Floating above your head a radiant yellow weather vane in the shape of a speech bubble, turning with the wind, dripping with rain. A changeable sign that moves with the times, pointing to nothing in particular. Laser-cut into its surface, the mocking call of a stereotypical slack-jawed yokel, “yo’ is stuck in thar fo’ever li’l gray cloud!!”. A piece of pop-art like appropriation of a comic strip from the 1970s. Cartoonish, humorous, childish. Cloud Study is the work of Charlie Godet Thomas—an artist more used to small scale gallery installations, this is his first piece of public art, commissioned by SCULPTURE AT, to be installed this 2nd of October–30th of March, 2018 in Bermondsey Square, London. With its comic allusion to adversity it’s an apt piece of public sculpture for contemporary London, a city of changing social and artistic practices which seems to be driven less by opportunity and more by misfortune and difficulty. I talked with Thomas and Alys Williams, director of VITRINE gallery and SCULPTURE AT, which together represent a conscious effort to redefine the idea of the art gallery in the face of these issues.
VITRINE gallery isn’t a gallery per se, but comprises a window display on Bermondsey Square, and similar window and office spaces in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the use of Bermondsey Square for SCUPLTURE AT. The idea to move out of a more formal gallery space came three years ago, when Williams reassessed their business from the view of the artists they represent. Speaking to each of the artists they looked towards a model that would provide a traditional exhibition space, but allow more freedom from the day-to-day management of a gallery, and with the potential to open in other locations. SCULPTURE AT developed from this, and following the Economist Plaza cancelling the 20 year programme of public sculpture organised with the Contemporary Art Society,
“It meant there was a real gap, there was no commissioning programme for temporary public sculpture, which seemed crazy, apart from, of course, Trafalgar square, but that was exclusively established artists.”
VITRINE gallery focuses on unestablished artists, particularly those with little public sculpture experience. For Williams establishing who to represent is more a fact of getting to know the artist directly, rather than seeing them through their work, and in doing so, “there’s just something that clicks about the work and the approach to practice”. Thomas and Williams were first introduced by the curator Chris Bailey while working together on a previous project. They found the experience productive, and kept in contact after the show. Thomas recalls,
“When I started working with Alys, I started really looking at the other artists and looking at the approach to curating and the shows that she put me in, the group show particularly, I really saw the way I fitted in. It’s a way of working that’s much more collaborative than shows I’ve done previously with other curators.”
Williams describes VITRINE’s approach as one of no guidelines for the artists in their commissions. While this could be a challenge for some artists, particularly those with less experience in public works, Thomas tells me that thankfully he likes to impose limits on his own work.
“I build strategies, restrictions, make rules for myself … I like that idea that limitations somehow open up possibilities, it may be a contradiction in terms but I certainly believe it.”
It was a series of restrictions with the space, and self-imposed rules that led to this latest piece, Cloud Study—a work nonetheless rich in references and significance.
“I began to think about some of the conventional qualities that public sculpture often adheres to and the way in which they could be negated. I was keen for an imposing quality to to be substituted for quietness, heroism for the everyday, stillness for function, sternness for humour and vulnerability in the place of grandstanding.”
Cloud Study draws on the comic character Joe Btfsplk, part of the long-running American satirical strip Li’l Abner, first drawn in 1934 and continued up to 1977. When asked how to pronounce Joe Btfsplk, author Al Capp replied, “how else would you pronounce it?”, before blowing a raspberry. Known as “the world’s unluckiest jinx”, Joe Btfsplk, well-meaning and friendly, brought disaster to everyone around him. A small raincloud follows him, a sign of his bad luck. Thomas’ sculpture references one episode, where having trapped the cloud in a cave, Joe is freed from his bad luck. He mocks the cloud, “yo’ is stuck in thar fo’ever li’l gray cloud!!”, and cries with joy, “Joe Btfsplk kin walk in th’ sun once more!!”. This rare moment of luck is short-lived, and after running into trouble he’s forced to release the cloud to save himself.
While Capp was published in the UK, his comic will probably be unknown to all but a few devotees. For Thomas though, the comics have a personal meaning, having first found Al Capp’s work in a Bermudan thrift store that his grandmother worked in,
“We shared a love of cartoons, particularly short strips from the back of newspapers which she used to carefully cut out and send back to the UK for me in little blue envelopes.
In this instance I was less interested in the broader satirical nature of Lil’ Abner, rather my focus was on a very specific episode involving the character ‘Joe Btfsplk’. I have amassed a collection of cartoon characters who are followed by rain clouds from which I have worked before, invariably this imagery stands in for struggles against either bad luck or depression.”
In this process of translation, is it readable? What does it say to the people who’ll see it? This question of its visibility, reference and readability is significant. With the gallery being a window space, and with the accompanying sculpture, it’s effectively open 24 hours a day, able to be seen by anyone who visits the square—an ‘unforgiving’ space, according to Thomas. This puts a responsibility on the artist,
“It’s unlikely that the source material will be recognised by the majority of the audience, but it’s important to state that the source material is not the content, rather that I am interested in the way in which isolating and reframing something existing can open up new meanings. This approach echoes work I have made in the past, particularly my audio-visual pieces which have made use of text from, for example, road signs, a catalogue of foam funereal letters, ‘promises’ from medical packaging and suggested activities from the tourist board amongst others.”
Thomas tells me that, as an artist, one’s first impulse is to put a giant sculpture right in the middle of the square. But the square is legally protected for the antiques market, one of the oldest in London, that’s held every Friday. There’s a process of negotiation that you have to undergo, as traders use it every week and you want to get along with them. Thomas tells me, “That idea of a big work in a public square is a trope of public sculpture, so in a way Cloud Study does away with that”, his work instead is small and unobtrusive. Set high up on a pole with a small footprint, it’ll be out of the way, it doesn’t shout or condemn like the statues of Parliament Square.
“There is a tendency to dumb work down when it is placed in public space, which I see as patronising and disrespectful to both the work and those who are willing to take their time to experience it. I feel a responsibility to ensure that the work contributes to its environment in a way that is challenging, I hope that I have managed to achieve that.”
How do locals consider the work? Williams notes a distinct tension, partly due to the perception that art precedes gentrification, “I think when you’re working in Bermondsey, every time an artist is installing they’re there in the square, and you can feel that tension”. This tension isn’t unfounded, recently people have become more aware of the process of ‘artwashing’ an area before development, using the work of artists to render an area of the city more attractive to investors. Contemporary art, like the cloud that follows Joe Btfsplk, can be an omen, a sign, a symptom, a cause of misfortune.
The reverse may well be true, is the rain cloud in fact a symbol of the contemporary art market? While there are the well-weathered galleries, there are many other smaller and middle-sized galleries that have recently run into difficulties and closed down; age and money seems to be unrelated to cultural impact. In the city at large there’s greater uncertainty as deregulation in some areas, and a refusal to regulate in others, lead to uncertainty—other than increasingly property values. In the face of this, is the model taken by Vitrine and Sculpture At—of encouraging younger, less experienced artists to take risks outside of institutions- the way forward?
“For me anyway, with VITRINE, it was essential that our business model changed, it wouldn’t have been sustainable to just carry on … I don’t have an ambition to work within a white cube. I like working with artists, I like working hands on, but I also like the idea of having lots of locations … It’s more exciting than the idea of just getting a bigger space in the centre of a bigger city. Which is what many galleries are finding is difficult to sustain.”
For Joe Btfsplk, the moment when he traps the cloud is a moment of revelation and renewed life. But there’s a certain irony in this episode taken by Thomas, that to save himself, Joe Btfsplk had to release the cloud, condemning himself and giving in to the forces he couldn’t control. It links back to Thomas’ own thought that limitations are linked to creativity, and similarly, that the difficulties faced by galleries and artists in London today may drive new models of working together.
By Jacob Charles Wilson
Cloud Study will be on display in Bermondsey Square from 3 October 2017 – 30 March 2018.