whitehot | April 2011: Interview with Adam Clarke
Interview with Adam Clarke
In exploring the three scrubbed-up, former office rooms containing books, resources and works of art comprising here not there, it seems fitting to begin with The Lamp Room. This temporary library space, complete with writing desks and other furniture, manifests artist-curator Adam Clarke’s proactive response to problems faced by contemporary artists now. In this way, The Lamp Room serves as an excellent introduction to the exhibition’s ethos as a whole.
The notion of the library or resource centre as an installation in itself has become a recent tradition, particularly in politically focused, research-oriented contemporary practice. For example, the Martha Rosler Library installed at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh in 2008, provided a touchable, readable and carefully catalogued archive of the radical left wing artist’s literature collection in a comfortably studious environment. This year, gracing the new Whitechapel Gallery, London, was Goshka Macuga’s painstakingly researched documentary archive on Picasso’s Guernica, and a bookable meeting space for political activists.
Clarke’s ambition to catalyse real, ‘intuitive’ artistic community and freshly defined success, unreliant on the institutional big guns, is realised in here not there. In so doing, he meshes together the human dynamic of contemporary artist networks; the activist library; and earlier waves of artist-led, ‘empty shop’ activity, from Claes Oldenburg’s, 1961, low budget, Store project on New York’s Lower East Side, to the pioneering Steppenwolf theatre company productions in disused commercial spaces in late 1970s Chicago.
In here not there, the relationship between artists Michael Stumpf, Diane Welford and Clarke has as much to do with their interwoven professional allegiances, DIY attitude and critical interest in other grassroots practitioners’ art, as with their converging interests in the handmade, notions of labour, and the association of their works to time and to language. This type of flexible curatorial practice lets experimental connections be suggested between the three exhibiting artists’ work, with a lightness of touch.
Described by Ruth Claxton as ‘a sometimes poetic, sometimes perilous material alphabet’, Stumpf’s works rely upon an unstable, internal grammar of recurring motifs, colours and materials. In this exhibition, for example, an axe is cast in purple paraffin wax, producing a slow burning, figurative candle that leans melancholically against a chair. While intrinsically part of its carefully balanced group of wooden chair and stuffed fabric boulder, the axe also relates to earlier candle pieces such as a purple, wax tree stump: fairy tale chopping fodder, perhaps, for the unfortunately breakable tool.
Welford’s almost-reliefs on unframed, notelet sized paper also figure destabilised language, only on a more intimate scale. Seeking to ‘preserve the ephemeral and fleeting nature of thought’, Welford uses blotting paper to capture the pressure marks made by barely conscious notes-to-self, resulting in a strange cuneiform, allusive and indecipherable. In the way that these disrupted texts pinpoint moments in time, like elegant post-its, they bear a converse relationship to Clarke’s laborious, scaled up wall drawings. Clarke’s titles always include a reference to the lengthy time taken to make the ‘process drawings’ in fine, HB pencil. The drawings last only as long as the exhibition’s duration, and this ephemerality only serves to emphasise the stoic-yet-sensitive craft that is also a quality of Stumpf’s heavy-duty stitching, dying and metal-casting.
And so the fleeting connections continue, while opportunities to learn from one another’s practice grow exponentially. here not there is an exhibition that functions as a resource room, both in and out of the library; valuing person to person relationships as dearly as aesthetic ones, this is a project with a promising future. I spoke to here not there’s organiser Adam Clarke about his motivations, living and working in a small city, and getting great feedback on the show from Lawrence Weiner.
Becky Hunter: What’s your mission for here not there?
Adam Clarke: The mission is to be more active. In the arts, you can’t really expect things. While people do expect things all the time, I wanted to say if you’re going to do something, do it yourself. That way, you can’t complain. A lot of people say, oh it’s terrible, the art scene. It doesn’t have to be, you can make it yourself. That’s one thing I wanted to do, try and make something – if you’re at the front of it and you’re leading it then more people will come and talk to you because people recognize you, they think you know a little bit more, they ask you for advice. But I’m not sure if that’s a mission…
Hunter: Is it the wrong word?
Clarke: I don’t really know where I’m going with the gallery, with curating, with organizing. And that’s the key. If I don’t know the mission of what this thing is, it becomes more interesting to me, because if I don’t know nobody else knows. Then I’m trying to work out this ball of energy and direct it in the right way. It’s also about diversions: diverting eyes towards the North East, away from commercial galleries and towards other galleries.
Hunter: Are you quite committed to staying here?
Clarke: I keep thinking, “should I stay?” But I think, well, if I move away then I start again. If you move somewhere like London or New York, it’s really difficult to find the right level, to find out where you should be. But if you set that level yourself… I couldn’t move to a big city, I’d be drowned.
Hunter: I feel the same
Clarke: If you went to Philadelphia, or if I moved to Glasgow, or somewhere else, we’d have to be somewhere quite low key.
Hunter: Somewhere that you could make more of an effect yourself rather than get swallowed up.
Clarke: Yeah definitely. If you move to London and say you’re an artist, you’re opening up to a bigger field, and you’re competing with a lot more for a lot less. But in the North East, and lesser-known towns, you do have to compete, but you feel like you’ve got the freedom. You don’t have to enter every competition. You can actually pick and choose because you don’t have high rents or rates to worry about.
Hunter: Have you found that you have a lot of support for what you’re doing? Or has it been a struggle on your own?
Clarke: It’s probably been a struggle because I’m a bit of a control freak. I find it easier if I just do things, as I like them done a certain way. But, there’s been loads of support from friends, other artists, and I’ve had people to come to the show that wouldn’t normally go to any shows. I coincide show openings with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) openings. I knew there would be certain people there that I wanted to see the show.
Hunter: Did you manage to bring people over?
Clarke: Yes, Brett Lipman, director of the Drawing Center New York; Mary Doyle, of the Drawing Room, London; Ben Harman, curator at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow; and Lawrence Weiner as well. It was quite funny. In the guest book there are lots of normal names, then the last six or so names… I’d have probably shut the show after that. It’s all about association. You know you’re doing something right when mima are getting people like that to their exhibitions, and that they’re interested in your show across the road.
Hunter: So what did Lawrence Weiner think of the show?
Clarke: He just walked round. He said, “good stuff.” He’s like Keith Richards: he’s been there, he’s done it, and that’s really all he needs to do. He has hundreds of stories, like, “this reminds me of the time I was with Gordon Matta Clark in Amsterdam,” and you forget what you’re doing and you listen to someone else’s story.
Hunter: What was the first exhibition that you put on at here not there?
Clarke: I don’t know whether the show was called here not there, or the gallery is called here not there. That’s what I like, that gives you the flavour, the words “here not there” are ambiguous. It can be quite a vicious phrase as well, perhaps creating friction between different galleries, or between London and the North. It could be played towards something, although it could mean nothing. The phrase was taken from a piece of text that Donald Judd said; it evolved from there.
I looked at what I can reach, who I can speak to. For the show featuring myself, Diane Welford and Michael Stumpf, I imagined a level playing field, with one more established artist. It’s quite a simple scenario, so that when the younger artists go on to do better things, it sort of validates things. Same with yourself, when you get a writer who is obviously going on to do bigger and better things it validates the whole project. I met Michael [artist and former Transition Gallery director] a few times at dinners, then I got his mobile number and just decided to ring him up. That’s what I like, just being a bit cheeky, saying, “do you want to do this, it’ll be good?!” If you’re on the phone, you win all the time because you know what you’re about to say and they don’t.
Hunter: Can we talk about your own work a little?
Clarke: It came around over the last two or three years. Initially, I started off as a screen printer. It wasn’t the idea of screen printing that I liked; it was that you prepare, you take time. I only ever used the stencil once, so it was the idea of cost, time and effort.
Hunter: Totally disregarding the usual method of screen printing?
Clarke: Yes, I thought it was about the idea of discarding the tradition of printing. But since I’ve had this studio, the idea of time and the idea of labour have become more important. I struggled as a painter, because I think it’s too vast. There’s so much depth and so much referencing to what paints, how to use them, too complicated.
Hunter: Too much history?
Clarke: So I stripped it right back. I gave myself set dimensions, set working hours, to see what I could do from there. The idea of using a HB pencil is that there’s no dark, no light. It’s that middle ground where nothing happens, repetitive, one after another, following the lines. I like the idea of something following another after another. Frank Stella, his paintings were just repetitiveness. Richard Serra as well. That’s what I find interesting. There are ways that I look at [the drawings] as sculpture; you’re practicing, performing, sculpting a line.
Hunter: You’re drawing on a more accessible history, coming from the 1960s.
Clarke: Yes, 1960s conceptual art. If there was a reference that would be it.
Hunter: But you’re allowing yourself to show your own hand a bit more than they would have done.
Clarke: I now make woodcuts and drawings; though they’re completely different they have a similar core. When you leave a line on a piece of paper it will always be there, because graphite is completely permanent. Similarly, there is the idea that this wood takes one hundred years to form… the prints from the woodcuts are nothing at all. They’re byproducts of making something. There’s still the idea of time and title. The title is just the time it takes, which is written on the back of every drawing. It’s quite simple because the only thing I have to worry about is the work that’s on the wall or that’s on the paper. The reason I find [American] work from the 1960s so interesting is because it was moving away from European conformist painting, for example, if you’ve got a black square here, you have to put something in this corner. I like the idea of balance, as opposed to equality of composition. There’s a lot more text around this time as well.
Hunter: A big part of my PhD will be on the 1960s…
Clarke: The 1960s were really interesting because when people were in the 1960s, a lot of the time, they were saying, “what are we doing, this is so boring”, but now when they look back, they say, “this is the greatest stuff we’ve ever done.” It’s so strange. This was from a book called something like The Year of 1963, and people are recorded as saying that the year was boring.
But the actual, physical part of my work is the idea of hand to paper, or to wall.
Hunter: Have you thought about the different meanings of “work” here: the object, the time, the labour?
Clarke: It’s almost like a paycheck. You see that [the drawing] is my thirty-six hours a week I’ve worked. It’s like when I work on an exhibition, I call myself an organiser but not a curator. I can organise but I can’t curate.
Hunter: Why? Too much pressure?
Clarke: As a curator, you’ve labeled yourself and you’ve put yourself in a big pool, with a vast array of knowledge. I don’t profess to have that sort of knowledge. … I don’t know why I do art, but I know now that it’s not a quick fix. It will take me fifteen years to get somewhere that I’ll be happy. It’s really frustrating because you know that’s how things work as well.
Hunter: Finally, in what sort of space, and with which artists would you aspire to work?
Clarke: In terms of a building, I don’t know where my work fits. But in terms of an artist: Fred Sandback. His letters and diaries are so unbelievable. I read his book when I was in Germany. There was no TV and no radio, it was just reading this book, he’s really interesting. I think he’d be ideal.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief