Richard Stone is a British artist who lives in London. I met him through social media, saw his website, www.richardstoneprojects.com and was intrigued by what I saw. He’s not only a great artist, but a hip dude too! Check out our cool chat here and find out why he calls himself a “Poetic Vandal.”
MICHAEL: Hey Richard, Your work is really inspired and thoughtful. Let me start by being blunt about some of your sculptural work. Some people may see it and ask, "Why do those figures have molten goo poured over them?" And you respond by saying what?
RICHARD: First of all, I laugh and say I've heard much worse, but that's the most eloquent way someone has described them! I might also say that I like the comic superhero connotation of this. They do have this playful element to them in one sense, SPLAT! KAPOW! But then they have this serious side to them too. They're a direct and subversive conversation with historical sculpture and you don't get much more serious than that. The way they are made actually involves creating amorphous halos of black or white wax over long periods of time by slowly layering or engulfing the figure. The classical element of the base remains, but the traditionally heroic pose and features are smoothed out, there's a suggestion of metamorphosis made present in each work; two seemingly different states existing at the same time that becomes this interesting fusion, like mixing up a Rodin sculpture with a Henry Moore.
MICHAEL: Wow. I don’t quite know what to say about that combo.
RICHARD: I can hear the academics scream! I'm also interested in the fact that these Victorian, mass-produced, but aspirational objects that people had in their homes, often to appear cultured, became plinths or supports for new sculptural forms. They speak much more about contemporary notions of representation or flawed aspiration and they have this blurred, dissolving or flawed quality and beauty. This is seen much more in contemporary painting but much less so in contemporary sculpture. So, that's why they look like they do. I've been branded a vandal on one hand and poetic on another, in the same conversation. I would like to think this suggests I'm a poetic vandal, which is certainly my intent.
MICHAEL: Yes, we see this technique applied in painting all the time. Perhaps it's the 3D nature of sculpture that makes this different for some observers. Despite our flawed, troubled nature, we humans want things to LOOK what we think to be "perfect."
RICHARD: I think you’re right. I think there’s something disconcerting or a bit unnerving about the sculpture in this sense, something that occupies a physical space that speaks the same language as portraiture, but in this instance doesn’t meet your gaze in any way at all, there’s a tension in this that is palpable. There’s a sense of the contemporary veil in these works, in how we present ourselves that mirrors the viewer in the work. I agree, our nature is self-reflective and hopefully these works draw that out in an interesting way. But let’s not forget too, the lone figure is a melancholic, but incredibly romantic proposition. You see this throughout art history, in popular culture or in literature as in The Flaneur, and I’m interested in works that explore this idea of historical or contemporary solitude. Your question also made me think of a great line in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles;” “And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.” I’m interested in the flaws too, in depicting a different view or creating subtle shifts of perception across the works. I think the viewer has a solitary, but very visceral experience of my work and I think my role is to visually or metaphorically amplify this in some way. That’s why I use the materials and processes that I do, to inform this dialogue.
MICHAEL: Hopefully, all of you exhibitions include a debriefing! Very few people can tolerate imperfection and the lone figure in one package. Most folks experience that when they stare themselves in the mirror early in the morning. How did you become a sculptor? Do you paint as well?
RICHARD: I'm not sure Francis Bacon would have agreed. I think people pretty much know where I'm coming from in experiencing the work. It's not really for me to decide what they take away from it even if that was my intention. Plus, most people don't (or perhaps shouldn't in many cases) read the text that goes with any exhibition. I try not to. The work either speaks to you or it doesn't and I'm not interested in seemingly clever work where the text makes me feel like I've missed something before I've even looked at it. I think my themes are fairly simple: figure, landscape, time, death, you know, the classics! I'm offering a reflection of those themes and they're universal. Any exhibition I create has a lot of space in it and this is important. Art requires space as much as people do in order to see, think or experience properly. Put a lot of clutter in front of people and they just want to tidy it up! At least I do … or escape. But, you're right, I don't just make sculpture. The work emerges in the medium that best expresses it.
MICHAEL: And painting?
RICHARD: Now, painting, that's interesting, I think I've got a painterly sensibility to most of the works I make or have painted. What I've always been specifically interested in is using existing paintings, antiques, often landscapes, whereby I remove most of the surfaces with an electric sander and if that sounds brutal, the effect is actually incredibly delicate. There's not only an erasure of the surface, but an erasure of time and the original artist's work in this process of course, but where does that original work end and mine begin? For me, it's the point when the paint is left to appear as if it's floating on the board, like a skeleton of the original work that actually reveals a new impressionistic landscape. It's like an excavation for me. But am I a painter? I'm sure many people would be horrified and disagree.
MICHAEL: You are so right about exhibition text. I don’t usually look at the accompanying text either, but some folks who don't have the confidence might need to. How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
RICHARD: Of course, but ART first, then text, in that order! Or a bit of both. Most people seem to manage multi-tasking their senses, taking on board a lot of information outside of the gallery on a daily basis, think of all those simultaneous screens, TV, laptop, iPhone, the dexterity of some people amazes me! Maybe it's just looking or sitting and focusing on fewer things that might reconnect people with their confidence (or intuition) and the gallery is a place for that. Given the fact that art is everywhere, anywhere is possible. It might be a slow, but shouldn't be a difficult process. I have to remind myself daily. I think there’s always a process involved in becoming an artist. That masterpiece is elusive! I think my aim has always been to put something in the world that begins to describe or represent something of what it’s like to be in the world. To hopefully make other people stop and think for a while. I think there's something inherently creative in everyone. I would like to think the ancestral line had been generous somewhere along the line, but as far as I know, I'm the only practicing artist. I think self-belief and a few lucky breaks along the way have been more instrumental and I'm grateful for that.
MICHAEL: What led to your becoming as artist? Let me guess. You were creating those works at the tender age of four and your parents shipped you off to the Sorbonne?
RICHARD: Ha! That would be a brilliant story wouldn’t it? If only! I think art has always been at the forefront of my mind and it has increased over time, so whether it’s talent, single-mindedness or sheer will that’s got me this far, I don’t know, but if not financially, I have always been encouraged in my ambitions. Having said that, I wouldn’t say that I was living the dream by any measure. I paid my way through art school, working to support myself as well as being very fortunate to get a generous bursary along the way (one of those lucky breaks). I would have struggled to complete my education without it. My typical life since then fluctuates in terms of my time or budget for art. Given some of the exhibitions that I’ve made, which have been expensive or logistically challenging, but temporal and essentially thrown away, it’s working with these processes and maneuvering the obstacles of a full-time job that’s the challenge, but let's not go into that. I talked about romanticism earlier. It’s equally romantic to think that the average artist sat in the studio all day, every day, contemplating the nature of everything. For most, it’s a struggle but a passion that shouldn’t but can indeed feel like an expensive hobby. I'm sure there are those artists that have this luxury, but it's rare. That’s why recognition or validation is heartening; this interview is a welcome distraction.
MICHAEL: I do what I can. You've put some of your works in environments that move them a bit away from pure sculpture and make them more conceptual. Is that the point in those instances?
RICHARD: Most recently, I used a ton of earth and a thousand slip casts of a porcelain bird's head. The idea was to create a precipice and a tide in a gallery space, visible from both sides of its prominent glass window that was both sculpture and installation and drew viewers attention to the physicality of the space in a different way again, effectively directing their attention out of the gallery space, rather than to its walls or sculpture within the space. The presence of the birds heads created a feeling of them falling against the glass in a bid to escape, becoming part of the earth, together the birds heads and the earth becoming a monumental sculpture. I wanted it to be both dramatic and understated and to have a quiet but powerful presence, with the viewer on the edge of something or witness to it. I also wanted to include them in the work in this visceral way. Interestingly, the gallery it was shown in is in a very urban, financial district of London. It's evocation of nature or the crumbling of it provided a thought-provoking contrast. Viewers in this instance also thought it evoked the elements of the English landscape, war time trenches or the aftermath of a war. So, yes, I think my approach is partly conceptual, but again I don't want it be conceptual for the sake of being conceptual or for it to be about cleverness. The viewer’s response is incredibly important. They need to get it or to be engaged long enough to look a bit deeper or begin to understand it or bring new meaning to it and for it to give them something in return, which is all that any artist can ask for really.
MICHAEL: We're chatting just a day or two after Christie's London sold a Mark Rothko piece for roughly $87 million. Isn't it amazing what's happening in the high-end secondary contemporary art market? Many artists don't even follow this stuff. What do you think?
RICHARD: It's amazing isn't it? Completely fascinating on so many levels. Most people simply cannot comprehend the enormity of it. I can't, but I remain intrigued. You could say $87 million is a lot to pay for Rothko's vision of enlightenment. Rothko himself might well have been horrified, perhaps, but then is it about the spiritual or monetary value of the work, or the acquisition of the work in this market or the thrill of the chase? I do think it's interesting that Edvard Munch's piece sold for a similarly high sum recently, but more interesting, that it has re-emerged like this, as a symbol of our contemporary malaise more than 100 years after its creation. Doesn't it remain about means at the end of the day? I think commonality amongst collectors in this market continues to range from what they can afford, the fact that they can afford it, to what they think art might afford or say about them in return. This is where it gets more complex and perhaps more interesting. Do you stand in front of that painting and see it as a painting or see it as a Rothko that you own? I would love to see the receipt for the materials that Rothko bought to make that painting. Perhaps it would be stained with the oil of other paintings. I think it would be humbling.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure.
RICHARD: Having said that, art is a great prize for public galleries when such works of art are donated to them. It’s got to be true that such cultural currency is invaluable to the everyday person and to artists alike in being able to view these works. However, what is clearly missing is significant sustainable investment or exposure at the grass roots for artists or the incubatory institutions that help produce tomorrow’s artists. Such support is still predominantly the privilege of the few and over the longer term is going to get much worse, especially in the UK for younger artists now trying to enter art schools amidst rising fees; they won’t go or won’t get in and not because they aren’t good.
MICHAEL: I know. That’s really a shame.
RICHARD: Unfortunately, it remains true that there are too many artists and not enough good opportunities or collectors supporting them, most artists give up 5-10 years after art school. Having said that, it's not all doom and gloom! Artists are finding new ways to represent themselves online and through a slew of alternative art fairs. These fairs often that satellite the larger art fairs that seem to be so prevalent. It’s proving to be a way in for artists and collectors alike to engage in direct conversation outside of the gallery relationship. Perhaps there should be more of this to redress the balance. In the meantime, I think I'll just keep doing what I'm doing!
MICHAEL: When you're someone, like an artist, who fully devotes themselves to their vision, there must be a lot of loneliness in that, no?
RICHARD: That’s a very interesting question. If you mean me specifically, then I hope people see that there is at least a vision! But I think anyone in any field being unrecognized for their hard work or those creatively attempting to realize and share their vision going unnoticed can be disheartening and can be lonely. Yes, I think we’ve all experienced this on some level. For me at least, I think it’s important to be present in the world, to connect with other creatives and see what they are making and doing just as much as I think it’s important and increasingly relevant to require quietness and space to think and do. The world is very loud.
RICHARD: It’s funny. Let’s go back to that notion of the artist working alone, against the odds in their studio. In this instance, I wonder if people are drawn to the idea of that, in this artist mythology of solitude, that it’s seen to inform the work in some way? I think sometimes people do like their artists tortured and they like to see this on their walls! But seriously, of course, it depends on the nature of work; art can be a lot of things for a lot of people.
MICHAEL: Finally Richard, What are your hopes for the future and what do you ultimately want your work to say to people?
RICHARD: Thanks Michael, for giving me a chance to share some of my thoughts and ramblings! I hope they have been at least a bit interesting. As for the future, I do have some interesting and ambitious projects coming up; watch this space as they say. Ultimately, I want my work to remain relevant, for it to talk to history, but be contemporary and for it to resonate with those who pause and choose to engage with it. I also want it to say, “Richard Stone was here.”
MICHAEL: Thanks Richard. This has been a great pleasure indeed.
Check out Richard’s cool work at www.richardstoneprojects.com.