Andy Parsons is a Sligo Based artist whose work has been shown in Amsterdam, Dublin, London and Tokyo. Andy is not only a painter. But a curator, critic and facilitator. In this interview we talk about these many facets of his practice and how they effect each other. from his Floating World project with Glenn Holman to the Per Cent for Art scheme Play Spaces and his concurrent painting at the time.
This transcript has been edited by the interviewer for the purpose of this blog.
How would you describe Floating World?
Floating World has used the Artist Book as a catalyst for complex participatory projects. Floating World was started by me and Glenn Holman in 2002 – we were very interested in making artist books and putting them out into the world, somehow. Books as a format has a lot of benefits: it’s cheap, you can move it around easily… it’s a format that people understand. You open it and you flip through it. It can be in many places at the same time. The books could be shown in different venues, some gallery venues and non-gallery venues. You could fit a whole show into a box and send it somewhere. Or that same box could fill a whole room.
It was, and is, an unusual model because we asked people we knew that had an interest in books, to make books. It was and is a very informal structure where a number of artists contribute books, me and Glenn being the administrative… kinda curatorial centre of it. The books were very short editions, some of them were one-offs.
The first thing we did was the now defunct ICA book fair, that went really well, and we sold the books in the ICA for about three years. We then configured it so it could be shown in galleries: what we did culminated in a big show called Unfolding the Archive.
Unfolding the Archive?
Unfolding the Archive was a show curated by Riann Coulter alongside Donna Romano. It was all of the Floating World artists responding to things in the NIVAL (National Irish Visual Arts Library) collection in NCAD. They had this huge collection of old books and publications posters, what you might call ephemera from the production of art since the 19th century. Really interesting stuff – unpicking the mechanics of art making. What each artist did was to make a book or [something] book-like, as well as create other objects alongside it.
And your own Involvement?
So I made an artist book about making a raft, but in order to make the book, I had to make the raft! The raft was used to draw on, so it was a drawing board which I sort of sat on to make drawings of the lake isle of Innisfree. Because one of the things I was responding to was a 1st edition of Yeats’s poetry, that and a brilliant poster from the 1970 which I found by accident.
And the show itself?
For the show this is plural – there was one in NCAD and the F.E McWilliam gallery. There were the books and then there were the objects. So for me there was the book about making the raft and the raft itself. there was quite interesting things about the nature of artist books, in essence the artist book was the thing the raft was made to make the artist book, there was a flipping the traditional hierarchy. Normally you get a big art object and maybe publications are made as a peripheral thing to it.
What have you been doing since Unfolding Places?
Since then, me and Glenn have concentrated on a project, The Rebel(s), it’s based on a 1961 movie called The Rebel by Tony Hancock as a starting point. Basically The Rebel(s) is an artist’s book that uses the Movie as a starting off point.
For me and Glenn, the project is also interesting because it’s about not really understanding the art world, but really liking to make art! And in the film, even though it is quite satirical and quite reactionary in some of its positions it takes on the art world and the making of art… at the end of the film Tony Hancock’s character goes through a series of mishaps and fails spectacularly as an artist, and his life is trashed, by [the end] he is back where he starts making this godawful sculpture. So it’s about navigating through the art world and taking the all the shit, and then still wanting to make art despite all that.
So for instance, there’s a private view scene at the end of the film where Hancock’s character presents the work he has made to the public. With that in mind, we recreated a private viewing in my studio here, and we made cardboard cut-outs of the kind of people we’d want to come – Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian at the viewing. If you have seen the film Lonely Guy by Steve Martin, there is a fantastic scene where he has a party in his flat with cardboard cut-out film stars, which was kind of the inspiration for it. That idea of re-staging things but differently but also being quite funny and poignant.
A little bit like The Raft, you create all this stuff – you make all these objects, you do all these quasi-performance type things, and then weeks of work can be like one photograph [in the book], and it’s, like, 128 pages. That’s why it took a year and a half!
Glenn lives in Suffolk but spends a lot of time London. So, we decided that Floating Worlds would be based between Sligo and London. When we started it, we were both in London. I feel that distance has improved it, in the sense of… rather than leaping in and following impulses, you have to have that “cool off period” where everything has to be done via Skype or email. It makes you more analytical. You can’t just have enthusiasm and follow it up – everything has to be that bit more meticulous. Without Skype, you would be stuffed, but I’ve been over there and he has been over here a lot. A lot of the things have been made quite independently, but there is a shared authorship.
What do you think of the book now that it is done?
The book is kinda quite sad… I think it’s quite funny, but also quite sad. Still, there is this sort of redemption in it. It comes from our love of making art, despite the cynicism of the workings of the art world. We couldn’t have made this twenty years ago. I don’t think we could have made it ten years ago! It’s about being old and still wanting to make art.
The other thing about it is that it’s happened while at the same time we have made our own personal, not collaborative, work as well. These pictures you see around have been done exactly contemporaneously with the book.
Would you say that the book has influenced your painting?
Yeah – I think the making The Rebel(s) has made me think about conformity in the art world, and how much of it there is. I think it has kind of emboldened me to make very, very… unfashionable work. I suppose I care less about what an audience might think of these objects, because making the book has made me think of the patterns of behaviour that we ride – and sometimes fall into – in terms of creating exhibitions, or creating bodies of work, or even how one behaves in the art world. Why try and tailor ones responses to the world to fit into patterns one could discern from other practitioners, or from critical theory? I think to myself, just make the work!
I have an aesthetic I call “ugly beautiful” [laughter]. There’s a deliberate and knowing awkwardness about the way they are painted, but there are quite lyrical bits in there as well. I could iron out those kinks, but I kinda like them.
Could you talk more about your current painting?
The new body of work are all portraits – they’re all very big. Life size well, size- size actually. Each one is made through a process of dialogue, where I ask the sitter where they want to be depicted and they select a personal place – somewhere where they want to be pictured.
For instance, Tina Brooks – one of the first really big ones I did – asked to be depicted on Dorrins Strand, where she lives. So I took the big piece of paper down to Dorrins Strand, drew the beach, and then Tina visited me in the studio and I super imposed an objective painting of her onto the beach scene. So, the background and the figure are done objectively. I’m intrigued about not using photography, and very little of my work use any photographic source material at all.
There is almost an element of making as hard and as awkward and as annoying possible for oneself, I think, that is quite interesting. It gives them more what I feel is a bit of more… authenticity?
Take the one of my dad. The central part of that drawing, I shipped it over to my Dad and it was done there in the front room. If it wasn’t done like that, it wouldn’t have the same legitimacy it has as an image. It is about my relationship with him; it’s about his age, it’s about time. It’s also about him, a person from a working-class background, who’s sitting digesting these enormous piles of books. It has a narrative but how essential it is that each one has as strong a narrative? I don’t know. they each have it. But that is almost a by-product of the process – they aren’t mapped out, it’s incidental. Those books, they were there, and I drew them, but only because I was recording what was in front of me. And it was only subsequently after that I was thinking about them in more narrative terms. It would be a lot easier to go photograph the scene, stick it onto a lump of acetate and use an overhead projector and just map it out there, but there is something about taking these big lumps of paper and just doing them that gives them something I couldn’t get otherwise.
What I want from my work (even if it means it will never leave the studio!) is that it at least has an ambition, an aspiration of providing the viewer as much as possible and as profound an experience as possible.
With those goals in mind what artists inspire you?
This isn’t going to sound very contemporary… I was in London a few days ago, and I was looking the Frans Hals and the Rembrandt paintings in the National Gallery. I’m intrigued by Hals’s multiple, multi-figure portraits. Then the Rembrandt thing, where you look at one of his figures and you are acutely aware that it’s a person looking back at you. And it has a life!
Both are very contemporary – whenever you encounter one of them, you are acutely aware of your own mortality, and the fragility of life, and all these things that art should do. You question, you find beauty. It’s all there and they never age… in the sense that the way you as a viewer interact with them is always just as intense.
I’m not wedded to making art with paint. But I think I’m sort of intrigued by the idea of makings art that has some of the resonates of Hals and Rembrandt. And it’s less about style actually? My work doesn’t aspire to be pictures in domestic galleries. they are huge things I guess that shifts the function? maybe its to do with getting older? It’s quite interesting to look at work from ten, fifteen years ago: it was much more abstract and how descriptive these ones are in relation to that now.
I realise now I’ve always wanted to paint the same sort of thing, about people and places, but I’ve kind of meandered for years and found oblique ways of presenting it. Whereas this body of work is very direct. I think what really underscored it is this idea of collaboration, of working with people to make these things; where the subjects of the pictures are not passive, they’ve helped to make them.
I have worked a lot of collaborative and community-based work, and what one might describe as kind of socially engaged work. I kind of feel that is in these pieces, it’s almost like these two paths that have been working in parallel. One was object making, and the other one was curating various education projects, and these two paths were running in parallel – and in this these two paths have converged.
Speaking of Community based work, would you like to talk about Playspaces?
It’s an interesting one to talk about, especially in the context of what we were just saying. It’s a Per Cent For Art project commissioned by Mary McDonagh . It was very ahead of its time in the way that the commissioning it was framed. It was purely a socially engaged piece of work in its conception, [at a time] when that wasn’t as prevalent a methodology. The idea was it would provide context for a series of public-art works space projects. It was about reclaiming or re-imagining public spaces as something we could use societally, rather than something you would drive past. It was about working in the community with a bunch of artists doing, like, theater, performance, video, sound, painting, drawing, sculpture… it wasn’t about making objects or artworks per se, but to make Playspaces outside. To play outside in the world not so much to elevate it, but to celebrate it. To celebrate the beauty of it – not as an art thing, but as a thing as of itself. To be enjoyed. It was quite radical bit of work, I think. I curated it and project managed it. So I think if there are any plaudits to be handed out – Jean Marie Perinetti, Naomi Draper, Laura Mahon, Sinead Dolan, Tony Kenny.… those artists did a great job of coming up with amazing, interesting, playful things. We did a thing at the end that was like an open day, that was like a giant village fête, and all the play we did in the workshops was done outdoors in front of everybody. And then it just went away again. Yeah, very interesting to make a really big Per Cent For Art project and not make anything? Well, to make things that were temporary. Working with a bunch of kids over a quite a long time. Hopefully helping them think about art differently, think about public spaces differently. I think their idea of art was very much in line with what they learned in school? So when we were doing things like making these big sculptures that you could ride around on like bikes, or jump in or out of. It was expanding their understanding of what an artwork might do. It might not be a 2d work that you hang on a wall and look at. Think about Play differently! Not in a polemical way, but as an experience.
I think Playspaces is a period where I focused really intensely on socially engaged work. it’s like how I said socially engaged work has influenced the development of these portraits – it just follows on in different forms really. Like the project I’m doing recently, for Kid’s Own, called Virtually There. It’s a beautiful project whereby kids in a school setting Skype you while you’re in the studio, and you work alongside one another. With my [contribution], the piece I had just finished was this massive self-portrait, and when I was working with the kids, they were making their own self-portraits. There is this lovely idea of what the kids in Killkenny would do, and what the practitioner would do. Projects like that have the same kind of impulse that drove Playspaces – which is to try and enable children to get as much out of art as they can, and to think about it differently.
You can find out more about Andy’s work through his website link below