As international art consultants, Artelier specialises in curating art for luxury residential, hospitality, yacht and aviation projects. Artelier's Artist Walls presents a collection of artists whose originality of ideas and dedication to their materials makes them true contemporary masters. Through collaborating with Artelier, they have created large-scale custom art commissions that reinvent the concept of the mural for the modern age, pushing the possibilities for feature wall art.
In a two-part instalment of Artelier's In the Studio series, curator Alina Young talks with Simon Allen about the evolution of his sculptural practice and the influence that nature has on his work. Here, Allen shares how his training as a framing gilder uniquely informed his use of materials, and reflects upon the duality of his artistic practice – carving wood and working with gold leaf.
Do you find it an interesting duality that modern technology is so central to your carving process, considering you use machines to create organic shapes inspired by nature?
Absolutely; that duality comes through in my gilding also. The water gilding technique that I use, the tools, the methods – nothing's really changed since the Renaissance. I love that there is no modern PVA equivalent to the glue binders and the gesso, which I make up myself using whiting, which is calcium carbonate, and rabbit skin glue. All these recipes are intuitive, in that I've got vague guidelines, but sometimes you'll get a batch of glue that's stronger than previously; it’s really an ancient and imprecise way of working, which can only be learnt through repetition and experience. In a way it’s where I came from. I trained with Stewart Heslop as an apprentice, working as a gilder for picture framing in London. That background has hugely fed where I am now, I wouldn't be here without it.
Considering your career evolution, where for a time you worked as a gilder for picture frames, what drove you to begin to sculpt full-time, as an artist?
I went to art school and studied painting at Falmouth School of Art, and graduated in 1989. I was landscape painting, I always felt attuned towards the landscape and wanted to express that in art. After college, I went and lived in London and worked at Waddington Gallery in Cork Street in the print department, looking after all of their master prints. Just being around such important works of art and handling them daily was an incredible experience, and witnessing first-hand how a very high-end gallery works.
From there, I went to work for their framer, Stewart Heslop. Stewart was doing the high-end frames for most of the West End galleries; we worked with everybody, from Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse, to Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, and personally I worked very closely with the artist Kitaj on his Tate Retrospective. It was an exciting time in that we met a lot of these artists, and you’d talk about what they wanted from their frames, but inevitably conversation would spill out onto what their art was about. Just seeing how people of that calibre operate, how they conduct themselves as a professional artist, was fascinating.
I then decided that London wasn't the place I wanted to live, and came back down to Cornwall. I was making picture frames in Cornwall, and very gradually found that I did have the time and space to use these techniques in a sculptural way. It wasn't that one day I was a picture framer and the next I was a sculptor, rather I'd started making sculptures and had a lot of contacts with galleries and showed things to people, and gradually the sculptures started to sell. Until one day, I found that I wasn't making picture frames anymore, and I was a full-time sculptor. That was 15 years ago, and I've been a full-time artist since then.
What did you learn while gilding frames that has most influenced your art commissions now?
The water gilding technique and using that on picture frames. Although actually, the sculptures came about from looking at a gilders' pad – when you flick off a loose leaf from a book of gold leaf, it rests on a pad which allows you to cut it and put it on whatever you're going to gild. But as that loose leaf settled on the pad, in its abstract crinkly way, I can remember looking at it and thinking, "there's something in that". Really, everything I would want to say is in that piece of leaf sitting on the pad. It was a question of working out how to carve or create some surface on which I could recreate that. So, the materials have definitely played a huge part in guiding me and informing where the forms have ended up. It's partly the natural world feeding me, and partly materials feeding me. The two just work completely in tandem.
When you say that gold leaf inspired "what you want to say", what do you think that is?
I think it's that there's a continuity of energy in the natural world where everything has, it seems to me, a kind of link, in terms of forms. So, if you think of how the crest of a wave has a similar form to the ridge of a cloud. It just happens repeatedly. You'll see a form and think, "yes, that's exactly the same shape, outline, contour," and very often it can be a kind of linking between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. I did a series of sculptures, one of which was called 'Callisto'. The shape of meteorite craters in Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons, looked exactly the same as images I saw which had been taken on an electro-microscope of pollen granules. The thought that a distant moon in the galaxy and the micro-particle of pollen can have visually pretty much the same surface on them – it's about drawing those kinds of links, those kinds of parallels.
Since at college you trained in painting landscapes, how did you learn the specific reductive carving techniques, and using the power tools involved in making the wooden parts of your sculptures?
That I taught myself. I had an idea of the forms I wanted to make, and I just looked around for whatever seemed like the most appropriate tools. There was no apprenticeship in the way there was gilding. My time at the framers was intensive, we would start at nine and finish at six. It was a really crucial time in that you learn the rules, you learn to have an intuitive understanding of the materials, and things become second nature. What I've really enjoyed doing as a sculptor is breaking most of those rules. You think, "Well, I was taught that I should never do this, let's see what happens if I do." It's a bit like being a jazz musician: you've got to know how to play the instrument by the rules in order to improvise. Quite often in the sculptures I'll be doing that, just improvising.
My improvisation probably wouldn’t be immediately apparent to most people who are looking at the works, it's a very subtle thing. Hopefully, when people look at my work they're not just considering it a technical tour de force or trying to look for perfection. Although, quite often they are looking for perfection, and I'm constantly saying it's about the lack of perfection, about the fact that nature is a chaotic, shambolic kind of thing quite often. There could be underlying structures, but often what we're looking at is fairly loose.
I cite the example of the Impressionists, where you look at a Monet façade of a cathedral, and you see this beautiful, shimmering architectural solidity to the building, just engulfed in light. You get up close to the canvas, and it's completely abstract, random daubs of paint with the canvas texture coming through, bits of Monet's beard in the paint. I'm trying to have a similar approach with gilding. It's not about being fastidious and tightening up on every single crack. Sometimes where I've carved against the grain of the wood you see something textural, where some of the ground underneath the gold leaf comes through. That just enhances the gold leaf's shininess. There's a counterpoint. I often use a black ground so the black enables the leaf's reflective qualities to appear more so, because of its matteness. Playing around with those two – the ground beneath the gold leaf and the reflective nature of the gold leaf – has been important to the work.
Recently, I've been making some pieces where I've been rubbing through the gold leaf; again, that's a technique which a lot of people would use on a picture frame just to slightly tone down the solidity of the gold. I found that it's interesting on a fairly flat and undulating surface, as you can rub through the leaf and you're able to bring colour into the work, which is interesting as the ground underneath the work can be any colour you like. The combination of the colour of the leaf, be it 12 carat white gold, or 22 carat gold, or caplain,
that leaf colour in combination with the ground underneath makes you slightly unsure where the surface is. There’s the ambient undulation and the light of the room on the leaf, but then there’s this glow from behind the leaf, which is the coloured ground beneath it. That's what I'm working on at the moment, I'm particularly enthused by those sort of possibilities. I've touched on it in the past in sculptures, but it's something which I've re-visited with renewed interest.
Does it influence you that there's a certain part of the gilding process you can't control, like knowing exactly how the material will come through the gold leaf? Does that variation makes it even more visually interesting?
Yes, I like to be surprised by my work. It's the best and the worst aspect of working on a piece! Generally, certainly when I'm gilding but also the carving to a large extent, I'm working horizontally. The piece will be flat on a work table or a carving bench. It's really only once the gilding's been done, the piece is on the wall, and you walk back and turn around that I see how everything which I've anticipated may or may not come to be. It does surprise me every time.
I've rigged up just a single light bulb in the carving studio which casts a raking light over the surface, and that is the best approximation of how those forms will look when they've got a reflective surface gilded onto them. I look at them in different lights constantly, just to try and understand the form as much as possible in the carving stage. Once you've gilded it, you can't change your mind. So, there's a kind of fluidity to everything, a spontaneity and an immediacy, and then there's some processes where suddenly there's an abrupt halt. That is it, no going back.
What are your daily processes? Is the rhythm of your day in contrast to the more rigid time-frames you had at the framers?
That work ethic has stayed with me. I do tend to do a 9-5; some days more, some days less. That said, whenever it’s a beautiful day, or whenever the mood takes me, it's wonderful here; you can walk out the door, you're on the moorland, you can walk over to the cliff. I had a very good friend, the artist Breon O'Casey, who was a huge influence on me. He worked as an assistant for Barbara Hepworth and was part of that 1950s St Ives group of artists, and he was full of words of wisdom. One of the phrases he said to me was, "Sometimes the most creative you can do as an artist is to close the studio door," meaning that if it's not happening, it's not going to happen, and the best thing you can do is walk away and come back in the right frame of mind. I do remind myself of that. It's not just about putting hours in to get results, it's often a case of easing off to think about things and put them into context, to go outside and get stimulated, to feed yourself visually.
To hear more about the fundamental influence that nature has on Simon Allen's work, and how his studio's proximity to the sea is key to his exploration of the elements, take a look at the first part of Artelier's In the Studio interview here. Simon Allen is featured in Artelier's Artist Walls collection, and has a dedicated page on our website.
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