

Source Magazine, spring 2015. Original article.

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The weird, the wonderful, the Hackney WickED
The Hackney WickED festival is a three-day explosion of the creativity of London’s most brilliant arts hub. But the community that’s the beating heart of Hackney Wick keeps the spirit alive all year round.

Hackney Wick doesn’t feel like the rest of London – actually it doesn’t even feel like the rest of Hackney. Coming off the Overground you immediately see the larger-than-life red letters on the wall: ‘HW’ they read, setting it in stone. And further along a more modest scrawl: ‘Welcome to the Wick’. This is a place by artists and for artists, but you’re welcome to come stay a while: linger in the galleries, study the artful graffiti, have a drink at The Hackney Pearl.

The biggest influx of visitors happens during the Hackney WickED festival. Last summer 35,000 people came for a peek behind the industrial facades as artists opened their studio doors. Not to mention all the gallery exhibitions, tours and workshops hosted during the festival, along with music, food and drink. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to run this festival for seven years with so little money,” says Anna Maloney, festival director at Hackney WickED. “We’re a volunteer-run arts organisation, so it’s based mostly on goodwill.”

The first studios opened in 2001 as artists came to the Wick in search of affordable spaces to work and live. The Hackney WickED festival came along in 2008 to celebrate and promote the art and community. “A main aim of Hackney WickED is to bring the artists together, to work together more closely and celebrate what we have here,” says Maloney, who estimates the Wick has near a thousand studios.

The feeling of community is the reason artists come and stay in the Wick: “I was looking for a large space where I could make noise and dust and be messy,” says Lee Borthwick, an artist at TM Studios. “I wanted to be in a more professional environment, and around people a bit further ahead in their practice so I could learn from them. The community in Hackney Wick has been far beyond my expectations.”

TM Studios is one of many who welcome visitors during the Hackney WickED festival. “You get people who’re interested in seeing the work and have a conversation with you,” says Borthwick. “People were buying work, which was lovely. That happened more the second year I opened, as people have to see you a few times to know you’re a professional, to get to know what you’re doing.”

Hackney WickED is currently working on become more of a sustainable, year-round presence in the Wick. “There’s so much change in the area” says Maloney, pointing to the concerns weighing heavy on the heart of every artist working in the Wick right now: several studios have been given notice to vacate, as the popularity of the area has led to increasing outside pressure. Hackney WickED was in part established to protect the artist community in the face of change, which has escalated since the Olympics. “First of all we’re an art organisation with an annual art festival, but we’re also a network of artists and a community working together. The festival wouldn’t happen without the participation of the people in the community,” says Maloney. “It’s a fine balance.”

Joanna Hughes, director at Mother Studios, believes Hackney WickED has been crucial to the success of the area: “The lasting legacy of Hackney WickED is how it’s pooled the community and made it stronger. […] Being an artist can be a solitary life, so you need your peers in the art world to help you on your way.” Hughes was among the first artists to come to the Wick, and feels strongly that the arts hub needs protection in order to continue thriving: “When I opened Mother Studios I had a waiting list immediately, and I’ve never lost it. There are twice as many artists as artist studios in London.”

Daisy Bentley, part of the Tunnel Studios artist collective, recently lost her studio space in the Wick. “I’m hoping I’ll find a new one in time for this summer’s Hackney WickED. If not, I’ll definitely be getting involved in events.” Working in the Wick for three years has done more for her art practice than a decade of arts education, says Bentley: “People tend to shut themselves away in their studios, so Hackney WickED is an invaluable opportunity for everyone to share and open up to potential collaborations.”

While she prefers to keep a closed door to get work done, Nina Fowler appreciates the opportunity to get to know her neighbours during Hackney WickED. “I usually decide near the time if I’ll open my door during the festival, as it depends on what I’m working on and how accommodating my studio is to guests,” says Fowler, who works at Wallis Studios. Last year, festivalgoers could take part in her ‘Polaroid Portrait’ photo booth. “The festival reminds us there’s a large and thriving creative community in the area, and this is something to be celebrated.”

It’s a long time since Hackney Wick was “a mudpatch in the middle of nowhere”, as Doctor Who said in 1976. Even so, during the first Hackney WickED festival in 2008 there were no bars or restaurants in the area, and the organisers would sell drinks out of a caravan. Today, people come to the Wick to shop and eat all year round, indulging in the smoked salmon at Forman’s or a microbrew at whatever pop-up bar is attracting crowds that week. Even though it’s still geographically isolated between a major road and the canal, the Overground has made the area much more accessible. All the while, artists are busy at work in the warehouses lining every street, building the creative energy that’s unique to the Wick and thoroughly infectious.

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Buckminster Fuller

Whitehot Magazine, 2012. Original article.

Buckminster Fuller: The Utopian Impulse
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 31 March – 29 July 2012

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 12.26.39‘Radical idealism’ is what Buckminster Fuller called it. It was the 1960s, a time when everything people had taken for granted was up in the air and the future was a place with minimalist design, energy efficient housing and maybe even a colony on the moon. ‘The Utopian Impulse’ is not only an insight into Fuller’s ideas for the future, one where technology and sustainability stands at the centre, but also a picture of what the world could be like if was created through elegant design, inspired by nature and boldly executed with a mandate to make things better.

Or maybe it was too much to ask, because by the time the 1980s rolled around, boasting a very different brand of radicalism, people had stopped picturing this fantastical future. So where did the dreams go? At least this is what I am wondering after spending a couple of hours surrounded by the imagination of Buckminster, lovingly displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While Fuller (1895 – 1983) never lived in the Bay Area, he lectured here extensively, making this exhibition a perfect fit for an area with a unique magnetism for idealists, inventors, non-conformists and dreamers of various ilk.

The ‘Inventions’ series consists of 13 drawings patented by Fuller in his mission to create superior solutions. There is the teardrop-shaped car; a design for a rowing boat consisting of two beams and a seat; a base for septic fuel tanks. A photograph shows Fuller next to a dome-shaped building covered in round windows, the most energy-efficient form. Geometrical shapes are repeated everywhere, chosen for practicality and kept for being pleasing to the eye. This is not a coincidence, observed Fuller: “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

The stand-out piece is the ‘Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map’, where Fuller has taken a globe and laid it out flat, in triangles. Looking at the world with the North Pole as the centre, you suddenly realise all the land masses link together. Fuller was a fan of the triangle, calling it the only shape that is “inherently stable”, as described in the ‘Synergistic Dictionary’. A selection of the 22,000 entries typed up on index cards are displayed, providing a glimpse into how this man saw the world. Take the entry for ‘Spiral’: “A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event.” It may seem a little kooky, but there is evidence that Fuller was way ahead of his time, especially with his energy-efficient solutions. The teardrop-shaped car from 1933 had unprecedented fuel efficiency; the ‘4D House’ from 1928 is an hexagonal autonomous dwelling designed to be optimally resource efficient, as well as capable of mass production in factories for off-site assembly.

‘The Utopian Impulse’ also includes pieces by artists and designers whose works are in a similar vein to Fuller. The Ant Farm Collective was established in San Francisco in 1968, a group which expanded the role of architecture to include performance, film, installation and animation. On display is their ‘Convention City’ model from 1978, a dome-shaped suggestion for Texas. There are pamphlets from the Office of Appropriate Technology, established in California in 1976 with the task of assisting state agencies in developing and implementing less costly and energy-saving initiatives. Solar energy, farmers markets and bicycling programmes were among its efforts.

For an exhibition so firmly focused on the future, ‘The Utopian Impulse’ feels distinctly retro. This is probably a natural consequence of styles having changed since the 1960s, but the main element to this feeling is the sneaking awareness that these people, who made this work nearly 40 years ago, may have been more optimistic about the future than we are now. Maybe we know more now, about the limitations of power generation and the complexities of politics, and we are simply resigned to the fact that the future will take a little longer to get here than we had hoped. The ‘Earth Flag’, made in 1969 by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell’s, hangs on the wall; it has a grey and white planet on a blue background. It looks so simple.

Or maybe we just have different dreams now, ones which we can actually reach: fewer underwater colonies, just better waste recycling. And energy-neutral housing: amongst a handful of post-millennium works included in the exhibition is IwamotoScott’s ‘Jellyfish House’ from 2005, an intricate architectural model made from mesh, with soft curves like a sea creature. ‘Hydramax Port Machine’ from 2012, bulit by Future Cities Labs, looks like a plant with tentacles, moving softly under water. The building is designed to capture moisture and to store and re-circulate water inside the building. It is not quite “peace on earth” but it is distinctly in the tradition of Fuller, who sought the attention of the individual and not governments; he wanted us to each add our knowledge and resources to build a future we would feel a part of.

In 1965, Fuller initiated something he called the ‘World Game’ project. He described it as a data-visualisation system to facilitate global approaches in solving the world’s problems, wanting it to contribute to “mak[ing] the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Nowadays we call it the internet. Fuller believed greater access to information would generate more humanitarian problem-solving, and on a good day, that is what the internet does. There is a lot of work to do still, but l think Buckminster Fuller would be excited about what comes next.

Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub

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Source Magazine, autumn 2014.

 Original article.

art2Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub 

She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.

Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.

Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”

Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”

It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”

Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”

And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.

Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”

We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”

Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.

***

art3Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”

The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”

Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”

Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”

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art4Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”

As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”

art5Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”

Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”

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art6Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”

Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”

Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.

And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”

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art7Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”

Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”

The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.

Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”

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art8Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”

Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.

One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”

Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”

This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”

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