INTERVIEW WITH ROSALIND DAVIS
Megan Elliott, December 2017
Rosalind Davis is an artist, writer, teacher, creative consultant and permanent curator at the Collyer Bristow Gallery. She completed a BA in Textile Design at Chelsea College of Art in 2003 and went on to graduate from the Royal College of Art in 2005. Davis has previously founded and run artist-led organisations dedicated to creating a supportive network for artists, such as Zeitgeist Arts Projects. She is the co-author of ‘What they didn’t teach you in art school’ with Annabel Tilley, published by Octopus Books in 2016. As an artist, she has exhibited nationally and internationally, in group and solo shows.
I meet Rosalind at the Collyer Bristow gallery, located within the offices of law firm Collyer Bristow. As I walk into the non-traditional gallery space, I am already wondering how the context of the space plays into her curatorial decisions. The artworks are exhibited in a space whose purpose shifts between legal meeting room and art gallery. Rosalind Davis welcomes me into a meeting room, the walls filled with her paintings. Her practice is primarily concerned with space, process, material and surface, exploring how space can be transformed or reconfigured. It seems fitting that she should be selected as the permanent curator for this fluctuating space.
Megan Elliott: I would like to start by talking about your artistic practice. I can see that your work is heavily influenced by architecture. When did you first become interested in architecture?
Rosalind Davis: It's been present in my work for a while, even whilst I was studying at Chelsea. There was a project I did there about grids and cityscapes. I've grown up in London most of my life, so the urban environment is something I have always been absorbed in. I am fascinated with the form of buildings, the different structures, whether it is old or new buildings. I did a project about the London Eye at Chelsea that was made into a series of earrings. I would often take photographs around London and this started to develop into an investigation into the context of space. I was very interested in communal spaces like community halls, churches and urban housing. What makes a community? How are communities and cities divided or collected in different areas? I went further into the political aspects of architecture and philosophical ideas of people like Le Corbusier and the Modernist movement. I was thinking about 1950s social housing. I was fascinated with buildings for their form, I love the brutalist concrete aspects. I had grown up in a very similar kind of building and I think that runs through it too.
Rosalind Davis, No-One Lives in the Real World, 2015. Oil on linen. 85x105cm. Courtesy of the Artist.
Reading a building is like reading an object. It tells you a lot about the people that live in it, the time that it was built, status, class, etc. In earlier paintings, it was about bringing a transformation back into those spaces. Bringing them back to life - places that were abandoned or falling down. Over time, it almost became a documentation of spaces in London that pretty much no longer exist.
ME: Would you say that your interest in the context of buildings was part of your transition from textiles into fine art?
RD: I think so. When I was at the Royal College, I was in the fashion & textiles department. I worked in mixed media and we had great tutors like Freddie Robins who also worked within art as well, so it was a very expansive environment. We could be quite free and my work had always been about being very experimental with materials. As you say, the source material that interests me was not just about a decoration or harmonious interplay of materials, although I did utilise that in my time there and enjoyed that relationship. When I was in textiles, my peers weren't particularly interested in social housing or dystopian landscapes, so it differentiated me. In the final show we had there, I exhibited a series of paintings. I was painting a lot there and they wanted me to make more textiles and engage with the materials more. This was good though because it enabled me to introduce materials that had a symbolic reference point (for example, material that reflected the interiors of the buildings I was painting). It also enabled me to engage with the stitch and now this has become a symbolic gesture in my work.
ME: How different is the approach on a textiles course to a fine art course? Is it more project based/brief based? Did you find that restrictive or helpful?
RD: We did have a lot of projects. You would get set a project, e.g. with a car company wanting interiors. It's great because it gives you links to industry and an idea of how it would work when you leave university. However, if you don't want to do design, then working on a car sample swatch is quite frustrating. The deadlines were a lot quicker than I imagine they might be in a Fine Art context. I had to make paintings very quickly. So, sometimes I felt there wasn't enough time to develop the ideas or push the materials because I would have to present something the following week. I also think you get far less space in a textiles department. So, there were frustrations around it and you do work from things like mood boards. I worked for a textile design company when I left Royal College for a lovely woman who is now a very close friend, Jacqui Lewis. Her studio was very painterly and I was picked because I was also very painterly and for the way I used stitch. In the end, I just decided I didn't want to work to somebody else's criteria. I am happy working to a brief as an educator or teacher, but as an artist, I can say retrospectively now that I just want to make the work that I want to make. This is part of the reason that I don't do commissions and I don't make work for money. There's nothing wrong if somebody does want to or can do that. But, I have become more resistant to pressures on me to work in certain ways.
"I personally feel very resistant to pressures on me to do a certain thing"
ME: When did it click that you wanted to be a fine artist rather than go down the design route?
RD: Well, in a way I had always wanted to be a fine artist. Textiles was my answer to taking a creative route that was more about the possibility for a sustainable future (it wasn't!). That's why I chose textiles. I had always been painting but it was more a career decision at the time. I think that's why I ended up battling with it. However, the courses were still very research led with drawing and painting.
ME: There are obviously a number of crossovers, but the motives for making work might be different, in terms of whether it is for you or for someone else. However, the way that you work in terms of materials might be the same, or the way that you conduct research through drawing and photography. It's not exclusive to either pathway.
RD: Yes, and it is much more accepted now to be an artist using textiles. When I was seeking out role models, there weren't as many as there are now. I see a landscape that is changing. I've always found that the whole discussion around the way that textiles is treated as a lowlier medium than paint problematic. The way that textiles, for example, can be undermined, not only in terms of artistic value but financial value. It's such a valuable tool though and it's being used more and more.
However, in terms of an actual moment where I thought I might want to go down the fine art route - I was weaving a basket of recycled cardboard and making it into something that would resemble an object or a vessel. I just stopped and wondered what I was doing. Is this going to be my life? Finding things to turn into something else, to make into an object? It isn’t actually that far removed from what I do now. But at that time, it felt very soulless and I decided that it wasn't what I wanted my life to be. I wanted to invest more into the subject matter of buildings and form. It is almost like you're doing a PhD about your own practice because you keep on exploring and each stage that you go through opens new depths into research.
Rosalind Davis. Freefold.
ME: You briefly mentioned already how some materials you were using before, such as thread, have been used in your fine art practice. However, I am particularly interested in the 'Freefold' series and was wondering if you could talk more about this?
RD: It was a testing of ideas really. It was almost an accident, placing this cloth over steel in my studio. With those fabric pieces, it's about the contrast of materials. You have this steel, masculine element and then very translucent ephemeral fabrics which tend to be associated with the feminine. But, what's interesting about the fabric is that, much like my steel installations, they are active. As you move around them you will see different things and it creates the illusion of space or depth. My paintings are very much about that too - creating an illusion of space on a 2D plane. My installations are similar and require you to move and activate it. This series feels like a painterly experience but with no paint at all. I quite like playing the game of making paintings out of things that aren't painted things. For example, I have done a stack of Perspex and steel with canvas behind it and that's a painting to me. I see them as an extension of my painting practice. Of course, drapery has a rich association in art history throughout painting, so it also references painterly language without it being a 'painting' technically.
I am part of a group called the Undead Painters who meet up a couple of times a year and we each bring a painting. I brought one of my Freefold pieces. What's lovely about that crit group is that it is very welcoming and embracing, but I wasn't sure how people were going to react to it. However, there was such a response to it - a couple of people had a very emotional response to it. They found it created in them a sense of pathos because there was something anthropomorphic about it because the drape has the association with a woman’s body. It's good to show people your work and get feedback. There were lots more experiments than are shown on my website. I experimented with different types of materials and it was a lot of fun. It's still ongoing and something to return to. .
ME: The pieces are fascinating because the material is translucent, so they are simultaneously inviting the viewer into space and blocking them from space. It's conceals and reveals.
RD: That's also what a lot of my paintings do. They block off spaces and in some places, they let you in and they are all about different boundaries.
ME: Where do you start when you make new work? You mentioned before that you often take photographs and make drawings. Do you always start that way? Do you have a different way of approaching your paintings as opposed to your steel installations?
RD: I largely start with drawing and photography. Photography first. I take lots of photos of buildings all over the world from multiple angles and then I will often draw from these. The ‘Unfold’ series started as photographs that I then drew on. I printed them postcard size and began working out ideas through drawing on these using Tipp-Ex, pens and thread. So, I used drawing in a different way to create compositions from the photographs. These marks were then translated into different kinds of paint. I also draw inspiration from secondary resources.
For example, I was feeling stuck at one point about how to progress with my steel structures. I had previously taken a photograph of an artist called Constant Nieuwenhuys, who was an architect. I just started to draw it and this led to a series of drawings about structures and then those developed into some ideas for installations for the steel structures I have made. The steel structures are made up of modular pieces, multiple parts that you can add on or take away - they are different weights and widths. Each time there is a new addition. I put the structures into the space and decide what to do with them.
ME: So, you usually go straight from drawings to working with the steel structures in the space, rather than making maquettes before hand?
RD: Yes. I went on a steel welding workshop to learn how to weld because the big steel structures are fabricated for me. I send a drawing to a fabricator who then goes and makes them. So, now I know how to do it, technically. I went to the workshop so I could understand how these were made, not with the view that I would eventually make them myself, because it is quicker and cheaper to get someone else to make it for me.
"a lot of my paintings... block off spaces and in some places, they let you in and they are all about different boundaries"
It's hard to actually get it in a straight line. I managed to do it with a small thing, but once I did it I realised that the maquettes weren't much use because the nature of these big steel installations is that you experience it in the space, you walk around it. So, doing a maquette where I have no idea about the perceptual reading of it in a space doesn't make sense to me. However, the mini versions did become part of an installation at no format gallery. I've had the opportunity to play with these steel installations in project spaces. I just have to be confident that somehow it's going to work. There are so many possibilities and it might take days to get the right composition but it comes together that way. You start to develop a trust that it's going to work out in the end.
I had a show at no format gallery earlier this year and the idea was that I would come into the gallery and change the installation throughout the day every day I was there. It was great because I got multiple photographs of the work each day. I had been resisting making a big change, turning the main structure around. However, I went for it on the last day and suddenly, the turning of it produced the best iteration of the structure. I had put Perspex in a particular place and the sun came through and created an incredible shadow. The great thing about working with these steel structures is that I can change them around and if it doesn't work it doesn't matter. I can change it again. However, I find that with painting it's more permanent. Even if you paint over a mark, there's always a trace so it's more of a commitment. I will photograph the installations and often the photograph becomes part of the finished work as well. At some point, I may exhibit the photographs on their own. I have been having this conversation with fellow artists. Is the final thing a photograph or a film or is it the thing itself? I think it can be all three.
ME: I am interested in the concept behind the idea that you would move the work around and that it's not fixed. It's open-ended. Not only in the rearranging of the steel structures but in the sense that the work could be the steel structure or the photograph etc. It’s always evolving.
RD: Well, life isn't fixed and it's changing all the time and the parameters are ever shifting. With paintings, for me they feel like moments in time and in history. In my personal reading of them they demarcate a kind of space and experience and a time. They are very personal to me, but no one needs to know when they see them. However, with the steel I like the fact that they can transition. They are very strong but flexible. Every time I come to a new space, I've got infinite possibilities. The reason why it is important that it's modular is that it excites me. It can be adaptable and it's like an alchemy in working with a space and with a material and finding many harmonies. With a painting, you put it on a wall and you walk away and people look at it. I like that these paintings come to life in a sculptural installation and that people can walk through it. They can feel it for themselves and be in their own moment and memory and perception of it as well.
ME: It sounds like these modular structures are tools that you use to draw within a space. They become drawings.
RD: Definitely, they are drawing tools as much as anything. When I post pictures of them on Instagram, I use the hashtag #drawingwithsteelinspace. That was how I read them. Drawing is a huge part of my practice, but it's a much rarer thing that I'll do a drawing on paper these days. The idea is that I would then make paintings from drawings of the installations. I'm yet to work that one out. I have taken photographs of the installation, made drawings and combined them but it hasn't quite worked yet. I think it’s because I wonder why I am just drawing the same structure on paper and I lose interest. I think I need to push it a bit further myself and be a bit more patient, try some other things, because I do love them as drawings or photographs on paper, when they become 2D again.
"the breaking of the window enabled me to step through into this much more psychological space"
ME: I am also interested in your investigation into the psychological aspects of space. Your work seems to deal with a physical breakdown of space as well as a psychological analysis of space.
RD: Even when I was painting more representational buildings, I was very interested in the psychological interior of buildings. I did a series on buildings that had been devastated through natural disasters or through riots. I was painting broken windows and it made me think more about the space beyond the window. I had been thinking about the people that lived in these spaces and why the places were built, but the breaking of the window enabled me to step through into this much more psychological space. There was a consideration of political and social elements alongside thinking about what happened in these spaces. In context of the riots, people were breaking windows to take something of value that would damage somebody emotionally because it was valuable in ways that other people might not understand. So, there was this hairdressers that people broke into during the riots and stole combs and chairs. People had no idea just how much it would affect the hairdresser emotionally and there was a big fundraising effort to get them back. The psychological aspect of that affected me in terms of reading a space in a slightly different way and thinking more about this idea of portals and doors. What I'm asking in the paintings and installations is can you step through or beyond into this other space, a psychological space. That is less about representation and more about perceptual reading. How can you navigate through this space?
A lot of the paintings I make are about disorienting space, which is very psychological. I did one formation with the steel structures that was like a barrier from one side of the room to the other. There would be a decision about walking through a piece of artwork into another space. It's this shift that I'm interested in investigating. There is always a psychological aspect to anyone's work really.
My series, Exit Strategy, is about the possibility that you can't get out of a space. That has wider connotations depending on who is reading it. There are some paintings where it is a very free space for you to walk into. There are also personal reasons behind these decisions, like a space might be blocked off due to being painted at a certain point in my life. It is not necessary for a viewer to know this when reading the work, but some titles will indicate a psychological state. E.g. ‘This Unfolds’ or ‘Exit Strategy’ or ‘Transition’.
ME: Are there any specific philosophers or thinkers who inform your investigations into space?
RD: I am, probably like a lot of people, a bit of a magpie when it comes to research. My work has changed so much over time that different philosophers, artists and architects resonated at different times. There's Poetics of Space by Bachelard, Ways of Seeing by John Berger etc. They are interesting but I know about space also just by existing in space. I read sporadically at certain points during my work. When I started to make much more abstracted works I was looking at the language of abstraction. Bauhaus, Constructivism, Concrete Art etc. are also influences. There is no one thing, but a collection of things. In terms of influences, I believe that my peers have the greatest influence on me, through conversations about the work. My partner Justin Hibbs is an artist, so he is probably the biggest influence on me because of the way that he has pushed me in my work. He's been the biggest inspiration in terms of how he approaches his own work. He has taught me new ways to see my work and new ways to play with my work and experiment. He helped me let go of the idea that I had to make work in a particular way. His work is very expansive, multi-media.
ME: What are you working on at the moment?
RD: I have just moved into a new studio. It's a live-work space in Wembley. Space is a real problem in London. Studio spaces are being drastically reduced; I have been evicted from two spaces, as has Justin and many other people I know. It’s not just London that this is a problem, lots of other places too. Our stuff had been in storage for a while and we’d been looking at a long-term solution for this issue. Rent is extortionate, even when you can get a space. A lot of spaces have waiting lists. ACAVA is a charitable studio organisation that is brilliant because they have invested in six live-work properties to sell to artists as part buy/part rent. It's a pilot, but they are thinking about how they can deal with this. That's where we have now moved to. It's exciting. So, my project lately has just been about finding a space that I can make work in again!
ME: As well as an artist, you are also a writer, teacher, creative consultant and permanent curator at the Collyer Bristow Gallery. How did the partnership with Collyer Bristow arise?
RD: I knew the space through the previous curators and when the job came up I was keen to apply anyway but they also encouraged me to apply, which was nice. First, I did a guest spot, of which there were three, and from there I got the job. The first show I did here was called ‘Complicity’. I work very site-specifically here, in context of it being a law firm, and I think about the psychological space of what happens here. I am very interested in the fact that in these rooms, people’s lives are folding and unfolding. So, every show will have a theme that touches upon some of those aspects, of the realities of these spaces.The last show was called ‘Make_Shift’. The shift key on the keyboard is to modify and people come here to modify and the artists in the show are modifying their materials and ideas and so on. So, there's a conceptual link with each of the shows. We do three shows per year and all of those are thematic, apart from the graduate show we put on.
ME: Could you tell me more about Make_Shift and your thought processes behind it?
RD: I was thinking about artists that have a very experimental approach, who work between mediums. A lot of the show was about collage. I was in the show myself, which wasn't originally planned. But I was talking to the artists in the show and they noted that this show is probably the one that is closest to my own processes. There were people using thread and it was a very tactile, sensual show, in terms of the colours and the materiality of either the paint or fabrics that people were using, or the gestures and mark making. Part of it comes from the Richard Serra verb list. I often use this as a tool as an artist and when I revisit it as a curator, I realise that I am also doing similar things - to join, to divide, to mix or to collect. This is what the artists in this show were doing too so that was a nice way to think about the artists’ work and the way their work interacts in the space. It was a very dynamic show and quite eclectic. Some pieces were quite theatrical. A lot of the artists work between 2D and 3D, it's very haptic and a lot of it goes back to gesture and labour. Some of the work is very labour intensive and meticulous, even if it doesn't necessarily have a pristine aesthetic.
ME: What projects are you working on over the next year?
RD: I've got a few shows that I know about next year. I am going to be part of ‘New Relics’ curated by Tim Ellis and Kate Terry at Thames-Side Studios Gallery in June. I'll also be going back to no format gallery again in September and will be working on the next three shows at Collyer Bristow. The next show, 'In the Future', opens in February and marks the 25th anniversary of the gallery at Collyer Bristow. The name comes from a David Byrne song, ‘In the Future’. I had an idea of some of the artists I wanted to show because of the nature of their work and what it deals with. I was thinking about how the world has changed so much over the past 25 years and how technology is a huge part of that. So, it's about all those things. It's about repositories of information. There's a lyric in the song that says, 'In the future, no one will be able to keep track of anything'. Which is both true and not true. There's a duality. Then there's the Collyer Bristow Exceptional Award to think about too. I am also doing a lot of lecturing and will be going to universities and different arts organisations across the country. I have also been asked to potentially go to New Zealand to talk about my book, 'What they didn't teach you in art school'. So, we'll see!
"I am very interested in the fact that in these rooms, people's lives are folding and unfolding"
ME: I'm interested to hear more about your book. How did it come about?
RD: We were approached. Before I was here, I ran an arts organisation called Zeitgeist Arts Projects with Annabel Tilley. Before that, I ran an artist led space called Core Gallery in Deptford. At Core Gallery, we set up DIY Educate, and Nuts & Bolts which was about everything I had self-educated myself about since I had left art school. It was things like writing an artist statement, navigating social media, curating, etc. We had guest speakers in and role model artists who would tell us about the highs and lows and how they would sustain their practice. Annabel was involved in that and then we set up Zeitgeist Arts Projects, running an education and exhibition programme. The book was a culmination of all those experiences really. We were giving a lot of lectures both jointly and independently. We were approached by Octopus Books as we had a good reputation amongst artists of being demystifying and honest.
I ended up accidentally creating a social media storm a few years ago, which I talk about in the book. I asked 5 artists on twitter how they survived as artists and they all came back with some insightful, funny, philosophical responses. It had a snowball effect and I asked a few more people and everyone was sharing about it and talking about it. People who I hadn't asked were also telling me about it, which was welcomed. In 24 hours about 500 tweets had come in and it turned into a news article. It pushed our profile further and I think that's how Octopus found us. They approached me and asked me if I'd write it but the idea of doing it on my own was too daunting, so I asked Annabel if she'd be up for it. It made sense for us to do it together since we were running Zeitgeist together. It enabled us to share our different viewpoints and experiences.
We asked artists that we had worked with to contribute to it too. It was a brilliant experience and I'm really proud of it. It's beautifully designed and it’s out there all over the world which is exciting. It's full of practical things as well as philosophical things. One of my favourite parts to write was the section about the challenges that artists face: Fashion, Success, Time and Failure. I teach a lot of artists and work with a lot of artists and those are the things that people are always very worried about. You just have to work with what you have and stay determined.
ME: What are the key pieces of advice that you would give to emerging artists who are about to graduate or have just graduated and are trying to navigate the art world?
RD: Firstly, start building a good network and your own art world. It's very easy to be insular or isolated. It is challenging, but the thing that stood me in good stead is a philosophy about building the kind of art world that you want to be part of. Running arts organisations, for me, was about creating a space in which artists would feel valued. As new graduates, I think that you need to be proactive about your own career. You can't wait to be picked but when you are picked make sure you utilise that opportunity and keep relationships going. I have worked with so many artists and some people are so good at it and they've become very good friends, or I've worked with them on more than one occasion and have recommended them. Other people see you as a stepping stone to something else. However, it is a very small art world and your reputation and how you treat these opportunities makes you memorable in all kinds of ways.
Make sure you are professional, on time, present and engaged. It's good to be invested in the whole project, i.e. not just turn up to the private view and pick your work up at the end. When opportunities come, make sure you haven't left any stone unturned. Another thing I want to say about having exhibitions is that you should always think about what the opportunity is for - is it to learn, to teach, to push the work forward? It should never just be a transaction or stepping stone in your career. Thinking about it solely as a financial possibility is also tricky because selling work is very hard and unpredictable. So, going into it with a more philosophical approach, thinking about how it will sustain you as an artist is helpful. How can you make this into a new relationship with a new curator, another artist etc.? And, one of the most important but easiest things to do is to say thank you!