By Jan Woolf
One of my favourite art places in this sceptered isle is a subterranean studio off a side street, off a main road, in Clerkenwell, London. This is L-13 Light Industrial Workshop – Private Ladies and Gentleman’s Club for Art, Leisure and the Disruptive Betterment of Culture. It’s good down there, it smells right – of turps, linseed oil and dust – with great humour, and a playfulness bordering on glee. There is no ‘speaking in tongues’, as heard in much of the art world. They call a spade a spade, and don’t hold back on ‘cunt’ now and again. Some fine Fine Art is being made too. Steve Lowe and Adam Wood run the place and form the art duo Harry Adams and…
First quick question – Was Harry Adams really named after a Hastings fisherman?
The short answer to that is ‘No’. The longer answer is that we decided on Harry Adams as a name in the way a band might choose a name, so it had its own logic. We wanted one that sounded like it belonged to a good old-fashioned solid painter, and it had to begin with ‘A’ so we’d be at the top of the list in group shows. It was a year or so later that I moved to Hastings and discovered that Adams was a common name amongst the fishing community. After that we fantasized that Harry Adams was the son of a hardened Hastings fisherman – a frail sensitive child who suffered from seasickness and preferred to stay at home drawing and painting whilst his brothers and sisters faced the harsh elements of the high seas and brought home the catch. Much to the disappointment of his father who eventually chucked him out to make his own way in life!
JW…as I was saying… Harry makes paintings of oil paint and wax. Many of these are landscapes with the magical up-lit qualities of Samuel Palmer. So these are people that can cock a snook, while snookering commercialism and hollow art values. I’d known L-13 in previous incarnations as the Aquarium Gallery in the Farringdon Road, on a site where a Zeppelin bomb had exploded in WW1 and before that a small gallery in Woburn Walk, Bloombury that looked like a set for Little Dorrit. I used to hang out in those places too, getting a good conversation and a decent cup of tea. My introduction to Aquarium mark one, came when Blair unleashed a war. My old friend Ruth Boswell curated Pax Brittanica, an exhibition of anti-war artists in 2003. An exhibition of painting can’t, of course, stop politicians with the doggedness of, well, mad dogs, firing missiles into someone else country – but it does shift awareness. It’s this fusion of art and political activism that I have found lively and imperative in Steve’s spaces. That, and the hilarious play with management speak, like exhibitions called paperwork, London Mayors referred to as Managers.
I asked Steve some questions for International Times.
Steve, I don’t want to do one of those interviews, where every question requires an MA art theory answer, and drains your energy and time – so be as pithy or as full blown as you like. What you’re about in L-13 seems to be exemplified by a quote from a recent interview.
‘Just because the art world is shit and will make bastards of us all, it doesn’t mean we can’t make art.’
Can you tell us what you mean?
I enjoy making art and working with other artists, but I’m really not a big fan of the art world as defined by commercial galleries and state funded/sanctioned institutions. Its history is dominated by wealth and power, so ultimately war and oppression rather than creativity and enlightenment. It still is, and the art market a corrupting environment that’s both alluring and repulsive with its hollow promise of riches and cynical use of cultural currency to achieve that. It is also totally unregulated and the practices at the high end would not be tolerated in any other business. So, I find making art and being involved on the fringes of all that both fascinating and conflicting. I was at art school in the 1980’s and back then I thought it was the job of artists to challenge the orthodox/mainstream culture, not to contribute to or encourage it. As a youngster I loved making art. Starting off drawing and painting, then at art school moving on to making artist books, installations and noise performances. I did all these things with passion, but found the concerns of the art fraternity stifling, pious, and ultimately, boringly shallow. Everyone hated the noise performances, but otherwise I was a good student, and to all tense and purposes I could have gone on to pursue a career in art. But I really lost faith and the idea repulsed me… I particularly didn’t want to end up as an art tutor, so a month before finishing my Masters in Belfast I dropped out saying I hated all art and artists. I then didn’t set foot in a gallery for about 15 years whilst I pursued a highly creative life playing in bands and working out how to survive without ever having a proper job. When I started the aquarium in 2003 I still didn’t want to get involved with art as such. That’s partly why I didn’t want to be known as a ‘gallery’. But as I got seduced back into making work and eventually painting again I could only do it if I didn’t think too hard about where the end product may end up. Despite my ethical concerns I am also a pragmatist, and now able to maintain an almost amoral position on this. There are so many good things that evolve out of the community of artists I work with, I’m not going to let the evils of the wider world stop us from having our fun. For further reading Neal Jones’ essay Art Is Not Nice quite eloquently gives his take on the subject. The essay is in a book of his writings called Kate Middleton’s Face, to be published by us later this month.
What’s it feel like to do a Harry Adams? Or can you only have half a feeling? Or maybe you have all the buzz one week, and its Adam’s turn the week after? How do you divvy out the joy? Or the angst if it isn’t going well.
I love making Harry Adams paintings, but sometimes it is difficult and frustrating, sometimes it is too easy. The ups and downs are part of the holistic experience. I’d say painting in collaboration with Adam gives double the pleasure and angst rather than half. We rarely work on the same piece these days. Occasionally one of us will take over from what the other has been working on, but more often each painting is by one hand. What we share is the process, subject matter, and aesthetics, often using each other’s work to help develop our own. There’s also a lot of shared discussion so we never feel like a lone artist. In that sense we have no over-riding sense of individual ego or attachment to our own pieces, because they all relate so much to the other. It’s a proper partnership.
Your ‘whole’ artists, Billy Childish, Jamie Reid, Neal Jones, James Cauty….er, no women? What happened to that divine painter Geraldine Swayne?
No, no women “artists” any more. Geraldine is out there doing very well with her painting, and as far as I know, still playing with Faust. I think she is now represented by the Fine Art Society. The deficit in female representation use to bother me more when I ran a regular programme of exhibitions, so I was very happy to show Geraldine, also Anne Pigalle and Charlotte Young, but for some reason an ongoing working relationship never developed with them. I think the problem is that I don’t represent artists, and the artists choose me to work with as much as I choose them. Maybe women artists just don’t like me. I can be a bit bossy and I’m always right which can be a bit frustrating for those who know better. The “male art” ego may be more resilient to that. Nowadays the best female presence is at L-13 in the form of Sophie Polyviou who’s my right hand woman in running things. She’s pretty tough and doesn’t take any shit from me + also very hands on at making prints and editions etc, so an important part of all L-13 creations and beyond. She’s also a member of Sisters of Perpetual Resistance, a radical feminist art group who oppose patriarchal bastards like me – So, even though I don’t or can’t work with them directly, I do feel some allegiance to their work. Here’s a photo I took of Sophie outside Trump Tower in her Sister’s hood when we were in NY to launch Jamie Reid’s Trump Swastika Eyes prints. In the end, I am aware that L-13 is male dominated partly because of the way I work in response to demands on me, but we’re all sensitive souls, and when it comes to it, it’s all about collaboration and Sophie is as important as anyone else. That’s my excuse anyway.
JW…where was I? Your artists seemed to be steeped in the tradition of content above form, and, yes I have to say it, aesthetic principles – but as far away from the Prince Charles school of thought as its possible to get. Before I continue with my question – do you think the heir apparent would like it down here?
No probably not. Although he might like our 1825 Albion Press and the fact that we paint. I wouldn’t seek his endorsement though, and don’t really know or care what he or any other Royal might be into.
OK. There are values here; the love of stuff, and landscape, weather and materiality. No gimmicks. There is beauty too in the work both of Harry and Billy Childish. The romance of the loaded brush and all that. Do you think there is something going on here that defies subversion or satire?
Oh, definitely. When it comes to making painting there’s already enough historical and codified cultural baggage without trying to hang satire or irony on it. As soon as you do it ceases to function as painting… or the painting becomes a cypher for something else. That said I do truly believe in painting in the 21st Century as an act of subversion. Contemporary society and culture doesn’t want dirty messy paintings full of beauty and simplicity with ever changing complex readings. It wants cold clinical clarity, cleanliness and easily PR’able concepts. Go to any major contemporary gallery or international art fair and you’ll see what I mean. On the whole, they lack love and soul and really don’t want it. That’s far too human and messy.
Say something about the process and materials; the wax and the paint.When we started making paintings again we really wanted to make visceral earthy works. We chose oil paint because it smells, looks and feels great. Organic, mineral and real rather than plastic and fake like acrylic. We also painted on humble cotton dustsheets and hessian for the same reason. We just like the colour and feel of the material and really can’t understand bright white primed canvas. We also started using beeswax encaustic (beeswax melted with damar resin) for its natural visceral qualities. First to help build up tactile surfaces and more recently as a beautiful translucent surface to work on. Through using these materials we’ve developed various processes and techniques that keep us interested and the paintings evolving.
You used to make music, the pair of you, once described as Einsturzende Neubauten without the tunes. I love this, but have no idea what it means. Can you elucidate?
Einsturzende Neubauten are a German “industrial” rock band. Back in the 1980s their main instruments were steel plates, mallets and angle grinders. They also destroyed the ICA stage during a performance that greatly impressed me. They were a rock band though, so song structures and rock‘n roll posturing were still the main ingredients behind the noise and mayhem. The stuff me and Adam were doing at art school was more about the pure noise, mic-ing up and amplifying to an extreme level anything we could lay our hands on. We thought it could generate something truly beautiful, but most people thought it was punishing and horrible. A lot of people couldn’t understand bands like Einsturzende Neubauten as music, so it became a bit of a joke to describe ourselves as something worse. We find things like that entertaining. Later on after college we went on to be in more regular bands with guitars and songs and tunes, but even then we kept some of the awkward defiance. We weren’t too interested in entertainment.
I have always adored the Finger of God painting machine. Is it still going? Can we have a look?
Yes it’s still going and it will keep going until 2031 when the last painting in the series will be made. Here it is + a photo of one of its paintings (I’ll send separately with other images). For an explanation of what the Finger of God Painting Machine is a full report can be found here
Jimmy Cauty is your most politically engaged artist, and was included in the recent Dismaland event with Banksy in Weston Super Mare. I used to be taken there every summer on holiday as a kid. We had a shed in the sand dunes called a chalet – and it was heaven. Such a shame to see WSM and other seas-side places going to rack and ruin. What is Jimmy’s notion of the good society? Can a gallerist speak for his artists in this way? Would you call yourself a gallerist? Or maybe a spaceman?
No, I wouldn’t describe myself as a gallerist and I’ve tried to avoid being defined by the various roles I’ve taken on. I quite like spaceman though… on a poetic, not literal level. But no matter what, I’m not sure I could say what Jimmy’s notion of a good society is. What I can tell you is that he’s fun and engaging to work with and The ADP model he showed at Dismaland is a fantastic piece. After it was shown there we had it fitted into a 40ft shipping container and toured it to historic riot sites on the ADP Riot Tour. Doing this generated a huge amount of positive energy and good will in communities all over the country, and is a sublime example of how art can be used to create spectacle and engagement in a very genuine way. More recently we also helped Jimmy and Bill Drummond with The JAMs’ comeback event in Liverpool where the 400 members of the audience became the players in 3 days of activities. Their mercurial and non-prescriptive way of working really appeals to me. They just get on with stuff and don’t worry too much about what they’re doing and why. We’re just about to release a 7” single with an extract from the audio book version of 2023 A Trilogy published by Faber this summer, and The JAMs have now entered the funeral business! And I’m not making that up. They’ve teamed up with the Green Funeral Company to build a ‘People’s Pyramid’ made from bricks fired with human ashes. You can sign up for this and buy your brick from https://mumufication.com
There is a capacity for art making in all of us, but some run with it. Is it then a matter of who you know in the art world? Or your world? How did your artists come to you, or did you come on to them.
I’ve already said that I think the artists I work with chose me as much as I chose them. I suppose I’m quite sensitive to a particular ‘off the beaten track’ world-view that we all share, but really it’s more to do with an almost insatiable appetite for making and doing – and as you say ‘running with it’. A lot of what we do would be considered counterproductive in the art world, as we overproduce and revel in confusion and high spirits. If you’re after success in the art world then who you know really does matter. Billy is now represented by a major gallery in Berlin because he befriended Matthew Higgs in the early 1990’s, who’s become a highly influential curator, was instrumental in Billy’s exhibition at the ICA in 2010 that led to Billy meeting Tim Neuger again who had also shown Billy as a young dealer 20 years before. Tim Neuger now runs neugerriemschneider with Burkhard Reimschneider, and they’re a powerful and important commercial gallery. All that lives outside the main thrust of L-13 though. If Billy hadn’t had some recognition and commercial success with his paintings I am sure we’d still be doing what we’re doing now.
You once told me you thought that children’s art wasn’t art, but a form of reflexive activity by small people in development. Do you still think that? If so what about Neal Jones?
I think you must be paraphrasing me in a much better way than I could have said that. But yes, I still think that, with the caveat that I don’t care if it’s art or not. My interest in making paintings again was as much to do with watching my daughter paint as a toddler as much as it was watching Billy paint and me engaging with the history of art again. I suppose I’m seeking the purity and unfettered simplicity of the way a child might paint with a good dose of codified art nonsense to keep me entertained and curious about what it is we’re doing. I suppose Neal Jones is the same. Even though his paintings and objects have a childlike quality they are not faux naïve or cute. They tend to lean towards a curious, beautiful and defiant ugliness; and within that there are some very fine nuances that only someone immersed in the codes of painting could develop.
The great Communard and painter Gustav Courbet once said, that all art owed more to other art than it ever did to nature. Do you agree with that? And can you tell us how and if Harry Adams and the others have shared their creative juices?
Yes, I mostly I agree with that. Art is a human construct and a language that has developed alongside the needs of society. That said, I also think the need to be creative doesn’t need art, and painting at its best could be like nature. When we’re painting a sky say, we don’t always attempt to illustrate it. We’ll allow thinned paint to spread and bleed and run, to form its own natural version of form and space… like the sky but not a picture of it. Trees can also just be splodges of paint. Alongside that we will also directly reference other art, sometimes doing versions of paintings that fascinate us for some reason. A lot of the religious imagery and all the Impossible Garden paintings are arrived at through looking at paintings from 20 BC onwards.
Steve, you are having an L:13 jumble sale on October 19th in Hackney Wick. Give it a plug here.
Yes, a friend is opening a new space in Hackney Wick and he asked us if we’d do something for it, so we decided on something that’s a bit more lively than a regular exhibition. So Yep, come, see and buy the, lost, forgotten, disregarded and unrewarded work of Harry Adams, Pete Bennett, James Cauty, Billy Childish, Neal Jones, Jamie Reid, STOT21stCplanB, Art Hate and anything else found in the archive drawers and deep storage at L-13 HQ. Rarities to rejects: Some terrible stuff that should never see the light of day, some stuff that’s too good to be true. All available to rummage through, see and buy for 3 days only
The full title is:
The L-13 Light Industrial Jumble Sale
Odds & Sods
Rarities & Rejects
Other Regurgitated Art Shit
from the Last 13 Years”
October 19th, 20th & 21st
PV October 19th 6pm-9pm
at BLASÉ, 55 Wallis Road, Hackney Wick, E9 5LH
Can I come?
Yes, everyone is welcome, but particularly you.
Wouldn’t miss it for the (art) world. See you there with my purse.