Last week, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London hosted a panel titled "The Function of the Studio: Four Artists in Conversation" with artists Shezad Dawood, Gautier Deblonde, Antony Gormley and Andrew Grassie.
From the program for the evening, as advertised by the Institute: 'In 1971 the French artist Daniel Buren published an essay titled ‘The Function of the Studio’ in which he expounded his “distrust” of the studio and its “simultaneously idealising and ossifying function”. As a manifesto for his own critical practice, Buren’s essay proposed the “extinction” of the studio, paving the way for what has since been called a ‘post-studio’ era. Despite this, however, artists today still choose to work from studios, whether they be isolated work spaces or entrepreneurial offices. And many, in keeping with a long art historical tradition, continue to make the artist’s studio the subject of their work. This discussion will bring together Shezad Dawood, Gautier Deblonde, Antony Gormley and Andrew Grassie – four internationally-acclaimed artists working in a variety of media – to ask ‘What is the function, and significance, of the studio for artists working today?' The speakers were all interesting, and each had a very different relationship to and perception of the studio space and its role in artistic practice.
Gormley, perhaps the best-known of the artists on the panel, began the discussion with his thoughts on his personal work space. He said, "The studio is a very old concept. I think of the studio I work in as an industrial space for creative work. It's a very movable feast. When I think of what I do, it's impossible not to say "we," the studio (with his eight assistants) is a much larger organism." Though he has a custom-built studio, Gormley still insists that "it's the work that makes the work. The work also gives directives to those who work with me. It is grounds for experimentation. "The studio is a space of transformation, a place for memory," continued Gormley. "With the work making new demands it could no longer negotiate an old steam laundry in Peckham." Gormley's new studio suits his work better. "It's a context for creative community, it radically changed my ability to work-- it had proved its potency with the most important elements: silence, space, and light." Gormley is very much connected to his studio space and sees it as the cradle of his production process. Though some claim we live in a post-studio era, Gormley could not create works of the same mass or scale without such a dedicated work space.
Photographer Gautier Deblonde followed Gormley and spoke about his series of photographs he makes of artists' studios. He spoke about trying to find visible evidence of an artistic process in a tangible space. It was interesting to hear how he photographs: he waits to be left alone in the studio, without the artist present. There he tries to capture both the artist and their process in their absence. One interesting case study was a comparison of two of Deblonde's photographs: he simultaneously showed a photograph he took of Gerhard Richter's studio and a photograph he took of Paula Rego's studio. Richter refused to let Deblonde photograph works in progress, and what we see is a clean, slick, white box space with finished canvasses hung in an orderly row across the walls. There is no sign of process or personality. Rego's studio, on the other hand, is full, messy, and lively. Set pieces and fabric mannequins take up most of the room, brushes, paints and ladders litter the floor. While Richter seems reluctant to communicate a relationship with the studio (perhaps as a post-studio artist?), Rego is evident in her studio-- perhaps even more than in her paintings.
Painter Andrew Grassie has a much more complicated relationship with the studio space. As an artist who meticulously paints photorealistic "portraits" of studio spaces, he is most interested in the studio's potential for self-reflexivity. He said, "At art college, you are given a studio, left in a white room, and told to get on with it. These studios are a mix of public and private, a white space without any external parameters." Grassie's work is a reflection of and reaction to such white spaces, as he paints hyper-realistic quiet spaces without external references. For Grassie, the studio is more a subject than a place. He finds that painting such works freed him from "the responsibility of invention."
Shezad Dawood's idea of the studio is less defined by its traditional role. Dawood is more itinerant, less reliant on space. He constantly "creates spaces," though often they are not tangible. In describing his film "Feature," in which he brought together a real-life underground gay cowboy subculture with a group of born-again Christian wild West re-enactors, Dawood says this was a creation of a kind of studio space. "I like to create a space where things can happen," Dawood said. "That's my kind of studio." As a truly post-studio artist, more than the other speakers on the panel, Dawood spoke to the restlessness of a restrictive studio. He is less interested in having a creative locus, and more invested in a "struggle for value and meaning."
The term "studio" only came into common usage in the early nineteenth-century. Before then, artists had workrooms, workshops, ateliers. Is "studio" still a valid term? Or are the terms "places of performance" or "place of display" more accurate in the twenty-first century? I'd like to read more on the subject, and this fantastic panel inspired a new string of questions.