I have been exhibiting art for a long time, since the late 1980s, yet it is only now that I feel I am beginning to make inroads with my work in terms of fielding the right type of exhibition approach. The problem with showing my work is probably pertinent to a lot of practicing contemporary artists; that is that the nature of my work is fairly incongruous and that there rarely seems to be a perfect fit available in terms of showing.
Art schools are great for encouraging adventurous art yet the reality seems to be that the opportunity to successfully showcase such exploratory work is actually very difficult to locate. For the early career artist the situation must seem blurred at best; clearly there are the smaller local commercial town galleries whose remit is pretty strongly centred on the more traditionally driven aesthetic, then there are the much bigger regional gallery centres who may rarely touch on the specifics of your practice, yet whose entry to group shows is extremely competitive and, finally, there are the large more prestigious national establishments that very few artists get the privilege to enter. There are of course many smaller local contemporary initiatives going on but these tend to pay very little and usually target quite a small and specific art audience. So where is the place to really successfully showcase your art and by ‘successfully’ I don’t mean to necessarily insinuate high income (though a stable art income would be nice). No, what I am really driving at here is how can you, as an artist, really try to gain effective engagement in your work and endeavour to uphold your practice in a serious manner?
I believe this is a very important question to ponder. Let me outline my experiences here as I may be able to present some thoughts with regards to notional routes forward. Firstly, I think it is important to touch on the idea of thematics. As artists, we are all embroiled in specified themes. I would describe my artwork as Conceptual, Issue-based and Socially engaged. More precisely my particular work actually concerns the visual evidencing of resistant actions of non-complying schoolchildren. In terms of my presented work this mostly takes the form of found objects (usually imbued with stories of unsettled behaviours) from various London schools. This is clearly very explicit in respect of subject matter; nonetheless, I still endeavour to forge an engaging practice, based on a set of very particular specifics, as I believe many interesting contemporary artists are attempting to do right now.
With regards to my next point, I have never been under any illusion that local commercial galleries would ever be able to entertain nor fuel the type of contemporary practice that I was interested in. It was clear to me pretty much from the onset that in order to be producing the style and content of artwork that particularly excited me I would need to work outside of the immediate market set-up and supplement my art making through other financial means. Indeed, it dawned on me pretty quickly that perhaps these other means could also be used to actually inform the thematic art process itself. In the mid 1990s I qualified as a school teacher and began to make work which commented on the issues that surrounded me. So, consequently unhindered by financial demands and bolstered substantially by the direct involvement in my subject area, I was able to produce bold artworks that could afford to target the few related art opportunities advertised through national listings.
A majority of my successful opportunity hits concerned inclusion in regional, municipal gallery group themed shows. Many often categorised under the banner of youth delinquency such as Boredom, Alienation and Despair (20-21 Gallery, Scunthorpe 2010) and Pumped Up Kids Leeds Metropolitan Gallery (2012). These were generally interesting opportunities which allowed me to get my work out there in an art capacity. These often involved the display of three or four pieces. The group work was usually quite varied and the private views were always very lively and a nice chance to mix with other artists. But things were not completely rosy here; footfall was generally not high and in terms of getting your work issues heard and connected towards wider and higher quarters it would be fair to recognise these sorts of events do have their limitations.
So, to reiterate the major point that I am making, how can you raise your game and gain further serious engagement? Several years ago I tried a different tack. If you accept that your work is very specific then it makes sense that you are in essence a visual expert of your field. In my case, that would be school pupil delinquency and related topics. Art galleries are of course great for showing off art but they are not naturally thematic or field experts in the sense that they can completely realise your subject matter. What then if you introduce the notion of binding a specialised artist within a specialised Museum?
I am lucky, living in and around London, I have gradually witnessed some interesting developments in the use of artists within archival Museums. Possibly one of the most exciting conceptual artworks placed in a museum setting in recent years has been the installation Thousands of pills-Cradle to Grave (2003) at The British Museum. This utilised an enormous cabinet displaying the average usage of drugs in a human lifetime. This work was made by textile artist Susie Freeman alongside Doctor Liz Lee. What has always stood out to me about this piece is how, by using fairly traditional conceptual art aesthetics, the artwork really stands out in a Museum setting. Indeed, this artwork has been so attention grabbing that some commentators have even decried its worth because it appeared to detracted from the other more cultural seminal artefacts. Other works/artists and museums that come to mind here include From the Freud Museum (1996) a large vitrine of archival boxes by anthropology artist Susan Hiller at The Freud Museum and Tracey Emin’s Baby Clothes (2010) displayed on a rack at The Foundling Museum (Museum for abandoned children). Here it appears these pieces not only attain a heightened aesthetic but also captured an amplified contextual moment.
With this in mind, and having recently featured in a large regional group show about play, I targeted The V&A Museum of Childhood in East London, with the intention of seeking out some increased gravitas. My point of linkage towards this institution was two-fold; the museum was a national centre for childhood and play and my work noticeably connected in terms of school children embroiled in resistant playful actions. Furthermore the Director, Rhian Harris, had formerly run The Foundling Museum and had an excellent track record with regards to being sympathetic to incorporating contemporary artists.
I sent a blind proposal and consequently received a six-month showing residency. I was given the front foyer of the museum which consisted of a fantastic 20 metre entrance space. Here I placed a series of wall cabinets consisting of hundreds of confiscated school items (flotsam and jetsam that I had collected from different schools I had worked in as a supply teacher). To say that this piece effected engagement was an understatement. Suddenly very large numbers of adults, children and – most importantly for me – visiting schools were engaging with the work. The work also featured in the national media and I was extremely pleased when it made a feature in TES (Times Education Supplement). Finally, I felt my work was starting to stir within the right territory.
Here, as well as the work feeling a lot sharper, it also looked extremely striking too. It is interesting to consider that perhaps as arts connoisseurs we all get so used to having our work jostling alongside other dramatic artworks, that when coaxed, within a non-art setting, we forget just how high along the visual bar we are travelling. Of course, the danger found within such venues is the age-old rhetoric of ‘Is this art?’. ‘I don’t care but it’s a bloody interesting piece’ says my kindly, non-arts friend and I am happy to agree. As an experimental sculptor I am duly warmed by the famous quote of Richard Serra who states “I no longer look on myself as an artist, I am involved in an activity” (Richard Serra, Weyergraf, Clara, Interviews, etc, 1978-1980).
As activities go, parading a significant visual statement within your realm of study, attempting to infuse debate and effect tangible engagement around it is surely where all bonafide artists should strive to be. I suppose it is really about trying to generate some kind of connectivity.
I was fortunate after having my residency run that the museum duly recognised this aspect of connectivity and a collection purchase was finally agreed. On parting with the work I was greatly encouraged by the Director’s comments of foresight; “the works will be held in perpetuity at the Museum for current and future generations to enjoy and learn from”.
Guy Tarrant works as SENCO (Special Needs Co-ordinator) in a small secondary school specialising in pupils with social and emotional difficulties. He has worked as a teacher for 25 years and has worked in over 150 different schools in and around London both as a supply teacher and in various senior capacity teaching roles. Guy has also worked as a Community Arts Team Leader for nearly 20 years, having worked mainly with mental health arts Charity Centrepieces in Bexley to which he is now an arts Trustee. Guy has also exhibited widely in the UK as an artist in various exhibitions and settings; exploring firstly issues of artistic authorship and more currently aspects of school pupil deviancy under the remit of his personal project ‘Resistances’. Guy is chiefly concerned with exhibiting found objects. He has won many arts awards mostly for positive practice work. His work has featured widely in the press and radio. Guy completed a foundation course in East Ham, a degree in Sculpture and an MA from Sheffield and a PGCE and Community Arts MA from Goldsmiths. Guy is committed to improving the wellbeing of young people and championing the ethos of small schools.
Featured image: Confiscation Cabinets (2014), Guy Tarrant, V&A Museum of Childhood