Interview with artist Brian Chalkley. On painting, fashion, clothes, cross dressing, clubs, art college, teaching, diamond shoes, galleries, Düsseldorf and more…Posted: November 9, 2012
Brian Chalkley is Course Director of MA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design. He graduated from the BA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1973 and MA Fine Art in 1975 from Slade School of Fine Art .
Brian’s practice is an ongoing discussion with gender, sexuality and identity. His work is based around two characters Brian and Dawn, Dawn being a transvestite personality. The practice manifests itself through painting, performance and video work. The construction of narrative and story telling are central to the work. Brian’s work has been written about in Judith Halberstams’ ‘In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives’ (NYU Press).
Recent shows include ‘Nothing is Forever’ at South London Gallery, ‘Dandyism and Contempt’ at Camden Space, ‘Der Meschen Klee’ at the Kunst im Tunnel, Dusseldorf, Germany and a solo show at the Horst Schuler Gallery also in Dusseldorf.
Kate Eleanor Ross (author of curatorial curiosities) Interviewed artist Brian Chalkley on 8th November 2012 at the Regency Cafe, Pimlico, London
within the context of his first solo exhibition in over ten years, Female Trouble at Ancient and Modern
KR – How did your solo show at Ancient and Modern gallery come about?
BC – Pure chance. I went to an opening of Marco Chiandetti who is an ex student of Chelsea College of Art & Design and he said he had this show at Ancient and Modern which I had never been to. I think this must have been about 5 or 6 months ago and I just got talking to Bruce Haines who is the owner of the gallery and I always remember this, because he said what do you do? I said I run the MA Fine Art course at Chelsea, but I said I don’t just do that, I make paintings. Then we talked a bit more and I said I’ve just had a sellout show in Düsseldorf last year. Well in fact what he then said was, can I see some work, which surprised me on a first meeting with a gallerist and I said no, you can’t see any work, because I’ve sold it all! So I sent him a catalogue and we had a bit of dialogue on the phone and then we met up and he said I really like the work and then he said this is only the second time I’ve done this in my life…I’ll offer you a show. This was even though he hadn’t seen the work.
KR – so you built up a good rapport with Bruce and maybe he was encouraged by how your Düsseldorf show had sold out?!
BC – that might have had some bearing on the matter, yes! Bruce then booked the show for September but at a later point he changed the date and said let’s do it during Frieze week which was good.
KR – in your show Female Trouble can you tell me about who are these girls?
BC Well I’ve always been interested in fashion and also being a cross dresser, that kind of gives me a relationship with these girls I thought and I just started looking through magazines really like Dazed and Confused and fashion magazines, images from 1940s film posters, ’50s film posters, looked at the way they were making images. But initially I guess I have to feel some contact with the image of the girl and the image of the girl seemed to have a kind of sense of anxiety or not exactly trouble, but anxiety
KR – yes, it’s quite apparent that there’s a certain atmosphere around them…
BC – yes, they are in some state of flux if you like. I think that through the act of painting… this might not be the right word, but a metamorphosis goes on. I begin to identify with the person, maybe through the act of painting.
KR – you get to know the characters
BC – yes, there are certain things that happen through the act of painting… like I might start with a hair or something, or I might start with an eye or a lip
KR – and so it evolves
BC – yeah and I think that then gives the work certain levels of completion. For instance, noses don’t get put in somehow… there might just be a blob of paint or something! So there is this sense of anxiety and kind of trouble. People were saying yesterday* that they felt with the images that the figures could be in the ‘60s or ‘70s rather than now. The other thing that came up was that the portraits of the head seemed more mature than what their body was or what they were wearing. There seemed to be a kind of distinction there.
KR – what do you like particularly about the medium of watercolour, because you haven’t really worked in that before?
BC – nothing, I’ve never used it before… there’s nothing I particularly like about watercolour, it just seemed like the appropriate medium. I’d never used it before.
KR – so did you enjoy that experimentation then?
BC – yeah, yes I did and I think it also fits, going back to those old movie posters, there are always thin washes of paint on those, they aren’t heavily impasto like an oil painting, so there’s a kind of graphic representation which I think poses a lot of problems – the graphic representation, because it’s against all of my education.
KR – how do you mean?
BC – I couldn’t have made those paintings… I mean, it’s taken me a long time to accept that way of working, because I was like an abstract painter or using thick paint, finding the image through the act of painting. Whereas these are not about finding the image through the act of painting, they’re about finding an image and then painting it, it’s not through the process of painting it. So moving out of a more romantic view of painting, for my generation I’d say
KR – do you think that’s to do with the experiences you’ve gathered through your career… you naturally change styles
BC – yes and the subject matter and the kind of history of cross dressing and clubs and stuff, forced me to reevaluate the painting process. It was very very difficult when I first started them, because I would paint the image in the evening, wake up in the morning and go my God, what is this! It looked like aesthetically all wrong, but it felt there was something going on.
KR – so you accepted that it was a new phase of your work…
BC – yup, I did. I think the other very important factor is that I found patterns of working that I’m actually sticking to. I don’t move outside of the pattern of working now. For instance, when I first made the portrait, I made the figure and the body, but I didn’t have any background and I’ve said this a lot of times now, I got about 12 or 13 pictures into the group and I kept thinking there was something wrong and I realised, I haven’t got a background! So, how do you paint a background – I don’t know… so I started looking at the figure and thinking who is she, where is she and what context is she in. That helped a lot because then I could research different backgrounds. I mean she could be a housewife in Connecticut or she could be a croupier in Las Vegas… very different roles that these women were doing. In fact the women are very singular, they’re about survival.
KR – they’re alone and lone figures aren’t they
BC- they are, yes. They don’t have much support and they’re having to work for their living.
KR – like Working Girls, another series you’ve made
BC – yes, well in fact – working girls and Female Trouble the same.
KR – so you’re interested in the role of the female, their place in the world and how they deal with everything
BC – yes and what they have to do to survive
KR – so as you were saying, this was quite a move away from other work you’ve done but it’s obviously linked to your other work… would you say that this is linked to your past performance work and so on?
BC – very much so. but not intentionally at the beginning. But the more you make, the more there seems to be a relationship.
KR – do those performances and that way of working belong to another part of your life?
BC – yes, they’re really important
KR – so there’s you in your studio painting and then there’s you out there as Dawn for example… can you talk a bit about Dawn and how she came about?
BC – Yes, I first went out as Dawn in 1997, 1996 maybe, yeah ’96 and I never set out to… people used to ask me at the time, I used to go to openings and it was very very scary, very dangerous. Just turning up at an opening, dressed as a woman… anyway, I know that one or two artists said is this an art idea? I got really annoyed about that because, how can you make… well, it said a lot about their work. So no it wasn’t an art thing and the first break came when I met Paul Noble in The Approach pub one opening and I talked about the cross dressing and he said oh that’s interesting he said, I’m just putting a show together at City Racing and he said send me some images tomorrow morning. I sent him some images and he put me in a show with Hilary Lloyd and Jemima Stehli and what I did is, I had a very small room at City Racing but I invited various artists like Grayson Perry, he did a piece and some people who weren’t artists as well. Dawn Mellor did something, it was a nice show really.
KR – so you became part of that zeitgeist and you were forwarding that whole movement
BC – yes well, an artist said at the time – Darrell Viner, who’s died now, he used to teach at Chelsea and I told him about my cross dressing and that I was trying to make some work with it and he said you either do it now or you wait another five years. I don’t know what he meant! But I think the fact that he said do it now, was good, it helped me. I can’t tell you what a sort of roller-coaster life it was, I mean teaching at Chelsea, going home to get dressed, going out clubbing til 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, coming back and teaching, clubbing…
KR – two lives in one!
BC – totally and I was obsessed. Totally obsessed.
KR – so you became more and more involved the more you explored that side of yourself
BC – absolutely and then I made all these drawings. I’d come back in the middle of the night and I’d be drawing the people I’d met in clubs. I had a show in 2001 at platform gallery and made that publication Dawn in Wonderland which was great and I then started making video as well. There’s lots of that work which is quite confrontational.
KR – that was the best medium to really express what you were doing at that time
BC – yes and I found I was really into dialogue. I can remember dialogue. It’s funny actually because the first person who helped me with that was Donald* We would meet at the lecture theatre, early in the morning and he would record what I was saying. So I would just relay the previous night, the stories.
KR – so that’s about the underground culture of London…
BC – yes and you see in those days there weren’t many of those clubs, now there are still not that many, but more and it was very moving emotionally because I was joining a community and I thought that was amazing, I loved that. But I have to say I was in a pretty desperate state. I didn’t have a choice really, it was either that or something worse, it was a really difficult time but I was still making paintings as well, these abstract paintings with blobs on them. You know they were very end game paintings. Paint the surface, paint the surface, and then just a big blob of paint in the middle of it and that was it, it was like there was a finality about everything. Quite a depressing time.
KR – so there’s a contrast that is reflected in the work that now it’s quite a controlled line with watercolour, very fine and enclosed.
BC – yes and this has brought so many facets of my painting over the years together and one of the things I was saying yesterday was that the big revelation as well was tracing and tracing paper, because when I was 16 I left school and got a job in an architect’s office through a friend. I mean I didn’t have any qualifications or anything but I managed to get a job as a tracer and one lunchtime I traced all the girls in the Pirelli Calendar and took them home and hid them under my bed! Students yesterday brought up a very interesting thing and put it much better than I could when they said that maybe that was the first point of identification of that kind… but now you see, when I’m making the figure, it was another big thing, because I thought if I paint the background and it’s wrong, I’ve messed it up, so I just covered the whole thing in tracing paper and made lots of different backgrounds
KR – so then you could try them out? In a way that’s just like what we do with clothes, the figure and the outfit
BC – yup, that’s a very good point. But this process also allowed me to have a whole set of drawings and with the drawings the head might be traced from an image I found in a magazine, or now I might get into designing the clothes. I do that, it’s really nice and when you’re designing clothes and making patterns, it brings out the things I learned from abstract painting, about abstract language and you can play about with being an abstract painter within that frame
KR – so you were being influenced by the history of abstract painting as well?
BC – yes, well I mean Jonathan Lasker I looked at a lot, the patterns that happened in his work and then reproduced them on the clothing. So it’s another strand of relationships maybe. With these paintings, Stephen Wilson said he’d like to see the videos with the paintings because they do give a harder core side to things I suppose the videos, the dialogues and they’re pretty heavy going really.
KR – that’s maybe for another show though
BC – yes, I think so, definitely.
KR – so moving on, would you say that your teaching at Chelsea College of Art & Design over the years has influenced your work?
BC – totally, yes, totally. I think one of the essential things is dealing with young people and they’ve got ideas and they’ve got energy and that dialogue, that engagement through teaching is so really, I mean I love it, I just absolutely love it and I just feel so honoured to be in that situation that I’m getting paid to do something I really love. But I feel more invigorated by that than I ever did now. I’ve set up all these seminars, we were doing seminars two days this week and one of them went from 10am til 7 o’clock at night, we just kept going.
KR – do you like that dialogue and exchange of ideas?
BC – yeah, totally and helping students to find a language. That’s really difficult, for some students it can happen very quickly and for others like myself it takes a long time.
KR – so you feel that you’ve arrived now at a good point
BC – yes, I’ve found a space. I think I’ve found a world that, actually has come out not from entirely making art but has come out of other desires. When I went cross dressing, I never thought about art, it wasn’t made as an art thing as I said earlier, it was just a compulsion
KR – you seem to be quite popular in Düsseldorf, can you talk a bit about how that happened?
BC – I don’t know if I’m popular there… but I get on with them there, yes.
KR- but you found a gallery who showed your work there
BC – yes, Galerie Horst Schuler is great, they’re really supportive. But I didn’t turn up there at the gallery with the work they thought I would… when they first saw my work I was in a group show at Kunst im Tunnel which was curated by Cornelius Quabeck who is an ex student from Chelsea and I showed one video, Dancing on the Car video, I was dancing to The Supremes “Stoned Love” and then I also showed two collages that I’d made and I’m still interested in those, where I took fashion models’ photographs and then collaged them slightly so it might change their clothing or something like that. I always remember the way I got to talk to that gallery because I was at that opening and there was a man who was looking very elegant, he was probably seventy and he had these diamond shoes on. I went up to him and wanted to talk to him about his diamond shoes! I was very nervous but I thought sod it, I’m in Germany, I can do anything, I’m not going to be back again… and he couldn’t speak English very well but he pointed to another man (Horst) who speaks very good English. We got talking and he said lets meet for coffee the next morning and it started from there. It was again a bit like with Bruce, it was very instant. The other thing was, Horst said he’d like to do a show in 2012 when it would be like a year on and Neal Tait went back to the gallery, he was still in Germany (I’d gone back to London) and he went to see Horst as well and he said well, why so long? Then Horst immediately phoned me and said let’s do it this year. So it was done in a very short period of time, 4 or 5 months, very similar to with Bruce. So both shows have some kind of commonality with them. I got on with the people very well and then it happened very quickly. I had to really work fast to get the shows done.
KR – so it’s always been about having to balance for you between being a tutor and a practicing artist
BC – yes and you have to keep making art to be able to teach I think. I didn’t want to end up as a 60 year old, 65 year old boring abstract painter you know, like that generation. I’ve never been happy with that. I found a language, I had to find a language, wherever that took me.
KR – so what’s next for you on the horizon, will you continue in that same style of painting?
BC – yes I want to develop them more. I was kind of thinking they could be quite big paintings as well. Someone did relate them to Alex Katz a bit… I know I can see a connection there possibly but I think they’re more weird than his. Clothing is so important and fashion. I went to see this show at the Barbican, it was the Surrealist show recently and they had these little sort of puppets and I was thinking about maybe constructing clothing of making it and one of the ideas I had about this show (Female Trouble) was although it was far too quick to do much, was to have fashion models wearing the same clothes that were in the paintings and to do a fashion show…
The influences on my work are much more varied that I thought – there’s fashion and film and so on and desire. For example, I was on the tube and I saw this woman, she had a pink jacket on and it was so beautiful and the desire was so strong to touch it and I’d got this painting at home but I hadn’t got anything for what she was wearing and once I saw that jacket, there was such an emotional pull, so I went home and painted that pink jacket. But I wasn’t just painting it, I was painting that sense of desire for it. Sometimes in a painting you make you put things in that you just have to put in. But there are other things in the painting where its so full of desire and wanting in it…the whole sexuality in it that certain things become much more important than others. They have different weight, different meanings attached to them.
* yesterday – 7th November 2012 Brian Chalkley took a group of his MA Fine Art (Chelsea College of Art & Design) students to see his Female Trouble exhibition at Ancient and Modern.
**Donald Smith (Director of Exhibitions at CHELSEA space)
Kate Eleanor Ross would like to thank Brian Chalkley for his enthusiasm, support and sense of fun during a few enjoyable years working together on MA Fine Art and other postgraduate courses at Chelsea College of Art and Design 2009 – 2012. It was a pleasure to interview him.
Thanks also to Bruce Haines, owner of Ancient and Modern gallery for his interest and images he provided.