Features

The Artist's Studio

Image: Dail Behennah. Photograph: Kamina Walton

Writer and researcher Dr. Megan Wakefield discusses artist Kamina Waltons' latest project, Works in Progress, an on-going dialogue with and photographic response to artists' studio practice across the city.

 

“For many years the studio has possessed an aura of glamour, of apartness from the outside world, a place of magic.” (Giles Waterfield, 2009)

        

Over the past 2 years Kamina Walton has developed Works in Progress, a photographic study of artists’ studios across Bristol. Through ongoing dialogue with her subjects and joint selection of images she has sought insight into artists’ practice and daily routines and asks the question, “How do we define ourselves as a community?’ 

With this idea of a community in mind I reflect on my own previous studio experience, one of airy open-plan rooms, where each artist is lightly attuned to the others’ presence, their focus as well as their distraction. Walton’s photographs, however suggest to me a sense of “apartness”. Why am I seduced by these images of the self-contained space, a place to retreat and shut the door?

I have tried to recreate this space with a studio surrogate, a sketchbook or notebook as a semi-private space for provisional ideas.

“Like the studio”, says Derek Pigrum. The sketchbook is “a place of juxtaposition, layering, weaving and unweaving, the salvaging operations of memory and retrieval” (Pigrum, 2007), but the notebook or sketchbook will only ever hold a shorthand for studio possibilities. It is not a physical space, not a room of one’s own,

When sociability, knowledge-sharing and teamwork are the skills demanded of the ‘creative’ in a twenty-first century economy, is there not something subversive in closeting oneself away to work alone, something that looks like a rejection of the outside world or protection of a space apart. “A studio”, says Susan Hiller, “is like an empty space in my head reserved for a particular kind of thinking. As long as I have a studio, I have that space ready and waiting.” (Hiller in Hossein, 2012).

My own research led me to trace the interactions that happen beyond and between studio spaces, the need for peer recognition to sustain an artistic subjectivity and the need to have witnesses to practice. I saw how social boundaries formed parameters around practice, like the construction of invisible studio walls. Public statements are staged as “professional practice”: art works are incrementally exposed to others through talks, events and online, both punctuating and signifying development.

Some of Walton’s participants express an ambivalence about identifying as an “artist”, believing it to be constraining or even presumptuous. This tension between performing an identity and the almost secretive practices it entails are fascinating to me. Walton’s subjects enjoy a studio “community” formed from the incidental and intentional meetings between studios, but it is the focus, separation and privacy of the studio that many truly value. As one artist puts it, “This is the place where I hide”.

Image: Anthony Garratt. Photograph: Kamina Walton

If a lack of visibility, if taking private reflective space is an increasingly radical act, what of actions that remain un-staged? Artists may appear to leave behind a network of responsibilities and affiliations at the threshold to the studio, but a new encounter happens each time they enter, and these encounters are often contingent on the work of a plethora of makers, writers and thinkers.

Yet the studio has always been fetishised because of its aura of privacy. A friend recently pointed out to me the phenomenon of posting photographs of desk-spaces and studios on social networks, an aestheticisation of the studio that supports its mythos and goes back as far as the studio portraits of the seventeenth century. Giles Waterfield has traced the history of the artist’s studio as a site for self-display, from Dutch masters depicting a room open to patrons, sitters and visitors alike, “a statement of the artist’s ambitions, his intellectual attainments, his social status”.

Later images of the Romantic garret were superceded by photographic ‘celebrity’ portraits of the Victorian era, such as FG Stephens Artists At Home (1884). Lord Snowdon’s images in Private View (1965) immortalised the conspicuous studio squalour of Bacon and Auerbach, while the white spaces of Gormley and Mueck were captured by photographer Gautier Deblonde. (Waterfield, 2009). The link between the studio and self-reflexivity is referenced by Walton as framed glimpses of rooms caught in mirrors, while the images themselves offer a prospect for reflection for the artists who view them.

What continues to arouse envy perhaps is that the studio remains a realm for the apparently senseless and playful. The syntax of the studio, from babble to murmur remains not only private, but hermeneutically opaque. Objects, images and texts congregate according to the artist’s esoteric taxonomy, redundant outside of the studio, salient for the artist only. For Pigrum, “ (…) the topos of the workplace operates as a reservoir of re-presentations and connections (…) and the capacity to unfold a succession of sightings that do not seize hold of possibility all at once, but gradually give access to a set of new relations.” (Pigrum, 2007)

Walton’s images isolate the obsessively even spacing of Chinese brushes, the pock-marked head of a mannequin, a cow ornament drenched in plaster. Polarities of beauty and ugliness, function and decoration lose weight; how objects converse with one another is all. Rather than Baconian chaos there is a careful arrangement of tools and images, stacked archives of works past and present, allowing for expedient retrieval.

Walton has written about “external silence, internal noise” and the studio is ultimately a place for thought contingent upon action. The studiolo in Renaissance Italy was a place for study or private contemplation, as distinct from the site of production, the bottega, or workshop. In the studio consideration can slip into contemplation, rumination into reverie; “the studio is a place in which to see what boredom can unleash.” (Blazwick, 2012). Through gazing, prowling, tinkering between periods of intense focus, practice exercises a kind of discipline upon reflection. Walton captures both the absorption and the rigour of studio practice.

Image: Mariele Neudecker. Photograph: Kamina Walton

Meanwhile, the surplus, unfinished and provisional is allowed to visibly accumulate. Her photographs record the substrate of practice: dried paint peelings, charcoal dust, iron filings, the delicate staining on a brush, an indelibly marked sink. Rather than erasing these traces the studio contains and displays them, marking intervals; a routine develops, shaped by the materials and objects to hand. “The studio” writes Iwona Blazwick “recorded all that it had staged”. (Blazwick, 2012). Attendant to this is the hum of images and voices that we carry within us, those other artists, writers and thinkers. In this sense the studio is neither silent nor isolated.

How comfortable are we with our physical separation in the studio during this period of connectedness, a period in which there is the pressure to both make and explicitly state the work of practice?

Many of the artists Walton spoke with choose to exclude their digital life and its web of relations from the studio, citing distraction and the creative limitations of the computer as a tool. Can the studio remain a place for conjecture, a space to attend to the work at hand, the fragments, off-cuts, snippets, to file away, re-position, construct, accrue, plan and play? Can the studio remain a sanctuary?

 

References:

Amirsadeghi, Hossein, (2012), Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and Their Studios, London: Thames & Hudson           

Pigrum, Derek (2007) The ‘ontopology’ of the artist’s studio as workplace: researching the artist’s studio and the art/design classroom, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 12:3, 291-307, DOI: 10.1080/13596740701559720

Waterfield, Giles (2009), The Artist’s Studio, London: Hogarth Arts

 

www.kaminawalton.co.uk
Megan Wakefield: peer2peerlearningcda.wordpress.com/

 

 

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