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Culture

DAVID SHILLINGLAW

Published by Erin Carrington | Culture
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Your work centres around the human condition, the intricacies of human life and the relationship we all have with modern society, how much of your work reflects your own specific personal experiences, compared to the greater X do you see your work as autobiographic?

My work can be very autobiographical. I draw on and from the things around me - people, places, music, food etc. I also attempt to make it accessible to other people and relate to general ideas and conditions. I would say the content is equally divided between very personal insights, and extremely broad themes, although sometimes it is not obvious which is which.

If art can be viewed as integral to the expression of the human condition, how much does your work reflect your private life? if you’re going through a bad time does your work become markedly more dark, or do you use work to do the opposite?

A bit of both. There is usually a playful, positive tone, but if I am having a bad day that might end up in my work too. Making art definitely helps me ‘work through’ things. I think of drawing as a meditation and escape, and feel immediately better with a pen and paper to hand.

The human condition by default is very much about extremes, as you’ve said before, the ‘peaks and troughs’ of human life. Are you generally an optimist or a pessimist?

If you can’t laugh at it, it’s probably laughing at you. Oscar Wilde said: “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”  

You’ve said before that ‘acceptance is halfway to happiness’. How much of this can be applied to your own personal politics? How much does your own political views inform your work?

I believe acceptance is halfway to happiness. This is very much something I strive for in my personal life, but it can also be applied to my working process. My work acts as a diagram and map of my journey; an ever-growing jigsaw puzzle, with no corners or edges and plenty of missing and broken pieces. The trick is to focus on the good bits and accept the failures as part of the process... “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” - Samuel Beckett

You’ve written before about the importance of accessibility in your work, the idea that your pieces be as appealing and enjoyed as by a five year old as by a ninety five year old, how important do you believe art is as a tool of political communication?

I feel it is essential that what I make can be accessed on some level by anyone who sees it. I make art informed by a weighty history, but I also attempt to make things that speak to people, irrelevant of their age or place in society. I believe art can be a universal language, and I have used it to teach children and adults who don’t speak English, or don’t speak at all. I like talking to people through my art. When I’m in the process of making something I often wonder if my 90 year old grandma, or my 9 year old niece will be able to take something from it.

Your work has taken you to an impressive roster of places - Gambia, Kosovo, Rotterdam to name but a few. How much does your travel inform your work? Would you find it difficult to work if you stayed in London?

I have just returned from Berlin and Amsterdam, and trips like those totally feed my work - my sketchbooks fill-up along the way, and seeing and exchanging things with amazing people just adds punctuations to the journey – like stars in a constellation. I am however excited to be back in London, and the prospect of getting into new work over the next few months. Working on the road in new places is a very non-stop and tiring experience, and completely contrasts to being in the comfort of my studio, sitting on a sofa with my cat. Both are essential. I need to travel and I need a home/studio to return to.

You live in your studio in Barnet, where you grew up. How much does the juxtaposition between your extensive travel around the world and your life in London being so centered in Barnet affect your work? Does your travel serve as a form of escapism?

It changes from day to day. Traveling is fun and very much a luxury; at times it can also be a chore and something that disrupts the order of things. There is escapism and independence enjoyed through travel. I enjoy the middle spaces. The transit. Which gives me time to draw and read and think. But I also relish the chance to be home and in the studio for a stretch of time to spend more time on larger and more ambitious works.

You work in mixed media, often using found objects, and also have created album artwork for The Travelling Band as well as playing in your own band. Are there any mediums you’ve yet to explore? Film? Fashion?

Animation excites me. I enjoy mixing analogue and digital. And architecture. I want to build a space, like a tree house - a walk-in artwork that also contains animals, and plants, and a functional pizza oven. And I’d like to keep bees. I want to build and paint beehives.

You’ve previously mentioned working on several pieces at once, how much of your work is pre-planned? Can you talk us through your process? Is it hard to maintain the “thread” of each piece whilst working on a few simultaneously?

Working on several things at once encourages chaos, things naturally happen, colours bleed, and accidents occur. I think of it as a cross-pollinating of ideas. I also work a lot with the bi-products of making, using scraps and leftovers to start new pieces. I also enjoy starting a drawing or painting and seeing it through to a state of completion. That just doesn’t happen very often in my studio because there are always things sitting around waiting to be used or distracting me from the task in hand.

Has your attitude/experience of London changed through travelling so much, having worked all over the world and recently showing at Moniker, has being involved with so many British artists influenced your work/train of thought following it?

I am as influenced by people around me who are not ‘artists’ as I am by ‘artists’. Everyone has a different approach and discipline, sometimes it might influence me, but not in such a conscious way. I don’t see much of a difference between artists from different cities, especially with the internet so commonly used as a platform to display and communicate, it is difficult to pin people down to a specific place or time.

On your blog, you mention losing a camera and how this triggered a thought process about impatience. Do you ever feel like you rush yourself to finish something because it is a reaction to a specific moment?

I don’t like to rush things, but sometimes things have to happen quickly in order to happen at all; like recording an overheard conversation, or a street name, things that will be forgotten in time. I also trust memory and I enjoy the way memory can distort past things into new versions of themselves; recollection and nostalgia can alter reality. 

There is no fixed rule or method, I work with what I have to hand - I usually carry several sketchbooks with me, of different sizes, so I can also do a quick sketch or write something down and use it later. I make a lot of notes, and feel that using sketchbooks is a vital catalyst of the process of making art.

You're active on Twitter, Tumblr. How much do you filter what you publicly publish? Do you feel the need to censor yourself for public image purposes or do you feel like the viewer needs to see the 'real you' in order to better understand/appreciate your art?

I feel that my art and my self are interconnected. I hope one can be appreciated without the other, but one probably helps the other. I think it is always interesting to know about the artist to inform the art, but sometimes it is just nice to see the art and not know much about the personality of the artist. Social media helps and hinders this dynamic between art and artist. I try and keep it all about my art, but my art often documents things I am doing, specifically the series of ‘journal drawings’ where I make a drawing every day based on what I am up to, like a journal page, or a slice of time, in this respect my private life and professional life become the same thing, both feed each other, like a hungry two-headed drawing monster. Making art is my full time job, and it is very much full time; I live and work in the same space, I don’t really take weekends off, or holidays, it is a constant flow, and a way of life, so inevitably the boundaries between the personal and professional get blurred.

You've mentioned your work being a reaction to external influences, the places you've been, the people you've met, your work for the Moniker Art Fair involved a juxtaposition between the ancient and the contemporary, how much was your work for the fair a reaction to contemporary London?

London definitely features in my work, and a reaction to such a multi-cultural metropolis. London is an incredibly rich environment, there is too much to feed on culturally and historically. My work dips in and out of the real and the imagined, there very well might be a specific reference to contemporary London, but right next to it will be a quote about Genghis Khan, or a drawing of a German road sign. It’s a constant mash-up.

The Moniker Art Fair was visited by roughly 10,000 people, does showing your work in London change your views of your work - being aware that most likely the majority of people who are viewing your work will be connected to you in some way, at least that they’ve seen the same streets as you, at most that they’re your friends and family? How long did you have between first involvement and the beginning of the show? Did you have a general theme of work in mind for it from the beginning?

I approached Moniker art fair the same way I would approach an exhibition or publication - there was a title, and a piece of text to help explain or narrate the work. I included older works, but wanted the space to be read as a complete installation rather than separate pieces on a wall for sale, this was added to by building site-specific work that was not for sale but instead used to create a mood and all-encompassing experience for a viewer to get lost in. I feel it is necessary to alter the space and make it my own, using specific materials, lighting, colours and objects. I used the booth provided by Moniker to create a space that hopefully shifted between studio, gallery and installation. I wanted people to feel as though they were stepping inside my artwork, as opposed to just observing it.
I didn’t make anything specifically for a London audience, or friends or family, I made all the work for myself. It helps when people can read the language you write in, but a lot of the text I use is very simple, almost pigeon English, with bad spelling and word plays. I don’t think the work relies on an English speaking audience to appreciate the work.

The Moniker show really highlights the diversity within the British street art scene, and the rise of mainstream appreciation over the past few years. Why do you feel street art is important, particularly in London? Even more specifically, East London? Were you very interested in street art during your time at CSM, or did that come later?

I have always been interested in the streets. As a child I loved the look of graffiti and collected found objects, often being told off by my mum for bringing home random piece of metal or wood to make into something. My time at CSM was a challenge because ‘street art’ was quite a dirty word, and not taken too seriously. My references were more towards Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat, rather than contemporary street artists. It helped that the Beautiful Losers book was published while I was studying, so it gave me something to lean on, and show my tutors who were far from impressed with the street art craze that was exploding. I have never really considered myself a ‘street artist’, I am an artist, and on occasion I work in the street, and will always find/borrow objects and materials from the street to make art. Found objects are a beautiful material to work with, they already have so much to say for themselves, they have a history, and I see working with found objects as forging an essential dialogue with my environment.

Why do I think street art is important?

Because it speaks to people in a language people enjoy being spoken to. It requires very little background to understand. It is punchy and often humorous and a relief and antidote from the mainstream media we are spoonfed every day. I think of street art in the same way as hip-hop, in the beginning it was D.I.Y – a super fresh approach, and made people dance in a new way, but within 10 years it had gone from the Sugar Hill Gang to Vanilla Ice and a pop chart full of newer and less authentic versions of the original thing. The great thing about any sub-culture is its subversive nature, as soon as it becomes too popular it loses its edge. It is an interesting time for art in general, and street art epitomizes that. There is a lot of hot hair in the art balloon, but some of it still surprises me and makes me see the world differently, and this is no bad thing.

Having traveled so extensively, where is next on your list? Or following Moniker are you keen to stay in London?

Staying in London for the next few months, hibernating in my studio. Planning some projects and trips for next year.

Do you find it makes it harder to switch off when you travel for pleasure? (if you ever find the time!)

Switch off? I don’t have an off switch, although some people probably wish I did.

Where would be your dream place to create an outdoor piece? Do you have any preference between creating outdoor murals to smaller more traditional pieces?

I have no preference, creating works both large and small comes equally naturally to me, and usually I crave one because of the other. I am looking for a balance between all the different possibilities of making art. 

A dream place to make outdoor art? Somewhere where nothing like my work has been made before, and for an unsuspecting audience who will appreciate the work.

Do you prefer group shows to solo shows?

They are two quite different things. A solo show gives me the opportunity to say something with my own voice and have complete control over the presentation. A group show will depend on the other artists, curator, gallery etc. Both can excite me, and just as quickly can frustrate me.

What's up next?

Working on my next book. And planning adventures for 2014.

David has been interviewed by Erin Carrington a regular guest culture contributor to Platinum Love.
Category Culture
Tags Erin Carrington, David Shillinglaw,