The art world’s ‘over there’, and we can’t get in. There’s a glass ceiling and a glass door. We want to create something that’s eye level with the public.
We started about 7 years ago, when Catherine Borowski and I first met, as very different artists. Catherine is conceptual in her thinking, whereas my world is dictated from an aesthetic perspective. But it was an interesting clash because there was clearly common ground between us. If we separately walk into an exhibition, we often locate the same artists as our favourite even though we were coming from different angles.
We initially had an exhibition in a gallery. We enjoyed the experience, but we came away feeling empty. Frieze Art Fair was coming up and Catherine wanted to do something around it. She came up with the idea of dumping a skip outside Frieze. We quickly realised that was never going to happen unless we had some absolute guerilla activity, but the idea stuck in our heads, and it kicked off from there. I happened to meet David Shrigley and it turned out he lived near me so I put a letter through his door saying, look, we’ve got a gallery in a skip. Do you fancy showing your work? He was like, yeah! His work summarised a lot that we’re really into: mischievous, witty artists sticking a bit of a finger up to things.
And that’s what SKIP Gallery is, in a way. The art world’s ‘over there’, and we can’t get in. There’s a glass ceiling, and a glass door. We want to create something that’s eye level with the public.
Alongside that is the side of my artwork which has been constant – I’ve been immersed with Japanese culture for many years. I particularly zoned in on Itō Jakuchū and his series of paintings, The Colorful Realm of Living Beings. I couldn’t get over the magic of these works. In them were these flowers, typical subject matter, chrysanthemum, dahlias, blousy flowers, but i couldn’t get them out of my mind. The way that I found him was that I went to a lecture by Takashi Murakami when he had an exhibition at the Serpentine. He’s an interesting guy because even though his work is hyper contemporary and very populist, he has a deep knowledge of history and history of art.
I kept on being drawn back to the beauty and the simple message that was coming across – this view that a flower is not just a pretty thing. There’s a huge level of contemplation that exists within. So I’m over here in my little corner painting flowers, and six or seven months ago Catherine was like, you’re painting flowers. They’re beautiful. Why don’t we get them out there?
It’s lovely to see them at scale, because there’s an intimacy in the flowers. If you represent them in a domestic or gallery environment, you could easily walk past them. But by being maximalist about it, it’s more arresting, it’s a bit more like, come on, have a look at me.
There is that history subtly imbued within the work and the composition that people won’t necessarily see, but they feel. All those reference points that I know exist in there, even if no one else does.
I loved what you were saying about bringing art to eye level. Do you find that your work reaches people who wouldn’t ordinarily think about art?
We found that with the flowers we’ve reached people at eye level much more. SKIP takes some climbing over, but with Graphic Rewilding, there’s a safety in there. People get it. There’s a lot of it around, that maximalist, colourful approach to public art. And we’ve had situations where councillors have looked at our work and gone, oh yeah, we want that!
I think part of that is that it works on several levels. There is the colour thing, and the fact that it’s representations of nature. But there is that history subtly imbued within the work and the composition that people won’t necessarily see, but they feel. All those reference points that I know exist in there, even if no one else does. My thought processes absolutely derive from Hiroshige artworks, from Itō Jakuchū, from Takashi Murakami, even going back to the Dutch still life paintings, to Velázquez. I think that feeds into the work.
With the Forest of Dean you’re doing something different to what you’ve done before – Graphic Rewilding has been about urban environments, predominantly, but the Forest of Dean definitely isn’t urban. Have you faced any challenges in moving from the urban to the rural?
My relationship with nature is very much through art. My relationship with nature isn’t through nature, weirdly. And so I was confronted with this challenge of making imagery of nature within nature. What a pointless thing to do!
But it turned into something quite interesting. It was maybe the time of year that we went there, but we realised, coming from a city background, that the forest is actually quite grey. And we also realised that often when you’re walking in amongst it, you don’t look at anything in particular. No one’s getting their nose in the dirt to really examine those flowers under a microscope. So it became an opportunity. It’s quite a privilege, in a way, to see this stuff blown up big.
I love the fact that in amongst the trees, what we see is hundreds of uprights. When you’re doing production in urban environments, lampposts are gold dust, because they’re things to tie stuff to! And in the Forest of Dean there are hundreds upon hundreds of points to strap stuff to, so we realised banners between the trees was a lovely, simple way to present bold and colourful imagery within the forest environment.
The material we used was a kind of airtex material and it worked well because it created a translucency. There was a conversation between the colours and the imagery, but then there were other images coming through too, like a stained glass window.
Often when you’re walking in amongst the forest, you don’t look at anything in particular. No one’s getting their nose in the dirt to really examine those flowers under a microscope. [...] It's quite a privilege, in a way, to see this stuff blown up big.
Yes, the banners are definitely reminiscent of stained glass windows. Of course, Kevin Atherton created his own stained glass window for the trail too (‘Cathedral’, 1986). And several artists on the project have said that there is a curious cathedral-ness to the forest. I feel that Graphic Rewilding continues that tradition, in a way.
It definitely tapped into that, and it would certainly be an ambition to do our flowers in a derelict church space – a John Piper type situation. That would be a dream come true.
You know, you get this funny feeling in the forest. When Matt [Nightingale] showed us the space, we were both jumping for joy that there was a path lined with trees. The war artist C. R. W. Nevinson painted imagery where you get a sense of line and perspective, and we really got that from the forest.
Catherine’s previous work was about her upbringing in a council flat with few design sensibilities. Going to her friend’s house, the spindles on their staircases fascinated her because they were ornate, to her mind. She’d turn them into graveyards, in a way, placing these spindles together in huge numbers. We both get excited by that sense of repetition, geometry and symmetry – and the trees definitely do that too.
In terms of the imagery and colours you chose, did you get much inspiration from the forest itself?
I think it was much more from within, you know. When I see those Itō Jakuchū paintings of nature, it often brings more to me than nature itself, I can’t tell you why. It’s something about reaching into that man’s soul. So much of my work comes from representations of nature – I’m like a Disney cartoon version of nature. But that’s the joy of being an artist – bluebells don’t have to be blue, do they?
Obviously we were researching the flowers of the Wye Valley and constantly worrying that a botanist would tell us that a certain flower doesn’t exist. I’m not a nature expert, because that’s not what we are, but I’ve become more of one!
Related to the subject of nature is that important word, ‘rewilding’. People who are visiting the trail will probably know it from the news, and from public campaigning. What does it mean to you?
Rewilding has been a prevalent subject, and so it should be. But for us, it’s more about bringing representations of nature into the public consciousness. In urban environments there often isn’t space for true rewilding. Quite often, we’re working on hoardings of developments. So – without wanting to sound too pretentious – it’s like a rewilding of the consciousness.
And it’s amazing. The joy that has been brought to people is palpable. We did a space in Earl’s Court which was a building site, and as soon as it opened, there were kids playing there. We’re never going to be as great as actually standing in a bluebell wood, but it’s about bringing that sensibility.
And in these pandemic times, when we all need a bit of joy, it’s wonderful to hear that your projects are bringing colour and life out of those otherwise underused spaces.
Exactly, because ultimately, the purpose of art throughout history is as something to be enjoyed. We’re continuing that tradition.
Lee Baker (Baker & Borowski), in conversation with Dr Beth Whalley, Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust Associate Historian, 2021