In the studio with Chuck Elliott
This week In The Studio, TAG Fine Arts speaks to Chuck Elliott. He takes us through his early days in the Soho art scene, gives us a tour of his workspace and garden, and introduces us to the wise words of Bruce Mau. You can see Chuck's works online here, and in person at our stand at the London Art Fair in January.
How did your relationship with TAG Fine arts begin?
I’m a relative newcomer to the TAG stable, we’ve been working on projects together for about three or four years now. I had seen Hobby around the fairs over recent years and was keen to forge a relationship with him, he’s a contemporary dealer who shows work both nationally and internationally, which is great. I also knew that TAG has a strong roster of graphic artists, many of whom work with print, and as such felt that we might be a good fit.
What is your background?
I started as an art student in 1984, studying Illustration at Bath Technical College and from there went on to a Foundation year, followed by a BA at the old Hornsey School of Art (now a part of Middlesex University). Personally, I would’ve been in favour of the UK retaining its independent network of art schools as I don’t think they should be departments in larger universities. That said, I was delighted to graduate in ’92 with a First Class degree, and from there I moved straight into Soho’s art and design scene! I cut my teeth at Ace Studio, a graphics production facility, for a couple of years before launching Dais Studios on Great Marlborough Street, then Flux Studio on Greek Street. My most recent endeavour is The Transistor Project, which started life as an established artist’s collective and a vehicle for curating and representing new work.
Did you ever decide to be an artist?
I guess I must have! I knew I wanted to go to art school from my mid-teens, to follow in the footsteps of all the many and varied radical thinkers that have come up through that system. It seemed ridiculously glamorous and profoundly romantic to spend one’s days making, thinking, reading and studying.
At college, I was introduced to the Quantel Paintbox, a digital system that allowed you to paint straight onto the screen. It was a pure revolution. For those of us who had been struggling with gouache, oils, Rotring pens and airbrushes, the idea that you could paint with a full spectrum of colour, add tonality and photographic material, all whilst retaining the option to edit everything ad infinitum, was amazing. Around the same time, I was inspired by the huge American names being exhibited in London and Los Angeles - Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, and so on. The idea that you could make non-figurative work at scale, for gallery exhibition, seemed totally contemporary to me. I liked the idea of getting back to the source and working with light itself.
Define what art means to you, in 150 characters or less.
Art is, without any doubt, the total arc of a life spent studying and practising the form.
What is your workspace like?
A little over ten years ago I moved down to Bristol from London. Bristol provides a kind of anarchic satellite to the muscular capital; still spinning well within London’s orbit, but not playing by all of the same rules. It’s interesting to note that Britain’s two most notorious artists, Banksy and Hirst, both emanate from here. Bristol has a beautiful, vibrant community of artists, musicians and writers, that makes for a really fabulous scene, where affordable(ish) studio spaces are still achievable within the city limits. I’m no longer sure that London can claim to be able to provide affordable spaces for artists anymore.
My studio space comprises three rooms within a larger house; a quiet basement room for drawing, mostly on my digital system. This room also houses my library of books, along with a printed ephemera that provides a kind of visual reference for the ideas I’m trying to resolve into new studies. I also have a separate larger room for printmaking and framing, with racking for completed work. Finally, there’s a beautiful, battered, old Victorian conservatory, heavily bomb damaged in the war, that now serves as makeshift woodworking and painting space as required. There’s a romance embedded here, which speaks directly to the idea of the artist working in a slightly ruinous old building, a trope which still appeals to me, although less so in the winter!
Chuck's laser cutting machine
Do you have any routine you follow when you’re creating?
Not really. I love to get on quietly in the studio, thinking about and making new work, most days, if at all possible. Life gets in the way of course, and as I now also have a patch of ground to tend I’ve inevitably become a keen gardener, an activity which I think can directly inform artistic practice. Art and nature entwined into a singular vision. In a sense, a whole personal universe reduced to a domestic scale
The idea of creating an ephemeral space full of light and colour in which the seasons, and nature, take a hand in growing and creating what you experience there on any given day, strike me as being entirely analogous with artistic endeavour in the studio too. The two activities seem to mesh into a single, very particular way of thinking and being. It’s about seeing the totality of the whole over time rather than each individual component.
What is your favourite work of art? Why does it inspire you?
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece takes some beating. As an expression of trust, confidence, humility, and just pure humanity, I’ve rarely seen a piece that is stronger or more extraordinary than that. In paint, it would be a tough choice between the colour and clarity of someone like Botticelli, or the printmaking genius of Hokusai.
If you could have dinner with any artist, past or present, who would it be and why?
Jean Michel Basquiat would have to be a contender. It depends on whether you’re thinking of this meeting as an informal opportunity to chat, or a chance to attend a lecture! If the latter then to sit and hear Leonardo’s thoughts for an hour would be amazing. If the former then I’d be fascinated to meet any number of contemporary artists working today who have real integrity. Mark Wallinger, Fred Tomaselli, Renzo Piano, Richard Deacon, Santiago Calatrava, the list is endless really.
How important are current affairs and sociohistorical events to your works?
I’m endlessly fascinated by politics and current affairs. That said, I’m much less interested in narrative art that intends to tell a story, and I have very little time for glib one-liners, described pictorially. There needs to be some space left for the viewer to experience and consider their own thoughts and experience in relation to the work. It has been said that the space between the viewer and the artwork is where the art really exists.
Chuck's artwork, Chime, in situ
Do you think social media has impacted your career? How so?
Massively. Inevitably. Social media provides an incredible platform to disseminate and explore networks of visual content that the old-fashioned high street library couldn’t begin to match. An internet enabled screen allows you to lose yourself in the collection of a major museum, or explore a single artist, musician or writer as you see fit. Social media has allowed makers to promote, display and catalogue their own work, in a way that allows the contemporary artist to become internationally well known in ways that only very few artists in previous centuries could achieve.
Do you create your best work independently or when within a community?
I like the idea that the working artist is a member of a larger group of like-minded people, making work, and living within a fundamentally liberal society that values creativity. Art school, certainly as I experienced it, seemed in part to be an incubator for the idea of the liberal, free-thinking radicalism that has driven the contemporary art world forward over the past century, albeit with some significant headwinds.
That said, the studio where I work is designed to be quite solitary. I like the idea of quietly getting on, within the larger more industrious setting. So no desire to retreat to the country, but no desire to have too many interruptions either. A calm room within a bustling urban setting seems ideal to me.
What advice would you give to upcoming artists?
Keep going! Start anywhere. Exhibit widely. Trust your own voice. Make what seems right to you. Don’t worry about critical opprobrium, although do listen to critical advice. Keep practising, that’s the main thing really.
Do you love what you do?
I don’t think about it in those terms. I actually think making art is quite a hard way to live. There’s no safety net, no salary, and the terrain comes with significant self-doubt about the intrinsic value of the work you’re producing, in an intellectual as opposed to a monetary sense. It’s clearly difficult to stay the course. Ultimately the best way to continue working as an artist is by having no Plan B. If you can’t successfully answer the question ‘What else would I do?’ then the logical conclusion is to keep practising until you can answer that question. To date, I haven’t thought of anything that I’d rather be doing. Market gardening maybe!
What themes do you reflect on in your work?
A lot of the thinking behind it comes from nature, architecture, physics, engineering, maths, quantum mechanics, cosmology and so forth. The ability of computers to marry the rigour of mathematical and geometric processing with a painting and drawing capability that allows for pure lyrical abstraction provides the framework for a lifetime of study.
Radial 3, a work in progress
Do you collect art yourself?
Of course! Generally by the time honoured method of swapping works with other artists, especially my brothers who both make art, alongside occasional purchases. Artworks in the home are perhaps the only objects that you are likely to keep and study for your whole life, and as such provide a kind of rudder, just under the waterline, that steers your direction of travel, perhaps fairly subconsciously. I have pictures here that I’ve been living with since my late teens, that continue to engage me almost daily.
What artwork of yours would you like to be remembered for?
I’m not at all concerned at the thought of ‘being remembered’. When you’re gone you’re gone I think. But, of course, I’d be delighted if my drawings loiter on in people’s lives for as long as possible!
What is your quote to live by?
Quite a long time ago I stumbled across The Incomplete Manifesto by Bruce Mau, a fantastic designer, thinker and artist. He describes his incomplete manifesto as a system for living, and I think it certainly contains some great thoughts. Of all of them, my favourite might be "Stay up late, interesting things happen when you stay up late". It’s a particularly good thought on a warm summer evening of course.
What are you working on at the moment?
Lots of things. I’ve been hugely distracted by making a new website, which I’ll launch shortly. As we seem to be spending more time online, it's important to have a good web presence. I’m also working on several new series of drawings. Modular pieces that can be user-configured; allowing the owner to configure a number of components to suit their space. I’m also exploring the idea of making more sculptural pieces using multiple monitors to inhabit a space, in such a way that they each become components in a larger study, that animates across the multiple screens.
And of course, I’m continuing to work on my Experimental Print Club pieces. The club is a vehicle I use to explore smaller, more ephemeral works on paper that are distributed via a subscription model to club members every quarter. I like the idea of subverting the traditional idea of the collector buying a piece after viewing it. In the case of the print club, people sign up for the journey and then receive unexpected and unseen artworks delivered by post.