Thursday, 21 July 2011

New residency at Leith School of Art

For the last week I have been artist-in-residence for Leith School of Art in Edinburgh. This is a four-week project running the summer. Housed in the only remaining Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Europe, the Art School has been a catalyst for cultural renewal in Leith since it was founded in 1988. Since the school has independent status it can teach a syllabus that the staff actually believe will benefit their students. And benefit the students they certainly do. In contrast to the wider corpus of art school education, Leith holds to traditional values of drawing, painting and making that really do set up their students for a rigorous and considered creative practice. I can say that because I was a student here myself in 1998. In an otherwise cynical and hierarchal arena for arts education Leith is like a breath of fresh air. It really is good to be back here.

LSA was founded by Mark and Lottie Cheverton (interestingly former UCCF staff workers) who wanted to establish an Art School with a Christian ethos for community, education and creative excellence. In 1991 the Chevertons were tragically killed in a car crash and the future of the school looked uncertain. However, Philip Archer, a colleague and friend of the Chevertons was appointed as Principal and the school has grown under his headship.

The church is still consecrated and continues to be used by the Norwegian community for special services and events.

Surrounding the college, Leith is the industrial heart of Edinburgh and the historical home of Scotland’s merchant and naval base. Like many of Europe’s city dockland areas Leith continues to pose social needs. The monuments to Leith’s past celebrate its shipbuilding and whaling legacy but no one wants to remember its history of gang related violence and drug abuse (think Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting). In the early 1980s, Leith was the AIDS capital of Europe – a situation made worse after the council banned hospitals from giving out free needles to drug addicts in an attempt to root out the drug problem. In effect, users simply shared needles and AIDS spread like wildfire.

In recent years Leith has been subject to urban generation. Alongside the historical wharfs and dilapidated council flats rise shiny new apartments for city workers and a brand new shopping mall that wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs of Americana. They even have a Thomas Kincade franchise.

Here in this curious juxtaposition of old and new, historical, industrial and commercial I’ll be making drawings and painting about the changes in Leith. I’ll be blogging throughout my residency on my studio blog.
You’d be very welcome to follow my progress and I’d value your comments.

Here though and for now I am struck by the role Leith School of Art is playing in the urban generation of a troubled area. In contrast to the capitalistic solutions presented by the multi-national corporations and investors, LSA offers hope for renewal through the development of community and artistic renewal. If the act of creativity is indeed a wholly human experience there is much of humanity in the ethos and teaching of this little Art School that nestles amongst the debris of Edinburgh’s historical and industrial fallout like redemptive seed of hope.

Frieze Art and Spirituality

In the October editorial for Frieze magazine, senior editor, Dan Fox asked, “When was the last time you saw an explicitly religious work of contemporary art? Odds are you can’t remember. If you can, it’s because it stood out like the Pope in a brothel. Religious art, when it’s not kept safely confined within gilt frames in the medieval departments of major museums, is taboo. Of course, if we’re talking art about religion that’s totally kosher.”

It’s not that art about religion is taboo at the moment and far from it. In the last five years we’ve seen Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (a life sized statue of a Chrost-like figure in Trafalgar Square), Sarah Lucas’ Marlborough Christ, Damien Hirst’s apostles series at White Cube Gallery and Keith Coventry recently won the coveted John Moores painting prize for his spectrum blue portrait of Jesus.

So what is Dan Fox’s question really about? The question seems less about approaching aspects of faith and spirituality in art per say. The taboo seems more for those who approach the subject of faith without scepticism or irony. In other words art made by sincere practitioners of faith. As eminent art historian, James Elkins puts it, ‘aside from the rare exceptions, religion is seldom mentioned in the art world unless it is linked to criticism, ironic distance, or scandal. An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to art unless they are treated with scepticism.”

I believe Fox and Elkins are demonstrative of a recent corpus of academic and journalistic enquiry into the absence of religion in contemporary art. They join the ranks of Boris Groys (Art Power 2009) and Terry Eagelton (Faith and Belief, as part of the published seminar Now Is the Time, 2010) who seem to asking similar questions of the lack of spirituality in the latter day throws of Modernity.

Are they right? Are the ideas of the sincerely religious irrelevant to art or even society today? As a sincere Christian believer I want to cry hope from the roof of my studio. I affirm their questions and want to wrestle for answers. In the Morphē Arts network we have sincere Christian believers wrestling with these exact questions on a daily basis.

In recent years the National Gallery has hosted a series of exhibitions that explore the legacy of Christian art through the centuries with sincere motives, not least through the Seeing Salvation exhibition, Sacred Made Real and the current Devotion by Design. Looking to the contemporary art fairs and contemporary art scene of London, however, I find it more difficult to identify any artist whose work is explicitly or devoutly religious and has shown in the East End galleries or around Deptford and Peckham. So maybe Elkins was right when he wrote, “Contemporary art, I think, is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been, and that may even be its most singular achievement or its cardinal failure, depending on your point of view” (From the introduction to On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art)

Of course all this depends on your definition of contemporary art but I think Elkins is talking about the institutions and practices that constitute the main corpus of art being made by recent graduates of Western art colleges today that is exhibited and bought by gallerists and curators under 40 (not to be too crass). If that’s the case, personally I believe him to be right but that doesn’t mean there can’t be anything done about it. We’re certainly trying our best here and praying for cultural renewal as we navigate our way through the difficult waters of contemporary cultural theory and its influence on contemporary creative practice.