photograph Sharj Ahmed 2015
Interview with Clare Burnett
Clare Burnett is about to have a solo exhibition at the William Benington Gallery in London. Her current work is the culmination of her years of artistic output and an understanding that comes through a certain maturity in practice, introspection and retrospection. It is by no means a retrospective but an investigation into colour and form in it’s simplest sense, both being central to her work and hence the simple title of the exhibition ‘PINK’.
Clare’s approach allows her to maintain a playful indulgence, to test perceptions, use of form and our interactions with shape, environment, object and colour. The exhibition is about our preconceived notions of colour and it’s applications. A kind of re-appropriation.
Coupled with working as an artist Clare has dedicated a significant part of herself to promoting the efforts of the Royal British Society of Sculptors as the newly elected President. A position that carries some significance and responsibility in the contemporary world of three dimensional art and it’s promotion across the blurred lines of what now defines the subject. There’s also an underlying desire to provide clarity about the future shape and impact of the organisation and the services it provides.
Interviewing Clare was easy – she’s grounded, approachable and has a lot to say, …and I think, has a lot to do.
Photographer Sharj Ahmed captured Clare at her London Studio, interview by Daniel Lingham.
Q. You were recently elected President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, what does that position mean to you?
It’s exciting. I was previously Vice President so I’ve been on the council for quite a long time and we’ve been doing a lot of work on making it a highly relevant and exciting organisation for 21st century artists and the public. It used to be seen as quite old fashioned but that’s not been the case for a long while. Part of the role has been changing the public image in line with what is actually going on. Our next big challenge is to renovate the building. It was generously given to us by a member in the 1970s and it’s now in real need of renovation. We also want to grow the membership and make it even more engaging. It’s a wonderful place to be a member.
Q. You want to broaden the appeal?
Yes, it’s already happening. I was in the selection panel for our Bursary Award where ten emerging artists are selected, mentored and supported over a two year period. The quality of applications was really amazing. I think the appeal is there; it’s one of those organisations that the more you get involved the more you get out of it. Its main aim is to advance the art of sculpture and much of what we do involves supporting practising artists. A lot of the awards are open to anybody and reach out to beyond the membership itself.
Q. With any society or organisation that does have some age or history it’s difficult to escape that notion of not necessarily being contemporary?
I think it’s about realising that it’s an enormous benefit on several levels. As art changes over time it’s very interesting to have the perspective of different people as members at different times. It’s amazing how much is shared between people who have completely different practices and completely different perspectives on art. There aren’t many spaces where you could have that kind of conversation with people who are completely different to you.
Q. I suppose you yourself are exemplary of that diverse nature of contemporary sculpture. If you mention sculpture to a lay person they might immediately think of a bust on a plinth but it can be far removed from that?
My work is, but I’ve also had the most amazing advice from people who do make busts on plinths. It’s an incredibly broad discipline and has been since the 60’s in the art schools and before. Maybe the public has taken longer to come round to that view. I think still many people view sculpture as stone and bronze. That’s one of our tasks, to go out there and show that what this encompasses is much broader: performance, video, drawing and all sorts of things that they may not see as sculpture to do with three dimensions…and my practice has a breadth to it that reaches painting, architecture and spatial work to some extent, yet it’s by no means radical.
“The shapes were no longer relating to the rectangular frame about them but relating to the whole space of the room and in some ways that’s what I’ve been dealing with ever since.”
Q. You are described as a painter, site specific artist, sculptor and you might also consider yourself an interventionist. Do you see yourself an eclectic mix of these disciplines or do you not really think about it?
You only really think about it when you have to describe it to someone. I started as a painter, very much in two dimensions but I also read architecture and for quite some time saw them as two separate things.
Q. You went to Cambridge to read architecture and law and then switched to art attending the Byam Shaw School of Art. Was there a pivotal point where you thought you are on the wrong track and need to change?
It’s very easy to look back and say that’s what I should have done from the very beginning. I was quite academic at school and found it relatively easy but I don’t think I ever enjoyed that side of it. I then got into Cambridge and thought I don’t want to not go because that’s a very exciting opportunity. At that time I was also doing an art foundation which was what I loved doing. I could at that stage have thought this is the way I should go but I also think that with the benefit of hindsight I was possibly a bit too immature. I didn’t really have a clear individual idea of what I wanted to do. After leaving Cambridge I worked in arts admin jobs for a bit and then in health care communications on the government HIV/AIDS campaign. I was working with a lot of people with HIV in various organisations with a very short time to live because at that time there weren’t very good treatments for it. That was the pivotal point and I thought ‘if I had a year to live, what would I do?…I’d go to art school’. So that was it.
Q. An epiphany?
I was thinking I can do this healthcare communications work, it’s fine, I enjoyed it but I didn’t really think I wanted to do it for ever. So it was one of those questions I couldn’t escape.
Q. So you went to art school and you painted predominantly?
Yes, printmaking and painting.
Q. Was there another point at which you thought you wanted to work in three dimensions?
It was a very slow burn. I started figuratively, mainly in the life room and slowly started becoming interested in the space within the room. All these bodies and figures within that space. I made paintings about that, very traditional at that stage. At that time I went to the National Gallery to do a copy of a Veronese painting ‘The Family of Darius Before Alexander’. If you’ve ever seen anyone painting in the national gallery you take your canvas or your board and get it stamped at the back so that it’s clear that its not a forgery. It also has to be a different size to the original. My piece was two meters by four meters. When I came back I felt quite scared of working that big so I thought I had better try it. I worked on that painting for about 6 months, maybe a year and it was one of the most useful failures I have ever done. Working at that scale became clear that I was interested the abstract elements of it not in the narrative. The painting got simplified until it almost disappeared and became about patches of colour. From then on, over about a four or five year journey, my paintings slowly became a monochromatic shape, cut out and removed from the wall to become freestanding. A rather arduous and slow procedure until finally they became sculptures. The shapes were no longer relating to the rectangular frame about them but relating to the whole space of the room and in some ways that’s what I’ve been dealing with ever since.
Q. Your work is pared back. The colour you use is vivid. Are you trying to juxtapose your work against the environment, the material itself or maybe an evolution of your interest in colour?
The choice of colours I suppose you are talking about are all a mid tone hue. They are all quite high chroma – highly saturated. Because I live in London and I’ve always lived in capital cities that’s were I tend to get my ideas from. I am interested in whether you can put these pared down shapes and colour into a very busy visual environment. Does it change the way you look at it? You notice little things like a builder in a fluorescent jacket who can you can see from miles away in a slightly grey city landscape. One patch of colour with so much else going on.
Q. That brings to mind your image of the cardboard box with the yellow side to it.
How many times do you go past things in the city and you just never notice them? Until I had started working on a residency in Leighton House I’d never noticed those cardboard boxes left out in the street for recycling, how beautiful they are. They are sculptures in their own right yet you can walk right past and not see it because there is so much stuff in the city. You would go mad if you noticed it all. I’m interested in picking out bits of it to draw it to your attention, but somewhat subliminally. Rather than creating pieces that shout ‘look at me’ I’m creating pieces that are quietly changing the environment, playing with it.
Q. Do you think it’s a way to make sense of your own environment and see it in a positive light rather than a mess or chaotic experience?
I love the city. It’s never been a mess to me. It is a matter of seeing a bit further in, underneath. Cities are complex organisms and there are things under the surface that you might not notice straight away. It’s also about the way people function in the city – the relationship between them and the spaces they move through.
“It’s very easy to look back and say that’s what I should have done from the very beginning”
Q. Is there a link between your earlier interest in architecture and your sculptural work?
There is. For a long time I didn’t understand why I’d studied architecture but my work is absolutely about the space. It’s been interesting coming to terms with it and actually now it does make sense. Particularly working towards my upcoming exhibition at the William Benington gallery where, for the first time for a while, I have made work that relates to itself rather than a particular space. It’s about the space between the objects, like a theatrical space where the props and players all relate to one another. Or like the way people move in the city and their relationships to buildings, space, the rubbish in it and all the other stuff. The negative spaces are as important as the positive. That idea is very architectural and definitely comes back to my early studies. …
The rest of this interview will be published in a forthcoming sculptorvox publication.