Wednesday 20 April 2011

Interview with Tom Butler, Alyson Heyler & Marion Michell

I am delighted to interview Tom Butler, Alyson Helyer and Marion Michell artists of the forthcoming exhibition ‘Extra Ordinary’.  The work of Tom Butler, Alyson Helyer and Marion Michell forms a strange symbiosis, a disjointed world of macabre coexistence that holds humour, ambiguity, intensity and contradiction. Last year Butler, Helyer and Michell were selected for this group exhibition from over 250 artists worldwide as part of Core Gallery’s 2010 Open Submission Competition by our prominent judges Graham Crowley, Kate Jones and Matt Roberts. 

Tom Butler, Marion Michell & Alyson Heyler

In this interview I gain insight into the exhibition ‘Extra Ordinary” (which is curated by Jane Boyer and Rosalind Davis) and the developments they have made within their practices since showing at Core Gallery’s DX Open Submission in September 2010.

Tom Butler completed an MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art and and BA at Chelsea College of Art & Design and exhibits internationally, currently residing in Maine, USA. In 2010 Butler was selected for the ArtSway Open, The Ludlow Summer Open and artWorks Open. 

Alyson Helyer is a graduate from Chelsea College of Art & Design and has been selected in 2010 for the artworks Open and Crash Open Salon. Previously Helyer has been selected for the Celeste Art Prize, The Jerwood Drawing Prize and the Whitechapel Open. 

Marion Michell graduated from Central St Martins School of Art and Design in critical fine art and has worked in mixed media and video exhibiting internationally. Michell has recently had a solo show at the Arthouse in Wakefield.

April 2011 >>

CP: Can you tell us more about the work(s) that have been selected for the forthcoming show ‘Extra-ordinary’ at Core Gallery? 

To the unknown master © tom butler

TB: I have three bodies of work on display, Cabinet Cards, which are nineteenth century portrait cards, Cartes de Visite, which are essentially smaller versions of these that were handed out like calling cards and Postcard Works. All three are appropriated images I have collected over the last few years. I paint on the surfaces with gouache.

Nannys Boy © Alyson Heyler
AH: The works are still really trying to deal with the idea of the portrait. I’m still very much interested in the single image, trying to find archetypes, which hide deep in our psyche, trying to deal with the psychological and the physical.

Tied Pair, 2001, Tissue Paper © Marion Michell  
MM: A lot of my art touches on childhood, on growing up and its anxieties. It is as much an exploration of memory as of physical experience. Not necessarily concrete memories, more moods and atmospheres, interwoven with elements from myths and fairy tales. I work with papers, wools and artificial hair, making shoes, figures, dresses and other outfits from scratch and transforming found objects into something 
that expresses new sets of emotions and fantasies. There will be a set of five small dresses crocheted from artificial hair, intense and a bit scary in a fairy-tale sort of way. Female body hair is such an object of cultural anxieties and pressures, and crocheting little hairy dresses seemed a good way to play with some of these notions. There will be shoes made from tissue paper, looking heavy and solid, and several free-form crocheted outfits, maybe even a video.
Five perfect maidens, 2010/11, artificial hair, double-pointed knitting needles, twigs, wire, approx 20 - 25 cm x 25 - 30 cm © Marion Michell

What ties the work together is the urge to make manifest emotional states, esp. anxieties about difference and otherness, but also the question how the feeling of being different might manifest in a physical way. Initially my work was very much anchored in the real but lately the shapes have become freer, stranger, and at the same time more concentrated. 
Tender Pervert. 2011, oil on linen on board, 66cm x 55cm © Alyson Heyler
CP: What revelations in your work do you think will occur as a result of exhibiting alongside the other artists?

TB: I think the sculptural element of Marion’s work is going to give the exhibition life while Alyson’s will evoke something far more formless and unsettling. I think my work sits in-between. Depending on curatorial juxtapositions, some of my work may seem more alive, in others more dead. It’s in the overall resulting narrative that intrigues me most, something we individually couldn’t generate alone: a gestalt. I can’t wait!

AH: I really don’t know what to expect or what truths will be revealed. I always go to see a show with the hope of seeing something new, to see what others are up to, or what I can borrow. I like to come away from a show thinking ‘How did they do that?

MM: For me first of all it will be about the encounter of different media, different languages. We share concerns, seem to enjoy probing matters of the unconscious, but our processes of engagement, of exploration, of making visible what is dimly felt are excitingly various. My work is more directly physical in that I create or manipulate objects while Aly Helyer and Tom Butler create or manipulate images. But we all use the physical as an entry-point into the psyche. I guess one could say that we try to make concrete what is unspoken, unacknowledged, and we don’t shrink from looking at abjection… I can’t wait to hear the conversations between our pieces. The question is: will there be whispers? Songs? Shrieks?

CP: Can you describe how the unconscious manifests itself through your work? 
TB: I never really know what’s going to happen when I start a new piece. Although, I know I want to translate and give shape, to obscure something/reveal something but that’s about it. I know the unconscious has manifest when I leave the studio feeling both seduced and a little uneasy or on-edge.

The Lesson © Tom Butler

The Diligent Mother, 2010 ©
Alyson Heyler
AH: What a question! I’m not aware of how this really happens or when it occurs, I suppose the process is the catalyst, opening up the possibilities’ of chance and accident, allowing something deeper to happen, learning to trust your own instincts is another. I have fleeting moments usually late on in the evening when I’m painting, when I’m not aware of thinking or doing, maybe this is when someone else or some other takes control.

Changeling, 2010 © Marion Michell
MM: I think in how the unexpected shapes, the extra, the different sit comfortably with the ‘normal’ ones - there is a degree of innocence here, not least in the relatively small size of the work and the focus on childhood, but anchored in and evocative of bodily things, instinct, desire, pleasure, pain.

It takes a moment for the shapes to become disquieting and something arises from the strange physicality evoked. What kind of bodies could inhabit these outfits? Does the body demand their shape or the other way around? All this is set in tension with the softness and quaintness of crochet. Something wild and excessive works through and against the contained, controlled material. Delicacy and humour are set against and with a stressed, strained toughness. Gaps open - the viewer may stumble.

I want to make art that moves (truly, not just in a crocodile tears kind of way) on all kinds of levels. That moment when you’re touched - of barriers at least creaking a little if not breaking down, of protective layers being pierced. Away from static, perceived attitudes to a moment of uncertainty, vulnerability, as fleeting as the condensed breath on a window pane. A flow of something versus stasis. A morsel of life. A momentary freshness. The unconscious hangs like a purple shadow from our heels…
Eye-rhyme, 1998 © Marion Michell

The Bird catcher © Alyson Heyler

Farlin © Tom Butler

Hardy © Tom Butler

CP: When viewing the works there is a sense of transportation into the “un-real”, as it states in the press release “a disjointed world of macabre coexistence”. What else exists within this other-world? And what feelings do you think this will evoke within the viewer when encountering the exhibition?

We were wicked, we were wild, 2011, two viscose embroidery threads and one woollen one, 19 x 29.5 cm and 18.5 x 31 cm © Marion Michell

TB: I imagine secrets, indulgence and vice, yet with constant fear of breaking apart. The ‘other-world’ suggests to me something either non-bodily or bodily in a form that shifts and transforms, rather like a creature in an M. R. James ghost story or gothic novel. I would hope to evoke in the viewer something of that apprehension one feels before reading such a story.
AH: When I’m painting it feels just as real to me as the outside world, I recently came across Merleau-Ponty and was relieved to hear that he considered “paintings to be a model of reality as real as the models we create of the world in our minds”.

I hope the viewer will find something that is new and old, familiar and strange when looking at the paintings. 
MM: In our work/world conventional boundaries don’t function: the real interweaves with the dreamt, the actual touches the imagined, the beautiful and the monstrous exist as one.

For me the question of how we perceive reality, and esp. what we exclude (at our peril) from what we define as the ‘real’ is important. What else is there outside the proper, the allowed, the norm? Unwieldy bodies needing to be controlled, strong emotions needing to be checked? On these terms reality itself is macabre, reality is to be feared. Difference is a threat.

We buckle under the burden of expectations to fill prescribed roles. The figures in Aly Helyer’s and Tom Butler’s work wear the consequences like growths on their heads and faces. Are they adorned or branded? The boundaries between viewer and work are also unstable in much of our art - with Tom Butler’s pieces you have to lean really close to see what’s going on and may feel in danger of being infected by whatever is happening there.

And what about the phantasies and projections we indulge in when faced with the mystery of an other? Abjection comes from the judgement, separation and suppression of difference, in others, in ourselves. And who feels distress here? The figures evoked or the viewer? No matter how we look at the work there is always a residue of something that unsettles. Have the figures lost control over their bodies or have they decided to fully project their inner lives/selves? Are they wounded or whole? Do they reveal their full being or is it just a new mask? I ask myself these questions breathlessly, with a shudder. Laugh, choke down tears. Want to turn away, like a child holding their nose in order not to smell something stinky, while it all seeps in through my pores.

In any case the real world is hard to take, and we tend to get through life by trying to switch off from what we can’t contain: the mess of living, the mess and mutability of our bodies, illness, war, hunger, homelessness, nearby or far away…

Our bodies are not perfect. We want our bodies mutable, to a degree. The ideals of beauty and eternal youth put immense pressure on us, link imperfect bodies with shame. The de- or maybe re-formed bodies we imagine in this exhibition, with their proliferations (or lack) of hair and limbs and even stranger things slither on the brink of abjection and there attain a kind of imperfect, but very much alive beauty. Look them in the eye!

"Dear Father..." © Tom Butler

CP: What developments have you made within your practice since showing at Core Gallery’s DX Open Submission in September 2010?

Untitled © Tom Butler
TB: Using photographs, images of real people. Victorian Portrait Photography fascinates me in that it has a weird ‘stuck-ness’. Roland Barthes wrote, in Camera Lucida, about a photograph taken in 1865 of a young man on death row, “He is dead and he is going to die…”(p95). As viewers we are privileged, if unsettled, witnesses to this.

The Postcard Works shown at DX Open were already a big step for me because they were figurative. My work previously was pretty much landscape based. In fact, my education is in Sculpture and I was always concerned with space, or at least in an absence. Now, I want to occupy that space and fill it with all I can conjure.

Portrait of The Art Tit As a Young Man © Alyson Heyler
AH: Backgrounds have always been problematic for me. I’m trying to give them more importance, to integrate them more. I’ve been looking at early Renaissance and Modernism (in particular Cubism) and looking at figure ground relationships, how to combine illusion, perspective and flatness.

MM: I had my first solo-show that summer and together with the exhibition at the Core Gallery and being selected for this new show with Aly Helyer and Tom Butler from a pool of interesting artists my self-confidence has deepened, and my trust in my work. Seeing one’s work up on the wall (if that is where it goes), in communication with other work, seeing how viewers react and interact has helped me consolidate the direction of my practice, following my interests… I’ve also become more ambitious with my applications...

CP: How important has the DX Open Submission Competition been to you? And what advice would you give to prospective applicants submitting work to similar competitions?

TB: Super important. I really wanted this one, especially with the quality of the judges and context of the gallery. I am also impressed with Core Gallery’s critical and progressive education programme, DIY Educate. I am thrilled to have been invited back to be a part of it.

My advice with open submission competitions - look who’s judging, keep the application simple, consistent and don’t bullshit. 
AH: It’s been a very positive experience, working as a painter is by its very nature an isolating experience, so competitions like DX are crucial in getting your work seen. Also I think Core are quite unique as they have built up a support network that anyone can access. Also because I was selected, along with Tom and Marion, it’s been an added bonus to get the chance to show a larger group of paintings. You usually can tell if its going to be about the work by who is on the panel.
Tickled with love, 2007 © Marion Michell

MM: Well, it might have just been a small entry on my CV, but through the selection for Extra-Ordinary and consequently becoming involved in the various processes towards and around the exhibition (incl. this interview) I’m learning a lot. The connection with Core Gallery has become fruitful on so many levels, much more than I expected. So it’s always worth trying, it may lead to other things.

CP: Have you got any forthcoming news to divulge?

TB: A solo exhibition curated by Charlie Levine in November at Aedas Architects, Birmingham. I am also currently the featured artist at Obscura, an awesome non-profit organization run by artists and educators in Maine, USA:

AH: The Hackney Wicked Festival in the summer.

MM: I am one of 30 international artists selected for Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE 11: REWIND-PLAY-FORWARD, in Kaunas, Lithuania, this September. The brief was to link one’s work with a text, a narrative, to do with memory, where the personal, the social, the historical interweave. Both text (Pedestal for a legless girl) and work (crocheted series of 7 changelings) will be displayed in the exhibition.

CP: Thankyou very much, Tom, Alyson & Marion!

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