Are you in London, England? Lucky for you if you are, less lucky for you if you aren’t. If you are, you can go to Signal Gallery and see the showing of Guy Denning’s work. Based on the third book in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradiso, the work is challenging and inspiring. What follows is a double interview of Guy and Signal Gallery.
Tell us about this show, what about it excites you? What challenges have you faced setting it up? What does the subject matter mean to Signal Gallery, what do you think of the themes addressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy? In your ‘About us’ you state that your primary focus is to find artists who you ‘consider to be exciting and then have fun pushing the boundaries’, how do you think Guy has pushed boundaries with this body of work?
We were delighted when Guy agreed to show the final part of his Dante project at SIgnal. The first two parts were stunning. Guy is a very thoughtful artist and needs to feel stimulated by political or intellectual ideas in order to produce his best work. We are excited to be showing a paintings inspired by such an important epic work – perhaps the greatest work in European literature. In visual arts Giotto had a similar impact on the medieval world and at a similar time. It’s only fitting that some of Guy’s works have a Giotto – like directness and honesty.
Guy’s work has come to the attention of a wide audience through being associated with the street/urban art scene. This has been good news for him over the past five years, but in reality his work has a much broader appeal. Guy is certainly taking many of fans into a journey of discovery, way beyond the stereotypical idea of the scene. The Dante project as a whole should prove the seriousness of his intent as an artist and we hope that recognition from the mainstream contemporary art scene will follow. It would be amazing to bring all three shows together sometime in the near future and show the incredible range of his vision.
You show some urban/street artists, who are known for pushing the boundaries of art. Guy Denning in particular did a series on the Occupy Movement. What does pushing the boundaries mean to Signal Gallery? Why is it important, as artists, to push the boundaries? Why is important as humans?
When we talk about boundaries we are referring to the art world primarily. We passionately believe that the distinctions between street/urban art and the mainstream contemporary art scene are not valid. We are interested in artists whose work has has a unique flavour, who have something to say and who have the technical ability to say it. Whether they started life as a street artist like C215 or had the best art education that money can buy such as Elinor Evans, who studied at Chelsea Art College and then at the Royal College of Art, it doesn’t matter to us. We look at their artwork for what it is.
Too much attention is paid to art college pedigrees and intellectual snobbishness amongst critics and influential thinkers in the art world. We need to move away from 20th century notions of pushing boundaries, when there was a need to break free of over restrictive Victorian rules and values. Artists in the West have infinite choice now and virtually no censorship from outside. Now is the time to find ways of building on the traditions and techniques that made Western European art so important in the past, in the context of the communication overload society we live in.
How did you decide to arrange the pieces throughout the gallery? What emotion were you hoping to achieve or stimulate within the viewer based on their placement? Have you set them up to reflect Dante’s progression? When selecting where pieces display in a show, how do you generally decide where they should go?
We haven’t fully curated the show yet, but it is essential that we hang the 33 works of the same size relating to Beatrice as a group. Individually they are delicate and beautiful, but together they will be a very powerful experience for the viewer.
When curating the hanging of a show we need to take a number of factors into account. The size of the pieces – some large pieces need space to be seen at their best. We also try and find relationships between works and group them together thematically. In some cases colour is a factor, particularly for abstract work – whether to go for contrast or coordination.
What in particular did you find attractive about Guy as an artist? What about his work resonated with Signal Gallery? When deciding whether or not to represent an artist, what are your criteria? What’s a bit of advice you can tell young artists looking to find a gallery to represent them?
Signal Gallery was five years old this summer. We celebrated this birthday with a cocktail party and a retrospective show. Guy was one of the first artists we approached, even before we opened. At that stage his artwork was just getting known on the urban art scene. We weren’t aware of the urban art scene at that stage. We loved Guy’s work because he was a passionate and skill painter. We were drawn to its’ dark atmosphere and his political commitment. It has been a very enjoyable and rewarding partnership.
We don’t have a specific criteria when choosing artists. We need to respond to their work in a strong way. More often than not now we approach artists ourselves now. However, we have taken on artists who have approached us.
Two bits of advice to artists about contacting galleries. Firstly, never send out mass emails to galleries. We hate that. Always look at the galleries website, see if you like the work and think your work may fit in (be honest with yourself) and then write an individual email to a named person (not hard to find out who you should send it to). Make positive comments about the other artists work and show interest in the gallery as a whole. Secondly, never try to network with a gallery owner at a private view. They’ll be looking to talk to potential buyers, the press and the exhibiting artist in that order. You won’t get a good reception, even if they’re polite to you!
The last of your trilogy showing at Signal Gallery is based on Dante’s Paradiso. What particular themes from Paradiso did you focus on?
The initial considerations of Paradiso that I turned to were in its being the ending to a love story that spanned the entire Divine Comedy. It even surprised me that I started off in that direction.
What, if any, current political themes have you drawn on for inspiration beside themes of Paradiso?
Politics took a back seat with this set of paintings, certainly compared with my Inferno and Purgatorio exhibitions. However the one theme that did develop was in relating the medieval concept of courtly love to the contemporary world’s general obsession with the culture of celebrity.
Is Dante’s discussion of society is still relevant?
Because Dante set his series of three epic poems to describe his contemporary world’s culture, politics and theology you cannot avoid making comparisons with today’s societal concerns. The issues rarely change – just the idiots who think they’re in charge and capable of ‘fixing’ them. Writers like Dante will always be relevant.
What themes do you think still apply and which, if any, do you think we have addressed?
I’m doing my damnedest not to be didactic with my work now. I’ll mentally wander around so many diverse avenues while I’m making work that even if I could explain everything in my work I wouldn’t want to. It’s so personal and at times even vindictive in its attacks on the world we live in that I’d probably get carted off to the nearest asylum for my own protection.
What different themes have you drawn on for Purgatorio?
The Purgatorio paintings were shown in New York last year. I found a relationship between that part of the Divine Comedy with the western political malaise following 9/11. The show opened on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and about a block away from the site. I was concerned how it would go but it seemed to be taken well.
In what ways do your pieces mirror the progression of Dante?
I don’t think they follow the progression of Dantes writing at all; I’ve very specifically avoided illustrating the writing. It’s been done so frequently and so well by others in the past that it seemed a rather pointless exercise. All three of the exhibitions have more rather been a personal response to Dante’s writing. As well as referring directly to the original text I’ve also used different translations which can provide alternate positions on the original text. I’ve used the work of other writers whose work, for me, showed clear parallels with Dante’s themes.
How have you responded emotionally to the work you have done for the trilogy?
Each has been different. I’ve wanted to make these paintings since 1987 so when the opportunity came to paint the Inferno for an Italian show in 2011 I was initially very enthusiastic. Even though I had preparatory ideas going back twenty years the actual painting didn’t start until the middle of 2010. When I’d realised what I’d bitten off I was little more circumspect. Added to that, about halfway through the Inferno work I was starting on the Purgatorio paintings too and I was getting a bit twisted with the pressure of it all. This last show on the theme of Dante has been a much more enjoyable process – more relaxed and measured.
How has each of the three series affected you differently? Has there been an emotional progression, or emotional growth at each different stage? Or throughout?
Inferno was the embodiment of a bipolar event – up, down, up, down. Purgatorio was wrought with the worry and concern of how a set of paintings, so directly informed by contemporary American politics and foreign policy, would be received in New York. Paradiso has been a comparative joy!
Of the pieces you’re showing, which is your favourite? Can you talk about it to us?
I don’t really have paintings that are ‘favourites’. There is the satisfaction of fighting with a painting that isn’t working; those are probably the most rewarding personally. But that’s about the process and technical aspects of painting – probably not very interesting to anyone outside of the mad arena of actually making paintings. There is also the occasional moment when a painting seems to resolve itself unexpectedly; that can be initially and pleasantly surprising – and then frustrating because you don’t want it to be won by a ‘lucky accident’.
No – there are never favourites. Just a collection of paintings that I’m content to let loose from the studio and to have my name put to.
How did you get in contact with Signal Gallery? What has your experience with them been like? How have they helped you grow as an artist? What’s a bit of advice you can tell young artists looking to find a gallery to represent them?
I can’t remember how Signal first got to know me really. I may have sent them a request to look at my work in the dim and distant past or they may have seen that I had minimal exposure in London back when they first showed my work. Whatever the circumstance that brought us together I can’t complain. They don’t dictate what I show with them – and they always support what I’m doing with other galleries. As for advice to young artists looking for galleries I’m afraid it’s just a game of dogged persistence and bloody-mindedness. My first solo show that wasn’t self-funded or self-organised didn’t knock on my door until I was in my thirties. If painting is something you have to do then it’s something you will do. If galleries aren’t taking the risk on a new name then it’s not necessarily a judgment on the work – it’s more likely a pragmatic consideration of the realities of business.