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- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
The Wright Stuff
This article appeared in the Sep/Oct issue of Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine. I interviewed Glasgow-based Turner Prize winner Richard Wright ahead of a solo exhibition in The Modern Institute, Glasgow. Unfortunately, it has now finished.
Throughout the month of August, far, far away from the madding festival crowds of Edinburgh, Turner Prize winning artist Richard Wright has been busy ‘setting up fate’ – only for it to be painted over two months down the line - at The Modern Institute ‘s bright and beautiful new gallery space in his home city of Glasgow.
This description of the way in which Wright creates his art has been noted by his wife in an insightful essay included in a recently-published book* on her husband. In a highly personal text, Sarah Lowndes, a lecturer in historical and critical studies at Glasgow School of Art, talks about the mental and physical effort involved in the creation process.
“I have noticed in the ten years we have known each other,” she writes, “that the installation process follows a certain pattern. There is the agonising ‘observation’ period of spending time in the space, mulling over different options, different materials, colours, the positioning of the work, and so on. Then there is the moment of committing to making a particular piece – preparing drawings and transferring them to the wall. This stage is also fraught with anxiety about whether it is the right decision, the right work for the space.
“But then, between ten and 14 days into the process, something else happens... the work acquires a kind of momentum, which drives it towards completion.”
On the day I meet Wright in the former bath house – or steamie - turned gleaming white gallery space, he is about to embark on the initial stages of this tortuous process.
The exhibition space his new work will briefly inhabit is a long, light, airy rectangle on the ground floor which once housed rows of washing machines. As he poses for photographs, his eyes dart nervously around the walls, as though trying to picture how his work will take shape in the coming weeks.
He admits that in preparation, he has been ‘drawing a lot’ (large scale drawings on paper) and thinking, in between celebrating his 50th birthday, and completing a major new commission, The Stairwell Project, at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Art Festival.
There is talk that this beautifully atmospheric new work, which replicates and wraps itself around a stairwell’s honeysuckle plasterwork in the former orphanage, will become a permanent fixture at the Dean Gallery, now part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
“They have an intention to make it permanent, but it’s not definite yet,” he says. “It’s strange to think it could still be here in ten years time. When I was doing it, I was a more conscious of this sense of duration. Normally I know that this work will be there for six to eight weeks before being painted over.”
It is this ephemeral element of Wright’s work which captured the public’s imagination when he was announced as the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize last December. Like most of his work since the mid-1990s, his dazzlingly beautiful gold leaf fresco, painted onto the walls of Tate Britain was designed to be painted over.
Although he has work in major galleries throughout the world and had carved out a solid reputation in international contemporary art circles, Wright was largely unknown outside these somewhat rarefied parameters before winning the Turner. Even his neighbours in the west end of Glasgow, where he lives with Lowndes and their two young children, didn’t know him prior to the announcement, he remarks, with a wry smile. “It’s all calmed down now,” he adds.
The wider world quickly grasped Wright’s philosophy about the fragility of the moment of engagement with an artwork. The fact that Wright was the real deal; a master craftsman and a thoughtful artist who seemed able to communicate his vision clearly helped.
His instant fame as a reluctant art world pin-up had been a long time coming. Wright attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1978 to 1982 and according to those who remember him from these days, ‘drew obsessively’.
“It’s true, I drew a lot,” he recalls. “I’d seek out extra life drawing classes and was there every night. Strangely, I haven’t done a life drawing since I left, but I think it was incredibly important training in the art of seeing. You learn something very subtle from life drawing.”
Describing himself as a ‘true romantic’, he took himself off to a cottage on a remote hill sheep farm outside Edinburgh for two years in order to immerse himself in his art. It was the start of a long process which would end in 1988 when he decided ‘there were too many things’ in the world and stopped painting. He also destroyed all the work he had made up until that point.
Always a keen musician – he still plays guitar with a band called Correcto which counts Franz Ferdinand drummer Paul Thomson in its line-up – he supported himself by playing music. In 1990, he returned to painting with a new working method underpinned by a desire to ‘dematerialise the art object’. His first solo exhibition was at the Transmission gallery in Glasgow in 1994.
Music has always played a key role in Wright’s life and work. There is an immediacy and rhythm to his artwork which is as much to do with the physical act of making it as playing live on stage has to do with the adrenaline rush of performance.
“Music is the big energy in my life,” he explains. “I always loved art from being a small child, but music makes me feel like I’m alive. The point at which I changed my way of working, the two things started to go together.
“Making the painting is a performance of my making. It’s a heightened event and I am at the centre of it. There is always the potential of failure because there is that live aspect to it.
“When I’m at work in a gallery, half way through I think it is not going to work. Then I produce a work which surprises me. It doesn’t come from what you know but what you don’t know.”
Although as a Turner Prize winner, Wright is now a bankable artist, his work doesn’t slot into the collections of those who can afford it. “The work I do is problematic for the art market,” he states. “It requires serious commitment from a collector. It’s a bit like building a beautiful window in a house. You can’t take it with you.”
Wright has made a small number of works of paper since the mid-1990s, including a series of prints of his designs on Mexico City’s graffiti-covered walls. The prints eventually faded into the cityscape and vanished by themselves.
He does have a small number of collectors, including one in San Francisco, who owns several works on paper. Wright is about to do a wall painting for him in his home.
Wright’s work connects to its live viewers on several levels. Not only is it beautiful, it is made by hand. Wright himself calls it ‘an antidote to mass production since 1960s’, and you can see that he rather relishes the fact the camera finds it hard to pin it down.
“I am very interested in what I can do with nearly nothing,” he concludes. “I like the idea I’m using the same materials as mediaeval artists. The work is made of time. The material – the paint – has the memory of that time in it.”
*Richard Wright, published by The Gagosian Gallery with texts by Russell Ferguson, John Lowden, and Sarah Lowndes