Photo by Daniel Lingham
Interview with Alex Pain
I arrived at 1 Thorsby Street, the home of Alex Pain’s studio sometime around mid morning. Nottingham has had what looks like a lot of money thrown at it in recent years and arriving at the station about half an hour earlier felt good to see the new structures, extended station, tram links and other building still in the process of completion, but adding to the sense of change and the new. This was in fact new in more ways than one. This was to be my first studio interview.
Daniel Lingham interviews Alex Pain:
Q: Did you know from an early age that you wanted to be a sculptor? Was there a starting point for you, a pivotal moment?
In regards to being a sculptor, not at all. When you’re at school you just do what you enjoy the most. I always enjoyed my art classes the most and that was always my focus. When it came to A-levels, I automatically chose art and when it came to college it was also just an automatic choice – going to Art College.
At the age of 16/17 you don’t really understand how you’d end up being an artist, you just kind of drift. When I was at Art College, my tutors said “You should do fine art” and I didn’t really understand the concept of what fine art was. But I knew I didn’t really want to do graphics or anything else – I just wanted to “make weird shit” so I went and checked out universities and found my way onto a Nottingham Trent art course, which seemed the best to me because of the studios and facilities. I was so excited!
In terms of the type of art I was making, I think I’d always just been doing paintings and stuff. When you’re at school, that’s all you really learn. Till I got to Trent. I don’t think I did a single painting at university – it was always just model making and building things. I like the tactility of things and it came to me quite late on. Two years at university, I didn’t really understand why I was making art, or what it was I was genuinely interested in – but you’re there to figure this stuff out. I guess I had a bit of an epiphany in the beginning of my third year at university, when I just realised, everything was about materials. You can just come to a point where it’s OK to say “I’m just interested in putting this thing next to this surface” and finding a fascination or a joy in that.
I think a lot of people skirt around the subject of passion, particularly in art school, but that’s something I felt, that I was just obsessed by things and didn’t necessarily need an explanation for it. That kind of gave me an easy way to start making sculpture.
Q: Is it important to you that it was formalised in terms of having a certificate or a degree: do you view it as a career, or is it just something you have to do, regardless of whether you were formally qualified?
I don’t really think of it in terms of being qualified, I just think of having experiences. The degree certificate doesn’t really ‘hold up’ or mean that much. At university they say it doesn’t really matter whether you get a first or a third – it doesn’t necessarily make you a better artist – it just means you’ve done well in that context. It’s more about preparing you how to survive outside your comfort zone in an institution. Being outside university is quite difficult and I think what they try to do is prepare you, teaching you how to survive on the outside.
Q: What is a typical day in the studio for you?
At the moment there isn’t really a typical day. I’m working quite ad hoc at the moment, so bits of work here and there. While I’m working, I may not come into the studio for a few weeks, but when I’m on something …
I used to come in a lot more, every day. That doesn’t necessarily mean I was making stuff every day, sometimes it’s good just to be here and sit around struggling with what to do with your time.
Q: Do you feel there’s enough support and collaboration opportunity in your day to day work? How does it affect what you do?
I don’t feel like I need to be supported or like I need anyone else to do what I want to do. In the shared studio there are four other guys who work here. When we’re all in together, making work, it’s an opportunity for us to talk to each other; not necessarily really seriously, it’s not that kind of atmosphere. It’s more just like a bunch of mates – but we kind of keep each other in check, saying things like “so what are you up to?” or encouragement and feedback on whether you think something is good or not, as the case may be. I don’t feel like I need any other kind of support structure. I don’t even have any exhibitions lined up at the moment. I’m not applying for anything. I’ve had a few exhibitions since I graduated and for a long time now I have just wanted not to have a deadline for anything, to make some sculptures just at my own pace.
Q: You said in one of our initial emails when we were setting up this interview that you’ve kind of “fallen off the art-making wagon”. Have you had a block or a metamorphosis, what’s happened?
It’s a bumpy road for everyone when you’re making art. You can’t just do it all the time. After I graduated, I got this exhibition at Nottingham Castle – a solo show. I felt quite a lot of pressure making the art work for that. It was a very stressful period, but in the end I was happy. Then came another exhibition; more of the same thing. I realised I wasn’t really enjoying the process of making them anymore. I think I’d lost something. The pressure didn’t really give me enough time to evolve: to move on.
I think there are only a handful of sculptures that I am truly in love with. A lot of them I made for this exhibition. They fit a model of what people expect my work to usually look like. It is a trap – that’s what I felt I got stuck in. So that’s why this winter I stopped – haven’t made anything in six months and I’ve just been thinking a lot. Profoundly confused! I’m sure every artist knows the feeling.
“One of the artworks I’ve seen that has had an absolutely massive effect on me and obsessed with and interested in making art, was Richard Wilson’s ‘Sump Oil’. I am absolutely in awe of it!”
Q: Are you getting towards the end of that now? Are you formulating some semblance of an idea of where you want to go next?
Yes, I think I’m about half-way there, but I think I’m about to start doing some paintings.
I think that’s a good way for me to get back into doing something. At the moment I’m not feeling very comfortable with sculpture, I’m not sure what direction it is I’m going with. Also, I wanted to change how my artwork is made, because a lot of the materials I’ve really been excited about, I’ve seen cropping up in other artists work. I was starting to feel I’m part of an aesthetic. I immediately felt like I wanted to stop and change direction.
Q: Is it important then that you have a sense of uniqueness in what you produce?
Yes definitely. If I see something similar to what I’ve done or thought about, I’ll throw it away. I don’t really know why that is.
Q: I read a review of your Nottingham Castle exhibition which suggested it was bizarre that you might cite architects as influential to your work. Do you think the process of producing sculpture is not really understood?
I don’t look at other sculptors and get ideas for what to make, but you still have to be aware that what you’re making could reference another sculptor, like particularly my earlier work when I was at university; I was looking at Donald Jud and Sol LeWitt… the minimalists.
I wasn’t really looking at their work for sculpture ideas; it was more for an aesthetic reference within an art movement. That was not really present in that Castle exhibition. Architecture, I felt more comfortable with finding inspiration for the forms of sculptures. I don’t see much of a distinction between someone designing a building and someone designing sculpture – they’re still both objects.
I wasn’t finding much art at the time that was inspiring me, but I was finding a lot of architecture, so naturally you just do it.
Q: For me it makes sense that you’re constructing something in a three-dimensional context, so it’s not a million miles away to look to other ‘construction’, which could even be engineering or furniture design. There can be flow from one to another.
Yes, also the natural environment… a lot of natural phenomena, rock formations… I was interested in erosion at the time and I think you shouldn’t really put a cap on where you find your influences.
Q: In the process of creating a piece of work, when does it become a sculpture? Do you think the creation is in the finished product, or is it somewhere else?
The honest answer, who knows? When I’m making a sculpture I always have an idea of what it will look like when it’s finished and I’m basically working towards that point, but it almost never ends up the way I initially thought it would. As I’m making it I might see something new, in a book, or have an experience somewhere that makes me think “I can change this sculpture” or, whilst I’m making it I might accidentally do stuff, that you can then leave, stand back and think “Actually this is better… the feeling around this sculpture has changed now”. I’m totally open to them just evolving, almost in a natural way, as I construct them.
This piece, which I made for an exhibition in Leicester, I ended up smashing the whole thing up and starting again. It was a really hard decision. I’d spent about three days just staring at it, going away, coming back and looking at it again. The problem is, I was putting a monetary value on what I’d done, in terms of time as well. But sometimes you just have to ‘bite the bullet’ and take the risk. I could have finished it and people might have liked it and I could have warmed to it, but I think what I did was right.
Q: Were you able to salvage anything from the smashed sculpture, even if it was just an idea?
It was the first sculpture in a series I was making for the exhibition and I think it set the precedent for the rest, to be quite simple. At the time, I was struggling with putting too many surfaces, too many materials together. It was getting overcrowded and the message of the sculptures was being lost. The dilemma really set the tone for the rest of the sculptures and all my ideas then changed. When I’m making a sculpture it has to “feel right”. Even if, objectively, I think something is a good idea and I think “this will be a beautiful object”, if I don’t ‘feel’ right about it – what’s the point in doing it?
Q: Do you work with a series in mind, or do you work with a single object in mind?
I can only talk retrospectively at the moment.
My favourite exhibitions I’ve done have been the ones where I’ve gathered together individual sculptures I made over various months, and put them together. The exhibition at the Castle and another I did in October 2013 at Two Queens in Leicester, both of those were brand new and I made them with each individual sculpture in mind. I was trying to make a landscape with each one, so that the size of them, heights and scales all had to fit together. It felt very much like I was making a series or ‘group’ rather than individual sculptures. A lot of them only work when they are next to each other.
“When I’m making a sculpture I always have an idea of what it will look like when it’s finished and I’m basically working towards that point, but it almost never ends up the way I initially thought it would.”
Q: I guess it can be quite limited in terms of opportunities to show your work like that?
There have been times when I’ve struggled with the context of the work, or how people might interpret it, or thinking about how clever it could be, or what art history references can be seen in it, or what am I trying to say with this, has often stopped me from doing anything. Most of the time I don’t let myself get too deep into the context of what the finished article might be, because the finished article can completely change and I prefer the more aesthetic response to making sculptures, but they usually end up fitting within something that I can get to work in terms of having to explain it to a wall panel for an exhibition.
I feel that now it has all changed, that because I was working in that way, I didn’t really know what I was making work about anymore. All I had was this aesthetic that I’ve developed with contemporary architecture and quite luxurious materials and just mashing those together. I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore. I’m now just trying to wipe the slate clean and think about all of these things that I’m interested in, from human evolution to explorers, eccentrics and botanists from the 20th Century, and how can I bring those things into a visual language.
Q: In your sculptural work, you seem to want to communicate something through the texture and surface, but you obviously feel strongly about an aesthetic notion – Do you find that there can be a conflict between the two?
Yeah, I think it’s all about the sense of touch really, and the sense of touch doesn’t necessarily involve touching it. That’s where part of the excitement of the work comes from – putting materials together that people will want to understand by touching them, but they can’t because it’s an art object in a gallery or museum and you’re not allowed! It’s about getting that feeling of desire into something, or it certainly was and potentially is still important to me.
I don’t think any surface could be considered ugly or not suitable, because it is always interesting to pair up a surface such as a nice polished metal with something that’s quite dirty and disgusting. It’s about saying “look at the difference” rather than comparison. It involves the haptic sense, which is about understanding touch through sight. It’s about trying to convey some information to someone, some knowledge of the material. By putting contrasting materials together you can point out the qualities of both of them and hopefully people will find that intriguing.
I think materials are massively affecting things for everyone, from putting your hand on a nice hand-rail for example…it’s everything.
Q: If you could choose one sculptor whom you think we should or could interview, who would it be?
Does he have to be living? I would have loved to have hung around Alvar Aalto, just because I think he’s a genius. As for a living artist, I don’t really have many artists that I look up to.
One of the artworks I’ve seen that has had an absolutely massive effect on me and obsessed with and interested in making art, was Richard Wilson’s ‘Sump Oil’. I am absolutely in awe of it!