Richard Pomeroy is a cool artist who is based just outside London, England. His work http://www.richardpomeroy.co.uk/ is sort of folksy in a sophisticated way. What inspires him? Also, what does he think about the art world today? Read on and find out …
“…I feel that the current contemporary scene is more exclusive than ever, as artists make art about art – leaving a lot of the potential audience in the dark…”
MICHAEL: Hello Richard, I'm very intrigued by your work. It has a "folksy" quality, yet I'm not sure I'd call it "folk art" because you do have some formal art education. What's the deal?
RICHARD: I like to keep things simple and leave plenty for the viewer to do. It can be mistaken for ‘folk’ maybe, but then perhaps Wyeth, Wood and Hopper could too and they were sophisticated artists. I spent five years studying art history at school and university, so I am familiar with a huge number of artists’ work, but I don’t find myself following in any of their footsteps. It would make life easier if I did. It’s very useful to fit into a particular style. The crux may lie in the fact that I didn’t go to art school, so I’ve always ploughed my own furrow in my painting.
MICHAEL: How do you think your work might be different had you actually gone to art school? Any idea? Better or worse?
RICHARD: Art school is a big subject. I know many who went through it. Ideally, you get a wonderful opportunity: studio, materials, experienced advice and encouragement on one hand and perhaps most importantly, a foot in the door of wherever you want to go next. But the reality is often so different. It can be a claustrophobic and intimidating environment that squeezes the life out of the artist and channels them into the ‘avant garde’ where they don’t belong. It can be many years before someone realizes how damaging the experience was for their personal creativity.
I wouldn’t have thrived – at that age, 18-21. I was way too young to know my own mind. Actually, I just wanted to have fun and emerging from art school as a successful artist requires a great deal of head down ambition. Success at art school requires either prodigal, practical talent or supreme confidence in an unusual vision of the world, both unlikely in such young people. But then, only very few art students have successful careers as artists and need something extraordinary about them to propel them out of mediocrity – good luck to those that find that at any age, let alone in youth!
Most of my work derives from what I’ve learnt and witnessed over many years and art school wouldn’t have suited me. Besides, suggestions and prodding about how I might be creative irritate me deeply. No, art school’s not for me. I, and my work, would have suffered!
MICHAEL: Given that, what inspires you now to create? Is there a concept or principle that flows through your work?
RICHARD: The relationship between mankind and the natural world is what inspires me. So I make drawings from nature – trees, flowers, fungus – which take me close to the subject and that experience informs the paintings.
Lately, I’ve been making body prints and over-layering them with natural forms. I’m working on a painting at the moment in which the initial layer is an impression of me rolling in paint to make an image of a figure getting up and walking away from a group of hedgerow flowers. The work is called ‘Walk Away’ and is a take on Masaccio's ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’. At the moment, humanity is walking away from the rest of the natural world. We think we don’t belong. I think the consequences will be catastrophic.
Another thread to my work is a lifelong interest in buildings – from architectural masterpieces to farm shacks. Buildings also express our relationship with nature. They derive from our need to shelter from the elements after all – but for the most part, they are about culture. Many of my paintings show vulnerable buildings in big landscapes or urban environments. I’m keen to show the details – satellite dishes, electric cable – that give them a personality that the viewer can relate to. Other paintings are celebrations of architectural culture. Body printing brought about a third element to my work. I made a series of body prints with a soldier who had lost both his legs in conflict. I overlaid these dramatic images with paintings of red poppies to remind the viewer of the sacrifices soldiers make in war. These paintings also emphasize the ability of the human body to survive.
Three basic threads then, but it’s that desire to draw directly from nature that is the beating heart of my work. It keeps it alive and moving forward.
MICHAEL: More and more artists - like you - are creating work that characterizes and documents man's abuses against the environment, against society, etc. Does the social commentary ever get too heavy for you? How do you balance social message with aesthetic concerns? Obviously art must have some aesthetic appeal to attract viewers.
RICHARD: Crucial stuff. I am concerned about the environment, but it’s important that as an artist I remain an observer. Someone’s got to have the overview and subsequent desire to translate the intense passions and anger of the activist into something to engage a visual audience. It’s about channeling the emotions – perhaps I could be organizing meetings and petitions, but I make art instead. Wasn’t it Joan Baez who implored Bob Dylan to become more of an activist? – but he was too busy writing songs!
You’re right that successful art must have aesthetic appeal – be able to draw in an audience and then trigger a response. Work that’s too polemic and aggressive just puts people off. But art should also be memorable, provocative and entertaining – a big ask, and hard to achieve. Art is not the easy option! I’m keen to experiment in order to try to break new ground and say something different with paint. The body prints are part of that. At the same time, I want to make classic images that the viewer can respond to easily. My paintings are always of recognizable subjects – buildings, flowers, trees, land and cityscapes – the concerns for the environment are an undercurrent that the paintings ride.
MICHAEL: A lot of your human figures appear to be somewhat concealed or abstracted. It looks like there's uncertainty and even struggle that they're involved with on canvas. No?
RICHARD: The human figure is tricky in painting. It will always dominate and put other aspects of the work into the background. The viewer will want to establish a relationship with the person in the picture and the rest will become ‘context’.
Some of my work indicates the human figure - buildings, landscape – all made, inhabited or worked by people and obviously so. But because no actual figures are present, the viewer has to concentrate on the building or landscape as the principle subject. My body prints bring the figure into my work. I use my own body print almost as an abstraction; the figure is there, but it’s such a strange image that the viewer sometimes has difficulty recognizing. Nevertheless, it is, as a result of the way it is made, an absolutely accurate representation of the human figure. It makes an intriguing image, but is more open to interpretation than conventional figure painting and is physically difficult to make. Some aspects of the body and the clothing make surprisingly beautiful passages of paint and the result is a kind of human ‘presence’ in the work – but less overt than a conventionally painted figure. I want my work to be both obsessively detailed and utterly free – an impossibility – and this has encouraged me to use the body print for the figure, giving the paintings a more open interpretation.
MICHAEL: Do you participate in the London art scene? London is a very strong art city. In some ways, it seems stronger than even New York. What do you think?
RICHARD: London is the only international art scene in the UK and is vibrant with good contemporary and historic venues. The museum shows are excellent and the commercial art galleries show most of the big name artists of the moment. I go to shows as often as I can. I’m not convinced that the contemporary scene is stronger than New York and that’s because the British are very conservative when it comes to buying contemporary art and the London contemporary art world relies on buyers from elsewhere who are working in London or visiting. I used to work for contemporary galleries and am familiar with the situation. Now I live in a small rural English town in the West Country. I was brought up near here and my wife’s parents live a couple of miles away. However, the biggest commercial contemporary art gallery at the moment – Hauser and Wirth – are opening a huge gallery complex, art centre and artist retreat 400 meters from my front door! I think that this will become a trend, as galleries look for more rural locations to open impressive ‘must visit’ centres for the artists they represent. The internet means they no longer have to pay the enormous rent and taxes that city centres demand and can open more complex and interesting venues in less expensive areas.
MICHAEL: The internet has definitely changed the game. I like the idea of art centers being outside of cities. Still, the contemporary art world remains like an exclusive club. What do you think about this? How can we make art more accessible to everyday people all over the world?
RICHARD: Yes, the contemporary art world is an exclusive club. But the commercial galleries are open to all and free to view! The exclusivity arises from the fact that the gallerists only have time for buyers, journalists and their own stable of artists. The rest of us can just look.
The real accessibility problem is that much of the audience is unfamiliar with art. In England, art history is very rarely taught in school. Most people leave education with only a very basic knowledge of art and no confidence about contemporary art. It seems that government just doesn’t understand the value of educating children about art
history. In an increasingly visual culture, it’s an important area of knowledge - a history of ideas and culture in general as well as a visual feast with many references which then opens the door to an otherwise exclusive contemporary art world. I feel that the current contemporary scene is more exclusive than ever, as artists make art about art – leaving a lot of the potential audience in the dark.
It’s now up to the audience to educate themselves through websites like Wikipedia. Many artists, like Jeff Koons and Richard Long, have their own websites – this is a good thing! Plenty of opportunity for exploration – press ‘Enter’ and go!
MICHAEL: Finally Richard, given all of that, what do you want people to take away from your work and what's the point of art anyway?
RICHARD: The point of art is that it distinguishes humanity from fellow mammals. 40,000 years ago in Chauvet cave, France, people made exquisite paintings and drawings in very difficult circumstances – darkness, uneven surfaces and using basic tools. There must have been risk from bears and cave lions too. All of this happened at a time when survival in a harsh climate was the priority. To me, this proves that art is a fundamental part of human existence, not a luxury or add-on. Without art, we are not human. More recently art has been used to inspire religious devotion, promote political power, comment on morality, change public opinion, display wealth and entertain. Art is a powerful tool.
My own work comes from a passion for the mankind/nature relationship. I want the viewer to be provoked into appreciating and questioning that relationship. Increasingly people are abandoning nature in the belief that it’s a provider that doesn’t have to be cared for or even considered. In fact, we are tearing it up. I’d like to see my work as part of the mending process that’s needed – a few stitches in the fabric that should hold us together.
MICHAEL: Thanks Richard. This has been enlightening.
RICHARD: I enjoyed it Michael. Thanks.
Check out Richard Pomeroy at http://www.richardpomeroy.co.uk/.