THE LONG READ – CHARLIE POULSEN

Following two shows in Messums Wiltshire, and online, Charlie Poulsen has lately been preparing for a new collection of drawings debuting in Messums Yorkshire, Harrogate.

To bring Charlies character to the fore and to shine a light on the artist behind his collections we talked to him about his working day, his creative practice and his inspirations.

Drawing has, in recent years, been Charlie’s primary means of expression however it is only one of many. As Lynne Green says, ‘that Poulsen is also a sculptor is important. He works with the solidity of wood, the weight of lead and the malleability of wax (in 3D drawings). Moreover, he is a gardener – or rather a sculptor of growing form – whose preference is for order, repetition in planting and colour, and the training of tree branches and shrubs in to unaccustomed geometries.’ Charlie’s many projects of all shapes, sizes and materials are a large influence on his abstract drawings.

 

In this transcribed interview with our Head of Programming, Hannah Hooks, Charlie discusses the essential collaboration between the physical making process and the concept, as Charlie Says; ‘The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making’.

 

HH: Good afternoon Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.

I thought we should start with.. You’re up there in your studio in the Scottish boarders, it’s a beautiful spring day, and so what does a typical day in your studio look like.

 

CP: At the moment I’m in the middle.. well I’ve started another drawing. I’m in the middle of the first stages where mostly the first stages are pencil work which is very quick and very busy, it’s a very active time where I’m really buzzing. And in some ways, you ask that question about automation, and in some ways yes, I’m in automation role. Because you stop thinking, the whole aim is to stop thinking really and just do and react to whats in front of you. Obviously I have done some small preparatory drawings but they’re a guide and I try not to be too strongly guided by them if I feel the drawing is going another way because in the end it’s the big drawing that counts not the small one.

The drawing is the quickest part of the time and that might be a matter of a day or two only, and then you’re doing the other processes which is adding a layer of wax and gouache and so on which gives more depth to the painting, to the drawing, and at the end you can go back to drawing because the pencil lines, because I use a very hard pencil it creates a groove in the paper and when you apply the gouache the gouache will go into the grooves and so in a sense it becomes a bit like a print if that makes sense.

Especially if, a lot of the drawings, just before I put the final layer of gouache on I run a layer of wax on the whole surface so what that means is that the gouache only goes in the lines, it just picks up the lines. I suppose the wax must glide over the top of the grooves. So on the final stages I’m trying to emphasise various parts of the pencil line and various parts of the drawing. It comes to a point where I’ll even use a very very fine number one paintbrush to actually paint in individual lines if I had to. At that point then, at that stage of the drawing, it slows right right down, and I can be messing around for several days, trying to get it adjusted. I suppose i’m trying to get to.. stillness or something, yes I’m trying to get a sort of calmness and stillness within the drawing even though its very busy I suddenly want to control that business, I’m not quite sure why but that feels right anyway.

HH: So is that what  satisfaction in a painting looks like or feels like to you? Its arriving at a point of stillness?

 

CP: Yes I think so. Stillness is important and I don’t really know why but in some ways my role is not to ask the question why my role as I see it is just to do.

 

HH: What’s interesting about your drawing practice it that you’ve been an artist for many many years but you haven’t always made drawing a primary means of expression but more recently you have, for something like ten years?

 

CP: Yep, I think partially I got very frustrated with sculpture because if you’re not selling it or showing it a lot the damn stuff just sits there and if its quite big you keep having to move it and I get really fed up with it. And also its very slow work and in some ways because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t for years really with sculpture I suppose, and so I decided when, well this would have been 2010, that I was going to concentrate on drawing because one, you can get through ideas very quickly and in some ways its more me in my head, in some ways it’s a bit like.. lets put it like this on a musical thing.. it’s the difference between a big concert piece and a chamber work, something classical, and it’s the chamber work which is more personal, more introverted if you like but I find that more interesting and the sculpture was the more public side of things so i’ve turned to drawing as a way of getting through ideas faster and maybe finding myself more. Because about fifty I suddenly realised you’ve got to stop getting frustrated at not getting anywhere with this work, you’ve just got to do it for yourself. And I think I thought sculpture wasn’t doing it for myself so much. As well as.. it just took too long really. I’m inpatient. The older you get the more impatient you get. You can sort of see the departure lounge you know.

HH: So the date that you give as the title on the work has always interested me because I’ve never known whether it was the start of the work or the end of the work.

 

CP: The end. Very much so. There doesn’t seem much point in putting the date where you begin because you might never finish. In some ways you make a decision that its finished, it isn’t, its never rea

lly finished, there’s always something you can do but I think in some ways also you can lose the freshness of it and that sort of thing and that’s a sort of decision you make somehow that you’ve got as far as you’re going to go with that piece of work.

 

HH: I think that’s what is really captivating about your work is that energy you’re able to harness within the framework or the constraint or outline of the square so you start always with the square and then you’re working within that each time but there’s this sort of containment versus this sort of freedom or energy that I think, that kind of push and pull creates a really interesting practice.

 

CP: Yeah, because, you mention the word restraint and you meant the square. It is a restraint but also it makes decision making a lot easier, otherwise theres always all those different sizes you can do. You can have a rectangle in all sorts of different proportions but there is a convenient side of things because as a maker of things, i’d rather call myself just a maker of things, as a maker of things there are so many choices and its actually quite important to reduce your choices. But there was a logic behind reducing choices to a square, well you’ve got the classic thing about the portrait and landscape isn’t it. Painting is always in a proportion of landscape or portrait but a square in neither so it has that great advantage, it is a very powerful structure and virtually nothing will break it down really so I’m constantly trying to break it down to a point where it just.. sometimes it may nearly disappear altogether but its got that nice tension about seeing how far you can go with a drawing. In terms of extending the drawing, not beyond the boundary and yet its still feels like a square even though the drawing escapes right the way to the edge of the piece of paper, you’ll still feel the square when it’s finished, I hope.

HH: You mentioned a few moments ago your changing concerns or a sense of being impatient as you feel time is against you and I wonder if your inspirations have changed and who and what they were to start with. You sent me a beautiful picture this morning saying ‘this is my inspiration’ the view from your studio window but I wonder beyond that creative space what really influences you.

CP: Its always a very difficult that one Hannah, because you know as a painter yourself that it’s very hard to pin down what influences are and where they’re from. There are certain people, I would probably say some of the abstract expressionists and minimalists, Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt, Rothko, those sort of people, but funnily enough on the other end of the thing i’d probably say Ravilious and Nash, I sort of follow their English landscape, i’m quite interested in having all those influences mixed up. But then you look at a Turner or something, or a Seurat and you get very excited by seeing those so how do you know where you’re coming from in many ways, you pick up all these influences over your life and so i’m really not sure and I think that it pays not to have heroes anyway. In my opinion if you’ve got a hero and I mean a female or a male hero in some ways you can’t get past them so you’ve got to see them as mortal if you like. That’s the trouble with Heroes, they tend to be immortalised and you’ve got to get past that. But then I talked about the allanbank, there definitely are influences from landscape and where you live. But again I used to start the basis of a drawing on something particular so in the earlier works, the drawing behind me, well that’s about the year 2000 and at that same time I did several drawings which were influenced by the hedge if you like and trying to sort of make sense of the hedge but I think In many ways the one behind me was more successful than the ones where I was trying too hard so about that time I thought I should abandon any thought of representation because somehow I couldn’t do anything with it, in that sense I can’t cope with drawing in that way and i’m a great admirer of people who can in fact i’m rather jealous of their abilities but I feel its not a route that I can take. I remember when we were doing life classes, you know, I would plug away at them but in the end Hannah I don’t think I was that excited by it. But just starting with a pencil and just doing something, just sticking a pencil on paper and just going for it is, it’s a bit basic but there you are.

 

HH: You gave a wonderful talk as part of the last exhibition with us in Wiltshire in the long gallery about drawing and that sort of immediacy of it and the importance of it as an action, as a way of mark making and the kind of accessibility of it as well as the fact that its sometimes not seen as the highest of art forms when actually I think, what amazing about your work, and I don’t know whether it’s the scale or the detail or the way that you make them, there’s something about the mark making its almost like listening to music, there’s a lot to be absorbed by and I suppose what’s strange about this exhibition is that people wont be seeing your works in real space. They will be experiencing them virtually which is a sort of departure because artists want people to stand in front of their work and I wonder whether there was any advice we could give to people looking at your work and maybe experiencing it for the first time through a computer screen.

CP: well on the whole I prefer not to give advice because I thinks it’s a bad idea but you put your finger on it really I mean if they approached it like music because music in the end that’s instrumental it is abstraction and so if they can cope with the abstraction, you know, abstraction didn’t start in the 20th century in my mind it started long before and certainly in music, abstractions always been there but people haven’t talked about it like that have they. But its always been there with music I think, nobody know really, all these people tell you what’s its all about this music but I’m always sceptical about their claims because as in all the people who create things I don’t think they always know where they’re going because if you know where you’re going do you bother to do it so I suppose I’m thinking the only reason you’re going in a direction is because you don’t know where it’s going to come out and that’s where the excitement is of creating anything. I obviously cant speak for anyone else but I do feel that that must be to a certain extent how it is because, in fact I remember someone recently who, she was doing something for the Tate, she said she’d got this great idea, and now she had to go an make it, well she didn’t really like the idea of making it. And it happens at colleges now, you’re meant to write it all down what you’re going to do and then you do it. Well that seems pointless. The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making and so if you just have an idea on paper and you totally translate physical reality I’m not sure you’ve achieved very much, you might as well just have the idea on paper which is in other words just the concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, the conceptualists did that, but then im old school. You’re always taught that, you’ve got to let the material have some say in the matter when your making something.

 

HH: for a man who doesn’t like to dish out advice that is excellent advice. Because I think all the best artworks rely on the artists ability to use their materials well and you certainly do that.

 

CP: I forgot to say that of course I listen to music a lot with the drawing, I don’t let the music influence the drawing if you like but it does calm me and also I suppose its that parallel nature of it that I like. Though having said that it did influence me this morning, I was dancing to that, but then I just left the drawing and sort of danced around the floor. But then Ive always danced in some way, even in college id be the first one on the floor. No girl would ever dance with me because I was just too wild I would go on for hours, anyway.

 

 

 

Charles Poulsen featured in The Times

 

Our represented artist Charles Poulsen is featured in The Times newspaper this month. The image was chosen as one of the publications photographs of September 2020 and taken by James Glossop. The sculpture is Poulsen’s Skyboat an 11-metre wooden former fishing boat built in Whitby, which is now suspended on a wooden frame more than four metres in the air. The sculpture is created at Marchmont House in the Scottish borders and will eventually be supported by the oaks planted beneath it which will form a living cradle. The boat will appear to float and take up to 70 years to complete.

An exhibition of Charles’ 5ft square drawings will be shown at Messums Yorkshire from 31 October.

‘The Golden Girl of Heal’s’ – Barbara Brown speaks to Ashley Gray

Barbara Brown ‘Sweetcorn’ 1958

The conversation below between Barbara Brown and Ashley Gray took place on 17 April 2020 –

Ashley Gray:
Hello Barbara, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Can we talk about your experience of art school prior to the Royal College?

Barbara Brown:
I was at school in Ashford first of all and travelled to Canterbury by train each day to attend the Art School there before finally finding digs in the town. I did the Intermediate and the National Diploma and wanted to be a sculptor but they said to me “you cannot be a sculptor because you are a woman!” It was very much like that in those days. They said, “you can do textiles” so I did textiles. I did what I was told as that had always been my background. Sculpture was really my first love, Textiles were my second. There were very few of us doing Textiles at Canterbury.

AG:
Yet it was textiles that brought you to the Royal College?

BB:
It was wonderful, I loved the Royal College. The atmosphere, everything, Humphrey Spender who taught there influenced me.

AG:
He designed for Alistair Morton’s Edinburgh Weavers too?

BB:
Yes, Humphrey Spender was lovely, I got to know him very well and we became great friends. We taught at the Royal College together later. I taught for twenty years there.

AG:
The earlier textiles like Sweet Corn were more painterly?

BB:
I was really mucking around in a way, having a good time. Trying to get away from very recognisable things. It was not until later after I left the Royal College that I started doing the very abstract things. Those are the things I still respond to – the abstract things.

AG:
You met Tom Worthington, a legendary figure at Heal’s whist at the Royal College?

BB:
Yes, he would come to the degree shows and bought what he saw at that time. Later he commissioned things from me.

AG:
What was your next step after the Royal College?

BB:
I went to teach. First at Medway where Zandra Rhodes was one of my first students.

AG:
She told me you were a great influence on her.

BB:
She has always been so nice about that, she was a fantastically hard worker, she never stopped. She was one of my first students. I got quite a few students into the Royal College at that time. I also taught visual research at Hornsey. This meant looking at different ways of drawing using microscopes and all sorts. I had a wide range of different students, painters, sculptors, everything. I was teaching in the same way also at Guildford.

AG:
Was this a time of evolution for you personally in your own work, I know you were interested in Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and others?

BB:
Yes, I was very influenced by them and I was looking at things in a very different way. I loved American art at that point too.

AG:
This influence also seems to have allowed you to work on a much larger scale than previous designers.

BB:
I never thought of these things as hanging in somebody’s front room. I always saw them as something for big spaces, to the extent that one of the big black and white ones was bought by Manchester University and put in their lecture hall. Apparently, all the students complained because it was so strong that they could not focus on the lecturer! It was much too commanding and distracted them all.

AG:
A great example of Op Art!

BB:
I always knew that the cloth was 48 inches wide so I always tried to work at 48 inches. I used to make the repeat to the full width so when you joined them up it became even bigger. I was interested in making images. That’s why I was never very good at repeat.

AG:
Was it the fact that you were not a traditional textile designer that drew Tom Worthington at Heal’s to your designs?

BB:
He came to my flat after the first view and saw what I was drawing. Bits of paper I was playing around with and he would say “I like that, or I like that” and I would develop them from that. He did not arrive and say, “I want to see some textiles”.

AG:
He was a powerful force in bringing Modernism into the home.

BB:
He had a really wonderful vision, he was a brilliant man at his job. He really did know what he wanted and what he was going for. It shows in the sort of things he picked.

AG:
He seemed to have that genius of moving and leading trends at that time.

BB:
Very much, he was very much the leader of it all, he picked all sorts of strange things that were wonderful. He did not go for pretty flowers in repeat! He had a lovely vision.

AG:
In 2017 there was the wonderful retrospective of your work at the Whitworth in Manchester. What was your reaction to seeing that work shown on such a grand scale?

BB:
It was great, I liked it a lot and I very much liked the way they had hung them. You got the feeling of what I was after in terms of the scale of them all.

AG:
Let’s discuss a few of these key textiles, but am I right in saying that the titles were actually given by Heal’s?

BB:
Yes, that’s right.

Recurrance, 1962

AG:
So, starting with the first for Heal Fabrics; Sweet Corn 1958, tell us a little about this piece?

BB:
This was the first one that I ever sold. It came from my degree show at the Royal College and Tom Worthington from Heal’s came and bought it. There was more than one colour way even then I did not like colourways!

AG:
Recurrence 1962 – very diffident to the painterly quality of Sweet Corn!

BB:
This is the first of all my abstract ones, very geometric and I like it a lot. It was also done for ceramics for Midwinters, Recurrence and Reciprocation with smaller circles was from the same time. Recurrence I liked best because it was very simple and I like them when they are very simple.

AG:
Frequency 1959, a very different approach tells us about this design.

Frequency, 1959

BB:
I became very interested in geology and earth movement. Here you get the strata and the folds in the rock. Heal’s photographed it really well and hung it with chimneys above it – it was rather wonderful, it became part of the landscape. It is very much about strata and mountain moving.

Spiral, 1969

AG:
Spiral rather later 1969, again for Heal’s, was very dynamic. Tell us about this.

BB:
This one I really like a lot, there was one similar to this one called Automation. They were very much about engineering drawing. So this one is a great big screw and Automation was from the idea of a building. I was very pleased with these and I particularly like them in black and white because it makes more sense and I like the scale of them.

AG:
So, we enter the early 1970s here with Ikebana.

Ikebana, 1971

 

 

 

 

BB:
This is very much about movement, these two big blocks of white coming from the left are moving the balls. So, like frequency it is about earth movement and how it is affected by water. You get the water bubbling up between the rock. It’s very much about earth movements again but in a very geometric way. You see these great huge white lumps coming through which move the water.

AG:
Barbara, Thank you so much.

Messums Yorkshire opens in Harrogate

Saturday 11 July 2020

Internationally renowned contemporary art dealer Johnny Messum hosted a summer opening at the new gallery in James Street, Harrogate, following the success of the James Street pop-up exhibition held just before lockdown. Launched over the weekend of 11 – 12 July, guests were invited to book timed appointments so they could view the exhibits in a safe and relaxed environment. Johnny plans to hold six shows of the best of international contemporary and Modern British art each year with accompanying talks and events, mirroring the highly acclaimed programmes currently on offer at the galleries in London and Wiltshire.

With a nod to Yorkshire’s deep links with the textile industry, the Harrogate programme opened with Material Textile: Modern British Female Designers, which showcases some of the most colourful, important and collectable textiles created by female artists during the 1950s – 70s. They have been brought together this year for the very first time. To complement the textiles, one of France’s leading ceramic artists Thiébaut Chagué, familiar to visitors to the V&A and the Louvre, also has his most recent studio works on display.

The upper floor focusses primarily on British Impressionist paintings championed by Messums since the 1960s, including artists such as Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman. The sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink, the subject of a major show this summer at Messums Wiltshire, is also represented.

Messums historically has strong connections with Yorkshire and Yorkshire artists.  Regular exhibitors at the Harrogate Art Fair, the gallery promoted artists of the Staithes School, in particular Dame Laura Knight, to London collectors. We have also shone a light on Northern artists with an annual exhibition on Cork Street titled The Elemental North, which focuses on renowned artists such as Jake Attree and Norman Ackroyd RA.  In addition, Johnny Messum represents the sculptor Laurence Edwards, whose important installation The Doncaster Heads: Portraits of a Mining Community commissioned by the town of Doncaster, will be unveiled later this year.

Johnny Messum says, “I am delighted to be opening a gallery for Yorkshire’s discerning viewers in a town we know so well. I am looking forward to strengthening the gallery’s longstanding relationships in Yorkshire as well as to forging new ones.  At times like these, the power of art to inspire and uplift is more important than ever.  Our vision is to create a place where artists, art lovers and collectors can come together on a regular basis to enjoy the best contemporary art and craft from every corner of the world”.