As the countdown to the Nottingham Castle Open 2013 application deadline continues, we invited John Harris, One Thoresby Street Gallery Manager, to speak with Alex Pain, winner of the solo exhibition at Nottingham Castle in 2012, about his art practice, his experience of winning this prize, and having his first solo show.
Erratics (detail), Alex Pain, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 2012
John Harris: Even though I’ve know you for quite a while (from studying BA Fine Art at Nottingham Trent together, both Studio members at One Thoresby Street and more recently working together as Gallery Technician at The Castle) I haven’t really sat down and spoke to you in depth about your art practice, your experiences of exhibiting and the method you go about to produce artwork for them, especially your exhibition at the Castle. So the first question; how did you feel about winning the castle prize and the build up to having your first solo show a year after graduating from your BA in Fine Art?
Alex Pain: Winning the Castle prize I was utterly surprised; coming out of university I had the perception of the Castle Open being quite a big deal, I remember when I found out I got into the Open, I couldn’t believe it. The whole experience of just exhibiting in the Open was all very new to me, prior to the Open I was in a few exhibitions, but they were always organised by friends or very low profile. So when I found out I had got in, I didn’t have any anticipation to win any prizes at all. In fact when the prizes were announced I wasn’t even listening properly I was just pulling faces at my dad, so when my name got read out and everyone started clapping, I didn’t know what I had won. I walked up to shake this guys hand who handed me an envelope, Tristram (Exhibition Officer at the Castle museum and Art Gallery) came up to me and said “We thought your work was really good and feel is it worth taking the risk by choosing a recent graduate for a solo exhibition so soon after leaving University” I had to say to him what have I won? He replied, “You’ve won a solo exhibition!” I was overjoyed; I couldn’t believe it.
As time went on, obviously I was really excited about it, but I started to think a bit too much about it, the pressure and what people might expect of me. I was a recent graduate and had no experience, but I was really adamant to approach it from a position to use this opportunity to do something really ambitious. It all started out as exciting, positive things but they almost evolved into a bit of anxiety and I felt a considerable amount of pressure.
The making of all the works took quite a long time and I had never made anything on that scale, so it was a massive learning curve, just on how to design artworks. This was something I had never considered before but certainly something I consider now as not everything went to plan and they could have been better, I guess you always think you could have done everything better with hindsight. As the exhibition approached I was working overtime to get the sculptures finished, I think it lost a little bit of the creativity and excitement for me. Because I was in the studio till 3am every night for weeks, so I was just really tired and stressed, but then seeing everything when it was finished and installed in the Long Gallery, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
JH: Do you think that this feeling of stress occurs for most exhibitions you’re in or just this one in particular, because it was such a huge deal to you on top of the pressure of being a recent graduate? And do you think it would be completely different now or would you have that same stress?
AP: Yeah, I think I get stressed for every exhibition even small things, because the artist who makes the artworks has to be the only person who doesn’t know if it’s any good, it’s the audience that dictates that.
JH: Is it the process of taking the artwork out of the studio and placing it in an exhibition scenario? When you’re producing artworks within the studio it’s in it’s infancy and can be considerably more comfortable to work with; if you don’t quite understand the work you’re making, it doesn’t matter as much because it’s a work in progress, but as soon as it’s out of the studio in a gallery it becomes a piece of artwork rather than just something you’re working on.
AP: I felt like the sculptures I made for that exhibition had to be resolved ideas and I don’t think they were as much as I would have liked them to be. Although I think everything you make is never resolved, it’s just a stepping-stone for the next idea or an evolution of what you’re interested in, producing artworks is a way to convey these ideas into something physical. I was relatively happy with the sculptures I made for the exhibition, I think because it was a big show, a large gallery and the Castle having such a rich history, I just wanted the sculptures to be impressive.
Erratics (work in progress), One Thoresby Street studio.
JH: You work focuses on architectural forms and materials, did the history and architecture of the Castle influence your works when you were producing them for the exhibition?
AP: Yes, I decided that quiet early on because it’s not a clean ‘white cube’ gallery [the Long Gallery where Erratics was staged], it’s in a huge long hall with beautiful stonework, old paintings and a decorative architrave so I couldn’t ignore it. I thought rather than pretending it’s not there and pretending I’m in a white cube, it would be better to make a reference to it, since a lot of my ideas for the shapes of my sculptures come from architecture. I referenced architecture from the Long Gallery and the grounds in a more general context of the particular architectural era that the Castle is in, rather than direct forms. If I’m honest I look at buildings and surroundings much more than I look at other artworks because that’s what interests me, excites me even.
Erratics (installation view), Alex Pain, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 2012
JH: Making work for this solo exhibition and referencing the Castle’s architecture, do you think it was a stepping stone to refine your practice and understand what you wanted to make your work about or did it shift it in the opposite way and you became really confused about your practice?
AP: At the time the idea of abstracting details of architecture from the Castle was a neat little package and I had been making the work for a year [the solo exhibition is shown a year after the prize winner is awarded]. I had gone through so many different ideas and was so focused on it, by the end I didn’t know what else to make. After the exhibition I didn’t know what to do or what to make work about. I was still interested in architecture of course, but I didn’t have a smaller framework to apply it to. So after the Castle exhibition I took a little break and stayed away from the studio for a couple of months and that snowballed into almost getting the ‘fear’ of going back into the studio. I felt like I had got this exposure from the solo exhibition and I didn’t know what people were expecting of me now, which continued this sense of pressure, instead of stepping up to it I didn’t do anything, almost like I wanted to skulk away from any spotlight. I didn’t make any artworks for ages; I ended up not making any new artworks or develop any ideas for 6 months afterwards.
JH: After having your break, what brought you back to wanting to produce artworks again?
AP: I think other things in your life affect when you have time or headspace to produce artwork and my job situation gave me a bit of a kick up the backside. I was working two jobs for most of the year, I used that as an excuse not to make anything, however I got to the position were I could quit one of them because I was financially secure, so then I had the time and that couldn’t be an excuse. I thought what should I do with my time? Well I thought to myself I should defiantly get back into the studio and force myself into it, certainly as soon as I started to get back into the studio I dived back into all of the confusion, it was because I was picking up were I had left off. I hadn’t developed anything until I was contacted by Jennie Syson to be on a discussion panel at the Castle (as part of Nottingham Visual Arts magazines edition on sculpture in relation to the Christiana Mackie exhibition), then Two Queens contacted me if I wanted to be in a sculpture exhibition.
JH: I remember you telling me that you were really worried about being part of the panel because you were like “What do I know? I haven’t made any work for a while”
AP: I was very scared of that, but I got my head around it a bit because I had helped Christina Mackie install her work in the Long Gallery and she seemed obsessed with what she was doing, that was inspiring, it sort of rubbed off on me and I thought I wanted to be like this, to get that passion back.
The Judges III, Christina Mackie, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 2013. Photo: John Hartley.
So when I did that talk at the Castle, I had to talk in front of an audience about what I had made for my solo show and my experience of this, it almost felt like closing a chapter on that whole experience. I’m now at the stage I feel I can evaluate the whole experience of exhibiting at the Castle and that kick started me into started something fresh.
I wanted to take my sculptures in a new direction, I don’t think you can always forces progress but you know in yourself something needs to change. The past month I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio and I’ve found it difficult, but you have those moments where you’re confused and you go to bed thinking you’ve had a break through but you wake up and it’s a bit of a mirage, then you have to work it out again. When you go through that cycle it’s not fun for any artist, for sure, but when you come out of the other end it’s a really good feeling.
JH: Finally could we expand a bit more about your upcoming show at Two Queens and this new body of work you’re making for the exhibition?
AP: If you look at the sculptures I made for the castle, which is really the last work I made, something I had done up in till that point was a real richness of materials to a point that they were almost sickly, I really liked that at the time. Basically I was coming up with pretty flakey forms for the sculptures to take, but getting far to into all the materials I was going to use. I would end up drawing a final design of the sculpture and realising there was too much on it, I had missed something. I was just going through idea after idea, I must have come up with about fifty sculptures, they were things I would quite like to make but I didn’t feel right about them and I couldn’t work out what I was getting wrong. I had some impromptu crits with the guys I share a studio space with at One Thoresby Street, it didn’t seem like it helped at the time but on reflection made me think that I needed to simplify things. If you’re trying to portray an idea to a viewer you need to think about the easiest way to do it, my almost over the top decoration could be seen as a distraction and not a good thing. I’m still obsessed by materials but the sculptures I’m making are a lot more simplified for this upcoming exhibition at Two Queens.
Work in progress, Alex Pain, 2013.
Sculpturing will open on 11 October 2013 at Two Queens Gallery in Leicester.
Words: John Harris Photos: Alex Pain