In a new series for Art & Music, Will Stokes visits artists in their studios and paints his own portrait of their life and work.
It’s rare to come across an an artist who is not only trying to challenge perceptions of creativity with the content of their work, but also with the way they work. In an age where the term ‘expression’ has become more and more dangerously self-legitimating, and the concept of the individual all too o en used to justify self- absorption, Oxford-educated, London- based artist Dom Callaghan pauses to ask if too many artists have forgotten about their audience altogether. Enter the Generous Artist: a conceptual figure devoted to bringing the experience of art back to the viewer, inviting them into the gallery space to be treated less as consumers or idolaters and more like guests. Callaghan’s work seeks to develop interactivity between art and audience courtesy of combinations of different media and visual languages.
Callaghan’s 2013 show You Are Necessary Here gained him critical acclaim, and with works like You Complete is (2013), a bespoke birch and pine bench painted with oils, the show spoke clearly of his intent: to offer the gallery visitor an opportunity to be acknowledged as well as to acknowledge, to be understood as well as understand through varying forms of dialogue with the work: whether sitting on it, wearing it or examining it, the work openly seeks to impart, furthering what Callaghan dubs ‘the gift relationship’. You Complete This is constructed for no other purpose than to give rest to the exhibition visitor, becoming part of both exhibition and gallery space.
Takeaway Gladness (2013) is another work of wood, fabric and oils that openly seeks to empower the viewer. The intricately patterned mixed-media painting is hinged in the middle and hung by one of its two handles, as if ready to be folded up and carried away like a suitcase. For Callaghan, complex abstract painting on wood and fabric appears in conjunction with an unassuming exploration of crafts like woodwork and textiles. It’s a carefully balanced dialogue between aestheticism and functionality, between challenge and accessibility, underpinned by an unerring desire to show care for those interacting with it. I visited the artist in his South East London studio along with photographer Dags Webb.
You are Necessary Here has been exhibited in both Oxford and London. In that show you combine wall-mounted art with more interactive works like wearable garments and functioning woodwork. What was the show about?
I wanted to get across that the viewer was the most important thing in the room. Often there’s a pedestal on which the artwork is put to make it untouchable and often inaccessible. I wanted to break down some of those barriers. I enjoy pattern, colour, woodwork and joinery. I wanted to make a space where the viewer felt invited to participate and invited to engage with those things. One of my biggest desires is for the exclusivity associated with art to be broken down, and I guess I’ve been trying to do that.
How have people responded?
People’s attitudes, or at least their demeanours, often shifted quite a bit when they encountered the work. When, for example, they tried on the ponchos [of Wardrobe (2013), a trio of hand-stitched hooded garments] they tended to take on a much more open, child-like stance because they looked silly enough to not worry about how they were being perceived to interact with the work, but not so stupid as to feel self-conscious.
Who is the Generous Artist?
The Generous Artist is fundamentally someone who has the viewer’s interests at heart. I think it’s important that people understand the necessity of art in our culture and I think that it’s the artist’s job to encourage and pass on creativity.
You say that generosity is about the giver, the artist, but also that the recipient is the most important thing in a gallery. How do those two things correspond?
Yes, generosity is about the giver: for me, as the artist, it’s about how generous I am, and no-one else can judge that or quantify it- but of course that generosity is in turn all about wanting somebody else to be the most important thing in the room.
What’s the difference, then, between art being generous or relational, and art that’s just interactive?
Cynicism is the dividing line between those two things. You can choose to approach art cynically or you can choose to approach it openly. I actually think that interactive artwork is generous. The artist really is taking a risk in letting the viewer do what they want. I think that more and more people desire participation and interaction with art.
Dom Callaghan currently lives and works in London. See more of Dom’s work at www.domcallaghan.com, and his collective Bezalel at www.bezalel.org.uk