Artist's Statement: Harry Adams on making fires, Doomsday, Michael Caine and X Factor

By Ben Miller | 18 March 2014

Artist’s Statement: Under their Harry Adams pseudonym, Steven Lowe and Adam Wood’s projects have included Art Hate, a collaboration with Billy Childish. Their new exhibition, in Brighton, is Impossible Garden

Click on the picture to launch the gallery

“There was a Victorian mental hospital where we grew up, and a cemetery – a really quite degraded cemetery – and debris. Essentially, there were several streets that had been bombed and which had become a playground for us little urchins on the estate.

To us it was great – a proper adventure playground. Making fires, chucking on tyres and aerosol cans, going up to the railway, and later seeking the wilderness, rather than growing up in one.

We started sea kayaking and going on expeditions in our late teens – about the same time we were getting more involved with art and music and rebellion. Rites of passage stuff.

We’d go to stay on small uninhabited islands on the west coast of Scotland – the Inner Hebrides mostly, but ended up going further afield like New Zealand and the Arctic.

We liked the romance of adventure, survival, and isolation. Of all the places we’ve been, Scotland is still one of our favourites. The light there, the emptiness...you can camp anywhere – there’s a sense of real freedom.

Just to sit and watch the changing landscape and weather, it felt very life-affirming and vital – much more romantic than chucking tyres on the fire but just as euphoric.

Ideas of utopia and destruction of the land, or interference...all that stuff is there, yes, but we try to leave it as open as possible – not get too tied to an idea, to allow poetic resonance.

We change in theme and style quite a lot, but that’s not a problem to us and comes with the territory of working in collaboration.

The Art Hate project is deliberately confrontational, polemic and humorous, and those concerns don’t arise in the same way when making paintings – painting is so much more about direct sensual experience than anything else.

That said, everything we do is probably related to war or power in some way. But although these paintings exhibit our interest in these problems and states of war or whatever, in the end it’s also to do with our response to the striking image of a strange geometric structure in a barren landscape.

Even if the subject is depressing, it doesn’t mean the paintings have to be – we tend to see the paintings as a celebration of existence, a display of humanity and high spirits rather than an illustration of doom.

And anyway, the human race has always had a morbid fascination for humanity’s ultimate demise. We love it.

After we did the first three versions of Doomsday Seed Depository, we thought, ‘this is going nowhere. What is it, and why are we bothering?’ It’s not easy or fun to paint, and really not even that interesting to look at, just strange.

But for some reason it keeps on coming back. Maybe because it is so difficult and we don’t know we’re beat.

There’s also a connection with other paintings, like Great Grain Elevator, and in the past we’ve done many paintings and renditions of Tate Modern. They’re all storage facilities, I suppose.

Great Grain Elevator is of a huge concrete structure, an image we came to through a friend of Billy Childish’s.

He was talking about his fascination with the grain elevator at Stalingrad, where during the Second World War a small number of Russian soldiers had been commanded to hold their position there at all costs.

The Germans bombarded it for several days but couldn’t destroy it and couldn’t get these soldiers out. The images of this immense bombed out building after the battle are very dramatic.

But although our painting exists because the story draws our attention, it doesn’t mean it’s about those things. In fact, the Great Grain Elevator we painted isn’t the one in Stalingrad at all, it’s an abandoned one in America, and it’s as much about the mark-making and an engagement with our world by trying to picture it in a soulful way.

It’s all grubby colour, light and lines. We like the fact it’s mostly a drawing and not solid at all, and you can see where the initial attempts have been rubbed out.

We wanted to keep the painting itself very light and airy – exposed. Not to suffocate it. We try as much as possible to let nature take over, to allow chance and roughness to come through.

This might be done by dripping paint onto a very wet surface – a pool of turps with the paint poured into or dragged through it, obliterating surfaces with melted wax – or just by painting in a ham-fisted way.

It’s less easy to do that with imposing architectural forms which demand lines and description. So they tend to dominate the paintings. They’re literally impossible to avoid once you’ve started on them.

We have a series of paintings based on photos we took of Dungeness. I suppose we were attracted to the wilderness element of the place, and the exposed-looking shacks and houses there – particularly a house that stands just below the power station. In the end even that disappeared from the paintings, and the landscape took over.

The scale and ferocity of shale oil extraction in North America and Canada is mind-boggling and awesome, and anyone with any sensitivity would have to be worried by such displays of immense power.

I suppose it’s a love-hate thing that we’re drawn to. We can’t help liking (or like hating) brutalist or grand architecture – our art school, in Archway in north London, was overshadowed by a tall black tower – a huge and threatening building that was used by the Department of Social Security.

We’re still drawn to such bleak images. We were very upset when they recently knocked down the car-park in Newcastle – the one that Michael Caine threw that fellow off in Get Carter. It should have been made a national monument.

Doomsday Seed Depository is of the Global Seed Vault, built in the Arctic on Svalbard to store examples of all the seeds on the planet.

It’s all the good seeds, all the original seeds. So come the apocalypse they’ll have a record of what once grew on the earth, before humans f***** it all up – but also, they say, to preserve seeds in the case of natural extinction, disaster, acts of God.

What we’re seeing in the paintings is just the entrance – the actual depository is dug into the mountain, possibly using old coalmines. The idea of a preparation for pending disaster resonates with us – the ambiguities around ideas that interference in the natural landscape are good, or bad, or both.

We love the religious in art, and its being embedded in the history of painting. We’re fascinated by early Renaissance painting and its commitment to a higher power – to blind faith.

Now people go to Tate Modern with their families on Sundays instead of church and instead of the Devil and Hell we have Monsanto and X Factor.

We are not personally religious in any orthodox sense. We have a Jewish, atheist background, but went to a Catholic school for a while.

We’re certainly interested in religion and familiar with it, but we don’t have any belief in a God as an omnipotent power. However, we do think that part of the purpose of art is to engage us with our spiritual natures.

In a very simple way, the making and doing of art as a form of communion with fellow man is very important to us.

Our Garden Behind the Wall, 20 BC 2013 is more tragic beauty. In the same way as the Giotto, Constable and Bosch paintings we’ve previously done, our inspiration has been taken from another work of art that we’ve appropriated and made our own.

This time it’s from a Roman fresco circa 20 BC, 1,300-odd years before the Renaissance. The fresco covered all four walls of a room in a villa belonging to an emperor’s wife.

It was a great illusion, extending the room to a wall, behind which an impossibly lush garden grew, full of fruit, flowers and exotic birds.

It’s pre-Christian, from another civilisation, and we suppose it’s trying to picture an idealised world while picturing man picturing that world.

Maybe they’re representative of the fact that the kingdom of heaven is here amongst us now, no matter how f***** up it might appear. More tea?”

  • Isis Gallery presents Harry Adams at Regency Town House, Brighton from March 22 – April 6 2014. Visit the exhibition online. Open Wednesday-Sunday 12pm-6pm. Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @IsisGalleryUK.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More Artist’s Statements:

Jacob van der Beugel on creating DNA profiles within a stately home

Jukhee Kwon on abandoned book sculptures

Laura Tonks, of The Beacon, on tarantulas and cicadas in Peru


Pics: Harry Adams, courtesy Isis Gallery
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